What looks set to be one of the races of the season so far is in prospect at Leopardstown on Monday, with a field of 14 declared for the Savills Chase.
The three-mile feature sees any number of Gold Cup contenders in action, with the Henry de Bromhead-trained Minella Indo favourite to stretch his unbeaten record over fences to three in the hands of Rachael Blackmore.
But dangers abound, including the Gordon Elliott-trained trio of Samcro, Presenting Percy and Delta Work – who bids to defend his crown under Jack Kennedy.
Willie Mullins has a team of five – featuring 2018 winner Kemboy, Allaho, Easy Game, Melon and Tornado Flyer.
De Bromhead also runs A Plus Tard and Balko Des Flos, with Joseph O’Brien saddling Fakir D’oudairies and Jessica Harrington sending out Jett.
Noel Meade’s Tout Est Permis completes the high-class line-up.
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Gordon Elliott is looking forward to saddling several of his stable stars over the busy Christmas period – but Envoi Allen will not be one of them.
The Cheveley Park Stud-owned six-year-old is arguably the most exciting National Hunt horse in training, having won each of his 10 starts to date, most recently producing a foot-perfect display in the Drinmore Novice Chase at Fairyhouse.
Envoi Allen holds upcoming entries at Leopardstown and Limerick, but is instead set to head for Punchestown in mid-January.
“Envoi Allen is one horse who won’t be in action over Christmas,” Elliott told Betfair.
“We’ve made the decision to head to Punchestown on January 17 for a Grade Three novice chase over two and a half miles and it looks a very suitable race for him before we prepare him for the major spring festivals.”
The first Grade One of the Christmas Festival at Leopardstown is the Racing Post Novice Chase on December 26, in which Elliott plans to saddle Felix Desjy.
The Cullentra handler has three contenders for the Grade Two Knight Frank Juvenile Hurdle on the same card in impressive Fairyhouse scorer Zanahiyr, Quilixios and Duffle Coat.
The trainer had raised the possibility of instead sending the latter pair for the Finale Juvenile Hurdle at Chepstow on Sunday, although that will now not be possible in light of the latest travel restrictions put in place between Ireland and Britain.
Elliott said of Zanahiyr: “He could well run in the Knight Frank Juvenile Hurdle. He’s in great shape and came out of his last run very well, so we’re keen to let him take his chance.”
Elliott confirmed his Royal Bond winner Ballyadam will bid to double his top-level tally in Leopardstown’s Future Champions Novice Hurdle on December 27.
The following afternoon he is set to be triple-handed in both the Leopardstown Christmas Hurdle and the Savills Chase.
“I’d say we could run Fury Road, Sire Du Berlais and The Storyteller in the Christmas Hurdle. Fury Road does like some ease in the ground, so we will keep an eye on the ground at Leopardstown,” Elliott added.
“The Savills Chase is going to be one of the races of the season and I’d like to think we are fielding three strong candidates in Delta Work, Presenting Percy and Samcro.”
Elliott is favouring the Matchbook Betting Exchange Faugheen Novice Chase at Limerick on December 26 for the exciting Pencilfulloflead, leaving the way clear for his stablemate Conflated to line up for the Neville Hotels Novice Chase at Leopardstown on December 29.
Abacadabras and Petit Mouchoir, a relatively new recruit to the yard, are set to take their chance in the Matheson Hurdle on the final day at Leopardstown.
Elliott said: “The four days after Christmas are always hugely important for us and, while this year will be very different in so many ways, it will be business as usual in terms of runners.
“Over the four days of Leopardstown and Limerick we will be pretty busy and hopefully we can emerge from those festivals with a reasonable haul of winners and I’d like to think we have some strong contenders for some of the big races over the next week.
“Leopardstown at Christmas is both an important and special meeting, but it won’t be same without anybody there this year. It will feel strange as there is always a great buzz around the place which won’t be there unfortunately.
“One thing that will stay the same is the quality of action on the track and we’re running plenty of our big names, so it’s going to be an exciting few days.”
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Delta Work and Presenting Percy lead a five-strong team for Gordon Elliott in the Ladbrokes Champion Chase at Down Royal.
