Alex Hammond: Plinth on a pedestal
Alex Hammond previews the action from Leopardstown on Sunday and fancies Plinth to strike for the Aidan O'Brien team.
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I mentioned this week on Sky Sports News that you never get really testing ground at the Cheltenham Festival.
Well, I'm currently sitting in my 'shoffice' (garden shed/office) and as the rain continues to pour down I hope that rare event doesn't come to be. I think I prefer 'loffice' by the way, (log cabin/office) but I don't make these rules!
So, in five weeks' time the Festival with be upon us, and if you are a serious student of form you can't afford to miss this weekend's action.
"Paul Nicholls is no doubt relieved that Willie Mullins is without a runner here. Not because that makes life easier, but because he can team up with former stable jockey Ruby Walsh, who has got the call up to partner Tidal Bay."
Leopardstown's card on Sunday boasts four Grade One races. The Hennessy is the feature and was won by subsequent Gold Cup runner up Sir Des Champs 12 months ago.
First Lieutenant represents the same owners, Gigginstown House Stud, and the horse is trained by Mouse Morris. He finished runner up to a rejuvenated Bobs Worth in the Lexus last time out and that is very strong form. He was also runner up in the Ryanair at the Festival back in March and rarely runs a bad race. He deserves another big one.
Paul Nicholls is no doubt relieved that Willie Mullins is without a runner here. Not because that makes life easier, but because he can team up with former stable jockey Ruby Walsh, who has got the call up to partner Tidal Bay.
Anyone that watched him win the Lexus Chase in 2012 on this horse will be delighted with that bit of news because he knows this talented old trickster well and that is worth its weight in gold. He ran well, staying on late in the Welsh National last time out and I can't wait to see him in the Grand National at Aintree in April.
Lyreen Legend is an interesting runner for Dessie Hughes. He has only had the seven starts over fences, winning a beginners' chase at Galway in October 2012. He has since been placed in exalted company, including an excellent second in the RSA Chase at last year's Festival. He made an encouraging reappearance this season when finishing mid division in the Lexus and although he needs to find more, he looks progressive.
It's difficult taking on established stars, but he might give them a bit of a fright and I'm giving him the nod.
The Deloitte Novice Hurdle is a fascinating race with Cheltenham in mind. Sky Bet currently can't split The Tullow Tank and Vautour at the top of the race they sponsor at the festival, the Supreme Novices' Hurdle, and they are currently 8/1 joint favourites for that. The Tullow Tank is also a 10/1 shot for the Neptune.
Despite winning, Vautour didn't really impress me last time out at Punchestown. He looks to need a more strongly run race to help him settle and he is inexperienced so that should come in time. The Tullow Tank is a monster and I think he'll win on Sunday.
Philip Fenton's six year old has won all three starts this season including in Grade One company on his last two starts. One of those came here at Leopardstown, a left-handed track, and whilst he looks ok going that way, in the past a right-handed track was thought to have suited him better.
He should overcome that here again, but will he at Cheltenham?
The Dr PJ Moriarty Novice Chase is an interesting race and it's worth noting that Willie Mullins ran Boston Bob in this last year before sending him over for the RSA Chase. Mullins has Ballycasey entered this year. He made a winning debut over fences back in November and hasn't run since but it's going to be hard to look beyond the Mullins representative here.
Don Cossack is the highest rated in the field. Gordon Elliott's charge won the Drinmore last time out beating another of Sunday's entries Carlingford Lough. He will love the ground here and the trip is pretty much perfect. He also promised to make up into a better chaser than hurdler, but I'm slightly concerned that Elliott isn't firing in more winners at the minute.
The other Grade One event is the juvenile hurdle and in his current, or should that be usual form, Willie Mullins looks pretty hard to oppose again. He runs Ivan Grozny who was placed in Group company on the Flat in France before joining his present trainer.
To date, he has run twice over hurdles. On his debut over timber he was beaten by another of Sunday's rivals, Plinth, but he stepped up on his second run to win impressively at Naas last time.
Plinth is an interesting one. Memories of the great Istabraq are conjured up when talking about this horse. Like him, he is trained by Aidan O'Brien and owned by JP McManus and he will be the master of Ballydoyle's first runner in Grade One company over hurdles since his three time Champion Hurdle winner pulled up at the 2002 Festival (it should have been four Champion Hurdles, but he was denied the opportunity when foot and mouth claimed the meeting in 2001). Enough reminiscing!
Sky Bet have Ivan Grozny at 8s for the Triumph at the moment and O'Brien's horse is 12/1 and that gap could be narrowed if Plinth wins this.
So, enjoy what promises to be a superb weekend of racing and if I were to advise you to get involved in any of the antepost markets, it would be to back Plinth for the Triumph as he won't be 12/1 if he wins on Sunday.
Lyreen Legend in the Irish Hennessy @ 5/1 with Sky Bet
The Tullow Tank in the Deloitte Novice Hurdle @ 11/8 with Sky Bet
Ballycasey in the Dr PJ Moriarty Novice Chase
Plinth in the Juvenile Hurdle @ 11/4 with Sky Bet
Plinth in the Triumph Hurdle @ 12/1 with Sky Bet