There may be only be four runners in the Irish Champion Stakes at Leopardstown – but the race still looks set to live up to expectations, with three multiple Group One winners taking each other on.
They are headed by Aidan O’Brien’s St Mark’s Basilica, an unexpected winner of the Dewhurst last season but arguably the leading three-year-old colt in Europe this term.
He has won the French Guineas and Derby, and then put elder rivals Mishriff and Addeybb to the sword in the Eclipse – form which was franked when John and Thady Gosden’s brilliant four-year-old dotted up in the Juddmonte International at York.
St Mark’s Basilica missed his own intended trip to the Knavesmire with an untimely leg infection, but he is now over that ailment – and all roads have led to Leopardstown since.
“The plan was always to go to the French Guineas, and from there to the French Derby,” said O’Brien.
“After that we felt the Eclipse would be a lovely race for him to meet the older horses in, over a mile and a quarter.
“Everything went as we planned all the way really (before the Juddmonte International).
“He’s very offhanded and very straightforward. He has a great mind, he relaxes, he has a great stride and is very genuine – he has all the things that you would love in a horse.”
O’Brien is looking for his 10th win in Saturday’s race, which nearly all of his champions have on their CV – with Giant’s Causeway, High Chaparral and dual winners Dylan Thomas and Magical on the roll of honour.
“The Irish Champion Stakes is a great race every year,” he said.
“For older horses having an autumn campaign, it’s the tops really. It has come out as the top-rated race in the world on some occasions.”
According to the betting, St Mark’s Basilica’s chief rival is Dermot Weld’s mare Tarnawa, who arrives on a five-race winning streak which includes two French Group Ones and a victory at the Breeders’ Cup.
The five-year-old made a successful return to action in Leopardstown’s Ballyroan Stakes in early August – and champion jockey Colin Keane, who got the ride only by chance after Christophe Soumillon tested positive for Covid-19 in America, is excited for her latest assignment.
“To get on her was a case of being in the right place at the right time,” he said.
“I was fortunate to keep the ride on her, and we’re very much looking forward to the weekend.
“Christophe (Soumillon) failed a Covid test and couldn’t ride her (at the Breeders’ Cup). I got a phone call from Mr Weld asking would I ride her, and I didn’t have to think about it for too long. The rest is history.
“She was good (in the Ballyroan). I think they left her off for longer by design, very much thinking of a backend campaign with her.
“She came back much stronger physically this year. We thought going to Leopardstown she was about 70 per cent, and there was plenty to work on, so to put up the performance she did I thought was very impressive.”
Although Tarnawa’s best form has been over a mile and a half, she did win the Prix de l’Opera over 10 furlongs last autumn.
Keane added: “We’re dropping back two furlongs at the weekend, but she’s proven herself over that trip as well.
“It’s a very good renewal of the race – you’re taking on two of the best three-year-olds in Ireland, if not Europe.
“It’s not going to be easy, but I don’t think I’d swap her for anything.”
The second three-year-old Keane refers to is Jim Bolger’s Poetic Flare, winner of the 2000 Guineas and St James’s Palace Stakes who has also claimed second in the Irish Guineas, Sussex Stakes and Prix Jacques le Marois.
The select field is completed by Joseph O’Brien’s outsider Patrick Sarsfield.