Tony Keenan is looking forward to what’s become the highlight of the Irish Flat season
Tony Keenan previews the big Irish Champions Weekend
This September brings up the fourth iteration of Irish Champions Weekend, a race meeting that has proved an unqualified success. Central to that success has been the competitiveness of the racing with a strong challenge from UK trainers to face the inevitable Ballydoyle bluebloods along with plenty of runners from the other home yards.There are concerns about how well that third group will do in 2017 however.
Lost amid Aidan O’Brien’s quest to beat Bobby Frankel’s record of 25 Group 1 winners and his broad dominance of the Irish season is the fact that it is a zero sum game; for O’Brien to win, others have to lose. It’s been a down year for basically all of the other big yards with the exception of Ger Lyons.Irish horses did particularly poorly at Royal Ascot which can prove a useful barometer of the overall quality of the Irish scene; outside of O’Brien, only Willie Mullins had a winner for Ireland with Bolger andWeld barely trying,seemingly wise to the fact they had little to offer.
Over the last three runnings of Irish ChampionsWeekend,there have been 23 winners trained by Irish handlers other than O’Brien, an average of 7.6 per year. I would be surprised if that average surpassed this time.
Dermot Weld did best of the rest with six winners in all but he continues to struggle, allowing that there have been some rays of hope lately.DavidWachman was next best with three winners but then his horses have simply been transferred to Ballydoyle;Winter is the prime example of this but O’Brien’s strength in the juvenile filly division is another consequence as many of those would have been trained byWachman.
This year’s Irish Champion Stakes has a lot to live up to after a 2016 renewal that was likely the best flat race in the world in 2016;a one-two-three of Almanzor,Found and Minding was backed up by down-thefield finishes for New Bay, Highland Reel and Harzand amongst others. As ever, a lot will depend on what Ballydoyle run and their plans likely to be heavily influenced by what happens in the Juddmonte International at York run after we go to print.
I am quite down on Churchill at the moment and don’t really see where the improvement comes with him after nine career runs;the step up to 10 furlongs will need to have a marked effect. It would be no surprise ifWINTER was a late switcher into this race much like Minding was last year;she is not quite as that one’s level yet but is a filly that does everything right in her races and seems impervious to ground. It is worth remembering that this is a major race for Ballydoyle and Coolmore, right up there with the Derby and Breeders’Cup and probably ahead of the Arc, and they are inclined to throw plenty of runners at it with their perceived second string often outrunning their odds. HIGHLAND REEL was only seventh in the race last year when the ground was too soft and he’d be another player if there was some firm in the description – his figures under such conditions reading:11511211 – and he missed York with a possible view to this race.
ROLY POLY GOOD FOR MATRON
The Matron Stakes is obviously Winter’s to lose but I suspect she will go elsewhere and in that case her able deputy ROLY POLY could step in and win; since Royal Ascot, she has played Alice Springs to Winter’s Minding.Roly Poly is not a superstar but she is tough and tends to give her
running every day and while Qemah was unlucky behind her in the Prix Rothschild at Deauville, that one was disappointing in this race last year and needs to be ridden for luck with her jockey unlikely to have much experience of this track. Last year’s runner-up Persuasive is another that could take her chance and there was some promise in her first run of the season in that same Deauville race.
On Sunday, the Moyglare Stud Stakes could be one of the races of the season if only because we could get to see all of the good O’Brien fillies against each other; September, Happily, Magical, Clemmie, Actress and Ballet Shoes are all possible runners. My modus operandi in these races tends to be a simple one: just back the bigger-priced Ballydoyle runners. The longer-priced Hydrangea managed to beat Rhododendron last year though she failed to win while past winners of this like Minding and Misty For Me were the perceived second string.
Those circumstances prevailed in the key trial race, the Debutante Stakes over course-and-distance in August, with Magical beating out both Happily and September though the trainer did opine that both the defeated fillies would prefer better ground while September may have needed the run. The one I’m really interested in from that race is the third MARY TUDOR who was having just her second start.She was keen early in the manner of one that could have done with strong gallop and while not trained by O’Brien shaped like there is a lot more to come. Beaten Albany Stakes favourite Alpha Centauri is another to throw in the mix with the extra furlong and the prospect of slower ground pluses in her favour; it is worth remembering she beat Actress pointless twice earlier in the season.
KLIMT CAN TAKE THE NATIONAL
The National Stakes is another potential firecracker of a two-year-old race and 2,000 Guineas favourite Expert Eye would be the one to beat if taking his chance; there is a possibility Michael Stoute will wait for the Dewhurst to give him experience of the Newmarket track. GUSTAV KLIMT is likely to be the Ballydoyle number one and while he beat an ordinary field in the July Stakes,the manner of his success in overcoming serious trouble-in-running was striking. Amedeo Modigliani was third to Gustav Klimt on debut and has since won a Galway maiden comfortably but might be kept for races over a mile but Phoenix Stakes second BECKFORD remains a big player in this. He was done for toe over six furlongs on fast ground last time and this looks a much more suitable race.
It may be the last classic of the season but the Irish St.Leger is a damp squib relative to the other races over the weekend with the stayers having been a poor crop all season.It is Order Of St George’s race to lose but as we said prior to Royal Ascot
he is not one to back at a short price and Wicklow Brave did get the better of him in this last year.
Galway is always the most magnificent track for eye-catchers, almost as if the venue was created to produce trouble-inrunning, and with the quality of the meeting always on the rise, the horses to come out of it can be expected to do well in better races.The best race of the week was the Connacht Hotel Handicap for qualified riders on opening night which brought together a host of well-handicapped horses; it produced an excellent time-figure and the form is worth following. The winner Whiskey Sour followed up later in the week and might even make the grade into a group performer but Swamp Fox in second was a standout given he raced four or five wide of the field from seven furlongs out and looked much better than the result. He backed that up with a heart-breaking second off 148 in the Galway Hurdle and looks on the up on the flat and over hurdles. Lagostovegas was one that travelled supremely well with a drop in trip (again on the flat and over hurdles) likely to suit while Miles To Memphis was another to take out of it.
Dermot Weld managed only two winners over the week but that was probably an achievement with how his year has gone. Tandem had been one of his few standard-bearers in 2017 and things didn’t go his way in the Galway Mile where he travelled well before meeting trouble; he is better than that and Galway may not be his track in any case. So You Thought is another that went well for the Weld yard, doing best of the pace in a strongly-run three-year-old handicap on Wednesday,and he looks on a good mark.
Galway hosts plenty of low-grade Flat racing over the seven days and Avalanche was unfortunate not to win a race having hit the frame twice over seven furlongs;he is thriving at the moment and had the misfortune of not being able to get into a mile race at Galway which is his ideal trip. All The Mollies is rated just 55 but she ran a cracker behind the well-handicapped Empress Lyla despite coming off a break; she can win again for a new yard that recently claimed her. Highland Fling is another with her current yard a relatively short time and he went close on his first start on the Flat for them over the week.
Over jumps,A Toi Phil was given plenty to do before finishing fourth in the Galway Plate.Though not up to Grade 1 class, his record below it reads:2R11111124 and Gordon Elliott is adept at placing horses like him into some of the lesser graded races in the early part of the jumps season proper.Noel Meade’s Joey Sasa was a disappointment after some initial promise over hurdles but there was plenty to like about his Galway Hurdle fourth behind Tigris River and he can land a decent prize this autumn.
Roly Poly (left)