1981 – 1990

When winning the 1981 Derby by ten lengths on Shergar, Walter Swinburn had become, at nineteen, the youngest rider to lift the Blue Riband. Suspended for a riding infringement at Royal Ascot, the youngster was replaced by the evergreen Lester Piggott as Shergar went off a prohibitive 1-to-3 to see off eleven rivals, 12-to-1 bar one. The Irish form book synopsis told the story. ‘close up on inside; 3rd ½ way; switched out to ld entr str; qcknd clr 2f. out; eased final furlong.’ Cut Above was second, Dance Bid third; but only ever one winner – Shergar.

Homebred by HH Aga Khan IV at his Sheshoon Stud on the southern edge of the Curragh, Shergar, named after a Himalayan village, was by Great Nephew out of Sharmeen, tracing back to the ‘flying’ Mumtaz Mahal, purchased by HH Aga Khan III back in 1922. Trained in Newmarket by Michael Stoute, Shergar had now won five of his six starts. Following his success in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes Shergar flopped in the St Leger when only fourth to Cut Above and was subsequently retired to stand at his owner’s Ballymany Stud, likewise on the Curragh’s edge.

Shergar’s Timeform rating – 140 – ranked him the best of Irish Sweeps Derby winners to date, inferior only to Sea Bird II, Ribot and Mill Reef. Sadly, his abduction from Ballymany on 8 February, 1983, caused a worldwide sensation that far eclipsed his merits as a racehorse. His only crop of foals included Authaal (USA), successful in the 1986 Irish St Leger.

In February 2008 the Kildare Nationalist carried the headline ‘SHERGAR: 25 YEARS ON’ featuring a first-ever interview with retired stud groom Jim Fitzgerald, abducted at gun point that fateful night with Shergar, a hostage to fortune, his safety the price of his family’s silence. “They told me why they had taken the horse – for the ransom – but I’d no idea who they were. I hadn’t a clue. I think what a dreadful thing it was to happen. I don’t know how we got through the ordeal, because that’s what it was, an ordeal.”

Spencer Freeman, last of the three co-founders of the Irish Hospital Sweepstakes, died on 27 May, 1982, still in harness, aged ninety. Even his promotional genius would have been tested to create public excitement about the 1982 renewal of the Irish Sweeps Derby, dominated as it was by Assert, recent inner of the Prix du Jockey-Club for trainer David O’Brien. Assert carried the colours of Robert Sangster, just as Golden Fleece had done when becoming Vincent O’Brien’s sixth Epsom Derby winner weeks earlier.

Ridden by stable jockey Christy Roche, Assert was sent off odds-on to beat his only conceivable danger, Silver Hawk. That he duly did, the judge giving the winning margin as eight lengths, though Timeform considered his margin over Silver Hawk as more like ten lengths.

Bred in Ireland by Walter Haefner’s Moyglare Stud, Assert came from the first crop of Be My Guest out of Irish Lass, half-sister to Irish Ball (FR), winner of the 1971 Irish Sweeps Derby. Beaten a neck by Kalaglow in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, Assert resumed winning ways in the Benson and Hedges Gold Cup at York, following up with a bloodless success in the Joe McGrath Memorial Stakes at Leopardstown. Rain-softened ground was held responsible for his finishing down the field behind Akiyda in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. Retired to the Windfields Stud, Maryland, Assert failed to add to his stature as a sire. Assert died in Italy in 1995.

David O’Brien’s training career proved as brilliant as it was brief. Between 1981 and his retirement in 1988, aged only thirty-two, David O’Brien won the 1982 Prix du Jockey-Club and Irish Sweeps Derby with Assert, the 1984 Derby with Secreto, the 1985 Irish 2000 Guineas with Triptych (USA) and the 1986 Irish St Leger with Authaal (USA).

Bansha-born Christy Roche was crowned Irish champion apprentice four years running while learning his trade under Rossmore maestro PJ ‘Paddy’ Prendergast, who appointed him stable jockey. Riding successively for Prendergast, David O’Brien, Jim Bolger and Aidan O’Brien, Christy Roche became Irish champion flat jockey on six occasions between 1979 and 1997. He retired in the latter year to commence training a mixed string in Curragh View.

