Donn's Articles » Review-preview


Times were when the loss of a racing fixture meant just that, the loss of the fixture, never to be seen again, lost to the black hole that is the elements, complete with a blank entry in the racing annals. Not any more. Increased flexibility and forward planning and the introduction of a smattering of common sense on behalf of the racing authorities means that, when a meeting falls to the weather these days, on either side of the Irish Sea, at least some of the top races can be saved and run when and if the weather relents.

Such flexibility facilitated the staging of some top class racing at Cheltenham and Fairyhouse last week. Indeed, claims that the eight-race card that was run at Fairyhouse on Wednesday, with its four Grade 1 contests, was the best single day’s National Hunt racing ever staged in Ireland, may not be that far wide of the mark.

Top of the bill at the County Meath track, among a host of potential bill-toppers, was probably the return of Mikael D’Haguenet to the racecourse, all-conquering novice hurdler of two seasons ago, unbeaten in his six hurdle races but built like a chaser, absent for the entire of last season through injury. It was a brave call by Willie Mullins to pitch him into the Grade 1 Bar One Racing Drinmore Chase on his first run in a year and a half, his first chase in Ireland, but Mullins doesn’t do brave calls without due care and consideration, and this one looked justified as Mikael D’Haguenet loomed up alongside Jessies Dream on the run to the final fence.

The strange thing was that he jumped the fence well, he hardly touched it, sailed over it and seemed to land sure-footedly, then suddenly his legs were gone from under him and he was sprawling on the floor, Paul Townend thrown clear. It is impossible to know how the race would have panned out had Mikael D’Haguenet not fallen, the Gordon Elliott-trained Jessies Dream is a top class novice who stays well, and Mikael D’Haguenet may have been just shy of absolute peak fitness, but there is no doubt that the Mullins horse was travelling better on the approach to the last.

In victory, Jessies Dream was registering a first Grade 1 success for Grand National-winning trainer Gordon Elliott and staking his claim as one of the top staying novice chasers around. He is sure to improve for stepping up in trip, he is a live RSA Chase contender, and talk of travelling to Kempton to contest the Feltham Chase on St Stephen’s Day is interesting, although owner David Johnson seemed to think afterwards that that race might come up too soon.

Excepting the fall, Mikael D’Haguenet could hardly have been more impressive. He travelled supremely well, his jumping was exemplary, and he remains one of the most exciting staying chasers in training. Quotes for the Gold Cup as well as the RSA Chase are not as outlandish as they first appear.

Hurricane Fly and Solwhit were at it again in the Hatton’s Grace Hurdle. Tied at one-one in two previous encounters, the punters and the bookmakers favoured the Charles Byrnes-trained horse, mainly because he had had a run already this season and because the two-and-a-half-mile trip may have been more in his favour, but it was Hurricane Fly who came out on top.

In so doing, the Willie Mullins-trained gelding proved his wellbeing and solidified his position towards the top of the Champion Hurdle market. All things being equal, it looks like he will run next in the Festival Hurdle on the last day of Leopardstown’s Christmas Festival. A Cheltenham Festival absentee for the last two seasons, hopefully he will make it there this time.

The Champion Hurdle market just gets more intriguing. At Cheltenham on Saturday, Menorah usurped Binocular’s position at the top of it when he put young pretenders Cue Card and Silviniaco Conti in their respective places. The next Binocular installment will be in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton on St Stephen’s Day.

Woolcombe Folly bounced his way into the Champion Chase picture when he won the first race at Cheltenham on Saturday, a hot two-mile handicap chase, clocking a faster time than his stable companion and Champion Chase favourite Master Minded clocked when he won the re-scheduled Tingle Creek Chase, run over the same course and distance two hours later.

Reigning champion of this division, the Colm Murphy-trained Big Zeb, will continue his progress towards the defence of his crown in the Paddy Power Dial-A-Bet Chase at Leopardstown on 27th December.

The season is warming up. Hopefully the weather will soon.

© The Sunday Times, 19th December 2010