Trainer Aidan O’Brien is favored to pull off a Group 1 double at Leopardstown Saturday, with star sophomores Churchill and Winter ranking as odds-on favorites in the Irish Champion (G1) and Matron (G1) respectively. The two marquee races on the first day of Irish Champions Weekend, the Irish Champion is a “Win & You’re In” for the Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1), and the Matron serves likewise for the Filly & Mare Turf (G1).
Churchill, last year’s European champion juvenile, maintained his grip through this spring’s 2000 Guineas (G1) at Newmarket and the Irish equivalent at the Curragh. After a flat fourth in the St James’s Palace (G1), he stretched out for the about 10 1/2-furlong Juddmonte International (G1) and beat all bar the razor-sharp older horse Ulysses. Churchill offers the combination of proven class and current form, making him the 10-11 antepost favorite. He will be joined by stablemates Cliffs of Moher, the near-misser in the Derby (G1) at Epsom but only fourth in the Juddmonte, and Taj Mahal, who may be back on pacemaker duty despite his second in the Secretariat (G1) on Arlington Million Day.
The Ballydoyle tactics will likely prevent Eminent from repeating his wire job in the Prix Guillaume d’Ornano (G2), but the son of Frankel doesn’t need the lead. The Martyn Meade pupil rallied to take the Craven (G3) in stakes-record time before a trio of losses at the top level, the best of them being a close fourth in the Derby.
Leading the older brigade versus the sophomores are Tattersalls Gold Cup (G1) and Jebel Hatta (G1) scorer Decorated Knight, who suffered pulled muscles when fifth in the Juddmonte; Poet’s Word, the upwardly mobile Glorious (G3) winner from the Sir Michael Stoute yard; Dermot Weld’s Man o’ War (G1) romper Zhukova, the lone female in the 10-horse field, and stablemate The Grey Gatsby, who’s fallen some way off his best form as the 2014 Irish Champion winner; recent York (G2) victor Success Days, who will enjoy it if the forecast rain further softens the ground from the current good-to-yielding; and Godolphin’s Moonlight Magic, last seen outdueling Deauville in the Meld (G3) for Jim Bolger.
Unlike Churchill, who still needs to win at the 1 1/4-mile trip and against his elders, Winter faces no such questions back down to a mile in the Matron. Sweeping all before her in the 1000 Guineas (G1), Irish 1000 Guineas (G1) and Coronation (G1) at a mile, the gray proved herself versus older distaffers, and over 10 furlongs, in the Nassau (G1) at Glorious Goodwood. Winter would have been of interest had she taken on the boys in the Irish Champion – something O’Brien thought long about – so unless she goes unexpectedly retrograde, the Matron figures to extend her Group 1 winning streak to five.
Ballydoyle bolsters its hand with three more entrants. Roly Poly, runner-up to Winter in the Irish 1000 Guineas and Coronation, comes off consecutive Group 1s in the Falmouth (G1) and Prix Rothschild (G1). Rhododendron, second to Winter in the 1000 Guineas and to Enable in the Oaks, makes her first start since bleeding in the French Oaks (G1). Hydrangea is the last horse to beat Winter, just hanging on in their mutual seasonal reappearance, but hasn’t come close to an upset in their four ensuing meetings.
Godolphin trainer Charlie Appleby believes that Wuheida was beaten for lack of stamina in the German Oaks (G2), suggesting that reverting in trip would be the answer. The lightly-raced daughter of Dubawi captured last fall’s Prix Marcel Boussac (G1) in just her second career start, and wasn’t seen again until chasing Roly Poly home in the Falmouth. Wuheida is eligible to be a different proposition in their rematch. Fellow Godolphin colorbearer Bean Feasa has gone off the boil since breaking her maiden in the Derrinstown Stud 1000 Guineas Trial (G3). Rounding out the three-year-old entrants, Unforgetable Filly plundered the German 1000 Guineas (G2) but has something to find on Winter thanks to her sixth in Newmarket’s Guineas, and the Joseph O’Brien-trained Intricately hasn’t landed a blow since her 25-1 upset of the Moyglare Stud (G1) a year ago.
French invader Qemah, third as the favorite in last year’s Matron, was most recently fourth to Roly Poly when favored to defend her title in the Rothschild. The Jean Claude-Rouget nevertheless must be respected as a two-time Royal Ascot winner in last summer’s Coronation and in the June 21 Duke of Cambridge (G2).
At the time of the 2016 Matron, John Gosden’s Persuasive arrived on the crest of a perfect five-for-five record and finished an admirable second. But the Cheveley Park runner has raced just once in the interim – a fifth to Roly Poly in the Rothschild – and must improve significantly off her tightener. Diamond Fields and Laganore need career-bests to make the frame.
The first Breeders’ Cup “Win & You’re In” on the card is the Willis Towers Watson Champions Juvenile (G3), a one-mile affair offering a berth to the Juvenile Turf (G1). As ever, O’Brien is well stocked here too, with a trio led by course-and-distance debut winner Delano Roosevelt. The exquisitely bred Nelson, a son of Frankel and Moonstone, and Kew Gardens were second and seventh, respectively, to the Aga Khan’s impressive Riyazan at the Curragh. While Nelson came right back to break his maiden here at this trip, Kew Gardens went over to Killarney to do the job.
Riyazan was overlooked at 25-1 in his unveiling for Mick Halford, but there will be no shortage of support anymore for the promising Iffraaj colt. Bolger is double-handed with Theobald, most recently runner-up to O’Brien’s highly regarded The Pentagon in the Tyros (G3), and maiden Verbitude. Ger Lyons’ Camelback exits a fourth to Ballydoyle’s Rostropovich in the Futurity (G2), while the exposed Medal of Honour had the misfortune to hook Rostropovich and The Pentagon in their maiden wins.
Elsewhere on the blockbuster program, up-and-coming Alexios Komnenos looks to climb the ladder in the one-mile Boomerang (G2). The Fozzy Stack sophomore beat old stager Custom Cut, winner of this race in 2015 and second a year ago, last time in the Desmond (G3) at this course and distance. Custom Cut’s stablemate from the David O’Meara yard, Suedois, joins him to try the added ground. O’Brien fields Sir John Lavery, who thrived on the cutback to a mile in the Platinum, and Whitecliffsofdover, whose fourth in the same race can at least partly be attributed to soft going at Cork. He won’t want Leopardstown conditions to get worse.
Weld, who took the 2016 Enterprise (G3) with a filly in Zhukova, hopes that history repeats courtesy of Eziyra. The Aga Khan homebred is a proven 1 1/2-mile performer with a third to Enable in the Irish Oaks (G1) prior to her breakthrough in the Give Thanks (G3). O’Brien’s US Army Ranger has been frustrating since his rallying second in last year’s edition, and loses Ryan Moore to Ballyroan (G3)-winning stablemate Spanish Steps.