Irish Champions Weekend Review
So much happened over Irish Champions Weekend, it’s hard to settle on one or two things to cover this week so instead I’m going for quick hits on eight aspects of the meeting that stood out. Here goes…
Ghaiyyath made the meeting
He may have gotten turned over and his reputation suffered as a result, but Ghaiyyath was equine box office for Leopardstown in the lead-up to the weekend and it is worth reflecting on what the Champion Stakes would have been without him: Ballydoyle versus a below-par Sottsass, which would have intrigued no one. The reasons behind his defeat have been much discussed since, with early and sustained pace pressure, plus the toll of hard races in quick succession (relative to previous seasons), likely chief among them. I can’t have the idea he has been getting soft leads all summer; Ghaiyyath tends to go hard and has done so in the premium Group 1s, whereas Magical had some soft top-level wins this year in the Pretty Polly and Tattersalls Gold Cup.
Top ‘tweaking’ from Aidan O’Brien
Ghaiyyath may not have been at his best, but this was still a bit of high-end training skill from O’Brien, using a jockey switch and a tactics change-up to get the ground back from York when Magical had apparently not been at full bore fitness-wise. One of the most interesting aspects of this was that the trainer basically told all about the tactical shift in a pre-race interview with Brian Gleeson on RTE, saying that ‘it’s straightforward, Magical gets this trip well, and Seamus will be happy to make the running if William doesn’t want to, but if he does he will sit second and Ryan will follow’. This is not the first time O’Brien has been so open with Gleeson this year – he basically called the Irish Derby beforehand back in June – and it is great TV when it transpires in front of you. O’Brien seems to feel a sense of duty to engage the viewing public at home, but even this is going above and beyond, and I suspect some of his rival trainers would love to have the access to these interviews beforehand and their jockeys on speed-dial were it allowed.
A penny for Ryan Moore’s thoughts
In the same interview, O’Brien said ‘Ryan was always going to ride Japan’, with the strong suggestion that the decision had been made for him; what you wouldn’t give for Moore’s views on that call. There is no world where he wasn’t on the lesser of the two Ballydoyle runners, the betting having Magical 9/2 and Japan 8/1 at the off, while the trainer’s comments in the run-up to the meeting were glowing about the mare, but less so about the colt. Whatever the thinking behind the decision, it worked a treat with Heffernan on board her for just the second time and producing a peak effort, and one wonders if Moore was thought somewhat unsuitable to executing such a ride. The jockey could be forgiven for feeling peeved with the situation, as he had after all intended to give up quite a bit to ride at the meeting, a quarantine period of a fortnight started at Ballydoyle but cut short after a rule change, while Heffernan has come back into favour very quickly for someone who had a costly meltdown in France back in July that led to a 22-day ban.
I do enjoy Johnny Murtagh as a rule, his enthusiasm for the sport and life in general shining through in what he does. I also like how he trains his horses too and how much he has improved as a trainer in a relatively short career. It probably isn’t the greatest surprise that he has made a success of his second professional life having been so good in the first one, but top jockeys making up into top trainers is hardly a given. The two roles are different but related, and someone having a typical length career as a rider will be often be at a disadvantage if going training, as time is lost to build skill and relationships. Furthermore, the reality is that most jockeys are not coming from a monied background from which some top trainers are, making Murtagh’s achievement more notable.
Sonaiyla didn’t win over Champions Weekend, but she went pretty close in the Flying Five over a trip short of her best, and her improvement across four starts this season has to rate as one of the better training performances of the year by Paddy Twomey. She finished 2019 a seemingly exposed 86-rated handicapper with Michael Halford, but Twomey had spotted something in her when she ran well behind his own Silk Forest the April before last and brought her through the ranks, winning a Listed race and Premier Handicap, along with a couple of places in Group races. She is now rated 106. This has already been the trainer’s best season; he has 13 winners on the board, with his previous best being 11 last year, and much of that success has been powered by switchers like Sonaiyla and Pearls Galore.
Irish Prix De L’Opera looks a cracker
I can’t wait for Arc Weekend for all sorts of reasons, and one of them is the Irish Prix De L’Opera, which seems likely to host a renewal of rivalry from the three Irish fillies from the Prix Diane where heads and necks separated Fancy Blue, Alpine Star and Peaceful. Additionally, Magical is in the betting for that race too, but running her there would be a little like running Frankel in a Group 2, but the three-year-olds are enough to sustain the race, especially with both Peaceful and Fancy Blue having run so well over an insufficient mile in the Matron Stakes. One does wonder if either would have the ability to get within a length of Palace Pier as Alpine Star did in the Marois, though it has to be a concern she missed last weekend with Jessica Harrington reporting her ‘quiet’ in her work. Let’s hope she can get back on track for the first weekend in October.
The National Stakes was a messy contest, the overall time quite a bit slower than the Moyglare over the same course-and-distance, the field racing tight early and never really getting spread out, just over two-and-a-half lengths covering the first five home. Fifth home was one of the joint-favourites Lucky Vega, and the die was cast with him early as he was forced into a pocket early by the other joint-favourite Master Of The Seas, never getting racing room thereafter. He finished with plenty to give, but whether he would have won is uncertain with the eventual winner Thunder Moon meeting traffic of his own, powering through the race but caught on heels and having nowhere to go until after the furlong pole, at which point he quickened up in a manner to win going away. The bare form is questionable, but he was still making an unusually big jump from once-raced maiden winner (albeit one that ran in a barrier trial before that) to Group 1 winner, and even in this unusual year that is a feat worth noting.
Weld Double Target
I admit to having knocked plenty of fun out of Dermot Weld’s amazing memory/blatant after-timing of his many past successes, but it was hard not to be impressed with his feat of target training to win a pair of Group 1s last Sunday. He worked back from the Irish St. Leger with Search For A Song, that one following up her win in the race the previous season (his ninth in the classic, in case you didn’t know), using her previous starts in 2020 over shorter trips to get the often-keen filly to race more tractably, and she seemed to settle better than ever at the Curragh. The obvious target with Tarnawa after her Give Thanks win at Cork seemed the Blandford Stakes, a race Weld won nine times in case you didn’t know, including with the same filly in 2019, but instead he chose to roll the big dice and go for the Prix Vermeille instead. She beat the vaunted Raabihah to run out a comfortable winner by three lengths, her record one of admirable consistency, with the only disappointing two runs in a 12-race career coming in the Oaks last year, and on bad ground at British Champions Day. Though she has been trained for the autumn, she does prefer a sound surface which may limit future opportunities, though with a Group 1 win it is a case of job done at this point. Ground permitting, however, a return to Champions Day would seem more likely than an Arc bid given Weld’s record at that meeting.
When you start following racing, or any sport, as a young person, the participants often seem impossibly far away in age. That changes as time passes, the new jockeys getting more fresh-faced each year, but in flat racing at least the old stalwarts hang in for a long time, often into the late forties and fifties.
All that makes 43 seems impossibly young not just in terms of the sport but in life. Pat Smullen was a good jockey when I started following the sport in the early 2000s but by the end the last decade he was a brilliant one, a master of track-craft, the one everyone else wanted to follow.
He and Colin Keane had a terrific duel for the jockeys’ title in 2017 and it felt at the end of that season that we would have a number of years where the perennial champion and the young star went at it.
It wasn’t to be as cancer forced Smullen away from the saddle at a time when he was better than ever in his early forties. A sport-person robbed of his identity, he had every reason to disappear from public view and wallow but instead had an amazing and all-too-brief second act as a fundraiser for Cancer Trials Ireland, showing that he was much more than a jockey.