Dermot Weld believes yard has ‘turned the corner’ in virus battle

The Irish trainer says Zhukova could target the Arc or switch to North American campaign

All roads lead to Galway next week but Dermot Weld’s focus is already on September’s Irish Champions Weekend after declaring his powerful string have “turned the corner” in what has been to date a sickness-blighted season for the legendary trainer.

The impact of a virus has meant Weld currently languishes outside the top five in Ireland’s championship table and the man dubbed “The King Of Ballybrit” over the years will have a significantly reduced team heading west next week.

Most importantly, however, the legendary trainer is confident his horses are healthy again and in many respects Weld’s 2017 campaign now starts afresh with a target of Irish Champions Weekend for the powerful team to be back in full swing.

“We had a virus infection here and it’s been a real slow burner,” Weld said on Sunday. “There weren’t temperatures or any external signs of sickness. There wasn’t a cough or runny noses. So it was very hard to detect. It was only when they ran and came under stress that we saw they weren’t finishing out their races.


"But we sat tight and I'm satisfied after all the work I've done, along with the Irish Equine Centre, that we're healthy again. We've a healthy team of horses here. We've turned a corner and now I can start training them. It will be a few weeks yet before we're fully back to normal. And I have a target in my head of Irish Champions Weekend," he added.

Eziyra’s performance when third to Enable in the Irish Oaks has only encouraged Weld to believe the corner has been turned.

“You’d have to say her first run of the season was average. But she improved dramatically to run the race of her life in the Oaks. And that’s typical of what’s been happening,” he said.

The one top-flight bright-spot for the Weld team so far this year was Zhukova's Grade One Man O'War Stakes victory at Belmont Park in New York in May. Her one run since then was a fourth in the Pretty Polly Stakes earlier this month and Irish Champions Weekend could also prove a crucial date for the filly's own career.

Zhukova won the Enterprise Stakes in impressive fashion at the Leopardstown leg a year ago and that race may be on her radar again en route to a possible tilt at the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe. An alternative course of action, however, might see her return to North America instead.

"The Arc has always been a race in my mind and the Leopardstown race would set her up nicely for that. The other possibility is she would go back to Belmont for the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic over a mile and a half (September 30th). And if she does that she could follow up by going to the Canadian International (October 15th). We'll have to see but she's in great form." Weld said.

The Belmont race is worth $500,000 (€428,650) while the Woodbine highlight is worth $800,000 (€685,000). Both Grade One races are ‘Win & You’re In’ events for the Breeders’ Cup.

With Eziyra earmarked for Cork’s Give Thanks Stakes in under a fortnight – “Enable is going for the Yorkshire Oaks so the Give Thanks seems a logical step” – momentum is starting to grow again at Rosewell House. However those relying on traditional Weld domination at Ballybrit are likely to be disappointed.

“We will have runners at Galway, and hopefully winners. But the numbers we will have there will be greatly reduced. For instance, as of now, I don’t think I’ll have a runner in the two-year-old colts maiden that we’ve dominated over the years,” he said.

Weld first won that maiden with Klairvimy all of 45 years ago and won it 24 more times with subsequent high-class horses such as Grey Swallow and Go And Go. He has been crowned the festival’s leading trainer 29 times and in 2011 saddled a record-breaking 17 winners through the week.

However, Willie Mullins lifted the leading trainer crown last year and he's a 1-2 favourite to retain it next week. Weld is a 7-2 shot for the award with Powers.

Vastonea has been a Galway regular in recent years and the veteran could return to winning ways at Ballinrobe on Monday in the featured €30,000 handicap.

The grey won the big mile handicap on day two of Galway in both 2012 and 2014 and was third the year in between. Dylan Hogan claims off him in the Ballinrobe contest and oldest horse in the race can show his five rivals the way home.

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor is the racing correspondent of The Irish Times. He also writes the Tipping Point column