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Irish Preview: Champions Weekend

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Adam Houghton takes a whistle-stop tour of the action during Irish Champions Weekend, picking out his best bets in the six Group 1 races taking place at Leopardstown and the Curragh.

Irish Champion Stakes

The favourite at the time of writing is the mare Magical, one of four runners for Aidan O’Brien as he attempts to win the race for the first time since So You Think beat another high-class mare, Snow Fairy, in 2011. Having been given a break after chasing home Enable in the Coral-Eclipse at Sandown in July, Magical shaped as if the run would bring her on when beaten even further by that rival in the Yorkshire Oaks last time, not knocked about once it became clear that she wasn’t closing the gap. The pick of her form sets the standard in this line-up, and she looks sure to prove a tough nut to crack if improving as expected with that York outing under her belt.

Elarqam was also in action at the Ebor Festival, when finishing third (beaten a little over a length) behind Japan and the now-retired Crystal Ocean in the Juddmonte International. That effort proved that he belongs at this level – he was arguably unlucky not to finish closer, too, having been short of room at a crucial stage – and he is an interesting contender having been supplemented earlier in the week, providing owner Sheikh Hamdan with a strong hand along with the three-year-old Madhmoon. Trained by Kevin Prendergast, Derby runner-up Madhmoon capitalised on the drop in grade with a comfortable success in the 1m Desmond Stakes at this course last time – his third win from four starts at Leopardstown – and the balance of his form suggests that this intermediate trip will be right up his street, making him a leading player in his bid for a first Group 1 success.

This is much tougher than the Nassau Stakes won by Deirdre at Goodwood last time, but she still rates a fascinating contender for her Japanese connections, while the three-year-old challenge is completed by Derby winner Anthony Van Dyck and the upwardly-mobile Headman. The former has something to prove following a below-par run in the King George at Ascot last time, so ready preference is for Roger Charlton’s Headman, who recorded his second Group 2 win in succession in the Prix Guillaume d'Ornano at Deauville last time, doing well to come from last place in steadily-run race. He remains open to more improvement and is well worth a try in this exalted company.

Recommendation: Back Madhmoon at 6/1

Matron Stakes

No horse has ever won this race more than once, meaning that Laurens has history as well as six rivals to overcome when trying to win to repeat her defeat of Alpha Centauri 12 months ago. There is certainly a sound form case to be made for her, however, with the effort that she produced to finish second in the 7f City of York Stakes last time – beaten just a nose trying to concede 7 lb to the very smart three-year-old Shine So Bright – leaving her 4 lb clear of the field on weight-adjusted ratings here. A tough and genuine mare who is seemingly better than ever right now, there is no reason why she shouldn’t give another good account in search of Group 1-win number seven.

The main dangers according to the betting are the Aidan O’Brien-trained pair of Hermosa and I Can Fly. The latter has had her limitations at this level rather exposed during the last the couple of seasons, though, with her record in Group 1s now standing at 0/10, while Hermosa has so far failed to scale the heights that looked likely when completing a Guineas double at the Curragh in May, most recently running too bad to be true in the Nassau.

The one who makes more appeal for each-way purposes is the John Oxx-trained Skitter Scatter. A smart two-year-old in 2018 (wins included the Moyglare Stud Stakes), she has missed the majority of the current campaign through injury, but her second after four months off in a Group 3 at Tipperary last time was a step in the right direction, beating all bar a race-fit rival who is at the top of her game right now. She is entitled to strip fitter here and looks potentially overpriced at around 10/1, back at the scene of the win that kickstarted her hot streak at two.

Recommendation: Back Skitter Scatter each-way at 10/1

Flying Five Stakes

The first of four Group 1s at the Curragh on Sunday looks set to be dominated by members of the fairer sex, with only three colts or geldings featuring in the first eight in the betting. The pick of that trio looks to be Soldier’s Call, who produced a career-best when chasing home Battaash in the Nunthorpe Stakes at York last time, always towards the head of affairs and keeping on well in his own right in the backwash of one of the best five-furlong performances in recent memory.

