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Leopardstown live

It was tales of the unexpected at Leopardstown yesterday on the first day of Irish Champions Weekend, as the Aidan O’Brien-trained Hydrangea got home by a head from her better-fancied stable companion Winter in the Matron Stakes, and Decorated Knight sprang a 25/1 shock in the Irish Champion Stakes.

Decorated Knight’s victory was as big a shock as had ever been recorded in the Qipco Irish Champion Stakes according to the market.  Even winning trainer Roger Charlton travelled more in hope than in confidence.

“I didn’t come here thinking we were going to win like that,” he said.  “I didn’t think that we would beat Churchill.  But there you go. That’s racing.  We rode for luck.  ”

Actually, it was Andrea Atzeni who did the riding.  He settled the son of Galileo towards the rear of the field through the early stages of the race behind a strong pace that Frankie Dettori set on Eminent.  The field stretched out along the back straight and concertinaed up a little as they raced around the top turn.  As they did, Decorated Knight sat stone cold, still last of the 10 runners as they started to straighten up for home.  

It was at that point that Atzeni wheeled his horse towards the outside and asked him for his effort.  When he did, the response was impressive.  Decorated Knight showed a turn of foot which took him past all his rivals, and he kept on willingly all the way to the line to withstand the challenge of compatriot Poet’s Word, with Eminent keeping on for third to complete a British-trained 1-2-3.  Odds-on favourite Churchill was slightly hampered at the two-furlong pole but, in reality, there were no excuses for the dual Guineas winner, and Ryan Moore eased him down close home.

“We were afraid that the ground would be too soft for him,” said Charlton, “because he really likes fast ground.  But he obviously handled it well.  He is tough, he has been on the go since early in the season.  I thought that we were too far back at the two-furlong pole, but Andrea said that he always thought that he was going to get there.”

“Going out there, I didn’t really expect to win the race,” said Atzeni, “so I went out there with no pressure.  The plan was to give him a chance and ride him to run well and pick up the pieces.  We knew that there would be a lot of pace, so I put him to sleep and rode him to finish well.”

Decorated Knight was taking his record in Ireland to two from two this season, adding yesterday’s Irish Champion Stakes to his victory in the Group 1 Tattersalls Gold Cup at The Curragh in May.  He had been beaten three times in the interim, but there were excuses for two of those defeats.

“He ran a great race at Royal Ascot when he finished second to Highland Reel,” said Charlton.  “Then he got bashed around at Sandown, and he hated the ground at York, for which I wouldn’t blame him.  And he has run another great race here.  He seems to like Ireland.  I thought coming here that this might be his last race.  We have to have a look at the Champion Stakes at Ascot now, but let’s just enjoy this first.”

Aidan O’Brien fared much better in the other Group 1 race on the day, the Coolmore Fastnet Rock Matron Stakes, in which Hydrangea and Winter completed a 1-2 for the trainer, although not in the order that the market anticipated.

It looked like even money favourite Winter was coming to win her race when she burst through between runners under Ryan Moore and hit the front on the run to the final furlong.  However, Hydrangea rallied well on the stands side for Wayne Lordan, and got up to beat her stable companion by a head.

 “I’m delighted for Hydrangea,” said Aidan O’Brien.  “And for Wayne.  Hydrangea has been Winter’s work partner all year, so it’s funny how these things work out.”

Hydrangea actually beat Winter in the 1000 Guineas Trial over seven furlongs at Leopardstown back in May.  Since then, Winter has run in four races and won all four: the 1000 Guineas, the Irish 1000 Guineas, the Coronation Stakes and the Nassau Stakes.  Four Group 1 races, two Classics.  Hydrangea ran in the same four races and finished, respectively, 10th, third, third and fourth.  It is a brave man who would have predicted that Hydrangea would come out on top yesterday.

That’s racing.  That’s tales of the unexpected for you.

© The Sunday Times, 10th September 2017