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Irish Champions Weekend Preview: Centauri heads cast of stars

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John Ingles previews the first day of Irish Champions Weekend with the Irish Champion Stakes and the Matron Stakes the twin highlights of a high-quality card at Leopardstown.

None of the winners of the first four British classics has managed to win another race so far this season, while injury has meant that Derby winner Masar hasn’t been seen at all since Epsom. Instead, the colt and filly who have done most to fly the flag for the classic generation over the summer are Roaring Lion and Alpha Centauri, and each of them have favourites’ chances of adding further Group 1 successes to their records at Leopardstown on Saturday.

Roaring Lion was beaten in his two classics, still a work in progress when fifth behind Saxon Warrior in the 2000 Guineas and then running over a trip beyond his optimum when third in the Derby. But he has since developed into a top-class mile and a quarter performer, winning the Eclipse Stakes and following up in the Juddmonte International with Saxon Warrior behind him on both occasions. There was just a neck between them at Sandown which evened their score in head-to-head meetings to 2-2 and suggested there was little between the pair, but Roaring Lion improved again at York when quickening clear impressively to win by more than three lengths from King George winner Poet’s Word, with Saxon Warrior only fourth.

Saxon Warrior wasn’t quite at his best at York but Aidan O’Brien reported him to be ‘very sick’ after Sandown, one of the victims of the well-publicised bug which plagued Ballydoyle over the summer, and it would seem better is expected of him on Saturday. Even so, Saxon Warrior will likely need to be better than ever to prevent Roaring Lion completing an Eclipse-Juddmonte-Irish Champion treble last completed by Sea The Stars in 2009.

But there’s more to the Irish Champion Stakes than just another round in the ongoing private rivalry between Roaring Lion and Saxon Warrior. French colt Study of Man has the potential to get involved too, and will be bidding to emulate the 2016 Prix du Jockey Club winner Almanzor who beat an Irish Champion field that included that year’s Derby and Oaks winners Harzand and Minding as well as future Arc winner Found. The Prix du Jockey Club which Study of Man won didn’t look the strongest at the time and the form has taken a few knocks since, with Study of Man himself beaten at Deauville in the Prix Guillaume d’Ornano, the race which Almanzor won before the Irish Champion. However, Study of Man, who shares his Japanese sire Deep Impact with Saxon Warrior, has had only five races and will be one of the least exposed in the line-up.

Verbal Dexterity was an impressive winner on soft ground of the National Stakes at the Curragh on this weekend last year but has only run twice since. Fourth behind Saxon Warrior and Roaring Lion when that pair first met in the Racing Post Trophy, he made a belated return when filling the same position in the Royal Whip at the Curragh last month and that run will need to have brought him on considerably for him to have a say in this contest.

Any softening of the ground would suit four-year-old Addeybb, winner of the Lincoln and bet365 Mile in testing going in the spring, though he hasn’t been seen out since finishing down the field on firmer ground in the Lockinge won by Rhododendron in May. On her best form, Rhododendron would have place claims, but she’s failed to beat a rival in her last two starts and things didn’t look good when she was virtually pulled up at Deauville last time. Evidently none the worse, though, she was in the process of running well in first-time blinkers (which she wears again here) when appearing to lose her action on the home turn.

While the Irish Champion Stakes is billed as the highlight of the first day of Irish Champions Weekend, Alpha Centauri could well steal the limelight earlier on in the Matron Stakes where she’ll be bidding to win her fifth consecutive Group 1. She’s certainly a very different filly now from the one who finished only fifth in the Moyglare Stud Stakes on this weekend twelve months ago, though it’s worth recalling she started favourite for that contest which ended up being fought out by the Ballydoyle fillies Happily and Magical who re-oppose here.

The Moyglare was run on soft ground, though, and Alpha Centauri hasn’t looked back since finishing down the field in heavy going on her reappearance. Since then, she’s reeled off wins on a sounder surface in the Irish 1000 Guineas, Coronation Stakes, Falmouth Stakes and Prix Jacques le Marois. Her latest victory at Deauville represents her best bit of form, with the runner-up Recoletos, a high-class miler in his own right, going on to win last weekend’s Prix du Moulin. Back on home turf and against her own sex, Alpha Centauri stands out and looks hard to oppose.

She’s not the only classic winner in the field, however. Laurens didn’t stay in the Yorkshire Oaks last time but her record was hard to fault before that and she landed her third Group 1 win with a typically hard-fought success in the Prix de Diane. Although she won the Fillies’ Mile and was second in the 1000 Guineas, Laurens probably needs a bit further than a mile now and, while she’s unlikely to go down without a fight, she risks setting this up for Alpha Centauri’s late turn of foot.

Among the supporting group races on the Leopardstown card, much the most interesting looks to be the KPMG Champions Juvenile Stakes over a mile for two-year-olds. Three of the field have won their only starts in maidens over this course and distance, the pick of whom looks to be the Kevin Prendergast-trained Madhmoon who looked an excellent prospect when beating the odds-on Ballydoyle colt Sydney Opera House last month. The runner-up has gone one better since in a Curragh maiden which Saxon Warrior won last year and re-opposes Madhmoon in a contest which looks sure to throw up a very promising colt or two.

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NAVAN 14:20

Sunday 17 February
5. OFF YOU GO (IRE) 169
M. P. Walsh silk M. P. Walsh horse in focus
Charles Byrnes, Ireland
4. CRACKING SMART (FR) 168
J. W. Kennedy silk J. W. Kennedy
Gordon Elliott, Ireland
1. COQUIN MANS (FR) 166
P. Townend silk P. Townend
W. P. Mullins, Ireland hot trainer
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1st Richard Kingscote silk 1. ALWAYS A DRAMA (IRE) 6/17
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3rd Kevin Lundie silk nk 2. KRAKA (IRE) 5/16cf
11 ran. NRs: 11 
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1st Adam Kirby silk 4. UNIT OF ASSESSMENT (IRE) 11/26.5
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1st Oisin Murphy silk 4. COCKNEY HILL 13/82.62f
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1st Harry Cobden silk 1. SILVER FOREVER (IRE) 2/13f
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