Sunday 15 December 2019

Ballydoyle superstar can prove Champion class again

Trainer Aidan O'Brien
Trainer Aidan O'Brien

Richard Forristal

A grand concept that has been 18 months in gestation finally becomes a reality this evening with a fantastic spread at Leopardstown.

Australia is the marquee name on duty in the Qipco Irish Champion Stakes. The presence of the Ballydoyle equine superstar is vitally important to the inaugural edition of the €3.8m Irish Champions Weekend (ICW), but an unmistakable celebratory feel has gathered momentum as the countdown accelerated in recent weeks.

This is about more than one horse. It is about elevating the very best of Irish Flat racing to a new level, a concentrated assembly of quality that has the capacity to increase the sport's appeal as it develops over the next few years.

Courtesy of unusually favourable weather conditions, its ideal positioning in the calendar ahead of its international predecessors and the massive prize money on offer, ICW is poised to get off to a dream start.

Moreover, in a year of exceptional three-year-olds, it was important that at least one turned up here, and tonight's proceedings should reach a heady crescendo with Australia.

Aidan O'Brien's regally-bred colt has hardly put a foot wrong since flooring Free Eagle at this fixture 12 months ago, his inconclusive defeat behind Night Of Thunder and Kingman in the 2,000 Guineas his only reversal.

Subsequently brilliant in the Derby at Epsom before cantering up in a poor edition of the Irish equivalent, he returned from a short break to run out an utterly superior winner of the Juddmonte International at York. In slamming The Grey Gatsby and his elders over 10 furlongs, he proved that he is well equipped to compete at the highest level over today's trip.

More than that, though, such was the polished nature of Australia's performance that there are grounds for believing that this exceptional colt is still getting better. He settles, he travels, he quickens and he is willing, so the expectation is that he will grace part one of ICW with a suitably mesmerizing display.

The €1m Irish Champion Stakes is a race that has enjoyed a slight renaissance in the past couple of years thanks to memorable victories for the superb mares Snow Fairy and The Fugue. In terms of competitiveness, this could morph into the sort of long odds-on rout that prevailed in four of the five previous renewals.

Nonetheless, Australia's fellow Epsom heroes New Approach and Sea The Stars were among that quartet, and it would be fitting to see his name etched alongside those of such revered individuals again here. His sire Galileo famously came up just short in this Group One after a thrilling duel with Fantastic Light 13 years ago.

However, his grandsire Sadler's Wells prevailed in the first running of the race in its current guise at the Phoenix Park in 1984. On the 30th anniversary of such a landmark occasion, then, Australia is likely to confirm his reputation as the heir apparent to his forefathers, two of the most influential sires in the history of the game.

Of Joseph O'Brien's mount's six rivals, The Grey Gatsby and last year's runner-up Al Kazeem might fill the minor places. The Grey Gatsby has done Tipperary-born Kevin Ryan proud all year and he will relish conditions. He was readily swatted aside at York, but he could be capable of getting closest to Australia once again.

The Coolmore-sponsored Matron Stakes is the card's other Group One. Tapestry, which conquered Taghrooda in the Yorkshire Oaks, is another Ballydoyle market leader in this. She clearly has plenty class, but the drop back to a mile from 12 furlongs is hardly ideal.

Willie McCreery vies for a breakthrough Group One with Fiesolana, which will be ridden by man-of-the-moment Billy Lee. The hat-trick seeking French raider Kenhope is clearly going places, while Johnny Murtagh's Purr Along is far better than her recent flop at Tipperary.

Last year's Moyglare Stakes victor Rizeena also turns out, and she appeals as nap material under Moore. The key to Clive Brittain's filly could be a mile on fast ground. On a quick surface in last year's Moyglare Stud Stakes, she beat this week's easy Doncaster winner Kiyoshi, Tapestry and Carla Bianca.

That was tip-top form, and she confirmed her quality with a stylish Coronation Stakes triumph at Royal Ascot. On her next two starts on soft ground, Rizeena ran second to Integral in the Falmouth and fourth to Kingman in the Jacques Le Marois.

Both were commendable efforts in the circumstances, so she is strongly fancied to regain the winning thread back on her favoured ground.

The Clipper Boomerang Mile that follows is a superb Group Two. Success for Tom Hogan's globe-trotting Gordon Lord Byron might be the most crowd-pleasing result possible tonight, and there is a good chance that it will come about on the back of his gallant second in last week's Sprint Cup.

It's also worth pointing out that he beat Ansgar in a Group Three over course and distance on his only previous run at this venue a year ago. Darwin is another live player for the O'Briens, but preference is for Mustajeeb. Dermot Weld's three-year-old beat older horses here on his reappearance in May, before finishing third to Kingman in the Irish 2,000 Guineas.

He progressed to run out a stylish winner of the Jersey Stakes over seven furlongs at Ascot, and has had a break since. In short, Mustajeeb is a top-class prospect, so he ought to take advantage of his age group's allowance under Pat Smullen here.

The same firm could plunder the juvenile maiden with the Galway third Chinese Light. They have a raft of live contenders throughout the programme, though the belated return of the talented Free Eagle is surely what they will be most excited about.

A runaway scorer on his track bow here last year, the High Chaparral colt couldn't cope with Australia on his only other outing as a juvenile.

Held up after suffering a stress fracture to a hind leg since the spring, Free Eagle won't have things all his own way in the KPMG Enterprise Stakes, with Hall Of Mirrors and Brendan Brackan just two of his nine rivals capable of spoiling his comeback. Still, he is a serious prospect that is expected to win, with plenty time for him to go on to better things yet this year.

Irish Independent

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