Kevin Blake

Leading racing writer Kevin Blake has reflections on another brilliant Irish Champions Weekend at Leopardstown and the Curragh.

  • Monday 17 September
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Irish Champions Weekend reflections

Irish Champions Weekend was unquestionably one of the best concepts produced by Irish racing in decades and last weekend saw it once again deliver on what it promised. To delve into each of the highlights would take up far more space than could be justified here, but there really were any amount that warrant a great depth of coverage.

The featured Irish Champion Stakes produced a tactically-fascinating and pulsating contest between two great rivals in Roaring Lion and Saxon Warrior. On the majority of occasions both of them have stepped foot on a racecourse, they have faced each other and this was perhaps the most exciting of their six clashes.

With Oisin Murphy being all-but obliged to drop in Roaring Lion from his wide draw, the opportunity was there for Ballydoyle to set a trap for him by going steady in front and having Saxon Warrior forwardly positioned. That is duly what transpired and Saxon Warrior made a very brave bid only to be run down late on by a searing late challenge by Roaring Lion.

That is twice in recent starts that Roaring Lion has overcome a positional disadvantage to nab Saxon Warrior and history is highly likely to judge him the better horse over a mile-and-a-quarter. John Gosden has done an exceptional job with him, as he looked a colt that could go the wrong way at a couple of different stages, but has grown into the finished article as the season has progressed.

The son of Kitten’s Joy possesses a searing turn of pace and it would be fascinating to see him given an opportunity to show it back at a mile before the season is finished, perhaps in the Queen Elizabeth II at Ascot next month.

For all that it was Roaring Lion’s day, Saxon Warrior deserves great credit for making such a bold bid given that his persistent hanging into the running rail combined with the subsequent discovery of a ruptured tendon suggests that he was fighting through the pain barrier for much of the closing stages.

That Saxon Warrior has been retired before getting his chance back at a mile is deeply disappointing. He may not have delivered on the sky-high expectations that followed on from his win in the 2000 Guineas, but there are reasons to believe that we didn’t see the very best of him thereafter. While it is disappointing that he won’t be seen on the racecourse again, as a son of Deep Impact, he will be an important addition to the Coolmore stallion ranks.

On the subject of winning raiders, it remains a mystery why Irish Champions Weekend isn’t being better supported by British and French trainers. Those that were game enough to take up the challenge were very well rewarded, with four of the six Group 1 races and six of the 16 total races being won by British-trained runners.

Chief amongst the British raiders was Karl Burke, who played a major role in both days of the meeting. Having brought over just three runners, he saddled Laurens to win the Matron Stakes at Leopardstown and Havana Grey to win the Flying Five at the Curragh. It was the win of Laurens that was particularly notable, as it came at the expense of what had been billed as one of the stars of the meeting in Alpha Centauri.

While Jessica Harrington’s star looked to be coming with a big challenge when seeming to falter and was subsequently found to have suffered a career-ending injury, that shouldn’t overshadow what Laurens has achieved. She came into the race as a three-time Group 1 winner, but that the most recent two of those wins had come in France had perhaps led to her being underrated back at home.

While this fourth victory at the highest level will perhaps inevitably be remembered for what happened to Alpha Centauri, Laurens is a star in her own right and it won’t be long before her genuinely stunning good looks are given the spotlight that her talent warrants on the biggest stage.

It is a great and cruel pity that Alpha Centauri’s racing career ended on Saturday just as she threatened to grow into a mainstream star for horse racing. She has been a pleasure to watch ever since her debut and her connections can be very proud of her career and how they guided it.

Arguably the best story of all was saved for the Moyglare Stud Stakes. The race had all the potential for a fairy tale result with Skitter Scatter representing Patrick Prendergast and Ronan Whelan and Lady Kaya representing Sheila Lavery and Robbie Colgan being amongst the market leaders, but for them to finish first and second in that order was a remarkable result.

Both Prendergast and Whelan are universally respected amongst their peers as not just great exponents of their respective crafts, but as thoroughly decent human beings. The regard they are both held in was summed up by the reception they received as Skitter Scatter was led back into the winners’ enclosure. For them to secure their first Group 1 wins on such a stage was a dream result.

