Tony Keenan looks ahead to Irish Champions Weekend
Tony Keenan looks ahead to Irish Champions Weekend
Willie Mullins winning hardly ever comes as a surprise but his victory in the top trainer prize at Galway was a shock; Dermot Weld had been so incumbent in winning every year since 1997 they may as well have retired the award.
Mullins had a brilliant week from relatively few runners and his win led to inevitable questions about the status of his top jumpers for the winter but the one thing we don’t want is a 12-month Jumps news cycle.We remain in the midst of the Flat season proper so let’s stave off talk of uncompetitive National Hunt races just yet.
As someone who seems to remember his record in every race and meeting in the calendar, Weld will certainly have been disappointed to lose his Galway title but the Derby-winning trainer has bigger targets at the moment, a few of which come up over Irish Champions Weekend.
In its third year, Ireland’s top Flat fixture across two days at Leopardstown and the Curragh has already become a target meeting which has been achieved through a combination of prizemoney, timing and good quality racetracks.
It goes without saying that the best Irish Flat horses will turn up but the weekend needs raiders to succeed as otherwise it runs the risk of becoming a Ballydoyle benefit and it is good to read about the likes of Hawkbill, Big Orange, Fair Eva, Almanzor and Qemah being aimed at the meeting, particularly the last-named pair as French raiders are a rare sight in Ireland these days.
Saturday’s Champion Stakes card at Leopardstown remains the pick of the two days for a few reasons, not least the race itself being the standout of the entire weekend.
Leopardstown as a racecourse is superior to the Curragh for raceday experience and there is an element of the Kildare track hanging onto Leopardstown’s coat tails but they may yet come up to speed when their proposed and needed renovation in 2017 though details about that remain rather murky.The 2017 fixture list has been delayed with concerns about whether or not the Curragh can host their race-days next year.
The Champion Stakes has a host of possible UK runners like Postponed, My Dream Boat, Time Test and The Grey Gatsby but exact plans running plans are unclear at time of writing and in truth they look a rather underwhelming crop of older horses. Perhaps the big UK challenger will prove to be Hawkbill though that will depend on how he fares in the International atYork;his Eclipse win which came as a surprise at the time has worked out well.
HARZAND however remains the one they all have to beat. The drop to ten furlongs after winning a pair of Derbies could be held against him but he certainly isn’t slow; while his Epsom win came in a strongly-run race, the Irish Derby was a
tactical affair despite what visuals suggest and he showed plenty of gears to beat the strong-travelling Idaho. There is a strong suspicion that he only does enough in the finish which will always mask his actual superiority. Dermot Weld could well go into the race two-handed with Fascinating Rock a possible runner; ability-wise, he could give Harzand a race but as his career has developed he seems to take a run to reach peak form and he hasn’t been out since May. A repeat in the Champion Stakes at Ascot may be his ultimate target.
Aidan O’Brien is sure to run a star in this race as he has tended to do every year. US Army Ranger could be that horse via the Royal Whip Stakes at the Curragh but Harzand has improved since Epsom and can uphold that form. Minding is another possibility but she seems to have every race as an option at present; it is hoped at least that she will take on the colts at some point.The Gurkha would seem an unlikely participant after a number of hard races in a short space of time and perhaps not being totally effective at this trip in the Eclipse.
Minding is a possible for the Matron, the other Group 1 at Leopardstown, and she could well bid to do a Legatissimo in dropping down in trip from the Nassau to win over a mile here. She would clearly take the world of beating but Aidan O’Brien could choose to rely on Alice Springs whose Group 1 credentials are easy to knock.
QEMAH beat Alice Springs last time at Deauville and sets the standard outside of Minding; she has impressed with how she travels and quickens in her races of late.The last filly to beat Minding, Jet Setting, also has this race as a target but it remains to be seen if she can return to the form of his Irish 1,000 Guineas win and a fillies on the up like Persuasive and Rose De Pierre could be more interesting.
Finally, mention must go to the Galway Mile winner CREGGS PIPES who is the most improved horse of this Irish flat season. She has improved 32lbs already this year and her jockey said she didn’t handle Galway particularly well; if it comes up soft, her opponents will know they’ve been in a race.
