CHAMPION LION OVERCOMES NEAR BALLYDOYLE TACTICAL MASTERCLASS
On Saturday, Roaring Lion showed the sport just how good he was by overcoming an extremely tough away fixture to win the Group 1 QIPCO Irish Champion Stakes at Leopardstown. The title of the race seems fitting for this classy, improving and consistent grey as he bagged his third top-level success of the season after Coral-Eclipse and Juddmonte International victories.
The British-trained raider overcame a pace and track position bias – which wasn’t helped by his widest of all draw – to get up late and collar Aidan O’Brien’s Saxon Warrior by a neck in what was one of the Flat racing finishes of the season.
With Roaring Lion initially jumping on terms with his rivals but then falling back through the field, Ballydoyle’s pace-setter Deauville was ridden to the front and was quickly followed by stablemate Rhododendron in second in what looked like playing out as a well-run race. I found it interesting Deauville and Rhododendron were sporting blinkers, both for just the second-time in their careers, leading me to ask the question, on paper, were Ballydoyle/Coolmore trying to get the opposition to think this contest would be well-run and so, lure Roaring Lion into a false sense of security?
It was soon apparent however, Ballydoyle were looking to make this season’s Irish Champion Stakes a test of speed and after three furlongs the plan looked to be going meticulously well as they had Deauville, Rhododendron and Saxon Warrior occupying the first three positions. Even better, their main protagonist Saxon Warrior sat just one off the rail as Roaring Lion was three lengths back and four wide - his wide stall allocation now looking a hindrance.
The sedate pace looked to pick up approaching three out as Saxon Warrior looked in pole position to kick on. Indeed, he did and to be fair to him he quickened up nicely to go clear of Deauville, but all the time, despite being further back and racing wider throughout, Oisin Murphy was getting Roaring Lion into full stride and the pair collared the Ryan Moore-ridden runner-up in the final strides, thanks to a wicked turn of foot from the grey.
Moore was done no favours by his mount hanging left up the straight, and it even looked like Saxon Warrior brushed the railings late, but what looked a real killer was the runner-up changing his legs with 100 yards to go as he came to the end of his tether. Subsequently, Aidan O’Brien’s colt was found to have suffered a career ending injury.
For Roaring Lion to overcome all of the above, it marks him down as a champion. Pre-race, there was ample evidence to suggest the 8/11-winning favourite was comfortably a better horse than Saxon Warrior. While his neck victory over his old foe would suggest otherwise, in reality, John Gosden’s inmate was much more superior than the final winning distance, exactly the same case as when they were one-two in the Coral-Eclipse at Sandown back in July.
Over the last number of years, the Irish Champion Stakes has often been to the fore in the rankings of the world’s best races. Given the sedate gallop and the proximity of the waning Deauville (3 lengths) and the officially overrated filly Athena (4¼ lengths), this year’s renewal won’t scale some of the previous lofty heights of Sea The Stars (2009), Snow Fairy (2012), Golden Horn (2015) and Almanzor (2016), but while it may lack in that department, the Irish Champion once again came up trumps in pure exhilarating drama.
It was a fantastic race to witness and nothing is sweeter in sport than last-gasp victories. Winning jockey Oisin Murphy and successful owner Sheikh Fahad al-Thani of Qatar Racing Limited – who sponsored the race - must have got a huge kick from Roaring Lion winning, not only given the style of the success, but for a horse Qatar Racing manager David Redvers described as “the most important horse we’ve ever had” further enhancing his stud career.
It was good to see Saxon Warrior bounce back and run well, for all he had the run of the race. This effort probably matched his 2000 Guineas success earlier in the season, a time when he looked to be a potential star of the game, so it’s somewhat sad he’s been forced into retirement when seemingly getting back to his best.
OWNERS TRIPLE CROWN DREAM LEADS TO UNFULFILLED POTENTIAL
Since Saxon Warrior’s retirement, I’ve been thinking about the colts’ career a little bit deeper and I can’t help but feel we never really got to see the best of him. Coming into his Classic season as an unbeaten Group 1-winning juvenile Ballydoyle colt by brilliant Japanese sire Deep Impact, there was a sense of something different about Saxon Warrior.
When he then went on to win the 2000 Guineas by a ready 1½ lengths despite hitting the front too soon and still looking quite raw on his first start of 2018, it looked like we had a potential superstar on our hands. Post Newmarket, Aidan O’Brien exuded confidence, that fitness wise, Saxon Warrior would come forward significantly, which added to the hype.
The horses’ owners, the Coolmore partners of Derrick Smith, Mrs John Magnier and Michael Tabor, have clearly dreamed about winning British racing’s Triple Crown (2000 Guineas, Derby and St Leger), their close brush of achieving the feat with Camelot back in 2012 surely only stoking the fires within further.
With one leg completed in the 2000 Guineas, they were a third of the way to achieving Triple Crown glory, so onto Epsom Saxon Warrior went. Sadly, for connections, he would finish a gallant 4½ lengths fourth to Masar despite stumbling out of the stalls and being badly hampered at a crucial stage. His giant frame probably wasn’t seen to best effect on the Epsom camber either. It was Triple Crown dream over.
There were enough excuses in that Epsom run to suggest another crack at 12f was worth a go at a more conventional track like the Curragh. Coolmore always go out of their way to support top-class Irish racing with their best available and fit horses, and so, it was no surprise to see him run, but Saxon Warrior would again come up short (third) behind Latrobe in the Irish Derby, this time with no excuses. Here, he was beaten by horses officially rated 103 (Latrobe) and 108 (Rostropovich). This form clearly suggested he didn't excel over the 12f trip.
Just seven days later – quite an unorthodox prep - he’d be dropped in trip (10f) to run in the Coral-Eclipse where despite having the run of the race compared to Roaring Lion, he would fail by a neck.
With the O’Brien yard reportedly fighting a stable bug, Saxon Warrior was said to be one of the worst affected in the run up to his penultimate carer start in the Juddmonte International.
He was well held in the Juddmonte at York, but he shaped quite nicely - especially in the circumstances of him reportedly being sick on the run up - travelling strongly in the hands of Ryan Moore before weakening late.
His latest Irish Champion Stakes effort was a big positive step and a sign that he was getting back to his best, the test of speed clearly suiting, but we’ll now never know how Saxon Warrior would’ve faired dropped back to a mile, a trip he remained unbeaten over in four starts.
With a tremendous amount of hindsight, Saxon Warrior has been poorly campaigned after the perfect start to the season in the Guineas. I don’t mean that as a swipe at his owners or trainer, as after winning at Newmarket in May, they set their stall out in trying to accomplish a Triple Crown dream. That is their prerogative.
But in Saxon Warrior, with retrospect again, he wasn’t the type of horse to run with that dream despite elements of his pedigree suggesting he could be a Triple Crown contender. Indeed, everything Aidan O’Brien said about Saxon Warrior physically, he had the attributes of a sprinter/miler.
After supporting their home Derby at the Curragh, Saxon Warrior was correctly dropped in trip, but what might have been if he stuck to a mile this season? The truth is we’ll never know but he could’ve easily remained an unbeaten miler heading into September having taken in the Irish 2000 Guineas, the St James’s Palace Stakes and the Sussex Stakes in what is a below par division.