It was no Derby but Aidan O’Brien’s one-time Classic hope Waterville got a bumper pay-day in the €600,000 Friends of the Curragh Irish Cesarewitch on Sunday.
The three-year-old, touted as a potential superstar in the spring, came from last to first under a vintage Wayne Lordan ride to land a race boosted to become Europe’s richest flat handicap.
Rachael Blackmore looked to have the massive €324,000 first prize in the bag on Willie Mullins’s Echoes In Rain, only for Lordan to dramatically deliver the 5-1 favourite all but in the shadow of the post and win by a neck. Another Mullins hope, Lot Of Joy, was third with Ruling fourth of the huge 30-runner field.
The massively inflated handicap, brainchild of the former Horse Racing Ireland chairman Joe Keeling, was hardly Waterville’s target at the start of the season. O’Brien made little secret of his regard for the unraced son of Camelot, only for a trio of maiden defeats to occur before Waterville finally broke his duck in a two-mile handicap at Limerick in June.
Writing him off as a “morning glory” proved premature though as he got in off bottom-weight on Sunday and passed the entire field while still looking a work in progress.
“We thought in the winter that he was our Derby horse but when we started to race him, he became very shy and mentally very backward,” said O’Brien. “We decided to take our time with him and not throw him in a Leger or anything like that and give him time to mature.
“Today we were drawn out so far  that we thought we couldn’t win with a three-year-old that was so shy. Obviously Wayne gave him the most incredible ride,” added O’Brien, who predicted a “different beast” in 2023.
If the outcome didn’t produce any fairytale egalitarian outcome, the champion trainer was keen to underline the race’s long-term appeal.
“It’s brilliant for everybody because everyone has a chance for a big pot,” he said. “It’s like the Grand National on the flat. To have a race like this in Ireland is unbelievable because everybody has a chance. All credit to Joe Keeling for putting on this race and making it happen.”
Sunday’s feature came 24 hours after the Goffs Million, the richest race of the year in Ireland, worth €1,234,000 in all but restricted to 2021 Orby Sale graduates like the Shane Foley-ridden winner Galeron.
Although over €2.2 million in all was up for grabs over the two days, any boost to public interest by the bumper prize money appeared negligible. Even with a food festival taking place on-site, there was an official attendance of 4,725 on Saturday and 5,825 on Sunday.
The Curragh’s chief executive Brian Kavanagh insisted success couldn’t be judged on attendance levels alone. Kavanagh pointed to this week’s Orby Sale, which takes place on Tuesday and Wednesday, as part of the broader industry dividend from Saturday’s lucrative initiative.
“We’ve had sales races over the years and that’s putting a lot of money back into the system for sales that are coming up this week.
“It has to be looked at from a number of different angles. It’s not just about the numbers that tog out on the day. That’s not the single issue. We were happy with the crowd yesterday.
“The sales race was a great addition. There were a lot of UK trainers and owners over for the sales and that’s a real positive. Shane Foley [Galeron’s jockey] was happy enough anyway!” he said.
Nevertheless, the figures paled in comparison to crowds at last week’s Listowel festival.
A reported Ladies Day attendance on Friday of 27,232 was the biggest of the week with 25,700 at Wednesday’s Kerry National date. A record 11,053 attended Saturday’s final programme at Listowel.
Despite the grim economic outlook, there is no issue with the big-money concept continuing in 2023.
“We are committed to this. Goffs are already talking about next year. The sales taking place this week are linked to next year’s race,” Kavanagh added.
Curragh finances came under focus at last week’s Public Accounts Committee hearing into Horse Racing Ireland’s accounts for 2020.
HRI’s chief executive Suzanne Eade reported that racing’s ruling body is likely to get an even bigger financial stake in the Curragh as the track is not in a position to repay a €9 million loan to the semi-State body by the due date.
However, the voting share at Curragh board level, with HRI, the Turf Club and private investors each holding a third, will be unchanged.
“There’s a difference between the economic shareholding and the voting shareholding,” Kavanagh explained on Sunday. “That’s the same for a number of the investors as well. The last round of money that went in was put in as convertible loan stock so it is converted to equity. It doesn’t affect the voting percentage.
“HRI have committed to investing in the racecourse and look what’s been created. That was the whole idea of developing the Curragh,” he added.
For once the Ballydoyle team’s big success on Sunday was in the handicap while failing to hit the frame in either of the Group Three races. Art Power repeated his 2021 success in the Renaissance Stakes, leading a cross-channel one-two from Sam Maximus.
Joseph O’Brien’s second-string Basil Martini made all to land the Weld Park Stakes under Declan McDonogh. O’Brien’s 2-1 favourite Caroline Street struggled to get a run in the closing stages and faded to sixth.