The Cullentra handler has saddled three previous winners of the first Grade One of the Irish jumps season in Roi Du Mee (2013), subsequent Cheltenham Gold Cup hero Don Cossack (2015) and Outlander (2017) – and appears intent on adding to his tally.
The likely favourite on Saturday is Delta Work, who was disappointing when well fancied 12 months ago, but went on to claim a huge Grade One double at Leopardstown in the Savills Chase and the Irish Gold Cup, before finishing fifth in the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
“Delta Work never got into a rhythm in the Gold Cup and wasn’t beaten that far,” said Elliott.
“He jumped well all season prior to that. Jack Kennedy seems to be the key to this horse – he seems to really travel and do everything right for him.”
Presenting Percy makes his debut for Elliott, after being moved from Pat Kelly’s yard.
The nine-year-old looked every inch a potential Gold Cup winner when dominating his rivals in the 2018 RSA Chase, but he has never quite re-discovered that brilliance since – and was behind Delta Work twice at Leopardstown last term before falling at Cheltenham.
Elliott added: “Presenting Percy is a horse I like, and I’m looking forward to running him.
“I’d seen the horse plenty of times at the races before he arrived here, so I knew enough about him. I was thrilled to get the phone call and I’m very lucky to get him.”
Kennedy has returned from injury in time to renew his partnership with Delta Work, while Denis O’Regan rides Presenting Percy.
The Storyteller (Keith Donoghue), Alpha Des Obeaux (Bryan Cooper) and Ravenhill (Mark Walsh) complete the Elliott quintet.
Few trainers have their horses in better form than Noel Meade, who saddles Snow Falcon and Tout Est Permis in a bid for a third successive victory in the race following the back-to-back triumphs of the currently sidelined Road To Respect.
Meade said: “Snow Falcon is getting on a bit now. But he worked well on Tuesday morning – and so did Tout Est Permis.
“Snow Falcon might find a few of the younger fellows hard to beat, but he’s in good form and goes well fresh.
“We ran Tout Est Permis over hurdles a few times last year because he looked very well handicapped, but it never quite worked out.
“He finished second behind The Storyteller at Punchestown a couple of weeks ago, and I think he’s come on a ton – I think he’ll put up a big show.”
Henry de Bromhead’s pair of Chris’s Dream and Balko Des Flos complete the nine-strong field.
The main supporting race on Saturday’s card is the Grade Two Lough Construction Ltd. Chase, in which Elliott’s dual Cheltenham Festival hero Samcro takes top billing.
The eight-year-old bolted up on his chasing debut over the course and distance last season before ending his campaign with a narrow but memorable victory over Melon and Faugheen in an epic Marsh Novices’ Chase in the Cotswolds.
“We went down the Champion Hurdle route with him a couple of seasons ago, and that didn’t work out, but he didn’t do much wrong last year,” said Elliott.
“He won in Down Royal and then fell in the Drinmore in Fairyhouse when I felt he might have won.
“It was a terrible decision by me to run him in heavy ground at Limerick over Christmas (when second to Faugheen).
“Sometimes you get lured into running in these races because they’re Grade Ones and you want to support them, but he won’t be running in heavy ground this season.
“I’d say he’ll go to Down Royal, then the John Durkan, the Kinloch Brae and then the Ryanair Chase in Cheltenham. He’ll probably have an entry in the King George as well – that’s what I have in my head at the moment.
“He’s in great form.”
Samcro is joined by stable companion Battleoverdoyen, with the Willie Mullins-trained Easy Game appearing the biggest threat.
Jessica Harrington’s Sizing Pottsie and Eamon Delaney’s Yaha Fizz are the other hopefuls.
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Gordon Elliott is happy to let Delta Work clash with his new stable companion Presenting Percy in the Ladbrokes Champion Chase at Down Royal.
Delta Work finished a disappointing fourth in the first Grade One of the Irish National Hunt season last term, but raised his game to complete a top-level double with victories in the Savills Chase and the Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown.
The Gigginstown House Stud-owned gelding rounded off his campaign by finishing fifth in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, and Elliott hopes he can find the necessary improvement to go even closer in the blue riband next March.
