• In The Stables with Mark Bird

    The fourth annual Irish Champions Weekend, sponsored by LONGINES, is the pinnacle of the year for Flat racing enthusiasts in Ireland and is the first of three European end-of-season championship events, followed in the coming weeks by the Arc weekend at Chantilly and British Champions Day at Ascot. The quality of the 10 Group races at Leopardstown and the Curragh speak for themselves and there is plenty to look forward to in the supporting handicaps as well.

    As ever, the QIPCO Irish Champion Stakes is the centre-piece of the weekend. Last year, it ranked joint second in the LONGINES Order of Merit for the world’s Group/Grade 1 races, only fractionally behind the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Indeed, the average rating for the winner of the race over the past 20 years is a staggering 126 – as such, it is very much in the league of Super-Group 1s. This year, the stage would appear set for Churchill to really prove himself as a top-class performer at three. Although disappointing at Royal Ascot, last year’s Champion European two-year-old performed much better behind the year older Ulysses at York, trying ten furlongs for the first time. Rated 123 at present, he could be challenged most by fellow three-year-olds Eminent (by Frankel) (116) and Godolphin’s Benbatl (114), as well as Decorated Knight (119), who is bidding for his second Group 1 in Ireland this year having won the Tattersalls Gold Cup at the Curragh in May. 

    The Distaff highlight of the weekend is the Group 1 Coolmore Fastnet Rock Matron Stakes. Three-year-old Winter is rated 119 and has proved herself the dominant filly of her generation and in the expectation that she will take her chance in this contest, the first of the weekend’s Group 1s, I would see her biggest challenge coming from last year’s second and third Persuasive (112) and Qemah (114), who could both be said to be on retrieval missions after luckless seasons so far.

    Saturday’s card also features the Group 2 Clipper Logistics Boomerang Stakes, won last year by Awtaad. There are two interesting French entries in this race in the shape of Taareef, the 120-rated Group 2 winner, and the 115-rated Zelzal, also trained by Jean-Claude Rouget, who was responsible for last year’s Champion Stakes winner Almanzor. However, while they will be difficult to beat, I am very much looking forward to seeing how the supplemented Sir John Lavery (111) fares in this race. Prepared for a tilt at the Epsom Derby earlier in the year, he appeared not to stay in his prep races but dropped in trip back to a mile on his return from a break in the Listed Platinum Stakes at Cork recently, he looked very much like a horse with a big future over this distance and could be one to build on that effort here.

    Sunday’s highlight is the Comer Group International Irish St Leger and this should be one of the highlights of the weekend. Order Of St George (120) put up the best staying performance in Ireland in the past 20 years when winning this race by 11 lengths two years ago and although beaten in the race last year, will take all the beating if reproducing that run. To my eyes, he is best when allowed to stride on from a long way out and his rematch with Big Orange, should he travel, is one to whet the appetite. However, we shouldn’t forget that there are some potentially improving three-year-olds in the line-up also in the form of Rekindling and Venice Beach, who could both be embryonic stars in the staying division.  Order of St George was rated 115 at a similar stage of his career, just 1lb ahead of Rekindling (114) and 2lbs ahead of Venice Beach (113). 

    At the other end of the distance spectrum, it will be good to see Caravaggio, described by his trainer Aidan O'Brien as the fastest horse that he has trained since Mozart, back on home soil for a tilt at the Derrinstown Stud Flying Five Stakes. Equipped with new racing shoes, he is 7lbs clear of his rivals on ratings and we can probably expect him to put a slightly disappointing effort in France behind him. This year’s three-year-olds sprinters look very exciting and Caravaggio ranks right up there with the best of them in Harry Angel and Lady Aurelia at this stage. 

    The weekend also allows us to see the stars of the future with two Group 1 races for two year olds. The Moyglare Stud Stakes is the first Group 1 for two-year-olds over seven furlongs this season in Europe and it is the first of three Group 1 races on day two. It looks a high quality contest and certainly in terms of pedigrees, it has the makings of a brilliant race. In addition to Clemmie (sister to Churchill), three of the first four in last month’s Group 2 Debutante Stakes - Magical (sister to Rhododendron), Happily (sister to Gleneagles) and September (out of Peeping Fawn) re-oppose. Interestingly, last year’s Debutante result was reversed in the Moyglare and who’s to say that mightn’t happen again. It all depends really on which of the trio shows the most improvement. Further spice is added to the race in the form of the Eddie Lynam-trained Muirin, who put up a very taking performance to win her maiden at the course last month and while this is a big step up in class, she does look a filly with a future. 

    The juvenile colts get their chance to shine in the Group 1 Goffs Vincent O’Brien National Stakes and this race has been a launch pad for so many stars over the years, among them Sinndar, George Washington, Teofilo and Dawn Approach. Last year’s winner Churchill was rated 111 coming into the race last year and on 113, Beckford is the highest rated of the entries this time around. He was second in the Group 1 Phoenix Stakes, shaping as if an extra furlong may well suit and sets a decent standard.  Gustav Klimt (109) looks the main Ballydoyle hope as he bids to emulate Churchill and is open to improvement after overcoming a difficult passage in winning the Group 2 Superlative Stakes at Newmarket in July. Worth noting also is Verbal Dexterity, who was runner-up to Beckford in the Railway Stakes over what may have been an inadequate 6 furlongs, and he could well improve upon his rating of 110, stepped up to this seven furlongs. Brother Bear from Jessica Harrington’s yard is also stepping up to seven furlongs for the first time here and it is worth remembering that he beat subsequent Group 1 winner Sioux Nation on two occasions earlier in the year. Hopefully he can recapture that sort of form and if he does, he may well also play a leading part. 

    Finally, the weekend’s four valuable handicaps are again over-subscribed and there is some real quality in all four races. Although British-trained runners have managed to win just one handicap so far in Ireland this year, I would expect them to have a strong hand in the ‘Bold Lad’ Sprint handicap, where they are responsible for seven of the top 12 horses in the weights. They are also well represented in the seven-furlong ‘Sovereign Path’ handicap with seven of the top 14 horses in the weights. However, in the longer distance ten-furlong ‘Northfields’ and 12-furlong ‘Petingo’ handicaps, the home team looks strong. Interestingly, the only horse entered in the four races that remains unbeaten in handicaps to date is the Joe Murphy-trained Silverkode, who runs off a rating of 99 in the ‘Sovereign Path’ handicap, and it will be fascinating to see if he can maintain his upwardly mobile profile and progress into higher company still.  

    With racing on the beach on Tuesday and north of the border on Friday in advance of the weekend’s top-class action, it makes for a great week’s racing!


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