IF Irish Champions Weekend promised the sun, moon and stars; it managed to align all the constellations for what was a star-studded two days of brilliant racing.
In a bid to get some homework done before the first race at Leopardstown, I headed out onto the racecourse for a brief walk, Ryan Moore emerged from behind walking much faster while Shane Foley and Declan McDonagh were already doing their own pre-race research at the furlong pole.
That set the tone. This was the main stage and no matter who you were, these opportunities are too significant to leave anything to chance.
An hour later, the stage was set and the first big prize was won by Johnny Murtagh, no stranger to Group 1 success as a jockey but as he said himself, “that’s the past”— well now Mr Murtagh is a Group 1 winning trainer after Champers Elysees stormed down the outside under Colin Keane.
Then it was time for the Champion Stakes, the race that was hyped to be the “best flat race in Ireland” where we had the world’s highest rated horse in Ghaiyyath taking on the toughest mare in training called Magical and two seriously talented colts, Sottsass and Japan. Six runners loaded the stalls ... in the end, only two ever mattered.
Magical pressed the British raider from flag fall, keeping him honest while running to near her own maximum pace throughout the race herself. Seamus Heffernan performed a wonderful balancing act — applying enough pressure that Magical would be close to annoy Ghaiyyath but not too much that he would sacrifice his own chance of winning.
As they turned in, William Buick asked his partner for everything and to his credit, Ghaiyyath answered his every call but Magical had more to offer on the day. The Irish Champions Stakes has provided racing fans with wonderful battles in the past and this duel must go down as one of the finest fights of them all. It only takes two horses to make a great hose race and last Saturday was further proof of that.
The O’Brien brothers enjoyed a terrific day on Sunday, Joseph’s Thunder Moon proved himself a top drawer juvenile in the National Stakes while Donnacha trained Shale to beat is brother’s Pretty Gorgeous in the Moyglare Stud Stakes.
However it was somewhat appropriate that Dermot Weld stole the show in more ways than one, having trained Tarnawa to win the Prix Vermeille at Longchamp an hour earlier for HH Aga Khan, Weld watched on from the barren Curragh grandstand as Search For A Song recorded back-to-back successes in the Irish St Leger under a kit-glove ride from Oisin Orr.
The victory was easy for the filly but as the famous Moyglare silks returned triumphant to an empty Curragh winners circle, one couldn’t help but feel a slight tinge of sadness.
Twelve months earlier, as Search For A Song made that same walk back to the number one spot, rain teamed down on the packed Curragh grounds. Despite the elements, the atmosphere was electric.
It was the Cancer Trials Ireland Charity Race Day. The vast majority of those in attendance were there to show their support for Pat Smullen, the man who made it all happen and someone the racing community admired both as a professional and as a person.
Electricity ran through everyone present at the races on the September 15, 2019 — connecting anyone who knew or simply admired the man who proved himself a formidable competitor on and off track. Little did anyone know that, on the very same date in 2020, one of the brightest stars that had shone so vividly in racing would extinguish at the age of 43.
The nine-times Irish Champion flat jockey didn’t allow pancreatic cancer to rule his final years and months. Instead, he faced his opponent head on, raising almost €3 million for Cancer Trials Ireland and setting an exemplary example for anyone in need of inspiration.
Pat was a private family man, something the racing community respected massively and when Search For A Song crossed the line on Sunday in front of an empty Curragh grandstand, you felt there was only one man missing from the photograph. RIP PJS.