Reflections on the Irish Champions Stakes and the St Leger
Can we have too much of a good thing? For followers of Flat racing, last weekend tested that question to the very limit with 10 Group 1 races between Ireland, Britain, France and Germany. It was a relentless feast of top-class action that just kept delivering race after race.
It was intense, it was invigorating, but now it has passed and the time has come to reflect on just some of what we learned.
The pick of Saturday’s action was the Irish Champion Stakes at Leopardstown. It is a race with a rich history of providing world-class action and memorable finishes. This renewal proved no different.
Ghaiyyath had spent all season tearing the lungs out of world-class opponents with his Un De Sceaux-esqe brand of high-pressure front-running. His main rival Magical had proved no match for him in the Juddmonte International at York when ridden with restraint and trying to close down on him late.
So, her connections gamely changed their approach for the rematch at Leopardstown and sent her onto Ghaiyyath’s quarters from the outset of the Irish Champion Stakes.
What transpired was a spectacle more akin to top-class dirt racing than top-class turf racing, with Ghaiyyath and Magical locking horns at what the sectional times tell us was faster-than-optimal pace from the very first furlong onwards.
There was no relenting, no breathers, no mercy. This was two top-class racehorses going at it until one of them cried enough. The two were locked together for almost the full length of the straight, with it only being in the last 100 yards that Magical edged ahead to secure a memorable ¾-length victory.
This isn’t a race that is likely to feature prominently when the bearded number-crunchers assess the highest-rated races of 2020, but that doesn’t matter. The manner in which Magical dared and pressured Ghaiyyath into going the pace that they did without any thoughts for a breather meant that they both ran inefficiently and inevitably couldn’t produce their very best on the day.
However, what they combined to produce was such a stirring spectacle that ratings are a mere afterthought. These two world-class performers put their heart and souls on display at Leopardstown and both deserve endless credit for it. This race will be remembered.
Earlier that afternoon at Doncaster saw the Pertemps St Leger take place. It was a race with an entirely different shape to it, featuring a bunch of three-year-olds that were all on the up and promised to have even more to offer. What transpired was another riveting contest that saw no less than seven horses spread across the track with two furlongs to race.
One by one they cried enough and the one that galloped on the strongest was the Joseph O’Brien-trained Galileo Chrome.
The son of Australia had missed his first attempt at Classic glory when a late non-runner in the Irish Derby, but after recording two wide-margin successes since then, this represented delivery on all previous promise in no uncertain terms.
He did everything one could have hoped for him to do. He settled beautifully over the longest trip he has tackled, showed gears to take the gaps when they opened for him in the straight and battled best of all to see off the persistent Berkshire Rocco by a neck.
Galileo Chrome holds a number of entries in the coming weeks, but it seems more likely that he won’t run again this season. He will return as a four-year-old with plenty of options with regard to trip, though his relaxed demeanour and clear stamina reserves suggest that staying trips might well prove most suitable for him.
Of course, it is impossible to recall the St Leger without thinking of Shane Crosse. The 18-year-old was looking forward to a dream book of weekend rides including Galileo Chrome in the St Leger and Pretty Gorgeous in the Moyglare Stud Stakes only to have it all ripped away from him by a positive Covid-19 test on Friday.
It was a cruel turn of events, but Crosse has age and talent on his side. He will no doubt get many more opportunities to get off the mark in Group 1 company.
Crosse’s misfortune was Tom Marquand’s good luck and no one would begrudge him being the beneficiary after he was jocked off English King in the Derby earlier this season. Marquand grasped the opportunity with both hands and seized the day.
Marquand gives every impression of being a top-class rider in the making and this well-earned victory can only accelerate his rise.
Amongst the beaten horses, Santiago may have found the drying ground to be too firm for him. Timeform called it good-to-firm for the St Leger and his pronounced knee action suggests that he will always appreciate an ease.
As well as that, I’m not convinced he is as stout as a stayer as his form may suggest. The way he shapes suggests to me that he is worth another try at a mile-and-a-half and it will be interesting to see if he is ever given such an opportunity.
However, the main focus of attention amongst the beaten horses was Pyledriver. The amount of early exuberance and tactical pace he exhibited over a mile-and-a-half this season raised concerns about his ability to be fully effective over this much longer trip, but in fairness to him, he gave it a proper go.
Indeed, if Martin Dwyer had kept him covered up for longer and/or corrected him earlier when he started to hang left in the straight, he is likely to have gone very close to winning. It was a painful watch for his supporters in the straight.
As well as he ran, Pyledriver gave the impression he was running a trip beyond his optimum. His class got him involved in the finish, but the attributes that he possesses are not best suited to staying trips. A return to a mile-and-a-half promises to suit him better. The Pyledriver story has been a great tonic for many in this difficult season and it is far from over yet.
To step back from the specific and briefly assess the broader picture, it should be a source of great pride in Irish racing that of the 10 Group 1 races in Europe last weekend, Irish-based trainers saddled runners in nine of them and won eight of them. That is a remarkable feat.
There is no other sport that Ireland does better in at a world-class level than horse racing. Irish performance in any other sport doesn’t even come close. It is such a pity that this fact isn’t celebrated more in Ireland.
In sport, nothing is more popular and marketable than winning, yet the remarkable success that Irish people and horses consistently enjoy at world level in horse racing is all but ignored by the wider media.