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Monday Musings: Irish Domination

Where once there was meaningful rivalry, now there is renewed omnipotence. A picture spread through social media early this year of a grinning trainer talking on a mobile phone atop a dead horse has had even more effect than its horrified recipients throughout the horse world could have imagined, writes Tony Stafford.

Up until Cheltenham, the remnants of the Gordon Elliott stables, which had run 321 horses from the time jump racing resumed after the initial stopping through Covid19, was still punching most of its weight under the name if not the supreme control of Mrs Denise Foster.

Traditionally though, every late April/early May the Punchestown Festival has ended any wistful hope that the brash Elliott with his legion of major owners, most notably the O’Leary family’s Gigginstown House Stud, might finally gain a first Irish NH trainers’ championship.

Last week, respectable second place seemed a long way off, that eminence supplanted by the exploits of Henry De Bromhead, he of the surreal Champion Hurdle, Gold Cup and Grand National hat-trick over the previous six weeks.

But now we were in Willie Mullins territory and the week was just perfectly situated to welcome back the trainer’s previously stricken stable jockey. Paul Townend had seen his advantage over the challenging and seemingly unstoppable Rachael Blackmore slip to less than a handful of winners with seven days to go.

Mullins doesn’t do Cross-Country races, of which there are four over the five days of Punchestown, but he does do everything else. And how!

Eight races are staged each day, leaving 36 to go for. Mullins, with five on the opening day and never fewer than three on the four succeeding instalments, put together the unbelievable tally of 19 wins from the available 36 – so more than 50%. He did have 87 runners, very often multiple chances, then, and another 21 of his horses made the first four, that’s 40 win or placed. Place money at the meeting goes down to sixth and he had another ten of those, so altogether 50 in the money.

In all, Mullins’ runners brought back a total haul over the week of €1,470,950. For the season his 182 winners brought almost €5.5 million.

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Elliott’s monetary reward for his 155 wins was €2,863,875 at the time of his suspension. Add to that Mrs Foster’s 16 victories in 205 runs from 135 of the Elliott horses was another €412,860.

But the magic which initially lingered after the paper – if not actual – change of control all but died last week. Mrs Foster’s 36 runners at Punchestown brought no wins, three second places, two thirds and a single fourth and a mere total of €52k. Nineteen of her runners either finished outside the first ten or failed to finish.

You would think that everyone associated with the Closutton steamroller would have been delighted, but what was probably the most spectacular of his victories, in terms of style of performance and the circumstances behind it, was a cause of regret for that horse’s connections.

When Mark Smith first moved to his present house in Essex 40 years ago the one-time Foreign Exchange trader met a neighbour who was soon to become his best friend. Mark owned Balasani, a horse that won the Stayers’ Hurdle for Martin Pipe at the Cheltenham Festival, and soon he and his friend, John Coleman, regularly went racing together.

Then a few years back John became gravely ill with cancer by which time he had bought Klassical Dream. Sadly he was never able to see the horse on the track – it raced in the name of his widow Joanne but was a family horse with his two sons and a nephew taking shares. They insisted that Mark should also accept a share.

It was bitter-sweet for the team when Klassical Dream won his maiden hurdle first time up at Leopardstown’s St Stephen’s Day fixture in 2018 and he duly went on to take three Grade 1 prizes, at Leopardstown in February, Cheltenham’s Supreme Novice, and Punchestown’s Champion Novice Hurdle.

The 2019/20 season proved a massive anti-climax, the ante-post Champion Hurdle favourite racing only twice and beaten at odds-on behind less talented stable companions. Cheltenham 2021 was originally on the agenda but that came and went without him, after which the plan was laid for Thursday’s big stayers’ hurdle over three miles. Klassical Dream had never raced over much further than two miles and would have a 487-day absence to overcome.

Mark spoke to Willie a few days before the race and on Thursday morning before leaving home for a funeral of another good friend he tried unsuccessfully to reach the trainer. Mullins left a recorded message when he could and Mark says it was very similar to the previous one.

I’ve heard it and in it Willie says he would be happy if the horse finished in the first six but above all the priority is that he comes home sound. Mark interpreted this to mean the trainer wasn’t sure he would make the first six.

Mark relayed the news to the other owners, and before leaving had what he calls a “suicide throwaway 50 quid” at around 17-1 when he first noticed the price was dropping. He had expected to be home in time to watch the race, but was still at the reception at the off, so watched it on his phone.

In what was described as the biggest gamble of the week, 20-1 down to 5-1, Klassical Dream under Patrick Mullins, and one of four stable-mates in the race, cantered into the lead going to the last hurdle and drew easily clear of Mullins’ James Du Berlais for a nine-length victory.