A first-ever clash between the winners of the Derby and the Prix du Jockey-Club made the 1983 Irish Sweeps Derby a true classic championship. Furthermore, the excitement generated reversed a worrying decline in attendance over the last three years. Whereas the wettest spring in years had seen the derby decided on soft ground, the Curragh equivalent would be decided on terrain described as ‘Good to Firm’. Therein lay the key.

Teenoso had clearly revelled in the unseasonably soft ground when winning the Derby by three lengths from Carlingford Castle. Caerleon, Vincent O’Brien’s representative, had won the Prix du Jockey-Club in the fastest time for that race in thirty years, fully 22.4 seconds faster than Teenoso at Epsom. The two Derby winners dominated the market, Caerleon preferred at 5-to-4, with Teenoso at 2-to-1. Carlingford Castle was easy to back, while some support came for Shareef Dancer, recent winner of the King Edward VII Stakes at Royal Ascot and a first Irish Derby mount for Walter Swinburn. Favourite backers were somewhat perturbed to see Caerleon being led, riderless, to the start, albeit by permission of the stewards. Sore withers were the problem, as it subsequently transpired.

Visibly ill at ease on the faster ground, Teenoso kept on gamely to finish a respectful third, but Swinburn had got first run on Shareef Dancer, running out an easy winner form Caerleon. Having won an Irish Derby at his first attempt – as he had on Shergar at Epsom – the winning rider admitted: “I hit the front a bit earlier than I had hoped, but he was going so well that I decided to let him stride on and enjoy himself. In front I had a quick peep back and the joy of seeing nothing to come and do me.”

Bred in Canada by EP Taylor, Shareef Dancer was by Northern Dancer out of the Sir Ivor mare Sweet Alliance, winner of the Kentucky Oaks. As such the smallish offspring had cost his new owner, Sheikh Maktoum al Maktoum $3.3m. as a yearling, thus becoming the most expensive colt ever to race in Britain when entrusted to Michael Stoute.

Having run just five times, winning three, Shareef Dancer became a late withdrawal from his next two objectives, being syndicated in the meantime for a record £24m. The Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe was nominated as his swansong, provided the going should be good or better. So it was, but Shareef Dancer did not take part, leading Timeform to expostulate: ‘Shareef Dancer has become the ultimate absurdity, a racehorse seemingly too valuable to race.’ At his service fee of £150,000 Shareef Dancer made little appeal to commercial breeder, so little that his fee gradually dwindled to £3,500. He did get Possessive Dancer, winner of the Irish and Italian Oaks in 1991, and the resilient Rock Hopper, twice successful in the Hardwicke Stakes. Shareef Dancer was destroyed in May 1999, having broken a leg.

Happily, both Caerleon and Teenoso went on to uphold that Irish Sweeps Derby form. Caerleon benefitted from Shareef Dancer’s withdrawal to win the Benson and Hedges Gold Cup at York, retired subsequently to stand at Coolmore at IR80,000 guineas. Teenoso might have missed the remainder of that season through injury, but repaid connections’ courage in keeping him in training for a third campaign when successful in the Ormonde Stakes at Chester, the Grand Prix de Saint Cloud and the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes. Whereas Teenoso failed to make much impact as a stallion, Caerleon proved outstanding, becoming champion sire in Britain and Ireland in 1988 and 1991.

On Caerleon’s death from a heart attack on 2 February 1998, Vincent O’Brien paid tribute to his former charge. “An exceptional racehorse, he also made his mark as a champion stallion. He was a very good looking horse and I always advise my children to use him as a model against which to assess others. He was undoubtedly a great son of Nijinsky.”

Renamed the Joe McGrath Irish Sweeps Derby in 1984, Ireland’s premier flat race promised to resolve burning questions posed by a sensational Ever Ready Derby. Hitherto unbeaten, El Gran Senor had started odds-on to give trainer Vincent O’Brien a seventh Derby success. Were the 2000 Guineas winner to follow up at Epsom he was sold to an American syndicate for $80m. Robert Sangster and his partners desperately needed such a massive cash injection to compete in the yearling market with the increasing threat to their supremacy posed by the Maktoum brothers of Dubai. By supreme irony El Gran Senor was foiled in a desperate finish by Secreto, trained by David O’Brien,Vincent’s elder son.

