Fashions change in racing but the need to be rich never has
Irish Derby has great history but the history of who has the money matters most
Joseph O’Brien celebrates winning the Irish Derby on Australia last year with his father and trainer Aidan O’Brien, owner JP Magnier, and other connections and relatives. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
This Saturday sees the 150th Irish Derby at the Curragh, a landmark moment in the history of Ireland’s premier classic race with its evocative roll call of great champions. But once the sweat has dried and the shouts have echoed away, it also remains a history of money and who’s had it.
There’s always a temptation to paint modern sport’s problems in financial shades, bemoaning how it isn’t like the good old days; except there was similar nostalgia in those good old days for even older days when, supposedly, counting the coins didn’t count either. Fashions can change: the requirement to afford them never has.
Over the centuries, racing horses across the Curragh’s bald plain has been subject to fashion’s vagaries too but it has always cost a lot of money to own the things. It is racing after all which produced the old line that in order to secure a small fortune, it is necessary to start with a big one.
So after a century and a half the Irish Derby presents us with an exotic economic as well as sporting history, a pocket guide to money and the colourful gallery of royalty and crooks, nobility and squires who have had enough of it to pursue the indulgent glory of watching their colours pass the post first.
In 1866 what is recognised as the Irish Derby was begun in appropriately blue-blooded style by the Earl of Howth, the Marquess of Drogheda and the Earl of Charlemont, a colourful trio, with the Marquess once having had a thousand quid reward put on his head by agitators during the Land Wars.
But despite it often being a plaything for the landed gentry, the Irish Derby was a side-show in comparison to the Derby at Epsom. So it added to the resonance when Orby emerged from an Irish stable to stun the racing world in 1907 by winning at Epsom carrying colours of an owner far from noble.
Richard ‘Boss’ Croker didn’t have a title but may have had a price on his head. There is no disputing how the Irish-born Tammany hall boss had to leave New York in a hurry at the end of the 19th century with federal authorities on his tail.
Eventually fetching up in Glencairn stables in Sandyford, now the British ambassador’s residence, Croker enjoyed the sweet satisfaction of thumbing his nose at those whose acknowledgement he simultaneously craved when Orby won, although King Edward VII – a man with a penchant for bathing in champagne with his favourite Parisian prostitutes – turned his nose up at meeting an owner with such a dubious pedigree.
His trainer Frederick McCabe said the ground was “rock hard” and the horse shouldn’t run. Croker insisted: “The Irish public should see their hero on home ground.”
Ever desperate to escape his shady criminal roots, Croker even sent the Turf Club champagne and an offer to fund the Irish Derby to the same level as Epsom if the stewards elected him to their body. They declined the offer – and kept the champagne.
Such snootiness has to be afforded, however. There was sufficient old money around to keep ownership of an Irish Derby winner an exclusive affair for half a century but it was only in 1962, when Joe McGrath linked the race to the Irish Sweeps-stakes, that sufficient prize money was available to attract the best horses in Europe. Joe Soap didn’t start suddenly appearing in the winners enclosure though.
Instead Bing Crosby had a leg in the 1965 winner Meadow Court. The American industrialist Charles Engelhard, supposedly the model of the James Bond villain, Goldfinger, won it three times in four years, the last of them in 1970 being the peerless Nijinsky. The Aga Khan won with Shergar in 1981, even managing to forgive what some patriots did to his pride and joy afterwards.
It maintained a trend where the trainers and jockeys might be Irish but the money to bank-roll the whole thing remained mostly foreign. So if there is a pivotal winner in the Irish Derby’s history it might just be The Minstrel in 1977, a horse that helped transform an entire sport often regarded as a mere rich man’s plaything into a multibillion Euro industry.
Powerful The Minstrel’s owner, Robert Sangster, brought the finance, Vincent O’Brien the training acumen, and behind both, the enigmatic John Magnier brought the vision and ambition which has made Coolmore Stud the most powerful and successful bloodstock operation in the world. But the start is all important and The Minstrel was that start.
Magnier will once again be the dominant presence on Saturday, the Corkman as ever inscrutable and publicly taciturn. Since The Minstrel he has had a stake in 16 other Irish Derby winners, and the attraction of this year’s race is that for once it isn’t overwhelmed by Coolmore’s might providing impeccably bred bullets for their trainer Aidan O’Brien to fire.
Top-level flat racing is now a business far from the louche ‘Sport of Kings’ cliché of old: only oil-rich Middle-Eastern royalty are rivals to Coolmore, spending billions trying to compete, and finding the going tough.
There are probably sociological implications to be taken from how it is Magnier, the son of an admittedly hardly down-at-heel Fermoy farmer, who now towers over Irish racing, a bespectacled colossus richer than Croesus.
Plenty might also be read into how it is Coolmore, the remorselessly commercial empire, which consistently gets the better of rivals with the oil-rich dynastic resources to cherry-pick whatever they want – perhaps it is a vindication of the market.
Best to remember, though, that it really is all academic, without the money.