The Curragh on the final weekend of June is often the setting for revenge, an opportunity of Classic glory and the chance of affirmation of brilliance.
The Irish Derby often brings together the main principles from its Epsom counterpart earlier in the month but has over the years produced horses of rare quality who either missed Epsom or won the French equivalent, the Prix du Jockey Club.
Naturally this Irish Classic retains Group 1 standard and is open to three year old colts and fillies – a significant point to make in recent years.
The race takes place over a mile and a half and has a roll of honour that includes many of the all-time greats of Turf history.
The earliest version of the Irish Derby was an event called the O’Darby Stakes. This was established in 1817, but it was discontinued after 1824. A subsequent race titled the Curragh Derby was inaugurated in 1848, but this was again short-lived.
The modern Irish Derby was created by the 3rd Earl of Howth, the 3rd Marquess of Drogheda and the 3rd Earl of Charlemont. It was first run in 1866, and it was initially contested over 1 mile, 6 furlongs and 3 yards and won by Selim.
The distance was extended by 9 yards in 1869 but then reduced to its present distance in 1872.
The first really high profile winner of the Irish Derby was also the first Epsom Derby winner to pull off the famous English-Irish Derby double: Orby, who was trained in Ireland by Fred McCabe and accomplished his feat in 1907.
Jockey Morning Wing made his mark on the Irish Derby in the first half of the 20th Century, winning the race a record six times aboard: Ballyheron (1921), Waygood (1923), Rock Star (1930), Rosewell (1938), Windsor Slipper (1942) and Bright News (1946).
However the race continued to gain few major headlines on the international stage until 1962, when its prize money was substantially increased. Joe McGrath, a founder of the Irish Hospitals’ Sweepstake, combined the race with the sweepstake, and it became known as the Irish Sweeps Derby.
From that point onwards the race became a credible target for the main Epsom contenders and in 1964 Santa Claus became just the second horse to achieve the double. Meadow Court, Ribocco and Ribero were other notable winners during the 1960s but the race’s history was about to enter a new era.
In 1970, Dr Vincent O’Brien’s magnificent unbeaten colt Nijinsky, added the Irish Sweeps Derby to his impressive wins in the 2,000 Guineas and Derby at Epsom. To that point Nijinsky was probably the best horse to win the race, but five years later another Epsom hero would challenge that title as Grundy achieved the double. A few short weeks later, Grundy took on Bustino and Dahlia and co in that memorable “Race of the Century”, winning the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes in one of the greatest races of all time.
By now, the Curragh had become almost an automatic next target for the Epsom Derby winner and the decade ended with three more horses achieving the double. Firstly The Minstrel recovered from his gruelling race at Epsom to win the Irish Derby, before winning the King George. Shirley Heights also won both races and then Troy really stamped his class on his generation with another brilliant performance to slam his Epsom victim Dickens Hill. He too would later win the King George at Ascot.
Henbit had been injured when winning the 1980 Derby, but Tyrnavos, who had finished down the field at Epsom, sprung a big shock in defeating Master Willie in 1980. A year later heralded the arrival of another equine superstar in the Irish Sweeps Derby, as Shergar, the record 10 length winner at Epsom, was reunited with Lester Piggott for the first time in 1981. Against a useful field, Lester Piggott was at his cheekiest as Shergar positively hacked up in facile fashion. Struggling a long way back in vain was Cut Above, but that colt would have his day and would claim the scalp of Shergar in the St Leger that September.
Golden Fleece was unable to compete in the 1982 race but owner Robert Sangster had an able deputy in Assert, who had won the Prix du Jockey Club. At the Curragh, Assert stormed away from his rivals in impressive fashion to record a rare double – and would further add the Benson and Hedges Gold Cup before season’s end.
The 1983 Irish Sweeps Derby was run on a fast surface and saw a significant winner. Teenoso and Lester Piggott had triumphed in soft ground at Epsom and were set to face the O’Brien trained Prix du Jockey Club winner Caerleon, with Irish 2,000 Guineas winner Wassl also in the line-up. But it was another colt, the expensive Sheikh Maktoum Al Maktoum purchase Shareef Dancer, who revelled in the conditions and danced away from his toiling rivals to give jockey Walter Swinburn compensation for missing the ride on Shergar two years earlier due to a suspension. Shareef Dancer never raced again but heralded the arrival of the Dubai empire in the big time.
In 1984 there was one final fond look at the majestic talent that was El Gran Senor. The brilliant 2,000 Guineas winner had been agonisingly denied Epsom victory in the dying strides by Secreto amid accusations that he didn’t stay and that argument it was hoped, would be put to bed at the Curragh. Up against him was his old foe Rainbow Quest, while Dahar represented smart French form. In the event, the race was run at a crawl and negated any chance the other riders had to expose any chinks in El Gran Senor’s stamina. He ran out a smooth winner over Rainbow Quest who of course would go on to win an Arc de Triomphe in time.
