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Power Struggle Continues as Elliott Captures Lexus

The last few days have done much to ignite the trainers’ championships either side of the Irish Sea.

In Ireland, Team Mullins have been in astounding form. On Monday, a trio of victories at Leopardstown was matched by a treble at Limerick. On Tuesday, the Closutton guys bagged a stunning five-timer at Leopardstown. And yesterday a further four victories were added to the incredible haul. Douvan, Min, Vroum Vroum Mag and Bellshill, have been among the high-profile winners, as Mullins unleashed the ‘big guns’.

With such a flurry of success, it was vital that Gordon Elliott struck back, and this he certainly did when winning the valuable Paddy Power Chase on Tuesday, and yesterday capturing the Grade 1 Lexus Chase in a truly thrilling renewal. With the combined winnings of almost €200,000, Elliott has managed to maintain his advantage at the head of the Trainers’ Championship.

In the Lexus, it came as something of a surprise when Elliott scooped first and second with Outlander and Don Poli. The former was trying three miles over fences for only the second time, whilst the latter was returning from a truly stinking effort at Down Royal. The Mullins trained Djakadam was sent off favourite, and held a prominent position throughout. But as the leaders quickened turning for home, Walsh needed to get serious to keep the favourite in touch.

At the last, a trio of Gigginstown horses appeared to have the race between them, with Bryan Cooper on Valseur Lido making a race winning move. But somewhat surprisingly, he wilted in the heat of battle, leaving Don Poli, Outlander and the staying-on Djakadam tussling for major honours. And it was Outlander that found most for pressure, pulling clear for a two-length success.

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The trainer was understandably thrilled with both when saying: “Don Poli was brilliant, David was brilliant, Outlander was good and Jack was great. I feel a bit sorry for Bryan, who had to make the decision, but he'll be back. We've been out hunting with Don Poli and took the headgear off to try and sweeten him up today and it looked to have worked, then Jack was riding Outlander to be placed and coming to the last I started to get excited.”

Elliott went on: “I thought Outlander's last run was his career-best and, sure, he improved again today, didn't he? It was touch and go whether he ran here, but with the ground drying out we decided to come. He was only beaten about a length by Djakadam at Punchestown the last day, and one jump made the difference between winning and losing. I suppose the obvious race is to come back here for the Irish Gold Cup. I'm delighted with Don Poli, and I'd say the Grand National is the plan with him.”

Interestingly, with the trainers’ title in mind, Mullins spoke of sending Djakadam straight to Cheltenham, thereby missing the valuable Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown in February. Elliott currently leads the title race by almost 300,000 euros. And his firepower in valuable handicaps, both over hurdles and fences, coupled with the dramatic ascent of Outlander, give renewed hope that he may well take this title-tussle to the brink.

If Elliott versus Mullins continues to thrill, then the Tizzard v Nicholls dual also took a twist or two over the Christmas period.

It’s fair to say that the depth of talent at Ditcheat continues to give them the edge. With 99 wins from more than 300 runs, Nicholls probably has the numbers to cling to his title. Yet Colin Tizzard remains a huge threat, thanks in the main to his three outstanding chasers, Cue Card, Native River and Thistlecrack. With the Welsh National and King George VI Chase secured, the gap at the top of the title table was reduced to just £200,000.

Whilst Tizzard had a Christmas full of joy, Mr Mix at Wincanton was Team Ditcheat’s lone winner from nearing 20 runners. Frodon and Present Man were also-rans in the Kauto Star Novices’ Chase at Kempton. Marracudja was kicked aside by Altior in the Wayward Lad Chase, and though Silviniaco ran a cracker in the King George, he never looked like winning. At Chepstow, Vicente was a distant sixth in the Welsh National.

The season ending festivals will play a huge part in the outcome of this year’s championship, and you’d have to say that it’s Team Tizzard that appear to hold the stronger hand. It’s an enthralling season on so many fronts, but these training power tussles, are arguably proving to be the most captivating narrative of all. The dominant forces of Mullins and Nicholls find themselves in a mighty scrap, and neither make a habit of coming off second best.

Gigginstown and Mullins Split

News of Allardyce losing the England job was tough to comprehend, but was the Gigginstown split from Mullins truly that unexpected?

Of the parting, Mullins told At The Races: “We're parting company - it's basically over fees, I imagine. I put up my fees for the first time in 10 years and Gigginstown chose not to pay them. That's it, we're just parting company. I'm not willing to try to maintain the standards I have (without putting the fees up), so that's the way it is.”

Ireland’s Champion Trainer continued his candid assessment by saying: “Everyone that comes into my yard is treated the same. I see enough people going to the wall in Ireland all the time. We've evolved our methods of training, which obviously costs a lot, and we're not prepared to sacrifice that. They've been very good to us over the years, they've bought some fantastic horses and there's a fantastic team of horses going to whoever is going to get them, I don't know where they are going to go.”

“It's only been in the last few hours this has come about. I wish them the best, it's the way it is, we move on. They'll be very hard horses to replace. Even with all the money in the world, lots of people try to buy horses like that, but sometimes they just happen. We've put together a fantastic team with Eddie O'Leary and ourselves but that's it. It's there now and the team is there for someone else to train.”

In the region of 60 horses will therefore be heading to pastures new, with the likelihood that Mullins’ major rival in Ireland, Gordon Elliott, will be the main beneficiary. There’s little doubt that Elliott training the Gold Cup winner for Gigginstown, would have made this type of decision easier for the O’Leary’s to take. Elliott is now proven at the highest level and O’Leary can be confident that such a switch will not be to the detriment of the horses involved.

