All the major racing nations have their near end-of-season highlights: France has Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe weekend, the UK have Champions Day, the USA have the Breeders’ Cup and since 2014, the flat season in Ireland has culminated in Irish Champions Weekend.
Taking place over two days at Leopardstown and the Curragh, the weekend includes five Group 1 races, the final Irish Classic and the highlight of the weekend, the €1.25 million QIPCO Irish Champion Stakes run over 1m2f.
With over €4.6 million in prize-money on offer, over the course of the weekend, it is set to be a celebration of the very best of Irish flat racing talent, coupled with some high profile runners from the UK and France. Indeed, last year’s QIPCO Irish Champion Stakes was so good, it was voted the very best flat race in Europe and the joint-second best flat race in the world in 2016 at the Longines World Best Race Awards. It is often won by some of the best horses in the world, from Sadler’s Wells (when the race was run at the Phoenix Park in 1984) through to Almanzor last year and in between times, arguably the greatest flat racehorse ever seen in Ireland, Sea The Stars.
Since the 1st Irish Champions Weekend on 2014 Aidan O’Brien has won 40% of the Group 1 races on offer. He saddles the favourites in each of the five Group 1 races again this weekend. The first of those races is the Matron Stakes on Saturday where the Master of Ballydoyle trains one third of the 12 runners. Winter has won four Group 1 races on the bounce and she looks easily the best 3yo miler around this year. There was talk of her running in the Irish Champion Stakes against the colts but it would have been commercial suicide to see a filly beat a colt in the same ownership, and devalue his future worth as a stallion, so she has been kept to her own sex in the Coolmore-sponsored event. Like many top class horses, she is equally adept on good to firm or soft going, so the underfoot conditions at the weekend won’t bother her either way. She is a huge, big filly and the shining light in this year’s flat season and it is worth the entry fee alone just to see her in the flesh. If she is at her best, she should take all the beating, with the French-trained Qemah looking the filly best placed to take advantage of any blip in the favourites form.
Churchill is up next in the QIPCO Irish Champion Stakes. It’s safe to say this year’s renewal doesn’t come anywhere close to the 2016 race but we can’t have an exceptional field every year. The fact that the second and third favourites have only won at Group 2 and Group 3 level respectively indicates how weak the race is, so it affords Churchill a decent opportunity to redeem his reputation. Every runner in the race has a sub 120-rating, with the exception of the 2000 Guineas winner, and given he is in receipt of the 3yo allowance as well, he looks thrown in really. A winner of 7 races from 10 starts, 2 have come on Good to Firm, 1 on good but 4 have come with give in the ground on Good to Soft, Yielding or Yielding to Soft. It can be argued he’s better with give in the ground and indeed one of his best performances came on his last start when he was two lengths off Ulysses on Good to Soft at York as well, so it’s difficult to see how Churchill won’t prevail here in the absence of the Stoute-trained horse.
Moving on to Sunday and O’Brien again dominates the 3 Group 1 races. He has the first 2 in the betting for the Moyglare Stud Stakes (Magical & Clemmie) with Happily and September providing him with 4 of the first 5 in the market. In the 2yo colts Group 1, the Goffs Vincent O’Brien National Stakes, the O’Brien-trained Gustav Klimt is as short as 4/11 in places whilst the Ballydoyle-trained Order Of St George looks like he will go off 1/3 or shorter in the final Irish Classic, the Comer Group International Irish St Leger. All in all it looks like a Ballydoyle benefit, RaceBets customers can get an amazing 50/1 about Irish-trained horses to win every Group 1 race at Irish Champions Weekend, for a €1 stake. You can’t lose. RaceBets will give a £/€5 free bet if a non-Irish trained horse wins any of the 5 G1 races this weekend. The old saying ‘never look a gift horse in the mouth’ springs to mind!