Donn's Articles » Christmas festivals review

Christmas festivals review 

At least we’re a little wiser now than we were four days ago.

We suspected that Aspire Tower was good before he lined up for the Grade 2 Knight Frank Juvenile Hurdle at Leopardstown on Thursday, and he confirmed that he is.  Henry de Bromhead’s horse was keen early on on his hurdling debut at Punchestown last month, but he still kept on well to beat two interesting juveniles in Sea Ducor and Wolf Prince.  Wolf Prince had enhanced the form by winning easily at Fairyhouse in the interim, and it was Gavin Cromwell’s horse who got closest to Aspire Tower on Thursday, but he was still 18 lengths away.

The winner was keen again early on, and he was still a little green but, under the excellent Rachael Blackmore, he always had matters under control.  He led from flagfall, jumped well, came away from his rivals as they rounded the home turn, and stayed on strongly to win by a wide margin.

It is safe to say that Aspire Tower is the best of the Irish juvenile hurdlers on what we have seen so far this season, and you have to think that he can improve again.  Rated 86 on the flat when he raced for Richard Hannon and Steve Gollings, he was still green on Thursday.  There is every chance that he can continue to progress as he gains in experience over hurdles. 

Allmankind looked very good again in beating Cerberus in the Finale Hurdle at Chepstow on Friday and, especially given that he is a similarly free-going type, it will be really interesting to see these two take each other on if and when they meet.  It is correct that they are both at the top of the Triumph Hurdle betting, disputing favouritism.  You can argue that they should both be even shorter than 7/1 or 8/1.

Thursday was a memorable day for Henry de Bromhead and Rachael Blackmore.  They were both back in the winner’s enclosure some 70 minutes after Aspire Tower’s win, teaming up with Notebook to land the other graded race at Leopardstown on the day, the Grade 1 Racing Post Novice Chase.

The race was billed as a match between Fakir D’Oudairies and Laurina, and it was a real shame that Laurina under-performed, but Fakir D’Oudairies set a high standard, the Drinmore Chase winner, and there is no reason to think that Joseph O’Brien’s horse didn’t run his race.

Notebook and Rachael Blackmore stalked the early leader Djingle from flagfall, jumped on at the second last fence, travelled well around the home turn and stayed on strongly from there over the last and up the run-in, always holding Fakir D’Oudairies’ challenge.

The Gigginstown House horse was just a good novice hurdler last season, a 135-rated novice hurdler, but he was already a better chaser than hurdler even before Thursday.  It’s his jumping. He is sharp and accurate over his fences, and that has propelled him to a chase mark of 158.  He can go higher too.

His first two chase wins, including the Grade 2 Craddockstown Chase, were at Punchestown, but he proved on Thursday that he could go left-handed over fences as well.  And he was conceding the 7lb four-year-olds’ allowance to Fakir D’Oudairies.  He deserves his lofty position in the market for the Arkle.

Faugheen doesn’t get an age allowance – it has been a while – but he doesn’t need one.  Just seven days shy of his 12th birthday, Willie Mullins’ horse was dynamite once again in beating Samcro in the Grade 1 Matchbook Betting Exchange Novice Chase at Limerick.

It looked like the younger horse was travelling better as they neared the end of the back straight, but Susannah Ricci’s horse was back travelling strongly when they straightened up for home, and he and Patrick Mullins came clear over the last two fences.

Near-12-year-olds don’t win Grade 1 novice chases – actually, near-12-year-olds don’t really run in Grade 1 novice chases – and they definitely don’t have potential Grade 1 targets at the Cheltenham Festival.  But Faugheen is an extraordinary near-12-year-old.  He could be aimed at the Marsh Chase (the old JLT), or the RSA Chase, or even the Gold Cup, given his advancing years.  Unless Patrick Mullins can convince his trainer to run him in the National Hunt Chase.  We should know more after he runs again at the Dublin Racing Festival next month. 

The Henry de Bromhead/Rachael Blackmore story continued on Friday, when A Plus Tard got the better of Chacun Pour Soi in the Grade 1 Paddy’s Rewards Club Chase.

The preamble was dominated by the return of Chacun Pour Soi and, when Willie Mullins’ horse jumped up into the front rank at the third last fence, it looked ominous.  But all the while, Rachael Blackmore was charting a quiet path on A Plus Tard.  She moved her horse towards the outside at the second last fence, they matched strides with new leader Chacun Pour Soi into the home straight and up to the final fence, and A Plus Tard proved to be the stronger horse up the run-in.

