Donn's Articles » Christmas week in Ireland

Christmas week in Ireland

It was some week in Ireland, Christmas week.  It always is.  Time to look back a little now.  Time to take stock.  

Standard-bearer of the week

It was an incredible week for Willie Mullins.  By any standards.  Even by the exalted standards that he himself sets.

The champion trainer had 51 runners at Leopardstown and Limerick over the course of the week, and 16 of them won.  That’s a strike rate of over 31%, during the Christmas Festivals, one of the most competitive periods on the Irish racing calendar, and that is quite remarkable, but even those stats don’t tell the full story.

Six of those wins were in Grade 1 races.  There were the expected ones, Chacun Pour Soi and Appreciate It and Monkfish, all under the assured guidance of Paul Townend, but when the proclaimed ‘first string’s missed their respective targets, there was back-up. 

Like, when Blackbow fell, Franco De Port stepped up.  When Asterion Forlonge came down, Colreevy came forward.  When Saint Roi finished fourth, Sharjah finished first.  Again.  In his race.  At his meeting.  He and Patrick Mullins are now three out of three in the Matheson Hurdle, and they have never been sent off favourite.

Just shows you, the strength in-depth that Willie Mullins has, in horses and in riders.  The six Grade 1 winners were ridden by four different riders, Bryan Cooper (Franco De Port) and Danny Mullins (Colreevy) joining Paul Townend and Patrick Mullins on the Grade 1 winners’ roster. 

And it wasn’t just in the Grade 1 races that Mullins excelled.  There were classy performances from Concertista in the Grade 3 mares’ hurdle on Tuesday and from Ramillies in the bumper on Monday.  And he bagged big handicaps too, Castlebawn West in the Paddy Power Chase, Dandy Mag in the Pertemps Qualifier, Dysart Diamond in the novices’ handicap hurdle on Saturday. 

As well as that, there were back-on-track performances.  Gaillard Du Mesnil looked good in winning the two-and-a-half-mile maiden hurdle at Leopardstown on Monday, leaving his defeat at Punchestown on his hurdling bow behind him, while The Big Getaway consigned his Navan defeat to the annals in running out an impressive winner of the beginners’ chase later on the day, a beginners’ chase that has been won in the past by Lord Windermere and Djakadam.

The thing about the Christmas festivals is that, if you have a good Christmas, as well as the fact that you have had a good Christmas, it all augurs well for the rest of the season.  We are only half way, and Willie Mullins has had a great Christmas festival.  It’s all very ominous. 

Thriller of the week

The Savills Chase, no question.  It was billed as they race of the week, and it was.  Henry de Bromhead must have gone through the full gamut of emotions watching the race.  First, Minella Indo’s departure, heart-sinking, expletive-eliciting.  Check that Rachael is okay, check that Minella Indo is up and sauntering away (check, check), then look to see where A Plus Tard is, clinging to a 15/2 shot when seconds earlier you were a 6/4 shot.

In mid-division, that’s where he was, travelling easily within himself, in a nice racing and jumping rhythm for Darragh O’Keeffe, in the blue Cheveley Park cap but not strictly the red and white Cheveley Park silks.  Melon and Kemboy and Tout Est Permis had a bit of a break on the field as they raced down the back straight and, when the two Willie Mullins horses dropped their grey travelling companion, it looked like they might have it between them.  Actually, with Allaho moving into third place under Paul Townend in the white Cheveley Park cap, it looked possible that Willie Mullins would have the 1-2-3 in the Savills Chase, as well as everything else.

But Darragh O’Keeffe had other ideas.  It may have been his first ride in a Grade 1 race, but he rode his horse with the confidence of a man who had ridden in bucketloads of them.  Eight lengths behind the leaders on the run to the second last fence, and still he sat.  He didn’t ask his horse for his effort until he landed over that obstacle.  

And, even when they landed over the last, it still didn’t look likely.  It was probably half way up the run-in that Kemboy traded at 1.01 in-running, and A Plus Tard traded at 150, but the Kapgarde gelding dug deep, responded to his young rider’s urgings, and got up to win by a half a length.

Remarkably, it was only a second Grade 1 three-mile chase win for Henry de Bromhead.  The first was Valseur Lido, who won the Champion Chase at Down Royal on his first run for De Bromhead after he arrived from Willie Mullins.  All the trainer’s other Grade 1 wins – and there are many – had been over hurdles or over shorter. 

He has gone close in the interim.  Sizing Europe was prolific over two miles, but just came up short over three.  He ran over three miles three times, in the Champion Chase at Down Royal three times, and finished second three times.

Monalee won the Flogas Chase as a novice, but that is over two miles and five furlongs.  Balko Des Flos won the Ryanair Chase, Minella Indo was just beaten by Champ in the RSA Chase.

Now the trainer has a Grade 1 staying chaser all right, maybe two of them, maybe three of them.  He currently has two of the first three in some lists in the betting for the Cheltenham Gold Cup and, if Monalee happened to beat Al Boum Photo in the (other) Savills Chase at Tramore on New Year’s Day, he could have three of the first five or six.

Most impressive winner of the week

The competition for this one was intense – Grand Roi in the four-year-olds’ Grade 2 hurdle at Limerick on Tuesday, Get My Drift in the maiden hurdle at Leopardstown on Saturday, Ciel De Neige in the maiden hurdle at Limerick on Monday, Ramillies in the bumper at Leopardstown on Monday – but it might just go to French Aseel, winner of the juveniles’ maiden hurdle at Leopardstown on Sunday.

