Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 19 April 2014

Zoffany is just too Strong for Suit

Zoff and running: Johnny Murtagh celebrates after riding Zoffany to victory in the Group One Keeneland Phoenix Stakes at the Curragh yesterday

Do not adjust your sets. That really was Richard Hughes jumping out Strong Suit to make the running in the big race at the Curragh yesterday, only to find himself a sitting duck for Zoffany's impressive late dash.

Perhaps now his father-in-law and employer, Richard Hannon, will decide that it is preferable to risk cardiac arrest — the fate he humorously envisages after watching Hughes produce his horses only in the final strides — than a broken heart.

Strong Suit, of course, only lost a horserace. The black news about an injury to Harbinger the previous day should serve as sufficient proof to anyone inclined to fret about Strong Suit's prospects in next year's 2,000 Guineas. For what it may be worth, Zoffany has now supplanted him as favourite. But let's concentrate first on the here and now, and a Group One race in its own right, in the Keeneland Phoenix Stakes.

In a field reduced to seven, Hughes might well have been wary of a false pace. Or perhaps Hannon had been so traumatised by Strong Suit's last-gasp escape at Royal Ascot that he insisted Hughes should for once break cover. All things being equal, Hughes certainly seemed to control the pace to his mount's advantage, conserving enough energy to get all but one of his pursuers off the bridle 300 yards out. What's more, the one exception was himself discovering the hazards invited by the sort of audacious tactics usually associated with Hughes. Restrained in last early, Zoffany was twice forced to wait as Johnny Murtagh — who rode a treble yesterday for Aidan O’Brien — switched him along the stands rail.

Instead it was Glor Na Mara, fast-tracked here on only his second start by Jim Bolger, who first forced Hughes to reach for the whip, and it was only in the dying moments that Zoffany appeared between them to get up by half a length. In the end Strong Suit could not even hang on to second, Glor Na Mara shading the 4-9 favourite by a short head, followed by five lengths of daylight. Perhaps he had become lonely in front. Regardless, Hughes will not need telling that Murtagh had produced just the sort of ride that has become his own, cherished copyright.

Even by the familiar standards established by his trainer, O'Brien, it is still extraordinary to record that Zoffany was the 11th Ballydoyle winner in 13 runnings of this race. O'Brien suggested the National Stakes, back here over a seventh furlong next month, as a likely target for Zoffany, whose sole defeat came behind Strong Suit in the Coventry Stakes. After that O'Brien had dropped Zoffany in class and raised him in trip, and the dividends were palpable restored to six furlongs here.

“He went to Ascot as a baby, and it all happened a bit too fast for him,” O'Brien explained. “His two races since have taught him a lot. We stepped him up in trip, so things would happen a bit slower. The plan was to get him relaxed, and Johnny was very cool on him. The horse is getting heavier all the time, he's a lot stronger and more mature now. As long as he keeps putting on weight, we'll keep going with him.”

Fame And Glory remains as short as 9-4 for the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe after his winning return from a break in the Group Two Keeneland Royal Whip Stakes earlier on the Curragh card. O'Brien said that Fame And Glory would now go for either the Irish Champion Stakes at Leopardstown or the Prix Foy at Longchamp.

David Nicholls’ Regal Parade, ridden by son Adrian, won the Group One Prix Maurice de Gheest at Deauville yesterday.

Meanwhile, several previous course winners, headed by the versatile Beau Michael, return to Ballinrobe this evening for an interesting mixed session as the promoters continue to consider a plan to make the popular Mayo venue jumping-only in the future.

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