It’s the end of the decade so forgive me for some reflection and self-indulgence as I look back on my favourite races of the last ten years or so, the ‘or so’ an important part as I’ve included two from 2009 – it’s my top 10 so I can do what I want!
There were two criteria for inclusion: I had to be at the track that day so, for instance, there is no Frankel who I never saw live; and I couldn’t have backed the winner. The latter was to avoid this becoming an exercise in delicious after-timing which is about as interesting as someone going through their Cheltenham ante-post ‘portfolio’ in December.
In almost all cases, I’ve backed another horse in the race but after the initial disappointment/shock/horror/disgust of being on a loser, the value of the race for whatever reason became apparent in hindsight. Here they are, then:
Sea The Stars – 2009 Champion Stakes
Every rational part of my being says that Frankel would have beaten Sea The Stars had they met: Frankel had a higher official rating upon retirement, beat better horses and was better on the clock. And yet, the fan/patriot in me – call it what you will – thinks, you know what, maybe, just maybe, there was so much still in the tank with Sea The Stars that he might just have beaten The Big F.
Regardless of this perhaps idle fantasy, seeing the superstar Sea The Stars at Leopardstown in September 2009 in the flesh was a real treat, albeit one that had been in doubt in the run-up to the race with the weather. It was his sole Irish run as a three-year-old, a tilt at the Irish Derby having to be aborted due to – again – weather, and while it is one thing to see a nascent star as a two-year-old at your home tracks, it is quite another to watch them in their pomp, readily dismissing the massed ranks of Ballydoyle who certainly did their part in building his legacy, never failing to re-oppose despite previous defeats suggesting they may have been better running elsewhere.
Thousand Stars – 2009 Bar One Racing Handicap Hurdle
This Saturday was one of those days you really wonder what you’re doing at the racetrack, fog having lingered overnight, and all the post-race analyses referencing ‘poor visibility’, the following day’s Hatton’s Grace having to be abandoned. The old saying about ‘a bad day at the races is better than a good day at work’ springs to mind and there was something memorable about the ghostly sport there with its intermittent coverage of the horses and Des Scahill basically opting out of commentating.
Thousand Stars himself really went on after this, winning the County Hurdle later that season before finishing third to Hurricane Fly at Punchestown, and presaging a long career at the top level over hurdles across a variety of trips. He was also one of the early Willie Mullins switchers, something that was to become a feature of Irish jumps racing over the next decade. Bizarrely, this was one of a few ‘fog meetings’ I’ve managed to make in that time; I was at Leopardstown later that year for the third day of the Christmas meeting that was called off halfway through along with the 2013 Thyestes won by Djakadam. On a related issue, please never mention the 2008 York Ebor meeting in my presence, the sole time I made the journey to that track. What a magpie.
Long Run – 2011 Cheltenham Gold Cup
2011 was the first Festival I was attended, and the Gold Cup was its crowning glory, Long Run versus Kauto Star versus Denman with some Imperial Commander mixed in too. The two Nicholls stars were on the downgrade at this stage, but the fire still burned or at least could be stoked for Cheltenham in March; while Long Run was never to reach the same heights afterwards which said plenty of how hard the second and third made him go. That the rider Sam Waley-Cohen became the first amateur jockey to win the race in 30 years added another layer of significance to the race.
The only other Festival I’ve made was 2016, where the roar that went up when Thistlecrack hit the front in the Stayers’ Hurdle was huge; but this was of a different order. You couldn’t get near the stand for 20 minutes before the race, but we had our position to soak it up and anyone will tell you this sort of moment, on this sort of scale, doesn’t happen in Irish racing. I’ve never been to a big soccer match, some major Monaghan GAA matches as close as I’ve managed but I’m not sure they compare!
Rebel Fitz – 2012 Galway Hurdle
Ok, so I lied. There is going to be one after-time in here as I did back Rebel Fitz in the 2012 Galway Hurdle and he was a badly needed winner. The race was on August 2nd and that July, when it rained incessantly, was – and still is – the worst punting month of my life. I put that down to the ground making things difficult for mid-summer flat racing; well, that’s my theory anyway.
Rebel Fitz had won the Grimes Hurdle at Tipperary and after some humming and hawing about whether he’d go to Galway, he pitched up as a well-backed second favourite at Ballybrit. He was travelling so well out of the dip that it was simply a case of Davy Russell getting a clear run which he did and then struck the front over the last, but in a moment of premature jock elation Russell eased up near the line and started celebrating only for something to come out of the pack. He held on but the photo finish call was one of the longer few minutes of my life.
The horse to come at him was the then four-year-old Cause Of Causes, at that time owned by the Timeform Racing Club, while the veteran Captain Cee Bee was third. I don’t think this was quite peak-Mick Winters – that came the following year with Missunited – but the trainer certainly knew how to celebrate and I did my best to imitate him in town that night. Funnily enough, I can’t recall much of that.
