The Irish Champion Stakes has been a modicum for excellence since its inception in 1976, when the race was inaugurated as the Joe McGrath Memorial Stakes.

Originally run at Leopardstown, the race commemorated Joe McGrath, who had passed away a decade earlier, and was the founder of the Irish Hospitals’ Sweepstake as well as a successful racehorse owner in his own right.

The 1 mile and 2 furlong race was for some time the only Group 1 race open to older horses in Ireland and has often proved a springboard for other major prizes later in the autumn. It has recently enjoyed a huge injection of status and prize money as one of the main focal points of the exciting Irish Champions’ Weekend, which begins in September 2014.

Down the years the race has attracted exceptional talent and its fair share of international contenders, with the very first renewal won by the French colt Malacate, who had won that year’s Irish Derby.  The following year (1977), the race was won by English trainer John Dunlop, thanks to North Stoke.

In 1978 there was finally an Irish trained winner, as Inkerman, recorded the first of 4 consecutive wins in the race for the master trainer of the time, Dr Vincent O’Brien. A year later the 4 year old Fordham took the spoils and in 1980 Gregorian, who had been placed in the Eclipse Stakes and King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes landed the spoils.

The 1981 race saw a vintage renewal as the top class miler King’s Lake, under Pat Eddery, gave Dr O’Brien his four-timer in the race. Denied a clear run in the straight, the 3 year old colt finally burst through impressively to defeat Erin’s Isle, with the Oaks winner Blue Wind and Irish 1,000 Guineas winner Arctique Royale also in a strong field.

In 1982 Dr O’Brien’s son maintained the family stranglehold on the Joe McGrath Memorial as his outstanding 3 year old colt Assert – a dual Derby winner and most recently the winner of the Benson and Hedges Gold Cup, routed his rivals, with Kind Of Hush best of the rest.

There was drama in the 1983 race when Pat Eddery, on the strongly fancied 3 year old colt Salmon Leap, lost his irons. Salmon Leap led into the home straight pressed by the Irish 2,000 Guineas winner Wassl in another top class line-up. However that mighty mare Stanerra, who had already won two Group contests during Royal Ascot week, swept through inside the final furlong under Brian Rouse for a decisive victory.

Sadler’s Wells wins the 1984 Phoenix Champion Stakes from Seattle Song
Image by www.healyracing.ie

Dr O’Brien had trained some impressive winners of the race during its formative years, but as it transferred to Phoenix Park and was renamed the Phoenix Champion Stakes in 1984, he unleashed a colt who would have a huge bearing on racing for the next quarter of a century.

Sadlers Wells had been an unbeaten two year old and had run well when second to his outstanding stable mate El Gran Senor in the 1984 Gladness Stakes. Next time out Sadlers Wells won the Irish 2,000 Guineas, before finishing a fine second to Darshaan in the Prix du Jockey Club. Success followed in the Coral Eclipse Stakes at Sandown Park and the colt with the big white face then finished a close second to Teenoso in a memorable King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes. This tough son of Northern Dancer then put in a rare disappointing effort to finish only fourth in the Benson and Hedges Gold Cup but travelled to Phoenix Park with a reputation as one of the toughest gunslingers around.

The Irish Oaks winner Princess Pati led early on, chased along by Fiery Celt. After half a mile Princess Pati still led but was tracked by Sadlers Wells and the smart filly Desirable. Turning for home Princess Pati had opened up a comfortable lead over Sadlers Wells but with a quarter of a mile to run the colt, under Pat Eddery, had the Oaks winner’s measure and went into the lead. The Budweiser Million winner Tolomeo came with a run along with Sir Henry Cecil’s Adonijah but the last challenge came from the French colt Seattle Song and he and Sadler’s Wells settled down to a terrific last furlong battle. Seattle Song may have been the bigger colt but the bigger heart lay in the street fighter Sadler’s Wells, who found more and forged on again close to home, with Princess Pati back in third. The significance of the Phoenix Champion Stakes as a breeding ground for future stallions was firmly established with Sadler’s Wells, who went on to become the most successful sire of his lifetime and the perfect heir to Northern Dancer’s crown, although curiously he only produced the one winner of this race.

In 1985 the tenth renewal of the race went to Luca Cumani’s 4 year old colt Commanche Run. The previous year’s St Leger winner had struck up a formidable partnership with Lester Piggott and pulled off a surprise when beating that great filly Oh So Sharp in the Benson and Hedges Gold Cup at York. He duly followed up in brilliant style at Phoenix Park.

Jim Bolger added his name to the roll of honour in 1986 when the classy filly Park Express won at Phoenix Park. Her influence on the race and on the fortunes of Jim Bolger, were far from over but we had to be patient.