This was a career-best from A Plus Tard.  One of the most impressive winners at last season’s Cheltenham Festival when he took his field apart in the Close Brothers Chase, the Cheveley Park Stud showed the benefit here of his comeback run in the Fortria Chase at Navan.  The two-mile trip looked to be on the sharp side for him at Navan, but the extra furlong on Friday and the stiff track and the fast pace brought his stamina into play.

You can understand why he has been shortened in the Champion Chase betting on the back of this win, but the Champion Chase on spring ground over just short of two miles on the Old Course is a test of speed.  It may be that the Ryanair Chase is still the race for him at the Cheltenham Festival.  It appears that he is much better going left-handed than he is going right-handed, and the fact that he has Cheltenham Festival-winning form will be a big asset to carry into this season’s festival, whichever race he contests.

You can allow Chacun Pour Soi this defeat, on his seasonal debut, his first run since Punchestown in May.  It appeared that he simply tired on the run-in.  But there is still a presence about him.  The form of that Punchestown win, when he had the JLT Chase winner, the Arkle winner and Ryanair Gold Cup winner behind him, is as strong a piece of novice chasing form as there was around last season, and he could step up significantly on this run next time.

It was a half an hour later that the Gordon Elliott show began, and it ran all the way through the rest of Friday and through Saturday and into Sunday.  Abacadabras was good in winning the Grade 1 Paddy Power Future Champions Novice Hurdle on Friday, but his main rival Blue Sari under-performed, so the race didn’t take as much winning as it looked like it would.

In fairness to Abacadabras, he did what he had to do, Jack Kennedy didn’t have to be overly hard on him, but he probably didn’t achieve much more in winning on Friday, in beating the gallant mare Heaven Help Us, than he achieved in finishing second to his stable companion Envoi Allen in the Royal Bond Hurdle at Fairyhouse four weeks ago, or, indeed, in beating Latest Exhibition in the For Auction Hurdle at Navan last month.

Gordon Elliott’s horse is a top class novice hurdler, one of the best two-mile novice hurdlers in Ireland, but we knew that before Friday, and it was surprising that bookmakers shortened him by as much as they did – 5/1 to 3/1 in places – for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle on the back of Friday’s win.

Gordon Elliott and Gigginstown House and Jack Kennedy teamed up for a Grade 1 double on Saturday.  It was difficult to know what to expect from Apple’s Jade in the Grade 1 Frank Ward Memorial Hurdle, but the market expected plenty, she was sent off as 6/4 joint favourite, and she duly delivered.  She looked like the Apple’s Jade of old, and the crowd responded accordingly.

She was hassled early on by Killultagh Vic, but Jack Kennedy quickly had her into her racing rhythm, and it was apparent before they reached the second last flight that they probably wouldn’t catch her.  In the end, she won by 17 lengths, one length more than the margin by which she won the Irish Champion Hurdle last February.

That was her last victory before Saturday.  She had gone almost 11 months and five races without winning.  Owner Michael O’Leary said afterwards, one more and that probably would have been it.  Final whistle on her racing career.

Strange for a mare who continually jumps to her right, she has never been beaten at Leopardstown, a left-handed track.  She has raced there five times, and she has won five times.  They make her no better than 7/1 now for the Mares’ Hurdle at Cheltenham. 

Delta Work completed the Elliott/Gigginstown/Kennedy Grade 1 double when he got up in a thrilling finish to the Savills Chase.

The Network gelding had to bounce back from a disappointing run at Down Royal on his debut this season, but there were excuses for that run, and he is never at his best on his seasonal debut anyway.  He had to put up a performance though if he was to retain Gold Cup aspirations.  He did and he does.

His jumping was much better on Saturday than it had been at Down Royal and, taken towards the outside on the run to the final fence, he stayed on powerfully to overhaul Monalee inside the final 100 yards.

There is no doubting the fact that Gordon Elliott’s horse is a genuine Gold Cup contender.  He was one of the top staying novice chasers last season, he won the Drinmore Chase and the Neville Hotels Chase, and he might have finished even better than a close-up third in the RSA Chase had he had a better run through the race.  He is a thorough stayer, he is only six rising seven and, winner of the Pertemps Final in 2018, we know that he can operate under Cheltenham Festival conditions. 

