All eyes were fixed on The Curragh and Leopardstown Racecourse for the first running of the Irish Champions Weekend; a fixture which was touted to be one of the most important meetings in Irish racing history, writes Mark Boylan.
The initiative which was created to mark the end of the Irish racing calendar and crown champions in their respective divisions proved to be a remarkable success, drawing crowds in excess of 24,000 over the two-day meeting. With prize money of more than €3.5 Million and five Gr1 contests, the fixture attracted some stellar entries from France and Great Britain as well as the shining stars of the Irish racing scene.
Saturday’s card featured a workmanlike, but comprehensive victory for one of the most exciting two year-olds on these shores, John F Kennedy. Visually, this beautifully bred son of Galileo’s performance wasn’t spectacular and wouldn’t have left spectators rushing to take the odds of 6/1 for next year’s Epsom Derby (for which he is now the clear favourite), but he looks an improving sort and is certainly a horse to remember.
The most exciting performance of the entire weekend came in the Gr3 Enterprise Stakes over 1m2f. The Moyglare Stud bred Free Eagle returned from a 371 day absence to demolish his rivals by seven lengths – but in truth it could have been even further! The three year-old son of High Chaparral began to pass the field with three furlongs left to travel under a motionless Pat Smullen, before asserting four to five lengths clear in breathtaking fashion with two furlongs remaining. The one time Derby favourite (who had not yet been seen this season due to injury) provided an emotional victory for connections who displayed enormous patience to bring the colt back to winning ways. Victorious trainer Dermot Weld was elated with the victory, but also rueful of missed time saying “It seems it is a case of what might have been – he’s just a very good horse and he did it very very well”. The Champions Stakes at Ascot remains high on the agenda for connections, but after his performance at the weekend, it’s clear that following this hugely exciting talent will prove profitable wherever he appears over the coming weeks.
The feature race of Champions Weekend was the QIPCO Irish Champions Stakes, a contest which has featured many heart-pounding and exhilarating clashes in its history. This year’s renewal was predicted to be another thrilling occasion with Champion Three Year-Old Australia widely expected to join this illustrious roll of honour which features Sea The Stars, The Fugue, Snow Fairy & Giant’s Causeway to name but a few. As Joseph O’Brien got the leg up on his father Aidan’s superstar, a number of cheers came from the crowd willing horse and rider on. One of the most impeccably bred horses in recent years (by dual Derby winner Galileo and dual Oaks winner Ouija Board), Australia was sent off at odds of 3/10 but faced a troubled trip throughout, being forced six horses wide coming out of the back-straight. O’Brien was forced to show his hand arguably earlier than ideal when turning for home, but the favourite’s electrifying pace took him past the field of with apparent ease, a furlong and a half from home. An early struggler from the back of the field, The Grey Gatsby began his pursuit of the colt Aidan O’Brien has described as “the best I’ve ever trained” and began to reel in the leader with every stride. As the line drew closer, the flashy grey, under an inspired ride from Ryan Moore, dramatically snatched victory from the favourite in the dying strides. This never say die attitude of Moore left every spectator in attendance stunned that he had caught the seemingly unbeatable favourite, but even more so, an overriding emotion that they had just witnessed a moment of magic; the sort of genius we have become accustomed to seeing from one of the world’s finest riders.
From my own perspective, I strongly feel that had Australia received a less challenging journey, he would have got the better of The Grey Gatsby (as he already has done on two occasions this season). Regardless, full credit is due to the winner and his connections who supplemented him for this illustrious contest earlier in the week.
Sunday’s card kicked off with a strong performance from Dermot Weld’s Tarfasha, defeating the €6 Million purchase Chiquita in dominating fashion. Impressed with her victory, connections are keen on a trip to Breeders’ Cup in Santa Anita and/or the Prix de l’Opera at Longchamp next month with their tough three year-old filly.
The two year-olds then took centre stage with two Gr1’s on the card for colts and fillies respectively. The Moyglare Stud Stakes went to English raider Cursory Glance for the in-form Roger Varian stable. The likeable filly by Distorted Humour appeared to relish the step up to seven furlongs after winning at Royal Ascot on her penultimate start. Sunday’s performance propelled her to the head of the market for next May’s 1,000 Guineas at Newmarket after catching the eye of many.
Likewise, Aidan O’Brien’s Gleneagles is now vying for favouritism in the colt’s equivalent at Newmarket next May, after proving far too strong for his rivals in the Vincent O’Brien National Stakes. It was a straightforward task for the favourite who is expected to improve again following today’s triumph and step up to a mile for his next start.
The Irish St. Leger proved to be a shock result with outsider Brown Panther landing the spoils under an opportunistic, front-running ride from Richard Kingscote. Owned by former England footballer Michael Owen, the staying veteran was a popular winner with the crowd, but it is understood he will not be heading “down under” for a tilt at the Melbourne Cup.
Overall, the Irish Champions Weekend was a massive success which gained great publicity in the national media. It was dramatic, gripping and entertaining for everyone in attendance. Taking into account that this event will grow with time, it would be no surprise if it develops into a Breeders’ Cup-like meeting, attracting entries from all over the globe. The facilities at Leopardstown and the Curragh are second to none and display superb hospitality for both equine and human visitors. I’m sure I speak for the organisers of this event when I say that we would love to see South African raiders on our shores for events like this – although the thought of another JJ The Jet Plane or Shea Shea coming over would be quite frightening! Congratulations to all those who made this historic meeting such a wonderful success.