By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman")
As Saturday is a rather slow day for racing in the U.S., with only a trio of grade IIIs and a single grade II on the agenda, the attention of this blog post shall be focused across the waters in Ireland, where a spectacular eight-race card at Leopardstown is highlighted by an terrific renewal of the group I QIPCO Irish Champion Stakes.
Any analysis of the race must begin—and, in all likelihood, end—with the three-year-old sensation Australia. Owned by Coolmore and trained by the masterful Aidan O’Brien, Australia has won five of his six career starts, his only defeating coming in his sophomore debut in the one-mile 2,000 Guineas (Eng-I), in which he finished a narrowly beaten third at a distance that is likely well short of his best. Since that race, Australia is unbeaten in three starts, sweeping to decisive triumphs in the Epsom Derby (Eng-I), Irish Derby (Ire-I), and—after a bit of a mid-summer rest—the Juddmonte International (Eng-I) against a talented group of older horses. This victory, achieved by two lengths, was made all the more impressive by the fact that Australia was not considered to be 100% fit coming off the summer freshening, and the colt is expected to improve considerably off of that performance, which makes the proposition of beating him on Saturday a major challenge for his rivals.
Among the English bookmakers, Australia’s primary challengers are expected to be fellow three-year-old The Grey Gatsby, winner of the Prix du Jockey Club (Fr-I), and the five-year-old Mukhadram, winner of the Coral-Eclipse Stakes (Eng-I). Both are highly talented and capable runners, but both were soundly beaten by Australia in the Juddmonte International, and since Australia should only improve off of that performance, it seems unlikely at best that either of them can turn the tables on the Coolmore star.
But there are a couple of other very capable runners in the race that could potentially make their presence felt. The first is Trading Leather, a four-year-old colt that—up until a surprising fifth-place finish last time out in the group I King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes—had not failed to finish in the top three since October 2012. During that timeframe, Trading Leather won the Irish Derby and placed in numerous other top-level group I events, including last year’s edition of the Irish Champion Stakes. It’s probably a bit of a stretch to believe that he can handle Australia at ten furlongs, but in any case, he is a much better colt than his last race indicates, and he should give a good account of himself at a respectable price.
The other horse to consider is the aging Al Kazeem, a six-year-old veteran of seventeen starts. After finishing fifth in his debut back in October 2010, Al Kazeem proceeded to reel off a streak of eleven consecutive first- or second-place finishes, culminating with a remarkable string of five straight group stakes victories in 2013. Those triumphs included strong renewals of the Tattersalls Gold Cup (Ire-I), the Prince of Wales’s Stakes (Eng-I), and the Coral-Eclipse Stakes (Eng-I). He started to slow down after that, running well but not fantastic in his next three starts, and was retired to stud at the end of the year. But sub-fertility led to Al Kazeem’s return to training earlier this year, and after finishing fourth in his return in a listed stakes at Newbury, he rebounded with a narrow victory in the group III Winter Hill Stakes at Windsor. It’s generally unwise to use final times as indicators of quality in Europe, but Al Kazeem’s clocking of 2:01.62 was a new course record.
So the question is, can Al Kazeem give Australia a challenge in the Irish Champion Stakes? And if not, can Al Kazeem defeat Mukhadram, The Grey Gatsby, and Trading Leather to secure a major share of the purse? At his best, Al Kazeem was clearly superior to Mukhadram, but the passing of a year can change things a great deal, and it’s debatable whether Al Kazeem is anywhere near his peak form of 2013. If you have faith that Al Kazeem will show more spark in his third start off the layoff, he is a logical candidate to hit the board. But since he will have to concede seven pounds to Australia (and The Grey Gatsby as well), it seems unlikely that Al Kazeem will challenge for the top spot, or even the exacta.
So my conclusion, as uncreative as it may be, is that Australia is going to romp to yet another convincing victory, further establishing himself as one of the greats of European racing history. The Grey Gatsby, off his impressive run in the Juddmonte International, appears to be the most likely to round out the exacta. For third, I’ll take a shot with Trading Leather, since Mukhadram is starting to show signs of losing form at the end of a challenging campaign. But to be perfectly honest, the Irish Champion Stakes is one of those races that are thrilling from a sporting perspective, but rather poor as betting races. So I’ll simply be watching the race for the enjoyment of it, cheering for Australia and hoping that Al Kazeem can turn back the clock and put in a good run.
Who do you like this weekend?