Trainer's talk before Irish Champions Weekend
Longines Irish Champions Weekend 2020 will be a pared-back affair, shorn of the extraneous additions like fashion and the Goffs Champions Sale, to leave just the racing itself. And while not ideal to lose the fanfare, the racing should be enough with the concerns voiced here last week that horses may not travel from the UK greatly lessened by revised quarantine rules for Group 1 jockeys.
They can now bypass the 14-day quarantine rule, and while I get that some are annoyed by this – one rule for sportspeople, another for the rest of us and all that – I don’t even want to think about how miserable life would be without sport at the moment, so anything that can make it more competitive is worth doing, provided it is safe.
The build-up to the two days has been low-key too. However, Horse Racing Ireland are doing what they can with a Champions Weekend At Home programme of online events this week, while also having a series of trainer interviews last week in which Aidan O’Brien, Ken Condon and Johnny Murtagh had some interesting insights on their likely runners. As ever, the challenge for punters is to figure out what they mean from what they said!
Aidan O’Brien remains the central figure at the meeting and Magical is his leading light in the Irish Champion Stakes, though it was surprising to read that he thought she might improve from her run at York. O’Brien can use Group 1s as stepping stones to further Group 1s, even one as important as this - as he did with Minding in 2016 - but I am struggling to see the Juddmonte International second as her "first run back for an autumn campaign" given she ran in the rescheduled Tattersalls Gold Cup just 24 days beforehand.
Further to this, the trainer did state they are seeing more in training from her than on the track, while Seamus Heffernan did say how much she had improved physically over this past winter. Still, to my eye she looks very similar to the filly of last year, good enough to win Group 1s when the very best aren’t around, but vulnerable otherwise, though intriguingly O’Brien did mention that “we keep tweaking things with her”; is something unusual planned with tactics – perhaps even headgear – for Saturday?
Peaceful is likely to be the yard’s main hope for the other Leopardstown Group 1, the Matron Stakes, but one wonders how ready she will be with the trainer saying “she has had a little break and is back for the autumn again.” Long thought of as a staying filly, they look to be starting at the mile with a view to moving back up in trip next time and she has plenty of options at Paris-Longchamp, Champions Day, and the Breeders’ Cup. Decent ground is considered important to her, however, so perhaps a trip to America might suit best.
O'Brien's juvenile errors to come good next spring
In what has been a down year for his juveniles, the trainer did have an explanation for why things have not gone to plan: “we messed up our two-year-olds. We trained them for the first week [in June] hoping to have horses for Ascot. Some took it, most don’t…we will see the best of them next spring…I feel I could have done a better job with those type of horses.”
O’Brien is in a position where he can own his mistakes and not be punished for them – a trainer starting out may not be so fortunate – but it takes self-awareness and intelligence to know when a mistake has been made and he does have Battleground, the exception to the Royal Ascot theory, as a leading player in the National Stakes.
He seemed less keen on the chances of his two-year-old fillies, however, commenting that “Joseph and Donnacha both have good fillies for the Moyglare Stud Stakes” and his multiple runners for that race may head there more in hope than expectation.
Away from Champions Weekend, there were notable comments on a few of his leading three-year-old colts running elsewhere. Things went wrong tactically for Santiago at Goodwood as “he hit the gates on Ryan and he couldn’t get him back”, and a more restrained ride seems certain in the Leger. Both O’Brien and Heffernan also made the point earlier in the year that his dramatic improvement at three was as least partly down to more patient tactics than had been executed at two.
One got the sense that Mogul has been getting the better of the trainer all season and may be keeping a bit for himself – “he still isn’t fully fit… [and] every day he laughs at us in the barn.” He goes to the Grand Prix de Paris next, along with Derby winner Serpentine, but again that one seems likely to improve for the outing, O’Brien saying “it will be a run to get him started back” as “he was a little bit quiet and tired and needed a little bit of time.”
Aside from O’Brien, Condon and Murtagh – two of the in-form trainers of the season – had some interesting titbits on their likely runners. Condon pointed out that Laws Of Indices “was standing with tail to backboard and missed the start” in the Phoenix Stakes and should be suited by the extra furlong in Sunday's National Stakes, while he felt Teresa Mendoza was in front too soon in the Round Tower and took “a nice blow”; she had been off 49 days between her two runs.
Murtagh looks set to have a pair of runners in the Matron with Know It All and Champers Elysees, but perhaps his better chances are with the middle-distance types Mirann and Red Kelly. They seem set to be split up, the former heading to the Petingo and the later to what was the Kilternan, the trainer commenting that the run over 10 furlongs with Mirann last time was all about settling him.
He also said that Red Kelly “had a break after he won at Down Royal with a view to the second half of the season”, so there might be improvement to come from his Navan run. He mentioned that blinkers had been used to sharpen him up at home prior to his handicap debut, and I wonder if they might be applied on the track this Saturday.
Irish Group 1s exciting but fruit yet to fall
There will be six Group 1s across Leopardstown and the Curragh this weekend, and one interesting aspect will be how previous Irish Group 1 form works out, particularly those races for three-year-olds and upwards that were domestic-only affairs. It is not to say they have been uninteresting – the Irish 2,000 Guineas could hardly have been more enthralling – but from a form point-of-view these races have not worked out particularly well as the table below shows.
|Races||Subsequent Wins from Runs|
|2,000 Guineas||2 from 21|
|1,000 Guineas||8 from 31|
|Derby||3 from 13|
|Oaks||2 from 10|
|Pretty Polly||2 from 8|
|Tattersalls Gold Cup||1 from 3|
The 1,000 Guineas was the clear pick with Fancy Blue the standout and Even So not far behind, but the 2,000 Guineas produced just a pair of Group 3 wins for Armory and Sinawann. The Irish Derby was even worse, the three subsequent wins all coming in maidens, and even in this unusual year that is underwhelming.
The form of the three most recent Group 1s are yet to be fully tested, though signs are a little more positive, while it is worth pointing out that most of the very best Irish-trained Flat horses have done their racing outside the country in 2020.
Of the seven horses currently rated 120 of higher in Ireland, only two have actually run here this year, Magical and Serpentine, with the latter having his runs in maidens.