Donn's Articles » Irish Champions’ Weekend

Irish Champions’ Weekend

The planets aligned last year for the inaugural staging of Irish Champions’ Weekend, and the weekend zinged.

The races had been in place, the Irish Champion Stakes and the Matron Stakes were in place at Leopardstown, the Irish St Leger and the National Stakes and the Moyglare Stud Stakes were in place at The Curragh, but they were spaced out, there was no synergy. It isn’t easy to change things in racing, it’s difficult to alter the racing programme, but a rare combination of forward and lateral thinking facilitated the changes, and it worked.

Attendance figures over the two days were up 70% on 2013, bookmaker turnover was up 55%, Tote turnover was up almost 100%. Some 194 horses ran over the course of the weekend, and 49 came from abroad. That was over 25%, and that wasn’t bad.

The horses were there, five top class Group 1 races with strong supporting races, and the jockeys and trainers came. The top Irish riders were there, and Ryan Moore, Paul Hanagan and James Doyle all rode at Doncaster earlier on the Saturday before flying to Leopardstown to ride in the Irish Champion Stakes.

Of course, you can’t control the results, but they helped. There were 16 races, and eight of them were won by British-trained horses. It was the ideal mix of a strong home team and enough races won by raiders to entice them back. International competition is healthy, and it is important for this, an international weekend.

Then there were the other uncontrollables, the weather and the drama. The weather complied, summery and almost sultry, positively balmy, and we had the drama of the Irish Champion Stakes, The Grey Gatsby’s victory over Australia.

Last year’s event was only ever a first step, however, the foundation on which the weekend can be built. The next step, the second renewal of Irish Champions’ Weekend (sponsored by Longines) is next weekend, and it is important that the next step is forward. You can’t organise the weather or the drama (although early indications are that the former will be okay), but key to the success of the weekend is the quality of the racing, and it looks like some top class horses are on track.

We could finally get to see the Gleneagles/Golden Horn match-up in the Qipco Irish Champion Stakes at Leopardstown on Saturday. It didn’t happen in the Juddmonte International at York last month, when Gleneagles was withdrawn because of the soft ground, and, ultimately, Golden Horn lost his unbeaten record at the hands of 50/1 shot Arabian Queen.

Golden Horn lost his shroud of invincibility at York, but he remains a top class individual, the Dante winner, the Derby winner, the Eclipse winner. John Gosden’s horse is still one of the best middle-distance horses in training.

We haven’t seen Gleneagles since Royal Ascot, since he turned the St James’s Palace Stakes into a rout. The dual Guineas winner, the Aidan O’Brien-trained colt will be stepping into the unknown if he lines up on Saturday, stepping up to 10 furlongs for the first time. But he is by Galileo and he is out of You’resothrilling, a full-sister to Giant’s Causeway, whose best performances were over 10 furlongs. He has every chance of getting the trip.

Unlike the Juddmonte International, however, this is not just about two horses. The Grey Gatsby is set to return to defend his title. Kevin Ryan’s horse hasn’t won since he shocked Australia and the racing world in last year’s renewal, but he has run some fine races in defeat in the interim, and he didn’t have much luck in the Prince of Wales’s Stakes at Royal Ascot.

Free Eagle won that race, he got home by a diminishing short head from the grey horse, and the Moyglare Stud’s colt is also on track for Saturday’s race. It was a fine training performance by Dermot Weld to have the High Chaparral colt primed for Royal Ascot on his first run since the previous October and, under a fine ride from Pat Smullen, he did enough to win.

That was just his fifth run ever. He still has plenty of scope for further progression.

The key to all four colts is good, fast ground. The Grey Gatsby is at his best on good or fast ground, Golden Horn excels on it, Free Eagle and Gleneagles need it. All four are fast horses with a turn of foot which is at its most potent when their hooves can bounce off the ground. In that regard, a tentatively fair weather forecast imbues cautious optimism that all four will line up.

French raider Cirrus Des Aigles is on track, regardless of ground conditions. Corine Barande-Barbe’s gelding hasn’t run since he finished fourth of four behind Solow in the Prix d’Ispahan in May, but he is reportedly in fine form, and he proved when he beat Al Kazeem in the Prix Ganay on his debut this season that, even as a nine-year-old, he retains lots of his old ability. Unlike the top four in the market, any rain would be a positive for the Frenchman.

Then there are the fillies. There is the intriguing possibility that Jim Bolger will allow his Irish Guineas and Yorkshire Oaks winner Pleascach take her chance, and that David Elsworth will convince owner Jeff Smith to supplement Golden Horn’s conqueror Arabian Queen. If the weather complies and they all run, this could be the race of the season.

This could also be the weekend of the season. Potential other highlights? Legatissimo versus Amazing Maria in the Coolmore Matron Stakes, Brown Panther and Agent Murphy and Forgotten Rules in the Palmerstown House Estate Irish St Leger, and some of the best juveniles in Europe taking each other on in the Goffs National Stakes and the Moyglare Stud Stakes. This next step could be a big one.

© The Sunday Times, 6th September 2015