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Sadlers Wells - Coolmore - Jan 2007

Sadler's Wells leads sons Galileo, Montjeu and High Chaparral at Coolmore. He has been the driving force behind Ireland's growing Derby influence.

  PICTURE: Edward Whitaker  


How the Derby has become an Irish affair

WE have heard a lot lately about the concentration of Derby contenders in Irish hands.While it is true the Irish trainers have a stranglehold on this year's likely Epsom line-up, to focus only on the training yards is to ignore a fundamental part of the big picture - breeding. I will argue here that the present Irish dominance of Britain's most famous prize is a natural consequence of a shift in power in breeding and genetics that has taken place over the last 20 years.

Stallion Runners Winners Strike-rate Placed First 3yos
Sadler's Wells 48 2 4.2 11 1989
Montjeu 12 2 16.7 3 2005
Rainbow Quest 9 1 11.1 2 1990
Danehill 8 1 12.5 2 1994
Silver Hawk 7 1 14.3 2 1987
Darshaan 7 0 0 1 1989
Caerleon 6 1 16.7 1 1988
Galileo 6 1 16.7 1 1988
Halling 6 0 0 0 2001
Unfuwain 6 0 0 0 1994
Derby results by geographic spread
Year Rnrs (wnrs) GB Ire USA
2001-2008 122 (8) 36 (2) 67 (5) 16 (1)
1988-2000 210 (13) 80 (3) 51 (6) 71 (4)

Twenty years is a short time in Derby history - which began in 1780 - but thoroughbred breeding has been no exception to the hyperkinetic pace of the last two decades, and three events in particular during this time have been paradigm-shifters where the Derby is concerned.

One was the arrival of the first three-year-olds by Sadler's Wells on the racecourse in 1989. Two, at roughly the same time, was what TDN columnist Bill Oppenheim has called "the big book treatment" pioneered by Coolmore on the likes of Sadler's Wells, Danehill, Royal Academy and Woodman. And third, although much later, was the near instant success of Montjeu and Galileo as Derby stallions, just as their sire, Sadler's Wells, was edging into retirement.

Let's start by looking at the present. There are 20 possibles for next week's Derby, and 16 of them are by Sadler's Wells or one of four of his sons - El Prado, High Chaparral, Montjeu or Galileo. One of the non-Sadler's Wells runners, incidentally, is market leader Sea The Stars, by Cape Cross out of Galileo's dam Urban Sea, tying the genetic knot still tighter.

Fourteen of the horses are trained in Ireland, nine of them by Coolmore's trainer Aidan O'Brien and three by Jim Bolger, who has historic Coolmore connections. All of O'Brien's and Bolger's dozen runners are by Sadler's Wells-line sires, although not every one - such as Fame And Glory, bred in Britain by Ptarmigan Bloodstock and Kirsten Rausing - was bred in Ireland. Nonetheless, the balance of entries weighs in that direction, with 13 Irish-breds, seven British-bredsand one American-bred (by El Prado).

It seems to follow that if most of the entries were bred in Ireland and are progeny of the most successful Derby sire line of recent times, which comes out of Ireland, they would be trained by the leading Irish handlers - especially those with connections to the stud from where the sire line emanates.

The British-Irish-USA balance of where Derby runners were bred, that existed as the 1980s drew to a close, began changingat the same time as Sadler's Wells began his swift rise to prominence. The USA held a strong hand, as North American-based Northern Dancer-line stallions such as Lyphard, Nijinsky, Northern Dancer and Nureyev, and Roberto-line stallions, notably Silver Hawk, sired many of the British and Irish-trained runners of the time.

But taking the somewhat arbitrary cutoff point of the year 2000, we can see how the geographic balance has shifted. From 1988-2000,there were 210 runners and 13 winners of the Derby; British-breds comprised 38 per cent of the runners and 23 per cent of the winners, USA-breds provided 34 per cent of runners and 31 per cent of winners, and Irish-breds made up 24 per cent of runners and 23 per cent of winners and during this time.

Then the Irish-breds turned the numbers in their favour. During the period 2001-2008, there were 122 Derby runners and eight winners; British-breds dropped to 30 per cent of the runners but increased to 25 per cent of the winners while USA-breds fell to just 13 per cent of runners and 13 per cent of winners. Rising impressively to dominance, the Irish-breds comprised a full 55 per cent of the runners and 63 per cent of the winners of the last eight years.

The trend looks likely to continue. The 20 horses remaining in next week's Derby are represented by nine different sires. For comparison, there were 11 sires represented in last year's 16-runner race, 12 in the2007 Derby (17 runners), ten in 2006 (18 runners), and eight sires in 2005 (13 runners).

In contrast, the 14-horse field of 1988 had 14 different sires, while similarly the 12 runners of 1989 had not a ‘repeat' sire among them. Even Sadler's Wells's first crop, which got six Group or Grade 1 winners in all, yielded just one Derby runner - Prince Of Dance, who finished tenth - in 1989.

The ability, perfected by Coolmore, to proliferate the progeny of a promising young sire led to the startlingly quick takeover of the Derby by Montjeu and Galileo, however. The year 2005 was the season of Montjeu's first three-year-olds, when the stallion already had three Derby runners, including the one-two finishers Motivator and Walk In The Park. The following year Montjeu had three runners again. He fielded two the next year - including the victorious Authorized - and he had four unplaced runners in 2008.

In all, Montjeu has had 12 Derby runners, and with two winners, he has been as successful as Sadler's Wells, who leads all sires during the 21-year period with 48 runners. That gives Montjeu, in just four years, more runners and more winners in the Derby than Sadler's Wells's contemporaries Darshaan and Rainbow Quest achieved in 20 years.

There are eight possible contenders by Galileo this year, to add to the six he has had so far. High Chaparral is also in with a shout with two possibles, while Montjeu surprisingly has only two, although they include the favoured Fame And Glory. It looks like the Derby, at its genetic level, has become an Irish affair.




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