Gold Maze could find the winning way out of a Derby full of imponderables

Jessica Harrington bidding to become first woman to train winner in race’s 154-year history

Jessica Harrington could become the first woman to train an Irish Derby winner with Golden Maze in Saturday’s race at the Curragh. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

Jessica Harrington could become the first woman to train an Irish Derby winner with Golden Maze in Saturday’s race at the Curragh. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

 

The 2020 Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby is different enough to almost demand a singular outcome on Saturday evening at the Curragh.

Staged behind closed doors, with prizemoney halved to €750,000, and taking place before either the Epsom or French derbies next week, unprecedented circumstances have produced a near-bespoke renewal of Ireland’s premier Classic.

Admittedly some things are unchanged, most importantly the date.

Keeping the race in its originally scheduled place throws the Curragh out of sync with Europe’s other major derbies but, crucially, allows for a return to something like normal fixture programming here next month.

Also the same is Aidan O’Brien’s overwhelming influence. He has half a dozen chances for a remarkable 14th Irish Derby victory. They include the top two in the early betting, Santiago and Arthur’s Kingdom.

Not only that but O’Brien’s sons, Joseph and Donnacha, between them will saddle four other runners in what is the biggest Irish Derby field since The Minstrel won in 1977.

That statistic alone indicates how distinctive a Derby this is.

The days of the Curragh providing a Classic decider between the winners at Epsom and Chantilly may have receded but it’s hard to recall the Irish Derby’s 154-year history containing so many imponderables as this.

Time may prove that a true star performer lurks among the 15 runners. However even after 7.15 on Saturday evening analysts could still be grasping at straws about the race’s value.

Sceptics might even argue that with Epsom a week afterwards, the division of Ballydoyle’s resources has resulted in a ‘B-Team’ feel to the squad heading to the Curragh.

Santiago is top-rated but earned his 111 mark in the Queen’s Vase at Royal Ascot just eight days ago. Arthur’s Kingdom was beaten at Ascot in the King Edward VII Stakes.

The one unbeaten horse in the race is Crossfirehurricane who tidily landed the Gallinule Stakes a fortnight ago.

Joseph O’Brien’s initial reaction was to wait for next month’s Tattersalls Gold Cup since he suspects 10 furlongs is the US bred colt’s best trip.

But such is the open nature of this latest ‘domestic only’ Classic that Crossfirehurricane takes his chance at a mile and a half.

He does alongside his stable companions Galileo Chrome, a course maiden winner, and the €50,000 supplementary entry, New York Girl. She will try to become the first filly since Balanchine in 1994 to beat the colts.

New York Girl was fourth to Peaceful in the Irish 1,000 Guineas, one of only two pieces of Classic form in the race.

The other is from Jim Bolger’s Fiscal Rules, fifth to Siskin in the Irish 2,000 yet one of half a dozen runners here that have never won any kind of race. Normal Classic rules don’t really appear to apply this time though.

With one Classic already under his belt thanks to Siskin, Ger Lyons provides a dark horse in Chiricahua, runner-up in both starts as a juvenile and a son of the 2012 Irish Derby hero Camelot.

Sunchart would be a popular winner for Co Tipperary trainer Andy Slattery whose 18-year-old nephew Ben Coen takes the ride. The colt’s juvenile form ties in well with Santiago and any overnight rain would suit both.

Ultimately though the Gallinule form may prove the most significant.

Crossfirehurricane beat Gold Maze with Donnacha O’Brien’s Sherpa a slightly unlucky third in a strongly run race. Both O’Brien runners sat off the pace while it was left to Gold Maze to lead the pursuit of the pacesetter.

That was just Gold Maze’s third career start. The expensive €605,000 yearling purchase kept on well in the closing stages and as a son of the Derby and Arc winner Golden Horn may relish a step up to a mile and a half more than Crossfirehurricane.

A Gold Maze victory would mean Jessica Harrington becoming the first woman to train an Irish Derby winner.

Typically the in-form trainer has accurately summed up the context involved in targeting this Derby when she said: “This year it’s been very topsy-turvy and a lot of the time you’re just stabbing in the dark.”

No one’s big-race instincts are more fine-tuned than Harrington’s. And in a very different Irish Derby there would surely be no more appropriate or significant winner than her.

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