These two sons of Northern Dancer were on course to renew rivalry at the Curragh, Robert Sangster declaring: “I have been hurting since 4pm on Derby day and badly want another shot at Secreto.” Darshaan, winner of the Prix du Jockey-Club, was also an intended runner, thus making the Joe McGrath Irish Sweeps Derby the classic championship decider.

Firm ground ruled out Darshaan’s participation, while Secreto was also an absentee, his owner having purportedly sold a half-share in the Derby winner for $20m. Their defection ensured El Gran Senor starting long odds-on to see off seven rivals, headed by Rainbow Quest from England and Dahar from France. They duly finished in that order, El Gran Senor winning somewhat snugly from Rainbow Quest with Dahar five lengths back in third. While El Gran Senor had redeemed himself, to a degree, that $80m bonanza had become history.

Prevented from running again by a mysterious hoof problem, El Gran Senor was retired to his breeder, EP Taylor’s, Windfields Farm, Maryland. Poor fertility – he got only fourteen foals in his first crop – saw El Gran Senor moved to Ashford Stud, Kentucky, where he was limited to a forty-mare book until his retirement in 2000. In the circumstances El Gran Senor did well as a sire, the best of his get to race in Europe being Rodrigo de Triano (USA), winner of the 2000 Guineas and Irish 2000 Guineas in 1992, and the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes winner Belmez. El Gran Senor was destroyed on humane grounds on 18 October 2006.

Sponsored by the Irish Hospital Sweepstakes for the final time, the 1985 Joe McGrath Irish Sweeps Derby – the most valuable since its inception in 1962 – looked to be at the mercy of Slip Anchor, runaway winner at Epsom. His defection, through injury, threw the Irish classic open, Epsom form upheld by Law Society (USA), second, Damister (USA), third and Theatrical, seventh, reportedly unable to cope with Epsom’s celebrated contours. French classic form was ably represented by HH Aga Khan’s unbeaten Prix du Jockey-Club winner, Mouktar. Drying ground saw Law Society (USA) made favourite, narrowly preferred to Mouktar, while both Damister (USA) and Theatrical had their supporters, as did the Triptych (USA), the only filly ever to have won an Irish 2000 Guineas.

After a lengthy delay caused by Mango Express escaping, riderless, from the stalls, being recaptured and ultimately withdrawn, Mouktar attempted to make almost all under Yves Saint-Martin. Scrimmaging in the straight saw Pat Eddery sit and suffer on Law Society (USA) until seizing an opening in the nick of time to collar Theatrical close home to win by half a length, with Damister (USA) back in third.

Law Society (USA), a record sixth Irish Derby winner for Vincent O’Brien, had been bred by William S Farrish III and William S Kilroy. At the Keeneland yearling sales the BBA (Ireland) had outbid Prince Khalid Abdullah to secure the $2.7m colt for Greek shipping magnate Stavros Niarchos, the leading owner in France in 1983 and 1984.

Law Society ran just once more, finishing fourth to Petoski, Oh So Sharp and Rainbow Quest in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes. Retired to Coolmore Stud, Law Society stood at IR60,000 guineas, representing a welcome outcross to the increasingly predominant Northern Dancer bloodline. Unfortunately for those who patronised him, Law Society failed to come up to expectations. Banished to Germany in 1992, he was put down on humane grounds in May 2011.

Sponsored now by American brewing giant Anheuser-Busch, the Budweiser Irish Derby, 1986, once again became the richest race in Europe, its IR£299,800 to the winner comfortably exceeding the Stg£239,260 won by Shahrastani (USA) at Epsom. There Shahrastani (USA) had been adjudged a fortunate winner from the fast-finishing Dancing Brave (USA). In the latter’s absence Shahrastani (USA) started even-money favourite to see off ten rivals, variously quoted from Maskour (USA) at 3-to-1 to Ostensible (USA) at 1,000-to-1.

