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Irish Champion Stakes report

The sun and the spotlight shone on the Qipco Irish Champion Stakes at Leopardstown yesterday.  The best horse race of the year, they said.  Possibly the best flat horse race ever run in Ireland.

Many great horses have raced in Ireland, many great races have been run.  There have been great duels, great occasions, great winners.  But rarely before had talent run so deep in one race as it did in yesterday’s feature.

The Oaks and Guineas winner was there, the Epsom and Irish Derby winner, the French Derby winner, the King George winner, the Eclipse winner, the Prince of Wales’s Stakes winner.  Add to that array of talent last year’s French Derby winner and last year’s Breeders’ Cup Turf winner, and you had a billing that probably surpassed any billing that you had ever seen before on an Irish racecourse.

And the race matched its billing, as the French Derby winner Almanzor beat the Breeders’ Cup Turf winner Found in a thriller.

It was Almanzor who, together with his compatriot New Bay, provided the European dimension, the Gallic interest.  Winner of a Group 3 race at Chantilly on his second run this season, Almanzor first made the headlines when he sprang a 20/1 shock in the Prix du Jockey Club, the French Derby, back at Chantilly in early June.

The Jean-Claude Rouget-trained colt probably did not get due recognition for that win.  He got the run of the race, they said, around the inside and not too far back.  As a consequence, when he dropped down in grade to contest the Group 2 Prix Guillaume d’Ornano at Deauville last month, he was allowed go off as third favourite. 

He won that too.

It was probably only then that the Wootton Bassett colt gained the recognition that he deserved.  His ability to travel easily through his races was noted, his searing turn of foot.

“I told Christophe (Soumillon) just to get him to relax through his race,” said Jean-Claude Rouget in the winner’s enclosure yesterday.  “When a horse relaxes through his race, he can finish, and I wanted him to finish.”

Almanzor was always a significant player in yesterday’s race, and not only because of the international dimension that he provided, a reach beyond Irish and British shores.  His talent was recognised in the previews and by the market.  During the preamble, his was one of the leading roles among the all-star cast.

And just as his trainer had requested, Soumillon did get his horse to relax.  Dropped out at the back of the field, the rider was motionless all the way down the back straight as Success Days and Ebediyin stretched the field out from the front. 

Still second last of the 12 runners as they straightened up for home and raced to the two-furlong pole, Soumillon angled his horse towards the outside of his field, and asked him to pick up.  When he did, the response from Almanzor was impressive.

He showed that acceleration that we had seen in France, and moved up on the outside of Found, under Frankie Dettori, who was deputising for Seamie Heffernan, injured in a fall from Idaho in the St Leger at Doncaster. 

Aidan O’Brien’s filly was also moving forward, and the pair of them matched strides as the furlong pole flashed past.  But it was Almanzor who had the greater momentum, and he moved ahead of Aidan O’Brien’s filly under the Soumillon drive, getting home by three parts of a length from her as Soumillon punched the air.  Found, second in the race for the second year running, came almost three lengths clear of her stable companion Minding in third.

“He’s a great horse,’ said Soumillon.  “I knew today he was going to run a great race.  “The pace was strong, and that suited us.  He was very relaxed at the back.  He has a strong turn of foot, but when I saw Frankie coming on my inside on Found, I knew that he was going to give me a hard time, because Found is a very strong filly.  Only champions can win races like this.”

An Irish Champion Stakes now on his CV, Almanzor could move on again from this.

“I wanted to come here,” said Rouget, “because I said that he was a 10-furlong horse.  He could go to Ascot now, but we have to think about going to Chantilly for the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.  Champions can do anything.”

Denied in the Irish Champion Stakes, Aidan O’Brien did bag the other Group 1 race on the day, the Coolmore Fastnet Rock Matron Stakes, with Alice Springs.

Slowly away and settled nicely at the back of the field by Ryan Moore, the Galileo filly hit the front inside the furlong pole and powered clear, putting over three lengths between herself and runner-up Persuasive, with favourite Qemah back in third.

Impressive winner of the Group 1 Falmouth Stakes at Newmarket in July, Alice Springs had disappointed behind yesterday’s favourite Qemah in the Prix Rothschild at Deauville last month.  Yesterday’s performance was much more like it.

“She’s a very good filly,” said Aidan O’Brien.  “She quickened up well.  She’s very pacey.  She’s made for the Breeders’ Cup on fast ground.  There’s a chance too that she could go for the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at Ascot.  She’s hardy, and she could do both.  It depends what the ground is like at Ascot.”

Bookmakers shortened her odds to between 8/1 and 10/1 for the Ascot contest.

© The Sunday Times, 11th September 2016