DUAL Classic winners Harzand and Minding are among the array of stars set to do battle in what promises to be a pulsating renewal of the Qipco Irish Champion Stakes at Leopardstown.
Harzand provided trainer Dermot Weld with his first triumph in the Investec Derby at Epsom in early June and followed up in the Irish Derby at the Curragh three weeks later.
Aidan O’Brien’s brilliant filly Minding is four from five in Group One events this season, landing the 1000 Guineas and the Oaks along the way, and tackles colts for the first time.
Throw into the mix her King George-winning stable companion Highland Reel, Breeders’ Cup heroine Found, French Derby winner Almanzor, Coral-Eclipse victor Hawkbill and Prince of Wales’s Stakes scorer My Dream Boat and everything points to the Foxrock feature being the race of the season so far.
Harzand has enjoyed a mid-summer break since his second Classic triumph at the Curragh and Weld is anticipating further improvement.
He said: “Harzand has many qualities and I think courage has to be up there at the very top.
“I think he progressed from Epsom to the Irish Derby and I’m of the opinion that he’s progressed again. That’s what I expect him to do.
“I always knew he was a colt with a lot of talent, from early in the spring.
“He won his maiden in Cork by 16 lengths – he just sprinted away – and his work just got better and better.
“Apart from the Irish Champion Stakes, the Prix de l’Arc (de Triomphe) is a target for him.”
Jockey Pat Smullen is similarly hopeful Harzand can raise his game, but admits the drop in distance may not be ideal.
“Harzand has been an unbelievable horse this year, he’s improved with every run and hopefully he’ll continue to do so,” said Smullen.
“The mile and a quarter would have to be a little bit of a concern, but ease in the ground would counteract that.
“He’s by no means a slow horse. When he won his maiden at Leopardstown I thought he was a horse that wanted to go further, but like all good horses do he’s kept surprising me and pleasing me every time I’ve ridden him.
“Minding is head and shoulders above all the other three-year-old fillies. She’s been exceptionally good to win at a mile, a mile and a quarter and a mile and a half.
“She is a stand-out three-year-old filly, but it’s looking like one hell of a race.”
Harzand is assisted by a pacemaker in stablemate Ebediyin.
A shock defeat in the Irish Guineas aside, Minding has been flawless this term, with her Classic strikes followed by comprehensive victories against her elders in the Pretty Polly Stakes at the Curragh and the Nassau Stakes at Goodwood.
O’Brien said: “We’re very happy with her and she’s had a nice bit of time since her last run.
“She’s very well, her work is very good and physically she’s doing very well.
“She has great scope, she can quicken, she travels and relaxes. I suppose her ability to quicken is probably her biggest strength and then her mind on top of that, as she can take racing.
“She can handle all types of ground and all types of tracks. She’s an amazing filly really.
“She’s gone a mile, a mile and a quarter and a mile and a half – she’s done it all and taken it with a very happy smile on her face.”
Highland Reel, Found and Sir Isaac Newton complete the Ballydoyle maestro’s formidable hand as he bids to win this prize for an eighth time.
Following his King George triumph Highland Reel dropped to 10 furlongs in the Juddmonte International and ran a fine race to fill the runner-up spot behind Postponed.
Breeders’ Cup Turf heroine Found has finished second on her last four starts, but O’Brien expects her to strip fitter for her latest run in the Yorkshire Oaks.
“She ran a very good race in York and she’s going to start kicking into gear for the last quarter of the season,” said the trainer.
There are two major contenders from France with Jean-Claude Rouget’s Prix du Jockey Club winner Almanzor joined by the Andre Fabre-trained New Bay.
The last French-trained winner of the Irish Champion Stakes was John Hammond’s Suave Dancer in 1991.
Sylvain Vidal, racing manager for Almanzor’s part-owner Gerard Augustin-Normand, said: “We’re very excited and after the race we will know much more.
“It is a very tough race and there are two other very good horses in there (Harzand and Minding), so we will see.
“Afterwards we will know whether our horse is good or very good.”
New Bay won last year’s French Derby before finishing third in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.
He disappointed on his return to action in the Prix d’Ispahan at Chantilly, but bounced back to win a Group Three at Deauville last month.
Fabre said: “The distance should suit him and we want to try and win another big race with him.
“He won a Group Three in Deauville in good style last time out and since then he has done really well.”
The Clive Cox-trained My Dream Boat was a shock winner of the Prince of Wales’s Stakes at Royal Ascot and finished fifth in the Coral-Eclipse at Sandown on his next and latest appearance.
“He’s taken a massive step forward into Group One company and I was delighted with what he did at Royal Ascot,” said Cox.
“He’s had a nice break, we finished off very well in the autumn last year and I’m very much hoping we can do so this year.
“I’m very pleased they’ve had some rain and he’s been healthy since the Eclipse, which might have just come too soon after Ascot.
“We’ve got an edge back on him now.”
Godolphin’s Hawkbill won the Eclipse, but subsequently disappointed in the Juddmonte International.
“I have been pleased with Hawkbill since his run in the Juddmonte,” trainer Charlie Appleby told the Godolphin website.
“He is a Group One winner against older horses over this trip and hasn’t put a foot wrong in his preparation for this race. In saying that, it is shaping up as one of the stronger races this year, which means he will have to be at his best.
“I am keeping an eye on the forecast and remain hopeful he will get conditions to suit.”
The Grey Gatsby, who won this prize in 2014 for Kevin Ryan, completes the British challenge.
The Godolphin silks are also carried by Jim Bolger’s Moonlight Magic, who was third in the Royal Whip Stakes at the Curragh three weeks ago.
Bolger said: “We were happy with his last run and I’m pretty sure there is some improvement in him from that. There would need to be.
“He’s a horse with a nice bit of ability, I think he’s entitled to run and I’d be very optimistic he’d run very well.”
The 13-strong field also includes Ken Condon’s stable star Success Days, who secured a deserved return to the winner’s enclosure in the Royal Whip.
“Having won the Ballysax and the Derrinstown at Leopardstown last year, he showed he took to the course well,” the trainer told At The Races.
“We’re under no illusions that if he’s going to be a factor in what looks a super renewal, he’s going to have to run 7lb better than he’s ever run before.
“But having said that, his last run was excellent, in my view, and his run in the Tattersalls Gold Cup was a very good run as well.
“He has it in him, hopefully, and it still looks like he’s improving.”