Donn McClean rounds up all the fallout from a thrilling Irish Champions Weekend, including notable wins for La Petite Coco, Discoveries, Native Trail and so many more.
It was some weekend, Irish Champions Weekend.
It has been some weekend every year now since its inauguration in 2014, when they pulled the races together and put them into one all-singing-all-dancing two-day feast of top-class racing.
The crowds were important this year. It was important that people were permitted to come in, and they were, 4000 at The Curragh on Sunday, 4000 at Leopardstown on Saturday. It wasn’t Full House but there was a buzz there that had been missing at the height of the summer, when you could have played a game of rounders on the tarmac beside the parade ring. Packed deep(ish) around the pre-race parade ring and an audible welcome-back and well-done for winners. Still no sign of the apostrophe, mind you.
Four runners in the Irish Champion Stakes was a modern-era low, but the preamble was fascinating, all the permutations, and the race itself lived up to the preamble. That’s because the big three stood their ground and, together, St Mark’s Basilica, Tarnawa and Poetic Flare served up a thriller.
Somewhat unusually, all three horses probably emerged from the race with their respective reputations enhanced. St Mark’s Basilica added to his burgeoning CV. A mere maiden winner going into the Dewhurst Stakes last October, Aidan O’Brien’s colt has now won the Dewhurst, the French 2000 Guineas, the French Derby, the Eclipse and now the Irish Champion Stakes in his last five races.
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He showed a lot of resolution too on Saturday under the Ryan Moore drive. He had to battle to see off Tarnawa and, while he did drift to his right, he continued to go forward.
Tarnawa ran a massive race, Dermot Weld’s filly was competing over a distance short of her optimum, and the early pace did not help her, but she was game in defeat. She goes to the Arc de Triomphe now, back up to a mile and a half, with a massive chance.
Poetic Flare was beaten a whisker by Tarnawa for the runner-up spot, and he was beaten just three parts of a length by the winner. It was Jim Bolger’s horse’s first attempt at a distance in excess of a mile, and you can’t conclude that he didn’t stay the 10-furlong trip. And, who knows, if his two main rivals had challenged beside him, as opposed to on the far side of the track, if he had been engaged in toe-to-toe battle, he might have found more.
He does go well on fast ground though, so, while he handles softer conditions, a dry autumn would be a positive for him in looking to the immediate future.
Saturday started and ended with Ger Lyons and Colin Keane.
Panama Red was taking a big step up in class in the weekend’s curtain-raiser, from winning her maiden at Tipperary into the Listed Ballylinch Stud Irish EBF Ingabelle Stakes, but she was relatively strong in the market and she was even stronger in the finish, getting home by a half a length from the Paddy Twomey-trained Limiti Di Greccio. (See below.)
Atomic Jones won the Group 2 KPMG Champions Juvenile Stakes and Camorra won the Group 3 Paddy Power Stakes under Gary Carroll – beating his stable companion Thunder Kiss by a neck in a Ger Lyons dual forecast – and Masen won the final event of the day, the Irish Stallion Farms EBF “Sovereign Path” Handicap. A treble for Colin Keane, a four-timer for Ger Lyons, on which you could have got 16,301/1 before racing. What a day, said the trainer. It’s what dreams are made of.
It’s not just Colin Keane’s strength in a finish that makes him so good, it’s everything else too. His awareness, his positioning, his tactical nous. He gives every horse a ride that fits the horse, that maximises his or her chance of winning. He went forward from early on Panama Red, it appeared that that was always the plan, on a filly who stays further than seven furlongs, no matter what everyone else did. But he was still happy to take a lead from Pennine Hills when that filly went up on his outside, happy that he was going as fast as he wanted to go, no need to get involved in an early skirmish.
On Atomic Jones, from stall one, he was patient, allowed them at it up front, raced in rear and along the inside until they neared the three-furlong marker, at which point he angled out, assured himself of clear sailing in the home straight, reduced the luck-in-running element by as much as he could. On Masen, by contrast, from stall 19, he went forward from early, got his horse settled just behind the front rank, got in just one off the rail as they raced around the home turn.
Masen was winner number 111 for Keane this season. He has now had more winners in 2021 than he had rides in 2011, just 10 years ago, and, all things being equal, Joseph O’Brien’s record of 126 is well within range.
Paddy Twomey had contrasting days: close at Leopardstown on Saturday, cigar at The Curragh on Sunday.
He had just three runners over the course of the weekend, but that’s Paddy Twomey for you, he doesn’t waste bullets. Limiti Di Greccio went down by a half a length to Panama Red in the opener on Saturday and, an hour later, Pearls Galore just failed to catch No Speak Alexander in the Group 1 Coolmore America “Justify” Matron Stakes.
It can be a game of heads and necks though, and changing fortunes, and La Petite Coco got the better of the bob with Love in the Group 2 Moyglare “Jewels” Blandford Stakes at The Curragh on Sunday. All three fillies should be worth following for the rest of the season, and watch out too for Moll, whom we haven’t seen since April, wherever she goes in the autumn.
It was a similar story for Johnny Murtagh: a Saturday to forget, a Sunday to remember.
The trainer went into the weekend with justifiable optimism, but it never really happened for him at Leopardstown on Saturday. His three runners, Champers Elysees, Earlswood and Riot, were all beaten by similar margins, none of them enjoying perfect runs through their respective races, while at Doncaster, Ottoman Emperor was disappointing in the St Leger.
The weekend was turned on its head for Murtagh though on Sunday, when Ben Coen delivered Sonnyboyliston down the outside in the Comer Group International Irish St Leger, the pair of them getting up to beat Twilight Payment by three parts of a length. A first Classic for Johnny Murtagh as a trainer, 12 months after his first Group 1 win, and a first Group 1 win for his 19-year-old rider Ben Coen, whose star continues to rise meteorically.
