Looking for value in Irish Champion and Matron

Churchill

By Kellie Reilly

Saturday’s Irish Champion (G1) and Matron (G1) both feature odds-on favorites trained by Aidan O’Brien. While one may be more vulnerable than the other, each Breeders’ Cup Challenge race offers the opportunity to find value at Leopardstown.

The potentially more vulnerable one is Churchill in the Irish Champion, a “Win & You’re In” for the Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1). His appeal is obvious as a European champion juvenile, dual classic winner over a mile this season, and runner-up to outstanding older male Ulysses in the Juddmonte International (G1). That’s the best piece of form in the race, all the more meaningful since it came at slightly beyond this 1 1/4-mile trip.

Yet the case to hedge on Churchill is twofold, partly based on an interpretation of the Juddmonte and partly on ground conditions at Leopardstown. Last time, once archrival Barney Roy exhausted himself early in an unexpected pace duel with Churchill’s stablemate Cliffs of Moher, it didn’t take a great deal for Churchill to nab him for second. Cliffs of Moher folded rather tamely in fourth, and Decorated Knight was later found to have tweaked muscles in a subpar fifth. So a steely-eyed critic could question whether Churchill’s effort in the Juddmonte may have been less significant than it appears on the surface.

Now regarding the ground: Churchill has handled rain-affected courses going shorter, and the good-to-soft going in the Juddmonte didn’t inconvenience him. But Leopardstown was already listed as good-to-yielding before possibly more rain on the way. At this writing, it’s unclear whether the course will be riding a touch softer than ideal for Churchill, especially at a distance on the upper end of his range.

The other angle is a tactical one. Since Taj Mahal has been used as an O’Brien pacemaker before, his addition here implies he’ll go forward early. And the Ken Condon-trained Success Days is a front-running type himself. That could be a boon to Cliffs of Moher, the Epsom Derby (G1) near-misser who’ll likely revert to a stalking role and avoid the early battle that softened him up last time. And he’s a substantially bigger price (12-1 morning line in North America) than fellow sophomore Eminent (7-2), whom he’s twice beaten. Eminent wasn’t seen to best effect in either of those losses, however, and his last-out conquest of the Prix Guillaume d’Ornano (G2) may have made a man of him. Still, the three-year-old colts haven’t been an unimpeachable lot this year, and it may pay to look to the older generation.

Sir Michael Stoute’s Poet’s Word doesn’t fit the typical profile of an Irish Champion winner, since he’s yet to compete in a Group 2, let alone prove himself at the Group 1 level. But he does fit the mold of one improving markedly as an older horse under Stoute’s tutelage, and the master trainer sent out Group 1 newcomer Cezanne to win this in 1994. On bare form, Poet’s Word has a lot to find from his two Group 3 outings, a neck second to a loose-on-the-lead Deauville in the 1 5/16-mile Huxley (G3) at Chester, and a workmanlike victory in the 1 1/2-mile Glorious (G3) on soft at Goodwood. Ryan Moore, who rode him last time (but jumps to Churchill on Saturday), indicated he’s a Group 1 horse in the making. The question is whether he can make that leap in a single bound, on the cutback in trip, or if this is part of his educational process toward the Canadian International (G1). Either way, at 8-1, he’s worth including in your wagering strategy.

Dermot Weld’s Zhukova, the lone female in a race where distaffers have tended to do well, is attractive at 15-1 – and her appeal increases with every drop of rain at Leopardstown. Already known to American racing fans after she thrashed our turf males in the Man o’ War (G1), Zhukova won her sole start at Leopardstown on Irish Champions Weekend last September, in the 1 1/2-mile Enterprise (G3). Weld has said he’d point for the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (G1) this fall if rain were in the offing, and this race has served as the launching pad for the past two Arc winners. It could be significant that Zhukova is here against the boys, rather than in an open-looking Prix Vermeille (G1) versus fellow distaffers at Chantilly on Sunday. She’s plenty effective at 1 1/4 miles with enough ease in the ground.

Decorated Knight would be a 20-1 overlay if able to return to his early-season form, but that’s an open question after his last pair (albeit with excuses). Success Days looks like a minor award at best, since even if he gets his rainy conditions, Zhukova has had his measure before. Moonlight Magic hasn’t fulfilled Jim Bolger’s lofty hopes for him, and as one who expected too much from him in the past, I’m wary of overreacting to his upset of Deauville in the Meld (G3). The Grey Gatsby, sadly, isn’t the same horse who surprised Australia in the 2014 Irish Champion, and softish ground only worsens his cause.

Two races earlier in the Matron, a “Win & You’re In” for the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf (G1), Winter is just too logical to oppose. Indeed, so dominant is she in her own division that O’Brien was tempted to try her in the Irish Champion. With four straight Group 1s to her name, on every type of ground, Winter need only maintain her performance level to bag a fifth.

But Godolphin’s Wuheida is far better than a 20-1 chance. Winner of last October’s Prix Marcel Boussac (G1) straight off her maiden score, the beautifully bred daughter of Dubawi was among the leading fancies for the 1000 Guineas (G1). She unfortunately missed out due to injury, but returned with an excellent second to Roly Poly in the Falmouth (G1). Wuheida was withdrawn from a tilt against Winter in the Nassau (G1) due to desperate going at Goodwood and rerouted to the German Oaks (G1), where she was a well-beaten third on soft ground as the favorite. Perhaps it was the 1 3/8-mile distance, as trainer Charlie Appleby believes, or maybe idiosyncratic Dusseldorf just didn’t suit her. Back at a flat mile here, on ground Appleby has already described as fine for her, a race-fit Wuheida is eligible to turn the tables on Roly Poly, and that’s good enough to see her in the exacta.

Bottom line: Zhukova and Poet’s Word are better-priced options to use with Churchill in the Irish Champion, and Wuheida adds value in conjunction with Winter in the Matron.

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