Ballydoyle, home to champion and world record-breaking trainer Aidan O'Brien, was the fitting venue for the launch of the new Irish Flat season today.
The 2018 season kicks off at Naas on Sunday with the €100,000 Tote Irish Lincolnshire and €77,500 Group 3 Lodge Park Stud EBF Park Stakes the richest races on a seven-race card that also includes the €50,000 Woodlands 100 Club Madrid Handicap.
Ireland’s champion trainer for the first time in 1997, O’Brien has won the crown every year since 1999 and rewrote the record books in a whirlwind 2017 season which saw him comfortably better Bobby Frankel’s 2003 record of 25 Group/Grade 1 winners in a calendar year.
Saxon Warrior landed the Racing Post Trophy at Doncaster to beat Frankel’s record and O’Brien then went on to win with Mendelssohn in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf at Del Mar in early November before Highland Reel headed into retirement with victory in the Hong Kong Vase at Sha Tin the following month.
O’Brien sent out Group/Grade 1 winners in Ireland, England, France, America and Hong Kong as he set a new mark of 28 and no doubt Ireland’s newest Group 1, the Derrinstown Stud Flying Five Stakes at the Curragh on Longines Irish Champions Weekend in September, will be an end of season target for the Ballydoyle maestro. It will be the first Group 1 sprint for older horses in Ireland and a sixth Group 1 race for Longines Irish Champions Weekend.
The Flying Five sits perfectly within the European calendar between the Nunthorpe at York and the Prix de l’Abbaye at Longchamp and will be just the fourth Group 1 sprint over five furlongs in Europe. Its prizemoney will be increased from €300,000 to €350,000 for 2018. O’Brien won the race when it was a Group 3 with Ishiguru at Leopardstown in 2001 and again last year, as a Group 2, with Caravaggio.
Further enhancements to the Irish Pattern and Listed programme for the 2018 Flat season have been confirmed. As well as the addition of a sixth Group 1 race to the two-day programme, Longines Irish Champions Weekend will also see further significant enhancements with the promotion of the Willis Tower Watson Champions Juvenile Turf at Leopardstown from Group 3 to 2 status and the conversion of the Leopardstown two-years-old fillies’ maiden into a two-years-old winners’ Listed race for fillies.
In addition, there will be further improvements to the Irish staying race programme. The Stanerra Stakes, to be run over 14 furlongs at Leopardstown on July 12, will be upgraded to Group 3 as part of an on-going European project to improve the programme of black type staying races for fillies and mares. Furthermore, there will be a new Listed race for four-years-old and up fillies and mares over 14 furlongs at Gowran Park on May 9. The programme for younger stayers has also been enhanced with a new three-years-old only Listed race over 14 furlongs at Leopardstown on July 26.
The fourth new Irish Listed race to be added for 2018 will be a 5½f sprint for three-years-old only fillies to be run on May 7 at Naas, the first such race (Listed sprint restricted to 3yo fillies) to be run in Europe. Other changes approved by the European Pattern Committee for 2018 see a change in distance for the 2,000 Guineas Trial (Listed) at Leopardstown on April 14 from eight furlongs to seven furlongs.
Total prize-money of €597,000 is on offer for the Foran Equine Irish EBF Auction Series which is now in its fourth year. In 2018, the series for two-year-olds will comprise of 23 races across 15 racecourses with the €120,000 final to be again held at Naas Racecourse in October. Each of the 22 qualifying races will have a minimum prize-fund of €20,000 as well as the added benefit of being Plus 10 registered, whereby qualified winners will be eligible for a bonus of €12,500 under the Plus 10 Scheme. The first race will take place at the Curragh racecourse on Friday, May 11.
The Foran Equine Irish EBF Auction Series is designed to create wide-scale opportunities for horses purchased as a yearling or a two-year-old at public auction for €72,000 or less, with allowances for fillies and horses purchased at a lower auction price. The final is open to horses which have run in one of the qualifying races and which are EBF eligible. Last year, 17 different trainers won a race in the series.
Brian Kavanagh, CEO of Horse Racing Ireland, said: “Irish trainers, jockeys, owners and breeders enjoyed a hugely successful Flat season last year both at home and internationally and we have so much to look forward to when the new Flat season begins at Naas on Sunday. Aidan O'Brien brought the sport of horse racing to a wider audience with his phenomenal achievement of 28 Group and Grade 1 winners around the globe in 2017, setting a new world record. Between that feat, and that of Irish trainers taking the first three places in the Melbourne Cup on a famous day in November, it was an unforgettable Flat season which has whetted the appetite for what’s to come from Sunday at Naas, right through the summer months.”