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Cheltenham Festival Fever | View From Ireland | Donn McClean: Stars shine


What a weekend it was at the Dublin Racing Festival. Donn McClean reflects on the action. Check out what horses are now on his Cheltenham radar.

On the radar:

Fakir D’Oudairies - Ryanair Chase

Gentlemansgame - Albert Bartlett

Rosey’s Hollow - Dawn Run Novices' Hurdle

Expectations were high for the Dublin Racing Festival, and they were met and surpassed. It was a fantastic weekend, 15 races, eight Grade 1s and wall-to-wall quality. All that was missing was the crowd.

Honeysuckle would have got some cheer when she and Rachael Blackmore came clear of her rivals in the Chanelle Pharma Irish Champion Hurdle on Saturday, and they would have got a massive reception when they came back in to the winner’s enclosure. Honeysuckle was after the Willie Mullins/Paul Townend good-thing hat-trick, Gaillard Du Mesnil, Chacun Pour Soi, Energumene, top class horses winning top class races, and the cheers would have got louder as the doubles and trebles clicked.

Appreciate It jumps the last under Paul Townend

The Willie Mullins show rolled on to Sunday too: five more winners to go with four on Saturday, including the Grade 1 Paddy Power Irish Gold Cup with Kemboy and the Grade 1 Chaelle Pharma Novice Hurdle with Appreciate It. He won nine of the 15 races over the course of the weekend, including six of the eight Grade 1 races and the two Grade 2 bumpers, surpassing the seven winners that he had at the inaugural Dublin Racing Festival in 2018. It was an incredible weekend for the champion trainer and his team, even by their own lofty standards.

And, just as a highly successful Christmas Festival augured well for the Dublin Racing Festival, so a highly successful Dublin Racing Festival augurs well for Cheltenham. The positions of Appreciate It, Gaillard Du Mesnil, Monkfish and Chacun Pour Soi all strengthened at the top end of the markets for their respective probable Cheltenham Festival targets.

Kilcruit leap-frogged Sir Gerhard in the betting for the Champion Bumper on the back of a seriously impressive performance in the Goffs Future Stars Bumper on Saturday. The magnitude of his superiority may have been accentuated by the fast early pace but, even so, he couldn’t have done any more than he did. He beat Letsbeclearaboutit by 12 lengths, seven and a half lengths more than the margin by which Sir Gerhard beat him at Navan.

Patrick Mullins enjoys his win on Kilcruit

It may not be quite as straightforward as that, Sir Gerhard is hugely talented. Gordon Elliott's horse is unbeaten in two bumpers and one point-to-point, and you can probably mark Letsbeclearaboutit up on the bare form of Saturday’s run, given that he was up with the pace from flagfall and that he led from a mile out. We could be set for a cracking Champion Bumper.

We could also be set for a cracking Champion Hurdle, because Honeysuckle was brilliant on Saturday. We thought that we knew most things that there were to know about Honeysuckle before Saturday, but we didn’t. Henry de Bromhead’s mare had never been beaten, so we weren’t sure where the ceiling of her ability was, but we thought that we had a fair idea. But she went higher again on Saturday. Over two miles too.

Rachael Blackmore sent her on at the third last flight and stretched the field out. Honeysuckle eyed up the second last flight, pricked her ears, pinged the obstacle and blew the race apart. Abacadabras ran well to take second place behind her, and he finished nine lengths clear of Sharjah in third, but he was 10 lengths behind Kenny Alexander’s mare by the time they got to the winning line.

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It has to be the Champion Hurdle now for Honeysuckle, take on the reigning champ Epatante, two mares dominating the market in a race in which only one mare prevailed (Flakey Dove, 1994) between Dawn Run in 1984 and Annie Power in 2016.

And in the same way as Honeysuckle is challenging the dominance of a Nicky Henderson-trained horse in the Champion Hurdle market, so Energumene is challenging the dominance of another Nicky Henderson-trained horse in the market for the Arkle.

Willie Mullins’ horse stayed two and a half miles well when he won his beginners’ chase on his chasing bow at Gowran Park in November, but he proved that he had pace too for two miles, at least on soft ground, when he beat Captain Guinness over the minimum trip at Naas last month.

Tony Bloom’s horse was better again in the Patrick Ward & Company Solicitors Irish Arkle on Saturday. He got out in front, got into his racing rhythm early for Paul Townend, and danced in. In so doing, he clocked a faster time than his stable companion Chacun Pour Soi clocked in winning the Ladbrokes Dublin Chase 35 minutes earlier, carrying the same weight.

Energumene is out on his own at Leopardstown

Shishkin remains the warm Sporting Life Arkle favourite, but Energumene is a serious challenger. He has tended to edge to his right in his races, which was obviously okay at right-handed Gowran Park, but it was also okay on soft ground at Naas and at Leoaprdstown, where they raced towards the outside of the track. There may be nothing in it, but it will be a disadvantage if he does tend to edge to his right at Cheltenham. All his chase form is on soft or heavy ground, a soft-ground Cheltenham would be a positive, but the ground was officially good when he won his point-to-point for Sophie Lacey, and it was yielding when he won his bumper at Thurles last January on his second run for Willie Mullins, so normal easy ground on the first day of the Festival should be fine.