And many of those horses are highly talented. With details yet to be confirmed, it does appear that Elliott will be getting Don Poli. He may have failed to win the Gold Cup at Cheltenham, but he did win the Grade 1 Lexus Chase at Leopardstown, and at the age of seven is still open to further improvement. With doubts remaining over the fitness of Don Cossack, the arrival of a replacement ‘Don’ will prove a huge tonic for Elliott and his team.

Several talented youngsters are also expected to head to the County Meath trainer. The sensational filly, Apple’s Jade, proved devastating at both Aintree and Punchestown before her summer break. Such was her level of performance that Mullins commented: “She has to be the best juvenile I’ve trained.” Another campaign over hurdles is likely, though she is bred for fences and certainly has the scope to excel over the larger obstacles.

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Blow By Blow is another with the potential for stardom. He took the Grade 1 Bumper at the Punchestown Festival, beating the classy Moon Racer in the process. He looks sure to become a talented novice hurdler, before inevitably making his mark over fences. By successful Jumps sire Robin Des Champs, he’s out of a Roselier mare, which suggests he’ll be all the better for a trip.

Other outstanding types that Mullins is sure to miss include Grade 1 novice chaser Outlander, who fell at the Cheltenham Festival prior to solid performances at Fairyhouse and Punchestown. Valseur Lido is another that will be missed at Closutton. He was second to Vautour in the Ryanair Chase, on unsuitably quick ground, and was also a Grade 1 winner as a novice chaser.

Two other youngsters likely to make an impact when switched to fences are Bello Conti and Petit Mouchoir. Both were towards the top of pile in the novice hurdle division last winter, and Mullins would have been looking forward to sending them over the larger obstacles.

Gigginstown released an official statement on the matter to RTE Sport, which said: “As Gigginstown House Stud has been unable to reach agreement with Willie Mullins on an increase in training fees, we have agreed, with considerable regret, to move the Gigginstown horses to alternative trainers for the coming 2016/17 season.”

The statement continued: “Gigginstown wishes to sincerely thank Willie and all the team at Closutton for the many Grade One races we have won together over the past seven years. We hope that an agreement can be reached at some time in the future which will allow Willie to resume buying and training more graded winners for us. While we part at this time with regret, we wish Willie and all the team at Closutton continued success.”

Of course Mullins still has powerful owners onside, with the likes of the Andrea and Graham Wylie investing heavily, and Rich and Susannah Ricci’s ever increasing battalion of stars. Nevertheless, this news comes as a blow for the team at Closutton, and is sure to have a huge impact on the outcome of this season’s Irish Trainers’ Championship. There’s also added spice with the prospect of numerous winter confrontations between Mullins/Ricci and Elliott/Gigginstown horses.

I’m also of the opinion that power sharing under Mullins was becoming increasingly problematic for Michael O’Leary. Rich Ricci carries a lot of weight within the Closutton operation, and seems happy to leave much of the decision making to his trainer, whilst there were occasions when an undercurrent of friction was clearly visible between O’Leary and Mullins. Valseur Lido’s Cheltenham Festival target proved a prickly issue, with the trainer steadfast in his belief that the horse should be stepped-up in trip, yet a clash with Vautour proved inevitable with O’Leary’s refusal to bow to trainer pressure.

Gigginstown are very much the major player within the Elliott yard, and the trainer will be able to place their horses without taking into account the wishes of other powerful owners. Financial reasons may be cited as the cause of the split, but this divorce was always on the cards.

Cue Card – Truly Exceptional

With the Grand National being covered extensively by the boss, I decided in today’s piece to turn my attention to the exceptional talent that is Cue Card.

His performance in the Betfred Bowl Chase was truly stunning, and at the age of 10 he has become one of the most popular horses in training. The Willie Mullins pair of Djakadam and Don Poli did their utmost to run the sting out of Tizzard’s star, but Paddy Brennan had all angles covered and when he asked Cue Card to turn on the turbo’ at the third last, the response was devastating. He swept clear to win by nine lengths, with Don Poli battling on for second.

The Gold Cup is the ultimate test for a top-class staying chaser, and trainer Colin Tizzard will know that he had his horse ready to win at Cheltenham. However, it wasn’t to be on this occasion and his relief at some form of redemption was clear when he said: “I have been saying all season he is in the form of his life and he showed it again today. He has got such an engine on him now, there is no bottom to him. This was fantastic. It was so disappointing at Cheltenham and I am just proud of the horse. It is a brilliant day.”

Tizzard also confirmed that his horse would now head to Punchestown, making a mouth-watering clash with Don Cossack a realistic proposition. “The real big one escaped us this year, but that just shows what a horse he is at the moment,” added the trainer. “He is 10 now and is better than he has ever been. He will go to Punchestown. I entered him yesterday, it was always going to be on the cards. He hasn't had a hard race; he is 10 so there is no reason not to go there.”

It’s clear that whilst Cue Card is in rude health his trainer is keen to allow him to run. There’s been periods during his career when that was simply not possible. Breathing issues, pulled muscles and a stress fracture of his pelvis, are just some of the ailments that have laid him low over the years. However, when on the track, fit and well, he has proven to be an outstanding racehorse.

He exploded onto the scene as a four-year-old in 2010 when romping to victory in the Champion Bumper at Cheltenham. He was sent off a 40/1 outsider and had Al Ferof eight lengths back in second. That stunning success ensured that he entered his first season over hurdles as one of the leading novices, with many anticipating a bold show in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle back at the Cheltenham Festival. He was duly installed as race favourite, but in a stellar renewal could only manage fourth behind Al Ferof, Spirit Son and Sprinter Sacre.