It was another step forward by the Power gelding too. He put up a career-best performance on his previous run when he won the Ebor off a mark of 108. His new mark of 113 left him with a little bit to find with Twilight Payment, but only a little bit and, back at The Curragh, where he remains unbeaten on anything other than soft or heavy ground, he found the requisite improvement. He is still only four too, he could go higher still.
It was a memorable weekend too for Jessica Harrington and her team, and for Shane Foley. Three winners on Saturday, including the Group 1 Matron Stakes with No Speak Alexander and the Group 2 Clipper Logistics Boomerang Mile with Real Appeal, and the Group 1 Moyglare Stud Stakes on Sunday with Discoveries.
It was a bounce back to form by No Speak Alexander, who was well beaten behind Mother Earth in the Prix Rothschild in France on her previous run, but she didn’t enjoy a clear run through her race that day and, in hindsight, 20-20, winner of the Athasi Stakes and a close-up third in the Irish 1000 Guineas, 25/1 was very big.
Discoveries could only finish third in the Debutante Stakes on her previous run, but that was on soft ground and, on better ground on Sunday, she reversed places with the Debutante winner Agartha. A full sister to the brilliant Alpha Centauri, who finished only fifth in the Moyglare on her final run at two, she is also a half-sister to Alpine Star, who won the Debutante, skipped the Moyglare and won the Coronation Stakes on her first run as a three-year-old. It appears that there are no firm plans for Discoveries at present, but the Fillies’ Mile and the Prix Marcel Boussac – a race that connections won in 2019 with Albigna – are surely under consideration, and her pedigree suggests that she could be even better at three.
Once again, the rules of racing generated much discussion. No Speak Alexander hampered Mother Earth in the Matron Stakes, St Mark’s Basilica carried Tarnawa to her right in the Champion Stakes, and the stewards had to look into both Group 1 races on Saturday.
Recently, it has appeared as if we were getting to a point at which the benefit of the doubt was going to the horse who suffers the interference, which is as it should be. You can easily argue that the impeded should be awarded the race unless it is almost certain that he or she wouldn’t have won the race if the interference hadn’t taken place. It is more the accepted norm, though, to give the benefit of the doubt to the perpetrator, to allow the interferer keep the race unless it is almost certain that he or she wouldn’t have won without the interference. It’s a subtle difference, but it’s also a significant difference.
The former case may have been the case with St Mark’s Basilica and Tarnawa. It may be that the stewards concluded that St Mark’s Basilica would almost certainly have won anyway. And the Matron Stakes debate was possibly complicated by the fact that Mother Earth was third past the post, not second, although, again, you can argue that it shouldn’t have been.
It’s a strange anomaly though. The results say that Shane Foley and Ryan Moore both rode within the rules, if to the edge of the rules: enough to win the races, job done, but not enough to avoid suspensions, and that’s always a difficult one to explain to the semi-interested onlooker.
Strange that Romantic Proposal started off her racing career over a mile. Not so strange now in hindsight that she didn’t win in four attempts over that trip as a three-year-old, that it wasn’t until she dropped down to seven furlongs that she got off the mark.
But it appears that Eddie Lynam’s filly has got faster as she has got older. She won the Scurry Handicap over six and a half furlongs last year as a four-year-old off a mark of 83, just getting up to beat Gulliver, and she won a listed race over six furlongs on her third run this season. That was the first time that Chris Hayes rode her, and he gave her a superb ride, waiting and then waiting again, stone last passing the two-furlong marker, before charting a path through runners.
Five furlongs on good ground looked sharp enough for her when she could only finish third behind Mooneista in the Group 2 Sapphire Stakes at The Curragh on Irish Oaks day, in a race that admittedly didn’t pan out ideally for her, but, if it did, that was to reckon without the Eddie Lynam speed gene. Five furlongs on good ground again on Sunday and, under another perfect ride from Chris Hayes, she got up to win by a cosy enough half-length.
She could go to the Prix de l’Abbaye now at Longchamp, or she could go to the British Champions Sprint Stakes at Ascot, or she could ostensibly go to both. Of those two races, the Abbaye is a race that may not play out in favour of her hold-up style of racing, whereas the Champions Sprint Stakes, at Ascot, probably on soft or at least on easy ground, could be ideal.
At the inaugural staging of Irish Champions Weekend in its current guise in 2014, eight of the winners were trained in Britain. Sixteen races, eight Irish-trained winners, eight British-trained winners, three at Leopardstown on the Saturday, five at The Curragh on the Sunday. Score draw.
In 2021, there was just one British-trained winner, but he was a good one.
Native Trail went into the Goffs Vincent O’Brien National Stakes on Sunday unbeaten in two, but the Godolphin colt was taking on Point Lonsdale, unbeaten in four and, as they raced past the intersection with just over three furlongs to run, it looked like it was the Ballydoyle colt who was travelling better. But Native Trail found lots for pressure and he cleared away inside the final furlong to put three and a half lengths between himself and his rival by the time they reached the winning line.
This is a race in which Charlie Appleby and Godolphin have excelled in recent years, it was a third win in the race in four years for the boys in blue and, while Native Trail’s performance didn’t have the Pinatubo wow factor, there was an awful lot to like about the strength that he showed in the finish. Pinatubo won the Dewhurst on his next run, as did Godolphin’s 2012 winner Dawn Approach, and that appears to be the next target now for the new 2000 Guineas favourite.
La Petite Coco for the British Champions Fillies & Mares Stakes, Romantic Proposal for the British Champions Sprint Stakes (if she goes there), Rohaan for the British Champions Sprint Stakes (if she doesn’t), Agartha for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf.
And Tarnawa for the Arc, but that’s old news.