Lydia Hislop: Road to Cheltenham | Reflections from the Dublin Racing Festival and more

Ruby Walsh salutes the crowd after winning the Arkle on Footpad
Ruby Walsh salutes the crowd after winning the Arkle on Footpad

Lydia Hislop's Road to Cheltenham takes a break for a few weeks now, but not before she's analysed the Dublin Racing Festival and added a Ryanair bet to her Festival selections.

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There is never a good time for an outbreak of equine influenza and the proximity in the calendar of the Cheltenham Festival makes everyone nervous but if swift and decisive action can prevent this severe respiratory virus from taking hold in Britain, then the short-term pain will have been worth it.

More prosaically, it may mean that certain British horses could be denied their planned preps for that March target – notably those horses who were set to race this weekend at Newbury and Warwick. However, the British Horseracing Authority now has a well-developed track record in rescheduling lynchpin races where necessary and, if able, will surely step in again. In the meantime, let’s hope Ireland manages to remain clear of this threat to equine health.

This disturbing development aside, the main focus of this week’s musings is, of course, the outcome of their Dublin Racing Festival which was beset by unseasonably quick ground. While its highs were undoubtedly invigorating, the meeting also had to sustain the loss of one of the most popular chasers in training on either side of the Irish Sea.

Unibet Champion Hurdle

Michael O’Leary can’t have seen that clip of Gordon Elliott being cornered then pursued by the press within a confined space at Leopardstown after Apple’s Jade won the Irish Champion Hurdle last Saturday or he’d never have taken pity on him so quickly. The pack was barking for an ever-more explicit indiscretion from Elliott about her rightful Cheltenham target:

It held the potential for days, even weeks, of fun right there. And from a British perspective, we need all the entertainment sources we can get while we wait and hope for this blank to end. Yet with unexpected alacrity, that particular avenue of pleasure has been closed off and we must instead content ourselves with the delayed gratification of a Unibet Champion Hurdle worth travelling many miles to see.

We still have the obligatory caveats about her participation – if she’s in the same kind of form and not in season, O’Leary said – but it looks like Gigginstown are doing the decent thing. Or rather, she’s running because he surely thinks she’s got a chance of winning a race he’s asserted in the past would give her “a nose bleed”. He still maintains she probably can’t beat Buveur D’Air, mind. Most handicappers – official, commercial and private – are far from sure about that.

At Leopardstown, she demolished a field of decent hurdlers in a good time by 16 lengths and more, having set a relentless gallop and benefitted, as a stayer, from the removal of two hurdles due to low sun. You can undoubtedly argue she didn’t have much to beat on the day, with runner-up Supasundae seemingly operating at about half a stone below his career-best form of last season and Melon a complete flop again.

But if the O’Leary brothers are ever going to give it a whirl, for the sporting reasons surely engaged them in this pursuit in the first place, this season – with the mare in peak shape – must be the time to do it. Bravo.

Her participation is unalloyed bad news for Global Citizen, who won’t have control of the lead as trainer Ben Pauling might have anticipated. In fact, Jack Kennedy might look to dishearten him by ideally setting a good early pace on Apple’s Jade before probably slowing things down and then kicking from around two out.

Global Citizen isn’t always the most fluent of jumpers – admittedly Kempton might be looming large in my mind – and Apple’s Jade adjusts right so it might not be the smoothest front-running spectacle. Indeed, Eddie O’Leary referred to this trait – and another of his concerns – in the immediate aftermath of the mare’s tenth Grade One success.

“Her ideal trip is two and a half miles, and Cheltenham is the wrong way around for her,” he said. “You’d be taking on a serious horse in Buveur D’Air, and she would be giving him a length at every hurdle – that makes up for the 7lb [mares’ allowance] she’d be getting.”

It’s not energy efficient to adjust right for two miles and eight hurdles on the persistently turning left-handed Old Course – albeit it’s better than doing it for three miles and 12 hurdles in the Sun Bets Stayers’ Hurdle, admittedly on the more galloping New Course. It’s even more of an issue when your main rival’s deadliest weapon is his slick jumping. I don’t see Buveur D’Air adjusting right in her wake, as many a less honed hurdler might do.

