O’Brien loaded for Breeders’ Cup “Win & You’re In” races on Irish Champions Weekend

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September 5th, 2017

With fewer than two months until the Breeders’ Cup at Del Mar, the clues will be coming thick and fast on the international scene no less than domestically. This Saturday and Sunday, five “Win & You’re In” contests will be held during Irish Champions Weekend, and as you’d expect, a certain Aidan O’Brien will be a dominant presence. Here is an early prospectus, pending further developments during the week.

Anchoring the Saturday program at Leopardstown is the Irish Champion (G1), a 1 1/4-mile prize offering a berth in the Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1). O’Brien’s dual Guineas hero Churchill is heavily favored after his second in the Juddmonte International (G1) at York in his first attempt beyond a mile. He won’t have to face Juddmonte winner Ulysses, who’s skipping Leopardstown to freshen up for a potential Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (G1) bid. Nor will he meet archrival Barney Roy, the third-placer at York now awaiting Champions Day. Decorated Knight came out of his Juddmonte fifth with pulled muscles, so we’ll have to see when he’ll be out again.

In recent comments to Racing Post, O’Brien added that Cliffs of Moher, a tiring fourth after getting in a Juddmonte pace duel with Barney Roy, is “likely” his other runner in the Irish Champion. Highland Reel is uncertain to take part, hence his antepost price hovering around a generous 6-1.

Among the possible opponents, reigning Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf (G1) vixen Queen’s Trust would be fascinating on the cutback from her third to Enable in the 1 1/2-mile Yorkshire Oaks (G1). The Sir Michael Stoute filly is weak in the antepost market herself at 14-1, but connections did float the idea of sending her to the Irish Champion. Another engaged from the Stoute yard, the progressive Poet’s Word, is perhaps more significantly pegged at 8-1. Likely to travel for the Canadian International (G1) next month, this might be a pleasing spot on the way for the four-year-old who comes off a career high in the Glorious (G3) (at, where else, Goodwood).

Eminent would be another major contender, unless trainer Martyn Meade opts to go straight to the Arc.  Although the Frankel colt was beaten by Churchill in the 2000 Guineas (G1), finished fourth in the Derby (G1) and a frustrating fifth to Ulysses in the Eclipse (G1), Eminent turned things around with a front-running tour de force in the Prix Guillaume d’Ornano (G2) at Deauville.

There are Irish-based notables not trained by O’Brien, including Ken Condon’s Success Days, most recently victorious in the York (G2) but requiring some give in the ground, and Godolphin’s Moonlight Magic from the Jim Bolger yard, fresh off upsetting Deauville in the July 20 Meld (G3) on this course.

O’Brien flirted with pitching star filly Winter into the Irish Champion, but the latest report indicates that the Matron (G1) earlier on the card is once again the preferred option. The one-mile contest serves as a “Win & You’re In” for the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf (G1).

“It's definitely a possibility,” the master of Ballydoyle said Monday of the Irish Champion, “but I'd say the Matron is the favorite at the moment. She's had a little break since the last day she ran (taking the Nassau [G1]) and she's done very well."

Winter’s hardened further in the market thanks to that tip, and O’Brien has a shot at the trifecta with fellow sophomore fillies Roly Poly and Rhododendron. Since getting away from Winter, Roly Poly has landed both the Falmouth (G1) and Prix Rothschild (G1). Rhododendron, favorite when runner-up to Winter in the 1000 Guineas (G1), also chased Enable home in the Oaks (G1). Unfortunately, she had to be pulled up when bleeding in the Prix de Diane (French Oaks) (G1), and she’s just now resuming.

Alice Springs, a devastating winner of the 2016 Matron, is “a bit behind Rhododendron” on her comeback path, O’Brien told Racing Post August 16. Her 12-1 antepost price reflects some doubt about whether this will be her target, or if she’ll reappear in a different spot (see below for a same-day alternative).

John Gosden’s Persuasive and Jean-Claude Rouget’s Qemah, the respective second and third to Alice Springs here last year, are the only others in single digits at this writing. Wuheida would be intriguing, but Godolphin trainer Charlie Appleby suggested the Prix du Moulin (G1) as a possibility.

If the Irish Champion and Matron fields are still in flux, the Willis Towers Watson Champions Juvenile S. (G3) is triply so. The Aga Khan’s smart debut winner Riyazan is already confirmed by trainer Michael Halford, but stay tuned for the inevitable Ballydoyle assault on this “Win & You’re In” for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (G1).

