Irish Champions Weekend Saturday: Much more than Churchill and Winter
Even with Aidan O’Brien hotpots Churchill and Winter bestriding Day 1 of Irish Champions Weekend, Saturday’s action at Leopardstown provides some interesting wagering opportunities.
2ND Race, Wilson Towers Watson Champions Juvenile (G3) – As a one-mile affair on ground that will be no better than good-to-yielding, this “Win & You’re In” for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (G1) is likely to be a real test for these two-year-olds. In the conditions, experience and proven stamina may be more reliable guides than a flashy debut win, so I’ll give a slight edge to #9 Theobald. The Jim Bolger homebred is liable to go off at higher than his 3-1 morning line with three O’Brien runners in opposition.
A strong traveling type, Theobald broke his maiden at first asking over this course and distance. The son of Teofilo shortened up to 6 1/2 furlongs for the Anglesey (G3), so it wasn’t a great surprise that he was beaten for speed and finished second to O’Brien’s Actress. Yet Theobald still defeated odds-on Brother Bear, a close fourth in Royal Ascot’s Coventry (G2). In the seven-furlong Tyros (G3) back at Leopardstown, Theobald was outkicked by O’Brien’s exciting prospect The Pentagon, but kept on late to snatch second. Again he appeared to want more ground, and he’ll get it here, aside from bringing the best formlines.
#7 Riyazan (4-1) streaked clear in his debut over seven furlongs at the Curragh, putting away O’Brien’s odds-on #6 Nelson (9-2). Although the Aga Khan homebred was 25-1 that day, trainer Mick Halford thought enough of him to make him eligible for the Beresford (G2) and Irish 2000 Guineas (G1). Nelson’s since come back to dominate a maiden over this mile around Leopardstown, on ground similar to what he’ll find Saturday. That could be enough to tip the scales in their rematch, but Riyazan looks awfully smart, and eligible to flash the same gears going an extra furlong.
#2 Delano Roosevelt is favored over there, so the 7-1 morning line on this side of the pond is very unlikely to hold. Not only is he the chosen mount of Ryan Moore, but the Galileo colt was also a debut winner for O’Brien over this track and trip. Any juvenile that can score first up for Ballydoyle is pretty useful, particularly when little was expected at odds of 14-1. The one caveat, though, is that Delano Roosevelt looked green at times, and he did it all on raw ability. Although he’s entitled to move forward here, he’ll require a more focused racing mind at this level, and the experience may bring him on.
O’Brien’s comments to irishracing.com, right after Delano Roosevelt’s score, are instructive:
“There are no races for winners so you have to put them straight into stakes races. A horse like this wins a maiden and then they get pitched in too deep straight away. It would be great to have some of those novice races that they have in England which are a great idea.”
4TH Race, the Enterprise (G3) – While #6 Eziyra (8-5) is the clear form pick for Dermot Weld, who’s won the last three runnings of this race, #5 Exemplar (6-1) has the look of a sneaky type in first-time blinkers for O’Brien. The Galileo half-brother to Blue Bunting – queen of the 2011 One Thousand Guineas (G1), Irish Oaks (G1) and Yokshire Oaks (G1) – capped his two-year-old season with a fine third in the Beresford (G2). Since Beresford hero Capri has since landed the Irish Derby (G1), and Beresford runner-up Yucatan placed in the Racing Post Trophy (G1), you could have expected bigger things from Exemplar. That’s yet to develop, with a disappointing comeback in the Dante (G2) followed by a belated sixth on the class drop in the Lenebane. But early on Exemplar was described as a lazy type, and the headgear may bring forth the desired improvement. On pedigree, there’s no reason why he can’t cycle back to, and improve upon, his juvenile form.
Granted, two other O’Brien runners are preferred in the antepost market. #6 Spanish Steps (6-1 on the morning line but shorter abroad) captured the Ballyroan (G3) here over older horses, but bombed in the Great Voltigeur (G2) and may not be best suited by the ground. I officially gave up on #1 US Army Ranger (5-2) after his miserable display in the Coronation Cup (G1), which usually would be the ticket to victory next time. He’s not given me any cause to regret my decision – yet, and given his strong second in this race a year ago to Zhukova, he may be in the mood to perform. Still, US Army Ranger isn’t anywhere near as reliable as his name promises.
