Things We Learned » Irish Champions’ Weekend

Irish Champions’ Weekend

Where to start with Longines Irish Champions Weekend?

Saturday at Leopardstown was great.  All the ingredients were there.  The horses were there, top class Irish horses and top class British horses, with the two top trainers in France providing the European dimension (Britain can’t provide that any more), the Gallic flair.

The weather was there, the sun even shone for the Qipco Irish Champion Stakes, and there was a buzz around the enclosures.  The line of bookmakers stretched well down the home straight, and there was an atmosphere in the betting ring, young people watching the figures and having a bet. 

The attendance figure was up on last year, Tote betting was up, betting with the bookmakers was up.  Tote betting was up by 24.7%, which is impressive, even if a proportion of that is down to international co-mingling.  Betting with the on-course bookmakers was up by 12.6%, and that is even more encouraging.

Total attendance was up by just over 5.5%, 14,550 this year as opposed to 13,780 last year, which was a little surprising.  It felt like more.  And, if you are a glass-half-empty type of person, you could say that you expected more.

In mitigation, however, it is important to remember that this is just the third year of Irish Champions Weekend in its current format.  Rome, day, built.  (Wasn’t.)

Attendance at The Curragh was down on last year, and that was disappointing.  You can argue that there were three Group 1 races at The Curragh, as opposed to just two at Leopardstown, but that misses the point.  Two of the Group 1 races at The Curragh are two-year-old races, and two-year-olds just don’t get the general public like older horses do.  They haven’t been around for as long, they haven’t won the Derby or the Breeders’ Cup Turf.  And the third Group 1 race was a four-runner affair with a 1/7 favourite.

But this is really just the beginning.  It should really be just the beginning, and it should be regarded as such.  It takes time for these things to ease their way into the general public’s consciousness.  The goal should be that people put Irish Champions Weekend into their diaries as soon as they get their diaries, like they put the All-Ireland Final into their diaries (if it is not already in there), like they (you suspect) put the Melbourne Cup into their diaries in Australia.

This is a long-term game, a big picture game, and it takes time to draw a big picture.  How long did it take for the National Ploughing Championships to become the National Ploughing Championships?

People need to know that there is a big event going on.  The radio ad campaign and the on-line campaign were good, but there is a need for more long-term activity, more brand building.  People in Dublin and Kildare and Naas and surrounding areas should be in no doubt for months beforehand that Irish Champions Weekend is happening, and when it is happening. 

‘The second weekend in September.’ 

Get that etched into people’s consciousness. 

‘The weekend that falls between the two All-Ireland finals.’

How much is signage?  How much does it cost to brand a 46A when the drivers are not on strike?

It is probable that the ‘marketing spend’, whatever it is, is not being fully re-paid these days with turnstile clicks, but that is fine for now.  You expect to invest in the early years in order to reap the rewards later.  The major effort is in creating the small snowball.  Once you have toiled in making the snowball, then you can let it roll.  You just need to keep it rolling.

The Melbourne Cup is the race that stops a nation, with cavalcades through the city and everything.  No harm in having lofty ambitions. 

Almanzor tops

Jean-Claude Rouget was having his first runners in Ireland, and it was brilliant in lots of ways that his Prix du Jockey Club winner Almanzor won the Irish Champion Stakes.  Not only because he is an exciting and progressive three-year-old who could rate even higher by the end of the season, but also because he was the first French-based winner of the race since John Hammond won it with Suave Dancer in 1991.

There’s your international dimension.

You can be sure that Jean-Claude Rouget will be back, and you can be sure that Andre Fabre will keep it on his radar and that some of their compatriots will be paying even closer attention now than perhaps they were last Friday. 

The reception that Almanzor and Christophe Soumillon received when they came back to the winners’ enclosure may not have been as loud as the one that Frankie Dettori would have received had he returned on Found and jumped off her back, but it was still a good one.  It was one of appreciation rather than euphoria.  The crowd appreciated that we had seen a great winner of a great race.

Good results

The results were very good, as they have been now for all three stagings of Irish Champions Weekend.

