It was billed as a potential classic and Saturday’s Qipco Champions Stakes certainly lived up to the hype. Before, during and after.
A star-studded field of eight was reduced to seven a few hours before the off when the conditions once again ruled Gleneagles out.
As 27mm of rain had fallen overnight the news was hardly a surprise but it was still a huge disappointment. However, the line-up was still stellar, headlined by Golden Horn.
The colt has tasted victory in the Dante, the Epsom Derby and the Eclipse this season but arrived at Leopardstown on something of a retrieval mission having surrendered his unbeaten record to Arabian Queen in the Juddmonte International at York last month.
The 5/4 favourite got the job done in front of a crowd of 13,780 but only after surviving a stewards’ inquiry following a bizarre lunge to his right that caught jockey Frankie Dettori unawares and severely inconvenienced the prospects of the challenging Free Eagle in the closing stages.
The bump Free Eagle received ended his challenge and he had to settle for third with Found chasing Golden Horn home.
In the immediate aftermath of the race John Gosden, Golden Horn’s trainer, was at loss to explain why his colt veered right so inexplicably.
“He’s seen something under the rail, maybe a shadow, but he’s seen something and he’s ducked out. He lurches very quickly right and Frankie’s aware to it straight away, gives him a crack down the shoulder to straighten up again. I don’t know what it was he saw, he was doing quite nicely until then.”
However, minutes later Gosden had an explanation as the incident was repeatedly replayed on the big screen in the parade ring.
“You don’t notice it on the screen, but he’s run across the shadow of the grandstand and then straightened up. A photographer who was down there has pointed out to me what happened.”
That eagle-eyed photographer was Pat Healy.
“I know Johnny G from down the years and he thought it was the remote cameras that the photographers had under the rails but because it happened so far out there were no remote cameras down there,” Healy said. “It was actually where the shadow of the stand starts to project itself on to the racetrack. That’s what he ducked at.
“He (Gosden) said: ‘Was it one of your cameras?’
“I said: ‘No. If you look again it was the shadow of the stand. When he saw it on the replay he said: ‘You’re right.’
“I haven’t seen it happen before but they might have to look at it (the timing of the race) for next year.”
The irony, of course, was that on Saturday the race was brought forward so the Champion Stakes runners would get the benefit of the freshest ground.
“I wish they had moved it back until the shadows had gone and then we wouldn’t have had a worrying moment,” Gosden quipped.
Dettori, meanwhile, was frustrated that the late drama took some of the shine off another superb Gold Horn display.
“The best horse won. He took me by surprise, I don’t know what he saw but he ducked really, really quickly. It’s a shame because it put a bit of a dampener on a great performance because it was a stellar field and he did it the hard way and showed what a good horse he is and what courage he has.
“He’s got a good engine this horse, so he can do what he wants. We decided to be positive and it worked.”
Gosden echoed those sentiments. “I’m sorry we crossed Free Eagle. We don’t like to win that way but he was going away at the end, it wasn’t like he was faltering.”
The Free Eagle camp, predictably, had a different view.
“I’m disappointed,” Dermot Weld said. “The horse has run a superb race. He got badly interfered with, knocked the wind out of his sails totally and Pat (Smullen) had no doubt it cost him the race.”
The first three home here could collide again in next month’s Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe although Gosden warned the ground will have to be right for Golden Horn to take his chance.
“He’s handled slow ground here today; he wouldn’t want to see Paris go really soft.”
Talk of conditions brings us back to the rarely-seen Gleneagles.
“I’m very sorry but to be fair to the horse I had to stand by what was best for him,” Aidan O’Brien said. “When it comes down to the wire it’s always a bit tougher because you’re here and everyone is here to see it happen but you try and keep doing what you believe is the right thing by the horse.
“It wouldn’t be fair to ask him to go a mile and quarter first time with the ground being as dead as it is. He was really trained and really ready for today. It was a really hard thing to do (withdraw). I don’t know where we’re going to go. We had our eye on the Breeders’ Cup Classic after this. Whether we’ll get a race in between I’m not sure.”
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