Timeform Irish preview: Irish Champions Weekend

The highlight of the first day of Irish Champions Weekend on Saturday evening is the Irish Champion Stakes itself which Aidan O’Brien will be trying to win for the eighth time. However, it’s six years since Ballydoyle’s last success in the race with So You Think. Minding, Found and Highland Reel all tried last year but came up against the top French colt Almanzor. Jean-Claude Rouget’s three-year-old accounted for an outstanding field twelve months ago which, with Harzand among them, attracted the Derby winner for the third year running.

This Saturday’s field doesn’t have the same strength in depth but it does feature a strong favourite from Ballydoyle in Churchill. He was a beaten favourite in last month’s Juddmonte International at York but a two-length defeat to top-class older rival Ulysses represented a return to the form which had won him the 2000 Guineas at both Newmarket and the Curragh in the spring. It was certainly a better effort than his lacklustre display in the St James’s Palace at Royal Ascot and showed that he’s as effective at a mile and a quarter as he is at a mile. Churchill’s a high-class performer, but he’s not the stand-out at the ratings which best odds of even-money suggest he is.

Fellow three-year-old Eminent is next in the betting, but on what he’s shown to date, particularly in Group 1 company, he’s likely to require a career-best to make the places. Sixth behind Churchill at Newmarket, Eminent has since proved more at home over longer trips, but he finished just behind Ballydoyle’s other main entry Cliffs of Moher when fourth in the Derby and fifth in the Eclipse. While the latter was behind Eclipse winner Ulysses again when fourth at York, Eminent does at least come here on the back of a win. That was in the Prix Guillaume d’Ornano at Deauville, the race Almanzor won before his success twelve months ago. Eminent was given a good ride from the front by Ryan Moore at Deauville, but Frankie Dettori, who takes over on Saturday, might have his work cut out to execute similar tactics given the presence of confirmed front-runner Success Days who’s just one of several in the field who normally race prominently.

Success Days and Moonlight Magic (who was sixth) both contested last year’s warmer renewal, but Churchill faces potentially more serious rivals among the older horses in the field. Now with Dermot Weld, The Grey Gatsby isn’t the force of old, but Weld has a stronger candidate with the mare Zhukova who has an impressive strike-rate which includes a win on this card twelve months ago in the Group 3 Enterprise Stakes over a mile and a half. Already a Grade 1 winner at Belmont earlier this year, she had excuses last time and, unlike the favourite, would be suited by any further softening of the ground.

Tattersalls Gold Cup winner Decorated Knight needs to improve on his last couple of efforts in the Eclipse and Juddmonte International, but a return to the form which saw him pip Ulysses for second behind Highland Reel in the Prince of Wales’s Stakes at Royal Ascot would make him look overpriced. Ulysses’ name keeps recurring in various form-lines, and while he’s not in the line-up, it’s surely significant that his trainer Sir Michael Stoute is willing to pitch stable-companion Poet’s Word into Group 1 company for the first time here. He’s made great strides since winning a handicap at Chelmsford on his reappearance, running O’Brien’s very smart Deauville to a neck in the Huxley Stakes at Chester when shaping like the best horse and then returning from a break to land the Glorious Stakes at Goodwood last month.

There must have been plenty of easier pattern-race options for Poet’s Word but he’s a typical improver for his stable who must have been showing the right signs to be given his chance and doesn’t need to make much more progress to be involved. He’s another who won’t be troubled by softer ground or the race turning into a good test at the trip if, as expected, there’s plenty of pace on.

Winter would have been a fascinating and dangerous opponent to Churchill in the Irish Champion Stakes – too dangerous perhaps – which might explain why O’Brien is aiming her at a fifth Group 1 win against her own sex instead earlier on the card in the Matron Stakes. She should prove up to the task, though stable-companion Roly Poly, winner of the Falmouth Stakes and Prix Rothschild on her last two starts, and last year’s placed fillies, Persuasive and Qemah, make it a well-contested renewal.

Moving on to the Curragh on Sunday, the big question is which Order of St George will turn up for the Irish St Leger this year? Will it be the one who slaughtered a field of older rivals when storming clear to win by eleven lengths as a three-year-old two years ago? Or will it be his lesser self which was turned over at odds of 7/1-on in a four-runner race twelve months ago? On his day, Order of St Leger is a match for any stayer in Europe, as he’s proven in the past in the Gold Cup at Ascot, as well as at the Curragh. But on another three occasions in the twelve months since that massive upset he’s been beaten again when sent off at odds on. The latest occasion was when going down by a short head to Big Orange when attempting to win the Gold Cup for the second year. Since then, Order of St George has got back to winning ways with a stylish win, for the third year running, in last month’s Irish St Leger Trial over Sunday’s course and distance in which Wicklow Brave, who pulled off that shock win twelve months ago, was back in fourth.