Apple’s Jade has developed this habit. She does it a lot at Leopardstown but jumped pretty straight when second in the 2016 Triumph (New Course, admittedly) and when triumphant against her own gender at the Festival a year later. Yet she was markedly wayward at times when Benie Des Dieux beat her in the OLBG David Nicholson Mares’ Hurdle last year, albeit she was reported in season afterwards and may not have been feeling at her best. As I’ve mentioned before, she’s never produced her best form at Cheltenham.

Jack Kennedy celebrates on Apple's Jade
Jack Kennedy celebrates on Apple's Jade

Having previously felt that the titleholder’s under-qualified pacemaker Charli Parcs had no role in what would likely be a fast-run renewal, I now wonder whether he will turn up to play the same part as last year: keeping the putative main opponent honest. He pestered Faugheen in 2018 but that ex-champion was on the downgrade, at least at this distance. I’m not sure the lady is for bullying. She’s a bit of a riot grrrl and could make Charli look a right one.

However, none of this would be exactly ideal. The tyranny of raging hormones might be one potential problem within Elliott’s control, however. (In this case I’m referring to hers, not his, natch.) He’d already mentioned having his vets on the case to suppress Apple’s Jade coming into season during March and April, as she naturally did last year.

While Apple’s Jade was forcing her way onto the Champion Hurdle landscape, Buveur D’Air was keeping it low at Sandown – his usual M.O. at this time of year. His third straight success in the Contenders’ Hurdle proved as straightforward as it looked on paper, despite Rayvin Black declining to fulfil the role of pace-setter after they passed the stables exit on the first bend.

Buveur D’Air had had to make his own running when winning this race in 2017 so the brief deviation from script didn’t cause him to fluff even one line and rider Barry Geraghty reported him to have been in better shape than when narrowly beaten by – surprise! – stablemate Verdana Blue in the Christmas Hurdle.

Trainer Nicky Henderson was relieved that Sandown managed to avoid the freezing temperatures and heavy snow that beset much of the nearby area because Buveur D’Air is the type of horse who likes to be kept regularly active rather than benefitting from long breaks.

He approaches the opportunity of making history as the sixth horse to win the Champion Hurdle three times (all five previous in successive years) with most things – bar his Christmas defeat – having gone to plan to date. An end-to-end gallop would suit him ideally, as Kennedy will only be too aware.

The unknown factor is, of course, Laurina. I think Geraghty would actually like her to be there because she’ll be needing to press on and ensure the race is also a test, given she’s clearly a galloper who’ll stay further. She probably won’t quicken on demand.

Remarkably, even though the Champion Hurdle just got a whole lot harder, Willie Mullins hasn’t hinted at blinking yet. Even after O’Leary made his welcome announcement, the Closutton trainer has maintained that the Champion Hurdle remains the mare’s target. Her stepping-stone en route will either be the Red Mills Trial at Gowran or the Quevega Hurdle at Punchestown, the latter being Mullins’ favoured option.

“I’m not really worried about getting a run into her,” he said. “We probably will but I’m very happy to go there [to Cheltenham] without another run. I’d imagine she will go for the Champion Hurdle. Connections want to go there and I’m happy to go there unless something happens in the meantime.”

There’s less risk of that if she stays in her box, of course. Of the three emerging principals for this championship event, she is the most going-dependent. Her pounding knees and her connections’ words have strongly indicated that cut in the ground is required. Watered actual good-to-soft ground on the first day of Cheltenham should work well enough for her, though.

It’s hard to see the also-rans flipping the Irish Champion form around with Apple’s Jade – unless she has as bad a day as she did last year. Supasundae has, on paper, got a smidgen better with each start this season but without ever looking threatening – twice against Apple’s Jade and once behind Sharjah.

