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Vincent Finegan

Vincent Finegan

The best is yet to come

Frances Crowley with her daughter Hannah Smullen after Fillusin won at Tramore Frances Crowley with her daughter Hannah Smullen after Fillusin won at Tramore
© Photo Healy Racing

What an incredible weekend it was for Irish horse racing with two absolute masters of the training ranks winning the Oaks and Derby at Epsom.

This Flat season began sluggishly from an Irish perspective with our trainers drawing blanks in the both the English 1000 and 2000 Guineas and it was a similar story in the Curragh equivalents just over a week ago, but that all changed on one of the biggest stages of all at Epsom on Friday and Saturday.

Dermot Weld at 75 may be in the twilight of his glittering career, but still retains his uncanny ability to unearth a diamond when least expected. While it seems a lifetime ago that he became the first irish trainer to win a leg of the US Triple Crown when Go And Go won the 1990 Belmont Stakes - a record that still stands - and his ground-breaking Melbourne Cup triumph with Vintage Crop in 1993, he can still mix it with the best and his relatively recent association with the Aga Khan continues to bear fruit.

Harzand cemented the partnership with his famous victory in the 2016 Epsom Derby. The late-developing Tarnawa got the ball rolling again with a stellar four-year-old career in 2020 and Tahiyra gave the pair another Classic together when winning the Irish 1000 Guineas in 2023.

It is still very early days to make any definitive claims about Friday’s Oaks heroine Ezeliya, but this latest Aga Khan owned filly could be right up there with the best fillies Weld has trained. To win the Oaks so impressively on only her fourth racecourse start bodes well for the season ahead and, who knows, she could be the one to finally add a Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe to Dermot’s illustrious CV.

Turning attention to Saturday’s Derby victory by City Of Troy, which went a long way to validating my wife’s catchphrase -”you never listen.”

After ignoring Aidan’s faith in Auguste Rodin twelve months ago in the same race, I once again ignored his advice that City Of Troy was the probably the best colt he had ever sent to the Derby. Considering he had won the race nine times before, that should have been enough to allay any doubts after his Guineas flop, but of course I didn’t “listen” to what Aidan was saying.

When you take in account that Dermot Weld is one of Ireland’s most successful ever trainers, but has only managed to win the Epsom Derby once in his long career, you begin to realise how incredible Aidan O’Brien’s achievements actually are. Aidan has won the Derby 10 times in the last 24 years and is still only 54-years-old. If he trains until he reaches Dermot’s current age he could easily win the race another 10 times.

People don’t always give Aidan the full credit he deserves, citing the fact that he gets all the best Coolmore horses to train and that he is only following the path that the great Vincent O’Brien paved, but that is somewhat missing the point.

Aidan was a very successful trainer before he ever entered Ballydoyle and wouldn’t have lasted in that position without being exceptional at what he does. His success in Ballydoyle has undoubtedly been the catalyst for Coolmore and its partners to invest so heavily in the operation and they all continue to reap the rewards of his unique talent to get the very best out of the very best horses.

The other negative sometimes levelled at Aidan is regarding his record with sprinters, but that is unfair as he is not in the business of producing sprinters. The late on-course bookmaker David Hyland had a strategy to oppose all Ballydoyle 2-y-o’s over five furlongs as they simply were not bred for the distance and it invariably holds true.

City Of Troy is being billed as the best horse Aidan has ever trained, but he has a long way to go to attain that mantle. At this moment his racecourse achievements wouldn’t even put him at the top of the current talent in Ballydoyle, but that would all change if he managed to win a Breeders Cup Classic.

The hitherto elusive Breeders Cup Classic will be his ultimate goal. If City Of Troy wins that race at Del Mar at the beginning of November he will have achieved the Holy Grail from a breeding perspective for Coolmore with his dirt pedigree and, in their minds at least, he will certainly be the best racehorse they’ve ever owned.

At the other end of the racing scale, it was heartwarming to see Hannah Smullen ride her first winner last week at Tramore and extra special that her mum Frances was there to celebrate with her. I’m sure her uncle Aidan also got a kick out of seeing her follow in her late dad’s footsteps.

Lastly, a Derby Day crowd at Epsom of just 27,000 is hard to believe. In my youth the Derby was simply the biggest race in the world. It is incredible to see how far it has fallen in both popularity and prestige over the intervening years.

There is talk of switching the race back to midweek to avoid other sporting clashes and revive the attendance, but like our own Derby at the Curragh I fear it may be in terminal decline.

It’s difficult to work out exactly why these great races have fallen out of popularity with the public in such a dramatic way. Especially when you see the American equivalent, the Kentucky Derby, attracting a crowd of 157,000 at Churchill Downs last month.