Fastnet Rock, West Cork’s emblematic lighthouse, casts a little of its long thin shadow over Ireland’s finest flat racing extravaganza this weekend.
The second edition of the freshly minted ‘Champions’ Weekend’ kicks off at Leopardstown this evening, continues to the Curragh on Sunday and promises many succulent treats for drama hungry racegoers, including the ‘Fastnet Rock’ Matron Stakes later today.
The inaugural meeting last year was an unqualified success for HRI’s far-sighted and innovative strategists, attracting almost 25,000 paying customers to the racing itself and hundreds more to a host of supplemental activities such as parade ring sales, stable visits and the usual plethora of cultural and social events.
With last year’s learning now in the bank, this year’s festival looks certain to gain deeper traction, with reasonable expectations that the Champion Stakes attendance record of 17,000, set when Fantastic Light mugged Galileo in 2001, could be threatened.
The line-up for the Champion Stakes is deep, rich and creamy and the support card, principally the Matron Stakes, is dripping with possibilities.
A Group One mile for fillies and mares, the Matron has drawn sponsorship this year from Coolmore Stud, to promote their Australian champion stallion, the aforementioned Fastnet Rock, who has been shuttling to the Northern hemisphere in recent years. With remarkably prescient timing he managed to sire his first European classic winner when Qualify won the Oaks at Epsom in June.
But it is the Qipco Champion Stakes that will define the weekend and if you can’t get excited by a race containing Golden Horn, Gleneagles, Free Eagle, Cirrus Des Aigles, Pleascach, and the Grey Gatsby amongst others, then perhaps it’s time to find another sport to follow.
All of them are Group One winners and none of them more intriguing than the French-trained Cirrus Des Aigles, who brings significant adult experiences to what is essentially a children’s party.
The story of this nine-year-old gelding is both layered and quirky, the antithesis of the normal flat race narrative of a couple of ‘cotton-wooled’ seasons of light racing, retirement, thank you and goodbye.
Cirrus has straddled many generations, seen triumph, tragedy and controversy, his longevity providing some constancy to a sport that can be often transient and that seems to always run with the clutch out.
It was so long ago that Sea the Stars had just begun his voyage to stardom as a two-year old and it is already three years ago since he worried the unbeaten legend that was Frankel in his final race at Ascot. Yet here he is all those years later, hale and hearty and back for more against this year’s next new generation.
His career statistics are remarkable. He ran four times at French provincial tracks as a two-year old without winning and followed that up with ‘just’ the seventeen runs in his second season, starting on the all-weather early in the new-year and finishing up in Hong Kong just before Christmas.
Some comparative context: the six three-year-olds opposing him tonight have only collectively racked up twenty-three starts between them in their equivalent classic year.
The old dog for a long, hard road didn’t stop there. Despite some serious injury interruptions he has still managed 63 career starts, collected over €8m in prize money, has won six Group One races and was European older horse of the year in 2011.
He has beaten the likes of So You Think, Snow Fairy, Nathaniel, St Nicholas Abbey, Midday and Twice Over and at one point in 2013 was officially rated as the best racehorse on the planet.
His origins and back story are just as quirky. A son of the national hunt sire, Even Top, by a mare too slow to race, he was sent by his owner to be trained at Chantilly by Corine Barande-Barde more in hope than expectation. He proved to be such an argumentative ‘boyo’ during his early days at the stable that he was quickly gelded to calm him down.
While this very unkind cut has cost poor Cirrus the prospect of the romantic spring-time pleasures enjoyed by the likes of Fastnet Rock, it gifted flat racing a horse that comes back for more every year and has grown a fan club like he was a lovable old steeplechaser.
Part of his charisma is that he comes as part of a package with a trainer who can also be described as something of a non-standard unit. M Barande-Barbe is a daughter of Parisian psychoanalysts, who, without any heritage in racing, woke up one morning at the age of fifty-something and found that her dreams had come true. She really was training one of the world’s best racehorses on lush misty mornings on the edge of an idyllic Chantilly forest.
She recalled her journey: “My parents knew everything about people, so I thought I will take care of animals. But when I tried to get a job in show jumping I realised you needed to be very rich or a genius. I was neither so I went into racing.”
Her actual route in was through her former husband, a bloodstock agent, and through this association she ended up buying a stable in Chantilly and then taking out a training licence 1991.
Although she has produced some high-class animals over the years, including Carling, who won the French Oaks, nothing has come near to Cirrus in terms of ability or indeed in the unconditional love between trainer and horse.
“He always goes forward,” she says, “to life and problems. He’s my best friend. There’s nobody I can trust like him.”
The question today is whether the ageing l’amour de sa vie (love of her life) can repay that trust yet again with another Group One payday against a field of horses, which are among the best he has ever faced. It’s a huge ask after a stop-start season for the horse who hasn’t run since May, when he disappointed behind Solow in a messy race at Longchamp.
His trainer’s confidence grows stronger with every raincloud that gathers for an expected assault on South County Dublin on Saturday morning.
The word ‘soft,’ or worse, has appeared in the going description in most of his best performances. “He’s on target for Leopardstown,” said Barande-Barbe this week. “It will be his first run in Ireland — he likes going to new places.”
While the prospect of rain terrifies the connections of his main opponents, Cirrus Des Aigles stands solid like a craggy old lighthouse, well able withstand anything the Irish weather can throw at him. If he can prevail the loving glow of his besotted trainer will brightly light up the Leopardstown.
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