Perhaps the deepening profile of this year’s Champion Hurdle might now dissuade trainer Jessica Harrington from sending Supasundae here but he appeared outstayed in a steadily run edition of the Stayers’ Hurdle in 2018 and it should be strongly run this time. (Should be. We all said it would be last year.)

Once again, the market told us Melon would be flat and he was. Of course, it also told us more was expected of him in last year’s Champion Hurdle and he delivered on that, too. Cheltenham clearly suits him, as runner-up in both the 2018 main event and the preceding year’s Supreme, so you wouldn’t dismiss the idea of a Festival-based revival.

He didn’t jump at all well and looked lifeless here so, “unless something happens in the meantime”, Ruby Walsh will ride Laurina in Faugheen-esque style and Paul Townend will again partner Melon, hoping to avoid the inside-line trouble he met at the second last 12 months ago. That presumably leaves Patrick Mullins to partner Sharjah and seek to become the first amateur rider to win the Champion Hurdle since Colin Magnier on For Auction in 1982.

Were Walsh to win he’d become this event’s most successful rider in history, surpassing Tim Moloney’s four (straight) victories of 1951-54 via the final triumph of three from Hatton’s Grace and all of Sir Ken’s.

Back at Leopardstown, 2017 Champion Hurdle third Petit Mouchoir built on his seasonal debut but without actually managing to get involved. He’s on the same mark from which Arctic Fire won the Vincent O’Brien County Hurdle that same year, two terms after finishing second to Faugheen in the same event. Entries haven’t yet closed for the Randox Health-sponsored handicap and this horse is also in the Stayers’ Hurdle (but untried at three miles) and the Champion Chase.

Neither Farclas nor Tombstone – the latter disturbingly swiftly beaten – could make any impact and finished even further behind. At Sandown, returning from an operation to correct his breathing, Vision Des Flos kept tabs on Buveur D’Air until after the last but was flattered to finish as close as he did. He’s not quite up to this standard.

Sun Bets Stayers’ Hurdle

Ballymoy didn’t quite appear to stay on his first try at three miles at Sandown last Saturday and he would have needed to win with a rating of 152 to earn a supplementary entry for the Sun Bets Stayers’ Hurdle. Although he faded from the penultimate flight to finish seventh, he shaped as if still in form and capable from this mark at a lesser trip.

As mentioned in the Unibet Champion Hurdle section, the sudden depth of that race might inspire Jessica Harrington to head here with Supasundae. It had appeared as though she was favouring the shorter race with last year’s Stayers’ runner-up but his latest trouncing by Apple’s Jade means he’s 0 for 4 against the mare and he’s shortened in this market since.

OLBG David Nicholson Mares’ Hurdle

With Willie Mullins as yet showing no sign of preferring the line of least resistance with Laurina, this race is more wide-open – or less interesting, depending on your perspective – than usual. Nonetheless, mustn’t grumble: the best mares are actually doing what they should be doing in a competitive sport rather than running here. And there are still some unexposed mares entered so what actually transpires in this race may yet be compelling.

First, a proclamation from the Cistercian Order: Benie Des Dieux lives and breathes. Mullins suggested she holds the same two options as Laurina, the Red Mills Trial at Gowran and the Quevega Hurdle at Punchestown, with the former being his preferred option to keep them apart en route to Cheltenham where Benie Des Dieux will defend her crown. Praise be!

Benie Des Dieux ridden by Paul Townend (right) goes on to win the Irish Stallion Farms EBF Annie Power Mares Champion Hurdle
Benie Des Dieux lives and breathes

Given it was her first run for 295 days and in a steadily run race over an inadequate trip behind Buveur D’Air, Roksana performed with some credit at Sandown.

She was held up in rear and was rather fresh on this return to the track but this suggested she may yet improve on her progressive novice-hurdling season that elicited three stright wins and an as-yet career-best second to Santini in the Grade One Sefton Novices’ Hurdle at Aintree. She is very much worth her place in what is so far a shallow edition of this race.

The exit of Apple’s Jade from this scene – as well as (putatively) Laurina – may well cause trainer Phil Kirby to re-route Lady Buttons here. She certainly has the class but not, in my book, the stamina for 2m4f.

