HRI chief executive denies Irish Champions Weekend is on the slide
Crowds down on previous years but Curragh will host a leg in 2018 despite redevelopment
Decorated Knight ridden by Andrea Atzeni became the sixth overseas winner in a row of the Irish Champion Stakes during day one of the Irish Champions Weekend at Leopardstown. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Horse Racing Ireland’s chief executive Brian Kavanagh has rejected any suggestion momentum behind Irish Champions Weekend may have stalled and stressed how important the international element is to the sport’s €4.6 million shop-window event.
Even with a 7,000 capacity limit due to the Curragh’s redevelopment work, Sunday’s Champions Weekend second-leg attracted a crowd of just 5,370.
A 13,689 attendance at Leopardstown on Saturday was down almost a thousand on the previous year and was the second lowest in the four year history of Champions Weekend for the Dublin course.
The overall attendance for the weekend was just over 19,000, a significant drop from 23,805 between the Curragh and Leopardstown in 2016.
The decision not to run Champions Weekend in its entirety at Leopardstown during the Curragh’s €70 million redevelopment has attracted continuous criticism this year but HRI has decided no change will be made to the schedule in 2018.
Brian Kavanagh confirmed next year’s fixture list was approved by the HRI board on Friday and will be published early this week. It will confirm that Leopardstown and the Curragh will race on the Saturday and Sunday again in 2018.
Cemented its place
Kavanagh said the Curragh rebuild was always going to present challenges but insisted the Champions Weekend concept has cemented its place in international racing.
“It’s very, very wrong to use attendances as a sole measure of the merits or otherwise of a meeting,” the HRI boss said on Sunday.
“I think the level of international success, by English horses in particular, is very encouraging, and great for the meeting. It has established itself and has an important place in the race programme.
“Champions Weekend is a template for other race meetings through the year in terms of how we showcase flat racing here internationally,” he added.
Saturday’s crowd figure at Leopardstown slipped slightly on 2016 when the French star Almanzor beat a star-studded field and Kavanagh said: “The Leopardstown race last year was exceptional. It was a good race this year and the best around turned up for it.”
Almost €1.6 million was bet on-course on Saturday, including €803,984 with bookmakers who appeared to enjoy a bonanza with just one favourite, Eziyra, winning and both Group One races falling to outsiders.
Hydrangea sprang a 20-1 surprise in the Coolmore Matron Stakes, beating her stable companion Winter by a head while the 25-1 shot Decorated Knight led home a 1-2-3 for English raiders in the QIPCO Irish Champion Stakes.
The odds-on favourite Churchill could finish only seventh after meeting interference in the straight. Aidan O’Brien has indicated the English Champion Stakes or the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at Ascot next month could be a chance for the dual-Guineas winner to rehabilitate a reputation tarnished by three losses in a row.
“We had been thinking about Ascot before the race so we’ll have to see. It’s still in my mind. It was just one of those things that happen. Sometimes they happen, sometimes they don’t,” O’Brien said on Sunday.
Despite her surprise defeat to Hydrangea, Winter is as low as 12-1 for the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe after O’Brien indicated the four-time Group One winner could step up to a mile and a half for the first time in her career at Chantilly in three weeks.
Versatility in terms of distance also seems to be a virtue for Decorated Knight who became the sixth overseas winner in a row of the Irish Champion Stakes. His trainer Roger Charlton has pointed to the Breeders Cup Mile at Del Mar as a potential final start for his stable star.
“With the way the weather is it is very difficult to make plans. I was thinking Leopardstown would be his last run but the Breeders Cup Mile is something we’re now looking at,” the Englishman said. “That is seven weeks away so it gives us plenty of time and that will probably be his swansong.”
The weather has already ruled out an eagerly anticipated appearance by the former Cheltenham Gold Cup hero Coneygree in Wednesday’s Kerry National at Listowel.
“The ground is going to be very soft. We want it soft but not that soft,” said Sara Bradstock, wife of trainer, Mark Bradstock. “Having galloped him on perfect ground, and the all-weather, the powers that be it wouldn’t be good for his fragile legs to run him over three miles on bottomless ground under topweight.”