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He was campaigned over the minimum trip for much of his novice chase year, culminating in a second place finish in the Arkle behind the exceptional Sprinter Sacre. He finished seven lengths adrift that day, a performance that can now be reflected upon with great pride.

The 2012-13 campaign saw him step-up in trip, after initially winning the Haldon Gold Cup at Exeter. Still only a six-year-old, he was sent to Kempton to contest the King George, but failed to spark under ‘hold-up’ tactics in testing ground. He bounced back to form in the Ascot Chase when thrashing Captain Chris; a horse that had finished well ahead of him in the King George just a month or so earlier.

The Ryanair Chase at Cheltenham became the logical target after such an impressive win over 2m5f at Ascot, and that decision was justified when Cue Card ran out an impressive winner by a yawning nine lengths. That victory set up a clash with Sprinter Sacre at Aintree in the Grade 1 Melling Chase, a race that will live long in the memory, and a race that he probably failed to get due recognition, as it was probably one of his greatest performances.

It was Sprinter Sacre that received the accolades for his stunning victory at Aintree, in a truly dazzling display, yet for Cue Card to get within five lengths that day is testament to just how exceptional he is. The two pulled 20 lengths clear of Flemenstar and Finian’s Rainbow. It was an outstanding display by both horses.

The following winter saw him campaigned as a staying chaser. He took the Betfair Chase at Haydock, running away from Dynaste and Silviniaco Conti, giving hope that another crack at the King George would prove successful. Kempton’s showpiece looked sure to go his way until he appeared to run out of gas late on, with Silviniaco profiting.

A spell on the side-lines prevented him from running at Cheltenham in 2014 and when he returned for the 2014/15 season he looked a shadow of his former self. Tizzard discovered the reason for the loss of form when the horse was found to have a trapped epiglottis. The successful operation has allowed the horse to see out the extended trips and has resulted in a truly incredible winter for both horse and trainer.

Victory in the Charlie Hall Chase was followed by success at Haydock in the Betfair and then, rather ironically, a last gasp victory in a thrilling King George. No-one knows what would have happened at Cheltenham had he stood up, but one thing we do know is that Cue Card is now undoubtedly an outstanding staying chaser.

He’s always been a terrific racehorse, but for much of his career failed to get the credit he probably deserved. During this winter he has been physically able to give his best, and that best has proved to be something very special indeed.

Festival Previews Up And Running

The Cheltenham Festival Previews stepped up a gear or two last night, with attention turning to Dublin as Betfair hosted a panel of experts giving their opinions on the forthcoming Cotswolds festivities.

Ex-jock and a current jock in Andy McNamara and Davy Russell provided a useful ‘hands on’ viewpoint. The outspoken and ever colourful tipster Mark 'The Couch' Winstanley did his best to pinpoint value options. One of the best racing presenters on TV - At The Races Gary O’Brien, along with Irish Daily Star Sports Editor Brian Flanagan and Betfair's Barry Orr were also on hand. Finally, Champion trainer and Betfair Ambassador Paul Nicholls travelled over to complete the knowledgeable and rather entertaining panel.

The event was streamed through the Betfair website and created a decent buzz through social media, clearly attracting plenty of Twitter followers. The esteemed group were guided through the feature races on all four days by well-known Irish presenter Denis Kirwan; a regular at such gatherings.

Douvan appeared to be everyone’s certainty on day one of the Festival, along with Vroum Vroum Mag in the Mares’ Hurdle. No real surprise there then. Several of the panel voiced their concern over Annie Power’s ability to take on the boys in the Champion Hurdle. Though her talent is undeniable, a lack of experience at the highest level, coupled with little evidence of how she would cope with a championship two mile pace had several scratching their heads over her status as short-priced favourite.

Identity Thief appeared the overwhelming fancy of the gathered experts with his Fighting Fifth victory and subsequent promising performance behind Nichols Canyon sighted as evidence of his vast improvement.

The Neptune Investment Management Novices’ Hurdle was next on the agenda. ‘The Couch’ was unable to see past Yorkhill as the major challenger to race favourite Yanworth. He pointed to the victory at Sandown in the Tolworth as arguably the strongest novice hurdle form when looking at contenders for the Neptune. His thoughts were mirrored by Gary O’Brien who sees Yorkhill as a huge player. However, in recent days the word from the Mullins camp is that the horse is more likely to head for the Supreme, a decision that the panel appeared hard to fathom.

No More Heroes was another popular choice as a favourite that needed to be followed. Davy Russell was on-board Don Cossack in a racecourse gallop at the weekend, and had Elliott’s novice for company. He was clearly impressed with the way he pinged his fences alongside the more experienced Gold Cup bound stable companion. More Of That was put up as the main danger, though he could be on his way to the JLT.

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Russell also spoke of Road To Riches when the conversation turned to the Ryanair Chase. He was adamant that Noel Meade’s chaser had failed to see out the Gold Cup trip last March and that he would be a major player in the shorter event. ‘The Couch’ was pretty derogatory of the chances of Al Ferof despite money having come for the horse in recent weeks. Village Vic had a number of fans having impressed at the track throughout the winter. Smashing was another name put forward, though soft or heavy ground would enhance his chances.

When attention turned to the Ryanair World Hurdle, the panel appeared pretty unanimous over the chances of Thistlecrack. Davy Russell has him down as a horse for multiple bets, and Winstanley was in agreement that Tizzard’s impressive hurdler looks a certainty.