Magners Gold Cup

It was a great shame that what should have been a compelling edition of the Irish Gold Cup, not to mention highly informative item of evidence for Cheltenham, boiled down to just a match due to the unseasonably fast ground. Nonetheless, Bellshill and Road To Respect put on a show with just a short head between them at the line – the latter showing the greater alacrity and the former wearing him down via superior jumping and stamina.

Bellshill will obviously head to the Magners Gold Cup now as part of Willie Mullins’ seemingly lifelong quest to train a winner of the showpiece chasing event after saddling no fewer than six seconds.

This horse doesn’t have the best record at the Festival, albeit he was campaigned over too short a trip in the 2016 Supreme and arrived off the back of a fall when a distant third to Might Bite in the following year’s RSA Chase. You could see him running creditably perhaps, now he’s developing more fully as a chaser, but no more than that.

Road To Respect thrives on a sound surface so Ireland’s prevailing weather suits him fine. He’s also got a great head carriage but his jumping let him down slightly. Perhaps a sounder surface will help him improve on his fourth in last year’s Gold Cup but I still think, as I did last year, that the Ryanair is the race for him.

Bellshill and Road To Respect do battle at Leopardstown
Bellshill and Road To Respect do battle at Leopardstown

Back in fourth, Outlander was never going from an early stage. There were six withdrawals, including Al Boum Photo, Monalee and Balko Des Flos. The former pair might head for the Red Mills Chase at Gowran later this month – although Willie Mullins has also mentioned the Bobbyjo Chase at Punchestown for Al Boum Photo – whereas Balko Des Flos heads straight to Cheltenham and presumably the Ryanair, given his underwhelming season to date.

Ruby Walsh, who partnered Bellshill to this success, has reportedly mentioned him along with speedy Savills Chase winner Kemboy and Al Boum Photo as his Gold Cup options which implies recent Thyestes winner Invitation Only alone is not worthy of his consideration. That suggests to me that Mullins might have to wait a little longer to wrench this monkey from his back.

The likes of Native River, Clan Des Obeaux, Coneygree and (withdrawn from the Irish Gold Cup) Anibale Fly have lost out on their intended Gold Cup prep after the Denman Chase fell victim to the Britain-wide suspension of racing as a result of the equine influenza outbreak.

It’s not guaranteed that all connections would be keen to race nearer to Cheltenham were racing able to go ahead next week and the race rescheduled.

Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase

The death of Special Tiara punches a hole right through this sport. Although the veteran chaser was probably never again going to scale the heights of his 2017 success at the fourth attempt in the Champion Chase, he has been part of the fabric of jumps racing for so long that it was simply devastating to see his body fail him in the way it did at Leopardstown last Saturday.

Although owner Sally Rowley-Williams, trainer Henry de Bromhead and his team must be heartbroken to lose a seven-year constant in their lives, I’m sure they’ve been comforted by the outpouring of love for their horse.

He was a spectacular jumper, whose appetite for chasing was palpable in the enthusiasm with which he would set about a race. He’s one of my favourite horses of all time and letting fly at a fence from an unfeasible distance is the way I will always remember him.

Special Tiara was a fabulous jumper

Special Tiara never even got to the first fence in the Dublin Chase but that’s where Castlegrace Paddy departed, failing to come up high enough to clear the obstacle. That left Min to beat two inferior rivals, which he did readily. The danger for him would have been if those exits had turned this contest into a crawl but it turned out Gavin Sheehan was happy to set a decent pace on Saint Calvados once the pair were left in the lead.

But his mount lacked any verve and strong-travelling Min was bearing down on him even before he got in close to the last and received a slap down the neck to buck up his ideas. Meanwhile, Ordinary World was jumping right and off the bridle at the rear of the trio. It was all too easy for Min to lead off the home turn and finish six lengths clear at the line.