Quilixios was impressive in winning the Grade 1 Tattersalls Ireland Spring Juvenile Hurdle, adding further ballast to Gordon Elliott’s strength in the juvenile hurdling division. We hadn’t seen the Cheveley Park Stud’s horse since he won at Down Royal in October, but he showed no sign of rustiness in coming clear of Saint Sam and Busselton.

Impressive and all as Quilixios was, the vibe afterwards was that his stable companion Zanahiyr is better still. Add Duffle Coat and Teahupoo and Riviere D’Etel if you want, and Gordon Elliott has a seriously strong team for the Triumph Hurdle, a race that the trainer won in 2014 with Tiger Roll and in 2018 with Farclas. And if any member diverts to the Fred Winter Hurdle, a race that the trainer has won three times in its relatively short history, he or she will be of automatic interest.

Kemboy ran out a game winner of the Paddy Power Irish Gold Cup on Sunday. Sent to the front from flagfall by Danny Mullins, he had his rivals in trouble from the top of the home straight, and he stayed on well over the last and up the hill to win by two lengths from the evergreen The Storyteller. Remarkably, while he has run some big races in defeat in the interim, this the first time that Kemboy returned to the winner’s enclosure since that day at the 2019 Punchestown Festival, when Ruby Walsh dismounted and said, that’s it.

Kemboy after winning the Irish Gold Cup

Kemboy was tightened up in the Gold Cup betting on the back of this win, but he has never been at his best in the Gold Cup, and it is interesting that Willie Mullins spoke about alternate plans afterwards. He mentioned the Stayers’ Hurdle, but Kemboy just doesn’t seem to be at his best at Cheltenham. His record there over hurdles and fences reads 55U7, and an Aintree/Punchestown plan looks like a good plan.

It was a disappointing run by Minella Indo on the face of it. Henry de Bromhead’s horse finished just fourth, almost seven lengths behind Kemboy. But this was his first run since he fell in the Savills Chase. A clear round and a decent run was almost certainly connections’ primary objective.

Barry Maloney’s horse remains a live Gold Cup prospect. Of course, he is going to have to improve from this if he is going to be competitive in a Gold Cup, but there is every chance that he will improve for it. He still has scope for progression, he has raced just seven times over fences, and we know that he is very good at Cheltenham. In two runs there, he has won an Albert Bartlett Hurdle and finished a close-up second in an RSA Chase.

Two other horses who were beaten at the Dublin Racing Festival but who remain live Cheltenham Festival contenders: Fakir D’Oudairies and Gentlemansgame.

Fakir D’Oudairies put up a game performance to finish second behind Chacun Pour Soi in the Dublin Chase. The Joseph O’Brien-trained gelding travelled well through his race and, while he had no response to the winner’s surge from the top of the home straight, he kept on well to finish second, seven lengths in front of Notebook in third.

This was much more like it from JP McManus’ horse. He was pulled up in the Savills Chase on his previous run, but the three-mile trip that day probably stretched his stamina beyond its limit. He was happier back over an extended two miles, but he could be happier still over two and a half and, as such, the Ryanair Chase looks like the right race for him at Cheltenham.

Winner of the Drinmore Chase last season, he was only beaten by one and a half lengths by Put The Kettle On in the Arkle last year, and he might have got closer to her had he not made a bad mistake at the second last fence. He won the Triumph Hurdle Trial too at Cheltenham’s January meeting in 2019, so we know that he operates at the track.

Gaillard Du Mesnil has the measure of Stattler at the last.

Gentlemansgame stayed on well too to take second place behind Gaillard Du Mesnil in the Nathaniel Lacy & Partners Solicitors Novice Hurdle. Second from early behind Stattler, Mouse Morris’ came under pressure when they quickened after the second last flight, and he ceded second place to Gaillard Du Mesnil on the home turn. But he stuck to his task gamely, and he got back up to snatch the runner-up spot from Stattler in the last two strides.

Winner of his only point-to-point for Donnchadh Doyle, and winner of his maiden hurdle by over 20 lengths on his only previous run for Mouse Morris, the Robcour gelding shaped here as if he would benefit from going further than this two-mile-six-furlong trip. As such, the Albert Bartlett Hurdle looks like a good Cheltenham Festival target for him.

This race has been run over two miles and six furlongs only since the inauguration of the Dublin Racing Festival in 2018, and it is emerging as a good guide to the Albert Bartlett already. The 2018 winner Commander Of Fleet finished second to Minella Indo in the Albert Bartlett, while the 2020 winner Latest Exhibition was only just beaten by Monkfish last year.

Finally, Rosey’s Hollow was impressive in winning the Grade 3 Solerina Hurdle at Fairyhouse on Monday. This race has been won in the past by Honeysuckle and Shattered Love and Laurina and Limini, and there was a lot to like about the performance that Jonathan Sweeney’s mare put up.

Under an astute ride by Mark Walsh, she moved nicely into the lead at the second last flight, and she showed a fine turn of foot to go away from two highly talented mares in Royal Kahala and Gauloise, keeping on well to win by two lengths. JP McManus’ mare has only raced four times over hurdles, she has the potential to go on from this, and both her trainer and her rider said afterwards that she could be even better over two miles. She will be of significant interest for the Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham should connections choose to aim her at that race.

For more of Donn's work visit www.donnmcclean.com

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