Donn McClean reflects on a near miss for Ireland in the Betfair Hurdle at Newbury but says the horse in question could go one better in the County Hurdle.
Much of the Cheltenham Festival news from Ireland this weekend was from off the track. It is a real shame that Willie Mullins has had to rule both Klassical Dream and Saldier out of the Champion Hurdle, and Douvan out of the Champion Chase.
It’s all very frustrating. Douvan rolled back the years in winning the Clonmel Oil Chase in November on his first run in over a year and a half, and his only entry at Cheltenham was in the Champion Chase, a race in which he had unfinished business. He was beaten at long odds-on in the race in 2017, and he fell at the fourth last when travelling strongly in 2018.
Klassical Dream was one of the top novice hurdlers last season, he won three Grade 1 races, including the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham and the Champion Novice Hurdle at Punchestown, and he was Champion Hurdle favourite earlier this season. He was beaten in both runs this term, but there was mitigation: he wasn’t beaten far by Saldier in the Morgiana Hurdle on his seasonal debut, and he made a bad mistake at the fourth flight in the Matheson Hurdle at Leopardstown next time.
Alas, the leg infection that ruled him out of the Irish Champion Hurdle at the Dublin Racing Festival was worse than first appeared, and he is now out for the rest of the season. The consolation is that he is only six. He has time.
Saldier may make it back for Punchestown, but it is still frustrating that he is going to miss Cheltenham. He was very good in the Morgiana Hurdle, he belied his weakness in the market to win well, on his first run since he had fallen at the final flight in the Fishery Lane Hurdle when upsides Espoir D’Allen a year earlier. He reportedly had a setback after the Morgiana Hurdle though, which ruled him out of the Christmas Festival and out of the Irish Champion Hurdle, and now it has ruled him out of the Champion Hurdle.
It all adds to the flux in a Champion Hurdle picture that already lacked solidity. It looked like Envoi Allen’s connections were set for the novices’ race and it looked like Honeysuckle’s connections were set for the mares’ race but, with two more high-profile defections, it wouldn’t be surprising if they all sat down and at least had another think about it.
Things went better for the champion trainer on the track on Saturday, he had a double at Naas and he almost landed the Betfair Hurdle at Newbury.
There hadn’t been an Irish-trained winner of the Betfair Hurdle since the Michael O’Brien-trained Essex won it under Barry Geraghty in 2005, but it looked good for Ciel De Neige when he hit the front on landing over the last and Lightly Squeeze came down. He was run down close home in the end by Pic D’Orhy, but it was still a fine run by the runner-up.
JP McManus’ horse is only five, and he was racing for just the seventh time in his life on Saturday, and for just the fourth time since he joined Willie Mullins. Third in the Fred Winter Hurdle last March on his first run for Mullins, he ran well on his debut this season in a hot handicap at Fairyhouse, and he was unlucky not to win his maiden hurdle at Limerick over Christmas on his second.
He holds entries in the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and in the Ballymore Hurdle at Cheltenham, but it may be that he will continue down the handicap route. The County Hurdle is a logical target and, given how lightly raced he is, and how well he ran at the track last year on his only visit there, he could be a big player in the race. The Irish handicapper raised him by 3lb for Saturday’s run to a mark of 138, and a similar reaction from the British handicapper could see him get into the County Hurdle on a really nice racing weight.
Cut The Mustard was impressive in winning the Grade 2 Opera Hat Chase at Naas, the only moment of concern really coming at the third fence, when it appeared that she was distracted by her rival Tintangle. That was just her third chase, she is progressive over fences and, a 133-rated hurdler, she has the potential to go higher over fences.
Aione completed the Willie Mullins double at Naas when he won the Connolly’s Red Mills Irish EBF Auction Novice Hurdle. His victory wasn’t as straightforward as Cut The Mustard’s, it didn’t look promising when he dropped to third at the fifth last flight, and Paul Townend had to ride him a little in order that he could hold his position on the inside as they raced to the home turn. But he stayed on well from the second last flight and, with closest pursuer Russian Diamond making a mistake at the last, he kept on well up the run-in to win well in the end.
His trainer said afterwards that he would probably go for the final of this series at the Punchestown Festival, a race that Russian Diamond’s trainer Emmet Mullins won last year with Zero Ten, but that he would be jumping fences sooner rather than later.
The Gordon Elliott-trained Aramax ran out an impressive winner of the four-year-olds’ hurdle. Settled nicely by Mark Walsh early on in second place behind favourite Gin On Lime, he and his stable companion Recent Revelations moved on as they raced around the home turn after Gin On Lime had made a mistake at the third last flight.
JP McManus’ horse hit the front on the run to the final flight though, and he came nicely clear of his rivals up the run-in to win well.
This is the race that Band Of Outlaws won last year before he went to Cheltenham and won the Fred Winter Hurdle, so it wasn’t that surprising that bookmakers promoted Aramax to the top of this year’s Fred Winter market on the back of this win.
The Maxios gelding is a nicely progressive juvenile hurdler, he wasn’t beaten far by Wolf Prince at Fairyhouse on just his second run for Gordon Elliott, and Saturday’s win was a nice step forward from that. His new Irish racing of 134 is workable (Band Of Outlaws raced off a British mark of 139 when he won last year’s Fred Winter Hurdle) and he will be a player in the Fred Winter all right if that is where he goes now.
For more from Donn visist www.donnmcclean.com
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