He’s been impeccable this season but was deputising here for Footpad, his more vaunted stablemate who hasn’t even been at his as-yet lesser best in two starts this season. He fell when already beaten on debut and suffered an overreach. Then he finished second to veteran Simply Ned, appearing to blow up due to missing work as a result of the previous injury and yet incurring a similar, if lesser, problem in the process.

The plan seemed to be to try to get Footpad to recover in time for the Dublin Chase but it failed. Now the target is the Red Mills Chase over 2m4f at Gowran Park later this month. Meanwhile, Ruby Walsh has been either (a) reporting which way the wind’s blowing within the monastery walls or (b) trying to use his influence in the Cistercian Order via the written word.

In his latest Racing TV column, he asked himself: “Will Min take on Altior again at Cheltenham? I don’t know. You can only win the race that is in front of you and he picked up well from the back of the last and won pretty much as he liked in the Dublin Chase. Had Altior not been around, he would have won a Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and the Champion Chase last year.

“We know Min gets two-and-a-half miles and he has that option of going out in trip. Whether we try and make it third time lucky against Altior is one for nearer the time and again depends on the ground.”

I have absolutely no idea why it depends on the ground because Min seems entirely versatile on that score. What his form also tells you is that he’s better at two miles than further – Politologue rallied to beat him over 2m4f at Aintree FORTHELOVEOFGOD – and that he needs a strongly run race. Walsh just wants to have a go at Altior with Footpad because he’s been on the wrong end of that encounter twice with Min.

On form, none of this makes sense but Walsh’s hint came after Mullins stated, with the broadest of Ryanair hints: “Min has the pace for two miles and he can go out to 2m4f and maybe even an extra furlong or two as well. When he’s on song and he jumps well, he can gain ground in the air and keep his position. He has a lot of doors open for him.”

Yet owner Rich Ricci said after the Dublin Chase that he’d prefer to play to Min’s own strengths rather than merely dodge Altior. It’ll be interesting to see what Mullins and Walsh maintain those strengths are. O the intrigue. It’s like being in the Tory cabinet.

Ryanair Chase

The only on-course action to speak of in this division came from The Storyteller, who could never quite get involved behind Bellshill and Road To Respect in the Irish Gold Cup. Highly tried this season, he’s been pretty disengaged on the whole but was handed a 2lb rise I’m not sure he merited for finishing seven-and-a-half lengths behind in third here.

I had been thinking he might end up attempting to defend his Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Stable Plate title but that might just have edged him into the Ryanair, in which I think he stands little chance. I don’t think he’s straightforward, either.

I’ve long argued that Road To Respect should run here because he lacks the stamina required for the Gold Cup, although less testing ground will help to some degree, but that’s wasted breath. But Gigginstown are likely to be represented by Balko Des Flos, who missed the Irish Gold Cup due to the ground after having returned with sore shins from the Savills Chase over Christmas.

It seems unlikely Henry de Bromhead would seek to explore a new distance after a season in which last year’s dominant victor of this race has never quite fired. However, he also trains Monalee for owner Barry Maloney and has – rightly, in my opinion – appeared to favour this race as over the Gold Cup as that horse’s Festival target. The vibes are good: Monalee is now joint-second favourite with Footpad but behind Min. Min! *Mutters under breath*

Yet there must be just as much chance of Footpad ending up here as Min – not just because, as I’ve argued here before, he got outpaced and his jumping was put under pressure during last year’s frenetic Arkle Chase. Not just because Mullins spoke of him as a future Gold Cup horse at the time. No, Footpad can make the argument for himself in the 2m4f Red Mills Chase, his next target.

This is a two-fold Mullins-reading perverse opinion – madness – but I’m going all-in on it with a second dart at the Ryanair, again strictly on NRNB terms. Let’s back Footpad now at 7/1 win only. It’s the right race for him.

Novice chasers

JP McManus appears to have a strong hand in a few divisions nearing the Cheltenham Festival and novice chasing is perhaps the chief of them. Helpfully, some of his key players appear to be sorting themselves out nicely, with both Le Richebourg having made a bold case for the Arkle and Defi Du Seuil for the JLT last weekend.

