International Spotlight: Five BC WAYIs during Irish Champions Festival

September 7th, 2023

This weekend’s Irish Champions Festival features a grand total of five Breeders’ Cup “Win and You’re In” contests. But the two-day extravaganza also has an impact on other marquee events in Europe, from Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (G1) weekend in France Sept. 30-Oct. 1 to Britain’s Champions Day at Ascot Oct. 21. Thus the Irish Champions Festival promises to serve up significant clues, even of longer-range Breeders’ Cup import than the immediate Challenge events.

Anchoring the Saturday action at Leopardstown is the eponymous Irish Champion (G1), a “Win and You’re In” for the Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1). The 1 1/4-mile prize is the latest round in the rivalry between Epsom Derby (G1) winner Auguste Rodin and runner-up King of Steel, whose improvement since Epsom marked him out as the antepost favorite. The top two from last year’s Irish Champion, Luxembourg and Onesto, are back, and Nashwa is another worthy contender in a typically deep renewal.

On the Irish Champion undercard, star filly Tahiyra returns in the one-mile Matron (G1), a Breeders’ Cup Challenge race tied to the Filly & Mare Turf (G1). A Juvenile Turf (G1) spot is up for grabs in the Golden Fleece (aka KPMG Champions Juvenile) (G2), also at a mile.

The festival moves to the Curragh on Sunday, with four Group 1s on tap. Two are “Win and You’re In” events. The Flying Five (G1), as its name implies, offers a berth to the Turf Sprint (G1). Highfield Princess used her ticket from the Flying Five last fall, finishing fourth at Keeneland, and the defending champ will try to punch another ticket here. The Moyglare Stud (G1) serves the same role for the Juvenile Fillies Turf (G1).

Sunday’s most hotly anticipated race, though, is the Vincent O’Brien National (G1), which could have implications for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1). Aidan O’Brien has mentioned that unbeaten Justify colt City of Troy could try dirt. But first, he squares off against another smasher, Bucanero Fuerte, at the Curragh. (The master of Ballydoyle threw a curveball Friday by keeping Henry Longfellow in the National, so stay tuned for possible developments.) The 1 3/4-mile Irish St Leger (G1) marks the long-awaited return of last year’s hero Kyprios, whose career hung in the balance for much of this term.

The ground is expected to be good, with Leopardstown likely to ride a bit quick on Saturday. The weather forecast for both Dublin and Kildare is favorable, until rain chances in the afternoons of their racedays. Here’s an overview of the Irish Champions Festival, in order of the Group races.

Saturday at Leopardstown

BC WAYI Champions Juvenile (G2): Race 2, 9:15 a.m. (ET)

Diego Velazquez, a half-brother to Group 1 warrior Broome and Group 2 scorer Point Lonsdale, is odds-on to give Aidan O’Brien a 10th win in this race. The Frankel colt romped in his seven-furlong debut at the Curragh, while stablemate Capulet, by Justify, won first up at Dundalk. The Paddy Twomey-trained Deepone scored in his first two convincingly, including a maiden here, before being overturned at Tipperary last out. Juddmonte homebred Formal Display is a longshot to consider after his troubled second to Atlantic Coast for Ger Lyons in their mutual debut at the Curragh. Atlantic Coast is one of two for Joseph O’Brien along with Bad Desire, second on heavy going in his lone outing during the Galway Festival. Brother Donnacha sends out Bremen, a full brother to recent Yorkshire Oaks (G1) heroine Warm Heart.

BC WAYI Matron (G1): Race 3, 9:45 a.m. (ET)

Tahiyra has enjoyed a holiday since her heroics in the early part of the season, victories in the Irish 1000 Guineas (G1) and Coronation (G1) at Royal Ascot. Trainer Dermot Weld is happy with the Aga Khan homebred as she resumes in this valuable target, her first start versus elders. Weld has another player in last year’s Irish 1000 Guineas vixen, Homeless Songs. Fourth as the favorite in the 2022 Matron, she has raced once since, just missing versus males in the course-and-distance Heritage S. back on April 8. Both prefer a bit more ease in the ground, but that’s probably a bigger factor for Homeless Songs, since firm was no obstacle last time for Tahiyra.