On ground left perfect by an overnight downpour, which had given way to brilliant sunshine, Ostensible (USA) set out to force the pace for stable companion Bakharoff (USA). Approaching the straight Bonhomie (USA) assumed command, though only on sufferance, stalked all the while by Walter Swinburn on Shahrastani. Once Swinburn gave the office the favourite sped clear to finish eight lengths ahead of Bonhamie (USA), with Bakharoff (USA) a staying third. For the first time since 1967 the home-trained team failed to make the frame.

Bred and raced by HH Aga Khan IV, Shahrastani (USA) was by Nijinsky (CAN), also sire of the 1986 Kentucky Derby winner, Ferdinand. Named after a 12th century Islamic scholar, Shahrastani (USA) thereby became the first Irish Derby winner sired by an Irish Derby winner since Chamier had been responsible for Chamour, the 1960 winner. In his two subsequent starts Shahrastani (USA) gave best each time to Dancing Brave (USA), fourth to that racecourse champion in both the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes and the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. Timeform gave Dancing Brave (USA) a rating of 140, against 135 for Shahrastani (USA), implying that the latter may have been lucky to have beaten the better horse at Epsom and lucky again when becoming a dual Derby winner in his rival’s absence.

Syndicated at £16m., Shahrastani (USA) commenced his second career at the Three Chimneys Stud in Kentucky, followed by a stint at Ballymany – scene of Shergar’s abduction – from 1992. His travels subsequently took Shahrastani (USA) to Japan in 1995, back to Ireland and thence to Leicestershire. Through his daughter Alaiyda he became the grandsire of Alamshar, successful in the 2003 Irish Derby. Shahrastani (USA) ended his days in December 2011.

The sponsor’s commendable efforts to boost the profile of the second Budweiser Irish Derby were frustrated by events. Successive cloudbursts turned the enclosure into a sea of mud. Then, as the feature race runners circled behind the starting stalls, came an unwelcome telephone call, incorporating the dreaded codeword. The caller claimed there was a bomb concealed somewhere in the densely crowded grandstand. The executive had no option but to broadcast an appeal to evacuate the stand. It was ignored. Eventually, after numerous appeals, the summons was heeded, though not before one hapless commentator was heard to say he hoped the call had not been a hoax.

After a 49-minute delay the eight Budweiser Irish Derby contestants were sent on their way, the market defined by Epsom form, where Most Welcome had finished second, Sir Harry Lewis (USA) fourth, Entitled fifth and French challenger Sadjiyd (FR) eighth. Off a slow early pace on rain-softened ground Sir Harry Lewis (USA) got first run to hold Naheez (USA) at bay by three-parts of a length, with Entitled four lengths back in third. Perhaps inevitably, given the circumstances in which it was staged, the 1987 Budweiser Irish Derby was dismissed as a sub-standard classic. The subsequent achievements of the contestants only served to reinforce that view.

Bred by Joseph Allen and Regent Farm, Sir Harry Lewis became the second Irish Derby winner sired by Alleged. He carried the colours of New Yorker Howard Kaskel, who named the colt after his father-in-law. Sir Harry Lewis was a first Irish Derby winner for trainer Barry Hills, then based in Manton, as he was for Dromore, County Down, native John Reid, who proclaimed this winning ride: “My greatest and proudest moment.”

A stud failure when standing in Kentucky, Sir Harry Lewis stood for a while at his owner’s Sugar Maple Stud in New York State before ending his career at the Wood Farm Stud in Shropshire, advertised a s a dual purpose sire. Sir Harry Lewis died in 2009, acknowledged as a successful sire of hurdlers, among them Diamond Harry and Champagne Harry.

While the racing world remained enthralled by the power struggle between the oil-rich Maktoum brothers of Dubai and the home-based Coolmore consortium, The Aga Khan sought to secure his third dual Derby success in seven years with Kahyasi, following his doubles with Shergar in 1981 and Shahrastani (USA) in 1986. Newmarket trainer Michael Stoute had been responsible for that pair, but Kahyasi was in the care of another Newmarket incumbent, the youthful Luca Cumani. County Down native Ray Cochrane rode this hot favourite, bidding to follow up on their Epsom success in this the first Irish Derby to take place on a Sunday.

