Free Eagle’s unknown potential sets the pulses racing

Dermot Weld to make a late decision on prospect’s participation in Champion Stakes

Free Eagle under Pat Smullen coasts home to victory in the Group Three KPMG Enterprise Stakes at Leopardstown last month. Photo: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

The two most inexperienced horses due to appear at Ascot's €5 million "Champions Day" bonanza today are trained by Dermot Weld. The scale of the tasks facing both Free Eagle and Forgotten Rules is enormous. And the scale of their potential is that no one will claim surprise if they win.

A total of 15 Irish-trained horses figure among the six races on Britain’s richest race-day, with an Aidan O’Brien quartet that includes an Epsom Derby winner (Ruler Of The World,) the Gold Cup hero Leading Light, and a €6 million filly in Chicquita who happens to also be a proven classic winner.

Throw in a five-strong raiding party with proven credentials for the Sprint and there is sufficient Irish ammunition to make hopes of equalling 2012’s four victories hardly delusional. But on a day designed to showcase flat-racing at its best, it is still unknown potential that will get many pulses racing.

This year

That’s tough on a tried-and-tested champion like the French superstar gelding Cirrus Des Aigles, a QIPCO Champion Stakes winner in 2011, and placed for the last two years, including when runner-up to Frankel in 2012. This is the horse after all that beat Treve in the Ganay earlier this year.

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However despite him lining up alongside Ruler Of The World and Frankel’s brother, Noble Mission, it is Free Eagle that will be the focus of many eyes – if Weld allows him run.

The Curragh trainer and jockey Pat Smullen will walk the track this morning to see if Ascot's heavy ground conditions are in fact too testing for a colt that has run just three times in total and spent three months of the summer standing in his box due to a stress fracture.

Racing’s relish of the ‘next-big-thing’ is such though that Free Eagle’s subsequent spectacular seven-length winning return in a Leopardstown Group Three last month had many pondering what-might-have been and Smullen proclaiming him the best he’s ridden.

Graduating to Group One success against a benchmark runner like Cirrus Des Aigles demands a mammoth performance from a three year old who relishes much quicker ground conditions than will be on offer. Just one Irish horse has won the Champion Stakes in 35 years and that was another superstar in New Approach who wound up his stellar career in the race.

In contrast, Free Eagle has barely got going, but even with so much against him, his reputation is such that all eyes will be on him, before which all eyes will be on his connections.

Bumper win

Forgotten Rules’ bare credentials to be the one to continue Ireland’s 100 per cent record in the Long Distance Cup are even more flimsy. A bumper win last Spring was added to with a Galway festival victory in August but that’s negligible stuff compared to Leading Light and the Queen’s Estimate, the last two Gold Cup winners.

But Smullen is hopeful and said: “His lack of experience might count against him, but we hope he can develop into a high-class stayer and one thing we do know is he won’t mind the ground.”

Chicquita bids to recoup some of her extravagant purchase price in the Fillies & Mares Stakes where last year's winner Seal Of Approval defends her title while the hugely popular pair of Gordon Lord Byron and Maarek will lead Irish attempts to win the Sprint for a third year in a row.

Kingsbarns ran third in last year’s QEII but looks to face a major task this time in a mile feature that includes the likes of Night Of Thunder and the French star Charm Spirit, with the latter, crucially, especially ground versatile.

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor

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