Skitter Scatter wins the Moyglare Stakes
Skitter Scatter winning the Moyglare Stakes was one of Kevin's highlights

While Lavery and Colgan may have been denied their first Group 1 wins on this occasion, they might not have to wait long for another chance, as Lady Kaya looks an ideal candidate for the Cheveley Park Stakes at Newmarket in a fortnight if it doesn’t come too soon for her.

With a view to the future, the Charlie Appleby-trained Quorto was perhaps the most promising juvenile on show over the course of the weekend. His win in the National Stakes at the Curragh stamps him as a top-class prospect and one can only hope that he is directed at the Dewhurst Sakes which is heating up very nicely.

The win of Madhmoon in the KPMG Champions Juvenile Stakes at Leopardstown didn’t just stamp the son of Dawn Approach as a top-class prospect, it that generated one of the best receptions of the weekend for his 86-year-old trainer Kevin Prendergast. While many might have assumed that Awtaad was the legendary trainer’s last hoorah at racings top table, this colt could well prove that assumption to be wide of the mark.

The weekend-long theme of variety of winners was shown most vividly by the scenes that followed the victories of the Jessica Harrington-trained Sparkle’n’joy in the Ingabelle Stakes at Leopardstown and the Peter Fahey-trained Hamley in the Northfields Handicap at the Curragh.

Both were greeted with rapturous celebrations courtesy of the winning owners, the It’s All About The Girls syndicate and the Stable Friends Syndicate. It was so refreshing to see the winning connections show such emotion and joy in victory and hopefully they will help encourage others to get involved with syndicates and the like.

Australia leads the way with how accessible and popular syndicate ownership is and that is without question the best way for Irish racing to increase its popularity with the masses.

Leopardstown ground under the spotlight

The ground at Leopardstown was the subject of discussion before racing even started with Ger Lyons later commenting that it was “far too quick with an awful cover of grass.” Lyons backed up that view by withdrawing three of his five runners and he was not alone, as a couple of senior jockeys I asked for an opinion suggested that it was the firmest surface produced by the track all year.

Having walked the final couple of furlongs of both tracks, personally I thought the inner track was good-to-firm ground, but that the outer track was definitely firmer. That Saxon Warrior, Alpha Centauri and Making Light were all injured in races that took place on the outer track may not be a coincidence.

Ultimately, Leopardstown found themselves in a tricky spot with rain forecast for Friday night that discouraged them from watering on Friday evening. Had they watered with rain forecast that duly arrived, they would have looked like idiots. As it transpired, the rain didn’t arrive and they ended up with a track that was considered firmer than ideal by some. It is hard not to have sympathy for Leopardstown in light of the inaccurate forecast, though the question of the cover of grass is fairer to pose, given that it something they have much more control of.

“Clinically Abnormal” comes to prominence again

In the aftermath of the Matron Stakes before the full extent of Alpha Centauri’s injury was known, it was announced on track that having been examined by the IHRB vet she was found to be “clinically abnormal”. This ambiguous term should have been thrown in the bin years ago.

Officially, it can mean any number of things, which is why using it is so unhelpful. The notion that it is acceptable to use such a term on the most high-profile of stages in this day and age is just ridiculous. It really isn’t that hard to tell the public, many of whom are just concerned for the wellbeing of the horse, what was found to be wrong.

It is easily fixed and it surely isn’t that big of a leap into the ocean of common sense to get rid of the term and communicate more specific details to the public. However, as is often heard on Irish racecourse, “common sense is not very common.”

Difficult transition period for the Curragh comes to a close

After two seasons of racing during its substantial redevelopment, the next time the gates of the Curragh will open to the public it will have been transformed into what will be billed as the showpiece racecourse for Irish racing.

It has been a difficult two years for the Curragh, with the decision to continue racing there through the development being an unpopular one amongst the racing public. While the racing product continued unaffected, one wonders will the legacy of that decision be felt in the crowd numbers when the attendance restrictions of the last two years are lifted next year.

There is no doubt that the new Curragh will be a fabulous facility, but the notion of “build it and they will come” should not be assumed. The Curragh are currently putting together a new marketing team and one can only hope that they bring innovative and creative ideas to the table that attract passionate racing fans to the Curragh to witness what has always been a world-class programme of racing.

One can also only hope that when the parade ring is being repositioned that those making the decisions have more consideration for those standing outside the rails looking in than they did with their first effort. 

Kevin Blake
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