25 May 2008

It helps if you are quicker than the other. Henrythenavigator is quicker than New Approach and sprinted past him not just to win the Irish 2,000 Guineas at The Curragh but to leap into favouritism for the Derby after trainer Aidan O’Brien uttered the enigmatic line: “he’s a definite possible” for the great Epsom showdown on June 7.

More of the Derby in a moment, but first let’s salute the progress this handsome colt has made since only inching out New Approach at Newmarket three weeks ago. In that race he accelerated up and just past his rival and only hung on by a nose. This time Johnny Murtagh oozed confidence behind the front-running New Approach before pulling him out and wide to sweep away to have more than a length advantage at the post. As Stubbs Art was the same three lengths back in third as he had been at Newmarket, improvement from Henrythenavigator seemed to be the key.

O’Brien certainly took this line telling us how positive Murtagh had been about Henrythenavigator in the build-up. But there were things about New Approach both before and during the race that added to the story. First, he looked lean and hard-trained compared to his fleshier rival, the outline of his ribs clear in his coat as he walked behind his lead horse/mentor Metaphoric in the paddock. Second, he never looked entirely happy as Kevin Manning wound the gallop up from the front and was a labouring, tongue-lolling picture of distress as the winner sailed by in the final furlong.

This all suggests that New Approach was not quite the thundering force he seemed at Newmarket and afterwards Manning confirmed that the horse had never been very happy on ground which had firmed up considerably in the wind and sun. Trainer Jim Bolger was characteristically more blunt than his reticent jockey and son-in-law saying “I think it is quite unfair not to water enough to have proper Guineas ground. He was hanging all the way and will come back here for the Irish Derby provided the ground is good.”

Complaints that The Curragh authorities restrict the watering to give Ballydoyle horses their favoured fast ground are nothing new, the most famous being the 1977 Irish Derby where watering was stopped on Tuesday and so the ground ended up too firm for the French Derby winner to come over for his clash with The Minstrel. But that year has another parallel in that it was only after defeat in the Irish 2,000 Guineas that the decision was made to run The Minstrel at Epsom. First reactions yesterday was that was the route Sheikh Mohammed should try with New Approach even if it did mean overruling his distinguished trainer.

However the sight of Manning veering right and then left as he tried to pull up his partner before the end-of-straight hoarding made you wonder what would happen on the downhill left-handed run out at Epsom. Along with the tightness of temperament as well as condition beforehand it is probably wisest to allow this hard-battling colt a break before he resumes hostilities at the end of June.

A much more immediate and almost amusing question is whether Epsom is the best place for Henrythenavigator. After Newmarket, O’Brien was enthusing about his horse’s speed to such an extent that the Derby did not seem to be in his calculations at all. Yesterday to the delight of bookmakers and most especially Epsom, he was talking enthusiastically as to how well the horse settled, how strong he was and how, while it would all need discussing, the horse was – a phrase said with what we will call a sincere twinkle – “a definite possible.”

Most bookmakers leapt on this to chalk up Henrythenavigator as short as 3-1 for Epsom. But Ladbrokes’ Mike Dillon boldly ridiculed this move saying “Ballydoyle would be absolutely mad to run a horse with so much speed at Epsom,” and refused to even put the horse in his Derby list. Instead he has Dermot Weld’s Casual Conquest as 11-4 favourite although that horse’s participation and necessary £170,000 supplementary entry depends on a good workout here at The Curragh tomorrow morning.

Henrythenavigator’s pedigree, he is by Kingmambo out of a Sadler’s Wells mare, gives him every chance of staying the extra half mile and in recent years the Ballydoyle team have got ever bolder in their tilts at the great prizes.The more you think about it, the more appealing it becomes. Sure he might not stay but with a name like Henrythenavigator how can you have fear of failure? Not lasting a mile and a half is a bit different from getting lost and sailing over what old Henry thought would be the edge of the world.

Besides, he’s quicker than the others.

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