Le Richebourg initiated a 1-2 for trainer Joseph O’Brien in the Irish Arkle, beating stablemate Us And Them by seven lengths in a dominant display. Having travelled strongly and gained ground at a few of his fences, he was in the process of coming to win via nipping up the inside of Voix Du Reve when that horse threw himself to the ground at the last. His stablemate was challenging on the other side and stayed on well but Le Richebourg was pulling further clear at the line.

Le Richebourg is pushed clear
Le Richebourg: Deserves his position as Arkle favourite

He’s a far better chaser than he was hurdler and is now best-priced at 4/1 for the Arkle itself. His position as favourite has been thoroughly earned. On the other hand, I expect runner-up Us And Them will outrun odds of 33/1. He’s come on again for wearing a tongue-tie and has repeatedly proved capable of jumping well at speed.

Headstrong Voix Du Reve’s jumping is dodgy in company or under pressure and he probably would only have been third even had he stood up. Mengli Khan lumbered into third in his place and may not even make Gigginstown’s Festival squad on this evidence.

Whereas, eased 1lb for finishing a distant fifth, Duca De Thaix remains a Grand Annual project. Defeat had been accepted a while before he laboriously negotiated the briefly prone Voix Du Reve at the last, greatly exaggerating his margin of defeat.

There may have been some complicating factors in the second-fence departure of Knocknanuss: battling for control with rider Jamie Moore, he had threatened to run off the inside of the track rounding the first turn and, coming out of the low bright sun into shadow, then overjumped the flight and landed too steeply.

Trainer Gary Moore maintains his jumping is usually flawless and the Arkle remains the plan but Knocknanuss is a shade headlong and guessy for me, albeit brilliant when he bets right.

Over at Sandown that same day, Defi Du Seuil reversed the Dipper form with Lostintranslation. On New Year’s Day at Cheltenham, Barry Geraghty’s mount had appeared to be going better than the eventual winner when taking up the lead two out but he couldn’t kill the race off and was headed again after the last. Here, Geraghty opted to hold onto Defi Du Seuil that bit longer, producing him after the last, and got the better of Lostintranslation by three-quarters of a length.

The winner’s jumping was quite scruffy, especially at the quickfire Railway Fences, but Geraghty said both he and Richard Johnson, who partnered the runner-up, had observed after the line that the tacky ground had proved difficult for relatively inexperienced chasers to jump out of. Of course, the first fence comes up quickly in the JLT so Defi Du Seuil will need to be on point immediately.

Trainer Kim Bailey was also inclined to blame the ground for Vinndication’s first career defeat, commenting that “he could never get going” and “just didn’t have the strength yet to jump out of that gluey ground”. Even as he was palpably getting the worst of it, this gutsy horse tried to get back into things approaching the second last but he could never quite challenge the leaders.

Vinndication has never yet raced left-handed and adjusted right first time around in the back straight at Sandown, albeit he was better the next time he faced the Railway Fences. All this added up to Bailey leaning towards missing Cheltenham again this year.

“He’s a next-season and the-season-after-that horse,” he said. I’d be inclined to agree in this regard about a horse who’s going to do much better once stepped up to three miles in time.

The following day, La Bague Au Roi made a successful Irish raid when picking up her second Grade One in a much-depleted edition of the Flogas Chase. It was a controlling front-running ride from Johnson on a mare who stays further and so, while the challengers were queuing up to tackle her approaching the last, a good jump, superior track position and a touch of class secured the victory. These were not the circumstances in which to see her to best effect, however.

The 33/1 outsider Kaiser Black was running her down at the line, having been patiently ridden for a marked step up in grade. He travelled strongly and might have given her even more to think about had he taken closer order sooner. He was progressive prior to this over fences and is very effective on a sound surface but isn’t yet entered at Cheltenham.

As has been much discussed, including by Johnson and winning trainer Warren Greatrex, La Bague Au Roi would be better waiting for the flat track of Aintree and missing out Cheltenham all together. Let’s hope they resist temptation with this hugely likeable mare when the Festival’s siren call gets louder.

