Tony Keenan's Irish Angle

Our Irish expert Tony Keenan reflects on the Irish Champions Weekend from both an equine and human perspective

  • Wednesday 18 September
  • Blog
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Pinatubo Shines

Irish Champions Weekend is in its sixth year, and this was the first time when the Curragh seemed the centrepiece of the meeting, with events in the Champion Stakes for once being surpassed by two immense efforts at the Kildare track, one equine, one more human and humane.

Magical won the feature of the two days on Saturday, amazingly Aidan O’Brien’s first winner of the race since 2011, though in truth it was a race more about who wasn’t there (Enable and Crystal Ocean amongst others) and it was hardly the most satisfactory contest, Deirdre shaping the second best horse at worst.

Still, no race – unless it is the Arc – is brilliant every year and far more often the Irish Champion Stakes is among the best of the season; just not this time.

Pinatubo was something else in the National Stakes on Sunday, posting a rating (both form and time) rarely seen from a juvenile and in so doing restoring the race to its past glories; there have been some average winners of the National this decade but he was much more in keeping with the talented victors of the noughties like New Approach, Teofilo and George Washington.

This is a race Godolphin have always had time for – he was the fourth winner in their colours in all – and Pinatubo summarily dismissed both the Coventry and Futurity winners by nine lengths. As has been the case with other recent equine superstars, Aidan O’Brien will likely re-oppose Pinatubo with Armory and Arizona, but one wonders to what avail.

Resurgent Ballydoyle

Ballydoyle had no joy in the National Stakes but overall they had an excellent meeting after a trying summer; two wins on Sunday followed four on Saturday, three of those Group 1s and there was a sweep of the places in the Champion Stakes.

Furthermore, some of the O’Brien-trained winners were less than obvious; Blissful was more exposed that most of her rivals in the Ingabelle, Norway was a big gamble in the Enterprise, Fairyland and So Perfect had bits and pieces of form in the Flying Five but would never be confused with consistent.

All in all, it looks a yard peaking for later stage of the season which hasn’t always been the case and they have a pair of fresh horses to compete with in Mount Everest and Kew Gardens both of whom shaped with promise in their respective races.

A drifter in the betting, Mount Everest was held up in the Enterprise Stakes having generally been ridden forward as a juvenile and seemed to resent the experience early as he raced keenly. He finished off well though, only getting one tap of the whip, this was a good effort for a horse making his seasonal debut so late in the season.

Kew Gardens had run in 2019 but not since the Coronation Cup in May and was another market drifter prior to the St. Leger where he finished second. Sectional times mark him up significantly and while it seems a long time ago, he was sent off 7/1 in last year’s Arc and there has been no obvious diminishment in his abilities since.

Enable seems better now than in her injury-curtailed 2018 but even so he appeals as an interesting outsider for the Arc, especially if it came up soft, the demands of last year’s race not suiting ideally.

Weld's Racing Patterns

Dermot Weld is Irish racing’s creature of habit and there are certain races that he just keepings winning; Search For A Song was his eighth Irish Leger winner while Tarnawa gave him a ninth win in the Blandford.

With a view to next year and what is left of this one, I had a look at what Group races he has done consistently well in this decade with five other contests standing out: the Blue Wind Stakes (four wins this decade) the Ballyroan Stakes (four wins), the Give Thanks Stakes (six wins), the Kilternan/Enterprise Stakes (five wins) and the Concorde Stakes (five wins).

The last-named is yet to come at Tipperary in October where he has four entries at this stage and it is also worth pointing out that he targets British Champions Day as a whole; since that fixture came into being in 2011, he has had four winners from nine runners there.

All those winners were ridden by Pat Smullen and with the nine-time champion jockey retired it has been fascinating to see how Weld – always a good judge of a rider – has distributed his rides this year.

He has favoured a platoon approach with Chris Hayes and Oisin Orr taking a broadly similar number of mounts with a few others mixed in, perhaps most interestingly claimer Andrew Slattery.

Hayes was the big winner over the weekend, on board both Search For A Song and Tarnawa, but Slattery got his success too aboard Kastasa in Saturday’s Petingo Handicap and Weld has not been shy about using his claim in handicaps all year; the pair are seven winners from 18 runners with nine places when teaming up in handicaps this year.

Pat Smullen, Racing Hero

I attended my second Irish Champion Stakes in 2002 – Grandera versus Hawk Wing – and while my racing knowledge then could be summed up by a complete inability to see Hawk Wing beaten, I was impressed by this Pat Smullen character who rode a treble on Dress To Thrill in the Matron, One More Round in the now-Ahonoora and Sights On Gold in then-Kilternan; he seemed to know what he was doing, even if I didn’t!

I have never met Smullen but he comes across as a grafter who quietly commands respect through an immense work ethic and has been a fixture of Irish flat racing throughout the time I have followed it, always informative in interviews, rarely giving a bad ride, blessed with a track craft few could match.

What Smullen achieved in raising over a million euro for cancer research in his Champions Race for Cancer Trials Ireland was far bigger than racing however; this event resonated not just through Irish sport but Irish life.

Not everyone with cancer can do what Smullen did and for many with the disease it is a struggle to face the day; there will be occasions they don’t want to fight it at all and too many lose the battle over time. Even the word battle seems inadequate to describe what sufferers go through.

But on Sunday, Smullen managed to pull racing, so often a divided sport, together for an afternoon and there was a buzz at the track unlike anything I’ve felt before; not like the build-up to a big race but something more meaningful than animals running around a field.

In the end, the result didn’t matter but in national hunt-type weather there was a beauty to three of the great jumps riders battling down to the furlong pole; McCoy grinding from the front, Walsh stalking and Carberry sitting there with what seemed a double handful. Ok, well it might have mattered to AP and Ruby!

Tony Keenan's Irish Angle
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