Separate the Wood from the trees
Donn McClean previews the Irish challenge on the fourth and final day of the Cheltenham Festival.
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Our Conor has a real chance of getting the Irish off to a winning start by landing the Triumph Hurdle. Unbeaten in three runs over hurdles, the son of Jeremy was most impressive in winning the Spring Juvenile Hurdle on his latest start, beating the best group of juveniles that has been assembled in one place in Ireland this season.
Pacey enough to win over seven furlongs on the flat, there was a lot to like about the manner in which Dessie Hughes' horse ran all the way to the line at Leopardstown, clocking a high-class time and leaving the talented Diakali five lengths behind him. His trainer has hit the bar a couple of times this week so far, but his horses are in tremendous form.
Diakali is not without his chance. A stoutly-bred Aga Khan horse by Sinndar out of a Group 3 winner over a mile and a half, he should be better suited by the extra premium that the Triumph Hurdle places on stamina. Also, it is interesting that JP McManus and Charles O'Brien are allowing Stocktons Wing run in the Triumph instead of in the Fred Winter on Tuesday. Another son of Jeremy, he was two and a half lengths behind Our Conor at Fairyhouse in December, but he improved since then to win a Grade 2 contest back at the County Meath track last month, and he could out-run big odds.
Ted Veale spearheads a strong challenge for the County Hurdle, a race that Irish horses have plundered five times in the last six years. A progressive novice, Tony Martin's horse ran well to finish third behind Abbey Lane in the highly competitive Boylesports Hurdle at Leopardstown in January on his handicap debut off a mark of 130. A mark of 134 is fair for his British handicap debut, he gets to race off just 10st 6lb, and his trainer and rider go into the race high on confidence.
The Noel Meade-trained Il Fenomeno, who finished fifth in the Boylesports race under a aggressive ride in first-time blinkers, could out-perform massive odds if held up for a little longer.
Balleycasey has been on track for the Albert Bartlett Hurdle since he won on heavy ground at Thurles in January on just his second run over hurdles. The Willie Mullins-trained gelding has to step up on the bare form of that run, but he couldn't have won much more easily, he has always been highly-regarded by his all-conquering trainer and, by Presenting, he should be even better on better ground.
Our Vinnie was disappointing when he finished third behind Pont Alexandre in a Grade 2 race at Leopardstown in January on his latest run, but he is better than that. That was over two and a half miles, he is all stamina and he beat Neptune Hurdle runner-up Rule The World in a Grade 3 race at Cork in November. It wouldn't be surprising to se him bounce back now stepped back up in trip for yesterday's World Hurdle winning trainer Charles Byrnes.
Sir Des Champs is the only Irish representative in the Gold Cup now in Bog Warrior's absence, but he looks set to run a massive race. Two for two at the Festival and winner of last year's Jewson Chase, the Gigginstown House horse has progressed with every run this season, and he put up a career-best in winning the Hennessy Gold Cup at Leopardstown last month. He should improve for the return to Cheltenham and for the step up to three miles and two and a half furlongs, and he is a real player.
Salsify is back to try to become the first horse to land back-to-back runnings of the Foxhunter since Double Silk in 1993-94, while Edeymi could be the answer to a tricky Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys' puzzle. A running-on second in last year's Fred Winter Hurdle, he is only 4lb higher today than he was then, and he ran a nice race to finish sixth in a decent handicap hurdle at Leopardstown on Hennessy day.
Alderwood is the sole Irish runner in the Grand Annual, but all looks set for a big run. The Tom Mullins-trained gelding won the County Hurdle last year off a mark of 139 before going on to win a Grade 2 race at Fairyhouse and a Grade 1 race at Punchestown. He hasn't quite scaled those heights over fences yet, but he has been progressing nicely on soft ground, and today's chase mark of 140 is 8lb lower than his hurdles mark.