Trainers eye up Derby contenders at Ballysax Stakes in Leopardstown

Aidan O’Brien’s colt Glounthaune to run in Saturday’s Ballylinch 1,000 guineas

The current cross-code flux is underlined by the start of "Grand National season" in Ayr on Saturday at the same time as Europe's first meaningful classic trials of the season take place at Leopardstown.

The PW McGrath Ballysax Stakes has an impressive pedigree of establishing Derby credentials and recent renewals of Saturday’s other Group 3, the Ballylinch Stud 1,000 Guineas Trial, have produced top-level stars such as Alpha Centauri and Winter.

Ideas of the 2,000 trial being some poor relation were firmly scotched too a year ago when Poetic Flare scored on route to Newmarket classic glory.

Behind him were the subsequent Prix Jean Prat winner Laws Of Indices and the top sprinter A Case Of You.


So, just a week into the new flat campaign, Saturday’s Leopardstown action represents a major step-up in gear.

Aidan O'Brien's Glounthaune was described as a colt with a "huge future" by no less a judge than Seamus Heffernan last year so his reappearance in the seven-furlong colts trial is keenly anticipated.

Ger Lyons runs Dr Zempf in that race while Sacred Bridge is one of the Co Meath trainer's two runners in the 1,000 Trial.

Dermot Weld won the Ballysax in 2016 with the subsequent dual-Derby hero Harzand and runs Duke De Sessa in the mile-and-a-quarter heat this time.

Two shots

Aidan O’Brien has two shots at a 12th Ballysax victory while his sons Joseph and Donnacha each has a pair of representatives as well.

Up against Ireland's powerhouses of the flat game, though, and fresh from his latest big-race triumphs at Cheltenham, will be Henry de Bromhead.

The record-breaking trainer has carved out a notable sideline on the level in recent years and that could step up to another level on Saturday.

The filly Star Girls Aalmal holds an Irish 1,000 Guineas entry on the back of an impressive maiden success at Dundalk in November. Her stable companion Vina Sena also won his only start to date at Dundalk and takes a shot at the Ballysax.

Good performances by either or both could see de Bromhead with classic ambitions this summer.

Jump racing’s dominant big-race trainer has a couple of runners at Sunday’s fixture in Fairyhouse but the weekend’s big National Hunt prize is Saturday’s Coral Scottish Grand National.

It is the first in a series of “Nationals” taking in next week’s Aintree spectacular followed by Fairyhouse hosting the 150th Irish version on Easter Monday.

No horse trained in Ireland has won the Ayr marathon in over a century and a half but both Pat Fahy and John McConnell will try to put that statistic right this time.

The latter runs Streets Of Doyen while Fahy will be double-handed with History Of Fashion and Danny Mullins’ mount Stormy Judge.

Fahy and Mullins were third in the race a year ago with Mister Fogpatches and Stormy Judge is a full brother to that horse.

Third start

It will be just Stormy Judge's third start of the season; he last ran at Naas in the Leinster National when fifth to Diol Ker.

Ground conditions at Ayr will be considerably quicker compared to when he last won at Navan just over a year ago.

Philip Enright travels to team up with History Of Fashion who only got as far as the sixth before unseating his rider on his last cross-channel run in the Eider at Newcastle.

Joseph O’Brien has indicated his ambition to concentrate more on the flat than over jumps in future. Early Doors could yet secure him a maiden Irish Grand National success in a fortnight’s time, but his immediate focus will be on Leopardstown’s classic trials.

Twice an Epsom Derby winner during his short but stellar riding career, O'Brien has similar ambitions with Buckaroo this season. Some tardy starts didn't help the Fastnet Rock colt as a two-year-old but he is still officially top-rated for the Ballysax.

“He got himself in a bit of trouble on both his last two runs by being a bit lackadaisical early on in them.

"In France [Criterium de Saint-Cloud] it was a shocking messy race and he was last or second-last most of the way. He stayed on well but it was too late. So that's something that hopefully maturity will address," O'Brien said.


Buckaroo broke his maiden at Galway when beating Stone Age who in turn sluiced up at Navan during the week.

“He is a huge big horse and he beat Stone Age in Galway who won the maiden well at Navan and they pulled a long way clear that day. So hopefully he breaks well enough and puts himself in a good enough position,” added O’Brien.

With Oisin Murphy suspended, Shane Crosse is back on Buckaroo, who he rode on his debut.

In other news, O’Brien has left his triple-Grade 1 winner Fakir D’oudairies in next Thursday’s Betway Bowl on Day 1 of the Aintree festival.

Willie Mullins, who hasn't ruled out a tilt at trying to land the British trainers' championship, is set to allow Kemboy try to repeat his 2019 Bowl victory.

Mullins, who could try to become the first Irish-based trainer to win the British championship since Vincent O'Brien in 1954, has also left in two options for the mares' bumper on the opening day of Aintree, Ashroe Diamond and Eabha Grace.

There are a pair of Irish possibles for the Aintree Hurdle in Gordon Elliott’s Zanahiyr and his former stable companion Quilixios.

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor

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