The sporting decade that was: Harzand earns place in history for team of true champions

‘I had won 22 classics but not an Epsom Derby. It had to be done. It was important to me.’

Harzand, trained by Dermot Weld and with Pat Smullen on board,  wins the Epsom Derby ahead of US Army Idaho in 2016. Photograph: Getty Images

Harzand, trained by Dermot Weld and with Pat Smullen on board, wins the Epsom Derby ahead of US Army Idaho in 2016. Photograph: Getty Images

 

June 4th, 2016: Epsom Derby

The Epsom Derby has defined racing for 240 years. Harzand isn’t close to being the best horse on its historic roll of honour. He isn’t even close to being the best winner of the last decade. But in 2016 he secured a place in history for himself and a team of true champions.

No one has trained more winners in Ireland than Dermot Weld. No trainer has done more to transform the face of global competition either. There had been epochal wins in the Melbourne Cup and in the US Triple Crown. But after a stunning 44 year career the greatest prize remained elusive.

An elite group of half a dozen Irish based trainers had won the Derby. They included both Vincent and Aidan O’Brien, as well as Weld’s contemporaries John Oxx and Jim Bolger. With each passing year, his absence became more glaring.

The chances of Harzand fixing that looked bleak on the morning of the race. He dislodged a shoe when shipping to England. This Derby hero spent much of the morning of the great race with his foot in a bucket of ice.

The confidence behind the legendary 1965 Derby winner Sea Bird was such that final instructions to his jockey were where to pull up after the line: Weld’s to Harzand’s rider Pat Smullen were to pull the horse out of the race at the start if he didn’t feel right.

That Smullen took on board such uncertainty, mixed it into the usual Derby cocktail of hope and stress, and then steer a cold-eyed route around Epsom’s famous cambers, became the crowning glory in the nine-time champion jockey’s career.

In the closing stages Ryan Moore on US Army Ranger threatened to spoil the fairytale outcome but Harzand showed exceptional courage to hold on. That pluck allowed him overcome the foot problem and double up in the Irish Derby three weeks later.

Epsom though will always remain the supreme moment. “I had won 22 classics but not an Epsom Derby. It had to be done. It was important to me,” admitted Weld, one of the great figures in turf history who maintains a regular stream of winners from his Curragh yard.

Time has only made that 2016 Derby outcome more significant. Smullen’s continues his fight against the pancreatic cancer that forced his retirement earlier this year. The professional resolve he showed at Epsom that day pales in comparison to the personal fortitude he exudes every day.

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