Donn's Articles » Irish Champion Stakes

Irish Champion Stakes

It is 12 years ago now, but when they talk about the Red Mills Irish Champion Stakes, they still talk about 2001: Galileo v Fantastic Light in a best-of-the-generations re-match, when they clung to the roof-tops and cheered both horses past the winning line and all the way back to the winner’s enclosure.

There had been iconic winners of the Red Mills Irish Champion Stakes before 2001. King’s Lake and Assert won it during the 1980s when it was run at Leopardstown as the Joe McGrath Memorial Stakes. Sadler’s Wells, the most influential stallion of the modern era, won the first renewal of the race run at the Phoenix Park in 1984, while subsequent Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe winner Suave Dancer won the first renewal of the race on its return to its spiritual home at Leopardstown in 1991.

The recent history of the race has not failed to enthrall either. There was Daylami’s nine-length stroll in 1999, New Approach’s renaissance in 2008, Sea The Stars’ victory march in 2009.

And there have been other duels. Actually, the history of this race is perforated with memorable duels. Dr Devious and St Jovite, Giant’s Causeway and Best Of The Bests, Dylan Thomas and Ouija Board, Grandera and Hawk Wing, High Chaparral and Falbrav. More scores have been settled at Leopardstown on the first Saturday in September than were settled at Dueling Creek in the 19th Century.

There could be a score to settled in the 2013 renewal next Saturday too, with the three protagonists from the Juddmonte International at York all possible runners at this stage.

Declaration Of War was a revelation at York. Backed in from morning odds of 14/1 to an SP of half that, he picked up impressively when Joseph O’Brien gave him a squeeze, joined Trading Leather and Al Kazeem just outside the furlong pole, and stayed on really well all the way to the line to post an impressive win.

There were several positives to be taken from that performance. Firstly, it was another step forward for the son of War Front, according to Timeform and Racing Post Ratings. In beating two Group 1 winners and a Group 2 winner in an impressive time, the Ballydoyle horse put up another career-best.

Secondly, having finished two lengths behind Al Kazeem in the Eclipse, it was important that the Aidan O’Brien-trained colt proved that he could beat Roger Charlton’s horse in a Group 1 race off level weights. There is a suspicion that Al Kazeem may not have been at concert pitch, but Declaration Of War beat him on merit. He also beat Jim Bolger’s teak-tough Irish Derby winner Trading Leather, conceding the 8lb weight-for-age allowance.

Thirdly, Declaration Of War’s performance in the Juddmonte proved that he could stay 10 furlongs at Group 1 level. He did win twice at a lower level over the trip as a three-year-old, but his performance in chasing home Al Kazeem in the Eclipse, on his first attempt at 10 furlongs at the top level, was largely inconclusive in that regard.

The fact that he dropped back down to a mile – the distance over which he recorded his sole previous Group 1 win – for his subsequent two runs suggested that perhaps connections felt that speed rather than stamina was his forte. Indeed, he still holds an entry in next Saturday’s Haydock Sprint Cup, which will be run over six furlongs. However, the performance that he put up in winning the Juddmonte suggested that 10 furlongs could be his optimum distance, and that augurs well for his chance of winning the Irish Champion Stakes.

He is not a certain runner yet – he is just one of a dozen Ballydoyle entries in the race at this stage. However, this is a race that Aidan O’Brien likes to win. The champion trainer has been responsible for the winner six times in the last 10 years, and he has fielded the 1-2-3 once and the 1-2-4 once in that period. Declaration Of War is a tough, progressive horse who thrives on racing, and O’Brien seemed to be favouring a tilt at the Irish Champion Stakes for the four-year-old colt during the week from myriad options that he has. If he does line up in the race, he will set a typically high standard.

Trading Leather is also a likely runner at this stage. Jim Bolger indicated as much in the immediate aftermath of the Juddmonte race, and there has been no apparent material change to plans in the interim.

The son of Teofilo has over a length to find with Declaration Of War on their running at York, but there are grounds for optimism. Like his conqueror, he recorded a career-best at York in putting up a valiant attempt at making all the running, and he remains progressive. He is only three, a year younger than Declaration Of War, and there is every chance that he will improve again for his York run.

Also, York is no longer a front-runner’s track. Kevin Manning did the correct thing in sticking to the inside rail in the home straight, passing up on the option to take the field down the centre of the track, which seems to be the fashionable thing to do at York these days. Even so, even with a rail to help and only one way past for rivals, it is still difficult to make all over middle distances at York. They usually start to race from early in York’s lengthy home straight, and that makes it difficult for front-runners to last the full four and a half furlongs from the top of the straight to the winning line.

Leopardstown is different. There is a long, sweeping, inviting run into the home straight at the Foxrock track and, with just two and a half furlongs from the end of the home turn to the winning line, if a front-runner can build up sufficient momentum around the bend, it can be difficult for the chasers to peg him back.

Moreover, Trading Leather is a horse who stays a mile and a half well, as we saw when he chased a fast pace yet stuck on really grimly to land the Irish Derby in June. As such, the stiff climb from the two-furlong pole to the winning line at Leopardstown should suit him much more than York’s easy flat run through the concluding furlongs.

Jim Bolger, the master of Coolcullen, won one of the four renewals that eluded his former pupil O’Brien in the last decade with New Approach, and he landed the race with that colt’s dam Park Express in 1986. Trading Leather could easily provide him with his third Irish Champion Stakes.

Al Kazeem would obviously be a massive player should he make the journey, but the prospect of fast ground once more might be sufficient to dissuade Roger Charlton from travelling. Actually, it could be left to John Gosden to lead the British challenge with The Fugue.

Last year’s Nassau Stakes winner looked as good as ever when she dotted up in the Yorkshire Oaks at York 10 days ago. Saturday’s 10 furlongs is probably more her distance than the mile and a half of that contest, she loves fast ground and she is fully deserving of her place among the colts. Snow Fairy proved last year that it is possible for a top class filly to land this prize.

We may not be treated to a re-enactment of the Galileo/Fantastic Light battle of 2001, or a Sea The Stars victory march. However, a strong field is in the process of assembling, and we could be in for another cracking renewal of a race in which quantity is willingly sacrificed in favour of quality. We could get a Declaration Of War/Trading Leather re-match, and that would be a clash that would be worthy of a place on the roster at Dueling Creek.

© The Sunday Times, 1st September 2013