Appleby buzzing as ‘outstanding’ Ghaiyyath takes on Magical & Co. on a weekend to savour

Dominant: Magical (purple cap, right) has no answer to the power of Ghaiyyath (William Buick) in the Juddmonte International Stakes at York. Photo: Mark Cranham/

There is top-class action in each of Europe’s major racing nations this weekend but nothing surpasses the fare in Ireland, where the Longines Irish Champions Weekend features no fewer than six Group 1 events over the cards at Leopardstown on Saturday and the Curragh on Sunday.

The 16-race double-header carries €3.6 million prize money in total – and no fewer than five races are part of the Breeders’ Cup ‘Win and You’re In’ Challenge offering fees-paid berths to designated races at Keeneland on November 6-7.

Three of them take place at Leopardstown on Day One of a two-day spectacular introduced in 2014, headed by the nation’s most prestigious race, the €1.25 million Irish Champion Stakes.

Giant-striding superstar Ghaiyyath, described as “special” and “one of Godolphin’s great horses” by trainer Charlie Appleby, heads a star-studded cast also featuring defending champion Magical. With Ryan Moore riding her Ballydoyle stablemate Japan, Seamie Heffernan is named to ride Magical for the first time in her long career.

A guaranteed spot in the starting gate at the Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf is up for grabs for the winner of the Saturday showpiece, while the G1 Coolmore America ‘Justify’ Matron Stakes – won last year by subsequent Breeders’ Cup winner Iridessa – and the KPMG Champions Juvenile Stakes also feature in the Breeders’ Cup Challenge.

Donnacha O’Brien-trained Fancy Blue, a Classic winner in France, sets the standard in the Matron, while Aidan O’Brien is looking to win the G2 Champions Juvenile for the ninth time in 11 years with Van Gogh.

Irish Champion Stakes: a bit of context

History: Established in 1976, the Irish Champion is the focal point of Ireland’s Group 1-laden Champions Weekend. Initially run at Leopardstown as the Joe McGrath Memorial, the 1m2f contest was moved to Phoenix Park in 1984 and renamed the Phoenix Champion Stakes. When that famous venue was shuttered in 1991, Ireland’s most prestigious race returned to Leopardstown in its current guise as unquestionably one of the world’s top races on turf. While a list of previous winners reads like a who’s who, there has been only one dual winner: Dylan Thomas (2006, 2007).

Star turn: Fantastic Light (2001) – not necessarily the best horse ever to win the race – in fact, definitely not – but the Godolphin star’s showdown with the great Galileo was destined to linger in the memory. Coming at the height of the Coolmore/Godolphin rivalry, this was a highly anticipated rematch after the pair’s ding-dong battle in the King George at Ascot. Amid allegation of team tactics – both sides employed pacemakers – Fantastic Light got his revenge on the dual-Derby winner, staying on strongly to win by a head in a thriller described as “one of the greatest races witnessed throughout the current decade” by the British Horseracing Authority.

Most wins (trainer): Aidan O’Brien (8) – Giant’s Causeway (2000), High Chaparral (2003), Oratorio (2005), Dylan Thomas (2006, 2007), Cape Blanco (2010), So You Think (2011), Magical (2019)

Most wins (jockey): Mick Kinane (7) – Carroll House (1989), Cezanne (1994), Pilsudski (1997), Giant’s Causeway (2000), High Chaparral (2003), Azamour (2004), Sea the Stars (2009)

Breeders’ Cup Challenge

The winner will receive an automatic fees-paid berth in the Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf at Keeneland on November 7, while the Matron Stakes and Champions Juvenile Sprint are ‘Win and You’re In’ races for the Maker’s Mark Filly & Mare Turf and Juvenile Turf respectively. A minimum travel allowance of $40,000 will also be provided for all starters based outside North America.

Already qualified: Turf (6) – Nao Do Mais (GP Carlos Pellegrini, Argentina), Lord North (Prince of Wales’s Stakes, Royal Ascot), Chrono Genesis (Takarazuka Kinen, Hanshin, Japan), Enable (King George, Ascot), Red King (Del Mar Handicap); Channel Maker (Sword Dancer, Saratoga)

Filly & Mare Turf (3) – Queen Supreme (Paddock Stakes, Kenilworth, South Africa), Almond Eye (Victoria Mile, Tokyo), Love (Yorkshire Oaks, UK)

Juvenile Turf (0)

Breeders’ Cup past performance

Although she had been narrowly beaten by Enable in an epic Breeders’ Cup Turf in 2018, Magical did not travel to America after her victory at Leopardstown 12 months ago. However, the Irish Champion Stakes has been won in the past by subsequent Breeders’ Cup Turf winners such as Daylami (1999), Fantastic Light (2001) and High Chaparral (2003). Roaring Lion was last in the Classic after a brilliant victory in Ireland in 2018.

Among horses beaten in the Irish Champion, 2015 runner-up Found and Highland Reel (unplaced in 2016) went on to win that season’s Turf. In 2006, third-placed Ouija Board landed the Breeders Cup Filly & Mare Turf.

Last year’s Matron Stakes winner, Iridessa, followed up in the Filly & Mare Turf at Santa Anita.

Top contenders for 2020

Ghaiyyath (Charlie Appleby/William Buick) — formidable performer looking for fourth Group 1 win in succession (and fifth overall) after casting all before him in Coronation Cup, Coral-Eclipse and Juddmonte International; second-highest ranked horse in the world on TRC Global Rankings (behind Enable) and highest this season according to ratings handicappers. A strong-travelling type who promises to be ideally suited by this rolling 1m2f test.

Magical (Aidan O’Brien/Seamie Heffernan) — outstanding racemare looks better than ever this year in a pair of G1 victories in Ireland, taking career total to six at top level (including this race in 2019); however, no match for Ghaiyyath at York.

Sottsass (Jean-Claude Rouget/Colin Keane) – dual G1 winner looked a bit rusty latest in deep ground at Deauville last time out; Arc remains principal target (third last year). Trainer won this with Almanzor in 2016.

Japan (Aidan O’Brien/Ryan Moore) — dual G1 winner last term but slightly below that in three runs so far in 2020; nagging feeling remains that he’s capable of better, and had excuses last time when last of three in King George as he came back with a stone bruise; rain might help.

What they say

  • Charlie Appleby (trainer of Ghaiyyath): “We are really looking forward to the weekend. He travels to Ireland at the peak of his career. He’s now a 5-year-old and, by any standards, he is lightly raced. He has run only 12 times, winning nine and placing twice. This is his fourth season in training, and I believe what we are now seeing is an outstanding racehorse at the top of his game. He’s going to Leopardstown in as good a condition as we have ever had him. With every race this year, I think he has got better.”
  • Aidan O’Brien (trainer of Magical): “She ran in York and Ryan [Moore] was very happy with her and thought she might progress for it. She’s a hardy lady and gives her all. There is every chance she’d run a very big race.” (Racing TV)
  • Jean Claude-Rouget (trainer of Sottsass): “Sottsass is in top form and goes to Leopardstown – it’s a race he has to run in for his stallion career. He gets better with racing, so we’ll see what he does and then he’ll run in the Arc.” (Racing Post)
  • Aidan O’Brien (trainer of Japan): “We’re happy with him now. He came back with very sore feet [after King George]. He was sore for a week, but has been re-shod and is taking his training very well.”
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