The building blocks for Irish Champions Weekend - the fifth edition of which takes place tomorrow and Sunday - had been there for a while. You just needed somebody to come up with the blueprint and put it all together.
That somebody was the Irish European Breeders’ Fund, instigators of the project, who got together with Horse Racing Ireland and the Curragh and Leopardstown and the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board, the artist formerly known as the Turf Club. So a lot of bodies really. Ní neart go cur le chéile (There is no strength without unity.)
So you bring Irish St Leger day at the Curragh (Sunday) forward a week and bolt it onto Irish Champion Stakes day (Saturday) at Leopardstown. Make a weekend of it. And you move some races around. Put the Moyglare Stud Stakes and the Goffs Vincent O’Brien National Stakes on the same day, so that you have a G1 race for juvenile fillies and a G1 race for juvenile colts. Add the recently upgraded Derrinstown Stud Flying Five, now a G1 five-furlong race, and, along with the Comer Group International Irish St Leger, that’s four G1 races on the Sunday at the Curragh.
You already had the Coolmore Fastnet Rock Matron Stakes on the same day as the Qipco Irish Champion Stakes on the Saturday at Leopardstown, so you have a G1 one-mile race for fillies and mares and a G1 ten-furlong championship race for all.
Add to those the G2 Clipper Logistics Boomerang Stakes over a mile and the G3 Paddy’s Rewards Club Stakes over a mile and a half and the G2 KPMG Champions Juvenile Stakes. And, with the Moyglare Jewels Blandford Stakes on The Curragh’s card, a ten-furlong race for fillies, you have more depth. Complete the weekend with all-aged premier handicaps over six furlongs and seven furlongs and ten furlongs and 13 furlongs, a new listed juvenile fillies’ race and a valuable Tattersalls Ireland sales race, and you have just about all bases covered.
Complete the weekend with all-aged premier handicaps over six furlongs and seven furlongs and ten furlongs and 13 furlongs, and a valuable Tattersalls Ireland sales race, and you have just about all bases covered.
The inaugural staging of Irish Champions Weekend in its current guise was in 2014. Attendance figures were up by 70 percent that year, on-course bookmaker turnover was up by 55 percent. The racing was top class and the visitors came. Brown Panther won the Irish St Leger, beating Leading Light and Encke into second and third places. Gleneagles won the National Stakes. Free Eagle won the Enterprise Stakes. The Grey Gatsby beat Australia in an Irish Champion Stakes thriller.
There were 194 runners over the course of weekend, and 49 of them came from abroad. Eight of the 16 winners were trained in Britain and eight were trained in Ireland. People were happy with a score draw.
All the top Irish trainers were represented and all the top Irish riders were there. And Ryan Moore, Paul Hanagan and James Doyle all flew in to ride at Leopardstown on the Saturday after riding at Doncaster’s St Leger meeting earlier in the day.
It was a good start, and momentum built. Golden Horn beat Found and Free Eagle in the Irish Champion Stakes in 2015, Almanzor beat (the same) Found and Minding in 2016, the year in which attendance figures reached a zenith. They were top class renewals of the weekend’s flagship race. Jean-Claude Rouget was having his first runners in Ireland that weekend, and Almanzor’s victory provided an international dimension. He was the first French-trained winner of the race since the John Hammond-trained Suave Dancer won it under Cash Asmussen in 1991.
Attendance figures were down last year on the 2016 figures, slightly at Leopardstown, significantly at the Curragh, but that was always going to be the case as the ongoing redevelopment at the Kildare venue put a ceiling on attendances.
Europe’s big triumvirate
It is not ideal that the weekend clashes with St Leger day at Doncaster and with Arc Trials day in France, but there are always going to be clashes at this time of year. And the timing is actually good: three weeks before the Arc, five weeks before British Champions Day, seven weeks before the Breeders’ Cup, two weeks after the All-Ireland football final this year. And early enough in the season to give you a sporting chance of getting goodish ground.
There is a triumvirate of big European autumn meetings now, and you can target all three if you want, or two of the three at least, as well as the Breeders’ Cup.
Found ran at all three European meetings in 2015 before going to Keeneland and winning the Breeders’ Cup Turf. Aidan O’Brien’s filly also ran at all three meetings in 2016, finishing second in both the Irish Champion Stakes and the Champion Stakes at Ascot, and winning the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe in the interim. She was then third in the Breeders’ Cup Turf for good measure.
Free Eagle won the Enterprise Stakes at Leopardstown in 2014 and finished third in the Champion Stakes at Ascot five weeks later. Golden Horn won the Irish Champion Stakes in 2015, then went to Longchamp and won the Arc three weeks later. Highland Reel ran in the Irish Champion Stakes in 2016, and finished second behind Found in the Arc, then won the Breeders’ Cup Turf at Santa Anita (with Found third). Fascinating Rock won the Enterprise Stakes at Leopardstown and the Champion Stakes at Ascot in 2015. Order Of St George won the Irish St Leger last year, then finished fourth in the Arc before going to Ascot and winning the British Champions Long Distance Cup.
Irish Champions Weekend has quickly established itself as an integral part of the European Pattern. It has become embedded into the racing programme and into racing’s psyche over the course of the last four years, and that is important.
This year, it is noticeable that trainers have been talking about targeting the weekend with high-profile horses for a while now. And not just at the G1s: the G2s and G3s and the handicaps have also been featuring in dispatches.
The stars are lining up again this year. Alpha Centauri is one of the shining lights of the European racing season so far. Winner of the Irish 1000 Guineas, the Coronation Stakes, the Falmouth Stakes and the Prix Jacques le Marois already this year, the Jessica Harrington-trained filly is on track for the Coolmore Fastnet Rock Matron Stakes at Leopardstown tomorrow.
The Niarchos family’s filly will be a warm order to bag her fifth G1 on the spin, but the trip to Leopardstown would be worthwhile even if it was only to see the strapping Mastercraftsman filly in the flesh.
It looks like Roaring Lion and Saxon Warrior are set for Round Six in the Qipco Irish Champion Stakes. Saxon Warrior emerged victorious when these two met in the Racing Post Trophy last year and in the 2000 Guineas this year. Roaring Lion came out on top when they met in the Epsom Derby, the Eclipse and the Juddmonte International.
That’s 3-2 to John Gosden’s colt in this private duel, and he also has recency on his side. He goes into the race in the ascendancy. But the Aidan O’Brien colt ran an encouraging race at York last time, and there may not be much between the pair of them again. And, with Prix du Jockey Club winner Study Of Man set to make the trip from France, this is shaping up to be another magnificent renewal of the Qipco Irish Champion Stakes.
It is the jewel in the crown of another weekend of top-class racing.