Ile Atlantique faces the acid test of his Cheltenham Festival credentials as he leads the four-strong Willie Mullins-trained team into battle in the rearranged Lawlor’s Of Naas Novice Hurdle.
The race fell victim to the fog that descended on the Kildare track on Sunday, but thankfully the ultra-competitive Grade One event has been saved and Mullins will be bidding for a record-extending ninth win in the contest, 19 years after first striking with Homer Wells.
Closutton stable jockey Paul Townend has elected to link up with Ile Atlantique after the duo sauntered to a 19-length success on hurdles debut at Gowran.
The six-year-old brings smart bumper form to the table – including a narrow defeat by chief market rival Firefox – but connections appreciate this is a huge leap up in class on just his second start over obstacles.
“He’s going from winning a maiden hurdle to a Grade One and it’s a big ask, but Firefox is doing the same and so are a few other horses in the race,” said Sean Graham, racing manager to Ile Atlantique’s owner Tony Bloom.
“You don’t know how much improvement a horse can find after winning a maiden hurdle, but then are they good enough to win a Grade One?
“The bumper form has held up well and we’re hoping he’s as good as everyone thinks he is, but it’s only his second run over hurdles and its a big ask going straight in there at Grade One level. I asked Willie if there was any chance of giving him another run before going into Grade One company and Willie said those races don’t exist anymore.
“He’s a classy horse and he works with all the best horses Willie has, but until he goes and does it, you are not quite sure. If we run on Friday and finish fifth or sixth, then you’ve got to think maybe Cheltenham isn’t on the cards then, so it will be a learning curve for us as well as the horse. We’re just hopeful he will run his race.”
Not only does Friday’s contest represent a step up in grade for Ile Atlantique, it is also the first time he will race beyond two miles in Ireland.
Despite that, he is already single-figure odds with the majority of bookmakers for the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival and connections feel that is currently his most likely Prestbury Park target if all goes according to script.
“We always felt on his bumper form he would need further, but when Paul rode him at Gowran Park, he more or less said he wasn’t a slow horse,” continued Graham.
“We didn’t think three miles would be his trip this year and the Albert Bartlett would be too far for him, but the Ballymore is in his stretch. That is not to say next year he won’t get three miles, or further over fences in the future.
“We’re hoping he will run well and the Ballymore is his most likely target, but Friday will tell us a lot more.”
Joining Ile Atlantique from Closutton is easy Clonmel scorer Chapeau De Soleil, who will be the mount of Patrick Mullins, Navan runner-up Lecky Watson (Danny Mullins) and the four-timer-seeking Readin Tommy Wrong (Daryl Jacob).
If Mullins is the race’s most successful trainer, then it is Gordon Elliott who has dominated the recent history winning four of the last seven runnings.
Death Duty (2017), Battleoverdoyen (2019), Envoi Allen (2020) and Ginto (2022) have all struck for Elliott in the past and it is Firefox who carries the Cullentra House handler’s main hopes this time around.
Following his documented exploits in bumpers, which includes the defeat of Ile Atlantique, he has claimed the scalp of the highly-regarded Ballyburn since turning his attentions to hurdling – form that was given a timely boost over the Christmas period.
Elliott has a second string to his bow in the form of Croke Park, who arguably sets the standard on hurdling form, having landed the Grade Three Monksfield at Navan last time out.
“We’re looking forward to both of our horses and we hope they’ll run well,” said Elliott.
“Firefox was good the last day and I don’t think stepping up in trip will be a problem to him.
“Croke Park is a good horse as well and hasn’t done much wrong.”
The only runner not trained by Mullins or Elliott is Henry de Bromhead’s An Tobar, who steps up in trip after finishing third in the Grade One Royal Bond at Fairyhouse.
De Bromhead’s race planner Robbie Power said: “He ran very well in the Royal Bond on what was only his second ever start over hurdles. With that experience and the step up to two and a half miles, this looked a good race to go for.
“The Fairyhouse race looked a strong Grade One, as the winner, Farren Glory, looked like he was going to win another Grade One at Aintree over Christmas (before falling) and the runner-up, King Of Kingsfield, was very impressive winning at Leopardstown over Christmas, so it is strong form.”
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