©Healy Racing Photos
Brian O'Connor's Weekly Blog
The improvisational skill of those on the ground at the Curragh is to be applauded. To produce the facilities for racing to continue during the €70 million redevelopment of Irish racing's most famous track is no easy feat. That it's not easy to dismiss the suggestion those facilities might be prettier than a lot of what was torn down says much about what the Curragh had turned into. But after such an admirable exhibition of improvisation the obvious question still remains - why is it necessary?
Point to points are a triumph of tented improvisation too. But they're local triumphs. The Curragh is a shop window to the world of Ireland's one billion Euro bloodstock industry. So for the next two years those ultimate shop-window events, the Derby and the second leg of Irish Champions Weekend, will host the world in circumstances that suggest a very frilly point to point - why?
At least there's one upside in that there's an equally obvious answer: enough of those who coughed up to get their feet under the table at the new Curragh Ltd boardroom want racing to continue so QED. Others who favoured the Curragh being closed down to allow an uninterrupted run at construction were out-muscled. And any consideration of Joe Public paying through the nose at the gate was clearly overlooked despite the considerable state money being pumped into the project.
Last weekend proved racing at the Curragh is eminently doable from a professional point of view during 2017 and 2018. And the reality of flat racing at HQ means both the interests and opinions of a couple of thousand die-hard fans who regularly go to the trouble of watching those professionals are mostly irrelevant to those who set Irish racing's agenda and the apparatchiks that implement it.
So in 2017 and 2018 both the Derby and Champions Weekend in particular won't so much be a shop window for Irish racing as of the overwhelming clout wielded by a few at the top of it.
Maybe it's apt then that there will be exclusivity at those two meetings. Certainly those lucky members of the public who manage to breach the 6,000 capacity and actually make it into the Curragh on July 1 and September 10 are unlikely to feel particularly valued, even in little things like having their hot meal options reduced to takeaways while those in private suites enjoy restaurant facilities, or having to go without toilet facilities that haven't been towed there by a truck.
Nevertheless a 'we are where we are' point of view about all this has taken hold which suggests we should be 'paaasitive' now that the major decisions have been made. There's a resignation to that which might be accurate but is also dispiriting because it's actually important to keep in mind just how negative a step this is in terms of highlighting racing's attitude to those of us in the great unwashed who actually subsidise the show.
It only required a little ambition and imaginative tweaking for customers of Irish racing's two most important flat fixtures to receive the courtesy of a raceday experience within twentieth century standard concrete facilities - never mind twenty first - at Leopardstown. But that courtesy counted for little against the demands of those with the power to demand and get a nineteenth century set up that suits them.
It was interesting to see an 'Irish Field' report outlining how it seems there's nothing like the prospect of more money to produce rare unanimity within the entire bloodstock industry.
Sectional interests are apparently briefly being binned in favour of a concerted lobbying campaign ahead of the next budget for betting tax to be increased. It's being portrayed as a win-win all round, apart obviously from those bookmaker spokespeople pouring out contrary messages of hard-pressed woe from the betting shop frontline.
They might be better served pointing out how it's still the case that those devotees of the free market get 100 per cent of tax revenue despite generating only about 15 per cent of turnover which is quite a subsidy already in anyone's idea of economic supply and demand.
How it works out will be interesting but since all we've got to go on is the lobbying formbook it's noticeable how even the horse game titans have been left with bloody noses by the bookies before when it comes to government influence. Pricing up the ante-post market on who emerges on top looks an interesting theoretical exercise.
So does pricing up the Epsom Derby which has a turbulent betting look to it right now although that could all change if something puts up a convincing display in Thursday's Dante. An authoritative performance at York will probably guarantee favouritism since the general feeling is that Aidan O'Brien would on balance prefer not to run Churchill at Epsom.
Ballydoyle's quandary though is that despite trial wins galore nothing else has stood up and screamed 'Derby winner.' Of them all Cliffs Of Moher could have the most scope to kick on from his Chester win as he still looked quite raw in the Dee Stakes. Maybe O'Brien's trump card is that from his handful of contenders one will improve enough over the next fortnight to still allow Churchill concentrate on a mile campaign.
As of now though we're in familiar Derby territory with a widespread view that it's a sub-standard crop with no outstanding contenders and all of the leading hopes are concentrated among a tiny few. It's become an annual refrain and every year there seems to be general amnesia about how Epsom is actually the first step for these middle distance horses.
Even so it would help if possibly Cracksman or Crystal Ocean steps up to the mark on Thursday. And if you're asking yourself who one or both of those are then that's just the modern Derby pattern.
And finally, two things: one is how many flat trainers felt a shiver of apprehension up their spines when Gordon Elliott won with his first two year old runner at the weekend? If they didn't they should because this is one ambitious individual.
And two is what a superb piece of race planning was that by the maestro Dermot Weld to find a Grade 1 spot for Zhukova in Belmont's Man O'War which saw her tackle second-rate US turf rivals with only 8st on her back. Johnny Velazquez ended up carrying 2lb overweight but it could have been 20 the ease with which Zhukova won. And now whatever else she might do there's an invaluable top-flight notch next to her name.
It's what is called an ability to see the big picture. And it's reassuring to see such vision can actually exist at the Curragh.