While the other Group events at Leopardstown Saturday aren’t Challenge races, both could have international repercussions. Early entries for the one-mile Boomerang (G2) include the aforementioned Alice Springs, and the Fozzy Stack-trained Alexios Komnenos, winner of the Desmond (G3) in his second start on the comeback trail.

“It's a miracle. It's great to get him back,” Stack told of the colt’s recovery from a serious infection in a hind leg.

Considering that Alexios Komnenos had nearly upset Churchill in last summer’s Tyros (G3) before being sidelined, the Byzantine emperor was missed.

The 1 1/2-mile Enterprise (G3) is similarly lacking a clear enough field for the betting firms to price it up by Monday. Note that Dermot Weld’s Zhukova, who captured the trophy last year, may aim higher this time around and wait for the Prix Vermeille (G1).

The second half of Irish Champions Weekend is hosted by the Curragh on Sunday, with two Breeders’ Cup Challenge races on an action-packed card.

The Moyglare Stud (G1), a “Win & You’re In” for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf (G1), could attract four high-profile runners from Ballydoyle. Magical (Rhododendron’s sister) upset better-fancied stablemate Happily (Gleneagles’ sister), with favorite September (the Deep Impact-Peeping Fawn filly) a disappointing fourth, in the soft-ground Debutante (G2). If better ground prevails in their rematch over the same course and seven-furlong trip, the result stands to be overturned. And yet another O’Brien, Churchill’s sister Clemmie, may overshadow the Debutante alumnae altogether. The main rivals to Ballydoyle are Jessica Harrington’s Alpha Centauri, unraced since her near-miss in Royal Ascot’s Albany (G3), and Weld’s first-out winner Chiara Luna, a homebred for race sponsor Moyglare.

Sunday’s other Breeders’ Cup Challenge race is the Flying Five (G2), a Turf Sprint (G1) “Win & You’re In” which could be renamed the “Caravaggio retrieval mission.” The O’Brien speedster had the world at his feet when remaining unbeaten through the Commonwealth Cup (G1), sparking thoughts of how he’d tackle Australia’s best in the inaugural Everest (G1). Then Caravaggio was a sluggish fourth in the July Cup (G1), and sore after an even worse sixth in the Prix Maurice de Gheest (G1). O’Brien reportedly diagnosed the problem stemmed from a shoe change. If his footwear is now sorted, Caravaggio may rediscover his old speed. He’ll need to, as he’s shortening up to five furlongs for the first time since his early two-year-old days.

The Vincent O’Brien National (G1) has lost its marquee story line, with Juddmonte’s Expert Eye missing his anticipated clash with Gustav Klimt due to an unsatisfactory scope. The seven-furlong juvenile test may be at his mercy now, unless O’Brien unexpectedly enters one of his remaining big guns. Gustav Klimt should have lost the Superlative (G2) several times over given his traffic woes, yet he got up anyway in a defiant mood at Newmarket. Given the star-crossed careers of his full siblings Mars and Cuff, this tribe deserves all the good fortune it can get.

O’Brien has Rain Goddess penciled in for the 1 1/4-mile Blandford (G2) for distaffers. Excusing her Beverly D. (G1) flop as a function of her wide post, he told that the Galileo filly is eyeing the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf (G1). Between his comments about Rain Goddess going to the Blandford, and no word yet on comebacker Seventh Heaven, we’ll probably have to wait for her anticipated return. Trainer William Haggas has options for Sea of Grace after her breakthrough in the Dick Hern at Haydock, and he mentioned the Blandford as one of them.

Although unlikely to have Breeders’ Cup ramifications, the 1 3/4-mile Irish St Leger (G1) promises to be another battle royal between Michael Bell’s free-running warrior Big Orange and O’Brien’s Order of St George. They served up a memorable stretch drive in the Gold Cup (G1) at Royal Ascot, where Big Orange’s big heart held off Order of St George in his repeat bid. Likewise denied by Wicklow Brave as the reigning Irish St Leger champion last September, Order of St George seeks to regain the title he won so dynamically in 2015. He warmed up the same way with a three-peat in the Irish St Leger Trial (G3), while Big Orange comes off a valiant second, conceding 13 pounds to three-year-old Stradivarius, in his attempt at a three-peat in the upgraded Goodwood Cup (G1).

With this Monday look being very preliminary, we’ll be back later in the week with more thoughts once the fields are declared for Irish Champions Weekend.