Also freshened is Meditate, the 2022 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf heroine, who adds blinkers in hopes of finally figuring out how to beat Tahiyra. Aidan O’Brien reports that she’s gained 20 kilograms since her disappointing run in the Prix Jean Prat (G1), a case of going to the well once too often at that stage, and the fast ground helps her cause. Other notables include Leopardstown aficionado Zarinsk, Lanwades Stud (G2) victress Just Beautiful, Duke of Cambridge (G2) upsetter Rogue Millennium, Prosperous Voyage for the red-hot Ralph Beckett yard, and Jim Bolger’s hardy Clever and Cool.

BC WAYI Irish Champion (G1): Race 4, 10:20 a.m. (ET)

Can Auguste Rodin turn the page on his debacle in the King George VI & Queen Elizabeth (G1)? The Deep Impact colt did it before, when rebounding from his 2000 Guineas (G1) flop to win the Derby.

“He’s like a bomb ready to explode at the moment,” Aidan O’Brien said in a interview.

Auguste Rodin should get his preferred quick ground, as well as a pace set-up courtesy of stablemate Point Lonsdale. He’s also proven over the track, having captured last year’s Champions Juvenile.

The question is whether King of Steel has progressed past him. The Roger Varian pupil didn’t have the benefit of a prep when Auguste Rodin ran him down at Epsom, and the big son of Wootton Bassett has been a much more consistent operator. Most recently a valiant third versus elders in the King George, King of Steel is liable to be more effective cutting back to 1 1/4 miles.

Another well-regarded sophomore, Joseph O’Brien’s Al Riffa, comes off a fine second to unbeaten Arc favorite Ace Impact in the Prix Guillaume d’Ornano (G2). Rounding out the three-year-old brigade is Sprewell, who drops back down in trip after losses to Auguste Rodin in the Epsom and Irish Derby (G1).

Of the older horses, multiple Group 1-winning filly Nashwa, brings world-class form off her second to Mostahdaf, edging Paddington, in the Juddmonte International (G1). Last year’s runner-up in the Irish Champion, Onesto, could be sitting on a bigger effort following a sneaky comeback fourth in the Prix Jacques le Marois (G1). The presence of Frankie Dettori, though, will contract his price.

Defending champion Luxembourg should have a better scenario than his fourth in the King George, where he was sapped by chasing the pace. But the Ballydoyle veteran has looked a tad dour on occasion. The Group 1 newcomer is the streaking Alflaila, who will try to add to Shadwell’s spectacular season. Sidelined when on the upswing last fall, the Owen Burrows trainee picked up where he left off by taking the York (G2) to make it four in a row.

Dullingham Park (G2): Race 5, 10:55 a.m. (ET)

Buckaroo, who beat Homeless Songs in the aforementioned Heritage, has run well in defeat in the interim. A close fourth in the Prix d’Ispahan (G1) and third in Royal Ascot’s Wolferton S. going farther, the Joseph O’Brien pupil reverts to arguably his best distance of a mile. Father Aidan’s Victoria Road, last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf winner, has the same angle going for him. The progressive Lord Massusus just bested Ballydoyle’s Age of Kings in the course-and-distance Desmond (G3), while Weld’s admirably consistent Tarawa promises to factor in the exotics. Note that British shipper Flight Plan, who represents the race sponsor, has some useful collateral form.

Paddy Power (aka Kilternan) (G3): Race 6, 11:30 a.m. (ET)

Adelaide River, who forced Auguste Rodin to pull out extra in the Irish Derby and again took runner-up honors in the Grand Prix de Paris (G1), tackles older class horse Al Aasy in this spot. Shadwell’s Al Aasy isn’t the most straightforward customer, but the William Haggas charge has won two straight. He has to concede weight to the sophomores, including Epsom Derby third White Birch and Joseph O’Brien’s up-and-coming Valiant King, who could be the best value. Most recently runner-up to Melbourne Cup (G1) favorite Vauban, Valiant King was previously just denied by St Leger (G1) contender Desert Hero at Royal Ascot.

Sunday at the Curragh

Blandford (G2): Race 2, 9:25 a.m. (ET)

Reigning Blandford champion Above the Curve will go in Sunday’s Prix Vermeille (G1) at Longchamp instead, leaving her Joseph O’Brien stablemates Lumiere Rock and Caroline Street to fly the flag. But they will have to overcome a Ballydoyle quartet in this 1 1/4-mile affair that will likely have a bearing on the Filly & Mare Turf.

Father Aidan’s hopes are Jackie Oh, a full sister to 2018 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf winner Line of Duty, who comes off a new career high in the Rathbride (G3) at Gowran Park; Unless, runner-up versus older males in the course-and-distance Royal Whip (G3) in her latest; Never Ending Story, disappointing of late but second in the French Oaks (G1) earlier this summer; and Red Riding Hood, upset winner of the Snow Fairy Fillies’ S. (G3) last out. 