One favourite the panel seemed keen to take on was the Irish trained Ivanovich Gorbatov, currently at the head of the Triumph Hurdle market. There was a swell of enthusiasm behind Paul Nicholls’ Adonis winner Zubayr, and he again voiced his opinion that the horse has similar qualities to previous Triumph winner Zarkandar. Davy Russell felt that the use of a pin was the only way of finding the winner in what appears a wide-open renewal.

One of the winter’s on-going debates resurfaced when the panel turned their attention to the Gold Cup. The Don Cossack or Don Poli dispute splits opinion among those that love and follow our great sport. O’Brien and Andy McNamara were dismissive of Poli’s chances in favour of Don Cossack. Mr O’Brien went as far as to say that he would find it unbelievable should Bryan Cooper choose to ride the RSA winner over Gordon Elliott’s beast.

Davy Russell’s opinion was probably the most pertinent as someone within the Gigginstown camp. He rode Don Cossack in the aforementioned gallop and Waxed lyrical of the horse’s stature, enormous stride and flowing action. However, he also mentioned the Gold Cup trip being ideal for a strong stayer such as Don Poli. Interestingly, he also said that if Ruby says Vautour will stay the trip, then the horse almost certainly will.

Don Cossack remained the popular choice of the majority of the panel, in a renewal that has captured the imagination for so many reasons.

The panel were asked for their handicap fancies, with Nicholls given the opportunity of going through many in his care. One that caught the eye and ear was his latest French import Diego Du Charmil. He’s been kept for the Fred Winter Juvenile Hurdle, a race the champion trainer won last season with another from France in Qualando.

For many out there, these gatherings serve little purpose. Often the panellists simply churn out the same old snippets that were already public knowledge. Some jockeys may fear upsetting owners or trainers and therefore have reservations when asked to reveal any juicy pointers. Trainers are also likely to focus on their own yard, and in fairness probably have little time for anything other.

Nevertheless, for many the previews are a great way of cranking up the excitement levels as the Festival approaches. Last night’s Betfair panel proved entertaining and informative. Davy Russell is often brutally frank in his analysis and delivers his opinions in an engagingly entertaining and droll manner. In contrast Gary O’Brien gives a thoughtful reasoned approach to his comments in keeping with a man who has a wealth of knowledge to convey.

I’m of the opinion that these previews are an enjoyable part of the Festival build-up. To be able to watch the event live was a huge plus, and though I’m still left scratching my head over the Gold Cup, I have a few more names to ponder over, as the main event looms large.

Stars Come Out As Festival Approaches

With the Cheltenham Festival now within touching distance, the weekend was most notable for racecourse gallops and the performance of a juvenile hurdler.

Prior to Saturday’s racing at Kempton a number of trainers took the opportunity of gaining a further racetrack outing for several high profile Festival contenders. One of the stars on show was Colin Tizzard’s King George winner Cue Card. “It was lovely to see the horse so happy afterwards,” said a contented looking trainer. “The whole idea was to come and give him a gallop round here and get him on the lorry. We probably didn't go as fast as everyone else, but it was a day out for him and he's had a good blow out.”

Paddy Brennan was on-board and he added: “Unbelievable. He felt so fresh and well. He is ready to rock and roll. He is exactly where we want him to be. He felt like a two-year-old. We are just counting down the days.”

Many may question the need for such a workout, but getting some of that freshness out of the horse will prove crucial if Cue Card is to see out the Gold Cup trip and mount a serious challenge in one of the toughest looking renewals for years.

Nicky Henderson also made the most of Kempton’s hospitality by getting another gallop into My Tent Or Yours. A Champion Hurdle runner-up in 2014, he will head to the Festival having spent almost two years out of action.
Henderson, no doubt fuelled with enthusiasm since the withdrawal of Faugheen and Arctic Fire, appeared satisfied with the progress being made, when saying: “My Tent Or Yours has come on again and both Barry Geraghty and AP thought he had. Barry said he was still tanking at the end. We've got him as ready as we can without having a run and that's as good as we can possibly do.”

The preparation is far from ideal, but this year’s Champion Hurdle looks wide open, and if the Seven Barrows team can get the horse to Cheltenham close to his peak fitness he has to be a major contender. This is very much reflected in his price for the race; currently around 6/1.

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Paul Nicholls remains bullish over the chances of Saphir Du Rheu for the World Hurdle, and he was joined on the gallop by Aux Ptits Soins, who also looks likely to take his chance in the feature staying hurdle. Nicholls said: “Both horses went well and I'm more than pleased with both of them. I said to Sam to sit on Aux Ptits Soins as he's not sat on him since last year. There's no point Sam making a decision now on what he rides, but I've a fair idea what he might go for.”

Despite the champion trainer’s enthusiasm, I find it hard to believe that either of his World Hurdle contenders can land a blow on race favourite Thistlecrack, especially on the back of such difficult preparations.

Nicholls would have every right to be more confident of winning the Triumph Hurdle, after a dazzling debut from the expensive purchase Zubayr in the Adonis. The youngster won with plenty in hand, and in doing so leapt to second spot in the market for the juvenile showpiece at the Festival. He travelled powerfully through the race, and when asked to pick up the long-time leader, breezed to the front at the last flight and stretched to a comfortable victory despite showing signs of immaturity.

The Ditcheat trainer said after the win: “He's just a mirror of Zarkandar that horse, and at least we know where we're going now and that's straight to Cheltenham. To be honest three weeks ago I would not have run him, as he was that backwards in his coat. The first time we schooled him on the grass was yesterday and he has just come alive over the last three weeks. We will go to the Triumph Hurdle now and are thrilled with him. He's a real true stayer and Nick said the faster they go, the better it will suit him.”

