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Irish Champion Stakes report

It was all about the weather at Leopardstown yesterday. The lads donned their overcoats, the ladies grinned and bore their goosebumps and the trainers walked the track with ground-determining sticks. The clouds assembled and the temperatures dropped, but the rain that arrived came in dribbles, not in waves, and the ground remained good enough for John Gosden to decide that The Fugue should take her chance in the Red Mills Irish Champion Stakes.

Turns out, good decision.

All week the preamble to the race had centred on the likely make-up of the field, governed, as it was, but the likely make-up of the weather charts. Rain was good for Al Kazeem, went the narrative, bad for The Fugue and Declaration Of War. Aidan O’Brien and Team Ballydoyle decided at afternoon tea-time that it had gone too soft for their Juddmonte International winner, who had spun his wheels when defeated on easy ground in the Sussex Stakes. By contrast, John Gosden decided to roll the dice.

The Fugue won the Nassau Stakes last year and the Yorkshire Oaks last month, but she had never before won a Group 1 contest that wasn’t restricted to fillies. And it takes a special filly to beat the colts in the Group 1 Irish Champion Stakes. Snow Fairy won it 12 months ago to prove the point but, before her, you had to go back through defeats for several top class fillies to Timarida in 1996 to find the previous filly to claim her place on the roll of honour.

The race panned out nicely for The Fugue. Settled well by William Buick in fourth place behind a good pace that Kevin Manning set on Trading Leather, Lady Lloyd-Webber’s filly moved up nicely on Al Kazeem’s outside around the home turn as the pair of them closed on the leader.

It was obvious from the two-furlong pole, however, that the filly was making her ground more easily than the colt, Buick the less animated of the two riders. When Buick went for his filly, she picked up impressively to go past Al Kazeem and the gallant Trading Leather, before coming away to win by a cozy length.

“She was unlucky in the Oaks last year,” said Gosden. “It took her a long time to come this spring, she had only just come back in time for Royal Ascot, but she was drawn badly there and she finished well. She came ill out of the Eclipse, but she won the Yorkshire Oaks well last time. I didn’t come here feeling inferior, and the weather didn’t beat us.”

“She could be better than Dar Re Mi,” said Lady Lloyd-Webber, in reference to her Singspiel filly, a triple-Group 1 winner, also trained by Gosden. “I nearly didn’t get on the plane, I kept thinking the ground had gone against her. It was a worry, she hasn’t enjoyed her two races on easy ground. But she has this huge talent. It’s amazing, it’s like a dream really.”

The Kevin Prendergast-trained La Collina sprang a 25/1 shock in the other Group 1 race on the day, the Coolmore Fusaichi Pegasus Matron Stakes. Settled out the back in the early stages by Chris Hayes, Jorg Vasicek’s filly made her progress early in the home straight, and ran on gallantly all the way to the line to get up and beat Lily’s Angel and Say in the three-way thriller.

“The boss just said keep it simple,” said Hayes, who was riding the first Group 1 winner of his career. “They were his only instructions. I’m with him 10 years now in November, and I’m delighted to be able to repay him like this. The filly was as well as she had ever been, she did a brilliant piece of work on Tuesday. I owe Declan McDonogh a lot as well, he has been a great mentor.”

There was a mild surprise in the Group 3 Icon Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf Trial when erstwhile 2014 Epsom Derby favourite Free Eagle was defeated by the Aidan O’Brien-trained Australia. It was an impressive performance by the winner, who pulled right away in the closing stages, and the Galileo colt has usurped Free Eagle now as Derby favourite, quoted at as short as 6/1 in places.

Strong support for the Aidan O’Brien-trained newcomer Masai in the juvenile colts’ maiden saw the Oasis Dream colt sent off the 8/11 favourite, but it was his lesser-fancied stable companion Agena, under Seamie Heffernan, who came out on top, swooping late to hit the front deep inside the final furlong. The Galileo colt’s victory was the first of three victories on the day for O’Brien, with The United States’ win in the Group 3 Enterprise Stakes book-ending the treble.

The Willie McCreery-trained Barack landed the Ladbrokes Handicap under Ben Curtis, Willie Mullins landed the finale with this year’s Supreme Novices’ Hurdle sixth Pique Sous, while the John Oxx-trained filly My Titania, a daughter of 2009 Irish Champion Stakes hero Sea The Stars, landed the opening fillies’ maiden in impressive fashion under Declan McDonogh.

© The Sunday Times, 8th September 2013