Monalee was gallant in defeat, he was coming back at the winner on the run to the line, and Kemboy ran well for a long way.  Willie Mullins’ horse travelled well into the home straight for Paul Townend, he just seemed to tire from the final fence.  He won this race last year, but he had already had a run last season, whereas this was his seasonal debut.  He should come on for it.

Gordon Elliott and Gigginstown House had the 1-2 in the Grade 1 Neville Hotels Chase on Sunday, although the exacta didn’t pay what it would have paid had Carefully Selected and Minella Indo not been scratched because of the drying ground. 

It was a pity about the withdrawals, because it would have been a fascinating and surely a hugely informative race had they all stood their ground.  As it was, Battleoverdoyen and Davy Russell did what they had to do in seeing off Champagne Classic, although the older horse did give him a race, with the Matthew Smith-trained Lord Schnitzel picking up nine grand for completing.  It’s as you were in the ante post markets, no real change in Battleoverdoyen’s odds for the RSA Chase, no real change – maybe a slight tightening – in Champagne Classic’s odds for the National Hunt Chase.

Willie Mullins may not have had the Christmas festival that we probably expected him to have, but he still had nine winners, three at Limerick, six at Leopardstown.  That saw him home in the leading trainer award at Leopardstown.  Just shows you, expectations being sky high and all.  And in all that, he had two Grade 1 winners, Faugheen at Limerick on Thursday and Sharjah at Leopardstown on Sunday, both ridden by his son Patrick.

Patrick Mullins and Sharjah have history together.  They fell at the final flight at this meeting two years ago when they had the Grade 1 novices’ hurdle in the bag, but they bounced back to land the Galway Hurdle together the following summer, and they won the Matheson Hurdle last year in its Ryanair Hurdle guise. 

Sharjah had to bounce back from a disappointing run in the Morgiana Hurdle on his seasonal debut last month when he was strong in the market, and he did.  He bounced off the drying ground.

His stable companion Klassical Dream made a chance-ending mistake at the fourth flight and, when Sharjah loomed up on the outside of Petit Mouchoir on the run to the final flight, it was obvious that Patrick Mullins was holding on to more than Rachael Blackmore had.  Sharjah found plenty too, he quickened away on the run-in like a high-class horse.

The result caused another shake-up in the Champion Hurdle market, unsurprisingly, three days after JP McManus’ mare Epatante had been catapulted to the top of the market with a seriously impressive performance in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton.  Sharjah into 10/1 and 12/1, Klassical Dream out to 9/1 and 10/1. 

It may come down to a ground thing.  It may be: goodish ground, Sharjah; softish ground, Klassical Dream.  Both are Champion Hurdle players, don’t give up on Klassical Dream.  And don’t forget the other Willie Mullins horse, Saldier, who beat his two stable companions in the Morgiana Hurdle and who will hopefully be back in action soon.

There were others too.  Eric Bloodaxe kept on well to land the finale at Leopardstown under Tom Hamilton, and Joseph O’Brien’s horse was shortened again for the Champion Bumper.  Joseph O’Brien was also on the mark with The Moyglass Flyer, who stayed on gamely under Mark Walsh to land the Paddy Power Handicap Hurdle on Friday.  A five-year-old who was racing for just the third time in his life, JP McManus’ horse has bundles of scope for progression. 

Fury Road stayed on strongly for Davy Russell after giving his supporters a scare at the final flight to land the Grade 2 Lyons of Limerick Novice Hurdle at Limerick on Friday.  This race has been won by Faugheen, Martello Tower and Penhill in the recent past, and Gordon Elliott’s horse looks like a real Albert Bartlett Hurdle contender.  

Also at Limerick, Willie Mullins’ Punchestown Champion Bumper winner Colreevy won her maiden hurdle under Danny Mullins, Soviet Pimpernel looked good in landing the Grade 3 Irish Independent Hurdle for Peter Fahey and Kevin Sexton, and Liam Burke’s evergreen 11-year-old Sumos Novios stayed on strongly under Derek O’Connor to land the Tim Duggan Memorial Handicap Chase. 

And Melon.  Melon won his beginners’ chase at Leopardstown on Friday.  That seems like a long time ago now.

It was a deep week.  Take a breather.

 ©, 30th December 2019