British shipper Araminta has won two straight, the Height of Fashion S. and Prix Chloe (G3), reinforcing the depth of the sophomore brigade. Older distaffers Trevaunance and Insinuendo, last year’s near-misser, need to recover their best form to cope. 

BC WAYI Flying Five (G1): Race 3, 9:55 a.m. (ET)

The Flying Five shapes up as the rubber match between Highfield Princess and Bradsell, who have traded decisions in two of the season’s marquee dashes. Three-year-old Bradsell beat the older mare in the King’s Stand (G1) at Royal Ascot, booking his free spot in the Breeders’ Cup. In their Nunthorpe rematch, Highfield Princess gained revenge on Bradsell, but they were settling for the minors behind surprising Live in the Dream.

It’s not just a two-horse race, though. Art Power is the definition of a horse-for-the-course, boasting an unbeaten record in his invasions of the Curragh, including the Sapphire (G2) two back. Moss Tucker, third in the Sapphire, came back to land the Phoenix Sprint (G3). French raider Bouttemont adds intrigue for in-form trainer Yann Barberot, who turned a big-race double across France and Germany last Sunday. Johnny Murtagh keeps faith in Ladies Church, adamant there’s a “big one in her” on the right day.

BC WAYI Moyglare Stud (G1): Race 4, 10:25 a.m. (ET)

Ballydoyle’s Ylang Ylang is all the rage to extend her unbeaten mark to three. The Frankel filly stamped herself as one to watch with her debut score over this track and seven-furlong trip, and she added the Silver Flash (G3) in her latest. Porta Fortuna lost her perfect record only when trying colts, finishing second to the exciting Bucanero Fuerte in the Phoenix (G1). The Donnacha O’Brien trainee had started her career with a hat trick culminating in Royal Ascot’s Albany (G3). Vespertilio, the Silver Flash runner-up, has since broken her maiden in the Debutante (G2), and British shipper Fallen Angel was decisive in the Sweet Solera (G3). Red Viburnum, a near-misser in a salty event that has produced smashing Group 3 romper Opera Singer, could be a sleeper for Weld and the race sponsor.

Vincent O’Brien National (G1): Race 5, 11 a.m. (ET)

City of Troy looked potentially special in his course-and-distance maiden victory, but even the most ardent fans couldn’t have foreseen how far he’d run off the screen next time in Newmarket’s Superlative (G2). Aidan O’Brien has said that this was always the plan for the highly-touted colt. Given City of Troy’s pummeling running style, and sire Justify, he would be a more logical Breeders’ Cup Juvenile contender than some others pitched in by connections in the past.

Fellow unbeaten Henry Longfellow, on the other hand, was all along supposed to be bound for the Dewhurst (G1). It would be a surprising turn of events, to say the least, if the two Ballydoyle hotpots clashed at this point. By Dubawi and out of O’Brien celebrity Minding, Henry Longfellow has raced exclusively at this track and trip. He followed up his debut score with a victory in the Aug. 19 Futurity (G2) over Joseph O’Brien’s Islandsinthestream.

Bucanero Fuerte is not one to underestimate, however. Pre-trainer extraordinaire Robson Aguiar, who sourced the colt as a yearling and remains involved in his daily regimen, has paid him lavish compliments as the best he’s been around. Some way below peak fitness when third in the Coventry (G2) at Royal Ascot, he wheeled back to win the Railway (G2) and blossomed ever since, as illustrated in his Phoenix demolition job.

Irish St Leger (G1): Race 6, 11:35 a.m. (ET)

Four-time Group 1 star Kyprios has done well just to make it back to the races at all. A leg infection earlier this year took a serious turn, and it would be almost incredible if the son of Galileo could maintain his winning streak dating back to his perfect 2022 campaign.

“Realistically,” Aidan O’Brien told, “you can’t really win a big championship race like that without having a run.”

Race-fit stablemate Emily Dickinson was previously trading as the favorite in light of her solid results in the staying division, including a score in the Curragh Cup (G2) two back and a second in the Goodwood Cup (G1). But the market is now rallying to Kyprios, perhaps because the ground may not be ideal for Emily Dickinson. While soft-ground aficionado Hamish was not declared, the other key British hope remains: Varian’s 2022 St Leger victor Eldar Eldarov is back to his 1 3/4-mile wheelhouse.