It’s one of the biggest weekends of the year in Europe, with five Group 1s at stake on Irish Champions Weekend in what could be a make-or-break two days for Aidan O’Brien’s effort to break one of the most elusive world records on the books. It’s also one of the most important stops on the road to the Breeders’ Cup. No less than five races - three of the Group 1s, plus a Group 2 and a Group 3 - are ‘Win and You’re In’ qualifiers for the World Championships at Del Mar in November. Donn McClean reports.
When Sioux Nation kept on strongly to beat Beckford in the Keeneland Phoenix Stakes at the Curragh three and a half weeks ago, the Scat Daddy colt notched up Aidan O’Brien’s 14th G1 win of 2017.
It has been a hugely successful season so far for O’Brien, a classic season: the 2000 Guineas double with Churchill, the 1000 Guineas double with Winter, the Epsom Derby with Wings Of Eagles, the Irish Derby with Capri. He also fielded the runners-up in both the Epsom Oaks and the Irish Oaks, and if it hadn’t been for wunderfilly Enable, now no better than even money favourite for the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, Aidan O’Brien would have the eight classics run so far in 2017 in Britain and Ireland in his swag bag.
We tend to take O’Brien’s feats a little for granted because we are living through them. We tend to view these pinnacles as less than remarkable because it is Aidan O’Brien, the world’s top-ranked trainer, who is scaling them. Through the Ballydoyle prism, the extraordinary becomes commonplace, but that does not make the achievements any less extraordinary.
Growing haul at the highest level
When Highland Reel won the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes at the height of the 2016 summer, he took O’Brien’s lifetime G1 haul to 280, past celebrated Australian trainer Tommy Smith’s record total of 279. Coincidentally, it was the same Highland Reel who brought up O’Brien’s 300th win at the highest level when the son of Galileo landed the Prince of Wales’s Stakes at Royal Ascot in June this year.
It is at 307 now and there is no telling where it will end.
But it is not by coincidence that these things happen. Six Epsom Derbys, 12 Irish Derbys, six Longines Breeders’ Cup Turfs, the 1-2-3 in last year’s Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. And, as the number of G1 wins in 2017 mount up, Bobby Frankel’s world record of 25 in a calendar year once again comes into view.
The legendary Frankel’s record, set in 2003, has come into view before, like in 2008, when O’Brien ended the year with 23 G1 wins, and last year, when he ended up with 22. At this juncture last year, on the eve of Irish Champions Weekend, Aidan O’Brien’s G1 tally for the year stood at 12. This year it stands at 14. He is ahead of last year’s schedule.
Five G1 races will be run in Ireland on Saturday and Sunday over the course of Irish Champions Weekend and, last year, Aidan O’Brien won two of them: the Coolmore Fastnet Rock Matron Stakes with Alice Springs and the Goffs Vincent O’Brien National Stakes with Churchill. If the ball had hopped a little differently, however, it could have been even better.
Found and Minding finished second and third respectively in the Qipco Irish Champion Stakes behind Almanzor. Order Of St George was sent off at 1/7 for the Comer Group Irish St Leger but had to give best to Wicklow Brave.
Hydrangea was beaten a short head by Intricately in the Moyglare Stud Stakes, although the fact that the winner was trained by one of Aidan’s sons (Joseph) and ridden by the other (Donnacha) may have diluted the disappointment of that defeat a little.
This year’s Ballydoyle team for Irish Champions Weekend looks even stronger than last year’s. On Saturday at Leopardstown, Churchill is even money favourite for the Irish Champion Stakes (which is a ‘Win and You’re In’ race for the Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf) and Winter is even money favourite for the Matron Stakes (which carries an automatic place in the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf for the winner). And there is strength in depth too from Ballydoyle in both races, Cliffs Of Moher and Taj Mahal in the Irish Champion Stakes, Roly Poly and Hydrangea and Rhododendron in the Matron.
On Sunday at the Curragh, Order Of St George is back again in the Irish St Leger, his task rendered a little easier than it might have been by the defection of Big Orange, his odds shortened. He deserved to be a short price anyway, the 2015 winner, the first 3-year-old to win the race since Vinnie Roe won the first of his four in 2001, and last year’s runner-up. His record at the Curragh reads 211121 and he looked as good as ever in winning the Irish St Leger Trial over Sunday’s course and distance last month.
Gustav Klimt is odds-on for the National Stakes, also on Sunday, and Magical is a short price for the Moyglare (a qualifier for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf), with stable companions occupying three of the next four places in the betting behind her. It is an oak-strong team. Bookmakers say that there is about a 25 percent chance that Aidan O’Brien will win all five G1s.
If he did happen to win all five, Aidan O’Brien would emerge from Irish Champions Weekend with 19 G1 wins on the board thus far in 2017. That would be five more than at the same juncture last year when he ended the season with 22, just three away from Bobby Frankel’s record. Even if he won two or three or four, he would still have a chance.
It is still a sky-high task. But then, Aidan O’Brien has scaled sky-high peaks before.
Two more Breeders’ Cup qualifiers
Automatic berths in Breeders’ Cup races are also available for the winners of the G3 Willis Towers Watson Champions Juvenile Stakes at Leopardstown on Saturday (for the Juvenile Turf) and the G2 Derrinstown Stud Flying Five Stakes at the Curragh on Sunday (for the Juvenile Sprint).
Needless to say, O’Brien has strong hands in both, with Delano Roosevelt heading a three-pronged challenge for the 2-year-old contest and Caravaggio hot favourite for the Flying Five.