“To be only be beaten six lengths in the Gold Cup, with the way he jumped, I thought was very good,” said the Cullentra handler.
“He’s only seven, so he’s still a young horse – and I haven’t given up on him yet.
“If his jumping brushes up, he’s in the mix.”
Presenting Percy has never quite looked the same horse since his stunning display in the RSA Chase at the 2018 Cheltenham Festival.
Not too far behind Delta Work in both races at Leopardstown last season, however, the nine-year-old was making late headway when falling two fences from home in the Gold Cup at Cheltenham – and has since joined Elliott from Pat Kelly’s yard.
Elliott will train Presenting Percy for the Gold Cup, but also views him as a live Grand National contender.
“The race at Down Royal (on Ocotber 31) is a Grade One, so I’d have no problem running the two of them – and I could run two or three more with them,” he added.
“Presenting Percy is a horse I’ve always looked up to and said ‘he’s a horse you’d love to have’. I’m very lucky to have him.
“He probably has to improve half a stone to be a Gold Cup horse, but he ran well in a couple of those races in Leopardstown last year and was running a good race in the Gold Cup when he came down.
“To me, he has Grand National written all over him. He’s a good jumper who has a bit of class.
“I’d love to win a Gold Cup with him – but if that didn’t happen, the Grand National is in the back of my head.”
Elliott already houses a dual Grand National winner, of course, in the hugely popular Tiger Roll.
The 10-year-old holds an entry on the Flat at Navan on Thursday, but appears unlikely to take up the engagement.
Elliott said: “I stuck him in just to keep my options open, but I don’t know if I’ll run him.
“If the ground is good up in Down Royal I’d run him in the big race (Ladbrokes Champion Chase) there as well – if not I might keep him for the Boyne Hurdle in Navan.
“He’s in great form, and has been the horse of a lifetime.
“If everything goes well, we’ll dream about going back to Aintree this season.”
Three other Elliott stars set to reappear at Down Royal are Envoi Allen, Abacadabras and Samcro.
Envoi Allen is due to make his debut over fences at the Lisburn circuit; Champion Hurdle aspirant Abacadabras is pencilled in to contest the WKD Hurdle, and Samcro is bound for a Grade Two chase for second-season novices.
Elliott said of Envoi Allen: “He was bought to be a Gold Cup horse, and that’s the way we’re going to train him.
“He doesn’t do anything flashy at home – he’s just the real thing when he gets on to the track.
“I’m looking forward to starting him off in Down Royal. He’s going to come on from it – but if he’s going to be the horse we think he is, he should be winning in Down Royal.”
Abacadabras was last seen going down by just a short head to Nicky Henderson’s Shishkin in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, while Samcro bounced back to his best to beat the Willie Mullins-trained pair of Melon and Faugheen in a titanic tussle for the Marsh Novices’ Chase.
“I think Abacadabras has improved – he’s stronger looking. We’ve never really had very good two milers, but this horse is pretty quick,” said Elliott.
“Samcro is a very good horse, and I’ve been lucky to have him.
“Everyone says him winning at Cheltenham was a great training feat, and it was grand – but for me, running him in Limerick on that heavy ground at Christmas (when second to Faugheen) was a terrible training decision.
“I’m not going to make that mistake this year – if there’s heavy in the going, he won’t run.
“I’d say he’ll go to Down Royal, then the John Durkan, the Kinloch Brae and then the Ryanair Chase in Cheltenham. He’ll probably have an entry in the King George as well, but that’s what I have in my head at the moment.”
When asked what his one wish would be for the 2020/21 National Hunt season, Elliott did not hesitate in saying: “To be champion trainer.
“It was heart-breaking to get beat by Willie in the final week of the season at Punchestown in 2018 and in 2019 – we just got beat as well. Hopefully it’ll happen some day, and if it ever does I’ll really appreciate it.
“I think if you’re training horses, if you don’t want to be champion trainer, why would you do it? If you’ve got one trainer with an ambition of training 20 or 30 winners a year and another who wants to be champion trainer, I know who I’d like to have a horse with.
“We’re very lucky to have the amount of horses we have – hopefully we can keep them in one piece and have a good season.”
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