By 1987 there were few tougher, more popular horses around than the French trained mare Triptych. This brave and consistent campaigner had been battling against the likes of Oh So Sharp, Dancing Brave, Reference Point and Mtoto but by 1987 was starting to rack-up an impressive haul of Group 1 successes and building quite a fan club. Racing with a high head carriage she had already won an Irish 2,000 Guineas and the 1986 Champion Stakes at Newmarket and earlier in 1987 had added the Prix Ganay, Coronation Cup and most recently the Matchmaker International Stakes at York. She travelled to Ireland with high hopes and showed a brilliant turn of foot to pass Dr O’Brien’s Entitled inside the final furlong.

Indian Skimmer landed the 1988 Irish Champion Stakes
Image reproduced with the kind permission of Newmarket Racecourse

Another outstanding race mare landed the Phoenix Champion Stakes in 1988 as the brilliant grey Indian Skimmer demonstrated her best to defeat Shady Heights, Triptych and Persian Heights in a fabulous renewal. Like Triptych before her, the Phoenix Champion Stakes proved a stepping stone to victory in the Champion Stakes at Newmarket.

The year after had another significant winner. Back in 1989, Group 1 success in Germany was not necessarily regarded as a major breakthrough and that year’s Phoenix Champion Stakes proved a major watershed moment for the Michael Jarvis trained Carroll House. The chestnut 4 year old had run well in defeat behind the likes of Indian Skimmer and Nashwan but in Ireland he stepped up a notch, teaming up with jockey Michael Kinane to defeat Citidancer. It proved the perfect preparation for Longchamp and the pair brilliantly landed the Prix De l’Arc de Triomphe a few weeks later.

But Carroll House also signalled the emergence of Michael Kinane as a major force in Group 1 races and proved the first of a record 7 winners of the race for this great jockey. His successes came thanks to: Carroll House (1989), Cezanne (1994), Pilsudski (1997), Giant’s Causeway (2000), High Chaparral (2003), Azamour (2004) and Sea the Stars (2009).

By the time Carroll House was winning, much of the choicest bloodstock bred in Ireland was making an exodus to British stables thanks to the irresistible allure of oil money.

Indian Skimmer had been owned by Sheikh Mohammed when winning in 1988 and in 1990 it was the turn of his brother Sheikh Hamdan Al Maktoum, who saw his Eclipse Stakes winner Elmaamul add the valuable Irish prize.

But as the Maktoum family’s influence was rising, the fortunes of Phoenix Park were floundering and the race was moved back to Leopardstown in time for the 1991 running, which took place as the Irish Champion Stakes for the first time.

The summer of 1991 was very much dominated by two exceptional 3 year old colts who had already met on Irish soil in the Irish Derby. On that occasion the beautiful chestnut colt Generous, successful at Epsom in the Derby, had comprehensively outpointed his brilliant French Derby rival Suave Dancer. By the time of the Irish Champion Stakes, Generous was on a break having added the King George with a fantastic performance. Suave Dancer returned at Leopardstown on something of a recovery mission, his sky high reputation rather dented by the events of the Curragh. However the real Suave Dancer was back on show with a memorable performance, ruthlessly cutting down his rivals in the home straight to defeat Environment Friend and Stagecraft by 4 lengths despite plotting a wide pathway. A few weeks later at Longchamp, that same devastating finishing kick won Suave Dancer the Arc and comprehensive revenge over Generous.

The 1992 renewal hosted another grudge match as the Epsom and Irish Derby winners went head to head once again. Peter Chapple Hyam’s Dr Devious had got the better of the argument at Epsom, beating St Jovite by 2 lengths. However at the Curragh, Jim Bolger’s colt had reversed form with a spectacular display, trouncing his rival by 12 lengths. He was equally impressive in the King George, while Dr Devious disappointed at York in the Juddmonte International. At Leopardstown, the onus was very much on St Jovite to deliver but his redoubtable rival was back to his best and got the better of a terrific scrap to win by a short head, with the pair 9 lengths clear of the rest.

In the early 1990s Muhtarram became a popular and regular competitor in many of the big middle distance contests. However when he lined up for the 1993 Irish Champion Stakes, the headline horse was undoubtedly Sir Michael Stoute’s colt Opera House, who was expected to routinely win this race before making a serious bid for the Arc. Opera House had already won the Coronation Cup, Eclipse Stakes and King George in a brilliant season. However it was Muhtarram who had the superior finish at Leopardstown to deliver a shock.

