IT seems everyone is quick to bash the Curragh at any opportunity these days. The course gets it from every angle and I’ve been a critic on occasion as well. That negative cloud surrounding the €81 million facility may take time to blow away but it shouldn’t dissuade plaudits for management when you see something good.
A €25 bundle which includes a race card, a food option, a €10 free bet alongside a free shuttle bus from Newbridge and Kildare was rightfully hailed on social media this week.
All the bells and whistles are nice but at the end of the day, the racing will be the biggest attraction and the Curragh have got their race. Today’s Keeneland Phoenix Stakes is a belter.
That hasn’t always been the case with six-furlong race, naturally given it is the first two-year-old Group 1 of the season but four of the six runners today have won at the highest level they possibly could have coming into today’s race, and that doesn’t include Little Big Bear.
They talked about eight years being a famine down in Kerry before the All-Ireland, but four years without a Phoenix Stakes for Aidan O’Brien is starvation. From when he first won it with Lavery in 1998 to 2017, only three other trainers other than O’Brien won the race.
He throws two at the race today: the much hyped Little Big Bear, backed for all four of his runs as if defeat simply was out of the question, and the winning machine that is Blackbeard, already having his seventh start.
These two No Nay Never colts may be an illustration of life after Galileo for Ballydoyle, given O’Brien has a 38% strike rate with his two-year-olds and in all, 14 of the 27 he has run have won.
Yesterday evening, the Coventry winner Bradsell was favourite and you can see why. He blasted down the centre of the track on the first day of Royal Ascot to fully supplement the impression he made with a nine-length win on his debut at York. Like Little Big Bear’s Windsor Castle win, the horses in behind him have boosted the form significantly, and that includes Persian Force, who the Hannons love, and who won the ever informative July Stakes at Newmarket last time.
Unlike Little Big Bear, Bradsell was winning at Ascot on just his second start and although the Ballydoyle horse has moved forward since the royal meeting, there is no reason Bradsell won’t take a step forward again, something his trainer Archie Watson alluded to this week.
And you can’t rule out Shartash, who takes the well-worn route from the Railway Stakes to this race. He’s bred to get better as he gets older so to do what he did here last month, when he drifted markedly in the betting, was impressive. He put his head down where whips were cracking and wrestled the race away from Blackbeard.
Apache Outlaw was just behind the pair in third there and could have been closer if he got a clearer run. The fact he is a 40/1 shot here tells you all you need to know about the quality of today’s race.
GIVEN all he has achieved in his career, a Shergar Cup title probably won’t have Christope Lemaire crying with joy today, but the rider will relish an opportunity to take on Ascot again, for the first time in 10 years.
Lemaire recorded a Royal Ascot winner in 2005 on Chineur in the King’s Stand and has ridden two British classic winners, Natagora in the 2008 1000 Guineas and Makfi in the 2000 two years later. He rode big-name winners for big-name owners in France for a sustained period but found himself at a crossroads in 2014, deciding to make a big move to base himself in Japan.
Needless to say, it was a huge moment for the Frenchman, because he created history just three years later when he became the first foreign jockey to be crowned champion in the jurisdiction.
He is now a five-time champion in Japan and speaking to the media this week, he reflected: “I had a chance to ride for the biggest owners in France. I had contracts for the Niarchos family, Gerard Augustin-Normand and H H the Aga Khan. I worked very hard for those chances and I was lucky enough to win big races for all of them, but then my career had to rebound and I needed a new challenge.
“I had the opportunity to move to Japan on a full-time licence and I grabbed it. It has been eight years now and I am very happy with my life in Japan.”
Lemaire lines up on a Rest Of The World team that includes multiple Melbourne Cup winning Australian rider Kerrin McEvoy, New Zealander Jason Collett and Japanese young gun Takeshi Yokoyama.
“I am really looking forward to the Shergar Cup,” the 43-year-old added. “We have a strong team made up of experience, with myself and Kerrin, and then the two young guns in Jason and Takeshi.
The ‘ROW’ team are significant outsiders at 6/1 today with the Ladies team just 11/8 to win for the third time in four renewals. The Great Britain and Ireland team, consisting of Jamie Spencer, Kieran Shoemark, Neil Callan and Danny Tudhope, are 3/1 to gain a first win since 2017.