Back in fifth, Winter Escape was disappointing and it later transpired that he broke blood vessels. Delta Work was withdrawn on account of the fast ground, missing some vital jumping practice, but Mortal – beaten eight lengths by him at Leopardstown over Christmas – finished last of six here, eleven lengths adrift of the winner.

Finally, later that same day Whisperinthebreeze got off the mark at the sixth attempt over fences in the 2m5f handicap and trainer Jessica Harrington nominated the NH Chase as his next target, provided there’s a sound surface at Cheltenham. This horse was the last to be purchased by Alan Potts prior to his death.

Novice hurdlers

Klassical Dream was admirably determined, managing to get back up against his hanging stablemate Aramon with far more composure than his jockey in the Grade One Chanelle Pharma Novices’ Hurdle at Leopardstown last weekend.

Winning rider Ruby Walsh appeared to jostle lightly with his compatriot Paul Townend on crossing the line, having been severely short of room against the rail after the last. Yet Townend was doing all he could in twice heaving the left-hanging Aramon off his stable companion, having initially produced his mount with what appeared a winning challenge just after the last.

Those checks to Aramon’s stride were all Klassical Dream required to bravely get back up near the line. There’s clearly not much between them but Walsh pronounced that the winner would be advantaged by softer ground.

“Both are decent novices,” he said. “We definitely think Klassical Dream will be better on slower ground and I imagine the ground will depend a lot on where he runs next: the Supreme or the Ballymore.”

Klassical Dream beats Aramon in a tight finish
Klassical Dream beats Aramon in a tight finish

Back in third, Gigginstown’s Vision D’Honneur had been getting the worst of it from some way out but stuck to his guns admirably. He’d attracted some warm words from trainer Gordon Elliott earlier in the season and shaped here like a nascent chaser. Keep him in mind for next season, I reckon.

On the previous day at the Dublin Racing Festival, Gigginstown had won the opening Grade One novices’ hurdle over 2m6f with Commander Of Fleet despite their putative first string Battleoverdoyen being withdrawn in advance of the race due to the prevailing quick ground.

Commander Of Fleet had previously finished last of four in a Grade One crawl over two miles in early December, behind the now-sidelined Quick Grabim and with Aramon back in third, yet he had far from disgraced himself – particularly as now it’s clear he needed more of a trip.

He got the better of a sustained duel with Rhinestone here and apparently heads now for a further step up in trip for the Albert Bartlett, for which he’s now favourite – having previously been favourite for the Ballymore prior to his Royal Bond defeat. That’s a shame because he would usually be exactly wrong for the race, as a lightly raced still-raw type. Yet again – and not atypically with a Gigginstown recruit – I like him more as an embryo chaser.

The runner-up is improving with leaps and bounds; at least his hurdling form is underpinned by plenty of bumper experience – including ninth to Relegate at last year’s Festival – so he may be better equipped than the winner for the demands of the Potato Race. There was only half a length between them here and yet an overly long 16 points separate them in the betting.

Relegate herself came flying home to finish fifth and would have been a clear third in a couple of strides. However, she’d become detached early with some poor jumping and will need to improve this facet of her game markedly to play a leading role at the Festival again. Fellow mare Salsaretta got no further than the second flight where she unseated her rider.

At Leopardstown the following day, the mare Sassy Diva improved on her novice-hurdling form to beat 13 rivals and make a winning handicap debut. She could be bound for the Trull House Stud Dawn Run Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle as a result.

Over at Sandown, Supreme entry Beaufort West was comfortably beaten by the penalty-carrying Winston C in the opening novices’ event. The winner has been raised 11lbs to a mark of 137, much to the annoyance of trainer Harry Fry, who vented about it in his Betway blog (#mad). He says he might now have to re-route from the Imperial Cup to the County Hurdle.

Juvenile hurdlers

Not content with owning the JCB Triumph Hurdle ante-post favourite Sir Erec and decent deputy Gardens Of Babylon, not to mention leading Boodles Fred Winter player Fine Brunello, JP McManus this week swooped for runaway Cheltenham winner and stablemate at Joseph O’Brien’s yard, Fakir D’Oudairies.