There was more than a degree of consolation that the horse had come back with such a bang, and not least for winning the €147,500 winner’s prize, but also some irritation that the message might have been a little more accurate.

These words will be written before Mark and the trainer have their next conversation. “I knew I shouldn’t talk to Willie, who has always been so helpful in all our dealings, as I would probably have lost my temper. None of the other owners are racing people in the way John was and of course I am, and their delight at their horse coming back in such a dramatic manner easily outweighs for them any irritation that they might have had a bigger bet if they knew a bit more beforehand”.

The Irish dominated Cheltenham and Aintree and it was the Flat trainers from that side of the wet divide who collected the first two Classics of the season at Newmarket.

First Jim Bolger, 79, and jockey and son-in-law Kevin Manning, 54, took the 2,000 Guineas with brave home-bred Poetic Flare, 16-1 and a son of Dawn Approach, also a Bolger home-bred and winner of the same Classic.

Then yesterday, Aidan O’Brien, a pupil and amateur rider for Bolger before embarking on his own stellar training career, made it seven wins in the 1,000 Guineas. His second string 10-1 shot Mother Earth, ridden by 50-year-old Frankie Dettori, made use of her greater experience to run past long-time race favourite and stable-companion Santa Barbara.

Like Love last year, who came to the “1,000” with three wins from seven juvenile appearances, Mother Earth put in plenty of creditable runs at two but in her case for just one win, although second at the Breeders’ Cup was hardly a negligible effort.

Unlike Love, though, who went on to Epsom and then York for two more emphatic wide-margin Group 1 victories, Mother Earth is being pencilled in for the Irish 1,000. Santa Barbara, who understandably showed signs of greenness - she raced only in one maiden as a two-year-old – goes straight to Epsom.

It was quite a weekend for big numbers and veterans. Bob Baffert, now 68 years old, made it a seventh Kentucky Derby when Medina Spirit, at just over 12-1, made all under John Velazquez, who is in his 50th year. The colt had won only once previously too, so it was stretching credibility after three defeats that he could win the most important three-year-old race of the year in the USA.

But it was even more amazing given that two runs back, in the San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita, Medina Spirit had been crushed by eight lengths by another Baffert colt, Life Is Good, who was unable through injury to get to Churchill Downs.

The old prototype for winning the “Run For The Roses” was plenty of race-conditioning as a two-year-old, but Medina Spirit didn’t appear until January this year. That was also the starting-point for Life Is Good. That day, Medina Spirit came up short by only three-quarters of a length and he must have been energised when he noticed that his nemesis was not in the field.

Still pictures of the race finish show the Churchill Downs grandstands were packed. I just can’t wait for that to happen here - sooner rather than later I trust!

Classic success still a sweet feeling for veteran Manning

Veteran jockey Kevin Manning was thrilled to secure his fourth British Classic success as Poetic Flare came out on top in a pulsating renewal of the Qipco 2000 Guineas at Newmarket.

At the age of 54, Manning is the oldest jockey to win the Rowley Mile showpiece since Lester Piggott steered Rodrigo De Triano to success in 1992, aged 56.

It is 13 years since Manning broke his British Classic duck aboard Finsceal Beo in the 1000 Guineas, since when he had added to his tally with New Approach in the 2008 Derby and Dawn Approach in the 2000 Guineas in 2013.

Even at this late stage of his career, Manning insists big-race success tastes as sweet as ever.

“Any time you can win any of these Classics, it’s an amazing moment,” he said.

Kevin Manning with Jim Bolger
Kevin Manning with Jim Bolger (Barry Cronin/PA)

“They’re so hard to win and don’t come along every day of the week.

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“It feels the same as it did at the start (of my career). Classics are Classics and you’re just very hungry for those type of races – that’s what everybody works for and strives for.”

Like Finsceal Beo, New Approach and Dawn Approach, Poetic Flare is trained by Manning’s father-in-law and long-time employer Jim Bolger, 79.

This particular colt – a son of Dawn Approach – made a winning debut in the March of his juvenile year, but did not run again until finishing down the field in the Dewhurst at Newmarket in October.

However, having rounded off his campaign with victory in the Killavullan Stakes – and made a successful reappearance in the 2,000 Guineas Trial at Leopardstown three weeks ago – Manning insists confidence was high in the camp ahead of his bid for Guineas glory.

He added: “When Jim has a horse with the ability to win one (a Classic), he doesn’t leave it behind.

“This horse won his maiden in March, and then we had Covid and the lockdown and everything that went with it.

“When racing did start back up he was turning into a big horse and was growing and one thing and another, so Jim left him be, and then there wasn’t anything for him.

