In a short time, the Irish Champion Stakes has gone from a race that merely appeared on some people’s radar to one that could well be crowned the highest-rated contest in the world in a few years.
Saturday’s €1.25million (Dh5.14m) race at Leopardstown has attracted the cream of European talent with 13 horses who, between them, have amassed 19 Group 1 races. Sheikh Mohammed Obaid’s Postponed is the only notable absentee out of the fit and healthy horses in Europe that would merit a place in the line-up.
Epsom heroes Harzand and Minding head a cast of nine individual Group 1 winners. Compare that with the 10 who entered the starting gates in last season’s Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe in October, the seven in the Breeders’ Cup Classic in November and the six who duelled at Meydan in March for the Dubai World Cup.
The considerable strength of the race has not escaped Charlie Appleby, the Godolphin trainer who saddles Hawkbill, the mount of William Buick.
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Hawkbill won the Eclipse Stakes at Sandown on soft ground in July before the good to firm surface at York was his undoing in the International behind Postponed. The going at Leopardstown is set to be good, which might not be soft enough to see Godolphin secure their sixth win in the 2000-metre race.
“I have been pleased with Hawkbill since his run in the International,” Appleby said.
“He is a Group 1 winner against older horses over this trip and hasn’t put a foot wrong in his preparation for this race. In saying that, it is shaping up as one of the stronger races this year, which means he will have to be at his best.
“I am keeping an eye on the forecast and remain hopeful he will get conditions to suit.”
The Irish Champion Stakes has risen from the 15th best race in the world to last year being crown joint-fourth behind the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and alongside the Breeders’ Cup Turf.
For 14 years, Derek McGrath was chief executive of the Heineken Cup, a tournament that mushroomed into European Rugby’s biggest and best club tournament. In March he took up the post as CEO of the Curragh racecourse, which hosts Sunday’s second leg of Irish Champions Weekend. From afar, he sees the same upturn in fortunes for Irish Champions Weekend as his rugby baby.
“I see the same seeds in place and same purchase as the early years of the Heineken Cup,” he said this week.
“We want people to come along and see something very special.
“This is horse racing saying that we need to compete with other sports and other forms of entertainment.”
Harzand and Minding are the two highest-rated three year olds of their gender in Europe and are most people’s expected winners. Both won Classics at Epsom in June, when Harzand became Dermot Weld’s first Derby winner and Minding rolled off the Aidan O’Brien Oaks production line.
Harzand is sired by Sea The Stars, the colt who won the Irish Champion Stakes en route to the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe in 2009. Unlike his sire, Harzand has been given a mid-season break with next month’s Chantilly spectacular in mind.
Minding is one of four runners in the Irish Champion for Aidan O’Brien — Highland Reel, Found and Sir Issac Newton are the others — and the Ballydoyle-based trainer could easily win all three Group 1 races staged in Europe.
O’Brien sends out Alice Springs against the French raider Qemah in the Matron Stakes just over an hour before the Irish Champion, and Idaho, the hot favourite for the St Leger at Doncaster.
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