Just 24 hours later it was the turn of Leopardstown to showcase the likely stars of the fast approaching Cheltenham Festival. Gold Cup hopefuls Vautour, Don Poli and Don Cossack were put through their paces. The outing was probably most notable for the men on top, with Davy Russell on-board Cossack with Cooper taking the reins on Poli.

After the workout Gordon Elliott spoke of Bryan Cooper’s daunting decision as the big day approaches: “Davy sat on him there, and Bryan has to make a decision on which one he is going to ride. I would have no problem with Davy riding him.” Russell appeared less than choosy when saying: “I'd be delighted to ride any Gold Cup horse.”

Copper has ridden both at previous Cheltenham Festivals, with Don Poli a perfect two from two, whilst Don Cossack is zero from his two appearances. One would imagine that such a record would prove decisive in the jockey’s ultimate decision.

Who Can Claim Coneygree’s Crown?

Coneygree Injured

Coneygree Injured

Injuries are part and parcel of Jump racing. Never a year goes by without one of the leading lights being extinguished before a single Turkey has been stuffed.

By extinguished, I do of course mean temporarily. Cue Card, Sprinter Sacre, Sir Des Champs and just yesterday O’Faolains Boy are great examples of horses returning in style from periods on the sickbed.

However, for many who are passionate about this wonderful sport, yesterday’s news of injury to the Gold Cup winner Coneygree would still have come as a sickening blow, especially as the staying chase division was promising to be the most exciting in living memory. I may be prone to exaggeration at times, but to lose the Champion when Vautour, Don Cossack, Don Poli, Djakadam, Road To Riches, Cue Card and Smad Place, to name just seven, were all lined up to challenge come March is somewhat deflating.

Just yesterday morning in his Weekender column, Tom Segal (Pricewise) had said: “This is a golden generation of staying chasers and March can’t come quickly enough.”

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Of course the show will go on. Let’s hope and pray that Coneygree is back on track as soon as possible. In the meantime we still have the mouth-watering prospect of two corking Christmas crackers; with the King George at Kempton and the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown. The list of contenders for both remains spectacular. Questions will be asked, and hopefully plenty of answers will be forthcoming.

Among them, is will the mighty Vautour stay the three mile trip at Kempton, at the furious and relentless pace that is sure to be set by both Cue Card and Silviniaco Conti? Another is will Don Cossack’s jumping hold up under the immense test of a fast flat track three miles, against tried and tested King George opposition? And is Cue Card truly rid of those breathing issues, allowing him the opportunity to repeat the stunning performance witnessed in that Betfair Chase victory at Haydock?

Whilst over in Ireland can Don Poli convince his doubters that he is truly a potential Gold Cup winner, or will Djakadam prove too talented and simply too classy for his highly thought of stable companion? Can the forgotten horse, Road To Riches, repeat his success of 12 months ago? Or maybe another Gigginstown inmate, Sir Des Champs, can turn back the clock and propel himself to the head of the Gold Cup market.

It’s certainly sad for the Bradstock’s that their star has been struck down with the dust hardly yet settled on that momentous Gold Cup winning campaign. Thankfully in his absence, we have a glut of potential stars vying for top honours.

Unlike Mr Segal, I’ll just say that Christmas can’t come quickly enough. Thoughts of March can wait just a little while longer. Just a little.

Defining return for Des Champs

Sir Des Champs on comeback trail

Sir Des Champs on comeback trail

It’s rare that a listed chase from Thurles would create such a stir, but today’s 12.55 will see the return to action of one of Ireland’s leading staying chasers.

Sir Des Champs has been off the track since running fourth in the Lexus Chase almost two years ago. Beaten by Bobs Worth, First Lieutenant and Rubi Ball on that occasion, nine months earlier he had finished a gallant runner-up in the Gold Cup of 2013, again losing out to Bobs Worth.

There’s little doubt that even at the relatively young age of nine, he will encounter a competition that has moved on somewhat in his absence. Those adversaries of 2013 have all fallen from grace, replaced by younger upwardly-mobile types, including Coneygree, Don Cossack and Djakadam.

Despite all that, if Sir Des Champs does retain his former ability he will still make his presence felt in the top staying chases in Ireland. And with so many resources at their disposal, there’s always the chance of Gigginstown sending him to England in search of a suitable target along with his more favoured ground conditions.

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This afternoon’s event at Thurles is also a starting point for Lyreen Legend, trained by Sandra Hughes and ridden by Barry Geraghty. I have a soft spot for this fella, and am of the opinion that he has been tried over unsuitable trips more often than not. He’s another returning from a spell on the side-lines, and at the age of eight could well have plenty more to offer.

However, he’s no staying chaser in my eyes, and today’s trip is as far as I’d be running him. The Ryanair ought to be his end of season target. Those who doubt my words should watch again the Gold Cup of 2014, where he travelled as well as anything turning for home, before fading out of contention.

These two will be the latest to get their campaigns underway, adding further to the excitement and anticipation of a winter of top class chasing action. Cue Card, Coneygree, Don Cossack and Road To Riches have all whetted the appetite, and on Saturday it will be the turn of Silviniaco Conti and Vautour to make their appearances.

Nicholls’ dual King George winner has also won the Betfair Chase on two occasions and is a short priced favourite to do so again. Whilst at Ascot the eagerly awaited return of Vautour is sure to set the pulses racing. He’s due to run in the Stella Artois 1965 Chase, formerly the Amlin, which on the face of it appears a decent prep for the King George at Christmas. And that is where the two are likely to meet, along with Don Cossack, in what may well be the most thrilling encounter of the season.

