Champions’ Weekend crowds didn’t justify the massive pre-event hype

There is no doubt that the inaugural Champions’ Weekend was a success and HRI, Leopardstown and the Curragh can be well pleased with their collective efforts.

The most important fact is the racing was of a very high order and the flat game, which many of us love, was showcased in a manner that was probably never seen in this country in the past.

The overall attendance for both days, at Leopardstown and the Curragh, was a satisfactory 24,000 plus.

Leopardstown accounted for 13,000, but we shouldn’t really get too excited about such figures.

I mean the all-Ireland under 21 hurling final on Saturday night, between Clare and Wexford at Thurles, attracted an audience of 15,000.

The point is that the Champions’ Weekend was the medium of a massive advertising and promotional campaign, costing an absolute bundle, apparently, whereas the hurling simply stood on its own merits. Food for thought, you’d have to conclude.

We’ve had the usual blather this week about the crowds exceeding expectations, but since the bar was never too high anyway, and the so-called expectations were their own, not too much notice should be taken of that.

There were buckets, reportedly, of free tickets doing the rounds and if you couldn’t get a decent crowd in such circumstances, then you never would.

I mean the worst pub in the world - if it gave away a huge amount of drink for nothing - would surely be packed!

The presence of Australia in the Irish Champion Stakes at Leopardstown was, of course, the major draw.

I felt that if he got beaten it might put a damper on things, but if anything actually added to this exciting new concept.

Many commentators have been mildly critical of the ride Joseph O’Brien gave Australia, with one of the more popular terms in use being: “This was not his finest hour”.

That is actually code, you suspect, for saying “Joseph didn’t half give Australia some bad ride”.

And, of course, that’s exactly what it was, a bad ride. I’m a fan of Joseph’s and have defended him here in the past.

He has the biggest job in European racing and is under savage pressure literally every day. He copes admirably well and makes very few mistakes.

But, as mistakes go, this was a whopper and, while you cannot quantify it, Australia’s defeat surely cost Coolmore millions.

I don’t think it is unfair to say that Australia lost this just about the only way that was possible, by going wide throughout the race and giving away so much ground.

My reading of the contest is that Ryan Moore, on The Grey Gatsby, was the only one, of those whose job wasn’t to make the running, who had the balls to sit off the pace.

Moore is a seriously intelligent man in the saddle and, on all known form, had to know that The Grey Gatsby was highly unlikely to beat Australia.

It seemed to me he rode his horse to come home strongly, hopefully for second place and anything else would constitute a massive bonus.

But, with Joseph going on a tour of Leopardstown and then setting a horse, who is supposed to possess terrific speed, alight so far out, Moore ended up copping the lot.

To their eternal credit neither Joseph nor Aidan O’Brien subsequently attempted to hide from the truth and both came out and answered the tough questions.

It’s a cliché, of course, but often you really do learn a lot more about the character of people after a defeat - in this case a sickening one - rather than a victory.

At Clonmel, two days before Free Eagle returned to racing at Leopardstown last Saturday, I asked Pat Smullen about the horse.

His enthusiasm for him was almost infectious and left me in no doubt that he expected a big run from the son of High Chaparral.

Smullen made the point that it was possibly asking a lot to be able to win after an enforced absence of a year.

But then, rather tellingly, he said that if he didn’t walk out of Leopardstown on Saturday night thinking Free Eagle was set to make a hell of a four-year-old he would be “a very disappointed man”.

Well, he must have left the track on a total high, after Free Eagle had made a spectacular comeback.

Both Smullen and trainer Dermot Weld have always maintained that their horse was not at his best when trounced by Australia at Leopardstown last season.

I believe we were all inclined to take that with the proverbial pinch of salt, but the way he powered away with the Leopardstown contest on Saturday didn’t half make you think of what might have been.

Is he really as good as he looked, keeping in mind that it was only a Group 3 and the opposition was nowhere near top class?

Should Free Eagle now go and challenge for the English Champion Stakes at Ascot then that will be simply captivating.

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