Things We Learned » Reflections on Irish Champions Weekend

Reflections on Irish Champions Weekend

Lots has happened since Irish Champions Weekend, it seems like more than a week ago that we were getting ready, but it is still worthy of reflection.

Yes, attendances were down, but attendances were always going to be down.  Leopardstown did not have the Almanzor-Found-Minding three-card-trick from last year, and The Curragh had makeshift walls and a ceiling on attendance.  For all of that, there was a good buzz at Leopardstown, they still packed deep around the parade ring.

The spread of results was good.  The visitors had five winners, Burnt Sugar in the seven-furlong premier handicap at Leopardstown, Ice Age in the six-furlong premier handicap at The Curragh, Suedois in the Group 2 Clipper Logistics Boomerang Stakes, Snazzy Jazzy in the Tattersalls Ireland sales race and, of course, Decorated Knight in the Qipco Irish Champion Stakes.

Indeed, Decorated Knight led home a British-trained 1-2-3 in the Irish Champion Stakes.  That’s six years in a row now that the feature event on the feature weekend has gone for export, five times to Britain, once to France.  This race seems to go through nationalistic phases: went for export every year except one between 1985 and 1999, kept at home every year between 2003 and 2011, won every year by the visitors between 2012 and 2017.  It’s time the Irish won it again now.

Aidan O’Brien was responsible for three of the five Group 1 race winners and for five winners in total over the course of the weekend, which was just about right.  Any more, and there would have been cries of dominance.  Any less and it would have been disappointing.  Ger Lyons, Willie Mullins, Jim Bolger, Dermot Weld and Aidan O’Brien all on the score sheet on Irish flat racing’s shop window.  They are some of the people that you want to have in your shop window all right.

The bias away from the inside rail at Leopardstown may not have been as pronounced as it was last year, but it still may have been there.  Seven of the eight winners all made their ground away from the inside rail, some of them, like Decorated Knight and Burnt Sugar, well away from it.

Nelson stayed flush against the inside rail and kept on well all the way to the line to win the Group 3 Willis Towers Watson Champions Juvenile Stakes.  Bye Bye Baby almost held on in the fillies’ maiden.  Artful Artist made ground along the inside rail in the one-mile-five-furlong handicap, while St Stephen’s Green was in front along the inside in that race until deep inside the final furlong.  Cannonball kept on strongly along the rail in the KPMG Enterprise Stakes.  All of those horses can probably be marked up at least a little on the bare form of their respective runs.

Dexterity dominates

You don’t need to mark Verbal Dexterity up a jot in order to conclude that Jim Bolger’s colt put up a sparkling performance in winning the Group 1 Goffs Vincent O’Brien National Stakes.  It looked like Beckford was travelling better when he and Pat Smullen joined the leader at the two-furlong pole, but Verbal Dexterity picked up again when Kevin Manning asked him to, and he stayed on strongly all the way to the line. 

Beckford is a high-class juvenile, Gordon Elliott’s horse won the Group 2 Railway Stakes and was only just beaten in the Group 1 Phoenix Stakes.  So this is strong form, with the Group 2 Futurity Stakes winner and runner-up Rostropovich and Coat Of Arms back in third and fourth respectively.

This was the fourth time that Jim Bolger sent out the winner of the National Stakes.  He won it in 2006 with Teofilo, in 2007 with New Approach and in 2012 with New Approach’s son Dawn Approach, and it is interesting that, after Sunday’s race, the trainer was not dismissing comparisons with those three luminaries, all multiple Group 1 winners. 

Verbal Dexterity is a Bolger project from the tip of his nose to the last hair in his tail.  Bred by Jim Bolger and John Corcoran, he races in Jackie Bolger’s familiar purple and white silks.  His dam, Lonrach, was bred by Jim Bolger, was trained by Jim Bolger and raced in Jackie Bolger’s colours, and his grandam, Luminous One, was also owned by Jackie Bolger and trained by Jim Bolger to win a Tipperary maiden.