We didn’t know much about Ellmarie Holden’s horse before he lined up on Sunday.  We knew that he had raced nine times on the flat in France, that he had won once, and that he had been picked up by Michael Shefflin and Paul Holden for €62,000 at the Arqana sale in July.

He was well backed though, he was sent off the 7/2 favourite, and those who helped send him off at that price never really had too much to worry about.  Settled just behind the leader Royal Marksman early on by Denis O’Regan, he travelled well, moved to the front on the run out of the back straight, and just went clear.  One length in front as they raced to the home turn, he had put another 21 lengths between himself and his pursuers under an almost motionless O’Regan by the time he reached the winning line.

It was a long run-in, into the sun and with no final flight to jump, but it didn’t faze this hurdling debutant.  This is a race that has been won in the past by Ivanovich Gorbatov and Sir Erec and, if you were looking for a challenger to Zanahiyr – Gordon Elliott’s horse himself enhanced his reputation further with an impressive victory in the Grade 2 juveniles’ hurdle on Saturday – at the top of the juvenile hurdlers’ tree, you might have found him.

Heart-warming win of the week

After Master McShee had won the two-mile handicap hurdle on Sunday, trainer Paddy Corkery was asked by Gary O’Brien on Racing TV how many horses he had in training.  In response, the trainer said that he had been talking to another trainer recently, who told him that he had 50 horses in training.  If I had 49 more, said Corkery, I’d have the same number as him 

It was a heart-warming victory, a small trainer on a big stage.  Corkery has done some job too with Master McShee.  The Malinas gelding ran Appreciate It to two and a half lengths in his maiden hurdle at Cork in November, the pair of them clear, before easily landing his own maiden hurdle back at Cork earlier this month. 

The handicapper gave him a mark of 132 after that and, obviously the trainer thought that that was a mark that was low enough to make Sunday’s race a viable target.  He was right too, he came clear of Sea Ducor under Ian Power, and Sea Ducor was, in turn, clear of the remainder.  A six-year-old with just three hurdle races on his CV, Master McShee could be progressive enough too to withstand the 11lb hike with which the handicapper has rewarded him. 

Ride of the week

There are many contenders: Darragh O’Keeffe on A Plus Tard, Bryan Cooper on Franco De Port, Patrick Mullins on Sharjah, Gearoid Brouder on Johnnys Girl, Jonathan Moore on Flooring Porter, Danny Mullins on Colreevy.  Also, Paul Townend on Castlebawn West in the Paddy Power Chase on Sunday, and James O’Sullivan on Burlesque Queen in the two-and-a-half-mile handicap hurdle on Monday. 

The Townend and O’Sullivan rides were very different.  Townend got to the front at the third fence, and dictated from there.  He got his horse travelling and jumping, in a lovely rhythm, and set the pace to suit his horse.  Stacked his rivals up behind him.

It didn’t look like it was the plan, to try to make all.  Townend started his horse off in mid-division, along the inside.  But by the time they jumped the second fence, it looks like it became apparent to the rider that there wasn’t a great pace on, so he allowed his horse move forward and move into the lead by the time they rose at the fourth fence.  That’s what top class riders do: adopt tactics to suit circumstances as they evolve.

It may be that Casltebawn West was the best horse in the race on the day, even at the weights, anyway, but the ride that he got maximised his chance of winning, and probably accentuated the magnitude of his superiority.

It was an unusual Paddy Power Chase, in that they concertinaed up at the end of the back straight.  As they raced to the second last fence, remarkably, there were 17 horses within four lengths of each other.  That was a function of the pace that Paul Townend dictated.

James O’Sullivan was also very good on Burlesque Queen.  He got his horse jumping and travelling on the soft ground, and he allowed her make her ground gradually, up on the outside of Rapid Response and on the best of the ground as they raced to the home turn.  Western Boy challenged on his outside in the home straight and moved to his left, taking James O’Sullivan and Burlesque Queen with him, probably onto the worst of the ground.  As the pair of them came clear, O’Sullivan took his mare from behind Western Boy, towards the outside, back onto the better ground.  The hit the front just inside the furlong marker and kept on well to win by a length and a half.

Again, Burlesque Queen may have won anyway, but the ride that James O’Sullvian gave Liz Doyle’s mare maximised her chance of winning, and that is exactly all that you want from a rider.

He-who-dares award

Gavin Cromwell and The Flooring Porter Syndicate could have run Flooring Porter in the Pertemps Qualifier at 12.40 on Monday, in which he would have received 2lb from top weight Cracking Smart, but they didn’t.  Instead, they chose to pay the supplementary fee that would put him into the 1.15, the Grade 1 Leopardstown Christmas Hurdle.

He took on some of the best staying hurdlers in the country, and he beat them well.  He was given a really nice front-running ride by Jonathan Moore too.  The rider got his horse into a good rhythm from early in front, and he got his breathers into him.  He allowed his rivals close up to within a half a length of him as they raced out of the back straight final time, but he kicked on again from there.  He went on again around the home turn and stayed on well over the last and up the run-in to win by six lengths, providing his rider with a deserved first Grade 1 win. 

Flooring Porter was the second lowest-rated horse going into the race.  If the race had been a handicap, he would have been receiving weight from five of his six rivals.  If the race were to be run again tomorrow though, after the handicapper’s re-assessment, he would be the highest-rated horse in it, he would be giving weigh to all his rivals.  Gavin Cromwell’s horse is now rated 37lb higher than he was when he won a handicap hurdle at Gowran Park in July, and he deserves his place at the staying hurdlers’ top table. 

©, 30th December 2020