The following year Muhtarram was back to defend his crown in a stellar field. However Sir Michael Stoute, defeated the previous year with Opera House, was to land the spoils with the Michael Kinane ridden Cezanne, who beat Del Deya, Grand Lodge and Muhtarram. For Cezanne, this was an undoubted highpoint and the horse did not win another race for 4 ½ years. By that time he was very sadly plying his trade in hurdle contests and won a lowly novice hurdle at Huntingdon.

The 1995 Flat season left racing fans spoilt for choice with superstar racehorses. This was the year that delivered Celtic Swing, Pennekamp, Lammtarra, Bahri, Ridgewood Pearl, Singspiel and Spectrum, not to mention the burgeoning talents that would develop into Swain and Pilsudski. However another colt would go on to star billing in 1996 and had already made his mark in 1995. That was the Geoff Wragg colt Pentire, who had already beaten Singspiel in the Sandown Classic Trial before winning at Chester and Goodwood in recognised Derby trials. He missed the Derby but was successful in the King Edward VII Stakes before playing his part in a brilliant fight with Lammtarra in the King George, just going down by ¼ of a length after a protracted battle. Further success followed as he again defeated Singspiel in the Great Voltigeur Stakes at York and Pentire duly beat Freedom Cry in a thrilling Irish Champion Stakes. The following year this brilliant horse won the King George, while Freedom Cry went on to finish ¾ of a length second to Lammtarra in the 1995 Arc.

By 1996, it had been a decade since an Irish trained horse had won the Irish Champion Stakes. The exodus of horses had significantly weakened the home challenge. However John Oxx had a race mare of real quality in Timarida, who proved a prolific winner during 1995, landing the Prix de l’Opera at Longchamp and the EP Taylor Stakes at Woodbine. She took a while to hit form in 1996 but her season turned around when she won a Group 1 race in Munich and she followed up in the Beverly D Stakes in North America. Her glorious return saw her win a memorable renewal as there was an Irish one-two with Timarida defeating the Irish Oaks winner Dance Design, with the smart Dante winner Glory Of Dancer third, ahead of Epsom Derby winner Shaamit.

Pilsudski (seen at Newmarket) won the Irish Champion Stakes in 1997
Image reproduced with the kind permission of Newmarket Racecourse

As Timarida was winning the Irish Champion Stakes, Sir Michael Stoute’s Pilsudski was just starting to deliver the performances that would define him as a magnificent mature Group 1 horse. By the end of 1996 he had won a Group 1 race in Germany and gone on to Breeders’ Cup success over Singspiel. The following year he beat the Derby winner Benny The Dip and that brilliant filly Bosra Sham in the Eclipse Stakes, before running second in an outstanding King George. He returned at Leopardstown and underlined his development with a devastating 4 ½ length demolition of Irish 2,000 Guineas and Derby winner Desert King. Later that season he finished second in the Arc (for the second year running) before winning the Champion Stakes at Newmarket and the Japan Cup to bookmark an outstanding career.

In 1998 another of the class of 1995 made his mark in the Irish Champion Stakes. Swain had been a smart 3 year old colt when trained in France by Andre Fabre. Indeed he had won his first 5 races before running 2 ¾ lengths third in Lammtarra’s Arc de Triomphe. Having transferred to the ever-growing Godolphin stable, the 4 year old won the Coronation Cup in 1996 and defeated Pentire in the Prix Foy. A succession of solid placed efforts in the top grade followed over the next couple of years, but Swain made his mark by also winning back-to-back King Georges at Ascot. In a memorable Irish Champion Stakes in 1998, he mastered the dual (Newmarket) Champion Stakes heroine Alborada by a length with Champion 2 year old Xaar in third and the Juddmonte International winner One So Wonderful further back.

Swain’s first victory for Godolphin signalled the beginning of a golden period for Sheikh Mohammed’s team who would win 4 out of 5 runnings of the Irish Champion Stakes around the turn of the century. In 1999 The magnificent grey 5 year old Daylami was a most brilliant winner. A French 2,000 Guineas winner 2 years earlier when owned by the Aga Khan, Daylami had been purchased by Godolphin and developed into an outstanding middle distance performer. As a 4 year old he won the Tattersalls Gold Cup in Ireland, The Coral Eclipse Stakes in England and the Man O’ War Stakes in North America in a fabulous season. At 5 he seemed better than ever, beating Royal Anthem by ¾ of a length in the Eclipse Stakes before routing his rivals in the King George at Ascot. At that point he appeared nailed on to be England’s leading middle distance horse but then Royal Anthem and Gary Stevens slaughtered their rivals by 9 lengths in a brilliant display in York’s Juddmonte International Stakes. The rematch between the pair was keenly anticipated at Leopardstown, in a contest that also contained the 1998 French and Irish Derby winner Dream Well. However as a contest, the race ceased to be early in the home straight, as Frankie Dettori and Daylami sailed past the tiring Royal Anthem, with Dettori mocking his great rival. The grey horse pulled further and further clear of his toiling rivals, eventually passing the post 9 lengths clear of the filly Dazzling Park.