Added to these, we are yet to sight either Don Poli or Djakadam, a pair that are impossible to dismiss when looking ahead to the major events throughout the winter.

It’s hard to keep pace at this time of the year. This season, arguably more than any before, has the potential to be one of the greatest ever witnessed by jump racing fans; especially those partial to a staying chase or two. It’s a division jam-packed with talent, both young and old, set to thrill in an unrelenting tsunami of outstanding action. Hold on tight.

The Punchestown Festival – Mullins Set To Dominate

Mullins and Ricci

The Usual Suspects

The Punchestown Festival begins today with Willie Mullins expected to dominate, as he did at Cheltenham in March.

There’s little doubt that the Irish Champion trainer has never had such firepower at his disposal, and with the backing of owners Rich and Susannah Ricci, Mullins is likely to dominate Irish jump racing for years to come.

With 12 Grade 1’s over the five days, Punchestown will bring the Jump Racing season to a stunning conclusion. And three of the Grade 1’s take place on the opening day.

Douvan looks sure to get the Mullins-Ricci bandwagon rolling in the Champion Novice Hurdle over two miles. He was so impressive at Cheltenham when thumping stable-mate Shaneshill by over four lengths. Sizing John was back in third on that occasion and re-opposes, with Henry De Bromhead hoping his charge can get a little closer this time round. This should be a mere steering job for Ruby Walsh.

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The same connections have the favourite for the Champion Chase, though this looks a more open affair. Champagne Fever was disappointing at Aintree and has only managed two wins from his five runs this winter. He was hammered at last season’s Punchestown Festival and is yet to develop into the chaser many expected him to become.

Hidden Cyclone is set to challenge at the head of the market. He was last seen failing to last home in the Ryanair Chase at Cheltenham. It came as no surprise to most, as he had failed to get home in the race a year earlier. Indeed it remains a ‘head-scratcher’ as to why his trainer decided against the Champion Chase at Prestbury Park. He is more than capable of making amends here, especially in a renewal that lacks a standout contender.

Sizing Europe has an incredible record in this race, but surely time will have finally caught up with the wonderful 13-year-old. Twinlight is another running for Team Mullins, and he is more than capable of going close. His best performances however, have come on a softer surface and it’s possible he will find things happening a little too quickly.

In a very open looking renewal, the likes of Felix Yonger, Flemenstar and the fast improving Mallowney are more than capable of being involved in the shake-up.

Gigginstown are throwing three darts at the target in the final Grade 1 of the opening day. The three-mile Champion Novice Chase only has five runners, but they are certainly a talented bunch. Don Poli will take some beating, and has the advantage of arriving fresh from his win at Cheltenham. Valseur Lido and Apache Stronghold appeared at Fairyhouse earlier this month, with the former running a stinker and the latter taking a tumble mid-way through the race. Wounded Warrior could be the one to chase the favourite home.

It’s always a wonderful meeting and a fitting way to end the Jumps season. Willie Mullins is a certainty to end the week as top trainer, but it is the style of the performances that will be of interest to the fans of the sport. Douvan, Annie Power, Vautour, Don Poli, Faugheen and Un De Sceaux are all set to thrill, whilst Hurricane Fly is likely to step into the unknown with a punt at the Ladbrokes World Series Hurdle. I for one can’t wait for the show to begin.

Vautour and Coneygree Shine – As Novices Dominate at The Festival

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Coneygree takes the Gold Cup

After the euphoria we have the melancholy, as Jump racing’s greatest week is consigned to the history books.

That may sound a little melodramatic but Read more

Vautour – The Brightest Star by Far

Vautour

Vautour in full flight

Just occasionally a performance has the ability to take Read more

Paul Nicholls leads the British Fight-back

Dodging Bullets

Dodging Bullets takes the Champion Chase

Paul Nicholls led a British fight-back on day two Read more

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Mullins Dominates Day One

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Jezki not alone in flying the flag of Milan

Milan

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RSA Chase 2015 Preview, Trends, Tips

RSA Chase Preview and tips

RSA Chase Preview and tips

RSA Chase 2015 Preview, Trends, Tips

It's the staying novice chase championship, and the RSA Chase has been the portent of numerous future top notchers, most recently Lord Windermere and Bobs Worth, winners of the last two Gold Cups.

RSA Chase Trends

As usual, trends cover the last seventeen renewals going back to 1997 (abandoned in 2001 due to foot and mouth), and are provided with thanks to horseracebase.com

Age: 13 of the last 17 winners (76%) were aged seven. Indeed, 13 of the last 15 winners were, but let's not cherry-pick! Those 13 winners came from just 49% of the runners. None of the 23 horses aged nine or higher has won, and only one placed.

Last Time Out:

Finishing Position: All seventeen winners since 1997 finished in the first three last time out, with nine winning (53%, from 48% of the runners); six finishing second (35%, from 20% runners); and two finishing third (12%, from 11% runners).

Grade: Although the four winners from 41 runners to have raced in Grade 1 company last time broke about even to level stakes, the four winners from 52 runners to have competed at Grade 2 level the last day were deeply unprofitable to follow. That was despite both being roughly in line with their 'expected' number of wins.

Those horses coming into the RSA Chase from a last time run in an ungraded event won eight of 106 starts - again, about what should be expected from that number of runners. In other words, there is very little to be gleaned from the grade of race last time.

