09/07/2017 3:46PM

Churchill strongly favored in Irish Champion Stakes

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Churchill was soundly beaten Aug. 23 in the Group 1 International Stakes at York, but even in defeat, he regained some prestige.

Europe’s best 2-year-old of 2016, Churchill won the English 2000 Guineas and Irish 2000 Guineas to begin his 3-year-old campaign, but trudged home a well-beaten fourth in the St. James’s Palace Stakes at Royal Ascot in June. Freshened, Churchill returned in the International and beat everyone in a good field save Ulysses, the early favorite to win the Breeders’ Cup Turf.

Ulysses doesn’t race Saturday at Leopardstown in the Group 1, $1.5 million Irish Champion Stakes, nor does anyone who could give an in-form Churchill a run for his money, and thus Churchill is as short as odds-on with some British bookmakers to give trainer Aidan O’Brien his eighth Irish Champion win. O’Brien, however, hasn’t won the race since So You Think’s victory in 2011.

The 1 1/4-mile Irish Champion is a Breeders’ Cup Challenge Win and You’re In race linked to the BC Turf, and the winner will receive a fees-paid berth plus travel expenses for that race. But Churchill was held out of the Epsom Derby to focus on races between one mile and 1 1/4 miles, and even were he to win, he would be an unlikely participant in the BC Turf.

If Churchill were to come to the U.S. this fall, it likely would be for the BC Mile, for which he is currently priced at about 8-1.

Churchill didn’t threaten Ulysses last out, finishing two lengths behind him, but he did beat St. James’s Palace hero Barney Roy by a neck and Cliffs of Moher by almost five lengths, and a similar performance ought to be sufficient to take the Irish Champion, which came up light this year by its high recent standard.

The only other horse taking betting action is the English 3-year-old Eminent. Beaten more than three lengths by Churchill in the English 2000 Guineas, Eminent finished almost five lengths behind Ulysses in the Group 1 Eclipse Stakes over 1 1/4 miles at Sandown but did lead all the way to win a French Group 2 over 10 furlongs at Deauville last out. Ryan Moore rode Eminent that day, but rides against him on Churchill this time.

The Irish Champion has a scheduled post time of 1:45 p.m. Eastern.

◗ The card’s main supporting feature is the Group 1 Matron Stakes, a one-mile race restricted to fillies and mares that has Winter as a very solid favorite. Also trained by O’Brien, Winter has emerged as the top female middle-distance horse in Europe this summer and brings a four-race win streak – all at the Group 1 level – into Saturday’s race.

Winter had trouble in her 2017 debut but since then has won the English 1000 Guineas, the Irish 1000 Guineas, the Coronation, and the Nassau, all by clear margins.

The Matron is a Breeders’ Cup Win and You’re In race for the BC Filly and Mare Turf, which at nine furlongs this year would be right in Winter’s wheelhouse. The filly also could plausibly target the BC Mile. Her main opposition Saturday could come from Roly Poly and Rhododendron, but if Winter maintains her form, those horses are not touching her.

◗ The card includes a third BC Win and You’re In race, the Group 3 William Towers Watson Champion Stakes for 2-year-olds over one mile, a race linked to the BC Juvenile Turf. O’Brien has three runners here, with Moore set to ride Delano Roosevelt, a winner of his only race. Theobald also appears to be an interesting prospect and is one of two in the race for trainer Jim Bolger.