Chicquita – 2013 Irish Oaks
This one is all about the jockey, Johnny Murtagh. Chicquita was, to put it mildly, quirky; ok, let’s be straight, she was a dodge. On her first start as three-year-old, she had fallen after running through a hedge to avoid victory before posting an excellent second to Treve in the Prix de Diane, coming from a long way back before hanging. The ability was clearly there but she would need a master ride to extract it and she got just that from Murtagh who dropped her right on the line to beat Venus De Milo, my bet in the race.
Murtagh, especially during his time at Ballydoyle, had a habit of winning on ungenuine horses. There was nothing I hated more than when he went to the front on a runner I had opposed due to attitude concerns only for the horse to get into a rhythm and never be headed; I’ve seen that movie tens of times. Chicquita herself made a record €6 million at the sales later that year, in no small part due to Murtagh’s excellence. I hope he got a tip!
Treve – 2013 Arc Prix De L’Arc De Triomphe
I attended the Arc for the first and only time in 2013 with a good pal (always a decent start) though the weekend had a none too auspicious start; heading to the track on Saturday, news came through that our ante-post bet Novellist had been ruled out with injury. The couple of days racing at the old Longchamp was fine though I did feel a little cut off from the wider racing world; it wasn’t quite that I wanted to see the bumper at Tipperary’s Super Sunday on the big screen but there seemed to be a complete lack of awareness about anything else that was going on. Maybe that’s the point.
Anyway, I digress, which, in fairness, is probably the point of this whole exercise! Treve was magnificent in landing her first Arc when everything about race-reading said she couldn’t win with what went wrong, but she came home five lengths clear. Having sweated up, she raced wide and was very keen, her jockey making a premature move at a time when the pace was lifting, and yet she still managed to cruise to the lead and win without being asked a question. Wow.
Hurricane Fly – 2015 Irish Champion Hurdle
Hurricane Fly definitely brought me more financial pain than joy over the years but he was a constant in top-class hurdles races for the first half of this decade and I managed to be there for his first Irish win in the Royal Bond (when I was on Donnas Palm) and his final one, this race (where I was on Jezki). He won some uncompetitive contests en route to his record haul of Grade 1’s but he raced against some very good horses too, his career intersecting with the likes of Solwhit and Faugheen amongst others.
Jezki was his foil though and it looked like being that one’s day at Leopardstown in January 2015 as Hurricane Fly seemed in bother two out when tight for room and his old rival cruised to the lead, but a mistake at the last ended his chance and, as so often in the past, the Fly found a way to win. If ever a horse deserved a statue.
Almanzor – 2016 Champion Stakes
Objectively speaking, Almanzor’s Champion Stakes was the best and deepest flat race run in Ireland in the past decade: the best running of what is typically the best race, year in, year out. It brought together a who’s who of middle-distance horses that season, subsequent Arc winner Found, seven-time Group 1 winner Minding, the Derby winner Harzand and future globe-trotter Highland Reel amongst them.
Christophe Soumillon gave the winner a beautiful ride, arriving late and wide, and while his mount didn’t build on it during an injury-spoiled four-year-old campaign, for that moment and a few weeks later at Ascot he was the best of his generation, a rare French raider in Ireland these days.
Sizing John – 2017 Irish Gold Cup
Leopardstown is probably my favourite track. The viewing is excellent there, I like how the facilities are laid out and it has quality racing, flat and jumps. It’s the place I went racing first and typically the track I visit most often in the year. Being on course for this meeting, the final Irish Gold Cup before the Dublin Racing Festival was launched the following year, wasn’t the smartest move as the weather was appalling with the place empty by the time of the bumper. To compound matters I had brought my soon-to-be wife, which seemed like a good idea at the time.
We were treated to Sizing John having his first run over three miles, however, Robbie Power riding with a mix of confidence and concern for stamina, only arriving at the last to lead. That race was his second in a four-month period when he was basically unbeatable, ultimately winning three versions of a Gold Cup in that time. Upped in distance, he finally stepped out of the shadow of Douvan and, while he has been mainly on the side-lines since, his legacy is secure. Enjoy them while they’re here.
Pat Smullen Champions Races for Cancer Trials Ireland 2019
There were some very good horses running on the second day of Irish Champions Weekend in 2019, Pinatubo and Kew Gardens among them; but the meeting was more about man than beast this year. Pat Smullen had gathered the great and good of retired riders, some recent, some not so recent, to take part in a flat handicap over a mile, which culminated with the winning-most jockey of all-time, Tony McCoy, holding off Ruby Walsh in a driving finish.
Few will remember the names of the moderate-to-decent handicappers that ran in the race, but it would be hard to forget the atmosphere on the day despite the miserable weather. Racing, generally such a factional sport, joined together on the day for a most worthy cause, jockeys going around with buckets asking punters to dig deep, everyone doing their small part in the face of what can be an unbeatable illness.