Donn McClean highlights three horses of potential interest for the Cheltenham Festival that ran at Naas over the weekend, including You Raise Me Up for a handicap.
Opera Hat never won at the Cheltenham Festival. Actually, Opera Hat only ran at the Cheltenham Festival once, in the 1996 Coral Cup, in which she got no further than the second flight. Winner of the Mumm Melling Chase at Aintree in 1998, Valerie Cooper’s remarkable mare made Naas her own, winning there nine times, which is why Naas named a race after her.
The BBA Ireland Limited Opera Hat Mares Chase has Cheltenham Festival previous too. Benie Des Dieux won the race in 2018, then went on to win the David Nicholson Mares’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival the following month. Of course, they didn’t have a mares’ chase at the Cheltenham Festival then, but they do now, and Elimay, winner of the 2021 renewal of the Opera Hat Chase on Saturday, is now favourite for it.
The Willie Mullins-trained mare was high in the market for the Mares’ Chase after she ran her stable companion Allaho to three lengths in the Grade 2 Horse & Jockey Hotel Chase at Thurles last month, but she is clear favourite for it now. She was very good on Saturday, competing over the minimum trip, which is probably short of her best.
She got stronger as the race developed. She tracked the two leaders Shattered Love and her stable companion Yukon Lil form early, moved up on the far side to join them at the second last fence, and stayed on strongly from there over the last and up the run-in to go nicely clear under just a hands-and-heels ride from Mark Walsh.
Sixth in the 2019 Mares’ Hurdle at Cheltenham on just her second run for Willie Mullins, JP McManus’ mare won the Louis Fitzgerald Hotel Hurdle at the 2019 Punchestown Festival, and she won her first two races over fences last season. She didn’t reappear this season until Punchestown in November, when she went down by just a nose to her stable companion Buildmeupbuttercup in a listed mares’ hurdle, and she stepped forward from that to run that big race against Allaho at Thurles three weeks ago.
She is a progressive mare, she is only seven and she has raced just four times over fences. There could be even more to come for her, she should be even better over two and a half miles than over two, and she could run a big race at Cheltenham.
It is correct that Elimay received most of the attention after the Opera Hat Chase, but the performance that Shattered Love put up in chasing her home may have gone a little under the radar as a consequence. Gordon Elliott’s mare was impressive in winning a listed mares’ chase at Clonmel in November, and you can easily allow her her next run in the handicap hurdle that Flooring Porter won at Navan in early December, given that it was her first run over hurdles in over three and a half years.
She disputed the lead with Yukon Lil for much of Saturday’s race, until she got a little out-paced on the run to the second last fence. But she did well to stay on as well as she did from the final fence to get up and claim the runner-up spot from Yukon Lil behind Elimay.
The Gigginstown House Stud’s mare is 10 years old now, but she obviously retains lots of ability. This two-mile trip was obviously too sharp for her, a mare who ran in a Gold Cup and in an Irish Grand National, and who won the Grade 1 Neville Hotels Chase over three miles as a novice. She will be better when she steps back up to two and a half miles, probably her optimum trip, and she won the JLT Chase over the Mares’ Chase course and distance in 2018.
Some 70 minutes after the Opera Hat Chase, Druid’s Altar ran out a game winner of the four-year-olds’ rated novices’ hurdle. Sent to the front from flagfall by Hugh Morgan, he ceded the lead to Autumn Evening as they raced away from the stands. But he travelled well in behind his main market rival, joined him again at the third last flight, moved on as they landed over the second last and stayed on well up the hill to repel Zoffanien’s late challenge.
Winner of a maiden at Listowel in September and rated 86 on the flat, Joseph O’Brien’s horse was impressive in winning a juveniles’ hurdle at Punchestown in November on his hurdling bow, and he was sent off at a shorter price than Zanahiyr for the Grade 3 juveniles’ hurdle on Hatton’s Grace Hurdle day at Fairyhouse in November.
This was his first win since, but there was a lot to like about the performance. He showed a really willing attitude and he was going away again at the line, leaving the impression that he had more in hand than the bare winning margin.
This race has been a really good pointer to the Fred Winter Hurdle at Cheltenham in its brief history. Aramax won the race last year, with Recent Revelations finishing second, and they went on to finish first and fourth respectively in the Fred Winter Hurdle in March. The 2019 renewal of the Naas race was won by Band Of Outlaws, who also went on to win the Fred Winter Hurdle, with this year’s Thyestes Chase winner Coko Beach, third in the Naas race in 2019, finishing second to Band Of Outlaws at Cheltenham.
Aramax raced off a mark of 138 in the Fred Winter, and Band Of Outlaws raced off a mark of 139. The Irish handicapper raised Druid’s Altar from a mark of 122 to a mark of 130 so, even though he is more exposed than most Fred Winter winners, with five runs over hurdles under his belt, Saturday’s run was probably a career-best and, if he did travel to Cheltenham, he would go there with a lively chance.
You Raised Me Up was also impressive in winning the Connolly’s Red Mills Irish EBF Auction Maiden Hurdle. It was a good race, Petibonome and Feelgood Island set a good standard, and it appeared that both horses ran their races, but You Raised Me Up was just too good for them both.
Weak in the pre-race market and keen enough early on, Martin Brassil’s horse made nice ground as they raced to the home turn, moved into third place at the second last flight, he picked up well from there for Darragh O’Keeffe, keeping on strongly up the run-in to get home by a half a length from Petibonome.
This is a race that Martin Brassil won in 2019 with City Island, before he took him to Cheltenham and won the Ballymore Hurdle. The trainer spoke about the County Hurdle or the Coral Cup as options for You Raised Me Up after this, and the Presenting gelding would be of interest in either.
He is eight years old, but he is still really lightly raced, mainly because goodish ground appears to be important to him. He has never run in December or January. He was an intended runner in the County Hurdle last March, but the soft ground went against him, and then there was no Punchestown Festival. He was impressive in winning his maiden hurdle at Listowel in September, and this was his first run since. There is every chance that he will improve again from this, just his sixth run over hurdles.
He proved that he could handle the rough and tumble of a big-field handicap hurdle when he finished third behind Thosedaysaregone in the Ladbrokes Hurdle at Leopardstown last February, and the fast pace that they will surely go at Cheltenham should suit him well. As long as the ground does not come up too soft, he will be of interest in whichever handicap hurdle he contests.