Welcome return of crowd of 4,000 for Champions Weekend action

St Mark’s Basilica looks poised to deliver a 10th Champion Stakes for O’Brien

St Mark’s Basilica:  tops the world thoroughbred rankings and is favourite to claim the €1m Irish Champion Stakes. at Leopardstown. Photograph:  Bertrand Guay/AFP/via  Getty Images

St Mark’s Basilica: tops the world thoroughbred rankings and is favourite to claim the €1m Irish Champion Stakes. at Leopardstown. Photograph: Bertrand Guay/AFP/via Getty Images

 

The eighth edition of Irish Champions Weekend could see record 10th victories in both of its feature events and yet there’s little or no dispute as to the most significant figure of all being 4,000.

That’s the number of spectators allowed into both Leopardstown on Saturday and the Curragh on Sunday under eased Covid-19 restrictions. It makes for the first significant attendance at an Irish racecourse in over 18 months.

There have been quibbles about how it is less than the 50 per cent capacity allowed under Government guidelines. Capacity at the Dublin track is 18,000 while the revamped Curragh can cater for up to 30,000.

There is an irony too in how combined 2019 attendances of just over 23,000 were used to question whether Irish Champions Weekend was living up to its billing as Irish flat racing’s major shop-window event.

But 18 months after the first lockdown, and two months after full capacity crowds were allowed back in England, this weekend promises a long-awaited return of some vital racecourse atmosphere.

The other notable figure is how just four runners line up for the weekend’s most valuable prize, the Irish Champion Stakes.

That is due off at 2.45pm as part of Saturday’s eight-race Leopardstown card which is staged earlier than planned to avoid a clash with the All-Ireland football final which starts in Croke Park at 5pm.

It is the smallest field in the history of a race which has a €1 million prize-fund, almost a quarter of the money up for grabs over the weekend’s 16 races.

The absence of an overseas runner is also a knock although there is no querying the quality of the ‘Big Three’ lining up.

St Mark’s Basilica is on top of the world thoroughbred rankings alongside Adayar and the leading older horse Mishriff who he beat in resounding fashion in his last start in July’s Eclipse.

Hugely exciting

Along with the Guineas hero Poetic Flare and the Breeders Cup Tarnawa he represents the top three rated horses in Ireland right now.

Even St Mark’s Basilica’s stable companion, the hugely exciting Arc favourite Snowfall, who lines up in Sunday’s Prix Vermeille at Longchamp, is rated inferior on official figures.

So if the lack of quantity is regrettable there is no arguing with the quality.

One costly consequence of the small field is likely to come from the much-heralded World Tote which sees Saturday’s card included for the first time in the Hong Kong Jockey Club’s (HKJC) lucrative pool betting.

Created and hosted by the HKJC since 2018, the benefits of inclusion were reflected at the Epsom Derby in June when the pool grew 15 times to over €30.3 million.

However four to six runners means only place betting for the first two home which will limit appeal to Hong Kong bettors.

The connections of the three major big race contenders though will be familiar to any international audience.

Dermot Weld’s pioneering collection of major world prizes makes the absence of the Champion Stakes on his stellar CV all the more glaring.

It is in notable contrast to his tally in Sunday’s Comer Group Irish St Leger where he will bid for a record-breaking 10th success with Search For A Song.

Tarnawa provided Weld with a breakthrough Breeders Cup victory last year in the Turf and made a hugely impressive return to action at Leopardstown last month.

She drops back to a mile and quarter for this task while Jim Bolger’s Poetic Flare steps up from a mile for the first time in what will be his eighth start of the season. There has been no more durable and consistent colt in recent seasons and should he be able to carry his mile speed over the longer distance Poetic Flare will be a formidable opponent.

Tactical affair

Aidan O’Brien has a 10th Champion Stakes in his sights with a colt who memorably broke the trainer’s duck in the French Derby in June.

However it is the manner of his destruction of Mishriff and Addeybb in the Eclipse that suggests St Mark’s Basilica holds most of the aces.

Mishriff might have needed that race slightly but his subsequent success at York makes the bare form look outstanding.

Ballydoyle’s star had to miss that Juddmonte due to a setback but has reportedly been pleasing O’Brien since. This looks his trip and ground conditions should be ideal. His late pounce-style should also be in his favour given what is shaping into a tactical affair.

Another of O’Brien’s 2021 classic stars, Mother Earth, looks the one to beat in Saturday’s other Group One, the Coolmore Justify Matron Stakes. The 1,000 Guineas winner has proved herself admirably consistent and picked up another top-flight success last time at Deauville.

With a handy inside draw, Mother Earth shapes as having the tactical speed to cope with last year’s winner Champers Elysees and the progressive Pearls Galore.

Joseph O’Brien saddles the outsider, Patrick Sarsfield, in the Champion but could enjoy a fruitful afternoon with good chances appearing to be held by Thunder Moon and Maritime Wings.

It is also interesting that he gives his new recruit Sir Lamorak a first start in a mile and a half Group Three.

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