O’Brien on course for week­end of dom­i­na­tion

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - SPORTS - BRIAN O’CON­NOR Rac­ing Cor­re­spon­dent

That Ai­dan O’Brien is just 4-1 to win all five Group One fea­tures dur­ing Ir­ish Cham­pi­ons Week­end is a hard-nosed cal­cu­la­tion of how dom­i­nant he could be dur­ing Ir­ish rac­ing’s two-day shop win­dow to the world.

Even a head­line-friendly prospect of Ir­ish St Leger suc­cess for Queen El­iz­a­beth with Dart­mouth to­mor­row can’t budge O’Brien and the might of the Cool­more em­pire from cen­tre stage ahead of the ¤4.6 mil­lion bo­nanza which kicks off at Leop­ard­stown this af­ter­noon.

Churchill ap­pears a stand­out for the ¤1.25 mil­lion QIPCO Ir­ish Cham­pion Stakes and an­other dual-Guineas win­ner, Win­ter, heads a qual­ity O’Brien team for the Cool­more Ma­tron Stakes.

To­mor­row, Or­der Of St Ge­orge is likely to start odds-on to dispense with Dart­mouth in the Comer Group-spon­sored Leger while O’Brien has an­other hot favourite for the Goffs Na­tional Stakes in Gus­tav Klimt. He has half the 10 Moyglare Stud Stakes run­ners into the bar­gain.

Of course sim­i­lar clean-sweep pre­dic­tions have been made in the pre­vi­ous three years of ‘Cham­pi­ons Week­end’. In­stead O’Brien has ‘only’ won half a dozen of the 15 top-flight prizes in that time, a statis­tic which helped bed in Ir­ish rac­ing’s big new pro­mo­tional ini­tia­tive.

Its suc­cess was helped in par­tic­u­lar by ma­jor in­ter­na­tional in­volve­ment, es­pe­cially in the fea­tured Cham­pion Stakes.

From The Great Gatsby’s dra­matic de­feat of Aus­tralia in 2014, through Golden Horn’s way­ward 2015 vic­tory and on to Al­man­zor’s eclipse of one of the finest fields ever as­sem­bled in this coun­try, the big race nar­ra­tive has never been less than in­trigu­ing.

Maybe pre­sump­tion will again get a kick in the teeth come 6.45 this evening. But just when the ‘Cham­pi­ons Week­end’ con­cept can’t rely on nov­elty value any­more comes a re­newal of the fea­ture event which ap­pears to pale in com­par­i­son to what’s gone be­fore.

Just as it is valid to ar­gue that em­u­lat­ing the strength in depth of last year’s con­test is all but im­pos­si­ble it is also rea­son­able to as­sume plenty of fin­gers are be­ing kept crossed for no last-minute dra­mas about Churchill.

The Great Gatsby ap­pears a shadow of his 2014 pomp but along with his sta­ble com­pan­ion Zhukova and Dec­o­rated Knight he is one of only three Group One win­ners up against the favourite.

Churchill’s over­all pro­file gives him an out­stand­ing chance of bridg­ing the six-year gap to the last of O’Brien’s seven wins in the race.

It’s easy to ar­gue the Ma­tron holds more depth with half a dozen proven top-flight win­ners lin­ing up. A peak-form Win­ter should win this. How­ever, she is drop­ping back to a mile after a tough race in the Nas­sau and is al­ready be­ing tar­geted at Novem­ber’s Breed­ers Cup.

Dual-Group One win­ner Roly Poly, in par­tic­u­lar, is strong Bal­l­ly­doyle back-up although it’s worth re­call­ing how Qemah started favourite for this last year when al­most every­thing that could go wrong for the French filly did go wrong. She should get her favoured strong pace this time.

Nev­er­the­less, should to­day’s fare obey the book­mak­ers’ script odds will con­tract about a mem­o­rable clean sweep, leav­ing ev­ery­one to ac­knowl­edge O’Brien’s con­tin­ued ex­cel­lence and maybe si­mul­ta­ne­ously pon­der whether such dom­i­nance may im­pact on mo­men­tum sur­round­ing the over­all ‘Cham­pi­ons Week­end’ project.

In at­ten­dance terms, last year’s com­bined tally of al­most 24,000 be­tween the two tracks was down on 2015 and that slide is un­likely to be re­versed with the max­i­mum 7,000-ca­pac­ity al­lowed at the Cur­ragh due to its con­tin­u­ing ¤70 mil­lion re­de­vel­op­ment.

To­mor­row’s Leger has been robbed of a re­match be­tween Or­der Of St Ge­orge and Big Orange due to soft ground con­di­tions.

In­stead, it is Dart­mouth and the Jes­sica Har­ring­ton-trained Torce­dor who are ex­pected to give Or­der Of St Ge­orge most to do.

Con­sid­er­ing he failed to over­haul Wick­low Brave at 1-7 a year ago, it’s hard to imag­ine even the hard­est of punt­ing hard-hit­ters get­ting too stuck into the 2015 win­ner. But it’s still hard to be con­fi­dent about him los­ing ei­ther.

There would be a cer­tain sym­me­try though if it came down to Gor­don El­liott to spoil the O’Brien party. O’Brien’s first Group One came in the Na­tional Stakes 21 years ago. El­liott is look­ing for his first with Beck­ford.

And if soft ground hin­ders Gus­tav Klimt, it could hap­pen with Pat Smullen on board for the first time.

PHO­TO­GRAPH: INPHO

Ryan Moore on Win­ter wins the Tat­ter­salls Ir­ish 1,000 Guineas at the Cur­ragh in May.

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