Donn McClean: Breadth and Depth
It is probable that no renewal of the Qipco Irish Champion Stakes will ever match the 2001 renewal. Not now. Not now that the sands of time have sculpted the Fantastic Light/Galileo duel and made it legend.
Hawkbill: An under-rated horses?
All the right ingredients were in that renewal: the King George re-match, the shock at Galileo's first defeat, the race tactics. Of course, the base ingredient was the fact that Fantastic Light and Galileo were the flagship horses of the two superpowers of world racing, the blue of Godolphin against the navy of Coolmore, slugging it out, toe to toe, and Galileo's first defeat even more relevant now than it was then because of the colossus that he has become as a stallion.
There were Irish Champion Stakes duels before 2001 – Dr Devious and St Jovite, Pilsudski and Desert King – and there have been others since – High Chaparral and Falbrav, Dylan Thomas and Ouija Board, The Grey Gatsby and Australia. Indeed, there was one in 2002, just a year after Fantastic Light and Galileo, with a lot of the same ingredients, when the Godolphin colt Grandera got home by a short head from the Ballydoyle colt Hawk Wing. But none of them are up there with Grundy/Bustino and Affirmed/Alydar. None of them are 'Where were you when?' races.
In terms of breadth and depth, however, it is difficult to think of a previous renewal that would have matched this year's. Whichever way you look at it, it is a fascinating race.
Choose your prism.
It's a clash of the generations, with six members of the Classic generation taking on seven top class older horses.
It's a battle of the sexes, with Minding and Found representing the fillies, the pair of them collectively taking out around 35% of the market.
It is an international event: eight from Ireland, three from Britain, three from France, with some of the best riders in the world riding for some of the best trainers in the world. And the international seam continues through the silks, HH The Aga Khan and Godolphin and Coolmore and Prince Khalid Abdullah.
And the Group 1 winners are here. The dual Derby winner, the French Derby winner, the 1000 Guineas and Oaks winner, the King George winner, the Eclipse winner, the Prince of Wales's Stakes winner. Add last year's Breeders' Cup Turf winner and last year's French Derby winner and the 2014 Irish Champion Stakes winner, and there's your breadth right there.
There are many questions, like the perennial:
How good is the Derby winner?
Harzand certainly looked good at Epsom. He had the early pace to adopt and hold a good position from early for Pat Smullen, he had the speed to quicken at the three-furlong pole, and he had the stamina – we knew he had the stamina – to hold off the challenge of US Army Ranger, going on again deep inside the final 100 yards.
Dermot Weld's colt is dropping back down to 10 furlongs, and that is a concern, no question. But you don't win an Epsom Derby and an Irish Derby if you don't have pace, and he is almost certainly still improving.
After winning the Ballysax Stakes at Leopardstown in April, the Aga Khan's colt went straight to Epsom, he didn't run in the Derrinstown Stud Derby Trial. He has only raced five times in his life, he still has bags of potential for progression. He is one for one at Leopardstown, the Ballysax Stakes was run over the Irish Champion Stakes course and distance, and the rain that is hovering around Leopardstown these days is in his favour.
How good are the fillies?
Minding has had more racing than Harzand, but she is one of the best three-year-old fillies that we have seen in years. Never out of the first two in 10 runs, Aidan O'Brien's filly was a top-class juvenile last season, a dual Group One winner, and she has moved forward this season as you hoped she would, winning the Pretty Polly Stakes and the Nassau Stakes as well as the 1000 Guineas and the Oaks. That's six Group One wins in seven Group One runs.
Found was second in the race last year, just a length behind subsequent Arc de Triomphe winner Golden Horn, but the Galileo filly exacted her revenge in the Breeders' Cup Turf at Keeneland at the end of October. Kept in training this year as a four-year-old, she put up her best performances last year in the autumn, and this year's autumn is just beginning.
How good are the French?
Almanzor and New Bay make up the two-pronged Gallic challenge. Almanzor probably didn't get due credit for winning the Prix du Jockey Club, beating Zarak into second place, as is often the case when you have a 20/1 winner of a Classic. Jean-Claude Rouget's horse had the run of the race, they said. So he went and did it again next time, winning the Group Two Prix Guillaume d'Ornano at Deauville last month, showing the same turn of foot and beating the same Zarak into second place.
New Bay is last year's Jockey Club winner, and he warmed up for this nicely by beating the useful Arthemus in a Group Three race at Deauville last month. He is trained by Andre Fabre, and Andre Fabre does not send horses to Ireland if they do not have a real chance of going home with the prize.
And the British?
Hawkbill may be an under-rated horse. Winner of the Listed Newmarket Stakes and the Group Three Tercentenary Stakes on his first two runs this season, the Godolphin horse stepped forward significantly form that to land the Group One Coral-Eclipse Stakes, just getting the better of The Gurkha in a thriller.
He was well beaten behind Postponed in the Juddmonte International at York last time, but the ground was probably faster than ideal for him that day. Like Harzand and Success Days, he will appreciate a little bit of cut in the ground, and this is his distance.
What will make the running?
Possibly Ebediyin, although Success Days and Highland Reel will probably be up there from early.
And the winner?
For more of Donn's thoughts, visit www.donnmcclean.com
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