Back in the Saddle

Back in the Saddle

Monday, September 12, 2016

The Qipco Irish Champion Stakes is going to be a sensational race, the sort of race all fans of the sport love to see and the sort of race Leopardstown more than deserves to stage.

Leopardstown is a fabulous, well-run racecourse that puts a lot of effort into the product it offers all its customers. The team at the track have worked hard to make the Irish Champion better and better - and this year's running looks as good as any that have been staged there before.

I personally favour Harzand to add to his Derby triumphs at Epsom and the Curragh. In both those Classics he showed he is a strong stayer over a mile and a half, which is one of the main reasons I narrowly prefer him over some seriously smart rivals.

The Irish Champion Stakes is not simply a Group 1 for specialist 1m2f performers. You need to stay well at Leopardstown, and you certainly will in this contest, as with 13 runners I can't imagine there won't be a proper gallop. The winner will have to posses plenty of stamina, in the manner of previous winners like Golden Horn, Sea The Stars, Dylan Thomas and High Chaparral, all of which were brilliant over further.

In short, you need a top-class horse who can compete at 1m2f pace but has the reserves for 1m4f. I believe Harzand falls into the bracket as you could have picked him out as the winner of the Derby at any point down the home straight.

There would not be two shrewder individuals in Flat racing than Dermot Weld and Pat Smullen. They clearly both think this is the race for Harzand, on the way to the Arc, and I find it hard to believe both would be wrong. I have been hugely impressed with Harzand this summer and have no doubt he will have improved significantly since June. That should make him tough to beat.

With 13 runners, all of which, apart from Harzad's pacemaker, have a realistic chance of winning, this will not only be a fast-run race but a tactical one as well, particularly as no one likes to be three wide galloping downhill into the Leopardstown straight.

One tactical nuance centres on the Ballydoyle quartet. It looks as though Aidan O'Brien is running all four of his horses on their own merit, which will be a big help to Ryan Moore on Minding as he will know beforehand what two of his big stablemate rivals, Found and Highland Reel, will be doing.

That gives him a significant advantage, one that Seamie Heffernan and Colm O'Donogue will have as well.

I do rate Found and Highland Reel but I would say Minding is Aidan O'Brien's number-one hope, without a doubt.

Found is a super filly, but I reckon she will get better as the year goes on and eventually peak later in the autumn, perhaps back at the Breeders' Cup. Highland Reel is a wonderfully consistent performer but I don't believe he is an absolute champion. He has won a King George this season but on that day Ryan gave him a true champion's ride.

Minding is very good indeed and I could see her chasing home Harzand. My one concern about her prospects tonight is I do wonder how good have been the horses she has been beating.

Don't get me wrong, she has been massively impressive, but in the Oaks she defeated Architecture, who lost her next three races, while Queen's Trust, who then chased her home in the Nassau Stakes, was subsequently beaten even further by Seventh Heaven in the Yorkshire Oaks. It could well be Minding is one of the very best fillies we've seen - and she would need to be to win here - but her short price is not backed up by her bare form.

One other I would give a big chance to is Almanzor. He possesses a potent turn of foot and could be a big danger. Another thing he has in his favour is his age. I wrote about the weight for age scale last week and I would repeat the same basic point here, because it's going to be hard for the older horses to give weight to some top-class younger opponents.

In what should be a magnificent horserace, I tip one of those younger opponents, Harzand, to emerge victorious.

It has to be said this year's Ladbrokes St Leger is not a vintage renewal but any major race has great years and not so great years. This time the organisers of the Leger have just been a bit unlucky.

The St Leger has bounced back from the dead in recent seasons and there have been some extremely good runnings. On paper this is not one of them but time might show Idaho to be an extremely good winner.

I said last week that I wasn't overly looking forward to taking part in the Leger Legends race. After experiencing the race as a returning ex-jockey for the first time I'm already looking forward to taking part in it again.

The whole day was great and started off with a good lunch before racing, which for Joseph O'Brien and myself was a new and extremely welcome experience. During lunch I also got the chance to chat with Lester - and even though I have done that on plenty of occasions I still get nervous when speaking to him. That shows he's a legend.

Going back into the weighing room was lovely. The lads allowed me to change from my old peg but that was one of the few things that had stayed the same. My boots barely fitted me, I needed a larger pair of breeches and I also had to let out my back protector by a couple of inches. It sounds a stupid thing to say but I felt practically obese. What that underlined to me was how little fat I had been carrying in the old days.

Once out on the course one of the first things I noticed was the temperature. It was an extremely hot afternoon and for someone like me, who had never really ridden before when not dehydrated, that made it seem quite unusual. Not unpleasant, obviously, just different.

In the race itself I ended up on the favourite, Bluff Crag, but I'm afraid his backers were left disappointed. In fact, some of them were so disappointed they took to social media to have a real go at me - so it was just like the good old days!

After only a furlong I could see my lad couldn't go any faster and I found myself nearly in last. I wasn't able to get him on the bridle and he only really started to get going when everything else was stopping.

Up front Joseph produced a polish winning ride from the front, although he had clearly forgotten his abacus as he went home with a fine for exceeding the permitted number of whip strokes.

The person who impressed me most was George Duffield, at 69 three times the age of Joseph.

I shall forever be in awe of George. HIs fitness as a pensioner is extraordinary. I was genuinely tired when pulling up but you wouldn't have said that about George. I told him before we went down to the start he looked exactly the same as he had when riding. He also still rides incredibly well. If I had a horse fancied for a nursery next week I wouldn't hesitate to put George on board.

Most of the older fellas that ride in these races tend to sit on their mount for as long as possible before giving a bit of a nudge at the end. George's approach was somewhat different. He was just as as competitive from start to finish as he ever had been. Having said that, he was always mad and completely fearless and he hasn't changed. The amount of respect I have for him is limitless.

It wasn't to be for me but, in a funny way, I'm almost pleased and relieved I didn't win. If I had won I would never have ridden again. I would have felt that this had been the chance to go out on a winner. As I didn't win I can continue. I think I will. I would certainly ride in the Leger Legends again, in no small part because I realised on the day the enormous importance of the money that the event raises. I was also amazed to see how much everyone at Doncaster enjoyed the day.

In the circumstances, the least I can do is to continue trying to squeeze into my boots on the first day of the Leger meeting.