Now the question is whether he’ll seek to divert his purchase from juvenile company to instead take up his Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle engagement. The market certainly reacted as though that would prove the case. McManus has got form in this regard, having pitched in Binocular against his elders in 2008. That horse – like the last four-year-old to win the Supreme, Hors La Loi III in 1999 – went on to win the Champion Hurdle, so you’ve got to be smart.

But it would remove Sir Erec’s chief opponent from the Friday field, one whose form was just as impressive on style and more robust in substance.

Jockey Mark Walsh set out to conduct the pace from the outset in the Grade One Spring Juvenile Hurdle last weekend, gifting Sir Erec about a couple of lengths at the start and ensuring he was never headed. His mount was also never hassled at his hurdles but didn’t appear fully adjusted to the discipline as yet, stuttering into at least half the flights. Yet he saved his best leap for last and quickened clear of a chasing pack, who were always playing second fiddle.

While I’m pretty sure Sir Erec is currently comfortably the best of those who lined up at Leopardstown, he very much had the run of things from a positional perspective. However, I suspect his jumping will improve for taking a lead in a well-run race – and the presence of Torpillo and Quel Destin should ensure he gets that, even if Fakir D’Oudairies gives the race a miss.

Sir Erec jumps the last in good style
Sir Erec jumps the last in good style

Spring Juvenile runner-up Gardens Of Babylon was the only horse to improve his racing position by the line, having raced in mid-division and also made plenty of mistakes. He got outpaced when trying to advance into a quickening tempo, causing O’Brien to suggest he’d ultimately need to move up in trip.

But I think he’ll do better again in the Triumph and that remains his target, according to his trainer. He’s overpriced at 20/1 but probably won’t shorten much until there’s a choice of NRNB terms.

Having been beaten only a neck by Sir Erec on their hurdling debuts, Tiger Tap Tap couldn’t muster a threat. He wasn’t that fluent two out and rallied for Ruby Walsh only into a cul-de-sac approaching the last, locked in against the rail by the unfurnished-looking mare Surin and behind the controlling winner. He looked essentially outpaced but remains with promise and is another for whom Cheltenham might suit better.

Surin shapes as if she’ll improve for stepping up in trip and able to fill out to some degree; she stuck to her task pleasingly well after appearing set to weaken more than once.

Chief Justice tried to get involved from a disadvantageous pitch but was boxed in entering the straight by the better-rallying Gardens Of Babylon and then didn’t have much room to play with after negotiating the last either. It might be that he wouldn’t have been able to manage much anyway.

Stablemate Coeur Sublime, whom he beat narrowly at Fairyhouse, was one of three withdrawals here due to unsuitably quick ground. If Gordon Elliott can find no further opportunity for him to run between now and Cheltenham, he’ll arrive there off the back of a fall last time out.

Unfortunately, Rocky Blue – who beat Chief Justice in the race in which likeliest winner Coeur Sublime took his tumble at Leopardstown over Christmas – has suffered a setback and been ruled out for the season by trainer Tom Mullins.

Selections:

Recommended 28/11/18: Balko Des Flos e/w 40/1 [SkyBet/Bet365] Gold Cup

Recommended 29/11/18: Summerville Boy e/w 12/1 [various] Champion Hurdle – likely non-runner: injured

Recommended 20/12/18: Shattered Love e/w 25/1 [various] Magners Gold Cup

Recommended 20/12/18: Topofthegame e/w 16/1 [Ladbrokes/Coral/Hills] RSA Chase

Recommended 17/01/19: Min e/w 12/1 [Betfair Sportsbook] or 10/1 [various] Champion Chase

Recommended 01/02/19: Al Boum Photo e/w 12/1 NRNB BOG [Bet365/SkyBet] Ryanair

Back now: Footpad win only at 7/1 NRNB (with Sky Bet and Coral) for the Ryanair


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