Donn's Articles » Irish Champion Stakes

Irish Champion Stakes

You can divide the history of the Red Mills Irish Champion Stakes into eras. The decade after its inauguration in 1976 was the Vincent O’Brien Era, when the original Master of Ballydoyle won four renewals on the spin, five of the first nine, and his son David landed the 1982 version, quite appropriately, with a horse called Assert.

Then the raiders came and the Foreign Era began. When the top class filly Park Express won the race in 1986, we didn’t know it at the time, but an indigenous horse wouldn’t win the race again for another decade. Henry Cecil and Dick Hern and John Gosden and Michael Stoute came from Britain, Patrick Biancone and John Hammond came from France, and they all went home with the Irish Champion Stakes booty.

St Jovite got to within a nostril’s width of beating Dr Devious in the 1992 renewal but, that performance from Jim Bolger’s outstanding colt aside, the level of foreign dominance of the event was quite startling during that decade. The first three or four places were regularly filled by foreign raiders and, when Cezanne won the race for a new operation called Godolphin in 1994, the only Irish-trained horse in the race, Perfect Imposter, finished last of the eight runners.

John Oxx won the first of his three renewals in 1996 with Timarida, and Aidan O’Brien won the first of his seven with Giant’s Causeway in 2000, but they were small Irish islands in what were essentially foreign waters. Three Irish winners in the 16 years that bridged the gap between Sadler’s Wells and High Chaparral was a paltry return.

But there were green shoots. Galileo got to within a head of Fantastic Light in 2001 and Hawk Wing went down by just a short head to Grandera in 2002, so it wasn’t a huge surprise when their trainer Aidan O’Brien finally managed to land his second Irish Champion Stakes with High Chaparral in 2003.

The Sadler’s Wells colt’s victory was the catalyst for the current Irish Era which still endures. The transformation has been staggering, with Irish-trained horses winning every one of the last nine renewals. O’Brien has dominated the race during the last decade, winning it six times and supplying the 1-2-3 in 2007, while John Oxx has won the race twice in that period with Azamour and the peerless Sea The Stars, and Jim Bolger has chipped in with New Approach. In a sense, we have gone full circle.

The current era of Irish dominance could be broken next Saturday evening, however, as one of the strongest raiding parties for years – headed up by Nathaniel and Snow Fairy – is currently being assembled.

In one sense, it is a shame that the race never really featured on Frankel’s radar. It would have been quite special to have seen the best horse in the world race at Leopardstown, on Irish soil, for Irish racegoers to have had the chance to witness Prince Khalid Abdullah’s horse in the flesh, and to have afforded him the welcome to which he would have been entitled.

In another, however, the race is more interesting as a contest because of Frankel’s absence.

Nathaniel is an intriguing intended runner. Beaten just a half a length by Frankel in a Newmarket maiden on his racecourse debut in 2010 – and no horse has got closer since – the John Gosden-trained colt won the King George last year as a three-year-old, and he proved that 10 furlongs was not too sharp a trip for him when he battled on gamely to beat Farhh in the Eclipse at Sandown on his debut this term.

He lost no caste in going down by a nose to last year’s Arc winner Danedream in this year’s King George, a race that came just two weeks after his lung-bursting effort in the Eclipse. It wasn’t wholly surprising that he side-stepped a clash with Frankel in the Juddmonte International at York last week, and he is probably the second best middle-distance older horse in Britain at the moment, if not in Europe.

John Gosden’s record with his Irish invaders is quite remarkable. Since 2009, the trainer has taken just five horses across the Irish Sea to contest Group 1 contests. Incredibly, all five – Dar Re Mi, Rainbow View, Duncan (dead-heat), Izzi Top and Great Heavens – have won. It would not be at all surprising if Nathaniel were to make it six out of six on Saturday.

Snow Fairy ran out of her skin to get to with a half a length of So You Think in last year’s renewal of Saturday’s race, and the 2010 Oaks winner proved that that performance was no flash in the pan when she followed up by finishing third in the Arc de Triomphe from a difficult draw, and when she rounded off her campaign by winning a Group 1 race in Japan in November.

She proved that she was as good as ever this year as a five-year-old by beating some of the best middle-distance fillies in Europe – all of them race-fit – on her seasonal debut in a Group 1 race at Deauville two weeks ago, and, unsurprisingly, Saturday’s race has been on Ed Dunlop’s radar for her for a little while now.

She will only travel if the ground is not too soft, but the long-range weather forecast suggests that there is every chance of some dry weather this week. She is proven at the track, and 10 furlongs on good or fast ground is probably optimal for her. Bought for just €1,800 as a yearling, she has now amassed over €4.5 million in total prize money, and she could add more to that haul on Saturday.

The home team will no doubt be spearheaded by a strong Ballydoyle representation. The exact make up of Aidan O’Brien’s team from a dozen entries will be decided later this week, but Grand Prix de Paris winner Imperial Monarch and Breeders’ Cup Turf hero St Nicholas Abbey look the most likely flag-bearers, and either or both would be worthy contenders.

Ribblesdale Stakes winner Princess Highway and 12-time Group race winner Famous Name could represent Dermot Weld, while it looks as if the John Oxx-trained Born To Sea is also set to take his chance, despite his defeat to Famous Name in the Royal Whip Stakes at The Curragh three weeks ago, when he raced without his customary hood.

It is a strong defence, but the market suggests that the visitors could still have the upper hand. The current Irish Era could be coming to a close.

© The Sunday Times, 2nd September 2012