Finsceal Beo was Kevin Manning's first British Classic winner
Finsceal Beo was Kevin Manning’s first British Classic winner (Chris Radburn/PA)

“He ended up going to the Dewhurst and even that was a very good run – beaten less than nine lengths – on his first run since March. He then won the Killavullan and came out this spring and won his Guineas trial very well.

“I always felt he was a very smart horse and I’d have been disappointed if he wasn’t in the shake-up today.”

Poetic Flare was one of two Guineas candidates from Bolger’s yard along with Vertem Futurity Trophy winner Mac Swiney.

Manning – who insists he has not given any thought to retirement – feels there is little to choose between the pair in terms of talent, but hinted Mac Swiney’s long-term future could lie over further than a mile.

He said: “He (Poetic Flare) is a horse that would catch your eye and is a great stamp of a horse. He’s got everything, to be quite honest – he’s a great walker and a great temperament and he’s a looker.

Mac Swiney could be a Derby contender for Kevin Manning and Jim Bolger
Mac Swiney could be a Derby contender for Kevin Manning and Jim Bolger (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

“Mac Swiney is at home. Whether he goes for the Irish Guineas or the two of them go, I’m not sure – that’s all down to the boss.

“I actually rode the two of them on the grass in separate bits of work maybe three weeks ago.

“Jim actually asked me the question ‘if the two of them turn up (at Newmarket), which one would you ride?’ And I said ‘I don’t know’.

“The two of them have been working very well. Mac Swiney is very relaxed. He isn’t slow, but he could be more of a Derby horse.”

Poetic Flare claims Classic glory after pulsating battle with Master Of The Seas

Jim Bolger once again proved himself to be a master of his craft as Poetic Flare edged out Master Of The Seas in the Qipco 2000 Guineas at Newmarket.

Bolger won the race in 2013 with Dawn Approach – the sire of Poetic Flare – but this success will mean even more coming as it did in his wife Jackie’s silks.

As ever, Bolger employed his son-in-law Kevin Manning in the saddle, so the Classic success was a real family affair.

Handy throughout as Naval Crown set a very stiff gallop, the winner found himself right in the firing line with a furlong to run.

Master Of The Seas had made eyecatching progress for William Buick and the pair of them set down to battle it out, with Lucky Vega just behind in third.

It came down to a matter of who had their head down right on the line as they flashed by together, with the Irish raider getting the verdict by a short head and a neck.

None of Aidan O’Brien’s trio were ever involved, while Thunder Moon was among the first beaten.

Manning said: “He’s usually a very switched off horse who takes everything in his stride, but he left the gates very quick and on the wrong note and it just took a furlong and a half or two furlongs to reorganise and get into a rhythm.

It was a tight finish to the 2000 Guineas
It was a tight finish to the 2000 Guineas (David Davies/Jockey Club)

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“He’s very smart and has done it very well. He travelled well and picked up well.

“He just caught me off guard coming out of the gates and I had to sit and suffer, but I didn’t feel he was taking as much out of himself as it might have looked.

“Going down into the dip, when he quickened up I thought he’d put it to bed. In the last five or six strides he was just idling a little bit and coming back underneath me.

“It’s great to get to the other side of it (line, in front).”

Speaking from his County Carlow base, Bolger, 79, who also bred the winner: said: “I thought he was beaten! It’s a big day for us, right up there with the best we’ve had.

“He wasn’t ready for the Dewhurst last year. I thought he was a little bit fitter than he was and I was hoping he’d run a big race and get the experience of running at that level. He ran out of wind about a furlong and a half down, but we were very pleased in the run and didn’t lose faith in him.

“I’m not too concerned about him getting further in time. Kevin did say in the interview on TV that he thought he’d stay 10 furlongs, but at the moment I’m not thinking about going anywhere except the mile.

“He has buckets of speed and I even entered him in the Commonwealth Cup in the unlikely event that he didn’t stay, as he’s that quick and you always have some doubts about whether the very quick ones will stay or not. The St James’s Palace would definitely be on the cards.”

He added: “It’s a wonderful day. In our case it’s fairly necessary with the way I do things! It very much carries on that Dawn Approach line, and I have two half-sisters of Poetic Flare as well.”

Charlie Appleby was proud of Master Of The Seas in defeat

He said: “When they went past the line I thought we’d got beat and someone said ‘no, you’ve won’, so I thought I better sit tight.

“He’s run a great race and backed up his performance in the Craven.

“He travelled lovely through the race and two furlongs down I thought ‘we’re in with a real shout here’.

“He’s picked up well up the hill, but so has Jim Bolger’s horse and well done to him and his team.