Distance: None of the 44 runners stepping up from a race distance below 2m5f last time was able to win, while those to have raced between 2m5f and three miles the last day moving less markedly to the stamina-sapping three miles half a furlong here bagged 14 of the 17 renewals from 116 runners (82% winners from 56% runners). They were also worth a profit at SP of 21.33 points.

This looks a material factor.

Days since a run: Although Hanakham wheeled back to the track twenty days after his previous race back in 1997, all of the subsequent sixteen RSA Chase winners have had between three weeks and two months off the track. Further, those absent for between one and two months have claimed eleven of the seventeen (65%) from 83 runners (40%).

Course of last run: Since 1997, RSA Chase winners last ran at Ascot (3 from 31); Exeter, Fontwell, Haydock, Huntingdon, Kempton, Newbury, Punchestown, Sandown, and Wincanton (one apiece); and Leopardstown (5 from 35).

The following look noteworthy :

- The three Ascot to RSA Chase winners all ran in the Reynoldstown Chase, two winning and one finishing second

- The five Leopardstown to RSA Chase winners all ran in the Dr PJ Moriarty Novices' Chase, three winning, one second and one third.

- The thirty runners to have competed last at either Kempton or Cheltenham have scored just once between them, that being Lord Noelie, who took in a run of the mill novice chase at the first-named track in 2000. Only one other horse was placed in the RSA having run at these two premier courses last time out.

This year's Reynoldstown Chase will be run on 14th February, and the first two home should be noted. The result of the 2015 Dr PJ Moriarty Novices' Chase was:

1st Apache Stronghold
2nd Valseur Lido (beaten 1/2 length)
3rd Adriana Des Mottes (beaten 5 lengths)

Experience: Those with more experience of fences have fared best. To wit, those with between three and five chase starts under their belt claimed 14 of the last 17 RSA Chases (82%), from 134 runners (64%)

Interestingly, perhaps, those coming into the RSA Chase unbeaten over fences are just two from 33 since 1997, for a huge 86% loss on stakes.

Breeding: 15 of the last 17 winners have been Irish bred.

At this stage, those with the best trends fits include Sausalito Sunrise, Apache Stronghold, If In Doubt and Deputy Dan.

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RSA Chase Form Preview

This looks a cracking race, and it's one which is likely to be run at a very fast gallop with two of the first three in the betting confirmed front runners, and both of them unbeaten in three over fences.

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We start with Kings Palace, who completed his fencing hat-trick with a hard fought win in a two horse novices' chase at Newbury on Saturday. While that was far from impressive, his two previous chase wins were: both of them typified by fluent jumping from the front, and comfortable margins over the same horse, Sausalito Sunrise.

He'd looked classy and a good jumper prior to the laboured effort at Newbury, where the ground could have been softer than ideal. Likely to be firmer turf at Cheltenham, my main worry is whether he can get his own way on the lead, which seems very important to Kings Palace. There is also the niggle about the way he folded in the Albert Bartlett at the Festival last year, and those two concerns are enough for me to overlook David Pipe's inmate at the price.

The other confirmed front runner is Coneygree, a novice who looks an absolute natural. Indeed, you'll be hard pushed to find a better round of jumping from a novice in a big race than his Denman Chase win.

Mark Bradstock's eight year old missed almost two years after a decent third to At Fisher's Cross in the Neptune Trial race in January 2013. Reappearing at the end of November last year, he's racked up three wins in Graded company: a Grade 1 (Feltham Novices' Chase) and two Grade 2's.

He is a most fluent jumper, and has a high cruising speed. Moreover, his beating of Houblon Des Obeaux and Unioniste in the Denman puts him on the fringes of the Gold Cup picture. Connections are reportedly very tempted by that race, but in my opinion it would be a mistake.

While I'll temper my feelings short of comparison with the ill-fated Gloria Victis, another impressive novice pitched in at the Gold Cup, I do feel that the RSA is the obvious race for Coneygree, and that there'd be nothing lost in waiting for next year for a tilt at the Blue Riband.

Still, I'm not the owner and it's easy for me to be dispassionate about somebody else's horse. At any rate, it's very hard to countenance a bet on Coneygree in the context of his potential absence, and also mindful that he may not get his usual free rein in front of a high class RSA Chase field (or indeed in the Gold Cup itself).

Don Poli trumps both of the aforementioned pair in the betting, by dint of his Grade 1 Topaz Novice Chase win at Christmas and, of course, of his Cheltenham Festival win last season in the Martin Pipe Conditionals' Handicap Hurdle. Unbeaten in two over fences so far, that's less experienced than all bar two of the last seventeen winners of the RSA Chase.

He too has alternative engagements, and there has been much chatter about Don Poli potentially going for the novices' chase (Toby Balding National Hunt Chase) so that trainer Willie Mullins' son, Patrick, can ride. Although that may be wide of the mark, it is a concern in a race where no bookmaker is yet non-runner no bet.

On the bright side, the horse he beat - and beat well - at Leopardstown was Apache Stronghold, himself winner of the PJ Moriarty Chase last weekend. The Moriarty is over three furlongs shy of the Topaz trip, and that looks to be Apache Stronghold's optimum, whereas Don Poli stays better, as he showed when looking set for defeat in that Christmas run.

I think Don Poli looks the most likely winner of the RSA Chase - largely in line with his ante post market position - but I'd far sooner wait until the day even though that probably means taking a shorter price. There's no sense in 9/2 about a non-runner when 7/2 or 4/1 may be available on the day!

