Harzand, Minding, and much more in epic Irish Champion

Profile Picture: Kellie Reilly

September 8th, 2016

Saturday’s Irish Champion (G1) at Leopardstown promises to be an epic showdown. Describing it as a clash between the top classic-winning three-year-olds of 2016, dual Derby star Harzand and six-time Group 1 vixen Minding, just scratches the surface.

The “Win and You’re In” for the Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1) has also lured last year’s Turf queen Found, Highland Reel, and the past three winners of the French Derby (G1) – The Grey Gatsby (2014), New Bay (2015) and reigning titleholder Almanzor – in what could turn out to be the race of the European season.

With the older horses having to concede weight, it’s logical that the most accomplished sophomores are dominating the betting market.

Minding gets the biggest concession as a three-year-old filly, receiving 10 pounds from the older males, seven from four-year-old filly Found, and three from the sophomore colts. And with Ryan Moore choosing her from Aidan O’Brien’s quartet, Minding is currently shading Harzand for favoritism.

Victorious at a mile in the 1000 Guineas (G1) and at 1 1/2 miles in the Oaks (G1), Minding has scored her last two wins at this 1 1/4-mile trip in the June 26 Pretty Polly (G1) and July 30 Nassau (G1). But this marks her first attempt versus males – and an exceptional cast of them at that. Factor in her workmanlike performance last time out over the 16-1 Queen’s Trust, who was subsequently a well-beaten third behind Seventh Heaven and Found in the Yorkshire Oaks (G1), and Minding’s price starts to look a trifle short.

Harzand brings an enviable resume himself. After prevailing in the April 10 Ballysax (G3) over this course and distance, the Aga Khan homebred shrugged off an injury scare on the morning of the Derby (G1) to go on to glory at Epsom. Harzand added the Irish Derby (G1) when last seen on June 25, and returns from vacation to prep for the October 2 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (G1). The son of 2009 Derby, Irish Champion, and Arc legend Sea the Stars aims to keep emulating his sire.

So far, Harzand has kept racking up the wins on varying degrees of rain-softened ground, and with rain forecast Friday, the Leopardstown going figures to be easy Saturday. That played a role in the decision to line up here rather than Sunday's Prix Niel (G2), a trial over the about 1 1/2-mile Arc trip at Chantilly.

Although based in France, French Derby hero Almanzor may not try the Arc, as trainer Jean-Claude Rouget views him as a 10-furlong aficionado. Thus his fall campaign is expected to revolve around the Irish Champion and the October 15 Champion (G1) at Ascot. Almanzor extended his winning skein to three in the August 15 Prix Guillaume d’Ornano (G2) at Deauville, where he deployed a sharp turn of foot late. This represents a far stiffer test of class, but it could serve up a perfect storm of circumstances for him too.

The Andre Fabre-trained New Bay has already established his class, after a productive 2015 highlighted by a record-setting French Derby and a third to Golden Horn in the Arc. Supposed to be one of the headline acts of 2016, the Juddmonte homebred got off on the wrong foot when a no-show sixth behind A Shin Hikari in the May 24 Prix d’Ispahan (G1). To be fair, New Bay was unsuited by the heavy going at Chantilly, particularly in his reappearance. He then missed an intended start in the Prince of Wales’s (G1) at Royal Ascot when failing to sparkle in his work, and Fabre took his time. New Bay found an easy comeback spot in the August 15 Prix Gontaut-Biron (G3) at Deauville, and duly obliged to set him up for his autumn targets. The Dubawi colt is eminently qualified to win this, with the one sticking point being the lumps of weight he’s giving the three-year-olds. (That's why Vance Hanson tabs New Bay as the each-way value play.)

Found was a rattling runner-up to Golden Horn in last fall’s Irish Champion, and the O’Brien filly is eligible to turn in another fine effort during her favorite time of year. While Found typically runs well, she tends to reach her peak in the fall, as indicated by her heroics in the 2014 Prix Marcel Boussac (G1) and 2015 Breeders’ Cup Turf. The daughter of Galileo and Red Evie is stuck with a case of seconditis at present, having filled the runner-up spot in her past four outings, all in Group 1 company. Just denied by My Dream Boat in a Prince of Wales’s heartbreaker, Found returned from her summer holiday to beat all bar younger stablemate Seventh Heaven in the August 18 Yorkshire Oaks (G1). She cuts back in trip here.

Other Irish Champion alumni are Highland Reel (fifth last year) and The Grey Gatsby (who upset Australia in the 2014 edition but was sixth with an unfavorable pace scenario in 2015).

Highland Reel has since shaped as more of a 12-furlong type, defeating Flintshire in last December’s Hong Kong Vase (G1) and earning a coveted European Group 1 laurel in the King George VI & Queen Elizabeth (G1) July 23. O’Brien shortened him up for the about 10 1/2-furlong Juddmonte International (G1), and Highland Reel stayed on well for second to Postponed. Further trimming at this level may not suit, however, and this appears as a launching pad for another Australian venture.

The Grey Gatsby has gone winless since his surprise here two years ago, and the Kevin Ryan charge may prefer a longer distance at this point in his career. His best effort from three outings this season was a rallying second in the 1 1/2-mile Princess of Wales’s (G2) at Newmarket, and he exits a flat sixth in the Juddmonte International.

Godolphin’s Hawkbill was only eighth in the Juddmonte, snapping a six-race winning spree including Royal Ascot’s Tercentenary (G3) and the Eclipse (G1). Trainer Charlie Appleby believes the ground was too firm for him at York. The Irish Champion going should be kinder for the three-year-old son of Kitten’s Joy, but the waters are a lot deeper. Godolphin’s other hope, Moonlight Magic, has yet to fulfill trainer Jim Bolger’s massive hopes. But the blueblood’s signature win came in the May 8 Derrinstown Stud Derby Trial (G3) at this course and distance on good ground.

My Dream Boat, fifth to Hawkbill in the Eclipse after shocking Found at Royal Ascot, hopes to resume his upward trajectory. The Clive Cox pupil ended 2015 on a high in the Prix Perth (G3) and picked up in the same vein in the April 22 Gordon Richards (G3). He’ll have to conjure up another surprise against these, though.

Success Days would prefer it even softer, judging by his wins in a pair of Derby trials over this track and trip in the spring of 2015 and his victory in the August 21 Royal Whip (G3). He’s also a notch below the very top rank, and as a front-running type, he won’t be helped by the presence of Harzand’s pacemaker, Ebediyin. That said, Success Days has been admirably consistent all year for trainer Ken Condon.

Sir Isaac Newton, the fourth of O’Brien’s quartet (after Minding, Found, and Highland Reel), was fourth in both the King George and Juddmonte International. As a 1 1/4-mile specialist, he could sneak into the minors with a career-best.

See also the Irish Champion undercard preview, with the Matron and more, and a look ahead to Sunday's conclusion of Irish Champions Weekend.

Harzand photo courtesy of Irish Champions Weekend via Twitter