This year’s Racing League is set for a fascinating conclusion after Wales & The West just about maintained top spot from Ireland.
Jamie Osborne’s defending champions have been blazing a trail throughout, but the Kevin Blake-managed Irish outfit enjoyed a good night at Newcastle last week and that was the case again at Wolverhampton on Thursday, with just the finale at Southwell on Wednesday to come.
Wales & The West led by 568 points to 496 heading into the fifth week at Dunstall Park, but by the end of play that was down to just two points (666 to 664).
After solid placed efforts in the opening few races, Ireland hit the jackpot with the Billy Loughnane-ridden, George Boughey-trained Koy Koy in race four – a win that also put crack apprentice Loughnane on 94 career winners, just one away from losing his claim.
Race five looked like going to Ireland, too, as Naxos and Dylan Browne McMonagle went for home, only to be swamped by Freddy Larson aboard Rebecca Menzies’ Painters Palette for Mick Quinn’s North team.
Even better for Quinn was that he played a joker, one that rewarded his squad with 70 points from the race.
Blake’s confidence seemed to be riding high for race six, as he too played a joker but the well-fancied 9-4 favourite Belgoprince and Loughnane had to settle for fourth place, one in front of another Irish runner, Percy Jones.
But while the points were still doubled for a positive Irish outcome that took them to the summit, Blake did admit to being disappointed the joker did not pay a better dividend, especially as he has no more left to play.
“We had a big chance to stick a nail in Osborne this evening, I feel we’ve only done half a job. When you play a joker you want better than that, so I’m disappointed,” he told Sky Sports Racing.
“Osborne with his two jokers will be tough next week, I don’t think we’ll be much weaker next week – I’ve got a good feeling about next week, I’ve got a bunch of trainers ringing and wanting spots which is exactly what you want.
“If Osborne nails his two jokers, we’re all in trouble, but if he scuffs one…”
The feature event of the night was the concluding William Hill Pick Your Places Racing League Race 35 Handicap, carrying £100,000 in prize-money and which produced success for the Scotland team, with Linda Perratt playing a joker and being rewarded by victory for George Baker’s Get It, ridden by Paul Mulrennan.
It also proved a critical race in the standings, as placed horses for Wales & The West saw them just about back on top, to add to the feeling of what might have been for Blake.
Notable also on a night where Saffie Osborne was not in action in order to be able to take a full book of rides for her father’s team at Southwell, was that McMonagle seized the opportunity to eat into her advantage at the top of the jockeys’ standings.
“I didn’t think I was as close to Saffie as that, I’m creeping up quite nicely,” he said.
“I don’t know if I’ll be able to come over next week, but I’ll take it as it comes.”
Away from the Racing League, McMonagle is looking forward to a big weekend at the Irish Champions Festival, including Joseph O’Brien’s Atlantic Coast in Saturday’s KPMG Champions Juvenile Stakes at Leopardstown.
He added: “He’s a lovely colt, he couldn’t really have pleased us more the first day at the Curragh. Also our two-year-olds usually progress from their first runs so what he showed us on his debut was really special. We’ll be confident of a good run, but it’s obviously competitive racing so fingers crossed.”