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Stunning Sovereign basks in Irish Derby success after memorable weekend for Aidan O'Brien

Donn McClean reflects on the surprise winner’s performance at The Curragh on Saturday.

INITIAL REACTION: INCREDULITY, wonder, silence.

What just happened?

Sovereign just won the Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby, that’s what just happened. A 33/1 shot, fourth best of his own stable’s five, generally discounted as a probable pacemaker in race analyses. A mere maiden win on his CV from eight previous attempts, and rated about a stone inferior to his top-rated rivals.

A 13th Irish Derby for Aidan O’Brien, as we expected it might be, but not as we expected it might be.

Padraig Beggy on Sovereign comes home to win Sovereign wins the Irish Derby. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

And Padraig Beggy. Padraig Beggy again.

Just over two years after the rider had sprung a similarly unexpected rabbit in the form of Wings Of Eagles from an Epsom Derby hat that, similarly, we thought we had all figured out. (It was between Cracksman and Cliffs Of Moher, maybe Eminent if he stayed.)

So how did it happen?

Potential explanations tumbled forward. It was a fluke, was one of them. A freak occurrence. They allowed the leader too much rope. They allowed him an easy lead.

But it can’t have been all fluke. One of his (much) better-fancied stable companions, Norway, got the ideal tow into the race in the winner’s slipstream, and Sovereign had pulled eight and a half lengths clear of him by the time they reached the winning line.

Also, the winning time looked good, it was the fastest Irish Derby since Trading Leather’s in 2013, and Trading Leather won his on good to firm ground. The ground on Saturday was officially good.

Faster than Latrobe on good to firm ground. Faster than Capri on good ground. Faster than Jack Hobbs on good to firm ground. Faster than Australia on good to firm ground.

It is probable that Sovereign was ridden efficiently. It is probable that he was the beneficiary of a very good ride from Padraig Beggy, who got the fractions spot on, who distributed his horse’s energy through the 12 furlongs of the race evenly, so that he got from the starting stalls to the winning line as quickly as he possibly could.

Sovereign broke well and moved to the front, Norway quickly settled in behind him, and events conspired behind the pair of them to set up the early gap that they established on the main body of the field.

Broome missed the break, and Donnacha O’Brien had to allow him settle in behind. Ryan Moore and Anthony Van Dyck found themselves in third place, but Anthony Van Dyck could not go as fast as Sovereign or Norway early on.

He was at the front of the main group and, consequently, the gap developed.

Madhmoon settled on the inside, just behind Anthony Van Dyck. Madhmoon was always going to settle behind something.

Chris Hayes was always going to ride him conservatively, hold onto the turn of foot that his horse had shown at Epsom for use when it would be at its most potent.

Protect it until he got as close to the winning line as he could get. Madhmoon was never going to be the one who would lead the peloton in bridging the gap to the breakaway leaders.

Padraig Beggy celebrates winning on Sovereign Padraig Beggy celebrates winning The Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby on Sovereign. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Guaranteed moved up on the outside of Anthony Van Dyck and into third place after they had gone two furlongs but, by then, the front two were clear. Then you have your position. It is rare that you see much movement in field position down the back straight in middle-distance races at The Curragh.

You have your place and, usually, you hold it or you sit and suffer it on the climb up to the four-furlong marker, at which point you start to wheel down the hill and around the corner into the home straight.

The Curragh is a track at which it is difficult to come from very far behind. A big, wide, stiff, galloping track it may be, but you don’t want to be too far back at the top of the home straight. Unless the ground is very testing, or unless they have gone too fast too early, it is not easy to make ground from the rear.

The ground was not testing on Saturday, and the leaders did not go too fast. And so, it was always going to be difficult for the chasers to claw back the eight-or-so-length lead that the two leaders held as they straightened up for home. In the end, one of the chasers got to one of the leaders.

Anthony Van Dyck got past Norway and took the runner-up spot.

But Sovereign was not for catching.

The other possibility to consider is the possibility that Sovereign improved significantly on his previous form. That did not appear to be a very likely scenario in the lead up to Saturday’s race.

The Galileo colt looked fairly exposed, one win from eight runs, and he had finished behind Broome in the Ballysax Stakes and again the Derrinstown Stud Derby Trial, and behind Anthony Van Dyck and Madhmoon and Broome (yet again) and Norway in the Epsom Derby.

That said, things did not go Sovereign’s way at Epsom. He wasn’t quickly away and he was squeezed out of it early, and he had to expend a lot of energy to make ground from stall four up the hill and around the outside of the right-handed kink to lead the field early on. He led to the three-furlong marker before his early exertions took their toll.

That was his first attempt at a mile and a half. Saturday was just his second and, a son of Galileo who is related to stayers, there was always a good chance that he would improve for stepping up in distance.

There is a possibility that the correct explanation is the simplest: that Sovereign was just the best horse in the race on the day, on the ground and at the distance.

Consequently, it may be that he will be underrated when he races next.

He could be a St Leger horse in time but, in the interim, he has myriad options. It will be fascinating to monitor the quality of his performance the next time he races, wherever and whenever that is.

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About the author:

Donn McClean

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