The following year Dr O’Brien saddled his last winner of the Irish Derby as Law Society recorded back-to-back victories for the master of Ballydoyle, beating a smart field containing French Derby winner Mouktar and Theatrical, a horse who would make his mark in the USA.
It had been five years since an Epsom Derby winner had triumphed in the Irish equivalent – that horse being Shergar, who happened to race in the Aga Khan’s green silks and red epaulets. In 1986 those same colours were seen to Epsom glory as Shahrastani got first run on the all-powerful Dancing Brave. Shahrastani, like Shergar, was trained by Sir Michael Stoute and had impressed in his two trial races before Epsom. But the feeling had been that he was a little lucky to defeat Dancing Brave, who had been gaining ground hand over fist in the latter stages of the Derby. With his rival routed to Sandown Park where he would brilliantly beat the older horses in the Coral Eclipse Stakes, Shahrastani took his three year old contemporaries apart with a brilliant and emphatic display at the Curragh.
There was drama ahead of the 1987 Irish Derby, as a bomb scare emptied the stands at the Curragh. Eventually the race got underway and Sir Harry Lewis, fourth at Epsom, proved an able winner before embarking on a long and successful career at stud.
Kahyasi became a third winner of the Derby for the present Aga Khan in 1988 – and he followed the same route to the Curragh as his predecessors. In a desperate finish he just got a hard fought verdict by inches from Insan in a race that left its mark on both horses.
A glittering decade had seen some great horses win the Irish Derby but the 1980s had one more jewel to reveal. Up until 1989 no English trained horse had ever won the Prix du Jockey Club. That was until Sir Henry Cecil sent his exciting colt Old Vic to Chantilly to record a dominant victory. At the Curragh, he was set to face several of the beaten Epsom horses and also had to overcome the late scare of a warble on his back. Special foam pads were placed under Old Vic’s saddle and he took his place in the field, turning the race into a procession in the style of a champion racehorse. Sadly he was injured shortly afterwards and did not race again at three, denying the public the fantastic prospect of a middle distance clash with the great Nashwan.
Quest For Fame became the latest Epsom winner to bid for the double in 1990, but was not the only one in the field. The dual Classic winning filly Salsabil incredibly took on the colts at the Curragh, having brilliantly landed the 1,000 Guineas and Oaks. It was a very rare occurrence for a filly to run in the Irish Derby but John Dunlop’s star won the race in terrific style, beating smart horses including Deploy, Quest For Fame and Belmez.
The following year was a renewal for the connoisseur as Epsom hero Generous took on the impressive French winner Suave Dancer in a high class clash. It was Paul Cole’s English hero who dominated the contest and drew clear of Suave Dancer and Walter Swinburn during a glorious summer which also saw the chestnut win the King George in brilliant style. However in the autumn, Suave Dancer proved his class with awesome displays to win the Irish Champion Stakes and Arc de Triomphe, inflicting revenge on Generous in the latter contest.
Another dual emerged in 1992 as St Jovite emphatically reversed his Epsom defeat at the hands of Dr Devious. The pair would have quite a tussle over the summer and Dr Devious would gain revenge later in the year in the Irish Champion Stakes.
Another Anglo-French battle took place in 1993 as Sir Henry Cecil’s unbeaten colt Commander In Chief, who had won the Epsom Derby, comfortably beat the French Derby winner Hernando in another cracking renewal.
A year later Frankie Dettori steered the second filly in four years to victory in the race, as the Oaks winner Balanchine beat the Derby placed colts in Colonel Collins and King’s Theatre – the latter would go on to win the King George at Ascot but was no match for Balanchine.
In 1995 Winged Love provided the great French trainer Andre Fabre with his first Irish Derby winner – and France’s first in the race since 1976. Sadly the race was overshadowed by an injury to the brilliant French Derby winner Celtic Swing, who was retired to the paddocks thereafter.
The 1996 race went the way of Zagreb who ran right away from his rivals, while in 1997 Desert King recorded the Irish Guineas-Derby double and became the first of a record ten winners (to date) in the race for the new incumbent at Ballydoyle, Aidan O’Brien.
The 1990s ended with French dominance as first Dream Well and then Montjeu (in 1999) won the Irish Derby in brilliant style. The latter truly was an outstanding champion both on the racecourse and at stud where his presence is still felt to this day.
But any thoughts of a French stranglehold on the race were quickly dispelled as the new Millennium got underway and it was the Epsom Derby that again emerged as the significant form guide for the Curragh Classic.
In 2000 Sinndar gave John Oxx a terrific victory following up on his Epsom triumph before later defeating Montjeu in the Arc de Triomphe.
