Leopardstown and the Curragh share hosting duties in the coming days for the newly annual flat racing extravaganza, the Longines-sponsored Irish Champions Weekend. Almost €5 million in prize money will be available much of it in 10 graded races, six of them Group One contests.
The courses began their meticulous preparations for this weekend a year ago and the only unknowns remaining are the stories that will emerge over the next couple of days. Here are four possibilities.
Star is dead. Long live the Star
It’s been quite a poignant week for Kerry folk. Their beloved football star, Kieran Donaghy, called it a day and the vacuum he leaves behind only compounds the misery of a year of football ordinariness in the Kingdom. Hope, however, may be at hand.
Oisin Murphy, a 23-year-old son of Killarney, has used his summer to convert staggering early promise to sustained excellence and he now leads the British flat jockey’s championship. At this stage of the season the title can only be denied him by bad luck, injury, or the performances of his only realistic pursuer, the reigning champ Silvestre de Sousa.
Murphy’s growing prominence doesn’t come as a surprise because he’s been bred and reared for this role. His uncle, North Cork trainer and Best Mate’s jockey, Jim Culloty, nurtured him from childhood and when his riding skills needed further polish, he arranged educational stints with Tommy Stack and Aidan O’Brien before his nephew ultimately moved to Andrew Balding’s yard near Newbury.
Once he’d built the trust of his new boss, he got access to the ammunition necessary to become the champion apprentice in 2014.
Winning the apprentice title can be a double-edged blade. Like a great first album from a rock band, it’s usually very hard to follow up. But after a couple of quieter seasons, Murphy is now riding with huge confidence and effectiveness and has already won eight Group Ones this year.
He partners the hot favourite Roaring Lion tomorrow evening in the Champion Stakes and stands on the threshold of even more career milestones. He is poised for his first Group One success in his native country and to drive Roaring Lion another step closer to the ‘horse of the year’ title.
Ever since mankind’s irst recorded bout of fisticuffs between Cain and Abel, it’s been clear that an enduring rivalry is one of the safest routes to the lucrative box office in sports.
When he cruised to victory in the 2000 Guineas at Newmarket in early May, it seemed likely that Saxon Warrior would indeed emerge as a great champion and write his name into the annals of the 2018 flat season. His victory in the first classic looked merely a precursor to a summer of dominance and a handicap rating nudging into the high 130s.
Then a pesky, if unexpected, rival emerged.
Saxon Warrior first encountered Roaring Lion when completing an unbeaten juvenile season in the Racing Post trophy at Doncaster last autumn. When he put him firmly in his place again in the Guineas, it seemed that at least one dangerous threat had been vanquished.
Since then they have met three more times and Roaring Lion has finished ahead on each occasion, in the Epsom Derby, the Eclipse, and in last month’s Juddmonte International at York. Saxon’s early 2-0 lead is now a 3-2 deficit and his last realistic chance of redemption comes in tomorrow’s Champion Stakes.
There is no apparently obvious reason why he should be able to halt the march of the ever-improving Roaring Lion in their sixth bout in less than a year. Then again, there was no obvious reason why Cain should bosh his brother on the head with a plough.
The future looks bright
Racing is a sport where the imagination swiftly moves on from an admiration of the brilliance of current champions to great hopes for the emerging generation. Last winter, for example, Samcro, just a promising novice hurdler after all, dominated discussions during the latest national hunt racing season.
This is one of the main reasons that a fairly routine ‘ho-hum’ flat season suddenly woke up on the first day of September when a couple of exceptionally promising juveniles galloped into public consciousness in two races separated by 400 miles and run 10 minutes apart.
Aidan O’Brien’s Ten Sovereigns powered home in the Group 3 Round Tower Stakes at the Curragh Group and remains unbeaten in both his races. While he was still posing proudly for photographs in the winner’s enclosure Too Darn Hot reinforced the impression he had created when winning his maiden at Sandown in August when he destroyed a good field in the Solario Stakes at the same track.
The long tail of the flat season immediately looked more interesting and Sunday’s twin juvenile Group Ones, the National and Moyglare Stakes at the Curragh, will further clarify the two-year-old pecking order. Both are intriguing contests, each containing entries by horses of immense promise. The National Stakes features emerging talent such as Anthony Van Dyck, Dark Vision, and Quorto while the Moyglare will shed light on just how good Skitter Scatter and Main Event really are.
Yet, a less obvious contender could also emerge in Saturday’s KPMG Juvenile Group 2 stakes at Leopardstown tomorrow because Kevin Prendergast, at the ripe old age of 86, may well have uncovered yet another brilliant racehorse. Madhmoon was a visually impressive winner of a very strong maiden at the Foxrock track last month and could ultimately be the one to light up the imagination through the bleak mid-winter.
Ambitiously named after the nearest star cluster to our solar system, Alpha Centuari has grown into her celestial moniker this season both in on track performance and in physical stature. Jessica Harrington’s three-year-old grey filly is without doubt the biggest individual draw of the two-day festival and she contests the one-mile Matron Stakes at Leopardstown tomorrow evening. As the course chief executive, Pat Keogh, put it earlier this week: “There’s no doubt about it, Alpha Centauri has her own fan club now and she puts bums on seats.”
The prose of the form book lists that she has won four Group Ones on the bounce this season but it’s the sheer poetry of her dazzling style and victories that have embraced her warmly in the public affection. Her performances have been good enough to convince the Irish handicapper to rate her higher than any filly since Ridgewood Pearl during the long hot summer of 1995.
Like Oisin Murphy, Alpha Centauri is bred for brilliance being a granddaughter of the imperious French bred mare Miesque, one of the greatest mares ever to grace a European or American racecourse. Coincidentally this a heritage she shares with her cousin Study of Man, France’s live contender for the Champion Stakes later in the evening. Just two days of imperious horseracing and yet so many stories to be told.
Alpha Centuari is without doubt the biggest individual draw of the two-day festival