Connections of big two inch towards running rather than running scared
One of the earliest Kerryman jokes I remember from childhood was the one where a friend asks him to go around the front of the car and say whether the indicator light is finally fixed. The friend flicks the indicator switch inside the car and waits for the Kerryman's reply. After a short delay, it duly arrives, "It's working. It's not. It's working. It's not . . . "
It's felt a bit like that through the current Flat race season, with the equine duo unequivocally representing the cream of the classic generation keeping us guessing about their racecourse appearances ever since they peaked at Epsom and Royal Ascot respectively within a breathtaking 10 days of each other at the start of summer.
The victories of Golden Horn in the Derby and Gleneagles in St James Palace consolidated the conviction that they were peerless amongst their generation at their distance. However, since then, the rest of summer has seen us treated to the car repair drama sequence of, "He's running. He's not. He's running. He's not."
In fairness, Golden Horn has shown up twice since his Epsom triumph. However, Gleneagles, not seen since that facile Royal Ascot win, has been commissioned, then decommissioned from three intended subsequent Group 1 events in the meantime at Goodwood, Deauville and at York (on the morning of the race). Golden Horn was also withdrawn from the King George hours before that race. Whatever your sentiment on the issue, the racing summer has been much the poorer for the frequent absence of the pair of champion three-year-olds and, while it appeared for a time as if both would match-up in York's International, that ultimately failed to materialise.
However, it looks as if the big match may finally reward the patience of those who still have it by pitching up for Leopardstown's Qipco Irish Champion Stakes next Saturday. The autumn weather indubitably will still have its part to play in the next six days and there may yet be a few will-he, won't-he moments in store, but if current trainer murmurings are anything to go by, there is greater anxiety in both the O'Brien and Gosden camps to run, rather than run scared this time.
Gosden seems to have softened his stance somewhat on soft ground for his Derby and Eclipse winner in the preamble to next Saturday, expressing the view on Thursday: "He's (Golden Horn) quite capable of racing on an easier surface, he just doesn't want ground that's gone very dead. I'd just like to see good, or good to soft ground, that'll be fine. Leopardstown does drain very well, which is a big help. It's a good track from that point of view."
Coolmore historically has been a steadfast supporter of both the fixture and the race throughout the years - its stallion flagbearer, Sadler's Wells, won the first edition of the newly-titled Champion Stakes when staged at the Phoenix Park in 1984 - and Gleneagles is angling to take this in en route to an end-of-season tilt at the Breeders' Cup Classic, where he is scheduled to meet Triple Crown winner, American Pharoah. Every effort will be made to get him to the Foxrock church this time. The prospect of the Derby winner squaring up to the Guineas winner over the intermediate distance for the first time on Irish soil provides an electric boost and anchor point for the still-fledgling Irish Champions Weekend extravaganza and will go a long way to fortifying its proposition.
Fascinatingly, dividing the pair in the betting market is Free Eagle. A year older, from the Dermot Weld yard down the road, Free Eagle has always had the aura of class. He won the Group 3 on this card a year ago by seven lengths and the previous year, on only his second start as a two-year-old, gave best to no less than Australia, enduring an injury in the process. Very fragile and sparely campaigned, Free Eagle has had fewer starts than either of his year younger adversaries and began to manifest connections' sky-high opinion when just prevailing in the Prince of Wales at the Royal meeting on his only appearance this year so far. Still improving, the son of High Chaparral is a real threat to the classic duo in a race that has been pretty evenly divided between three-year-old and elder winners since the turn of the millennium.
The calibre of the front three in the market is such that defending champion, The Grey Gatsby, is almost running into a double figure price at this stage. The image of his nutting Australia on the post last year is either one of the most memorable or forgettable of the entire 2014 season, depending on who you ask. The grey colt has been a paragon of consistency ever since in spite of accumulating a five-race losing sequence in the meantime. However, anyone who remembers Royal Ascot, where he succumbed by the minimum margin to Free Eagle after enduring a fiercely jagged passage in the straight, would have no reservations about his chances of reversing the verdict if both horses pitch up in the same form.
The line-up will be bolstered by French war veteran Cirrus des Aigles - the nine-year-old gelding that has accumulated more than £6m in prize-money having competed in just the 63 career starts to date. No issues with his connections shirking a challenge then as his colourful trainer, Corine Barande-Barbe, nonchalantly described last week: "It will be his first run in Ireland - he likes going to new places." Who knows, if he takes to the Irish climate, he might even get an entry at Listowel the following week.
With the possible supplementary addition of Arabian Queen, who shocked Golden Horn at 50/1 on the Knavesmire, it won't be only the sponsors Longines clock on the Irish Champions Weekend website that is counting down the hours.
Sunday Indo Sport