The punters were loving it in the packed grandstands at Leopardstown during the two days of the Dublin Racing Festival as favourite after favourite went in, writes Tony Stafford. A host of Grade 1 races meant a conveyer belt of superb winners, confirming the power of the big stables almost in the manner of the Cold-War style May Day Parades in Moscow’s Red Square.
For armoured tanks and missile launchers read Mullins chasers and hurdlers, Elliott juveniles and handicap chasers not to mention the odd De Bromhead stealth bomber still to taste defeat in 14 faultless sorties.
Honeysuckle and Blackmore; Chacun Pour Soi and Townend; and, most demoralising for all the existing Gold Cup stars, a demolition job by Conflated and Russell in the Paddy Power Irish Gold Cup, at 18-1 which brought only a temporary respite for the layers on Saturday.
Conflated can certainly describe Mr Ryanair. He has the twin roles of running Ireland’s most visible and visibly competitive airline along with a still massive undertaking with Gigginstown House Stud. The culls in the latter direction have clearly become evident. Only nine in the maroon colours appeared during the two days and 15 races of the Festival, a long way short of the days when the sort of big-money handicap chases and hurdles on offer here would have usually included half a dozen of his representatives in each. Whatever happened to all those caps? JP’s are all different colours to theirs so no taker there!
Gordon Elliott’s suspension last year coupled with the Covid restrictions were a convenient moment conflatedly to confirm Michael O’Leary’s support for Elliott and at the same time accelerate the cull. The horse Conflated, happily for the magnate and his racing manager brother Eddie, ran in the Gold Cup despite Eddie’s view he had no chance.
The relative outsider, although well backed in the lead-up to the race, had far too much speed for last year’s Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Minella Indo – showing something of his true self – and the rest. The one coming through late into the Gold Cup field often beats the established stars at Cheltenham. He usually has had fewer hard battles and knocks lingering in the recesses of his consciousness to shrink from on the big day.
We – or at least our trainers – moan about the way the Irish come and pinch our biggest prizes every March, with last year’s almost total oblivion, perhaps, being the final straw. Paul Nicholls seems to err on the cautious side at Cheltenham these days in favour of more serious involvement at Aintree at the Grand National meeting but he did make a challenge for two of this weekend’s big prizes.
Frodon, who had beaten Minella Indo at Down Royal on their joint reappearance back in the autumn – with Galvin splitting the pair – does not have a Cheltenham entry this year. This was his Cheltenham, running in a three-mile rather than three-and-a quarter-mile Gold Cup on Saturday.
The near-veteran put up his usual prominent showing under Bryony Frost, but when the taps were turned on over the second-last they were immediately raising a white flag, coming home a remote last of the seven finishers more than 20 lengths behind Conflated.
Then yesterday, Greaneteen, outpointed last time by Shishkin at Kempton having previously won the Tingle Creek, was utterly rolled over finishing last of five, miles behind Chacun Pour Soi in the Dublin Chase, a Grade 1 extended two-miler.
Those two obviously below-par performances will have been a sobering experience for Nicholls, a man who recently clocked up his domestic century of winners this season, just after Donald McCain and before the upwardly and geographically-mobile Irishman Fergal O’Brien.
More to the point though at a time when complaints about UK prizemoney are unrelentingly put forward by trainers and owners alike, surely it was an indictment of the lack of enterprise here that no other UK trainer – and there are more than 500 of them if you include permit holders – was daring enough to have a shot at the €2,881,500 on offer for the 15 races.
In all, 91 prizes were available over the two days and between them Messrs Mullins and Elliott snaffled 42% of the money – Mullins €702,000 from seven wins, five thirds, five fourths, seven fifths and three sixths; and Elliott almost precisely half a million from three wins, seven second places, two thirds, two fourths, six fifths and one sixth place.
In an almost exact proportion of prizes they collected 41 of the 91 on offer. The usual suspects filled in for the rest with Henry de Bromhead just about keeping his head above water with Honeysuckle’s wide-margin victory in the Chanelle Pharma Irish Champion Hurdle.
Understandably Honeysuckle was roared all the way from the winning line to the enclosure by an enraptured crowd finally allowed to give vent on a racecourse to their feelings. For what it’s worth, my view watching from the owners’ room at Kempton – my first time at one of my favourite spots on the circuit for almost two years – was that there were a couple of slightly worrying elements.
She probably got a little lonely out in front and while there was never a proper challenge, it wasn’t as smooth as some of the earlier wins. You have to wonder – well I did anyway – whether she might be getting bored with the whole “I’m miles better than the rest of you” girl-power routine?
Why Kempton, you might ask? Well I was there to watch the comeback of Jonathan Barnett’s Year Of The Dragon – sorry mate, it’s the Year of the Tiger! – after seven months off. A strong-finishing third, while a little short of peak suggests a win next time. February 24 at Newcastle fits William Knight’s penchant for sending his horses to that northern outpost. Fill your boots!
On another fill your boots theme, I had a nice chat with Dermot Weld at the sales at Newmarket on Thursday and he had news of his Chester Cup winner from last year. His Falcon Eight, under Frankie Dettori, took advantage of lenient UK handicapping to win the big staying prize from a mark of 104.
This Thursday he will have his second run over hurdles in a near-three-mile novice event at Thurles and as Dermot said: “When he wins he’ll go to the Albert Bartlett. And by the way, the English trainers were moaning about his handicapping and getting their knickers in a twist but he had been dropped only 4lb!” True enough Dermot, but to be dropped at all after finishing fourth in the Irish St Leger wasn’t exactly harsh treatment by BHA’s finest! We’ll be cheering for you on Thursday though with our vouchers for the potato race at the Festival warming our inside pockets for the next few weeks.
Returning to Leopardstown, surely the most eye-opening performance of the lot was Saturday’s bumper victory of Facile Vega, trained by Willie, ridden by Patrick and the second foal to run of their great champion mare, Quevega. I sort of hinted what I would be doing if I owned a mare of such quality – much as Michael Tabor did in his mating for Refinement that produced Walking On Air - and send her to Derby runner-up Walk in the Park. Suppose it’s easy if you own both the mare and the stallion!
It worked fine for Facile Vega’s workmanlike first run but here he was so dominating in outclassing a field of previous winners that the trainer seems set for a ridiculous 12th success in the Champion Bumper with a horse that is odds-on even before the entries are known.
Last year’s winner of that race, Sir Gerhard, was not the first string when he made it 11 for the maestro that day and, with Rachael Blackmore riding, he overcame hot favourite Kilcruit and Patrick Mullins, who himself had been ultra-impressive in this race twelve months ago.
Yesterday, in the Cheveley Park Stud colours and with only a single defeat – by Kilcruit when they reconvened at Punchestown, the gelding brought his tally to five out of six with an easy win in the Grade 1 novice hurdle. Now we have to wait and see whether another re-match is possible. More pertinently, perhaps, will be which Nicky Henderson star, the afore-mentioned Walking On Air (who would need to be supplemented) or Constitution Hill or Jonbon, he prefers to face before deciding on the Supreme or Ballymore.
The relentless march of the big Irish stables with their ability to identify and then secure with their greater financial power the best prospects is a trend that no end of BHA committees, tough talk from trainers and retaliation from handicappers will arrest any time soon. Major owners increasingly have their horses trained over there as there are meetings like last weekend’s when they can tilt for almost €3 million. Would it were so in England!