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Vincent Finegan

Vincent Finegan

A memorable week for horse racing

Flightline and Flavien Prat stalk leader Life Is Good in the early stages of the Breeders' Cup ClassicFlightline and Flavien Prat stalk leader Life Is Good in the early stages of the Breeders' Cup Classic
© Photo Healy Racing

What a week it has been on the racing front, The Melbourne Cup, The Breeders’ Cup, top class jumps action at Down Royal, the end of the Flat season at Naas and of course Shark Hanlon bringing Hewick into a pub for a pint of Guinness.

The victory of Gold Trip in Melbourne was interesting on many fronts, but the bit that really struck home to me was hearing of the scale of the training operation of Ciaron Maher and David Eustace. They have five separate training bases with a sixth in the state of New South Wales nearing competition. The era of the super-trainer is now a global phenomenon.

We’ve seen the training landscape in Ireland shift dramatically in the last decade as more and more of the best horses are concentrated in fewer and fewer yards. Joseph O’Brien is the first from Ireland to have followed the Australian model by operating a separate base in New York, but it can only be a matter of time before some of the powerful jumps yards within Ireland try something similar in the UK.

Aidan O’Brien is the original super-trainer and it was no surprise to see him bag three more winners at the Breeders’ Cup, though I wouldn’t have expected one of his wins to have come from Victoria Road which was beaten on his first four starts in Ireland.

In contrast O’Brien’s other juvenile winner, Meditate, had won her first four races. It then looked like her upward curve had flattened out somewhat with two subsequent defeats at Group One level, but she was on a completely different level to her opposition in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf where she bolted up.

The stellar performance of Flightline in the Breeders’ Cup Classic stole the show at Keeneland. The unbeaten colt will now head to stud, and why wouldn’t he with first season stallion earnings likely to top $40 million. Even if he remained in training for another season and won three or four of the richest races on the planet he wouldn’t get anywhere close to that number.

Many have made comparisons between Flightline and Secretariat, but the one big difference between them is how differently they were campaigned. Flightline, who had a number of setbacks, didn’t race at two and then ran just three times in each of his next two seasons culminating in Saturday’s Classic victory. In contrast, Secretariat raced 9 times as a two-year-old and a further 12 times at three. It’s hard to imagine a modern Classic contender running that many times, nevermind winning a Triple Crown along the way and setting numerous course records that still stand today.

Small fields for all the feature races at Down Royal was disappointing, as was the lack of UK participation across the two days. The three graded races worth €150,000, €50,000 and €50,000 attracted just 5, 4 and 4 runners respectively and with odds-on favourites in half the races the meeting fell some way short of previous renewals. That said, it was nice to see Envoi Allen come back to somewhere near his best to win the Ladbrokes Champion Chase. Now unbeaten in four runs at Down Royal and finally proving three miles is within his compass, it will be fascinating to see where he fits into the pecking order of his stable’s staying chasers as the season develops.

The Flat season went out relatively quietly at Naas on Sunday with the much-anticipated climax to the jockeys’ championship ending prematurely at Dundalk earlier in the week when Billy Lee failed to overturn a riding suspension on Appeal. Lee gave it a great go this season, riding winners for 23 different trainers, but he probably would have fallen just short of Colin Keane’s tally even without the suspension.

Keane has now won the title for the fourth time and few could argue with that. For me, his consistency is his biggest asset. If the horse is good enough he invariably wins on it. Overall the standard of riding in Ireland has always been very high among the top 5 or 6 riders, but nowadays I feel there is not a great deal between any of the top 20. The young guys coming through seem more dedicated and determined than in previous generations.

It was lovely to see veteran rider Kevin Manning bow out with a winner at Galway earlier in the week. The 55-year-old has been in the game as long as I have and it never ceases to amaze me how he stuck at it so long. I can remember him really struggling with his weight all of 30 years ago and thinking then that his days in the saddle were numbered. He went on to have a glittering career while always remaining a decent, approachable and level headed individual and I hope he enjoys his retirement.

It was remarkable that neither Aidan or Joseph O’Brien had any of their regular riders finish in the top three at the end of the season considering those two trainers sent out over 100 winners each - almost double that of any of their rivals. Messrs Heffernan, Lordan, Moore, McDonagh and Browne McMonagle all ended the season within 3 winners of each other. A very equitable distribution of the spoils from the two top yards.

Finally, Shark Hanlon bringing Hewick into a bar to celebrate his victorious return from America caused a stir in some quarters, but ultimately it was just a bit of harmless fun. In my locality on the Curragh there is a famous photo of L'Escargot inside the Rising Sun pub in Brownstown after his 1975 Grand National triumph.

Dan Moore’s L’escargot famously won both the Gold Cup and Grand National. God only knows what the Shark might do if his fellow won either of them.