One year later another brilliant Epsom winner Galileo consolidated his domination of his generation with a facile win in the race and his stable mate High Chaparral followed up in 2002.
A grey French colt of real substance was expected to win the 2003 renewal, as Prix du Jockey Club hero Dalakhani, came over to Ireland defending an impressive unbeaten record. The colt was widely expected to give the Aga Khan yet another win in the race and it is true that the owner was successful – but it was Alamshar and Johnny Murtagh, racing in the old green and chocolate hoops of the Aga Khan’s father that gained the day. The colt had finished third at Epsom to Kris Kin but stepped up here to inflict the only defeat of subsequent Arc de Triomphe winner Dalakhani’s racing career. Alamshar himself would later win the King George.
A grey did land the 2004 Irish Derby however, as Grey Swallow won for Dermot Weld, beating the Epsom hero North Light.
A year on Andre Fabre trained his second winner as Hurricane Run emulated his father, leading home a one-two for Montjeu colts. Hurricane Run would later land the Arc de Triomphe and won the King George as a four year old for good measure.
In 2006 Dylan Thomas added the first major prize of a glittering career which would see him win two Irish Champion Stakes, a Prix Ganay, a King George and an Arc. Dylan Thomas was trained by Aidan O’Brien and was the first of an extraordinary seven consecutive winners in the Irish Derby for the trainer.
Soldier of Fortune ran away with the 2007 renewal and then Frozen Fire was a slightly surprising winner. The Epsom Derby runner-up Fame And Glory took advantage of the absent Sea The Stars to win the 2009 Irish Derby and a year later the flashy chestnut Cape Blanco proved he stayed, having beaten the Epsom Derby winner Workforce in the Dante Stakes. In 2011 another Epsom runner-up Treasure Beach landed the Irish Derby and in 2012 the much-fabled Camelot added the Irish Derby (in soft ground) to his victories in the 2,000 Guineas and Derby, before narrowly failing to land the Triple Crown. Camelot’s victory was the sixteenth time a horse has completed the Epsom-Curragh double to date.
The Ballydoyle stranglehold was finally ended in 2013 as Jim Bolger’s Trading Leather ran out a convincing winner, with the Epsom winner Ruler Of The World well beaten.
However, a year later, Australia won the race with contemptuous ease, confirming himself a top class middle distance horse.
In 2015, the Epsom Derby second Jack Hobbs, put up a sensation performance to slam Epsom third Storm The Stars in the 150th running of the race.
A year later, Harzand, in the hands of Pat Smullen, completed the Epsom-Curragh double with a half a length defeat of Idaho.
2017 saw a terrific race as many of the main Epsom protagonists renewed rivalries on the Curragh. Sadly the Epsom hero Wings Of Eagles, sustained a career-ending injury in the race, but still finished a close third.
It was the grey Aidan O’Brien colt, Capri, who gained the day narrowly from Cracksman, with the top class French colt Waldgeist, a close-up fourth, in a vintage renewal.
Capri went on to land the St Leger, later in the season.
The O’Brien name was once again to the fore in 2018 – but this time it was Aidan’s son Joseph, who trained the Irish Derby winner for the first time.
Beforehand, most eyes were fixed on 2,000 Guineas winner Saxon Warrior, who had finished fourth at Epsom.
However, his suspect stamina was fully tested at the Curragh and Latrobe emerged to hold off Rostropovich and Saxon Warrior.
The Irish Derby continues to produce colts that excel both on the racecourse and at stud. Its legacy is tried and tested and the winner is assured his place in turf history and a selection of choice mares.
Winners of the Irish Derby:
1867: Golden Plover
1869: The Scout
1870: Billy Pitt
1871: Maid of Athens
1873: Kyrle Daly
1874: Ben Battle
1878: Madame du Barry
1880: King of the Bees
1881: Master Ned
1885: St Kevin
1887: Pet Fox
1890: Kentish Fire
1892: Roy Neil
1898: Noble Howard
1902: St Brendan
1903: Lord Rossmore
1904: Royal Arch
1905: Flax Park
1908: Wild Bouquet
1909: Bachelor’s Double
1913: Bachelor’s Wedding
1914: Land of Song
1917: First Flier
1918: King John
1919: Loch Lomond
1920: He Goes
1922: Spike Island
1924: Haine / Zodiac 1
1927: Knight of the Grail
1930: Rock Star
1931: Sea Serpent
1934: Patriot King / Primero 1
1941: Sol Oriens
1942: Windsor Slipper
1943: The Phoenix
1944: Slide On
1946: Bright News
1950: Dark Warrior
1951: Fraise du Bois II
1952: Thirteen of Diamonds
1953: Chamier 2
1961: Your Highness
|1984||El Gran Senor|
|1987||Sir Harry Lewis|
|1993||Commander in Chief|
|2007||Soldier of Fortune|
|2009||Fame and Glory|