Donn McClean: Five Festival fancies
Donn McClean picks out five horses from the Irish raiding party that could make a big splash at the Cheltenham Festival.
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It is probably unrealistic to expect that Irish trainers will be able to match or surpass last year's collective total of 14 winners for the week. That said, you can be sure that they will give it a go. Here are five horses who may contribute to the tally.
Morning Assembly, RSA Chase, Wednesday
Morning Assembly has a lot of the attributes that you look for in a potential RSA Chase winner. He was a classy hurdler, a novice last season, he has an engine, he is a thorough stayer, and he jumps his fences well.
Winner of the Grade 1 three-mile novices' hurdle at last year's Punchestown Festival, when he had Ballycasey well behind him in third place, Pat Fahy's horse has progressed again this season as a steeplechaser, and there was a lot to like about the manner in which he battled on to get the better of Don Cossack in the Florida Pearl Chase at Punchestown in November.
He was beaten by Carlingford Lough in the Grade 1 Topaz Chase at Leopardstown's Christmas Festival, but they didn't go a great gallop in that race, and it appeared that he was out-paced rather than out-stayed by the Galway Plate winner from the final fence. As well as that, he was running in just his third chase that day, he may have been out-experienced as well as out-paced.
Collateral lines of form tell you that there is not much between the top four Irish contenders for the RSA Chase, and Ballycasey is a worthy favourite, but Morning Assembly may represent better value at respective odds.
Star Neuville, Glenfarclas Chase, Wednesday
Star Neuville has been well-backed for the cross-country chase in recent days, but it still might be worthwhile getting him on side, if you haven't already.
Barry Connell's horse was a good novice chaser, he wasn't beaten far into third place behind Lord Windermere in a good beginners' chase at Leopardstown's Christmas Festival last season, when he had Toner D'Oudairies eight lengths behind him in fifth. Those two horses are now rated in the low 150s, so Star Neuville could just be a well-handicapped horse on a mark of 130. If top weigth Balthazar King stands his ground, he is set to carry just 10st 6lb in Wednesday's race, and that is a lovely racing weight.
More than that, however, he has since joined Enda Bolger, so you can be sure that he will have been well-schooled over banks and cross-country fences, and that the cross-country chase has been on his radar for at least a little while.
A close-up third in the Irish Field Chase last April over Punchestown's cross-country course, he reportedly had a wind operation in the off-season, and he warmed up for Cheltenham by running a really nice race in a decent handicap hurdle at Fairyhouse 10 days ago. That should have put him spot on for next week.
Felix Yonger, JLT Chase, Thursday
It looks like Felix Yonger is emerging as the Willie Mullins number one for the JLT Chase, and that is significant, given the strength in-depth that the champion trainer has among his novice chasers.
Second to Simonsig in the 2012 Neptune Hurdle, Felix Yonger was really impressive in his first two runs over fences this season, beating two top class novice chasers in Defy Logic and Trifolium at Punchestown and Navan respectively. He was beaten by his stable companion The Paparazzi Kid at Limerick over Christmas, and he could only finish second behind the aforementioned Trifolium in the Irish Arkle at Leopardstown in January, but both those runs were on soft ground.
He is a horse who travels and jumps much better on goodish ground than he does on soft, and the likely move back to goodish ground on Thursday could be crucial. He stays two and a half miles well, and we know that he can handle Cheltenham Festival conditions.
Tiger Roll, Triumph Hurdle, Friday
Tiger Roll put up a big performance to finish second to Guitar Pete in the Spring Juvenile Hurdle at Leopardstown last month on just his second run ever, and his first for Gordon Elliott.
That Spring Juvenile Hurdle has been a really good pointer to the Triumph Hurdle in recent times, producing, as it has, Triumph Hurdle winners Countrywide Flame and Our Conor, and Triumph Hurdle runners-up Unaccompanied and Hisaabaat, in the last three years.
Tiger Roll has two lengths to find with Guitar Pete on that run, but Dessie Hughes' horse is a good horse who is progressing with racing, and Tiger Roll might have got even closer to him had he not lost his hind legs a little on landing over the final flight.
Having won his maiden hurdle at Market Rasen for Nigel Hawke on his only previous run, he has significant scope for progression now for Elliott. It is significant, also, that his trainer was unequivocal in nominating the Triumph Hurdle as his intended target immediately after the Leopardstown race.
Last Instalment, Gold Cup, Friday
Last Instalment put up a fairly breath-taking performance to win the Hennessy Gold Cup at Leopardstown last month. He jumped his way to the front after two fences but, although he jumped superbly throughout, it looked like he was about to be swallowed up as his rivals closed in on him on the run to the second last fence.
From that point, however, he just ran away from them again, jumping the final fence like a fresh horse, four lengths clear, and winning by eight.
The factor that makes that performance all the more noteworthy is that all the indications were that he would come on for the run. Trainer Philip Fenton intimated as much beforehand, he was desperately weak in the market, and Bryan Cooper chose to ride First Lieutenant instead.
And it is reasonable to expect that there is improvement forthcoming. That was just the Gigginstown House horse's second run back after a long break and, although he is nine now, he has raced just six times over fences in his life. He could be even better than he has been able to show to date.
He was a top class novice chaser. He was unbeaten in four runs over fences as a novice, and he beat First Lieutenant easily in the Grade 1 Topaz Chase at Leopardstown in December 2012. Actually, using First Lieutenant as a guide, there is very little between Last Instalment and Gold Cup favourite Bobs Worth.
Fast ground would be a worry, but only because of Last Instalment's fragility (his owner says that he has glass legs). It isn't that he doesn't act on good ground - it was not soft when he beat First Lieutenant in that Topaz Chase. He does have to prove that he can act at Cheltenham, but he appears to be as versatile as he is talented, and he could still be an under-rated horse.
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