Donn's Articles » The Irish challenge

The Irish challenge

It is easy to cite the defections and claim that the Irish challenge has been weakened.  No Don Cossack, no Faugheen, no Annie Power, no Vautour, no Coney Island, no Min, no Valseur Lido.  Now no Don Poli, no Zabana, no The Storyteller.   If the Irish Cheltenham team was a football team, you would easily be able to argue that they are travelling this week without their spine.

Despite the absences however, the Irish Cheltenham challenge looks strong.  No Irish trainer’s Cheltenham team has been harder hit than the Willie Mullins team.  You take Vautour and Faugheen and Annie Power and Min and Getabird out of any team of racehorses, and you have a weakened team.  Natural instinct is to play defensively.

But Mullins has strength in-depth.  Last year’s Closutton Cheltenham party of 60 may have been reduced to somewhere around 40 this year, but 40 is still a monstrous number, and you know that none of the 40 would be travelling if they didn’t have a genuine chance of being competitive.  No room for passengers.  There’s your quality in-depth.

There will be 14 Grade 1 races run at Cheltenham this week.  As things stand at present, even without some of his most talented horses, the Irish champion trainer is responsible for six of the 14 ante post favourites: Douvan, Un De Sceaux, Melon, Limini, Yorkhill and Carter McKay.  It is an extraordinary show of strength.

And it could be seven soon, as Djakadam closes in on Cue Card and Native River at the top of the Gold Cup market. 

Runner-up in the race in each of the last two years, Djakadam has had a clear run into the race this year, unlike last year.  Mullins deliberately side-stepped last month’s Irish Gold Cup with Susannah Ricci’s horse in order to take him to Cheltenham a fresh horse.  Jackie Mullins reasoned, they have won nine Irish Gold Cups and no Cheltenham Gold Cups, so why not try it this way.  Willie Mullins has fielded the runner-up in the last four renewals of the Cheltenham Gold Cup.  This could be the year that the universe corrects itself.

Gordon Elliott is having an incredible season, leading the run for the Irish trainers’ championship, and this week the Longwood trainer fields his strongest Cheltenham team ever.  Numerically, it may not be that far off Mullins’ team, maybe 30 rather than 40, and, like the Mullins team, it does not lack quality.

Death Duty wears the captain’s armband.  The Gigginstown House horse was a high-class bumper horse last season, but he has stepped forward this term for stepping up in trip and stepping over hurdles.

He has run four times over hurdles this season, and he has won four times.

After he won the Grade 1 Lawlor’s Hotel Novice Hurdle at Naas in early January, his trainer said that he would go for the Albert Bartlett Hurdle at Cheltenham, that that would be the next time we would see him.  True to his trainer’s word, Death Duty has not raced since, and he is a warm order for the Grade 1 three-mile novices’ hurdle on Friday.

Elliott also said at Naas that day that the Shantou gelding was the best novice hurdler that he had ever had.  Better than No More Heroes at this stage of his career, better than Don Cossack.  As commendations go, they don’t get much higher.

Elliott also has Mega Fortune for the Triumph Hurdle, Outlander for the Gold Cup, Empire Of Dirt probably for the Ryanair Chase, Apple’s Jade for the Mares’ Hurdle, Cause Of Causes for the Cross-Country, Shattered Love for the Neptune Hurdle, and a whole host of high-class horses for the handicaps, Tombstone and Diamond King and Mick Jazz and Jury Duty and Automated and Squouateur and Noble Endeavor. 

The trainer has had eight Cheltenham Festival winners so far in his career.  He could add a few to that tally this week.

But the Irish challenge is not all about Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott.  Like Elliott, Henry de Bromhead has assembled his strongest Cheltenham Festival team yet, with realistic hopes in both the Champion Hurdle and the Gold Cup. 

Petit Mouchoir may not have received the credit that he was due for winning the two big Grade 1 two-mile hurdle races at Leopardstown during the winter, the Ryanair Hurdle at Christmas and the BHP Insurance Irish Champion Hurdle in January.  

The Gigginstown House horse is not flashy, he does not possess a searing turn of foot, but he is a real galloper who has improved this season and who seems to thrive under these aggressive tactics.  It is not easy to make all the running in the Champion Hurdle, but you don’t want to be too far back either and, if he is left unharried on the front end, he could have a few of them in trouble on the run down the hill.

Champagne West is similar in that he likes to be allowed bowl along, as he proved when he danced in in the Thyestes Chase at Gowran Park last time.  He hardly missed a beat that day under David Mullins.  With the exception of a mistake at the fifth last fence, he was foot perfect, and he probably won with significantly more than the seven-length winning margin in hand.

The Gowran feature is often a pointer to the following year’s Grand National, but it has also acted as a Gold Cup guide in recent years.  Djakadam won the Thyestes Chase off a mark of 145 two years ago before he finished second in the Gold Cup.  On His Own won the Thyestes Chase three years ago off a mark of 142 before he went to Cheltenham via the Bobbyjo Chase at Fairyhouse and was beaten a nostril in the Gold Cup.

Champagne West won the Thyestes off a mark of 154, 9lb higher than the mark off which Djakadam won it.  He is now rated 166, and that puts him on the Gold Cup ballpark.  A little bit of rain before Friday, and he could make them all go.

And there is further strength.  Jessica Harrington’s team is spearheaded by Gold Cup aspirant Sizing John and by 2014 Champion Hurdle hero Jezki, who goes in the Stayers’ Hurdle this year.  Noel Meade has the second favourite for the JLT Chase in Disko and the favourite for the National Hunt Chase in A Genie In Abottle.  Mouse Morris has Alpha Des Obeaux for the RSA Chase, Joseph O’Brien has Landofhopeandglory and Edwulf and Ivanovich Gorbatov. 

And there are other pockets of strength.  Gavin Cromwell has Jer’s Girl and Prospectus, Peter Fahey has Peregrine Run, Pat Kelly has Presenting Percy and hopefully Mall Dini, Sandra Hughes has Acapella Bourgeois, Tony Martin has Long Call, Enda Bolger has Cantlow and Avergnat and, of course, On The Fringe, bidding to win his third Foxhunter Chase in as many years.

It’s a strong spine all right.  It’s a strong team.


© The Sunday Times, 12th March 2017