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Irish Champion Stakes report

The sun shone on Leopardstown yesterday on the first day of the inaugural Irish Champions Weekend, the crowds flocked through the gates, and The Grey Gatsby floored Australia in a thrilling finish to the Qipco Irish Champion Stakes.

The whole day rocked. There were rousing finishes, feel-good winners and sparkling performances, and all the while there was a general feeling of warmth and bonhomie and anticipation as the feature race drew closer with every presentation.

They packed deep and high around the parade ring beforehand as the market made Australia a 30/100 shot, more than three times more likely to win that he was to lose.

Fast ground, fast pace, 10 furlongs, probably the Aidan O’Brien-trained colt’s optimum conditions, and he had all three as Alkasser and Kingfisher took them along through breakneck early fractions. The dual Derby winner and Juddmonte International winner sat in second last place through the early stages of the race under a motionless Joseph O’Brien, as The Grey Gatsby and Ryan Moore – who had helicoptered in from Doncaster – trained their sights on his back.

The favourite moved up on the outside as they started to turn for home. He was wider than ideal as they moved into the home straight but, once Joseph gave him a kick in the belly and asked him to go and win his race, the response was immediate and impressive. His turn of foot took him into what looked like a race-winning lead.

The grey horse was under pressure in behind from long before the home turn, but he started to respond to that pressure early in the home straight. As he did, Moore moved him towards the outside. Suddenly, Joseph had to get serious with Australia as, inch by inch, stride by stride, the Kevin Ryan-trained colt clawed back Australia’s lead. He joined the Ballydoyle horse a couple of strides from the winning post, and hit the line a neck in front.

“I’m very proud of him,” said Ryan. “I have always felt that the horse has never really got the credit that he has deserved. Hopefully he will get it now. There is a chance he will go for the Champion Stakes at Ascot, and if he does, that will be it for the season. He won’t go for the Arc. He will stay in training next year though. Hopefully we will have another great year with him.”

The other Group 1 race on the day, the Coolmore Fastnet Rock Matron Stakes, billed by the market as a veritable match between the two three-year-olds Tapestry and Rizeena, was won the oldest filly in the race, the evergreen five-year-old Fiesolana.

Held up through the early stages of the race by Billy Lee, the Willie McCreery-trained filly travelled well into the home straight and showed a fine turn of foot to burst through and win by a half a length from Rizeena, with Tobann three parts of a length behind in third.

“You dream of days like this,” said McCreery, a former top Gaelic footballer who won Leinster Championship titles with Kildare in 1998 and 2000. “She’s just a fantastic filly. She has the heart of a lion. The Niarchos family had the faith to send her back to me. At the start of the year she had an infection, and we didn’t know if we would get her back, but she is still improving. She will probably go for the Prix de la Foret now.”

Strange the way this game turns out sometimes. It was on this day last year that Australia won his first Group race, beating the then Derby favourite Free Eagle into second place. Free Eagle hadn’t run since, but he returned to the racetrack yesterday, a year later, in the Group 3 KPMG Enterprise Stakes, and put up a scintillating performance to come home seven lengths clear of his rivals.

It was also a top-notch training performance by Dermot Weld. A stress fracture to his fibula meant that the High Chaparral colt was left to stand in his box for 12 weeks before being nurtured back to fitness at Rosewell House, with yesterday’s race the target for his comeback for some time.

“That was not a surprise,” said the winning trainer. “He had been working very impressively, and we were very happy with him. I was a little concerned that we would have him ready for today, but he did it well. We have had a fantastic year but we have been playing without our best player. No we have our best player back. The English Champion Stakes is the logical race, or maybe the Arc de Triomphe. One or the other. He is potentially a very good horse.”

Earlier in the day, John F Kennedy ran out an impressive winner of the Group 3 John Deere Juvenile Turf, the race in which Australia beat Free Eagle last year. Trained by Aidan O’Brien and ridden by Joseph O’Brien, the Galileo colt consolidated his position at the head of the market for next year’s Derby, bookmakers cutting his odds from 10/1 and 12/1 to 7/1 and 8/1.

13,190 people clicked their way through the turnstiles at Leopardstown yesterday, a 50% increase on last year’s figure and an Irish Champions Stakes day record. It was a fantastic start to Irish Champions Weekend. One day down, one more intriguing day (today at The Curragh) to go.

© The Sunday Times, 14th September 2014