Churchill difficult to oppose in Irish Champion Stakes

Aidan O’Brien 4-1 to record a Group One five-timer on ‘Irish Champions Weekend’

That Aidan O’Brien is just 4-1 to win all five Group One features during ‘Irish Champions Weekend’ is a hard-nosed calculation of how dominant he could be during Irish racing’s two-day shop window to the world.

Even a headline-friendly prospect of Irish St Leger success for The Queen with Dartmouth on Sunday can’t budge O’Brien and the might of the Coolmore empire from centre stage ahead of the €4.6 million bonanza which kicks off at Leopardstown on Saturday afternoon.

Churchill appears a standout for the €1.25 million QIPCO Irish Champion Stakes and another dual-Guineas winner, Winter, heads a quality O’Brien team for the Coolmore Matron Stakes.

On Sunday Order Of St George is likely to start odds-on to dispense with Dartmouth in the Comer Group-sponsored Leger while O’Brien has another hot favourite for the Goffs National Stakes in Gustav Klimt. He has half the ten Moyglare Stud Stakes runners into the bargain.

Of course similar clean-sweep predictions have been made in the previous three years of ‘Champions Weekend’. Instead O’Brien has ‘only’ won half a dozen of the 15 top-flight prizes in that time, a statistic which helped bed in Irish racing’s big new promotional initiative.

Its success was helped in particular by major international involvement, especially in the featured Champion Stakes.

From The Great Gatsby’s dramatic defeat of Australia in 2014, through Golden Horn’s wayward 2015 victory and on to Almanzor’s eclipse of one of the finest fields ever assembled in this country, the big race narrative has never been less than intriguing.

Maybe presumption will again get a kick in the teeth come 6.45 on Saturday evening. But just when the ‘Champions Weekend’ concept can’t rely on novelty value anymore comes a renewal of the feature event which appears to pale in comparison to what’s gone before.

Just as it is valid to argue that emulating the strength in depth of last year’s contest is all but impossible it is also reasonable to assume plenty of fingers are being kept crossed for no last-minute dramas about Churchill.

The Great Gatsby appears a shadow of his 2014 pomp but along with his stable companion Zhukova and Decorated Knight he is one of only three Group One winners up against the favourite. Churchill’s overall profile gives him an outstanding chance of bridging the six-year gap to the last of O’Brien’s seven previous wins in the race.

Tough race

It’s easy to argue the Matron holds more depth with half a dozen proven top-flight winners lining up. A peak form Winter should win this. However she is dropping back to a mile after a tough race in the Nassau and is already being targeted at November’s Breeders Cup.

The dual-Group One winner Roly Poly in particular is strong Balllydoyle back-up although it’s worth recalling how Qemah started favourite for this last year when almost everything that could go wrong for the French filly did go wrong. She should get her favoured strong pace this time.

Nevertheless, should Saturday’s fare obey the bookmakers’ script odds will contract about a memorable clean sweep, leaving everyone to acknowledge O’Brien’s continued excellence and maybe simultaneously ponder whether such dominance may impact on momentum surrounding the overall ‘Champions Weekend’ project.

In attendance terms last year’s combined tally of almost 24,000 between the two tracks was down on 2015 and that slide is unlikely to be reversed with the maximum 7,000 capacity allowed at the Curragh due to its continuing €70 million redevelopment.

Sunday’s Leger has been robbed of a rematch between Order Of St George and Big Orange due to soft ground conditions. Instead it is Dartmouth and the Jessica Harrington-trained Torcedor who are expected to give Order Of St George most to do.

Considering he failed to overhaul Wicklow Brave at 1-7 a year ago, it’s hard to imagine even the hardest of punting hard-hitters getting too stuck into the 2015 winner. But it’s still hard to be confident about him losing either.

There would be a certain symmetry though if it came down to Gordon Elliott to spoil the O'Brien party. O'Brien's first Group One came in the National Stakes 21 years ago. Elliott is looking for his first with Beckford. And if soft ground hinders Gustav Klimt, it could happen with Pat Smullen on board for the first time.

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor is the racing correspondent of The Irish Times. He also writes the Tipping Point column