Irish Champion blockbuster: Golden Horn, Free Eagle, Gatsby, Cirrus - but will Gleneagles show up?
Free Eagle and The Grey Gatsby at Royal Ascot, courtesy of Frank Sorge/Horsephotos.com.
Three weeks after the proposed clash between Golden Horn and Gleneagles failed to materialize at York, the two star sophomores could knock heads in Saturday's Irish Champion (G1) at Leopardstown, a "Win and You're In" for the Breeders' Cup Turf (G1). The 1 1/4-mile prize has all the makings of the race of the season, with such older celebrities as defending champion The Grey Gatsby, Free Eagle, and the venerable Cirrus des Aigles also entered, along with Secretariat (G1) winner Highland Reel and classy three-year-old filles Found and Pleascach.
Sound too good to be true? It might be, at least as far as the Golden Horn vs. Gleneagles showdown goes. For just as unwelcome rain at York prompted the withdrawal of Gleneagles from the August 19 Juddmonte International (G1), so have the heavens opened in Ireland as of Friday evening. The drift in the antepost market has already begun, in expectation of Gleneagles' missing yet another target. This would mark the fourth straight race that the top three-year-old miler has missed due to unsuitably soft ground -- a catalog comprising the Sussex (G1) at Glorious Goodwood and Prix Jacques le Marois at Deauville (both at a mile), followed by his mooted step up in trip to 10 1/2 furlongs for the Juddmonte, and now quite possibly the Irish Champion.
Should Gleneagles come out, the obvious question is, how does he prep for his intended tilt at the Breeders' Cup Classic (G1)? The October 2 Diamond (G3) on the Polytrack at Dundalk? Surely Aidan O'Brien couldn't hazard October 17 Champions Day at Ascot -- it would beggar belief that the ground would be suitable then, not to mention the quick turnaround to the Breeders' Cup.
Maybe I'm being too gloomy, maybe the worst of the rain won't hit Leopardstown, maybe Gleneagles will line up after all. But this feels an awful lot like Charlie Brown and the football, so I'd rather not get hopes up. Instead, let's be pleasantly surprised.
Golden Horn's participation isn't exactly certain either, but he's got much more latitude in this department than Gleneagles does. John Gosden withdrew the Derby (G1) and Eclipse (G1) hero from Ascot's King George VI & Queen Elizabeth (G1) on account of the ground, but those circumstances were different -- an extremely testing 1 1/2 miles that could have bottomed him out for the fall. Gosden let him contest the Juddmonte, where he was shocked by the filly Arabian Queen. Does that make him less likely to run on softosh going again? No, because Gosden is adamant that the tactics played the decisive role in his defeat at York: he simply got too far back behind his pacemaker, and it didn't help that he was rank early. Golden Horn wouldn't want it a bog, but a reasonably soft surface at this distance would be fine. Gosden reportedly plans to walk the course to be sure.
Leopardstown has gone out of its way to make the grand match happen, moving the Irish Champion up to 12:45 p.m. (EDT) so that it's the first of their races on the outer course, in hopes that a fresh, pristine strip would keep all of the principals in the gate.
But even if the Golden Horn vs. Gleneagles bout is a wash-out, the Irish Champion is still well up to its lofty standard. The Grey Gatsby, who improved off a second in the 2014 Juddmonte to stun Australia in this race a year ago, is hoping that history repeats itself. The Kevin Ryan charge was a one-paced third behind Arabian Queen and Golden Horn in this summer's Juddmonte. Yet "Gatsby" was repelled by Golden Horn in a tactical renewal of the Eclipse two starts back. The gray must hope that a more truly run race can help to turn the tables on his younger rival. On the other hand, you'd think that would suit Golden Horn better too.
Free Eagle has made only five racecourse appearances, but he's made just about all of them count. Long highly regarded by the maestro Dermot Weld, the Moyglare Stud homebred returned from a year-long absence to crush his foes in the Enterprise (aka the Kilternan) (G3) here on 2014 Irish Champion Day. So comprehensive was his performance -- in a sparkling time -- that it begged the question of how he might have fared in the Irish Champion itself. Free Eagle raced only once more last season, finishing a heroic third to Noble Mission and Al Kazeem on bottomless ground in the Champion (G1) at Ascot. Off the track again until the June 17 Prince of Wales's (G1) at Royal Ascot, he defied his eight-month layoff to edge an unlucky The Grey Gatsby. For all of Gatsby's traffic snarls, however, Free Eagle deserves enormous credit for winning such a major while not fully fit. He's been freshened since, with a view to emulating sire High Chaparral, who won the 2003 Irish Champion.
The grand old man here is Cirrus des Aigles, a globetrotting legend whose free-wheeling style and proficiency on soft ground would normally make him the one to beat. After all, he handed Treve her first loss in an epic Prix Ganay (G1) in April 2014. Yet can the nine-year-old be at his peak after missing the whole summer due to injury? Trainer Corine Barande-Barbe has described that setback as not serious, adding that the popular gelding was back working away merrily in July. If "Cirrus" is anywhere near his best, he could be quite an overlay. Christophe Soumillon comes in for the ride.
Aside from Golden Horn and Gleneagles, there are three other members of the classic generation set to tackle their elders. Two are stablemates of Gleneagles, Highland Reel and Found.
Highland Reel's entry in this race represents a fascinating change of plan for O'Brien. Following his front-running tour de force in the August 15 Secretariat, he was supposed to advance to Sunday's Prix Niel (G2), preparatory to a likely Cox Plate (G1) bid. Does this more ambitious spotting portend a Northern Hemisphere preference for the rest of the year? In other words, if Highland Reel exceeds himself in this audition, is his Australian junket over? The Arc (G1) and Breeders' Cup Turf could be at stake. Will he go right to the front, a la Cape Blanco in 2010?
If so, Highland Reel could ensure a solid pace for the Ballydoyle filly, Found, who's emerged as a proper Arc hope in her own right. Already a top-level winner at Longchamp in last fall's Prix Marcel Boussac (G1), the daughter of Galileo and Red Evie always shaped as the type to prefer more ground. But she didn't exceed a mile in the beginning of her campaign, finishing a strong second to Pleascach in the Irish 1000 Guineas (G1) and just getting nabbed by Ervedya's superior turn of foot in the Coronation (G1) at Royal Ascot. Found finally got her chance over 1 1/4 miles in the Royal Whip (G3) at the Curragh last out and simply demolished a pretty decent older male in Answered. Her odds are shortening in the antepost markets -- in the neighborhood of 7-1 to 9-1 at the moment. With Highland Reel likely to be a shorter price on this side of the pond than he is in Europe (where he's about 20-1), Found looms as the best value among O'Brien's trio.
Pleascach, the other sophomore filly here, has claims as well. After her stunning success in the Blue Wind (G3), and her classic victory in the Irish Guineas, the Jim Bolger pupil seemed to lose her way a bit when second as the even-money favorite in the Ribblesdale (G2) and fifth in the Pretty Polly (G1). But her astute team diagnosed the problem: they were trying to rate her too much instead of letting her gallop along and settle into her powerful stride. A change of tactics ensued in the Yorkshire Oaks (G1), and Pleascach responded by getting up to prevail. It might be helpful to remember that Bolger originally intended to run her in the Irish Derby (G1). But Godolphin purchased her, and her objective changed to the Ribblesdale. I'm tempted to say that was to clear the way for Godolphin's Jack Hobbs in the Irish Derby, but in light of how he dominated at the Curragh, he didn't need any help. At any rate, that's the caliber of filly Bolger has long believed her to be.