5TH Race, the Matron (G1) – As I scribbled over on the Breeders’ Cup site, there’s no compelling reason to quibble with #11 Winter (4-5) in this spot. Having swept both Newmarket’s and the Curragh’s 1000 Guineas (G1) and the Coronation (G1) at Royal Ascot, she’s the undisputed leader of her generation at a mile, on an entire spectrum of ground conditions from firm to bottomless. Even 1 1/4 miles couldn’t interfere with her winning streak, for Winter was just as emphatic in the Nassau (G1) at Glorious Goodwood. Unless you just want to take a flyer in case she’s off her game, it’s grasping at straws to play devil’s advocate.
The most stabworthy candidate is #12 Wuheida (20-1), mainly as an unexposed type of proven Group 1 quality, and in light of her shocking odds. That’s a rub-your-eyes price on a Godolphin blueblood who was the unbeaten winner of the Prix Marcel Boussac (G1) at two, a prominent classic contender before being ruled out by ill-timed injury, and a bang-up second to #9 Roly Poly (7-1) in her Falmouth (G1) comeback. Forget her German Oaks (G1) run, since it was the back-up plan after she was scratched from the Nassau, and she didn’t do herself justice over 1 3/8 miles at Dusseldorf. This spot suits her to a tee, other than the fact that Winter is lying in wait for her. Interestingly, from a chessboard perspective, it should be noted that trainer Charlie Appleby was mulling Sunday’s Prix du Moulin (G1) against older males too.
The older fillies who were second and third last year, #3 Persuasive (7-1) and #4 Qemah (7-1), are logical threats once more, although now they’re giving five pounds to some above-average sophomores while being drawn in the two far outside posts. As if Winter, Wuheida, and Roly Poly weren’t enough, another high-class three-year-old in the mix is #8 Rhododendron (7-1). Favored in the 1000 Guineas (G1) when second to stablemate Winter, she was best-of-the-rest to Enable in the Oaks (G1) at Epsom. The hesitation is that she hasn’t been seen since bleeding in the French Oaks (G1), and softish ground isn’t her strong suit. That could explain her market drift on Friday.
6TH Race, the Boomerang Mile (G2) – #3 Alexios Komnenos (3-1) is much closer in the bookmakers’ prices to #5 Sir John Lavery (7-5) than the morning line suggests. One to watch after forcing Churchill to pull out all the stops in last year’s Tyros (G3), Alexios Komnenos suffered a dreadful infection in a hind leg that kept him off the track for almost a year. Incredibly, he won the course-and-distance Desmond (G3) in just his second start back, and the Choisir colt could find even more third off the layoff. Sir John Lavery flopped on the classic trail for O’Brien, but rebounded in style when reverting to a mile in the Platinum, and the softer the better for him.
7TH Race, the Irish Champion (G1) – My in-depth analysis is on the Breeders’ Cup Challenge page, so I’ll just touch on a few additional points in this summary.
#7 Churchill (4-5) could well justify his odds-on favoritism, but would O’Brien have even half-mused about Winter going to this race, or spoken of how they can always go back to a mile with Churchill, if he were as certain as the market is? Ballydoyle favorites have been toppled in the Irish Champion before (e.g. Australia in 2014), and although I have too much respect for Churchill to oppose him outright, it makes sense to employ alternatives as well.
The progressive #3 Poet’s Word (8-1) is intriguingly pitched in here by Sir Michael Stoute. Although he’s got questions to answer at this level, Stoute was reportedly game to try the Eclipse (G1) with him this summer until owner Saeed Suhail wanted to take a more conservative approach. The Canadian International (G1) is on his radar, but if he exceeds expectations here, he might run himself into a bigger prize at home. Poet’s Word is already in the Champion (G1) at Ascot, after all. With the ground on the easy side, #6 Zhukova (15-1) comes into the reckoning too. Weld had the option of a very winnable Prix Vermeille (G1) going 1 1/2 miles at Chantilly on Sunday, so the fact he threw into the tougher spot at 1 1/4 miles may be a signal. On quick ground, this would be too sharp for her.
Since #9 Eminent (7-2) was my Derby (G1) pick (finishing fourth of course!), I’d love for him to follow up on his Prix Guillaume d’Ornano (G2) coup here. Yet he had all his own way on the front end at Deauville, and he’ll have to deal with a different scenario at Leopardstown. The well-bred son of Frankel has failed to deliver in three prior Group 1s, so this Eminent fan is nonetheless in wait-and-see mode. Having been disappointed by #8 Cliffs of Moher (12-1) in the Juddmonte International (G1), I’m gun shy now, although this race shapes up better for him tactically.
Best of luck on a terrific card! And tune in tomorrow for thoughts on Sunday’s second half of Irish Champions Weekend at the Curragh.