Thursday 18 January 2018

Champion idea that needs equal partners

Three years in, this special weekend is proving top-class Irish Flat racing can draw crowds to Leopardstown

Almanzor, with Christophe Soumillon. Photo by David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Almanzor, with Christophe Soumillon. Photo by David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

Johnny Ward

Joe Foley of Ballyhane Stud is one of racing's likeable characters.

We first encountered each other as panellists on a Cheltenham preview night in Castlebar some years back. He was returning to Co Kilkenny in the wee hours with Tony Mullins and after they departed, one of the organisers told me he'd promised Mullins a selection of top-notch organic steak but the preview-circuit regular had left without it.

"I'll have it," I told him, "but ring Tony just in case." It was around 1.30am; Foley and Mullins were already half an hour into a journey that takes well over three. Surely not.

Both had to be up early in the morning. And both agreed that they had to turn back and get the steak. Seemingly the designated driver was offered a couple of rib-eyes too.

The two of them impressed on me that they appreciate a good time - and the value of steak. What many do not know is that Foley is now considered the man chiefly responsible for what has quickly developed into one of the true gems of our sport: Irish Champions Weekend.

David Redvers, Qatar Racing bloodstock manager, invited Foley to Ascot for the British Champions Day as a guest of Sheikh Fahad Al-Thani. Foley revelled in it and wondered if something similar - multiplied by two - could happen in Ireland.

A seed became a two-day celebration of virtuosity that has helped to reinvigorate the Flat game.

The common consensus was that Saturday was the best day of Champions Weekend in its three runnings.

Jean-Claude Rouget hardly ever has runners in this country, yet he was compelled to bring two of his stars on this occasion: Qemah in the Matron and Champion Stakes winner Almanzor (right). He was one of two French raiders in the race, while there were 42 British horses declared at the Curragh.

In an emotional post-parade, which saw Rouget pat Almanzor playfully on the head, the locals hailed horse and rider Christophe Soumillon. Rouget quipped that he was looking forward to a good party in Dublin on Saturday night. He was not the only one.

One of the beautiful things about the weekend was the spread of winners. If Irish jumps racing is becoming increasingly dominated by fewer people, Champions Weekend has four handicaps and a sales race that offer lesser-known personnel a chance to shine.

How many times has Willie Mullins won more than half of the races at a jumps meeting? Yesterday, he snared the Group 1 Irish Leger but he was only one of an incredible number of trainers who enjoyed success on champions weekend: 14.

Jumps legend Tony Martin, who lost the patronage of Gigginstown this year, had three of the first five home in the staying handicap. The winning rider, Oisin Orr, lost his 7lb claim and performed heroics in bringing Quick Jack to a last-gasp victory from a horrible draw.

Orr, 19, is from a racing no man's land of Ballyare, County Donegal. In those parts they know far more about Gaelic football and, speaking of which, Willie McCreery's tally of a winner and a second on Saturday was another heart-warming aspect of the day.

The former Kildare midfielder McCreery has worked hard from scratch in racing and his only Group 1 was achieved on Champions Weekend two years ago.

Then there was David Wachman, who imparted wryly after winning the opening maiden that Rain Goddess "would be a good filly for Aidan O'Brien next year".

Wachman, sadly, is retiring at the end of the season, but Ken Condon - another talented young trainer - is showing no sign of calling it a day and won the Group 3 Boomerang Stakes with Landfall.

Kevin Prendergast gave up cigarettes at 50 and continues to train winners at 84. When Awtaad won the Boomerang Stakes under Chris Hayes, the rider punched the air, in tune with the raucous atmosphere. "Awtaad helps me get up in the morning," Prendergast later quipped about his Irish 2,000 Guineas hero.

When the John Oxx-trained Sea The Stars - possibly the best horse that I have seen on an Irish racecourse - won the Champion Stakes in 2009, the crowd was four-figured. It was a shocking illustration of the public indifference towards the Flat in Ireland. On Saturday, the crowd was 14,550 - the biggest to watch the race for some time.

One can note the balmy weather and the tireless promotion of Leopardstown but can it be that people actually turned out to see top horses? It was the best Champions Stakes in many years and the clamouring to get near the pre-parade ring before the race was telling.

Through it all, racing's insecurity is never far away. The official press release celebrating Saturday began thus: "14,550 attendees including Rachel Wyse, Jessica O'Gara and Louise Kennedy enjoyed day one". Was this really necessary?

Sometimes, the horses do the talking. Leopardstown CEO Pat Keogh is frequently on his travels, attempting to attract the best runners he can to Leopardstown, and one of his aims is to achieve a Japanese runner in the Champion Stakes.

Remember the hysteria when Deep Impact ran in the Arc and was backed into an insane price by the Japanese who travelled to Longchamp? What a spectacle something similar would be at Leopardstown.

The Curragh has more Group 1s than the Foxrock track but there is no getting away from the fact that it has become the less attractive of the two sisters. This has everything to do with the state of the place and little to do with anything else. Ger Lyons, a voice always worth listening to, had some words on this at the dilapidated Flat headquarters yesterday after his winner.

"In three years, to be where we are is fantastic. Leopardstown was so powerful, whereas [the Curragh] is the day after the Lord Mayor's show," he said. "I am adamant and won't get my way but the Curragh should be shut down and opened up when [finished]."

The Curragh's CEO Derek McGrath is eager to revitalise the track and restore a stature that has been lost as the years went by and facilities remained the same.

However, there must be a concern that an under-construction Curragh next season will interrupt the impetus that the Champions Weekend has managed to create. Moreover, the crowd figure announced late yesterday, which showed that the Curragh figure had dropped more than 10pc, was a dent in the weekend's prevailing pride.

McGrath conceded last week that while he wanted Curragh fans to "join the track on its journey" of redevelopment, likely many would stay at home until it had been realised in full.

However, presuming it is completed as scheduled in 2018, subsequent renewals will be such that Irish racegoers will struggle to recall the programme without it.

The Curragh will quickly become an equal partner in the two-day extravaganza and a healthy rivalry between the two racetracks can only work in favour of both and Irish racing.

The powerful wind was joined by ominous ashen cloud as they fought out the finish in the finale at the Curragh. Maudlin Magdalen, trained in Co Louth by Donal Kinsella, edged Breathe Easy, handled by Gavin Cromwell in Tara.

As Kinsella stood for the cameras and patrons made their exit, people like Joe Foley were wondering: what can we do next year?

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