Taranaki three-year-old Irish Flame kept his Group 1 New Zealand Derby (2400m) hopes alive with a win at Trentham on Saturday, despite showing the after-effects of a rough last-start run at Riccarton.
Trainer John Wheeler took the son of Zed south for the Group 1 New Zealand 2000 Guineas (1600m), but he had no luck in the classic, finishing seventh behind Embellish after being hampered in the early stages and then forced wide rounding the home turn.
“He got smashed in the Guineas at Riccarton so I gave him a few weeks off,” Wheeler said. “You could see he was a bit field-shy even today. He was the one that suffered just about as much as anything down there.”
Ridden by Dylan Turner, Irish Flame settled last in Saturday’s New World Island Bay Handicap (1200m) and lugged away from other runners rounding the home turn.
He was standing the leaders up a good start early in the home straight, but unwound strongly down the outside to grab the lead and then withstand the finish of the Allan Sharrock-trained Valentia.
The performance was an overdue return to the winner’s list for Irish Flame, whose previous win had been second-up as a two-year-old last season when claiming the Group 3 Phoenix Park 2YO Classic (1200m) at New Plymouth.
He had two further juvenile starts and was put aside after being unplaced in the Group 1 Manawatu Sires’ Produce Stakes (1400m) at Awapuni last April.
Fresh-up this season he finished third in the Listed El Roca – Sir Colin Meads Trophy (1200m) at Hastings and was unplaced in both the Group 2 Hawke’s Bay Guineas (1400m) and Group 2 James & Annie Sarten Memorial (1400m) at Te Rapa before heading to Riccarton.
“He’s got a bit of quality and he’s better over more ground,” Wheeler said. “We’re aiming him at the Derby. This is a long way from the Derby and really it was a trial for him. I’ll give him another run and see where we’re going after that.”
For Turner, it was a case of switching from the original orders with Irish Flame after he got back in the early stages.
“The instructions were to go forward and let him relax, but he was back last,” Turner said. “He’s got a future.”