The new Millennium brought a first victory in the Irish Champion Stakes for another trainer who would make a habit of winning this great race over the coming years. Aidan O’Brien was no relative of the great Dr Vincent O’Brien but was offered the opportunity to train at the master’s great Ballydoyle stables by John Magnier and his Coolmore operation. After a hugely successful few years which had yielded the likes of Desert King, King Of Kings and Second Empire, O’Brien had another top class horse to go to war with in 2000, in the shape of the chestnut colt Giant’s Causeway. Unbeaten at 2 years, the colt had won the Gladness Stakes on his return but then lost his unbeaten record in the 27-runner 2,000 Guineas when second to the brilliant King’s Best. He then disappointed behind Bachir when only second in the Irish 2,000 Guineas. However the best was still to come for Giant’s Causeway. At Royal Ascot he battled tenaciously to beat Valentino by a head, with Bachir well behind in the Group 1 St James’s Palace Stakes. He then stepped up to 10 furlongs and narrowly got the better of a colossal battle with the 4 year old Kalanisi in the Eclipse Stakes. Dropped back to a mile Giant’s Causeway won the Sussex Stakes at Goodwood by a narrow ¾ of a length from the French colt Dansili. Giant’s Causeway earned his fourth consecutive Group 1 when he again somehow got back up to beat Kalanisi by a head in another memorable war in the Juddmonte International Stakes. By now, due to the battling manner of his victories, Giant’s Causeway had earned the name “The Iron Horse”. His fifth Group 1 on the trot would set a new record and came in the Irish Champion Stakes, where he had the comparatively comfortable margin of a ½ length victory over Greek Dance, having seen off the threat of Best Of The Bests. This great horse ended his career with 2 narrow defeats at Ascot and then in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, when his jockey lost his whip late on and he was beaten a matter of inches by dual Classic winner Tiznow.

Giant’s Causeway went to stud a truly great horse who evoked memories of the battling Sadler’s Wells some 16 years earlier.

Fantastic Light beat Galileo in a memorable 2001 Irish Champion Stakes

A year on and Aidan O’Brien arguably had an even greater colt. Galileo became a talking horse in the spring of 2001 and having won his trial went to Epsom a warm order, comprehensively defeating the 2,000 Guineas winner Golan. After a facile success in the Irish Derby, Galileo put in another brilliant effort to beat the top class older horse Fantastic Light by 2 lengths. The rematch came at Leopardstown, where the still unbeaten Galileo was expected to add further victory on what was likely to be his domestic swan song. The pacemaker Ice Dancer led the field into the home straight with a massive lead over Give The Slip, with Fantastic Light just ahead of his great rival. Give The Slip would play an important role in this race, for he started to weaken on the home turn, gifting a gap along the inside rail for his fellow Godolphin stable mate Fantastic Light, while Galileo was forced to corner wide, losing ground. As Ice Dancer faded, Fantastic Light surged into the lead with Galileo giving chase and the pair drew a long way clear of the remainder. Throughout the final quarter of a mile Galileo inched closer and closer to Fantastic Light but the Godolphin horse was not for stopping and had gained a decisive first run advantage on the home turn. Try as he might Galileo could not get upside sand go past and Fantastic Light went on to record a memorable revenge. Both colts went on to Belmont Park for the Breeders’ Cup, with Fantastic Light defeating another O’Brien star, the St Leger winner Milan in the Turf, while Galileo failed to handle the dirt and disappointed in the Classic, before embarking on a stellar stud career.

Godolphin were successful again in 2002 as another great battle with their Coolmore rivals ensued. This time it was Grandera who got the better of the Eclipse Stakes winner Hawk Wing by a short head in another thriller.

2003 saw an epic renewal. Once again Coolmore were heavily involved, with Aidan O’Brien’s 4 year old High Chaparral, the winner of the 2002 Derby, in the line-up against the hugely progressive Falbrav, who had won the Eclipse Stakes and Juddmonte International. But the field also contained the Irish Derby and King George winner Alamshar and the brilliant Yorkshire Oaks winner Islington. Turning for home the pace-setting France led from Godolphin’s smart 4 year old Moon Ballad, with Alamshar next, just ahead of High Chaparral, while Islington was held up in last place. Moon Ballad hit the front on the turn with Alamshar on the inside and High Chaparral moving closer towards the outer. In behind Islington and Falbrav were poised. Moon Ballad, under extreme pressure, took them to the furlong marker where High Chaparral hit the front narrowly but under challenges from Islington to his outside and Alamshar next to the inside rails. Falbrav meanwhile was trapped in a pocket and finished fast once he finally saw daylight, taking the inside rail. However High Chaparral was not stopping and managed to hold off Islington and whilst Falbrav was closing in the final ½ a furlong, the Derby winner always had enough in hand. Islington would go on to win the Breeders’ Cup Fillies’ and Mares’ Turf, while High Chaparral would memorably dead-heat with Johar in the Breeders’ Cup Turf, with Falbrav just a head back in third place. For High Chaparral, it was his second win in the race and the perfect end to an outstanding career.

