O'Brien to roll out big guns for Champion Stakes battle
An incredible Qipco Irish Champion Stakes clash between brilliant stablemates Minding, Found and Highland Reel looks more likely than ever after trainer Aidan O'Brien said yesterday he expected to run three - and possibly four - in the Leopardstown extravaganza.
If last year's renewal - which saw Derby winner Golden Horn lead home Found and the luckless Free Eagle - served to restore the glory of the Group One in some respects, this year's edition can take it to another level. Not only have the Ballydoyle trio snared 11 Group Ones between them, Foxrock patrons are also likely to greet dual Derby winner Harzand and, among others, French Derby hero Almanzor.
While O'Brien intimated to the Irish Independent that US Army Ranger was a more probable player in the KPMG Enterprise Stakes, he was not ruling the Derby second also tackling the €1.25m feature tomorrow week.
And while it is not uncommon for powerhouse trainers to commit more runners before declaration time than they expect to run in a bid to frighten off opposition, there is no suggestion that O'Brien is dangling that hand.
He said: "It looks, without being definite, like we could run Found, Minding and Highland Reel. If we have a fourth, it'd be US Army Ranger, but the (owners) will decide that next week. Three of those are strong possibles.
"US Army Ranger would run in the other race - just to get another run into him - if he does not go for the Champion. As for the other three, no doubt (it would make it a huge race) and there's a very strong possibility it's going to happen.
"It will be a marvellous race on a marvellous weekend; it changes the face of Irish racing to have this weekend. This is the autumn that we didn't have in Ireland."
Asked about a general ground preference on a weekend he is likely to dominate, O'Brien said he is hoping for "good or better. In an ideal world, it should be watered to have it good to firm and that's all.
"In the Matron, we are thinking Somehow and Alice Springs. Churchill is going to the National Stakes and in the Moyglare we are looking at the Debutante Stakes first and second, Rhododendron and Hydrangea, as well as Promise To Be True, who won at Leopardstown last time, and obviously Order Of St George in the Leger."
Douglas Macarthur, favourite for next year's Epsom Derby, is likely to go in Leopardstown's John Deere Juvenile Turf Stakes, but one horse not on the Champions Weekend ticket is English 2,000 Guineas favourite Caravaggio, whose suffering of a mild setback after a bloodless Phoenix Stakes win rendered his participation in the Middle Park at Newmarket on September 24 doubtful.
"He's good," O'Brien said, "but we'll probably decide next week whether he will make it back or not this year. There's a good chance he is done for the year. He is back cantering."
This weekend's marquee event, the 32Red Sprint Cup Stakes at Haydock tomorrow, has just the one Irish runner in the Tom Hogan-trained eight-year-old Gordon Lord Byron. Though as long as 25/1 in the betting, both Hogan and rider Chris Hayes are quietly confident.
"I expect him to run within a couple of pounds of his best and wouldn't put anyone off at the price," said Hogan, while Hayes added: "He felt like a two-year-old last time at Tipperary and 25/1 is great value."
Meanwhile, Mouse Morris would not commit on plans for high-class chaser Smashing, which has joined the yard after owner Alan Potts pulled all his horses out of the barn of long-time ally Henry de Bromhead. Morris will train "a few" horses for the Englishman, whose colours were made famous by Sizing Europe, in the coming season.
De Bromhead would not be drawn on the reason for Potts' departure but Jessica Harrington, Jim Dreaper, Colm Murphy and Morris will benefit from the dispersal. Retained rider Jonathan Burke will now find his fuel costs rocket as he traverses the country to get the leg-up on Potts-owned horses, but it is a situation that would nonetheless be the envy of most of his peers. De Bromhead still has over 50 horses for the season ahead.