The Curragh was Harzand’s backyard and he defied the doubters to claim a historic Irish Derby triumph for Dermot Weld in 2016, writes Tom Harle.
Losing a shoe hours before the Epsom Derby couldn’t stop him, many doubted his speed and his ability to fend off Aidan O’Brien’s Idaho for the second Classic in a row.
But the 2016 Derby produced one of the most enthralling finishes of recent years and Pat Smullen got that extra little something out of Harzand to claim a landmark victory.
Sired by Sea the Stars, winner of the 2000 Guineas, Epsom Derby and Arc in 1999, Weld schooled Harzand at Rosewell House in the hope he’d tread that turf as a champion one day.
He rubbed up against Idaho more or less from the start as the pair clashed as colts in the Group Three Ballysax Stakes at Leopardstown in 2015.
Harzand blasted past Idaho around 100m from the finish and with Smullen on board, the pattern for a career was set
Disaster struck on Epsom Derby day when he spread a plate after landing in England, heralding a panicked day of treatment and patching up in the Weld camp.
But he made the gate and the drama ended there. The field was led out by Port Douglas and then Idaho, who made his move coming out of Tattenham Corner.
Smullen knew how to push Harzand’s buttons and took him up a gear at the two-furlong mark, slipping past Idaho but with US Army Ranger still right on his tail.
Harzand responded and victory was his, by a length and a half.
“I couldn’t believe that my horse dug in again and found another gear,” said Smullen. “If we didn’t find that gear we were beat, so it just shows the quality of the horse.”
It was Weld’s first Epsom Derby victory, a dream day, but thoughts of a Derby double three weeks later were never far from his mind.
Idaho, Red Verdon, Port Douglas and Shogun came back to have a pop at Harzand, who went from hunter to hunted in a matter of days and had plenty to lose in the Curragh showpiece.
Sent off 4/6 favourite, Smullen repeated the Epsom trick by settling him in third and moving up on the outside, this time slightly early at the two-and-a-half furlong mark
Lo and behold it came down to Idaho and Harzand once again, the pair going blow for blow down the straight and neither Smullen nor Ryan Moore daring to breathe should the other hear
Harzand held on, winning it by just half a length and cementing his status as the undisputed middle-distance king of 2016. Idaho must have been sick of the sight of him
“The exciting thing about this race was the battle,” said Weld. “Both of those horses quickened and picked up brilliantly and both jockeys tried to save that little bit for the final challenge.”
That’s the beauty of the Irish Derby - the joy is in the winning as much as the win. That was certainly true four years ago.