As Alamshar was finishing his racing career, owner the Aga Khan and trainer John Oxx, were excited about a 2 year old prospect who promised to follow in the footsteps of their Irish Derby winner. Azamour won both starts in 2003, including the Beresford Stakes. He started back in the 2,000 Guineas, running third to Haafhd and then finished a length second to Bachelor Duke in the Irish 2,000 Guineas. At Royal Ascot Azamour was back to his best as he beat Diamond Green to win the St James’s Palace Stakes, his first Group 1 victory of an illustrious career. Azamour was off the track then until the Irish Champion Stakes in September, where the improving 3 year old beat Norse Dancer by ½ a length, in a top class renewal that also included Irish Derby winner Grey Swallow, Arlington Million winner Powerscourt, Champion Stakes winner Rakti and King George winner Doyen.

Azamour disappointed at the end of the 2004 season but really hit his stride in the Group 1 Prince Of Wales’s Stakes at York in June 2005. He followed that up with a brilliant win in the King George, run at Newbury that year, where he again had Norse Dancer behind, as well as Arc winner Bago, dual Coronation Cup winner Warrsan, Doyen, Grey Swallow and Oaks winner Eswarah. At that point Azamour was unquestionably the best horse in Britain or Ireland and looked set for a glorious autumn. He returned to action in the Irish Champion Stakes after a break and faced a fascinating field containing Derby winner Motivator and his Eclipse Stakes conqueror Oratorio. This was a day when Azamour failed to fire and as Motivator hit the front in the home straight, a host of horses queued up in behind, including Grey Swallow and Ace. Azamour had to weave his way between horses but the danger to Motivator came from his old rival Oratorio, who went on inside the final ½ a furlong to beat the Derby winner narrowly with the mare Alexander Goldrun finishing fast and late in third in a close finish.

Oratorio had given Aidan O’Brien his third win in the race and the Ballydoyle trainer unleashed another super star the next year. Dylan Thomas was a huge colt who despite his size, had run a superb race to finish a narrow third to Sir Percy in a driving finish to the Derby. The colt was always likely to improve enormously as he strengthened up and easily disposed of his rivals in the Irish Derby, before disappointing when only fourth to Notnowcato in the Juddmonte International. At Leopardstown he faced Alexander Goldrun, who had been involved in one of the great races when narrowly denied by Ouija Board in the Nassau Stakes at Glorious Goodwood. Ouija Board had been a dual Oaks winner and had also landed the Breeders’ Cup in an illustrious career and Ed Dunlop’s filly was also sent to the Irish Champion Stakes. Ace took the field along with Dylan Thomas in second place ahead of Ouija Board. Leopardstown, a real galloping track, always suited Dylan Thomas and the colt went on early in the home straight, pursued by the magnificent race mare. Ouija Board went past Dylan Thomas but was unable to sprint away and the giant 3 year old colt battled back along the inside rail and inside the final furlong under a vigorous ride from Kieren Fallon, bravely stuck his head back in front.

A year later, Dylan Thomas was better than ever and beat Youmzain by 4 lengths with a devastating performance in the King George at Ascot. After finishing a length second to Authorised at York, Dylan Thomas comfortably disposed of 3 year old stable mate Duke Of Marmalade by 1 ½ lengths to become the only dual winner to date of the Irish Champion Stakes.

New Approach wins the 2008 Irish Champion Stakes from Traffic Guard and Mores Wells
Image by www.healyracing.ie

Duke Of Marmalade had been a colt of real promise who became a major force during 2008, winning 5 consecutive Group 1 races, including the King George and culminating in a victory in the Juddmonte International, where he counted Phoenix Tower and the Derby winner New Approach among his victims. New Approach at that point was having a disappointing season, with the Derby his only victory. An unbeaten juvenile in 2007, Jim Bolger’s colt had won all 5 starts including the Dewhurst Stakes. However in the spring of 2008 he was twice mastered by Henrythenavigator in the English and Irish 2,000 Guineas. The son of Galileo also happened to have Park Express – the 1986 Phoenix Champion Stakes winner, as his mum. He was entered for the Epsom Derby but expected to be withdrawn, when the trainer had a very late change of heart and allowed the chestnut to run. New Approach’s class shone through as he came with a late run to beat Tartan Bearer by ½ a length and turnaround his season. That optimism all seemed to disappear after Newmarket, where Duke Of Marmalade was well on top. New Approach sought redemption in the Irish Champion Stakes and duly won, but the manner of victory left few impressed, as Traffic Guard finished late and only just failed to catch the Derby winner, who held on by a diminishing ½ a length. Despite the disappointments, New Approach ended his career with an absolutely stunning 8 length victory in the Champion Stakes at Newmarket, annihilating a field that contained subsequent dual Champion Stakes winner Twice Over.