It's 10/1 bar that trio, and that brings in the highly progressive The Young Master. Neil Mulholland's stable star has come from nowhere this year, having finished 9th of 11 in a Class 5 handicap hurdle in October 2013. That's the basement level but, since then, he's nabbed three handicap hurdles, two all weather handicaps on the flat, and four out of four chases.

He was disqualified from his win in the Badger Ales Trophy, due to having been ineligible to run, but that detracts not one iota from a tremendous performance. And The Young Master, still only six, looked progressive again when beating Houblon Des Obeaux in a Listed handicap chase at Ascot in December.

A strong stayer and most progressive - he's gone from a rating of 94 for that first hurdle win to a chase mark now of 151 - The Young Master would be more of interest to me if running again before Cheltenham, having not raced since before Christmas, and he's another I'd rather play at slightly shorter with fitness assured.

A trio of 14/1 chances follow: Valseur Lido, Southfield Theatre and Apache Stronghold. The last named looks quite likely to run in a different race and is excluded on that basis. Valseur Lido also has three entries, ranging from 2m4f to four miles, and his participation in the RSA Chase may hinge on which way stablemate Don Poli goes. If Don Poli goes the four-miler, Valseur Lido comes here. And if Valseur Lido comes here, he has a chance.

Although the Dr P J Moriarty was the furthest he's raced to date - 2m5f - he seemed if anything to be slightly outpaced by the winner when going down by half a length. He'd previously won the Grade 1 Drinmore Novices' Chase, although it should be said that race has been a poor form guide to Cheltenham Festival novice events.

Paul Nicholls trains Southfield Theatre, yet another with multiple entries as he is also in the four miler at this stage. Given that he's never raced beyond three miles over fences, it looks more likely he'll take in the RSA Chase. And I like his chance, despite it being possible to pick holes in his chasing form.

He's had four runs over fences, three of them wins, and they include a Grade 2 event. He was beaten in another Grade 2 at Newbury over three miles, but that was on soft ground. His best form is all on quicker surfaces.

Then, on 8th February, Southfield Theatre beat Melodic Rendezvous in a fair novice chase at Exeter. Although he wasn't fortunate to win that race, his main challenger fell at the last when upsides. That trial, over two and a half miles, would have been plenty short enough for the winner, with his Cheltenham race record showing a nose second to Fingal Bay in last year's Pertemps over three miles; and a short neck third in a 3m2f handicap hurdle, also last season.

So, we know he stays, we know he wants good ground (which he'll probably get), we know he acts on the track, and we know he's a sound jumper. In the circumstances, then, 14/1 looks good about a horse more likely than not to turn up, and with an almost perfect trends profile (he falls down on the last time out race distance stat, but should arguably be marked up for being able to win over a sub-optimal trip).

Ptit Zig comes next and looks more likely to run in the JLT where he has a very solid chance. We then go to the 25/1 shots, Apache Jack and Sausalito Sunrise.

Sausalito Sunrise fell behind Coneygree in the Feltham last time, and looks to have been foiled by an emphasis on speed over stamina in his last three runs. He's an out and out stayer, so chasing home Kings Palace twice in a sprint to the line; and then trying to hang on to Coneygree's shirt-tails around the more speedy Kempton Park was a tough ask. Three miles in a Championship event where they'll go mad from the tape rise looks ideal, and this normally sound jumper was sixth - albeit beaten far enough - in the Albert Bartlett last year.

The truth is he's probably not quite good enough to win. But, despite that, his form ties in well with two of the first three in the betting, and he's 25/1.

Apache Jack is a son of Oscar, sire of the last two RSA Chase winners, and was good enough to finish third in the Albert Bartlett last year. He definitely wants better ground than he's been racing on this season to date. Specifically, on ground described as soft or worse, his form is 76319231; on quicker turf, it reads 73134 (with the 34 being in Grade 1 Championship events).

Apache Jack would have been beaten last time but for the final fence fall of Gilt Shadow, but again that was on soft ground. With just two chase starts to his name, I'd like to see him race again before mid-March, but at the price I'm happy to take a fraction, given his proven good ground Festival form.

And, talking of big prices and that Albert Bartlett form, it might be worth hurling a couple of pence in the direction of 'potato race' second, Deputy Dan. His current odds of 50/1 are about right on the balance of his novice chase form, but he's surely better than he's shown to date.

I say "he's surely better than he's shown to date", but he actually might not be. However, here's the case for the defence: five chase starts in close proximity to each other may have over-taxed him; at least a couple of those were over shorter trips than ideal; and, none has been run at the rapid pace off which he seems to travel so well.

Making excuses for horses is an expensive habit but, at 50/1, I'm prepared to risk a tenner to a monkey that Oliver Sherwood might have two staying chase Festival hopes (Many Clouds being the other) capable of striking gold.

RSA Chase Tips

There are reasons to look away from the top of the RSA Chase market, at this stage at least. Kings Palace has questions to answer on Festival form and won't get a soft lead; Coneygree may run elsewhere, and even if he doesn't, won't get a soft lead; Don Poli may also run elsewhere, and is more inexperienced than most RSA winners; and, it's 10/1 bar.

Southfield Theatre will enjoy the ground and the trip, and has been brought to the boil nicely by trainer, Paul Nicholls. He looks very likely to take in this race. And, at the prices, I think Apache Jack has plenty of value meat left on his odds bone. Finally, for small money, Deputy Dan could truncate markedly for the RSA if taking up - and winning - one of his pair of Leicester engagements this week.

1 pt Southfield Theatre 14/1 general (all in run or not)

1 pt Apache Jack 25/1 general (all in run or not)

0.5 pt Deputy Dan 50/1 general (all in run or not)

**

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