On a day the Dublin Racing Festival was hit by a spate of non-runners, La Bague Au Roi and Sir Erec stole the show. Our Ben Linfoot was trackside.
The rain came at the Dublin Racing Festival, but it was too little and too late for many. The ground, officially described as ‘Good to Firm in places’ on the chase course, but considered to be faster than that by some trainers, was the main source of a plethora of non-runners on the second day of the meeting, the withdrawals taking a least some of the gloss off a few of the Grade Ones.
The Unibet Irish Gold Cup was most affected, with six non-runners leaving a field of just four. Al Boum Photo, Monalee, Anibale Fly and Balko Des Flos were a quartet of high-profile absentees from the race, last year’s winner Edwulf and the outsider Noble Endeavour the two others not to take their chance at the start.
Al Boum Photo was the latest of all the withdrawals in the feature, as he was taken out just a few hours before the race, prompting trainer Willie Mullins to field questions about the image of the Dublin Racing Festival and if the track’s management could’ve done anything to avoid the situation.
"We’ve had a dry summer, a dry autumn and a dry winter," said Ireland's champion jumps trainer. "It’s very unusual. It’s very different [at the Punchestown Festival] as it usually starts soft there and they water as it dries throughout the week.
"Al Boum Photo’s got a real soft ground pedigree and I gave it enough chance to rain, risking a fine from the stewards, but it didn’t come. That’s why we ran him at Tramore rather than here, at Christmas, as we were worried about the ground."
As it was, Mullins landed the Irish Gold Cup anyway, with Bellshill, who prevailed by a short head from Road To Respect after a ding-dong battle up the straight. It was pleasing for the race to deliver on the excitement front after the withdrawals had threatened to ruin the spectacle.
It is unusual for the ground not to be much softer at this time of year, and the general consensus seems to be that the situation was a product of unfortunate circumstance, but this is a stark reminder that the shadow cast by the Cheltenham Festival still stretches to loom over the DRF, despite a six-week break to the four-day jamboree in the Cotswolds.
Mullins spoke of Al Boum Photo being aimed at the Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup, intimating he didn’t want to take a risk ahead of the March spectacular, while Gordon Elliott’s decision to take Delta Work out of the Flogas Novice Chase can also be attributed to not wanting to harm his chances of success in the RSA Chase in six weeks’ time.
On Racing TV's Luck On Sunday, in which Elliott confirmed Apple’s Jade will run in the Champion Hurdle, the County Meath trainer also commented on the ground situation.
"Everyone’s open to criticism but rain was forecast that didn’t come," he said. "I guess if they could go back they’d put a bit of water on the chase course but it’s very difficult. I decided to take some of my horses out and that’s it."
Delta Work’s absence meant that La Bague Au Roi was sent off the 10/11 favourite for the Flogas Novice Chase and she didn’t put a foot wrong under Richard Johnson, jumping brilliantly and staying on well to fend off the late challenge of Kaiser Black.
"That’s as good as we’ve had," said winning trainer Warren Greatrex after victory ensured a fourth Grade One win for his yard and the second for this mare, who landed the Kauto Star Novices’ Chase at Kempton over three miles on her previous outing.
With those Grade One victories under her belt Cheltenham will be tempting, but Greatrex insists he’ll do what’s right for the mare and that could be a break while being freshened up for Aintree.
"We’ll take her home now and decide what to do," he said. "She’s put a lot in today and at Kempton last time. Cheltenham’s not the be all and end all and we may look at Aintree, that track could suit her better anyway."
This wasn’t the only great result for England in Ireland this weekend, but La Bague Au Roi’s win was more expected than the one at the Aviva Stadium, and Greatrex admitted afterwards his overriding feeling was one of relief.
"I’ve felt sick all day. But the plan’s worked, it’s been a plan for a while now. Quite a few people thought we were mad to take the Irish on in their back yard but I couldn’t be happier.
"She’s amazing to train, such good owners. This is huge for our yard."
The ground, then, didn’t matter a jot to La Bague Au Roi and the same can be said for the Flat-bred blue blood Sir Erec, a son of Camelot who seems to be as equally adept under quick conditions at Leopardstown as he is the heavy turf at Limerick.
He purred home in the Tattersalls Ireland Spring Juvenile Hurdle, trainer Joseph O’Brien saddling another one-two. I wonder who he learned that trick from?
O’Brien’s prowess with juveniles was hinted at from an early stage, when his surrogate training of Ivanovich Gorbatov in 2016 saw him win the Triumph Hurdle, even if the horse was officially in the name of his father at the time.
O'Brien junior's ambition to win one in his own right this season has taken an obsessive turn judging by the events of the last few weeks. If he had a strong grip on the race after saddling the one-two in the JCB Triumph Trial at Cheltenham, Fakir D’Oudairies beating stablemate Fine Brunello by 13 lengths, then now it is vice-like after Sir Erec beat Gardens Of Babylon by six lengths.
A sumptuous jump at the last sealed matters for Sir Erec, a classy and lightly-raced Flat horse that finished just over a few lengths behind staying behemoth Stradivarius on the level in the Qipco Long Distance Cup on Ascot’s Champions Day.
The turn of foot he showed at Leopardstown today, after the last, to clear away from his rivals, demonstrated his quality and the only trouble O’Brien has is juggling all of his juveniles between the Triumph, Fred Winter and, perhaps, the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.
Fakir D’Oudairies and Gardens of Babylon are entered in the Festival opener, an 8lb weight-for-age allowance maybe a consideration for a trainer that is now overflowing with quality juveniles. Hors La Loi III was the last four-year-old to win the Supreme in 1999, although JP McManus’ Binocular went pretty close in 2008.
If O’Brien is the future, Elliott and Mullins remain very much the present and both had winners elsewhere on the card, with the former landing the William Fry Handicap Hurdle with Dallas Des Pictons, while the latter won the Grade One Chanelle Pharma Novice Hurdle, a race he has now won seven times.
Champagne Fever and Vautour were two of Mullins' previous winners, and they both went on to win the Sky Bet Supreme, so it was no surprise to see the sponsors cut this year’s winner, Klassical Dream, to 8/1 second favourite, with the second home, stablemate Aramon, who was giving the winner 1lb, also cut to 10/1 after going down by just a head.
Performance of the day…
La Bague Au Roi. She came, she fought, she conquered. Warren Greatrex’s stable star jumped impeccably for champion jockey Richard Johnson and showed guts to hold on at the end. She’ll possibly miss Cheltenham, but on a flat track like this she’s lethal and could take some stopping around Aintree.
Eye-catcher of the day…
Gardens Of Babylon. He may have been put in his place by stablemate Sir Erec in the Spring Juvenile, but this was an excellent run in defeat on just his third start and it will be interesting to see which route Joseph O’Brien goes with him in the spring.
Quote of the day…
"Talking about it last night and looking at the re-runs this morning - I'd prefer to get beat in a Champion Hurdle than a Mares' Hurdle." Gordon Elliott gives Apple’s Jade the green light to take on Buveur D'Air.
Cheltenham winner-in-waiting of the day…
Sir Erec. The way he turned on the after-burners after the last to leave his Spring Juvenile rivals for dead was spine-tingling. He has the Triumph Hurdle at his mercy now.