Sea the Stars (seen at Epsom) won the 2009 Irish Champion Stakes
Image reproduced with the kind permission of Epsom Downs Racecourse

Leopardstown crowds had been spoilt with some truly memorable races and top class horses since the turn of the century but in 2009 that calibre inched up another notch. The 2009 European Flat season belonged to simply one horse, the peerless Sea The Stars. John Oxx’s charge started off with victory in the 2,000 Guineas at Newmarket and then repelled the Ballydoyle masses – headed by Fame And Glory and Rip Van Winkle, to win the Derby at Epsom. In the Coral Eclipse Stakes at Sandown Park, Sea The Stars again beat Rip Van Winkle, along with future King George winner Conduit. At York Sea The Stars took on 3 Aidan O’Brien rivals, with the Irish 2,000 Guineas and St James’s Palace Stakes winner Mastercraftsman his chief rival. In a tactical race Mastercraftsman pushed on in the York straight and whilst it took a second or two for Sea The Stars’ turbo to kick in, he smoothly moved upsides and past Mastercraftsman with an effortless motion that oozed class. At Leopardstown O’Brien fielded Mastercraftsman again, alongside Fame And Glory who had since won the Irish Derby. But it made no difference as Sea The Stars again laughed at his rivals with a virtuoso performance, hitting the front with a furlong to race and going away from Fame And Glory with perhaps his visually most impressive display to date. It proved the perfect send off and after Sea The Stars had added the Arc de Triomphe with a display that demanded guts, determination and class, his greatness was truly sealed.

In 2010 history was made when Workforce became the first horse ever to win the Epsom Derby having tasted defeat in the Dante Stakes. The horse that beat Workforce at York was the Aidan O’Brien colt Cape Blanco, still unbeaten to that point but destined for an unsuccessful attempt at the French Derby rather than Epsom. Having disappointed at Chantilly, Cape Blanco beat Midas Touch by ½ a length in the Irish Derby but he and Workforce were simply blown away by Harbinger’s extraordinary victory in the King George, in which Cape Blanco finished a respectful 11 lengths second. After a break Cape Blanco was back in action in the Irish Champion Stakes and taking on his older stable mate Rip Van Winkle, who had proved his well being with a win in the Juddmonte International Stakes last time out. Also in the field was the dual Champion Stakes and Eclipse Stakes winner Twice Over and the popular serial Group winner Famous Name. However Cape Blanco showed a devastating turn of foot to slaughter his rivals here, defeating Rip Van Winkle by 5 ½ lengths in the style of a true champion. Having disappointed in the Arc and in Meydan, the following year Cape Blanco secured a hat-trick of Grade 1 victories in North America before injury saw him retired.

The 2011 season saw an exciting new recruit in the Aidan O’Brien stable, in the giant shape of the New Zealand-bred but Australian trained colt So You Think. Back in Australia, So You Think had won back to back Cox Plates and his arrival in Ballydoyle attracted plenty of media interest. After sauntering to a couple of warm-up victories, the 5 year old was beaten ¼ of a length in a controversial finish to the Prince Of Wales’s Stakes by Rewilding, whose jockey received criticism for excessive use of the whip. So You Think went on to Sandown Park and in a thrilling dual, beat the previous year’s Derby winner Workforce by ½ a length in the Eclipse Stakes. He returned in the Irish Champion Stakes where he faced 5 rivals, including the previous year’s Oaks winner Snow Fairy and Irish 2,000 Guineas winner Roderic O’Connor. The latter gave So You Think a lead to about 1 ½ furlongs from home where the big horse swept into the lead but was instantly chased by Snow Fairy. The pair fought out a terrific finish, reminiscent of when Dylan Thomas had beaten Ouija Board, with neither horse giving way. At the line So You Think had 1/2 a length to spare over Snow Fairy, with the gallant Famous Name some way back in third. So You Think then ran fourth to Danedream in the 2011 Arc and was ¾ of a length second to Cirrus Des Aigles as the Champion Stakes was controversially moved to Ascot from Newmarket. Who knows whether the outcome may have been different had the race taken place at its traditional Rowley Mile home, where a galloping horse like So You Think may have appreciated the course a lot more? In 2012 So You Think landed the Tattersalls Gold Cup and he did finally win at Ascot as he landed the Prince Of Wales’s Stakes by 2 ¼ lengths from Carlton House before an injury ended his racing career and he went to stud.

