Donn McClean: Believe in Legend
Our Irish expert Donn McClean looks forward to the Hennessy Gold Cup and a fine supporting card at Leopardstown on Sunday.
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At least Tidal Bay is here now, and that's good. There hasn't been a British runner in Leopardstown's Hennessy Gold Cup since 2011, when The Listener finished seventh and Money Trix was pulled up behind Kempes.
Not that it's relevant but, strange coincidence: all of the recent raiders have been grey. The Listener, Money Trix, Neptune Collonges, Turko, all grey. Tidal Bay is the first bay raider since 2005. He is well-named.
It is a big ask for a 13-year-old to go and win a Hennessy Gold Cup, but Tidal Bay is no ordinary 13-year-old. It is seven years since he got beaten a neck in what we now call the Neptune Hurdle (probably called the Aldsworth Hurdle back then) and six years since he won the Arkle. Since then, he has moved stable and moved on, won a Bet365 Gold Cup, won a Lexus Chase, won a couple of West Yorkshire Hurdles and finished second in a Hennessy at Newbury, giving 6lb to the winner, who won the Gold Cup on his next run.
Yet remarkably, according to some ratings scales, the best run of his life was his most recent run in the Welsh National, the 41st of his career, when he was four days shy of his 13th birthday. He lugged 11st 12lb around for three miles and five furlongs at Chepstow on heavy ground that day, carrying 26lb more than both Mountainous and Hawkes Point, and he failed by just three parts of a length to beat them, with the three of them clear. It was an outstanding performance.
You have to think that Ruby Walsh's availability for the Hennessy - brought about by the scratching of Rubi Ball (no relation) - was influential in Paul Nicholls' decision to allow Tidal Bay take his chance in the race. That and the fact that, by that stage, he already had Al Ferof pencilled in for the Denman Chase at Newbury.
Beef Or Salmon won the Hennessy as an 11-year-old, Florida Pearl won it as a 12-year-old, so why not Tidal Bay as a 13-year-old? He won the Lexus Chase just over a year ago over Sunday's course and distance, threading the needle between First Lieutenant and Flemenstar to get up and win by a head in a thriller under an inspired Ruby Walsh.
He needed every yard of that race, and he is going to need an extreme test on Sunday over three miles. He may get that, the ground should be testing and Roi Du Mee may bowl along merrily in front and set a decent tempo, but you just feel that Tidal Bay needs more rain. Leopardstown is a quick-draining track, the chase course is already just soft now, changed from soft to heavy, and soft may not be soft enough for Tidal Bay.
They are expecting 10-15mm of rain on Friday evening at Leopardstown, but not much more thereafter, and it was sunny and windy there earlier on Friday. The course was drying out all through Thursday too. Leopardstown only really rides heavy when it rains heavily overnight or on race day, and conditions may not be as soft on Sunday as many are predicting. If there was significant rain on Saturday night into Sunday morning, Tidal Bay would become interesting, but he may need that late significant rain.
The Gigginstown House horse First Lieutenant deserves to win a Hennessy or a Lexus. Surprisingly, the Mouse Morris-trained gelding has never won over fences at Leopardstown: second in the 2011 Fort Leney Chase, second in last season's Lexus, second in this season's Lexus.
The Presenting gelding's usual trick is to go straight to Cheltenham from Leopardstown at Christmas, and it is a trick that has worked well in the past (won a Neptune Hurdle, second in an RSA Chase, second in a Ryanair Chase), so it is significant that he is taking his chance on Sunday. He is the correct favourite, but he is short at around 2/1, and he may be vulnerable on testing ground.
Lyreen Legend represents better value at around 5/1 or 6/1. Dessie Hughes' horse has plenty to find on the book - he is rated a stone inferior to Tidal Bay and 13lb inferior to First Lieutenant - but he is a young staying chaser who still has plenty of scope to progress.
Lord Windermere beat him by a length and a half in the RSA Chase last March, but Lyreen Legend had endured an interrupted preparation for that race, and he probably did really well to finish second. Indeed, his trainer said that he never really had a clear run with him for the entire of last season.
This season, different story. Plain sailing. He ran a nice race in the Lexus Chase on his seasonal debut, he was right there at the second last fence before lack of a recent run probably took its toll, and he should progress for that run. His trainer says that he has had a clear run with him since the Lexus.
