Irish Champion Stakes another massive day in Churchill’s career


By Nick Luck

The best horses often enhance their reputations in defeat. Four gallant European losers of the Breeders’ Cup Classic — Swain, Sakhee, Giants Causeway, Declaration of War — most certainly did. So, too, did Zenyatta, showing hitherto untested reserves of courage when circumstances conspired in such a way that would have blown out a merely decent animal with barely a whimper. The recently retired Songbird would have half the reputation minus her dogged second at the hands of the brilliantly trained Beholder.

A boldly campaigned horse — however talented — will not always find the perfect set-up.

To my eye, Churchill’s second placing in last month’s Juddmonte International at York took him away from the racecourse with his star shining brighter than before. Pressure placed on the colt decreed as the Ballydoyle-Coolmore marquee 3-year-old colt always exceeds that on any other. Connections tell you he is the best: nothing less than excellence will do.

And there was a sense heading into York that the gap between his lofty reputation and the quantifiable merit of his achievements might widen still, particularly following his rather uninspiring fourth behind Barney Roy at Royal Ascot.

This was a top notch 2-year-old, but had he been beating up on a weak group? Yes, he won both English and Irish Guineas, but surely he had been gifted the first by a brilliantly executed tactical plan and the second by virtue of dull opposition?

Yet at York he ventured thrice into the unknown: to race older horses, to tackle softer ground in a serious contest and to stay an extra two furlongs (far from a given on the dam’s side of his pedigree, for all Galileo’s bankability at imparting stamina).

He coped admirably with all three, giving best only to Ulysses, an outstanding four year old in the form of his life who enjoyed the perfect trip. What impressed most was the way in which Churchill dug deep to repel his Ascot conqueror for second, particularly given how early the pair had engaged one another up York’s seemingly interminable home stretch.

This weekend’s Irish Champion Stakes at Leopardstown — a ‘Win and You’re In’ for the Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf — is another massive day in Churchill’s career. For all his cramped odds, he’ll need to be on his game. While he doesn’t face a Ulysses-calibre rival, he is tasked with out-galloping a quartet of strong stayers — Eminent, stablemate Cliffs of Moher, Poet’s Word and Success Days — on a surface with plenty of give.

All that said, his proven ability gives him the clear edge on his rivals. If, as his trainer expects, he can “move forward” from York, he should be primed for a career-shaping performance in a race that has been both kind (High Chaparral, Giant’s Causeway, Dylan Thomas et al) and cruel (Galileo, Australia) to his connections.

In this instance, however, in the absence of Enable, Barney Roy, Ulysses, Cracksman and Winter, defeat is very unlikely to enhance his reputation.

The relatively fresh concept of Irish Champions’ Weekend has been embraced as you might expect by Aidan O’Brien. The purse money is excellent and the timing of the event is perfect with regard to top horses moving on to Arc weekend, British Champions’ Day or the Breeders’ Cup.

Clearly, this column is preoccupied with horses that may have Del Mar on the agenda, particularly with 5 ‘Win and You’re In’ races spread across Leopardstown (Saturday) and the Curragh (Sunday).

In truth, there is no obvious Breeders’ Cup race for Churchill: the mile is likely too sharp, the Longines Turf a little far (plus there’s Highland Reel for that) and the Classic the great unknown. Still, given Aidan’s fondness for a Classic contender, you wouldn’t rule it out entirely.

I hope Winter is in the mix for the Filly and Mare Turf: nine furlongs might just be her ideal distance and we know fast ground suits her well. A softer surface in the Matron Stakes on Saturday should not inconvenience her sufficiently to see her defeated, but she faces some smart rivals. Her stable companion Roly Poly may well be one for Del Mar as a pace-pushing daughter of War Front. The French trained filly Qemah and John Gosden’s Persuasive are others who could enter the fray if they post a bold showing.

It will be fascinating to watch Caravaggio’s comeback in the Flying Five at the Curragh on Sunday. If his foot problems are behind him, he ought to take care of this lot, for all you would think five furlongs a little on the short side for him. I must confess I never had him down as a Breeders’ Cup possible, but this is a Win and You’re In for the Turf Sprint and he’s the stallion replacement for his late father Scat Daddy, so a California detour perhaps en route to stud duties at Ashford might not be completely out of left field.

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