Three Breeders’ Cup Challenge events are on tap at Saturday’s kickoff of Irish Champions Weekend at Leopardstown. Reigning Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1) queen Tarnawa will clash with classic heroes St Mark’s Basilica and Poetic Flare in the “Win and You’re In” Irish Champion (G1), while the Matron (G1) offers a free spot in the Filly & Mare Turf (G1), and the Champions Juvenile (G2) furnishes a ticket to the Juvenile Turf (G1).
Irish Champion (G1) – Race 5 (9:45 a.m. ET)
The 1 1/4-mile feature promises to be a tactical affair, with its small but select field of four. Although Tarnawa sports marquee victories in the 1 1/2-mile Breeders’ Cup Turf and Prix Vermeille (G1), the Aga Khan homebred is not lacking in finishing speed at this trip. Indeed, the daughter of Shamardal is 4-for-5 at the distance, highlighted by her fantastic closing kick to take last fall’s Prix de l’Opera (G1).
Tarnawa is also 2-for-2 at Leopardstown, where she resumed with a dominant display in the Aug. 5 Ballyroan (G3) to extend her winning streak to five. Trainer Dermot Weld has deliberately pointed her to a fall campaign, and the Irish Champion will serve as her stepping stone to her prime goal, the Oct. 3 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (G1).
The Aidan O’Brien-trained St Mark’s Basilica is slightly favored over Tarnawa at this writing, on the strength of his impressive victory in the July 3 Eclipse (G1). The Siyouni colt exploded past such accomplished elders as Addeybb and Mishriff, although the latter was ring-rusty off a layoff.
Whether St Mark’s Basilica could have coped with a Mishriff at the top of his game in the Aug. 18 Juddmonte International (G1) remains an unanswered question. Intended to renew rivalry in that York showpiece, St Mark’s Basilica was ruled out after a thrown shoe caused a minor infection in a hind leg. Now he’s ready to tackle another big prize, if coming from a longer break than expected. At any rate, St Mark’s Basilica brings a four-race winning skein including last fall’s Dewhurst (G1) and a pair of French classics, the May 16 Poule d’Essai des Poulains (G1) and June 6 Prix du Jockey Club (G1).
Poetic Flare is third in the betting, understandably since he’s yet to race beyond a mile. But the Jim Bolger homebred sports outstanding form as well as a reasonable hope of acting over further. The winner of Newmarket’s 2000 Guineas (G1) made an audacious bid at a classic triple, wheeling back to finish sixth to St Mark’s Basilica in the Poulains and miss by a head in the Irish 2000 Guineas (G1) on soft-to-heavy. Poetic Flare rebounded with a superior performance in the St James’s Palace (G1) on good-to-firm at Royal Ascot.
Although Poetic Flare was runner-up in his two ensuing starts, both were commendable in the circumstances. The Sussex (G1) came on going softer than ideal at Glorious Goodwood, and he lost no luster when coming up a neck shy of Palace Pier in the Aug. 15 Prix Jacques le Marois (G1). As a three-quarter brother to Glamorous Approach, who won over as far as 1 1/2 miles and placed at 1 3/4 miles, Poetic Flare could transfer his pugnacity to this trip.
The outsider of the quartet is Patrick Sarsfield from the yard of Joseph O’Brien. The admirably consistent Group 3 winner placed to such top-class rivals as Barney Roy and Skalleti last term, and he’s finished a close second in both outings this summer. It wouldn’t be a surprise if Patrick Sarsfield finds himself on the lead early.
Matron (G1) – Race 3 (8:40 a.m. ET)
Mother Earth is the heavy favorite to add another Group 1 mile to her trophy case, following the 1000 Guineas (G1) and the Aug. 3 Prix Rothschild (G1) at Deauville last out. Yet the Ballydoyle filly has also settled for minor awards in the Poule d’Essai des Pouliches (G1), Coronation (G1), and Falmouth (G1), and she’ll be facing some intriguing opponents here.
