To Fairyhouse we go for today’s preview, as I put Monday's Irish Grand National under focus.
I was tempted to look at the All-Weather Championships from Lingfield. But there’s a huge story developing in Ireland, and unless Willie Mullins has a fabulous Fairyhouse, followed by a pulsating Punchestown, we will have ourselves a new King of Irish Jump racing.
A victory in Monday’s showpiece for Gordon Elliott could prove the killer-blow, with the race now the richest in the Irish Jump racing calendar. There is €500,000 in the prize fund, with €270,000 going to the winner. A maximum field of 30 may well contain half a dozen of Elliott’s squad, which must be a concern for the master of Closutton, who could have just two or three making the cut.
Elliott’s Bless The Wings came within a short-head of winning the race 12 months ago, when just failing to catch the Gigginstown owned Rogue Angel. The same silks were carried to victory a year earlier, when Thunder And Roses took the race for Sandra Hughes. Elliott has a glut of Gigginstown contenders this time round, as Michael O’Leary looks for the hat-trick.
The trends point to a lightly raced winner. Seven and eight-year-olds have the dominant record in the 3m5f marathon, with seven of the last 10 renewals going to the age group. However, the roll of honour is peppered with nine, 10 and 11-year-old victors, and they should not be dismissed out-of-hand.
As with Aintree, weight carrying is a major factor in success or failure. Even more pronounced than at Liverpool, a horse needs to be carrying less than 11 stone to win this race. Commanche Court was the last horse to carry more to victory, when winning in 2000, and he went on to finish runner-up to Best Mate in the Gold Cup a couple of years later. Those rated in the low to mid-130s have been particularly successful in recent times, though that type of mark may miss the cut this year.
Gordon Elliott’s Lord Scoundrel is set to land top-weight of 11-10 when final declarations are announced this morning. He’s a talented young chaser who will appreciate the sounder surface. He took the Galway Plate back in July, but has been off the track since November, and that’s hardly the ideal prep for this.
Noble Endeavour and Clarcam follow-on for Elliott, with the former capable of going well off a huge weight. He’ll also enjoy the ground, and arrives off the back of a cracking effort at Cheltenham, when third to Un Temps Pour Tout.
The favourite for the race is Jess Harrington’s novice, Our Duke. He’s a class act, and I’m a little surprised that he is heading here. He dodged Cheltenham, with connections saying that they wanted to ‘look after him’ with his future in mind. He’s only run three times over fences, and though the race tends do favour a novice, he is exceptionally inexperienced for this. He’s a horse I like a lot, but at this stage of his career I’d be stunned if he wins. Robbie Power can do no wrong, and he’ll take the ride, with the betting suggesting punters are confident of a huge run.
Thunder And Roses only got as far as the ninth fence at Aintree, and may remain fresh enough to do himself justice. He likes Fairyhouse, though did underperform in this race last year. Now with Mouse Morris, he’s just about on a handicap mark that would give him an each-way squeak.
Tiger Roll is another of the Gigginstown battalion that has an each-way chance. He was sensational at Cheltenham when winning the four-miler, and decent ground is crucial to his chances. He sauntered to victory in the Munster National back in October, and is arguably Elliott’s best shot at success.
All the above lie a little higher in the handicap than ideal, and there’s several from the bottom-end that appeal.
Though Willie Mullins may only have a few making the start, Haymount is one that looks to have a huge chance. Another that needs decent ground, he ran well in the four-miler at Cheltenham despite being keen throughout. He doesn’t lack gears, having beat Coney Island and Mall Dini earlier in the season at 2m4f. He’s a consistent sort, and I fancy he’ll go close.
Mall Dini is another with a shout, and has the right kind of profile. He was perhaps a little unfortunate at Cheltenham last time, when hampered late-on in the Fulke Walwyn Chase. He’s as short as 8/1 for this, though I’m not sure he warrants being half the price of Tiger Roll and Haymount. Nevertheless, he’s likely to go well despite still being a maiden over fences.
Abolitionist is another from the lower end of the handicap that has been attracting attention. Trained in County Kilkenny by Ellmarie Holden, this would be something of a fairy-tale success. Leading novice Rachael Blackmore takes the ride, and the horse tuned-up for this with a gutsy win in the Leinster National at Naas. The nine-year-old looks a thorough stayer, and is ideally weighted.
I’m a huge fan of Our Duke, and if he runs well I’ll be thrilled, but I can’t have him for this at 5/1. Mullins versus Elliott will remain the theme for the remainder of the season, and there’s every chance that they’ll be battling it out for this valuable prize. I’m keen on Haymount and Tiger Roll, and will be backing both. Best of luck to all those having a punt.