For those looking to oppose the favourite, who will be odds-on again, Dartmouth and Torcedor look his biggest dangers. Dartmouth’s best form last term compares well with Order of St George’s recent efforts, while he’s proven himself over longer trips this season, winning the Yorkshire Cup in May and going down by the narrowest of margins on a first try at two miles back at York in the Lonsdale Cup last time. Torcedor, winner of the mile and a quarter handicap on this card two years ago, has a bit more to find, but there could still be more to come from this gelding who showed improved form for his new stable earlier this year. He won his first two starts for Jessica Harrington in the spring, on the second occasion being responsible for another of Order of St George’s odds-on defeats when in receipt of weight from him in the Vintage Crop Stakes at Navan. Torcedor has had a break since finishing fifth in the Gold Cup (when his usual headgear was left off) and he looks an interesting each-way option back in cheekpieces here.

As well as Order of St George, Aidan O’Brien fields another odds-on favourite earlier on the card with Gustav Klimt in the Vincent O’Brien National Stakes. O’Brien is marching towards the record fifteen wins in this contest set by his great namesake whom the race commemorates, with Gleneagles, Air Force Blue and Churchill the last three winners all coming out of Ballydoyle. After winning his maiden over course and distance, Gustav Klimt followed up in the Superlative Stakes at Newmarket, though the fact that we’ve rated him value for more like a three-length win when his actual winning margin was just a head shows how much trouble he got into – and then successfully got out of.

Odds-on favourite or not, this isn’t a one-horse race on the ratings which are actually headed by the Gordon Elliott-trained Railway Stakes winner Beckford. That’s largely down to the fact that Beckford has been exposed to Group 1 company already, unlike the favourite, and he acquitted himself well when going down by half a length to Gustav Klimt’s stable-companion Sioux Nation in last month’s Phoenix Stakes when shaping as though the step up to seven furlongs will see him in an even better light.

Jim Bolger has won the National Stakes before with Teofilo, New Approach and Dawn Approach and his latest representative Verbal Dexterity is no forlorn hope on the ratings behind the first two in the market. Unlike that pair, he’s thoroughly proven on a soft surface, evidently relishing the heavy ground (just like his sire Vocalised) when making a winning debut by almost ten lengths over course and distance in June. He was beaten a length by Beckford in the six-furlong Railway Stakes next time when the emphasis was much more on speed, but if it comes up at all testing by Sunday, he’d be one to take seriously.

That just leaves the annual conundrum set by Aidan O’Brien in the Moyglare Stud Stakes which seems to confound even those closest to the yard. Two years ago O’Brien sent out the first three, though Joseph O’Brien’s mount, apparent first string Ballydoyle (5/4 favourite), was beaten by Minding. Last year, Ryan Moore had four fillies to choose from, opting for Promise To Be True who was sent off at even money but finished only fifth. That race had a better outcome for Joseph, this time with his trainer’s hat on, as his 25/1 shot Intricately beat his father’s entire quartet.

This year, Moore has had to pick from five Ballydoyle entries. Helpfully, three of them met in last month’s Debutante Stakes over the same course and distance, though less helpfully it was the outsider of the trio, Magical, who came out on top that day from Moore’s mount Happily, with the Chesham Stakes winner September, sent off favourite, only fourth. With the Duchess of Cambridge winner Clemmie thrown into the mix as well and little between all those fillies on form, this has the makings of another tricky puzzle with no guarantee, even, that Ballydoyle holds the answer. Jessica Harrington has given the powerful-looking Alpha Centauri a break since her narrow defeat in the Albany Stakes at Royal Ascot and has to be respected, while Dermot Weld’s Chiara Luna made an excellent impression when making a winning debut at Leopardstown last month. Interestingly, Moore has plumped for Clemmie (the step up to seven furlongs will suit the sister of Churchill), though Alpha Centauri is the suggestion to confirm superiority over that filly from Ascot.

Recommendation:
Back Poet’s Word for the Irish Champion Stakes

Source:: Betfair — Irish Horse