Defending champion Champers Elysees is finally rounding into form for Johnny Murtagh. Exiting her best result of the year, a second to Acanella in the 1 1/8-mile Snow Fairy Fillies’ S. (G3), the Teruya Yoshida colorbearer is eligible to improve back at a mile. Pearls Galore has earned her shot at the top level after back-to-back victories in the Brownstown (G3) and Fairy Bridge (G3). Epona Plays was on an upward curve with scores in the Park Express (G3) and Lanwades Stud (G2), until a stretch-out versus Thundering Nights and Santa Barbara in the Pretty Polly (G1) proved a bridge too far.
Other notable contenders include Empress Josephine, No Speak Alexander, and Belle Image, the respective first, third, and fourth from the Irish 1000 Guineas (G1); British shipper Dreamloper, who romped in the Valiant (G3) two back at Ascot; and Shale and Pretty Gorgeous, both trying to recapture the glory from their juvenile days.
Champions Juvenile (G2) – Race 2 (8:10 a.m. ET)
While leading two-year-old Point Lonsdale is expected in Sunday’s Vincent O’Brien National (G1) at the Curragh, his form will be represented by Maritime Wings at Leopardstown Saturday. The Team Valor runner has been best of the rest behind Point Lonsdale in both the Tyros (G3) and Futurity (G2), and now aims to shine in his absence.
But there’s no shortage of smart maiden winners stepping into the spotlight, including his own Joseph O’Brien stablemate, Buckaroo. Donnacha O’Brien sends out blueblood Absolute Ruler, a full brother to Group 3 victor Military Style, who scored on debut at Dundalk. Hot trainer Ger Lyons is double-handed with Atomic Jones, successful at first asking at the Curragh, and Roscommon romper Once Upon a River, a Churchill half-brother to Halfway to Heaven (dam of Magical and Rhododendron).
Bolger’s Manu et Corde is the lone entrant with a win over both course and distance, in his only attempt at a mile. Previously beaten by Atomic Jones and John the Baptist in seven-furlong maidens, he reverted to that trip for the Futurity and wound up fourth to Point Lonsdale and Maritime Wings.
Aidan O’Brien has faith in twice-raced maiden Stone Age, third to Manu et Corde before just missing to Buckaroo at Galway. Ryan Moore rides Stone Age, while Seamie Heffernan picks up the more exposed Ballydoyle runner, Howth. Rounding out the 10-horse field is I Am Magic, a Galway maiden scorer who flopped in Salisbury’s Stonehenge S. in his latest.
Other stakes on the card
The opening race on Irish Champions Weekend, the seven-furlong Ingabelle S. (7:40 a.m. ET), could yield a contender for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf (G1). Ballydoyle’s Lullaby, an eye-catching fourth in her career debut in the Flame of Tara (G3), is sure to move forward while taking on two-time winners Corviglia and Malayan.
The Boomerang Mile (G2) (9:10 a.m. ET) features Irish 2000 Guineas winner Mac Swiney, cutting back in both class and distance after losses in the Derby (G1), Irish Derby (G1), and Juddmonte International. Among his rivals are upwardly mobile Maker of Kings, the Amethyst (G3) winner who nearly upset Japan in the Meld (G3) last out; Njord, runner-up to Breeders’ Cup Mile (G1) shocker Order of Australia earlier this summer; Aidan O’Brien’s trio of comebacker Military Style, Horoscope, and Khartoum; Joseph O’Brien’s pair of Thunder Moon and Snapraeterea; British filly Fev Rover, who’s likely to appreciate the better ground; and the respective second through fourth in the Aug. 15 course-and-distance Desmond (G3), Georgeville, Real Appeal, and Erzindjan.
The Group action concludes with the 1 1/2-mile Paddy Power (G3) (10:15 a.m. ET). Innisfree, a sneaky fifth to Earlswood in the Royal Whip (G3) in his return from 21-month layoff, gets a rematch. Others of interest are fillies of proven stamina, Munster Oaks (G3) victress Thunder Kiss and last-out Galtres S. scorer Forbearance, as well as Joseph O’Brien’s Sir Lamorak, who was on the upswing before flopping in the Grand Prix de Paris (G1).