The Irish Outsider – Wednesday, 18th December
Horse Racing Ireland had their awards ceremony earlier in the month at Leopardstown where the great and good of the game were recognised for their achievements; as ever I was left off the guest-list for this annual back-slapping match.
The recipients were mostly as expected, the likes of Hurricane Fly (Horse of the Year), Willie Mullins (National Hunt Award) and Johnny Murtagh (Flat Award), though there could easily have been an enquiry into Barry Cash taking the Special Achievement prize. Anyway, here are my ideas of 2013’s notables:
Horse of the Year – Sprinter Sacre
Not a horse I warmed to early on but you have to respect his triple peak effort last spring, being the first horse to win Grade 1s at all three spring festivals since Istabraq in 1999, and while his Irish performance at Punchestown was the worst of the three, it’s all relative with him and he can hardly be cribbed for a horse having his third start in six weeks. His Melling Chase win was special, especially over a trip that seemed likely to stretch a keen-goer, and he beat a proper horse in Cue Card, arguably the second-best chaser in training, winner of a Ryanair and Betfair Chase before and since. The only issue now is he seems to scare everything off.
Performance of the Year – Treve
Hurricane Fly deserves credit for winning back the Champion Hurdle under unfavourable circumstances – a breakneck pace that took him out of his comfort zone, ground quick enough and a track that isn’t ideal – but it was a poor race and he’ll be the only one from it back there in 2014. Conversely, Treve beat a strong field in the Arc but it was the manner that stood out; keen early, trapped wide, the jockey going too soon and still motoring away in the finish. In a down year for standout flat performances, at least compared to delights of recent years, she stood out.
Race of the Year – Prix Le Marois
The Arc may have the prestige but it was the often under-the-radar Deauville Group 1 that had the quality and depth in 2013. Moonlight Cloud won despite being better over seven furlongs, getting an overly forceful ride for one so fast at the trip; she backed that up with a turn-of-foot in the Foret that could define push-button quickness for years to come. Olympic Glory was flattered to get so close on the day but that can be balanced with the fact he was coming off a break; though not always at his peak during the year, he was the best 3yo mile colt by dint of QEII win. To top things off, down the field you had Arc third Intello, Breeders’ Cup Classic runner-up Declaration Of War as well as multiple Group 1 winners Dawn Approach and Elusive Kate.
Ride of the Year – Johnny Murtagh on Chicquita
The best rides are the hardest to pull off and winning on an ungenuine horse is most difficult of all. It’s tough enough to achieve in a lowly handicap but all the more so under the circumstances Chicquita faced in the Irish Oaks: a Group 1 on the filly’s first run abroad, the filly concerned still a maiden and one that had tried to jump through a rail on her penultimate start, the wide expanses of the Curragh in a small field. As with any good ride, there was an element of circumstance to the win but there was also a share of brilliance too.
Training Performance of the Year – Charles Byrnes with Solwhit
Aidan O’Brien had a stormer at the Breeders’ Cup, notably with bringing Magician to a peak in the Turf despite being off since June, but the World Hurdle winner gets it on the nod. There has long been a whiff of sulphur about Byrnes but that shouldn’t mask that he’s an excellent trainer of a good horse and he has had none better than Solwhit. As a rule jumpers don’t come back and certainly not to win at two spring festivals before following up with a second in a French stayers’ hurdle. It may have been a down year for the staying hurdlers but Solwhit had plenty of racing as a young horse and it was some achievement to get him back.
Revelation of the Year – Fiesolana
In a competitive domestic flat racing scene, it’s hard to win four races in a season (not to mention another in England), much less for a smaller yard and among those wins a trio of Group 3s after starting in handicaps. Yet that’s was Fiesolana did for Willie McCreery in 2013, her season a story of progress on top of progress, worthy of the title best Group 2 filly in Ireland. Her Group 2 win came in the Challenge Stakes at Newmarket over her favoured seven furlong trip and while Group 1s over that distance are thin on the ground, with no Moonlight Cloud around next year races like the Maurice De Gheest and Foret could be on the agenda. The 960,000 guineas paid for her at Tattersalls early in December could yet prove good business for a serious broodmare prospect.
Non-Story of the Year – St Nicholas Abbey
The coverage of his recovery from a fractured pastern was somewhat interesting but I cannot help think there is no such thing as bad publicity and there was an aspect of Coolmore trying to manufacture a public horse out of nowhere with St Nicholas Abbey. This was no star as anyone who backed him and lost their money in better company last year will know and ultimately he was a 124 horse at best. He won three Coronation Cups but was only beating the likes of Dunaden and no one runs a good horse at Epsom aside from the Derby and the Oaks these days, that race the poor relation of the top middle-distance races. If it had have been Frankel or Sea The Stars, fair enough, but my overall response was apathy.
Downer of the Year – Doping Scandals
Drugs have cast a spectre over the racing year, from Al Zarooni to Gerard Butler, the John Hughes hit list to the unnamed trainers that used Sungate. Having watched doping scandals unfold in other sports recently, notably cycling and baseball, I’m not naïve enough to think this couldn’t be happening in Irish racing and would tend towards the belief that it is going on to some degree in every sport. There is always the capacity for a sport’s authorities to turn a blind eye to such scandals for what they perceive as the greater wellbeing of the sport and the Irish rule-makers have not exactly been known for their draconian approach with rule-breakers in the past.