Johnny Murtagh secured the first Classic of his training career when Sonnboyliston brought Irish Champions Weekend to a memorable conclusion at the Curragh on Sunday.
Since 1983, when the Comer Group Irish St Leger was opened to older horses, purists have been quibbling with its ‘Classic’ tag.
Such considerations were irrelevant to Murtagh and jockey Ben Coen though after their four-year-old jumped from handicap success in last month’s Ebor to win at the highest level in the €500,000 feature.
The 4-1 winner proved three parts of a length too good for the Melbourne Cup winner Twilight Payment, whose stable companion Baron Samedi filled the frame in third.
The first three are all geldings, a status not allowed compete in Classics confined to three-year-olds.
However, on a programme that had earlier seen the blue-blooded pair of Native Trail and Discoveries advertise their 2022 Classic claims, Sonnyboyliston’s down to earth virtues of grit and determination proved hugely popular with Sunday’s attendance.
Classic success peppered Murtagh’s stellar riding career, including in 2011 when he partnered Jukebox Jury to an Irish Leger dead-heat.
His hopes of an English Leger success with Ottoman Emperor on Saturday fizzled out but his stable companion took his Classic cue perfectly.
“A first Classic, especially here on our home track at the Curragh, is a special feeling,” said the 51-year-old who was also centrally involved in the preparation of the 2012 Irish Leger hero Royal Diamond.
“On Friday I was bullish about the weekend and then after yesterday’s runners, I came here thinking we had a little chance.
“He was one of our best runners of the week. He never disappoints and I thought he did very well to win today. It looked like a proper race,” Murtagh added.
In contrasts it was all new for Coen who turns 20 this Thursday and has enjoyed a notable first season as Murtagh’s No 1 jockey with wins at Royal Ascot and Glorious Goodwood.
“It’s my first proper year as No 1 to Johnny and we’ve had a good few spins in England but I really wanted to get this Group One winner. For it to be a Classic, and for Johnny, is unbelievable,” Coen said.
The Leger was the sixth and final Group One of the eighth Champions Weekend that saw the first significant sized crowds at Irish racecourses in 18 months.
On the back of a Leopardstown hat-trick on Saturday, including Matron Stakes glory with No Speak Alexander, Jessica Harrington and Shane Foley struck at Group One level again as Discoveries lived up to her luminous pedigree in the Moyglare Stud Stakes.
The sister to Alpha Centauri and Alpine Star overhauled the pace-forcing Agartha to win at 17-2.
“How lucky am I to have three fillies out of the one mare to have Group Ones’s?” Harrington beamed.
“She is completely different to Alpha Centauri who was a big grey filly. This filly is not as big but she has done a lot of growing. She has a lovely temperament and is not as feisty as Alpha.
“Alpine Star looked completely different again. She was long and low and not very big, she added.
Chris Hayes was also blessing his good fortune after Romantic Proposal sprang a 16-1 surprise in the Flying Five Stakes.
“To say I gave it a bad ride the last day would be an understatement!” the jockey joked after Eddie Lynam’s mare burst through to beat A Case Of You by half a length.
Lynam’s splendid record with sprinters has long earned him the sobriquet ‘Fast Eddie’ but this was a first Group One in six years and perhaps due reward for forgiveness.
“I was asked if Chris could have been jockey off for the ride the last day. But they put rubbers on pencils because everyone makes mistakes,” Lynam pointed out.
The sole overseas winner of the weekend came from a familiar source as Charlie Appleby’s Godolphin team landed the Goffs National Stakes for a third time in four years.
Native Trail was a decisive winner over the odds-on favourite Point Lonsdale under William Buck to earn 5-1 quotes for next year’s 2,000 Guineas.
“He’s an interesting horse, like a lot of the good ones, when you get to know their characteristics,” Appleby said. “We changed some equipment on him and put on a cross noseband to make him concentrate as he was messing around.”