Snow Fairy was back at Leopardstown in 2012 and by that point had become a global superstar. As a 3 year old she had come from relative obscurity and a mile back in the race, to win the Oaks at Epsom, before following up with victory in the Irish equivalent. She ended a brilliant 3 year old career with victory in a Grade 1 contest in Japan and then won the Hong Kong Cup. As a 4 year old, having been defeated by So You Think, Snow Fairy had run 5 ¼ lengths third to Danedream in the Arc and had then finished third in that controversial Champion Stakes before again winning in Japan. As a 5 year old Snow Fairy had an injury hit campaign, only reappearing at Deauville in mid-August, when she dead-heated with Izzi Top in a Group 1. She then travelled to Ireland and took on a great line-up that included the King George and Eclipse Stakes winner Nathaniel and the dual Coronation Cup winner St Nicholas Abbey. But Snow Fairy and Frankie Dettori were in no mood to settle for second this year. Daddy Long Legs set a furious gallop and was followed by Nathaniel, who had a few lengths advantage over his perceived main rivals. With 2 furlongs to race Nathaniel went on but gradually Snow Fairy cut his lead down, while St Nicholas Abbey was unable to quicken with the mare. By the furlong pole Snow Fairy had mown down Nathaniel and had gone into the lead and the 4 year old colt had no more to give. Sadly injury meant that Snow Fairy didn’t race again and the Irish Champion Stakes proved a fitting swan song for a marvellous 3 years. St Nicholas Abbey went on to brilliantly win the Breeders’ Cup Turf a few weeks later and the following June won a third consecutive Coronation Cup at Epsom, before tragically breaking a leg on the gallops.

The Fugue stamped her class on the 2013 renewal
Image reproduced with the kind permission of Sandown Park Racecourse

The 2013 Irish Champion Stakes featured another magnificent older English trained filly. John Gosden’s 4 year old filly The Fugue had proved a classy, if sometimes frustrating performer at Group 1 level. A smart 3 year old, she had finished fourth in the 1,000 Guineas and then placed in the Oaks and Ribblesdale Stakes, before winning the Group 1 Nassau Stakes at Goodwood. A succession of placed efforts ensued, most notably when she had been boxed in before finishing fast to snatch third place at the 2012 Breeders’ Cup. The Fugue had a belated reappearance when third in the Prince Of Wales’s Stakes behind Al Kazeem in June 2013 and was a sick horse when she ran down the field behind the same horse in the Eclipse Stakes. After a break she was back to her brilliant best as she defeated Venus De Milo by an easy 4 lengths in the Yorkshire Oaks. Next stop was Leopardstown, where she would face Al Kazeem, Irish Derby winner Trading Leather, former Dewhurst Stakes winner Parish Hall and the former top class unbeaten juvenile Kingsbarns, who had been injured and was making his seasonal debut. It didn’t take long before Kingsbarns lost his action and was virtually pulled up. Meanwhile up front, Trading Leather led the field into the straight from his old rival Al Kazeem (they had met in the Eclipse and at York), but with a furlong to race, the 3 year old colt began to tread water as Al Kazeem and to his outside The Fugue, joined issue. Inside the final furlong The Fugue and William Buick asserted and Al Kazeem could give no more, yielding to a 1 ¼ length defeat by a top class filly. A few weeks later The Fugue was narrowly beaten in the Breeders’ Cup Turf by Magician and was again a close second in Hong Kong at the end of the year. She returned in 2014 and was quite brilliant as she gained revenge on Magician in the Prince Of Wales’s Stakes, with the Arc winner Treve and Eclipse winner Mukhadraam further behind.

The Grey Gatsby wins the 2014 Irish Champion Stakes from Australia
Image by irishchampionsweekend.ie

2014 produced another thrilling race between two top class 3 year olds. Turning into the home straight, The Derby winner Australia came wide but swept into the lead. In the final furlong however, The Grey Gatsby, himself a French Derby winner, began to eat into his rival’s lead. In a desperately tight finish, The Kevin Ryan trained grey inched into the lead right on the line, for a famous victory.

