No fewer than five races on the menu at this weekend’s Longines Irish Champions Weekend double-header are part of the Breeders’ Cup Challenge, offering fees-paid to designated races at Santa Anita on November 1-2.
Most prestigious of the lot, however, among six G1s across two days of top-class racing is the Qipco Irish Champion Stakes, one of three ‘Win and You’re In’ contests on an eight-race card at Leopardstown on Saturday before the action continues at the Curragh on Sunday.
The €1.25 million event over 1m2f gets a guaranteed spot in the starting gate at the Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf – and there is a fairly compelling reason why leading Ballydoyle filly Magical is set to start a hot favourite. Because for once Magical won’t have to face her arch-rival Enable in Ireland’s premier race. The pair fought out a dramatic finish to last year’s Breeders’ Cup Turf at Churchill Downs before European racing’s superstar performer came out on top.
It has become a familiar story for the Aidan O’Brien-trained 4-year-old: four times she has faced Enable, and four times she has been beaten.
Now, though, Magical has the chance to claim centre stage under Ryan Moore in the Irish Champion, won in the past by subsequent Breeders’ Cup Turf winners such as Daylami (1999), Fantastic Light (2001) and High Chaparral (2003).
‘Tough, consistent mare’
Although she won her first three starts of the season in Ireland, Magical has been beaten on all three outings since on the other side of the Irish Sea. That said, the resilient daughter of Galileo has hardly been disgraced in successive runner-up efforts, finishing second to Crystal Ocean in the Prince of Wales’s Stakes at Royal Ascot before going down to Enable (naturally) in both the Coral-Eclipse Stakes and Yorkshire Oaks.
The trainer’s son, Donnacha, who misses Leopardstown to ride at the Doncaster St Leger meeting on Saturday, expects a big showing from Magical.
“She’s a very tough, consistent mare and she gives her best running every time,” he said, speaking to RacingTV. “Her form is right up there with the best in the world, bar Enable, so she looks to be going there with a big shout.
“She’s an exceptional mare – she’s probably up there with the best that I’ve ridden. She’s just very unlucky to be in the same two years that Enable was. You’re not going to get fillies like that every year. She’s a fantastic mare and she’s been a great servant for us.”
With seven previous victories, Aidan O’Brien is the winningmost trainer in Irish Champion history and he saddles half the eight-runner field here, with Magical joined by stablemates Anthony Van Dyck, who has struggled since his Investec Derby success, and regular U.S. visitors Magic Wand and Hunting Horn.
Magical would be the first female winner of the Irish Champion Stakes since The Fugue in 2013; that horse was subsequently a beaten favourite in luckless circumstances in the Breeders’ Cup Turf.
Surprisingly, O’Brien hasn’t won the Irish Champion Stakes since So You Think, who is also Ireland’s most recent winner of the nation’s most prestigious race in 2011.
Joining the Ballydoyle clan in trying to regain the title for the home team is the Investec Derby runner-up Madhmoon (Kevin Prendergast/Chris Hayes), a winner at this meeting 12 months ago in the KPMG Champions Juvenile Stakes. Sheikh Hamdan’s son of Dawn Approach gained a confidence-boosting win in G3 company over a mile last time and will appreciate stepping back up to this 1m2f, always thought to be his optimum.
According to the betting, British-trained horses provide the most potent threat to Magical in the shape of the progressive pair Headman and Elarqam.
Headman (Roger Charlton/Jason Watson) will be competing at the top level for the first time after completing a hat-trick in lesser grade with an eyecatching last-to-first victory at Deauville last month. Described as a “proper horse” by his trainer, this hulking son of Kingman will be seen to even better effect on faster ground, while connections reckon a stronger gallop at Leopardstown will also help this powerful type, who is bidding to fill a rare gap on owner Prince Khalid Abdullah’s big-race resume.
Also seeking his first G1 success is the Mark Johnston-trained Elarqam (ridden by Jim Crowley), supplemented earlier this week at a cost of €75,000 after a career-best last time when third in the Juddmonte International, despite meeting trouble in running. He also carries Sheikh Hamdan’s silks.
New ground will be broken by Deirdre, set to become the first Japanese-trained runner in Ireland following her high-profile success in the Nassau Stakes at Glorious Goodwood. “Bringing Deirdre over to Europe has been a wonderful adventure, and we have been overwhelmed with the friendliness of the welcome,” said trainer Mitsuru Hashida, whose 5-year-old was only the second-ever Japanese-trained winner in British racing history.
The globetrotting racemare is again ridden by Oisin Murphy, who 12 months ago won a memorable edition with Roaring Lion, who went on to contest the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Main supporting event at Leopardstown is the G1 Matron Stakes, sponsored by Coolmore in the name of their stallion Fastnet Rock with a seat at the table for the Maker’s Mark Filly & Mare Turf at the Breeders’ Cup up for grabs.
Hugely popular six-time G1 winner Laurens, who so memorably lowered the colours of the brilliant Alpha Centauri in last year’s race, bids to repeat the dose against rivals headed by Ballydoyle’s dual Guineas winner Hermosa.
Trained in Middleham by Karl Burke, owner John Dance’s pride and joy Laurens (ridden by PJ McDonald) may have been beaten last time out in the G2 City of York Stakes, but there was little shame in being touched off when trying to give seven pounds to the winner, Shine So Bright, at a seven-furlong distance slightly below her favoured trip. She is likely to run in either the Mile or the Filly & Mare Turf at the Breeders’ Cup.
Hermosa, for her part, is on a recovery mission after a no-show behind Deirdre in the Nassau Stakes that left Aidan O’Brien flummoxed. She cuts back in trip with company from stablemates I Can Fly, Happen and Just Wonderful in another sizeable Ballydoyle team. G1 winners Iridessa and Skitter Scatter complete the field.
O’Brien restricts himself to just three of the seven runners in the KPMG Champions Juvenile Stakes, a G2 contest over a mile offering a place in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf.
Thanks to Madhmoon, O’Brien had to settle for second place last term with Broome – a rare occurrence as he had won seven of the eight previous editions, including with future Derby victor Australia in 2013, when it was run under its former title as the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf Trial. Impressive Curragh winner Mogul may be his number one this time around, with course-and-distance winner Cormorant another likely type.