While some old-timers have won the Hennessy in the past, the last five renewals have gone to a horse aged either seven or eight. Lyreen Legend is the only seven-year-old in the race (and there are only two eight-year-olds), he is the youngest and least-experienced horse in the race, and he is consequently the one with the most potential for progression. He goes well on soft ground, he stays well and, with regular rider Bryan Cooper now committed to First Lieutenant, the booking of Barry Geraghty is a bonus.
It is a pity that Champagne Fever is out of the Dr PJ Moriarty Chase, and that it has cut up to be a three-horse race, but at least three of the right horses have stood their ground.
Ballycasey is an intriguing deputy for Champagne Fever. Always highly-regarded as a staying novice hurdler last season - he would have been nearly favourite for the Albert Bartlett had he made it to Cheltenham - he looked good in winning his beginners' chase at Navan in November on his only run to date over fences. He jumped really well that day for a debutant, and the fact that he was able to beat two good horses in Mount Colah and Ned Buntline (both winners since) over an inadequate extended two miles was impressive.
The worry with Willie Mullins' horse is that he has been off the track since then. He is a really exciting staying chaser in the making, but it is mildly surprising that he has been installed as favourite for Sunday's race ahead of two Grade One winners.
Don Cossack and Carlingford Lough set a really high standard, but they also set conflicting lines of form. When the pair of them met in the Drinmore Chase at Fairyhouse last December, Don Cossack emerged on top, battling on well to beat JP McManus' horse by two lengths. However, Don Cossack himself had been beaten by Pat Fahy's horse Morning Assembly in the Florida Pearl Chase on his previous run, and Carlingford Lough beat Morning Assembly in the Topaz Chase at Leopardstown over Christmas.
Carlingford Lough is top class, a Galway Plate winner, a Grade One winner, but Don Cossack is also top class, and he is the one with the greater potential to progress further. Over two miles and five furlongs rather than three miles, he may be the one, but this is a race for watching and savouring with an eye on the future rather than one in which to get financially involved.
As with Ballycasey in the Dr PJ Moriarty, we should learn a lot more about Vautour when he runs in a cracking Deloitte Hurdle earlier in the day.
Winner of both his hurdle races since joining Willie Mullins, Vautour is going to have to progress from his narrow defeat of Western Boy at Punchestown last month if he is to beat the Philip Fenton-trained The Tullow Tank.
Barry Connell's horse, a second-season novice, is now three for three over hurdles this season and a dual Grade One winner. There is a suspicion that he has a preference for going right-handed, but he won the Paddy Power Future Champions Novice Hurdle at (left-handed) Leopardstown over Christmas by eight lengths, and that augurs well for Sunday.
A horse who finds plenty for pressure, the step up from two miles to two and a quarter miles on Sunday should suit him well, he goes well on soft ground, and he is a worthy favourite.
Outside of the big two, Quickpick Vic could out-perform odds of around 8/1. Tony Martin's horse is only a maiden winner, but he was most impressive in winning that maiden at Leopardstown two weeks ago, making all and beating a useful horse of Dermot Weld's by an easy 10 lengths. Significantly, he clocked a time that was 1.7secs faster than the time that Hurricane Fly recorded in winning an admittedly slowly-run Irish Champion Hurdle run over the same course and distance later on the day.
The Spring Juvenile Hurdle - the race that Our Conor won last year as a prelude to his Triumph Hurdle lap of honour - sees Ivan Grozny and Plinth go at it again. Plinth came out on top when they met last over Sunday's course and distance at Christmas, despite making a fairly bad mistake at the final flight, but Willie Mullins' horse was most impressive in winning at Naas in the interim.
The Aidan O'Brien-trained Plinth probably wouldn't want the ground to be too soft, but the ground was not fast at Christmas, and it is a little surprising that there is as much between the pair of them in the betting as there is. Rated 93 on the flat, Plinth should have come on for that Leopardstown win, his first run over hurdles, and there may not be much between the pair of them again.
The Spring Juvenile Hurdle is the first race on a cracking day. Best to get there early.
• For more of Donn's thoughts, visit www.donnmcclean.com.