Golden Horn lands the 2015 Irish Champion Stakes
Image reproduced with the kind permission of Leopardstown Racecourse

A year later and another Epsom Derby hero came to Leopardstown in the form of Golden Horn, in a top class renewal. John Gosden’s superstar had lost his unbeaten record to Arabian Queen at York, and faced a strong challenge from the likes of Cirrus Des Aigles, Free Eagle, Highland Reel, Pleascach, The Grey Gatsby and Found.

In a thrilling but controversial finish, Golden Horn appeared to bump Free Eagle and the latter lost vital momentum, with Golden Horn just holding off the late challenge of Found, to win his third Group 1.

Found went on to beat Golden Horn in the Breeders’ Cup Turf, while Golden Horn of course was at his brilliant best to win the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe the following month.

Almanzor beats Found in the Irish Champion Stakes
Image by @Scandiracing

In 2016 Leopardstown arguably attracted the strongest field assembled anywhere in the world for a middle distance championship race that year.

A galaxy of stars lined-up in a field of twelve, including the dual Classic winner Minding, Derby winner Harzand, King George VI winner Highland Reel, the Eclipse Stakes winner Hawkbill, former Prix du Jockey Club winner New Bay, Breeders’ Cup winner Found, Princess Of Wales’s Stakes winner My Dream Boat and the latest winner of the Prix du Jockey Club winner Almanzor.

In a thrilling race it was Almanzor who swept down the outside under Christophe Soumillon, to stake his claim as the leading middle distance turf horse in the world, with a brilliant performance to beat subsequent Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe winner Found, with Minding third.

Decorated Knight beats Poet’s Word and Eminent in the Irish Champion Stakes
Image by www.healyracing.ie

Following that was always going to be a tough task, but in 2017 it was another international raider who succeeded, as the Roger Charlton trained Decorated Knight, beat subsequent King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes winner Poet’s Word.

Roaring Lion
Image reproduced with the kind permission of Newmarket Racecourse

The summer of 2018 saw a memorable rivalry develop between two top class three year-olds, who duelled on many occasions, the last being in the Irish Champion Stakes.

The early advantage was very much with the Aidan O’Brien trained Saxon Warrior, who had defeated Roaring Lion when the two met as juveniles, in the Racing Post Trophy.

The following spring, Saxon Warrior was again on top when landing the Qipco 2,000 Guineas. However, John Gosden was patient and Roaring Lion was just getting going and after winning the Dante Stakes at York, finished ahead of Saxon Warrior, when third to Masar, in the Investec Derby.

The two horses met again and fought out a titanic struggle for the Coral Eclipse Stakes at Sandown Park, with Roaring Lion making the score two-two in a tight finish.

At York, Roaring Lion’s improvement was apparent as he romped home clear in the Juddmonte International Stakes.

The sixth and finish meeting between the pair came at Leopardstown in the Qipco Irish Champion Stakes.

Once again there was a protracted battle up the home straight, with neither horse giving an inch.

The two flashed past the post together and it was the flying grey, Roaring Lion, under Oisin Murphy, who just prevailed. Saxon Warrior picked up an injury which ended his career, while Roaring Lion went on to add another Group One success in the Queen Elizabeth IInd Stakes over a mile.

The Irish Champion Stakes has a rich history and in 2009 became part of the Breeders’ Cup Challenge series, with the winning gaining automatic entry to the Breeders’ Cup Turf. The race now forms the Saturday highlight of the Irish Champions’ Weekend and with the winner earning more than a million euros, it is sure to continue to attract the best horses which in turn will further enhance its excellent reputation.

Irish Champion Stakes Past Winners

Year Winner Age
1976 Malacate 3
1977 North Stoke 3
1978 Inkerman 3
1979 Fordham 4
1980 Gregorian 4
1981 Kings Lake 3
1982 Assert 3
1983 Stanerra 5
1984 Sadler’s Wells 3
1985 Commanche Run 4
1986 Park Express 3
1987 Triptych 5
1988 Indian Skimmer 4
1989 Carroll House 4
1990 Elmaamul 3
1991 Suave Dancer 3
1992 Dr Devious 3
1993 Muhtarram 4
1994 Cézanne 5
1995 Pentire 3
1996 Timarida 4
1997 Pilsudski 5
1998 Swain 6
1999 Daylami 5
2000 Giant’s Causeway 3
2001 Fantastic Light 5
2002 Grandera 4
2003 High Chaparral 4
2004 Azamour 3
2005 Oratorio 3
2006 Dylan Thomas 3
2007 Dylan Thomas 4
2008 New Approach 3
2009 Sea the Stars 3
2010 Cape Blanco 3
2011 So You Think 5
2012 Snow Fairy 5
2013 The Fugue 4
2014 The Grey Gatsby 3
2015 Golden Horn 3
2016 Almanzor 3
2017 Decorated Knight 5
2018 Roaring Lion 3