Free Eagle sets out to show just how good he can be at Ascot’s big day on Saturday
It was on a sunny Thursday evening at Leopardstown last August that Free Eagle made his racecourse debut.
It was difficult to gauge the collective quality of the field that the Dermot Weld-trained colt faced that evening. Six of his nine rivals were fellow debutants, but it looked like a good maiden in which the right yards – Aidan O’Brien, John Oxx, Jim Bolger, Kevin Prendergast, Ger Lyons, Johnny Murtagh – were represented. Nevertheless, the punters sent the Moyglare Stud colt off the 11-to-4 favourite, and those who joined in were congratulating themselves long before the horses reached the winning line.
In a display of absolute dominance, Free Eagle struck the front at the two-furlong pole and, under just hands-and-heels encouragement from Pat Smullen, he stretched away, every willing stride pulling him further clear of his rivals, until his rider decided that enough was enough and eased down about 100 yards from the winning line.
Here’s what happened next. The two Aidan O’Brien-trained horses, Orchestra and Kingfisher, second and fourth respectively in that race, who went on to win the two Chester Derby trials this year, were both impressive in winning their maidens next time. More than that, however, Dermot Weld and Pat Smullen spoke in restrained revered tones about their horse, both finding it difficult to contain their enthusiasm.
Weld rarely deviates from factual assessment, and Smullen is characteristically reticent, so when the pair of them were as effusive as they both were when speaking about Free Eagle, the racing public took note.
“I said too much,” said Smullen this week.
Quotes of 25-to-1 about the colt for the Epsom Derby had been shrink-wrapped to 8-to-1 and 10-to-1 by the time he lined up against Australia in the G3 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf Trial at Leopardstown on Irish Champion Stakes day last year.
Australia then wasn’t the dual Derby winner and Juddmonte International winner that he is now, but he had also been an impressive winner of his maiden, and he was obviously highly regarded by Team Ballydoyle. Even so, the bookmakers put Free Eagle in as the 2-to-5 favourite to beat him.
He didn’t. Australia beat him by six lengths, thereby immediately and automatically usurping his position at the top of the Derby market. That was a position that Aidan O’Brien’s horse never relinquished, and it was one that was obviously thoroughly deserved, given how this season has panned out. That said, there was always a feeling then that all had not been right with Free Eagle that day, that we just hadn’t seen the real Free Eagle.
We had to wait a while. The High Chaparral colt did not run again as a juvenile, and a stress fracture of his fibula delayed his 3-year-old debut until Irish Champion Stakes day this year -- a year and six days after we had last seen him.
The wait was worthwhile. In a performance that was reminiscent of his racecourse debut, he blew his rivals way with a searing turn of foot. G3 rivals this time, though, not maidens. Weld said afterward that he hadn’t been sure if he had had him fit enough. That he would probably come on for the run.
It was great to see him back. There are few things as frustrating as potential talent unrealized, and there is no doubting Free Eagle’s potential. He is already a G3 winner, but he has the potential to be much more than that.
Weld has had a phenomenal season, even by his standards. Ninety winners in Ireland so far, on track for his best year numerically since 1994, and quality to go with the quantity: Mustajeeb, Tested, Tarfasha, Pale Mimosa. Yet all year, he has said that they have been playing without their best player. Now it looks like their best player is back.
Free Eagle is out of Polished Gem, a winner over seven furlongs for Weld and Moyglare Stud, and a full-sister to Dress To Thrill, another Weld/Moyglare filly who won five of her six races as a 3-year-old including the Matron Stakes at Leopardstown, the Sun Chariot Stakes at Newmarket, and the G1 Matriarch Stakes at Hollywood Park. As well as Free Eagle, Polished Gem has also produced Sapphire, who was trained by Weld to win the G2 British Champions Fillies’ and Mares’ Stakes at Ascot in 2012, and Custom Cut, who has won his last five races, the latest the G2 Joel Stakes at Newmarket last month.
It is no surprise, therefore, that Free Eagle is as good as he is, nor that he exudes the class he exudes, nor possesses the potential that he possesses. Next up, all going well, is the £1.3 million ($2.1 million) Qipco Champion Stakes, centrepiece of British Champions Day at Ascot on Saturday. He will not meet old rival Australia there now, nor will he meet St Leger hero Kingston Hill, nor Irish Champion Stakes and French Derby winner The Grey Gatsby, but he will meet the mighty Cirrus Des Aigles, and Corine Barande-Barbe’s horse presents a formidable challenge.
Very soft ground would be a worry for Free Eagle, given that he has never raced on ground slower than good. Rider Pat Smullen thinks he will handle easy ground, but heavy ground would be good for nobody. Regardless of how things pan out at Ascot on Saturday, Free Eagle should have a long and fruitful racing career stretching out in front of him now. All things being equal, he will be one of the most exciting 4-year-olds in training next season.
He has raced just three times in his life, he has progressed with each run, and there is no telling how good he could be now. Hopefully we will get to find out on Saturday.