It's been a quiet week for Irish racing, on the track at least, but Donn McClean casts an eye over the Cheltenham markets before Naas' Wednesday card could have an effect.
There wasn’t a lot going on, National Hunt-speaking, in Ireland last week, with Clonmel, Fairyhouse and Naas all falling to the elements. All three meetings are set to be re-staged, which is good news: Fairyhouse on Tuesday, Naas on Wednesday, Clonmel next Tuesday.
The Grade 1 Lawlor’s Of Naas Novices’ Hurdle at Naas on Wednesday is set to be a high-class and hugely informative contest. It often is, and it is often a good pointer to the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival.
Envoi Allen won the race last year, and he went on to win the Ballymore Hurdle at Cheltenham in March, and everything else. Battleoverdoyen won the Lawlor’s Of Naas Hurdle in 2019, and he was sent off as favourite for the Ballymore before a poor trip scuppered his chance. Next Destination won the Naas race in 2018, and he finished third behind Samcro in the Ballymore Hurdle next time. Rule The World won it in 2013 when it was the Grade 2 Slaney Hurdle, and Mouse Morris’ horse finished second to The New One in the Ballymore Hurdle next time (before, famously, winning the Grand National three years later).
This year’s renewal looks like a strong one, and the Ballymore Hurdle odds trims have started already in anticipation: Bob Olinger has been nicked in to 8/1 in places, Blue Lord is now 16/1 and 20/1, not 20/1 and 25/1.
Bob Olinger has always been a highly-regarded individual. An impressive winner of his point-to-point for Pat Doyle in November last year, he made all on his first run for Henry de Bromhead and Robcour to easily land a point-to-point bumper at Gowran Park in March, a race that his trainer had won the previous year with Minella Melody, and which had been won by Yorkhill and First Lieutenant in the past.
He bumped into the top-class and sadly currently sidelined Ferny Hollow on his hurdling bow back at Gowran Park in November, and it was a really good tussle between the pair of them, Henry de Bromhead’s horse going down by just a length in the end with the pair of them miles clear. There was no Ferny Hollow to worry about last time at Navan and, sent off at prohibitive odds, he duly sauntered in.
The Ballymore Hurdle is looking like a fairly open contest at present, Bravemansgame’s impressive Challow Hurdle win notwithstanding and, if Bob Olinger happened to win the Lawlor’s Of Naas Hurdle impressively, his ante post odds would probably tumble.
It is a similar story with Blue Lord. He could be a lot shorter for the Ballymore Hurdle on Wednesday evening than he will be on Wednesday morning. A winner over two miles on the flat in France, the Blue Bresil gelding only got home by a half a length in a Punchestown maiden hurdle on his first run for Willie Mullins, but it was a good race, and he won with more in hand than that.
He travelled well through his race that day, and his jumping was good for a debutant. It looked like Julies Stowaway and Hamundarson got away from him a little as they rounded the home turn, but he picked up nicely on the run to the final flight, jumped that obstacle upsides the leaders and kept on nicely up the run-in to get home by that half a length from Julies Stowaway – who beat Delvino and Ballyadam in a bumper at Navan last February, and who is favourite for a maiden hurdle at Fairyhouse this afternoon – with the pair of them pulling nicely clear of Hamundarson.
It was interesting that rider Paul Townend said afterwards that the penny only started to drop with him on the run to the second last flight. He could improve considerably for that experience. Also, from the family of Grand National runner-up Mely Moss, there could be further improvement to come for the step up to two and a half miles.
The Ballymore picture relative to Blue Lord is complicated a little by the fact that his trainer also has other possible runners. Like Gaillard Du Mesnil, who was impressive in winning his maiden hurdle at Leopardstown over Christmas and who has been well backed for the Ballymore in the last week, and Appreciate It (who appears to be bound for the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at present, but we know that these plans are often in a continual state of flux), and others. But Blue Lord and Gaillard Du Mesnil are owned by different people, and Willie Mullins is rarely averse to having multiple chances in the Grade 1 races if they are all worthy of inclusion. He ran four in the Ballymore Hurdle in 2018.
The winners’ novices’ chase at Naas is also fascinating, another contest that could have a significant influence on the Cheltenham Festival markets. There are only four runners, but that doesn’t diminish the interest.
Energumene won his bumper last January, and he won his maiden hurdle last March, but he cut loose on his chasing bow at Gowran Park on his seasonal return in November, on the day on which Bob Olinger finished second to Ferby Hollow in the maiden hurdle, pulverising his rivals and winning by 18 lengths. Also, he clocked a time that was almost eight seconds faster than the time that his stable companion, the 153-rated Annamix, clocked in winning the conditions chase a half an hour earlier, carrying 7lb less.
It is not wholly surprising that Paul Townend has chosen to ride Energumene in front of his stable companion Blackbow, but Blackbow is still a contender. A high-class bumper horse, winner of the Grade 2 contest at the Dublin Racing Festival and fifth in the Champion Bumper at Cheltenham, the Stowaway gelding didn’t win in four attempts over hurdles last season, but he jumped his fences superbly in winning on his chasing bow at Navan in November. He is on a recovery mission now of sorts, after falling early on in the Grade 1 Racing Post Novice Chase at Leoparstown’s Christmas Festival, but he is already a better chaser than hurdler.
Captain Guinness was on a recovery mission last time too at Punchestown, after he was pulled up on his chasing debut at Tipperary in October – subsequently found to be suffering from an atrial fibrillation – and he completed that mission perfectly. Leading from flagfall, his jumping was very good and, challenged by Midnight Run at the second last fence, he came away from that rival on the run to the last and he won easily.
The Henry de Bromhead-trained gelding was travelling well in the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle last March when he was brought down at the second last flight. Of course, we will never know how he would have fared against Shishkin and Abacadabras, we don’t know how well he would have come up the hill, but he had handled everything else about the Cheltenham Festival very well up until that point.
Declan Landy’s horse has only just turned six, and he has raced just five times under all codes in his life, so he has lots of potential for progression now. And we know that the Henry de Bromhead horses can go higher than their ceiling over hurdles when they start to jump fences. The 16/1 and 20/1 that is still available about Captain Guinness for the Sporting Life Arkle looks more than fair at this stage.