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Irish Gold Cup day

Things change.  Sponsors change, names change.  The Aviva Stadium is not Lansdowne Road any more, regardless of where it is, and the O2 is now the 3Arena.  That’s the point.

When next Saturday’s renewal of the Irish Gold Cup is run at Leopardstown, it will be the first time since 1991 that it will be run without the Hennessy banner.  It is reverting to its origins.  Before it was the Hennessy, it was the Irish Gold Cup, the Vincent O’Brien Irish Gold Cup.  Back to its roots.

They are deep roots too.  Forgive ‘N Forget won it, Imperial Call won it, Dorans Pride won it.  Florida Pearl won it four times, Beef Or Salmon won it three times and Carvill’s Hill won it twice, once for Jim Dreaper and once for Martin Pipe.

The Irish Gold Cup is a top class prize in its own right, a target, a primary objective, but the nature of the race and its position on the calendar determines that it should also be an accurate pointer to the Cheltenham Gold Cup in March.

And that was once the case.  Jodami won the first of his three Irish Gold Cups in 1993 then went on to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup, while Imperial Call completed the double three years later.

Somewhat surprisingly, that is the last time that an Irish Gold Cup winner has won Cheltenham’s blue riband.  Florida Pearl went close in 2000 and Sir Des Champs went close in 2013, but no horse has completed the double since Imperial Call.  That is 20 years ago this year.

Noel Meade confirmed on Friday that Road To Riches is on track for Saturday’s race, and that is good news.  Winner of the Grade 1 Lexus Chase last season over Saturday’s course and distance and third in last year’s Cheltenham Gold Cup, the Gigginstown House gelding looked good in winning the Clonmel Oil Chase on his debut this season.

A slight setback ruled him out of the Lexus Chase last month, but that may be a positive in the context of the season as a whole.  He should arrive at Leopardstown on Saturday a relatively fresh horse, and he has a big chance.  He is a little bit of a forgotten horse this season.

Road To Riches could be joined in Saturday’s line-up by fellow Gigginstown horse Don Poli.  One of last season’s top staying novice chasers, winner of the RSA Chase at Cheltenham, Don Poli did not impress everybody when he won the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown last month.  But he is a battler, a grinder.  The Willie Mullins-trained gelding has been beaten just once in six runs over fences, and he is a horse who only ever does as much as he needs to do.  He will rarely be impressive, but he has an engine all right.

It looks like last year’s winner and runner-up, Carlingford Lough and Foxrock, are set to line up.  Carlingford Lough will have to bounce back from a lack lustre effort in the Lexus, but Foxrock ran a cracker there to finish a close-up third, a length behind Don Poli and a half a length behind First Lieutenant, who also holds an entry in Saturday’s race.

There is a strong supporting card on Saturday too, with three other Grade 1 races and the promise of a host of Cheltenham pointers.  Windsor Park, second in the Deloitte Hurdle on Irish Gold Cup day last year, went on to land the Neptune Hurdle at Cheltenham five weeks later, while On The Fringe, second in the Raymond Smith Memorial Hunters Chase, went on to win the Foxhunter at Cheltenham.

In 2014, four horses who ran on Irish Gold Cup day at Leopardstown went on to win at Cheltenham.  Vautour won the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, Tiger Roll won the Triumph Hurdle, Tammys Hill won the Foxhunter and Lord Windermere won the Gold Cup.  In 2013, Irish Gold Cup day at Leopardstown produced five Cheltenham Festival winners: Champagne Fever, Our Conor, Salsify, Flaxen Flare, Lord Windermere again.

Deep roots, fertile ground.

© The Sunday Times, 31st January 2016