Formerly trained in Australia, Houtzen got closer to Battaash when second on her debut for Martyn Meade at Goodwood, going down by just three quarters of a length in the King George Stakes. Admittedly, she was in receipt of 6 lb from the winner, but it still represented an encouraging start to her new connections and she looks sure to give another account, a comment that also applies to Mabs Cross. She has been a standing dish in these top-level sprints at five furlongs for a couple of seasons now, and though below form when only fourth in the Nunthorpe last time, her overall profile marks her out as one likely to bounce back sooner rather than later.

However, the one who makes most appeal at the current prices is a relative newcomer to this division in the shape of Soffia. She is firmly on the ascent to Group 1 glory if her annihilation of a Group-2 field in the Sapphire Stakes over C&D last time is anything to go by, relishing the strong pace back at the minimum trip, quickly storming clear after taking it up inside the final furlong. That form leaves her 2 lb clear of the field on weight-adjusted ratings here, and she looks sure to take plenty of beating, now four from four at the Curragh for Edward Lynam, who has excelled with sprinters over the years.

Recommendation: Back Soffia at 3/1

Moyglare Stud Stakes/National Stakes

As good a renewal of the National Stakes as it looks, it is still hard to look past Pinatubo. He extended his unbeaten record to four in the Vintage Stakes at Goodwood last time, when beating subsequent Solario Stakes winner Positive by five lengths, with Lope Y Fernandez and Platinum Star – both of whom have also advanced their form when rediscovering the winning thread in recent days – amongst those lost in the backwash.

Add to the mix the excellent timefigure that Pinatubo recorded – he clocked a time over a second faster than Sir Dancealot achieved in winning the Lennox Stakes 35 minutes later – and there is plenty of substance to go with the remarkable visual impression he created that day. Put simply, it is extremely rare to see a two-year-old operating at his very smart level at such an early stage of the season, and, comfortably clear of chief rivals Arizona and Armory (both trained by Aidan O’Brien) on weight-adjusted ratings, he is fancied to complete the five-timer with a first Group 1 success.

We won’t get rich backing him at the current odds on offer, though, and the Moyglare Stud Stakes makes far more appeal as a betting medium, with Soul Search standing out as a possible value alternative to market principals Albigna and Daahyeh. Still a maiden after three starts for Ger Lyons, the form of her latest third in the Debutante Stakes over C&D – when beaten just three quarters of a length by the promising Alpine Star – is amongst the best on offer here, and with further improvement on the cards, she looks to have been underestimated at odds of around 10/1.

Recommedation: Back Soul Search each-way at 10/1

Irish St Leger

Aidan O’Brien has won the last two renewals of this race, and he is represented by a pair of former St Leger winners at Doncaster in his bid to bring up the hat-trick. A lot of water has passed under the bridge since Capri won on Town Moor in 2017, and it’s fair to say that he looks up against it on the evidence of his four starts this time round, but it’s much easier to make a case for Kew Gardens. Admittedly, he hasn’t been seen in competitive action since filling the runner-up spot in the Coronation Cup at Epsom in June, but his class edge is fancied to see him through, 3 lb clear of the field on weight-adjusted ratings and still relatively exposed over staying trips, with his two previous starts at this far resulting in Queen’s Vase and St Leger wins in 2018.

The pick of the remainder looks to be Cross Counter, last year’s Melbourne Cup winner who has acquitted himself well when behind Stradivarius in the Ascot Gold Cup (beaten one and three quarter lengths in fourth) and Goodwood Cup (beaten two lengths in third) on his last two starts. He isn’t short of speed, either, and it will be interesting to see how he fares now back down in trip, for all that he is likely being trained to peak for a repeat trip to Australia later this year. Incidentally, he is set to be joined Down Under by several of these; Southern France was bought by Australian connections having won the trial for this race in August, while Joseph O’Brien’s three runners – Latrobe, Master of Reality and Twilight Payment – have all been fixtures in this sort of race in recent years, and sport the colours here of Lloyd Williams, the leading owner in the history of the Melbourne Cup.

Recommedation: Back Kew Gardens at 11/4

 

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