Monday 18 December 2017

Clash of the giants to light up compelling weekend of racing

Twilight Son (right), under Fergus Sweeney, edges out Strath Burn (left) to capture Saturday’s Betfred Sprint Cup at Haydock
Twilight Son (right), under Fergus Sweeney, edges out Strath Burn (left) to capture Saturday’s Betfred Sprint Cup at Haydock
Richard Forristal

Richard Forristal

As soon as the inaugural Longines Irish Champions Weekend concluded last year, the enormity of the challenge to replicate its success into the future became clear.

It was a memorable weekend that had all the vital ingredients. Granted, the Curragh dropped the ball by not being nearly prepared to cater for its 10,978 crowd, an inexplicable lack of planning that simply shouldn't have occurred at the country's flagship track.

That apart, though, the event hummed; top-class racing, dramatic finishes, controversy, emotionally charged Group One triumphs for the less well-heeled and a healthy spread of the spoils.

There was the theatre of The Grey Gatsby foiling Australia and the brilliance of Free Eagle and Gleneagles; Willie McCreery and Billy Lee's breakthrough Matron Stakes victory with Fiesolana as well as that of Brown Panther for Tom Dascombe and Richard Kingscote in the St Leger; ex-pat David O'Meara, Brian Ellison and Mark Johnston were other British handlers who conspired to plunder 50pc of the 16 races.

Such an even yield should encourage a similarly robust cross-channel contingent next weekend, and the likes of Brown Panther and Amazing Maria are among those expected to turn up for the St Leger and Matron. With Forgotten Rules and Legatissimo among the locals pencilled in, the supporting Group Ones promise plenty at this stage.

In 2014, settled weather in the preceding weeks proved hugely significant in snaring the foreign runners and ensuring a high standard of quality in the showpiece events. Similarly, uninterrupted sunshine for the event itself was vital in terms of maximising attendances, and the signs are again encouraging on the meteorological score.

Of course, there is the potential of a double whammy should things turn. Right now, a Qipco Irish Champion Stakes showdown between the title-holder The Grey Gatsby and his four-year-old counterpart Free Eagle and this season's Classic heroes Gleneagles, Golden Horn and Pleascach remains a tantalising prospect.

Golden Horn's York conqueror Arabian Queen may be supplemented and the redoubtable French star Cirrus Des Aigles is also in the mix, although they might be the only two that would welcome significant rainfall, so the €1.1m Group One could cut up if ground conditions deteriorate.

Likewise, despite the fact that knocking on 30,000 people will descend on Listowel for Ladies' Day next Friday week even if the elements get biblical, emulating last year's two-day Champions Weekend total of 24,168 will be a herculean mission should the rains come.

Irish Flat racing fans remain largely of the fair-weather variety, so, while it would be great to witness the tally swell to the 30,000-mark and maybe even see 2001's magical 17,000 landmark breached at Leopardstown, many variables will shape whether or not such aspirations are realised.

That is the case across the board in terms of expectations for year two of a venture that exceeded expectations in year one. In 2014, we got a taste of the enormous potential of this fantastic initiative, which marks a fundamental shift in the Irish Flat scene that sits neatly in the calendar ahead of Longchamp and Ascot.

There was an element of it being the perfect storm 12 months ago, so it would be some boon should we be treated to another season finale worthy of the occasion's title. If the shape of the Saturday's marquee event at Leopardstown is anything to go by, Irish Racing Inc will again get the showcase that it deserves.

Fly and Star cut from same cloth

Hurricane Fly's retirement marks the end of one of the modern era's most glorious racing careers.

He and Kauto Star shared similar traits that shaped their enduring legacies. Other recent jumps stars like Best Mate and Istabraq knew how to scrap, but their fighting spirit and tenacity didn't define them in the way that it did Hurricane Fly and Kauto Star.

Despite precocious origins, both horses displayed immense courage during some epic tussles en route to amassing an aggregate 38 Grade Ones. And not just in victory.

Remember Kauto Star's second to Denman in the 2008 Gold Cup, when he made early blunders and Ruby Walsh was always struggling to keep him in the race? He clearly wasn't himself but he simply wouldn't yield. Hurricane Fly's second Champion Hurdle success in 2013 was of a similarly granite hue. His goose looked cooked when Walsh was rowing away in the rear as they climbed out of the back straight. Again, though, the size of the fight in the dog exceeded the size of the dog in the fight. The little terrier raised the Prestbury Park roof with a battling victory.

Both horses' vulnerabilities added to their lustre and both recovered from early setbacks on arriving from France at their respective yards in Ireland and England.

They bounced back valiantly at various removes to establish remarkable sequences; Kauto Star was a standing dish at Kempton and Hurricane Fly at Leopardstown. Both also won back their respective Cheltenham crowns, having forfeited them in between. Given the attritional manner in which they distinguished themselves, the duo's longevity was incredible. Hurricane Fly ran as a two-year-old and Kauto Star at three, yet both ground out stirring Grade One wins as 11-year-olds.

That indicates an inherent durability that few would have associated with French-breds in the past, likewise their remarkable versatility. Above all, they were a testament to their connections. Willie Mullins and Paul Nicholls are masters of their craft, spearheading skilled teams that had Walsh's trusty old hand in common.

In paying tribute to Hurricane Fly, Mullins stressed that he had been showing him enough at home to warrant going again. Bearing in mind that he sent out Florida Pearl to win a third Hennessy Gold Cup as a sprightly 12-year-old, it would have been a brave man that would have backed against him pulling off an equivalent feat with Hurricane Fly. By the same token, though, he recognised that Hurricane Fly, always the apple of his eye, owed him nothing. The pint-sized warrior owed no-one anything.

'Son' gives sweeney first group one

Twilight Son (10/1) clung on from Strath Burn and Magical Memory to claim Saturday's Sprint Cup.

On his fifth start and a first out of handicap company, Henry Candy's colt maintained his unbeaten record under Fergus Sweeney, a 37-year-old Holywood, Co Down native bagging his first Group One after 20 years in the saddle.

Due Diligence ran well in fifth but Gordon Lord Byron disappointed, while Sole Power will go to Leopardstown on Saturday after missing out due to the ground.

Each of the first three home at Haydock were three-year-olds, adding to the Classic generation's impressive return in open contests. Of the 15 of those Group Ones that have been run so far in England, France and Ireland, eight have been won by the crop of 2012.

That is an impressive yield, and the Irish Derby hero Jack Hobbs will seek to add to it in next month's Prix de l'Arc. John Gosden's Epsom runner-up was a smooth winner of a Kempton Group Three on the all-weather and took the eye again.

Tweet of the weekend

Fontwell Park (@FontwellPark)

Leighton Aspell Update: Doctor has said he is going to be fine! Great News!!!

The Kildare-born Grand National winner had been left unconscious after a heavy fall yesterday.

Numbers Game

5 Times that Togoville has won at Dundalk in its last eight starts there. Placed on the other three occasions, Sean Corby's grey mount is trained by Georgios Pakidis, who was born in Athens and rode in Greece and the US prior to landing in Armagh.

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