Kahyasi and Ray Cochrane duly landed the double, though with only a short head to spare over Insan (USA). Many were of the opinion that the verdict could well have gone the other way had Richard Quinn not dropped his whip on the second. Glacial Storm (USA), runner-up at Epsom, took third place. That it had been a rough race was confirmed when Kahyasi returned with blood pouring from a gash below the knee on his near foreleg.

Homebred in Ireland, Kahyasi was by Ile de Bourbon, a son of Nijinsky, exported to Japan in 1987, leaving behind him Kahyasi, Ile de Chypre (International Stakes), Petite Ile (Irish St Leger) and Ile de Nisky (Cumberland Lodge Stakes). Having recovered from his Curragh ordeal Kahyasi reappeared to finish second to Fijar Tango in the Prix Neil, bowing out when sixth to Tony Bin in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. His stud career saw Khayasi stand first at Ballymany, then at Gilltown and latterly in France, where he remained active until his demise in June 2008.

In an effort to broaden the appeal of the Budweiser Irish Derby the Curragh executive introduced a five-day supplementary entry window, though to no avail on this occasion. Nashwan, imperious winner of the 2000 Guineas and the Derby, bestrode the 1989 classic stage like a colossus. Only in Nashwan’s absence from the Curragh did Old Vic, recent easy winner of the Prix du Jockey-Club, harden to odds-on favourite. However, Old Vic’s participation was contingent on going no faster than ‘Good’. The Curragh’s intensive watering programme to this end upset trainers of the other hopefuls.

The emergence overnight of a warble on Old Vic’s back obliged trainer Henry Cecil to place a thick sponge pad under Steve Cauthen’s saddle. The long odds-on favourite was led to the start, riderless, his price hardening all the while. As he had done at Chantilly, Steve Cauthen set out to make all, eventually passing the post four lengths clear of Observation Post, with Ile de Nisky completing an English-trained 1-2-3.

Bred by Bob McCreery at his Stowell Hill Stud in Somerset, Old Vic was from the first crop of Coolmore sire Sadler’s Wells out of Cockade, a full-sister to High Top, winner of the 2000 Guineas in 1972. Bought for 230,000 guineas at the Highflyer Sale on behalf of Sheikh Mohammed al Maktoum and put in training with HenryCecil in Warren Place, Old Vic had won the second of his only two juvenile starts and was now unbeaten in five starts as a three-year-old, having emulated Assert as winner of the French Derby and Irish Derby.

Fast ground, together with a bout of coughing, kept Old Vic off the racecourse for the remainder of the 1989 season, whereas Nashwan went on to win both the Eclipse Stakes and the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes. Nevertheless, official end-of-season ratings put Old Vic and champion miler Zilzal three pounds above Nashwan. As a four-year-old Old Vic ran stable companion to a neck in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes. Retired to his owner’s Dalham Hall Stud, Newmarket, Old Vic failed to make his mark as a flat sire. Transferred to the Sunnyhill Stud, Kildare, as a jumping sire, Old Vic found his metier. The best of his myriad high-class performers included Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Kicking King and a brace of Grand National winners – Comply Or Die and Don’t Push It.

Old Vic succumbed to colic in February 2011, but his name lives on through the Old Vic gallop on the Curragh, financed by Sheikh Mohammed’s generous donation of his portion of the 1989 Budweiser Irish Derby prize money - £366,500 – to the Curragh Committee.

Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum, ruler of Dubai, enjoyed his first success on the British Turf when Hatta scored at Brighton in June 1977. Just eight years later he headed the owners’ table with 71 runners winning 118 races. Over the next decade Sheik Mohammed was deposed only twice, each time by his brother Hamdan al-Maktoum. During the early 1990s Sheik Mohammed consistently fielded over 200 individual runners each season, rewarded with 185 wins in 1992. The British racing scene had never experienced such horsepower.

