Since the introduction of the European Pattern in 1971 there has never been a more hectic weekend than that of September 13 and 14 this year. Packed into the schedule were no fewer than 21 races, three in England, ten in Ireland, six in France, and one each in Germany and Sweden. Only six were at Group 3 level, while seven were ranked in Group 2 and eight at the elite Group 1 level. Five per cent of the entire season’s quota of Pattern events were staged over those two days.
The mid-September weekend has traditionally been busy – there were 16 Pattern races at the corresponding period in 2013 – but 2014 was always going to set a record once Ireland settled on these dates for the launch of its autumn festival with a revamped schedule divided between Leopardstown on the Saturday and the Curragh on the Sunday.
The announcement of that innovation was not greeted with universal approval, the news going down particularly badly at Doncaster, where the feeling was that its St Leger day might suffer from the clash.
Personally, I thought that was something of an over-reaction and that what really rankled was simply the fact that Doncaster had no prior knowledge of the Irish plans and had been presented with a fait accompli. My concern was more on the lines of whether this apparent over-egging of the mid-September weekend pudding would result in an overall dip in quality. Would there really be enough high-class performers available at that time to ensure competitive racing of the required standard, or should we expect that the provision of alternatives in most categories would result in the acquisition of cheap prestige by unworthy horses?
The Irish experiment, to my mind, was a resounding success
Looking back at what occurred, I feel sure that I worried unnecessarily. I couldn’t consider many of the 21 races as sub-standard, compared to previous renewals, and was instead inclined to feel that a number of performances stood out as superior to those we were entitled to expect.
Of course, the 238th St Leger was never going to suffer, and it actually delivered the best possible result. When second and third in the Derby finish one-two in the final Classic that’s just how it should be, and full marks to Kingston Hill and Romsdal for confirming the status they had acquired at Epsom three months earlier. Ireland’s St Leger never was, and never can be, any kind of rival to the Doncaster event. We can certainly acknowledge it as a worthy Group 1 contest, but it ceased to qualify as a Classic when older horses were admitted, and it is rarely contested by a three-year-old these days. Unsurprisingly, there were none of the Classic generation in this year’s line-up, but the 2012 and 2013 winners of the ‘real’ St Leger, Encke and Leading Light, were on parade, and it took an enterprising ride by Richard Kingscote on Brown Panther to put them in their place.
Doncaster’s Champagne Stakes, at seven furlongs for juveniles, was a direct competitor for the National Stakes, contested by the same age-group over the same trip at the Curragh, and both attracted small fields. There was nothing unusual about that; the clash has existed in the past, and there were differences in that the Irish race carries Group 1 status and is the nation’s defining event at the distance, whereas the Champagne serves as a Group 2 lead-up to the Dewhurst, England’s traditional championship contest. As it turned out, both were won by hot favourites who had previous Pattern successes, neither Estidhkaar nor Gleneagles scoring with quite the authority that most had expected. The Dewhurst promises to be this year’s defining event for the age group for colts stabled on either side of the Irish Sea.
There was no exact counterpart of Doncaster’s Park Stakes – a Group 2 over seven furlongs for three-year-olds and up – in Ireland or France, which meant that it could and did have an international character. It was won by the Irish-trained Ansgar, helping to underline a feature of the weekend, which was that, whatever was going on at home, Irish horses were keen challengers for rich prizes in both England and France. English horses also featured significantly in both Ireland and France, while only the French preferred to stay at home.
The centrepiece of Ireland’s weekend was the Irish Champion Stakes, moved from a slot seven days earlier in 2013 and now carrying a substantially enhanced purse along with its Group 1 status. Last year the race had been won by The Fugue, with Al Kazeem and Trading Leather chasing her home. That trio, all proven top-level performers beforehand, provided ample proof of quality in that edition of the race. Could the 2014 renewal match that? It more than matched it.
Once the Irish Champion became the nominated target for Australia, hero of the Derbys at Epsom and the Curragh, we had to expect a small field, and most envisaged the son of Galileo and Ouija Board enjoying something like a lap of honour at Leopardstown. The formbook said he had to win and the odds at starting reflected that; with the favourite at 30-100, this was not a race to bet on, just an opportunity to see an outstanding three-year-old confirm his quality.
Who was going to be Australia’s runner-up? Rather obviously, it had to be The Grey Gatsby, who had finished two lengths behind the Ballydoyle colt over a similar distance in York’s Juddmonte International. The Yorkshire-trained colt had not been among the original entries, which meant that his owner had to fork out €75,000 for him to compete, but that always seemed a safe investment; there would be €90,000 for finishing third, €190,000 for filling the readily predictable second place.
In fact, with the help of a typically outstanding ride from Ryan Moore, The Grey Gatsby scooped the €580,000 jackpot, thwarting the favourite, who had no apparent excuse, by a neck. The pair were nearly five lengths in front of Trading Leather, last year’s Irish Derby hero, repeating his third place of 2013. Anti-climax? Not really. Kevin Ryan’s charge was just providing further evidence that he is a much more talented colt than we had given him credit for at the time of his Dante victory. He was, after all, a decisive winner of the Prix du Jockey-Club in the summer.
Something else which stood out during the Leopardstown half of Ireland’s great weekend came just in Group 3 company, but gave more than a hint of glories to come at higher levels. That was the brilliant display by High Chaparral’s son Free Eagle in the Enterprise Stakes. Missing for a year, the colt who had ruled as ante-post Derby favourite last autumn turned a contest into a procession, romping home by seven lengths. If Dermot Weld can keep him sound he will be a leading contender for the Champion Stakes on October 18.
By then the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe will be history, but if we thought that what has become known as ‘Trials Sunday’ would deliver a string of positive clues as to that outcome, we were mistaken. Last year’s impressive winner, Treve, could finish only fourth in the Prix Vermeille, suggesting that a repeat victory was unlikely, and though there were good scores on the day by Ectot in the Prix Niel and Ruler Of The World in the Prix Foy, bookmakers took the view that the winner of the Arc was probably absent on Trials Sunday. Might it actually have been in action at Doncaster, Leopardstown or the Curragh?
My overriding impression from that unprecedented weekend was that there had been no dilution of quality as a result of the extra Pattern events. The Irish experiment, to my mind, was a resounding success, which is not what I expect of England’s equivalent occasion at Newmarket and Ascot this month. It so obviously ought to be a Saturday/Sunday fixture, rather than a Friday/Saturday affair, but I suspect a hidden agenda. When the Newmarket Friday fails – predictably – to attract a substantial crowd, the powers-that-be will want to stage both cards at Ascot.