Amid high expectation, it was the French three year old colt Almanzor, who emerged victorious after an epic renewal of the Group 1 Qipco Irish Champion Stakes at Leopardstown this evening.
The Grey Gatsby was taken out leaving a field of twelve horses for an awesome renewal of this race, rightly taking pride of place as the jewel in the crown on Irish Champions Weekend.
At the off it was Success Days who went to the front from Highland Reel, New Bay and Ebediyin.
Success Days took the field along at a good clip from Ebediyin and Highland Reel who matched strides with New Bay and then came Moonlight Magic and Harzand.
As the field turned for home, Success Days still had the lead with Ebediyin under pressure and then came Highland Reel next to the rails. New Bay was making ground in behind, while Moonlight Magic was under pressure out wider – as was the dual Derby winner Harzand. Minding sat further back and behind a wall of horses, while Found and Almanzor were towards the back and Sir Isaac Newton brought up the rear.
Highland Reel swept into the lead early in the straight from New Bay, as Success Days faded, while in behind Moonlight Magic threatened to challenge under pressure and Hawkbill was well placed if good enough. Minding made stealthy progress up the inside rail, but her run was not entirely trouble free.
However, as Highland Reel and New Bay fought out what looked to be the finish, to their outside both Found and Almanzor came with withering runs, shooting clear of their rivals.
Found and Frankie Dettori had first run, but Christophe Soumillon and Almanzor were determined and the French colt stuck his neck out gamely to edge into the lead when it mattered most.
The pair had a fantastic scrap through the final furlong and it was the Prix du Jockey Club Stakes winner Almanzor who got up to beat the Breeders’ Cup Turf winner Found, who was second for the second year running.
Minding was in the ruck and came through for third, but had no answer to the turn of foot the front two possessed, while New Bay had every chance early in the straight and finished an honourable fourth. Just in behind these came My Dream Boat who ran a cracker, and had begun his run on the outside between the two principal characters.
Almanzor was adding further lustre to an amazing year for his trainer Jean-Claude Rouget and was underlining the fact that his French Classic success was no flash in the pan. This race was always earmarked as a major target for the son of Wootton Bassett.
This was also a big success for jockey Christophe Soumillon, who had endured disappointment aboard Cirrus Des Aigles in last year’s race.
The jockey said afterwards: “Listen, it was a great feeling when we passed the line because I knew today was going to be a tough race for all of us. It was a very highly-rated race with a lot of champions and we discussed with the trainer before the race to make sure that the horse was really relaxed to give his big turn of foot at the end of the race.
“We knew how good he was but when you go overseas for the first time with him you never know. But today he was very relaxed and when I asked him to quicken he gave me a great turn of foot and he won really like a champion.
“I think he showed us that he is the best three year old in Europe probably and you probably have to go to the Arc now. I hope in three weeks time he will be in the same shape. He is one of the best horses I have ridden and I think he has a good chance in that race.”
Trainer Jean-Claude Rouget commented: “Before the race it seems unbelievable because there were so many champions at the start. He had never challenged against these horses until today. It is fantastic!
“Every year you hear sometimes you have bad Derbies, even in Epsom, Ireland, everywhere. He looks to improve himself from race to race. In Deauville he was more impressive than in Chantilly and today he was more impressive than in Deauville. So he is a great horse.
“I was delighted to see him behind because the pace was strong in the second part and I like to see the horse relax behind and I was very optimistic in the last turn.
“All depends on how the horse is in the next two weeks before we take the decision (about the Arc). We have La Cressonniere who is a great filly and is unbeaten in seven races and will run in the Arc.”
Reflecting on the race, Aidan O’Brien said of Found and Minding: “They ran very good races. I was delighted with both.
“It was an evenly-run race. Highland Reel sat handy and the fillies sat mid-division and Sir Isaac Newton was towards the back.
“It was a big field and in a competitive race like that you don’t always get a clear run.
“The plan always with Found was to go for the Arc after this and I imagine that will probably be the way with her.
“Minding got a few fairly tough bumps, but that’s the way it is in a big field like that and she ran very well.
“I imagine she might go again. She’s hardy and she’s well. She had a good break coming into this.”
Dual Derby winner Harzand was well-beaten in eighth place and his jockey Pat Smullen looked after Dermot Weld’s star colt in the closing stages.
“When I knew he wasn’t going to win today I looked after him,” he said. “Unfortunately he hadn’t got the pace early to get into the position we wanted to be in.
“At the furlong pole I accepted I wasn’t going to get anything today, so I had to think of the next day. He hasn’t run a bad race and it’s probably the best race I’ve ever ridden in.
“He’ll bounce back and I think back at a mile and a half we’ll see the best of him.
“A furlong down when I realised I wasn’t going to achieve anything today I was thinking of the Arc.”