Saturday proved something of a reputation buster, with upsets on either side of the Irish Sea causing inevitable shockwaves on the Cheltenham Festival markets.
Ireland had more than their fair share of shocks with numerous hotpots hitting the buffers. The opener at Leopardstown very much set the tone for the afternoon. Ivanovich Gorbatov had started the day as the Triumph Hurdle favourite on the back of an impressive hurdle debut at the track over Christmas. Strongly fancied to follow up, he struggled to go with the strong pace set by Jer’s Girl and Let’s Dance. In trouble turning for home he failed to land a blow and finished 10 lengths back in fourth.
The Willie Mullins trained Footpad stayed on best of all for a surprise win, further strengthening the juvenile stronghold of owners Simon Munir and Isaac Souede. They now have three of the top six in the Triumph Hurdle betting, having taken first and second in last year’s renewal. The winner is built for fences and appeared well suited by the testing conditions. Quicker ground at Cheltenham would prove problematic, though he’ll be flying up that hill.
Let’s Dance stayed on well for third in Saturday’s race, despite having done much of the donkey work up front. Her action suggests she’ll be suited by a sounder surface and I was taken by her performance. She’s lightening quick over her obstacles and looks to have a bright future.
The demise of Ivanovich Gorbatov will have surprised many, but he had surely been over-hyped on the evidence of just one run. Bellshill on the other-hand had a strong bumper campaign and several impressive victories over hurdles on his CV. Challenging Yanworth at the head of the Neptune market, he was sent off strong favourite for the Deloitte Novice Hurdle. Nevertheless, he too had his inflated reputation punctured when trailing home third, behind surprise winner Bleu Et Rouge and Gordon Elliott’s Tombstone.
Sent on by Ruby Walsh he led until approaching the final flight, but had no answer to the powerful finishes of the front two. Tombstone loomed large at the last, but it was the McManus owned runner, also trained by Mullins, who found most for pressure, scooting clear for victory. He’d run with great promise when finishing behind Tombstone and Long Dog at Christmas, but was ridden more prominently this time round by Barry Geraghty.
The jockey is already set to partner Neptune favourite Yanworth at Cheltenham, but Mullins suggested that race would be the likely target for Bleu Et Rouge, saying: “He ran very well here at Christmas and he learned an awful lot so after talking to Mark (Walsh), Barry went out there with a bit of confidence. The horse looked a bit green going to the last, but Barry thought if he could keep a little bit up his sleeve for after the last, he might beat Tombstone, which he did. All the jockeys are saying the ground is very testing so another two or three furlongs of the Neptune might suit him.”
It was a taking performance from an improving sort, though the win probably only served to strengthen the confidence in a Yanworth success in March. The result was however another boost for the form of the Future Champions Novice winner Long Dog. He’s likely to head for the Neptune with spring ground at Cheltenham sure to suit.
Gigginstown jockey Bryan Cooper had voiced concerns over the testing ground as the Irish Gold Cup approached. And so it proved when race favourite Road To Riches appeared unable to cope with the testing conditions, finishing a well-beaten second to last year’s winner Carlingford Lough. Noel Meade’s charge lacked his usual zest and though showing plenty of guts to be involved in the finish, never looked like coming out on top.
The race appeared to be going the way of Gigginstown’s Valseur Lido, but a last fence blunder plunged Ruby Walsh into the dirt, leaving the way clear for the strong finishing McManus owned runner.
After the race a deflated Meade spoke of Road To Riches, saying: “Watching the race I was never happy and Bryan came back and said the horse was never really carrying him. We always feared the ground and maybe that contributed to the way he ran. We'll see how he comes out of it and then make plans.”
On Sunday the trainer appeared more enthusiastic when saying: “He seems to be OK, which is good. I think they just went too quick. He never got into a rhythm, and was back and forth a bit in the race. He was only just beaten in the Gold Cup last year so I think he should go back there again. Good ground would help him but it's up to the owners which race they want to go for.”
It’s clear that Meade feels his horse has a chance in the Gold Cup, but the owners have Don Poli, Don Cossack and Valseur Lido all vying for a place on the starting line. Road To Riches has proven himself capable of winning over shorter, and the bookies probably have it right with the horse as short as 5/1 for the Ryanair.
Many pushed him out to 20s for the Gold Cup and they were doing the same with Peace And Co after his lacklustre performance at Sandown. Henderson’s Champion Hurdle hope has done little right so far this winter, and this latest setback surely ends all hope of a win at Cheltenham in March. Or so you would think.
Despite another desperate performance his trainer refuses to throw in the towel, and a check on Peace And Co’s breathing is now on the agenda, with Henderson saying: “It's been a bit of a hotch-potch preparation in that, as you know, we were trying to run a fortnight ago and although we mended it pretty quick, when you miss three days you might as well miss a week. It wasn't ideal. I'm not making excuses; he will come on for the race quite a lot. But that's not the point really - he switched off, he jumped well, he travelled well, he just didn't come home.”
Time of course is running out with The Festival just a month away. The Irish are coming, and they’ll take some stopping.