Back at the Curragh, the St. Leger is big race for the older horses and it is hard to look beyond the obvious claims of 2015
winner ORDER OF ST GEORGE. He put up a massive figure when running away with this last year as a mere three-yearold and he has looked at least as good this term, running out a comfortable winner of the Ascot Gold Cup despite a troubled trip. Some ease in the ground would suit and if it did come up very fast Aidan O’Brien would have an able deputy in Bondi Beach who shaped with distinct promise in his first run off a break at Leopardstown though the fact Lloyd Williams has recently bought a share in him suggests the Melbourne Cup is the ultimate aim.
The likeable Big Orange may prove the main challenger to Order Of St George though he has had a few races run to suit this season and Team Ballydoyle are unlikely to let him have a‘ solo ’out front in this. Another interesting entry in this Group 1 is ALMELA and while she likely isn’t good enough to compete at this level having only won a maiden, there is a good prize to be won with her.She was narrowly beaten by Zhukova last September, form I rate highly, and went very well on her belated first run of 2016 at Leopardstown on ground that was too quick for her.
Caravaggio would be the star turn for the juveniles if taking his chance in the National Stakes but he clearly has lots of speed and his trainer seems more inclined to keep him for races over six furlongs like the Middle Park.
Ballydoyle will still have plenty of options for the race, including War Decree and especially CAPRI, the latter looking good in backing up quickly after Galway to win at Tipperary in a deep listed race. A darker one with a chance is ALEXIOS KOMNENOS.He won a Curragh maiden at a massive price over Derby weekend before running Churchill close at Leopardstown, shaping like he might get the better of that rival with more experience under his belt.
In the Moyglare, the 1,000 Guineas favourite Fair Eva would be a big player but BRAVE ANNA too would have her chance. The form of her Albany win has been simultaneously knocked and boosted but she shaped better than the result, missing the break and getting to the front too soon. It is interesting to note that collateral form through Kilmah and Dainty Dandy suggest herself and Fair Eva are closely matched.
Away from the big races, ZHUKHOVA is one filly I’m looking forward to see over Champions Weekend. A much improved performer, she could go for the twelvefur long race at Leopardstown won by her stablemate Fascinating Rock last year en route to the tilt at the Fillies and Mares on British Champions Day.
A hitherto frustrating sort, TOSCANINI has found the winning groove this season and his victory in the Phoenix Sprint Stakes may have slipped under the radar with the flop of Air Force Blue in the same race. In the handicaps, BREATHE EASY would be an interesting runner having won a good race over a mile on Derby day on his first start for Gavin Crom well; it was his first start since the previous November so there should be more to come in fitness terms.
One horse I want to be against is Hit It A Bomb who is being aimed at the Boomerang Stakes at Leopardstown. He had training problems in the early part of the season and looked reluctant in the finish on his return to the track in August; his three wins last year were visually spectacular but the form may amount to little.
Winners won’t be easy to find over Irish Champions Weekend with the racing super-competitive, so keep the following horses in mind for less competitive fare. Galway always throws up its share of eye- catchers and MEMBER STATE was one in the maiden won by Right Honourable on the opening evening.Not only did Paddy Twomey’s gelding do best of the newcomers on a track that heavily favours experience but he went with distinct promise, racing keenly for much of the way but still finding plenty in the finish. That form has already worked out with the second winning a maiden and the third placed in a Group 1.
Later on the same card, CARDINAL PALACE shaped well in the big handicap for amateur riders, his jockey leaving him out of his ground and asking for his effort too late.He can certainly win a flat handicap off 77 with trips short of two miles most suitable.
NONETHELESS landed a punt in the maiden on the last day of Galway despite plenty going wrong in the race; she was held up in a slowly-run race, raced wide for most and had to make up her ground early. She won well in any case, shaping like a filly that would improve again for a step up in trip and something like the Irish Cesarewitch could be on the cards.
Ger Lyons has been having another good season and his old boy GREEK CANYON suggested another win was imminent in a recent placed effort Fairyhouse; he went too hard, too soon that day and set the race up for the hold-up horses.