Not only that, but Verbal Dexterity’s sire Vocalised also raced in the Bolger colours and was trained by Jim to win the Greenham Stakes and the Tetrarch Stakes.  By the Seattle Slew stallion Vindication, who won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, Vocalised stands at Bolger’s Redmonstown Stud in County Wexford.  Verbal Dexterity is wrapped whole in a Bolger blanket.

All three of Jim Bolger’s previous National Stakes winners went on to win the Dewhurst, and that looks like a realistic target now for Verbal Dexterity.

O’Neill doubles up

Fair play to Lisa O’Neill.  It was a no-nonsense ride that she gave Potters Point to win the Guinness Kerry National at Listowel on Wednesday.  Actually, it was similar to the no-nonsense ride that she gave Wrath Of Titans to win the race last year: quietly quietly in midfield before making her move down the far side final time. 

She may have got there earlier on Potters Point this year than she did on Wrath Of Titans last year, but that was the nature of the manner in which this year’s race panned out.  The early pace was slower this year than it was last year.  You probably didn’t want to be in front too early, but nor did you want to be coming from too far back.  Nothing was able to get into the race from the rear this year.

Fair play too to Gigginstown House and to Gordon Elliott for giving O’Neill the opportunity.  There were other more experienced riders in the weigh room.  She only claims 5lb this year, not 7lb like she did last year, but she is value for every ounce of that claim.  This win just provided further evidence that she can operate on big stages.  Her ride on Tiger Roll to win the National Hunt Chase at Cheltenham last March remains one of the rides of the 2017 Cheltenham Festival.

Arc still to take shape

Just when you thought that the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe should be taking shape, eh, it isn’t.  All the trials have been run now, and we are still not sure of the probable make up of the race.

Enable is on track, that’s for sure.  We have known that since before she spreadeagled her field at York, adding the Yorkshire Oaks to her Epsom and Irish and Cheshire ones.  She is a veritable Oaks magnet. 

But we’re not sure yet if Cracksman is going to run or not, which is bizarre in the extreme, the Prix Niel winner who is fit and healthy and well and progressive and three.  We have been here before.  As things stand, two weeks away from the 2017 Arc, 54 weeks away from the 2018 Arc, does he really have a better chance of winning the Arc next year than he has of winning the Arc this year?

And we’re not sure if Juddmonte International winner, Eclipse winner, Ulysses is going to go.  You know that his primary target is the Breeders’ Cup Turf, and maybe an eyeballs-out run in the Arc is not the ideal preparation.  You can understand the logic.

At least it looks like Order Of St George is going to run.  Aidan O’Brien’s horse looked as good as ever in the Irish St Leger and, last year’s third, you never know, he goes there on the back of a win this year, and if the ground is softer than last year’s good ground, he could be a big player.

It also looks like Highland Reel is on track, last year’s runner-up and, in contrast to his stable companion, fast ground would be a positive for him.

Zarak and Brametot are apparently on track, even though we haven’t seen either in a while, as is Satono Diamond, despite his disappointing run in the Prix Foy.  Bateel isn’t entered in the Arc.  She was five seconds faster in the Prix Vermeille than Cracksman was in the Prix Niel on Sunday, which was impressive, even allowing for the sedate early pace in the Neil.  Francis-Henri Graffard’s filly would be a player if they happened to decide to supplement her.

Remembering John Ross

I didn’t know John Ross very well, my vicarious acquaintance with him through the stories that his sons Graham and Gordon told about him was stronger than my actual acquaintance with him.  But the threads that ran through those stories were strong: his love for his family, his love for horses, his love for sport, his love for life.

The stories took on a sharpened significance this week when John Ross was taken from his family far too suddenly, far too early.  We can’t begin to understand these things, but there must be a complex legal issue up there that needs attending, or a racecourse up there somewhere that needs a strong hand on the tiller.  Ar dheis Dé go raibh sé.