For whatever reason the Irish Derby – a third attempt to establish such an event – was run over one mile six furlongs from its inauguration in 1866 until 1871. Reduced in distance from 1872 to equate to its Epsom model – in that respect anyway – the Irish Derby conditions continued to incorporate an array of penalties and allowances right up to 1945. These produced winners weighted from Sylph (7st 12lb in 1883) to 9st 8lb carried successfully by Orby (1907), Aviator (1910) and Spike Island (1922).
The oldest Irish classic also differed dramatically from its Epsom model in value. Whereas Lord Lyon (1866) netted his owner £7,350, James Cockin’s reward for Selim’s success in the inaugural Irish Derby amounted to £421. Half a century later that gap had narrowed somewhat. Orby, the first Irish-trained Epsom Derby winner, enriched owner Richard ‘Boss’ Croker by £6,450. Croker’s insistence that his Epsom hero take part in the Irish Derby saw inevitable – if ultimately injurious – success rewarded to the tune of £783.
In monetary terms the Epsom and Curragh classics came closest to parity in 1921. Humorist’s success in the former was worth £6,450, with Ballyheron’s owners rewarded to the tune of £4,935 through his Irish Derby triumph. Inevitably, the marked increase in prize money for the Irish Derby attracted English-trained raiders, resulting in Ireland’s premier classic becoming virtually monopolised by English runners from 1922 to 1936. That sequence, interrupted only twice, included the only two dead heats in Irish Derby history. Moreover, on both occasions English runners divided the spoils, Haine and Zodiac in 1924, followed by Patriot King and Primero a decade later.
Whereas National Hunt challengers – bred, owned, trained and ridden by Irishmen – had long since established their credentials by Grand National success throughout the Victorian era, Irish flat racing was considered greatly inferior. Success at the highest level for Irish-bred flat racers, while not unknown, was sufficiently rare to be considered anomalous. The first chink in the hitherto impregnable English armour was prised open by Birdcatcher. Foaled in 1833 and commonly referred to as ‘Irish Birdcatcher’ to emphasise his ‘bar sinister’, Birdcatcher, champion sire in 1852 and 1856, founded a sire line perpetuated by his St Leger-winning son The Baron, in turn sire of Stockwell, the ‘Emperor of Stallions’.
Stockwell, successful in the 1852 Two Thousand Guineas and St Leger was considered unlucky not to have added the Derby as well. In the event he finished down the field behind Daniel O’Rourke, a son of Birdcatcher. Seven times champion sire between 1860 and 1867, Stockwell was responsible for three Derby winners – Blair Athol, Lord Lyon and Doncaster. The last-named headed home a Derby one-two-three for Stockwell in 1866. Blair Athol perpetuated the Birdcatcher sire line, topping the table four times between 1872 and 1877.
Limerick owner-breeder John Gubbins struck the next blow for Irish flat stock with his Bruree Stud-born and reared Galtee More, Triple Crown victor in1897. Purists who dismissed Galtee More as a fluke-bred son of the useless Morganette suffered a further setback when Ard Patrick followed in his half-brother’s footsteps, successful in the 1902 Derby, thereby denying Sceptre a clean sweep of that year’s classics. While excuses were found for Sceptre on that occasion, Ard Patrick proceeded to demonstrate his superiority when beating her once again in the 1903 Eclipse Stakes. That both Galtee More and Ard Patrick were trained in England, by Sam Darling, master of Beckhampton, softened the blow.
This rising tide of Irish flat racing success hit flood level in that very same year,1904, through the exploits of a daughter of Curragh-based sire Gallinule. Undefeated in nine starts as a two-year-old and already Sceptre’s rival as the darling of public affection. Pretty Polly went on to win the fillies’ Triple Crown, meeting her only defeat in France in heavy ground. Kept in training for a further two seasons, Pretty Polly retired to Eyrefield Stud – her birthplace – winner of 22 of her 24 starts. Gallinule, twice leading sire in Britain, gained further classic distinction through his sons Slieve Gallion, Wildfowler and Night Hawk. The first-named won the 1907 Two Thousand Guineas, but failed as favourite in Orby’s Derby. Wildfowler won the St Leger in 1898, as did Night Hawk in 1913, each for his owner-breeder, the former for Captain Henry Greer and the latter for William Hall Walker.
For all their swelling success at the highest level, these Irish-bred ‘interlopers’ were all trained in England, as indeed they were fortunate to be, Irish flat racing being considered so greatly inferior. In point of fact, two-year-old racing in Ireland in Victorian times was quite possibly on or near par with that across the Irish Sea. The difference lay in the philosophy of owner-breeders in both countries. Whereas English owner-breeders bred to race, their necessarily more commercial Irish counterparts bred and raced to sell on.
Irish prize money reflected that difference. When Selim won the inaugural Irish Derby and with it £400 in 1866, the Railway Stakes for two-year-olds was worth half as much again. Throughout the latter years of the 19th century the Railway Stakes, National Produce Stakes and Anglesea Stakes, all juvenile Curragh contests, dominated Irish prize money tables, the winners more often than not sold on at the end of their two-year-old campaigns. The advent of the Phoenix Plate in 1902 ensured that juvenile prizes predominated. Inevitably, this trend – nay, tradition – perpetuated the imbalance between three-year-old rankings in both countries.
That perceived gulf was expressed in no uncertain terms apropos Orby’s participation in the 1907 Derby. William Allison of The Sportsman summed up the prevailing attitude. ‘The turf in Ireland has no spring in it, the climate is too depressing, and no Irish trainer knows enough to even dare to compete for the greatest race in the world.’
That suddenly shattered English superiority complex was counter-pointed by an ingrained sense of inferiority in Ireland, as Colonel McCabe, Croker’s racing manager, recorded in the aftermath of Orby’s triumphal return, marked by bonfires in the streets of Dublin and a preceding brass band. McCabe was accosted by an elderly woman: “Thank God and you, Sir, that we have lived to see a Catholic horse win the Derby!”