Irish Champions Weekend looks like a winner

sport1Horse Racing Ireland officials have high hopes for the inaugural Irish Champions Weekend which takes place today at Leopardstown and Sunday at the Curragh. Students have been granted free entry into the two venues for the meeting and the quality of racing on offer will not disappoint.

The weekend consists of two historic meetings – Irish Champions Day and the Irish St Leger meeting – staged on consecutive days. Thanks to generous sponsorship, all the races have seen an increase in prize money from 2013, notably the premier handicaps which have had their value increased from 50,000 euros to 150,000 euros. Brian Kavanagh, the Chief Executive of HRI, commented in March that he hopes Irish Champions Weekend will “become the first leg of a European triple crown of end-of-season festivals, to be followed by the Arc meeting in France and British Champions Weekend.” This is reflected in the quality of the entries across the two days and HRI should be commended for attracting so many overseas competitors.

The Irish Champion Stakes has played host to many fierce rivals over the years, notably Galileo and Fantastic Light in 2001 and Fame and Glory and Sea the Stars five years ago. Should Derby winner Australia emulate Sea the Stars at Leopardstown, he will be considered as one of the better middle-distance horses of recent times. Australia showed his potential on Irish Champions Day a year ago when landing a Group Three in impressive fashion. The colt was bred for Classic success, as he is by Galileo out of Oaks heroine Ouija Board, and he confirmed his ability this season with smooth successes in both the Epsom and Irish Derbies. He then followed the path of Sea the Stars by winning the International Stakes at York to set up an intriguing re-match at Leopardstown with The Grey Gatsby.

Kevin Ryan’s colt was impressive behind Australia at York and the good to firm ground at Leopardstown will also count in his favour. He was a stylish winner of the French Derby over an extended ten furlongs this season and therefore will have the stamina to battle through the uphill straight. Other horses seeking to crash Australia’s party include Al Kazeem who was brilliant on the racecourse last year but subsequently found to be sub-fertile at stud. It has taken him a while to find his feet this season but he lowered the course record at Windsor last time out in a Group Three and could be dangerous in a race in which he finished second last year.

The Irish Champion Stakes is not the only Group One at Leopardstown as Coronation Stakes winner,  Rizeena, bids to defeat Yorkshire Oaks winner, Tapestry, in a thrilling renewal of the Matron Stakes over a mile. Another highlight of the eight-race card on day one is the Juvenile Turf Stakes, in which John F Kennedy is expected to emulate stablemate Australia by taking the Group Three juvenile contest.

Attention will turn to the Curragh on Sunday with another cracking eight-race card to savour. The Group Two Blandford Stakes features the return of six million euro purchase, Chiquita. Last season’s Irish Oaks winner is undoubtedly talented but she is quirky to say the least; the fact that she has not raced since the Oaks is a huge concern also. Roheryn and Tafasha both have fitness on their sides and look to be the main challengers to Chiquita.

In the Group One Moyglare Stud Stakes, Royal Ascot winner Cursory Glance is favoured to secure a British victory over Jim Bolger’s promising Lucida and Mick Channon’s Group winner Malabar. Gleneagles seems to be a promising colt for Aidan O’Brien and can win his fourth consecutive race in the Group One National Stakes.

The feature race of the day is the 99th running of the Irish St Leger. It has attracted a stellar field, including the previous two winners of the English St Leger, Leading Light and Encke. The latter denied Camelot the Triple Crown in 2012 but was subsequently prohibited from racing due to the  Mahmood Al Zarooni steroids scandal . The horse returned in August and should improve for his second place finish in a race over a shorter trip than ideal. However, he faces stiff opposition from last year’s English St Leger, Leading Light which has been in unstoppable form this season and is favoured to give Aidan O’Brien his third victory in the Irish St Leger. Johnny Murtagh’s Royal Diamond seeks to reverse the form with Leading Light and Pale Mimosa and Brown Panther also look dangerous in this competitive renewal.

The field of the Irish St Leger embodies the aims of the inaugural Irish Champions weekend. The field is competitive, high class and full of international horses- exactly the sort of horses that HRI were hoping to attract with this initiative. Attracting the crowds to Flat racing has traditionally proved more difficult- just 9,000 fans witnessed Sea the Stars’ greatest performance in the Irish Champion Stakes in 2009. However, with the quality of racing on offer and incentives such as free admission to students on both days, HRI appear to have a winner.