“Ascot (St James’s Palace) will be the most likely target for him, but I’ll speak to connections.”

Poetic Flare (fifth right) and Master Of The Seas (left) battle it out
Poetic Flare (fifth right) and Master Of The Seas (left) battle it out (John Walton/PA)

Appleby also saddled the fourth in Naval Crown and the sixth One Ruler.

He added: “Naval Crown ran a hell of a race. I was always confident he’d run a big race, stepping back up to the mile.

“James (Doyle) said One Ruler wants a trip and a bit easier ground, so we may look at putting him on the Derby squad.”

Jessica Harrington was equally pleased with Lucky Vega.

She said: “I’m delighted with him. He ran a great race and proved he stays.

“He’s a relaxed horse and just a little bit fresh. Shane (Foley) said he didn’t come down the hill very well, but he stayed well and he said he was coming back at them with every stride.

“He’s in the Irish Guineas and the St James’s Palace, so they are nice options to have.

“I’ve also got Cadillac, who is meant to be going to the Irish Guineas.

“It’s fantastic to have the two of them. We might have to run them against each other later in the year, although Cadillac might get further – he’s from more of a staying family.”

Poetic Flare is Guineas-bound after impressive Leopardstown display

Poetic Flare underlined his Classic credentials with an impressive display in the Ballylinch Stud “Red Rocks” 2,000 Guineas Trial at Leopardstown.

A son of trainer Jim Bolger’s multiple Group One winner Dawn Approach, Poetic Flare won twice from three juvenile starts last season, including a course and distance success in October’s Killavullan Stakes.

Making his first appearance since, the three-year-old was a 3-1 shot for this Listed assignment and was always travelling strongly towards the head of affairs.

Ace Aussie came from a long way back to grab the runner-up spot late on, but never threatened to lay a glove on Poet Flare, who had already quickened up smartly to seal a one-and-a-half-length victory in the hands of Kevin Manning.

Bolger was represented by his daughter, Una Manning, who said: “I’m told he could go anywhere. He (Bolger) hasn’t decided which of the Guineas, but the two of them (Poetic Flare and Mac Swiney) won’t run in the same race. The boss is very happy with them.

“He hasn’t been away anywhere this year for a gallop so he’s absolutely delighted.

“We were confident he wouldn’t have any problems handling the ground. Last year we just had to play the cards we were dealt and he had to run on soft ground, but he’s not ground dependent.

“He’s in both Guineas along with Mac Swiney. We haven’t decided yet whether he’ll go to Newmarket or the Curragh, but the two of them won’t run in the same race.”

Coral cut Poetic Flare to 20-1 from 33-1 for Newmarket on May 1, with Betfair 16-1 from 25-1.

Poetic Flare lights up Leopardstown

Poetic Flare opened his Pattern-race account in comfortable fashion in the Group Three Killavullan Stakes at Leopardstown, just a week after contesting the Dewhurst Stakes.

The Jim Bolger-trained colt showed no ill effects from his journey to Newmarket, where he finished down the field on his first start since he made a winning debut at Naas in March.

Poetic Flare (3-1) was always prominent before Kevin Manning kicked for home over two furlongs out and he strode away to score by two and a half lengths from Zaffy’s Pride.

Manning said: “He ran well in the Dewhurst and was only beaten eight lengths. He would have come on plenty from the run and it was a good training performance to turn around a week later.

“He stays well, but he has plenty of pace. I felt if I could get a length or two off the bend it might be just good enough. He has a lovely attitude and is a nice horse going forward.”

Manning’s wife, Una, daughter of the trainer, said: “He’s been growing all year, so that’s why he hadn’t run until the Dewhurst.

“It’s a Group One and we had to give it a try and we were happy with his run. He took all the travelling very well.

“He’ll be aimed at the Guineas.”

Surrounding landed a belated first success of the year in the Listed Knockaire Stakes.

Michael Halford’s seven-year-old had been highly-tried at Meydan during the winter and also back home when she returned to action in July following a break.

Always travelling kindly for Ronan Whelan, Surrounding (5-1) led a furlong out and held Laughifuwant by half a length.

“She’s a wonderful mare and she loves it around here. I was a bit concerned about the ground, but she’s getting older and probably able to handle it. She has been such a great servant to us,” said Halford.

“When she gets to the front she thinks she’s won. She parked up a bit when she got to the front, but she travelled super.”

Surrounding will now attempt to win the Listed Cooley Stakes at Dundalk for the third year running.

“We’ll head back to Dundalk for the Cooley with her now. It’s amazing the enthusiasm she still has for it and seven furlongs or a mile is good for her,” said Halford.