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Harzand overcomes injury scare to land Derby

4 Jun 2016

Dermot Weld admits winner was "long odds on" to miss the race after setback hours before

Smullen cannot believe he has won the Derby after guiding Harzand home. Picture courtesy of Racingfotos.com

Dermot Weld has pushed the boundaries throughout his decorated career with pioneering wins all over the world. The Derby had always eluded him, though, and at midday today winning the great race seemed to be further away than ever as his latest challenger, Harzand, had only three feet in good working order.

The fourth was bloodied, sore and stood in a bucket of ice; a consequence of the colt pulling off a shoe on his journey from Ireland to England. Word got out that it was 60-40 that Harzand would be able to run but, privately, Weld was resigned to withdrawing him. “He was long odds on against running,” he conceded later.

His Highness the Aga Khan, the owner of Harzand, was due to leave at 2.20pm to arrive in time for the showpiece just over two hours later. Kept abreast of what was happening, the 79-year-old didn’t fancy turning up at the heaving Downs to merely give his horse a pat before waving him back onto a plane and so, in footballing terms, a “late fitness test” was agreed.

That took place at 1.55pm, when everybody else was focused on the first race on the card. Weld and his team took a deep breath and the fourth shoe was delicately tacked on by Jim Reilly, a farrier for rival trainer Jim Bolger.

Harzand was invited to jog and showed no discomfort. It was a case of so far, so good, but if the good-natured horse thought the cold water treatment was over he was mistaken. Weld, calling on all 44 years of his training experience, put the troubled foot back in a bucket of ice for two more hours and stayed at his side throughout as the supporting races were being played out. Nobody said winning a Derby was ever going to be easy.

His participation remained in doubt right up until the stalls opened because Weld had instructed Pat Smullen to pull him out if he wasn’t happy with the way the son of Sea Of Stars cantered to post. “The final decision was Pat’s,” Weld said.

The race itself was relatively plain sailing. Harzand, relishing the soft surface and heavily backed throughout the day, was never worse than mid-division behind an honest pace and was seventh of the 16 runners swinging around Tattenham Corner. As the leaders began to tire, Smullen picked off those in front of him one by one and a furlong from home he was in front.

There was one more challenge to overcome and it was a formidable one, with Ryan Moore attacking on the outside on the Aidan O’Brien-trained favourite, US Army Ranger. The combination got to within half a length of Harzand but US Army Ranger was hanging left down the camber and then stopped gaining.

Harzand, returned at 13-2, was going away again at the finish and crossed the line a length and a half clear. Idaho, another O’Brien runner, was a further length and a quarter back.

History had repeated itself. Sea The Stars, sire of Harzand, won his Derby in 2009 at the expense of an O’Brien-trained favourite (Fame And Glory) and, on that occasion, another Ballydoyle runner was also third. The time was the slowest since Teenoso’s win under Lester Piggott in 1983 – an indicator of how testing the Surrey soil was.

Three supplemented horses – Wings Of Desire, Humphrey Bogart and Red Verdon – were next home today but were well held.

“It’s very special to win this race,” Weld said. “I think I’ve had 23 Classic winners in Europe, but I’ve always obviously wanted to win this race.

“I’ve possibly never had a horse good enough to do it but today was the day. He’s a lovely balanced colt and he’s progressive. I just thought when he worked the other day at the Curragh that he was progressing and he just showed a bit more pace. I then thought he would represent us very well.

“He has improved since Leopardstown because of his breeding. He’s a late maturing horse. As often happens, these staying three-year-olds start to come into themselves at this time of year. Once they start improving, they keep improving.”

Reflecting on the events building up to the race, he said: “He was pretty unlikely to run after what happened. The final test was Pat’s call. I told him that if he wasn’t happy with him at the start then he should just pull him out. I watched him go down on the big screen with Pat and he trotted down sound. So here we are – such is life.

“I suppose not winning the Derby has been nagging away at me for a bit. It was the one race I needed to win. Quite often, though, you don’t have a good enough horse to run in the race, let alone win it. You have to make every opportunity count when you do.”

Weld had earned a soothing tipple last night. With ice, naturally.