1 June 2003
The globe-trotting Irishman may never have a better chance to win his first Derby than on Saturday
The Curragh loves a myth. It claims its origins from St Brigid somehow twirling her cloak across 6,000 acres of Kildare plain and guaranteeing the land beneath as grassland for ever. This year the old place can boast twin realities: Refuse To Bend and Alamshar leading candidates for the Epsom Derby and trained at opposite ends of this 1,400 horse, 3,000 sheep, 10,000 gorse bush idyll of Ireland.
On Monday morning, Refuse To Bend was flexing himself first. At 7.45 he was part of a distant string of horses making their way on to the Old Vic woodchip gallops at the Newbridge end of The Curragh racecourse with the Wicklow mountains as a misty backdrop. As he started to canter his way towards us, a blue truck swept up and the tall stooping, alert figure of trainer Dermot Weld stepped out to supervise.
Refuse To Bend’s 2,000 Guineas is but the latest major target to be knocked off by Dermot in a 30-year career at Rosewell House where his father, Charlie, trained before him right next to The Curragh grandstand. His success has encompassed every major Irish race and a whole series of international firsts as far away as New York, Hong Kong and most memorably Australia where, in 1993, he saddled Vintage Crop and then dazzled the unsaddling enclosure with an impromptu rendering of Banjo Patterson’s Swanee River.
Dermot was not singing on Monday but in the couple of minutes before Refuse To Bend reached us, he had completed an instant tour de horizon taking in everything from the range of Curragh gallops, the separate posse of his horses cantering on green turf below the army camp to the south and the extraordinary cylinder-shaped ninth century `round tower’ on the ridge above Kildare to the west. That’s Dermot, a mastery of ideas and detail and exposition almost too much for one head to handle.
But horses have always been at the centre of it. He was a champion amateur rider while a practising vet, and the hooded eyes and lined face show the intensity he has brought to his main profession. He is intense now as his Derby horse spins up and past, the snort of Refuse To Bend’s nostrils locked into the piston-pump rhythm of those dark bay limbs flicking away the woodchip beneath. At 54, Weld may have straddled the globe but he has yet to win the Epsom Derby. He knows he may never have a better chance. But these last few days are crucial.
His team – he is ably assisted by his sons Mark and Chris – have always thought that Refuse To Bend was special. They rejoiced when he strolled clear first time out at Gowran Park in August, they cheered when he turned over Ballydoyle hotpot Van Nistelrooy in September and, as Pat Smullen was led on the victory parade at Newmarket, Mark memorably clenched his fist and shouted “nothing has beaten him and nothing will”.
Dermot was much cagier on Monday. Refuse To Bend’s dam was a sprinter but his half-brother, Media Puzzle, won a second Melbourne Cup for Rosewell House last November over two miles, so this son of super stallion Sadler’s Wells should stay the distance. “But nothing is certain,” says the trainer before adding: “all you can do is get your horse there in the best possible shape. He never does more than he has to but he seems to have thrived since the Guineas. We will do one decent piece of work at the weekend and then go to Epsom and take our chance.”
As we follow the 16-hand Refuse To Bend back after his canter, the perennial uncertainty surrounding the Derby strikes once again. Weld’s comment is not just a banality, it is the absolute truth about a horse who, for all his excellence, has not won by even as far as a length and an unimpressive gallop on Friday has eased him in the betting.
Four races is not a lot of evidence and travelling west past the ubiquitous sheep to where John Oxx’s stable shelters between the golf course and the outskirts of Kildare town, that same number of public outings gives us even less about Alamshar. “The other horse has won the National Stakes and the 2,000 Guineas [both Group Ones] and we have only won a Group Two,” says Oxx with that quiet professorial exactitude which has become his trademark. “So he is entitled to be favourite and we have to improve. But he had sharpened up a lot between the Ballysax Stakes and his last race and he is not a horse who has ever been very tuned up.”
The instrument of preparation is now coming towards us up some gorgeous springy turf led by a talented chesnut stable-mate called Hanabad. Three years ago, the similarly Aga Khan-owned Sinndar would have come up here before going on to become the first Curragh-trained Derby winner in 30 years.
Alamshar has the same box as Sinndar outside which is a brass plate proclaiming the twin Derby and Arc de Triomphe achievements which made him world champion three-year-old in 2000. “Luckily he can’t read,” chuckles Oxx who, like Weld, is both a vet and a second-generation trainer. “And he is smaller [15-3 hands compared to almost 16-1] and lighter [442kg compared to 474] than Sinndar. He is not an extravagant worker, but there has always been quality about him and he is very well-balanced, so should handle the track.”
That’s about as optimistic as you can make the trainer sound about Alamshar’s chance and the biggest pointer is that the bright bay colt is going to Epsom at all. Oxx may be much less outgoing than his more extrovert contemporary but the patiently run centre of excellence he has built up at Curraghbeg is renowned for the accuracy of its overseas entries, most famously with the filly Ridgewood Pearl in the Breeders’ Cup at Belmont.
Alamshar wings past, his head and neck set very straight, 54-year-old Dermot Hogan in the saddle which Johnny Murtagh will occupy at Epsom. Much is changing in Ireland and the dual carriageway which divides The Curragh plain will soon add a bypass for the beleaguered streets of Kildare through which the giant lorry queues rumble their evidence of the Celtic tiger economy. But the special place of the thoroughbred at the heart of it remains without question. As Alamshar powered away from us with just the sheep and the gold-spangled gorse as witness, you could understand why.