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Irish Champion Stakes

There was drama at Leopardstown yesterday, and there was an audience there to witness it.  Four thousand people clicked their way through Leopardstown’s turnstiles for Irish Champion Stakes day, more people than had gathered at any Irish racecourse in the last 18 months, and they watched as St Mark’s Basilica got home in a thriller. 

By contrast, just four horses lined up for the feature race: one for every one thousand people in attendance.  It was the smallest Irish Champion Stakes field that had been assembled in the modern history of the race.  But history tells you that you don’t need a plethora of runners in order to have a race that is bursting with intrigue.  You just need two good ones.  

The preamble was dominated by three good ones, and there were imponderables: the distance for two, the absence for one.  Before yesterday, we hadn’t seen St Mark’s Basilica since he had won the Eclipse at Sandown in early July.  That was 70 days ago.  In the meantime, a setback had ruled him out of the Juddmonte International at York.  You assumed that his trainer Aidan O’Brien would have him close to concert pitch for yesterday’s contest, but you couldn’t know for sure how close.

We knew that Poetic Flare was dynamite over a mile.  The 2000 Guineas winner, the St James’s Palace Stakes winner, Jim Bolger’s horse finished off his race well on his previous run in the Prix Jacques le Marois in France, but we still didn’t know whether or not he would stay yesterday’s 10-furlong trip. 

We knew that Tarnawa would stay all right, but she stays a mile and a half so well, the wonder was how Dermot Weld’s filly would cope with the drop back down to a mile and a quarter.

And who would lead?

The last question was the first one answered, as Declan McDonogh bounced Patrick Sarsfield out of the gate and allowed him stride on down the back straight.  The Big Three followed, Indian file: Poetic Flare, St Mark’s Basilica, Tarnawa.  

They remained in formation all the way down the back straight, around the top turn, into the dip and around the home turn.  It wasn’t until they started to race into the home straight that the cards were played.  Kevin Manning angled Poetic Flare to the outside of the leader, Ryan Moore went outside him on St Mark’s Basilica, Colin Keane went wider still on Tarnawa.

The dash for home began, Poetic Flare, then St Mark’s Basilica, then Tarnawa, and the 4000 people had the race that they had clicked to see.  Poetic Flare on the inside, St Mark’s Basilica and Tarnawa on the stands side, the width of Leopardstown’s home straight between them, so that you weren’t certain who was in front and who was behind.  It wasn’t until they raced deep inside the final 150 yards that it became apparent that St Mark’s Basilica had quickened into the lead, and he was strong all the way to the winning line, where he had three parts of a length in hand over Tarnawa, with Poetic Flare just a nose back in third.

“It was very tactical,” said Aidan O’Brien.  “They sprinted up the straight and he did well.  He’s an exceptional horse and we’re very lucky to have him.  All the lads at home have done a great job with him, to get him back here today after (missing) the last day.”

The drama continued though.  The head-on footage revealed the extent to which St Mark’s Basilica had drifted to his right, taking Tarnawa with him to the outside of the track. The ensuing stewards’ enquiry was a lengthy one, but the conclusion was that the result should remain unaltered.

“He has all the options now,” said O’Brien.  “The two targets we had were York and here, and after that we were going to see what way he came out of it.  He has all the options.  He can go back to a mile or go a mile and a quarter.”

The rest of a remarkable day belonged to Ger Lyons and Jessica Harrington, with the two trainers dividing up the other seven races between them: four to Lyons, three to Harrington. 

No Speak Alexander also had to survive a stewards’ enquiry before Jessica Harrington’s filly could be confirmed as the winner of the other Group 1 race on the day, the Coolmore America “Justify” Matron Stakes, but there were no such worries with Real Appeal in the Clipper Logistics Boomerang Mile or with Ever Present in the Irish Stallion Farms EBF “Petingo” Handicap.  All three Jessica Harrington-trained winners were ridden to victory by Shane Foley.

The day got off to a fantastic start for Ger Lyons when champion jockey elect Colin Keane rode Panama Red to victory in the opening Ballylinch Stud Irish EBF Ingabelle Stakes, and followed up by driving Atomic Jones home in the second race, the Group 2 KPMG Champions Juvenile Stakes.

Gary Carroll rode Lyons’ third winner on the day, Camorra, in the Group 3 Paddy Power Stakes, while Colin Keane brought the curtain down on a remarkable day for himself and for his boss – a 16,301/1 four-timer – when he landed the concluding Irish Stallion Farms EBF “Sovereign Path” Handicap on Masen.

© The Sunday Times, 12th September 2021