BC Internationals: Turf contender Cliffs of Moher

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October 30th, 2017

Cliffs of Moher has gone the wrong way since his near-miss in the Derby (G1) at Epsom. While it’s easy to write him off at least until next season (if not for good), a capable defense attorney can argue that circumstances have been conspiring against the Aidan O’Brien trainee, and the Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1) may present him with his first fair shake since Epsom.

By the all-conquering Galileo and out of the Dansili mare Wave, the bay hails from the deep family of Henrythenavigator and 2013 Turf hero Magician.

Cliffs of Moher wasn’t seen until October of his juvenile season, but after a fifth on debut at Cork, he wheeled back two weeks later to crush a Leopardstown maiden in front-running fashion. He upstaged favored stablemate Orderofthegarter, who’d previously been runner-up to War Decree.

Resuming in the 10 1/2-furlong Dee S. at Chester on May 12, Cliffs of Moher justified 4-5 favoritism and boosted his profile for Epsom.

Cliffs of Moher became a Derby buzz horse in earnest when Ryan Moore decided to stick with him over the rest of the Ballydoyle brigade. Unlike his stalking style at Chester, he was reserved far back in this first try at 1 1/2 miles, ridden as if stamina were a question and thereby giving him every chance to get the trip. Moore appeared to have timed his run to perfection as he collared Cracksman and Eminent in deep stretch. Then his 40-1 stablemate Wings of Eagles came from nowhere to mug him in the shadow of the post.

Since that tough beat, Cliffs of Moher has been kept to the vicinity of 1 1/4 miles. He was dispatched as the 7-4 favorite in the Eclipse (G1) at Sandown, only to get all but eliminated early on. Cliffs of Moher was innocently tucked on the rail when his own pacemaker, Taj Mahal, crossed over abruptly, interfered with Decorated Knight, and in the domino effect Cliffs of Moher appeared to get slammed into the rail and checked hard. Fortunate not to come down, he regrouped somewhat to take fourth behind Ulysses.

Surely Cliffs of Moher would get a chance at revenge next time in the Juddmonte International (G1), especially as the potentially controlling speed in a race lacking an obvious pacesetter. He was indeed allowed to use his early foot, only a too-aggressive Barney Roy pestered him, and they set the table for Ulysses. Given that older foe’s rate of progress this campaign, he probably would have won regardless of tactics. But Cliffs of Moher may have been better than a weakening fourth if it hadn’t been for the unexpectedly rigorous exertion of being up front.

Cliffs of Moher was reserved off the pace in the Irish Champion (G1), but found trouble on the inside. Like stablemate Churchill, he didn’t get much daylight in an inconclusive sixth.

Adopting the “try and try again” philosophy, Cliffs of Moher contested the Champion (G1) at Ascot, where the ground may have been the culprit in his remote seventh. He was alongside eventual runner-up Poet’s Word in the early stages, but couldn’t lift in tandem and trudged home 15 lengths behind the imperious Cracksman. Cliffs of Moher wasn’t the only one who struggled in the conditions, as dual French classic winner and Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (G1) fifth Brametot shaded him across the line in sixth, and old foe Barney Roy was an even worse ninth.

Cliffs of Moher’s post-Epsom campaign can be summarized as the curious case of the Derby placer who didn’t go on to uphold the form. The others in close proximity to him all did, to varying degrees. Wings of Eagles was a positively heroic third, in the course of sustaining a career-ending injury, in the Irish Derby (G1), won by Epsom sixth Capri (who’s since taken the St Leger [G1]). Epsom fourth Eminent eventually romped in the Prix Guillaume d’Ornano (G2) and finished third in the Irish Champion. And Epsom third Cracksman is the poster boy for his amazing progress in the second half, to the extent that he’s now seen as a match for his Arc-winning stablemate Enable.

So why hasn’t Cliffs of Moher had his day in the sun? At first I feared that the Eclipse may have left a mental scar on him, but a closer look suggests he just hasn’t had the stars align for him in his losing streak. He’d need to put up an even better performance than he did in the Derby to turn the tables on Ulysses, or defy defending champion Highland Reel, yet it wouldn’t be a surprise if he turns in his best effort since Epsom.

Photo courtesy Chester Racecourse via Twitter