Sir Henry Richard Amherst Cecil, a twin, was born on 11 January, 1943, just days after his father had been killed in action in the North Africa campaign. His mother’s subsequent remarriage to champion trainer Sir Cecil Boyd-Rochfort saw Henry become assistant trainer and then successor on his step-father’s retirement in 1968. Henry became champion trainer for the first time in 1976, moving into Warren Place following his father-in-law, Noel Murless’s, retirement at the end of that season. Up to 1989 Henry Cecil had headed the trainers’ table in Britain on eight occasions.

Teenage phenomenon Steve Cauthen had won the American Triple Crown on Affirmed in 1978 before accepting Robert Sangster’s invitation to prove himself in Britain, where the weight scale should prove more manageable. An instant success, the likable ‘Kentucky Kid’ went on to become the first American crowned champion jockey in Britain since Danny Maker in 1913 when taking those honours for the first time in 1984. Further titles in 1985 and 1987 and ten English classics preceded his retirement in 1992.

The five-day supplementary system allowed connections of Deploy, Quest For Fame and Salsabil to bid for Budweiser Irish Derby glory, albeit at a cost - £60,000 apiece, equivalent to third prize money. As Quest For Fame had recently won the Derby and Salsabil the Oaks their late inclusion undoubtedly boosted the prestige and popular appeal of Ireland’s flagship flat race, even if not everyone welcomed their intervention. Among the most vocally disgruntled was Robert Sangster, whose Blue Stage – entered from the beginning – had finished second to Quest For Fame at Epsom. His chance of compensation seemed to have vanished with the inclusion of Quest For Fame and his pacemaker Deploy.

Predictably, Quest For Fame and Pat Eddery went off a short-priced favourite, with Salsabil next in demand, although no filly had won the Irish Derby since Gallinaria back in 1900. In the filly’s favour was her in-form jockey. Only the previous day Willie Carson had ridden six of the seven winners at Newcastle, highlighted by the Northumberland Plate on Al Maheb. He had thus emulated Gordon Richards and Alec Russell, the only riders to have achieved that feat on a single card.

Willie Carson’s winning streak held good, Salsabil coming home a comfortable winner form Deploy with Belmez (USA) running on late to take third place, just ahead of Blue Stag. Quest For Fame – three lengths clear of Blue Stag at Epsom – could finish only fifth, thereby depriving owner Khalid Abdullah, first-season trainer Roger Charlton and rider Pat Eddery of a Derby treble, having scored at Chantilly with Sanglamore. Subsequent X-rays revealed that the favourite had an inflamed sesamoid bone in his near foreleg, explaining his frequent changing of legs, as his rider had reported.

Bred at her Kilcarn Stud by Mary O’Kelly, Salsabil was by Sadler’s Wells out of that marvellous mare Flame Of Tara. She had fetched 440,000 guineas as a yearling at Newmarket. Put into training with John Dunlop, Salsabil had started odds-on for her impressive winning debut as a two-year-old, at Nottingham. Narrowly beaten at Newbury, Salsabil made amends in the Prix Marcel Boussac at Longchamp. A winning reappearance in the Fred Darling Stakes at Newbury preceded classic triumphs in the 1000 Guineas and Oaks.

Fears of unsuitably firm ground saw Salsabil withdrawn from the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, in which Belmez beat his stable companion Old Vic by a neck. Having won the Prix Vermeille by a neck from Miss Alleged, Salsabil bowed out on finishing down the field behind Saumarez in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. She retired to the Shadwell Stud as the winner of seven of he nine career starts, including three classics. Salsabil went on to breed five foals, four of them winners, notably Rockfel Stakes winner Bint Salsabil, before dying from cancer in 1996. She is commemorated by the Salsabil Stakes, run at Navan.

Salsabil’s Irish Derby success enabled Sheikh Hamdan al-Maktoum to emulate his brothers in winning Ireland’s greatest flat race. Sheikh Maktoum, the eldest, had led the way with Shareef Dancer in 1983, followed by Sheikh Mohammed with Old Vic in 1989. That was to prove but the beginning. Educated at Cambridge, Sheikh Hamdan al-Maktoum went on to become Finance minister of the United Arab Emirates. While his racing and breeding empire encompassed England, Ireland, France, Australia, USA and UAE, racecourse success in these islands saw him top the English owners’ tables in 1990, 1995, 2002, 2005 and 2014.