Dermot Weld and Pat Smullen were out of luck in the feature race with Harzand – and, in a way, it is good that a reason for the colt’s lack-lustre performance came to light afterwards – but they still had a top weekend with Zhukova winning the Group 3 KPMG Enterprise Stakes and Shamreen landing the Group 2 Moyglare Blandford Stakes. 

Aidan O’Brien was also out of luck in the Irish Champion Stakes, fielding the second and third, Found and Minding, but he still bagged two of the five Group 1 races over the course of the weekend with Alice Springs in the Coolmore Matron Stakes and Churchill in the Goffs Vincent O’Brien National Stakes. 

He had the runner-up in the other three, but he probably got as big a kick out of the Moyglare Stud Stakes as he would have got out of any winner, with his elder son Joseph training his first Group 1 winner, and his younger son Donnacha riding his first Group 1 winner, when Intricately got home by a short head.  The fact that they beat their father’s filly Hydrangea by that short head probably didn’t lessen the thrill.

Two British winners, the David Barron-trained New Bidder and the Brian Ellison-trained Orewa, was fewer than for the previous two renewals, but others like Intisaab and Mehmas and Wick Powell and Persuasive and Custom Cut and Withernsea ran well in defeat.  The British should continue to come back.

And Willie McCreery and Billy Lee continued their fine run when the rider took Colour Blue down the wide outside to land the seven-furlong handicap that concluded proceedings at Leopardstown on Saturday.

There were other stories.  Kevin Prendergast and Chris Hayes teaming up with Awtaad again, back to his best.  Tony Martin training the 1-2 in the big 14-furlong handicap.  Ken Condon sending out Landfall to win the Group 3 Willis Towers Watson Champions Juvenile Stakes under Shane Foley, who had lost the ride on Jet Setting in the Matron Stakes.  There goes that universe, correcting itself again.

Ardhoomey rewarding trainer Ger Lyons’ faith in him when he landed the Group 2 Derrinstown Stud Flying Five, David Wachman springing a 50/1 shock with Rain Goddess in the opening fillies’ maiden in his final year as a trainer, and Donal Kinsella springing another shock the finale with Maudlin Magdalen.

Then, of course, Willie Mullins sent out Wicklow Brave to land the Group 1 Palmerstown House Estate Irish St Leger, under Frankie Dettori, who planted a kiss on Willie’s face, standing and jumping in more or less the same spot as the rider was when he planted a kiss on Willie’s dad Paddy’s face after he had ridden Vintage Tipple to land the Irish Oaks, 13 years ago.

Willie didn’t look as shocked on Sunday as his late legendary father looked then, but he still looked shocked.

Wide and late

All four winners of the four races run on the Outer Track at Leopardstown on Saturday came wide and late.  Alice Springs in the Matron Stakes, Awtaad in the Boomerang Stakes, Almanzor in the Irish Champion Stakes and Colour Blue in the concluding seven-furlong handicap.

All four horses were held up early, and all made their winning moves well away from the inside rail.

There may not be anything in this, it may just coincidence, or it may be that the races were run at such a strong pace that they were set up for closers, but Timeform’s sectional timings suggest that that was not the case, and it may be that the horses who stuck close to the inside rail in the home straight ran better than the bare form of their runs suggest.

Horses who raced close to the inside rail, and who can therefore probably be marked up at least a little on the bare form of their runs, include Persuasive, second in the Matron Stakes, Custom Cut, second in the Boomerang Stakes, and Minding and New Bay, third and fourth respectively in the Irish Champion Stakes.  All four are obviously high-class horses, but the performance that each of them put up on Saturday could be under-rated by the bare figures, and all four will be of interest whenever they run next. 

Brave call

Given that Irish Leger hero Wicklow Brave is rated 155 over hurdles, and that Faugheen is rated 176 and that Annie Power is rated 166, and that Douvan and Vautour are rated 169 and 176 respectively over fences, what chance do you think that any of those Willie Mullins-trained horses would have if they lined up in an Irish St Leger or an Ascot Gold Cup?

© The Irish Field, 17th September 2016