Envoi Allen continues his relentless march

Envoi Allen easily extended his unbeaten record with an 11th successive victory under rules after his chief market rival Asterion Forlonge fell at the first fence in the Sky Bet Killiney Novice Chase at Punchestown.

Gordon Elliott’s dual Cheltenham Festival winner was expected to face a telling test in the Grade Three over two and a half miles, in which he had to give 11lb to his four rivals on heavy ground.

But that situation never materialised after Willie Mullins’ grey got in close when leading and fell for the second race in a row, bringing down outsider Sempo in the process.

Jack Kennedy and Envoi Allen subsequently led throughout – and although challenged by Joseph O’Brien’s Fils D’oudairies three out and again at the last, the 1-2 favourite eased clear again on the run-in to win by three and a half lengths from the 25-1 shot.

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Like many onlookers, Elliott was taken by surprise at the early mishap of Asterion Forlonge.

The County Meath trainer said: “It’s a bit of an anti-climax when the other horse went at the first. Jack said he went around in second gear, with his ears pricked.

“When he asked him to quicken going to the last, he did. He got a bit under the last and quickened again.

“He didn’t mind the ground, and he didn’t do anything wrong. I think he’d be better with a lead because he’s idle, but he had to do his own donkey work.”

Paddy Power, Betfair and Coral all left the Cheveley Park Stud-owned Envoi Allen unchanged at 10-11 for the Marsh Novices’ Chase at the Cheltenham Festival.

That is likely to be his next race, unforeseen problems with travelling to Cheltenham apart.

Elliott added: “He’s in everything at Leopardstown (Dublin Racing Festival) for fear something happened (with any Covid travelling restrictions) in Cheltenham, but I’d say we will go straight to Cheltenham.

“He’s been to Cheltenham twice and showed he can win around it.”

A big thumbs up from Gordon Elliott for Envoi Allen
A big thumbs up from Gordon Elliott for Envoi Allen (PA)

Kennedy admitted the loose-running Asterion Forlonge and Sempo had presented a challenge.

He said: “The loose horses had my heart in my mouth a few times. They crossed over me, but Envoi Allen is so honest he never took his eye off the fence. He’s unbelievable, and a very clever horse.

“He only really does what he has to do. He was very idle the whole way around in front – but as soon as I sat into the saddle, he put the race to bed.”

Envoi Allen facing stern examination at Punchestown

Envoi Allen has looked a natural over fences to date – but one of racing’s potential superstars faces arguably the stiffest test of his career at Punchestown on Sunday.

Already a Grade One winner over the bigger obstacles at Fairyhouse, the unbeaten Gordon Elliott-trained seven-year-old must carry a penalty in the Grade Three Sky Bet Killiney Novice Chase.

And when Elliott picked out this contest as his lead into another trip to the Cheltenham Festival, he probably did not expect to be giving 11lb to a horse as good as Asterion Forlonge – himself a Grade One scorer over hurdles.

Trained by Willie Mullins for Gold Cup-winning owner Joe Donnelly, Asterion Forlonge was fourth in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and won on his chasing debut before coming down five from home in a Grade One won by stablemate Colreevy at Limerick.

Looking forward to an intriguing contest, County Meath trainer Elliott said: “He’s in great form at home, he’s well.

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“It’s a big ask to give 11lb to a Grade One horse, but this has been my plan and I wasn’t going to change it.

“We could get beat a length and run a very, very good race. It is probably going to be his biggest ask, but I’m happy with the horse and we’ll take our chance.

“It’s a bit like last year, we went from Naas to Cheltenham, and I thought this was the right road to go.

“I said a month ago where I was going. If he gets beat it will be disappointing, but it won’t be the end of the world.”

Envoi Allen's jumping has been foot perfect to date
Envoi Allen’s jumping has been foot-perfect to date (PA Wire)

For Chris Richardson, managing director of Cheveley Park Stud, victory would be poignant as only recently the stud’s joint-owner David Thompson died at the age of 84.

“A victory would mean a lot,” said Richardson

“You get nervous when he’s done what he’s done, and when you come up against a horse like Asterion Forlonge who is getting 11lb that is a task in itself.

“This is where Gordon has always wanted to go prior to Cheltenham, though. It’s looks the right race, there was no question of not running him and Gordon is very happy with him.

“He’s an extraordinary horse so you’ve got to go when the opportunity arises, you can’t dodge. He’s happy and it’s green for go.”

Asterion Forlonge promises to provide a stern test for Envoi Allen
Asterion Forlonge promises to provide a stern test for Envoi Allen (Niall Carson/PA)

In the Sky Bet Moscow Flyer Novice Hurdle, Elliott runs Magic Tricks, who is well on the way to matching up to his illustrious brother and stable companion.

Elliott said: “He’s a nice horse and I couldn’t believe he got beat in a bumper the first day.

“He was very good in Navan and I think he’s come on a bit from it.”

Teahupoo prevails as Youmdor crashes out at Fairyhouse

Teahupoo came out on top in a dramatic ITM Virtual Stallion Trial Hurdle at Fairyhouse.

The Willie Mullins-trained Youmdor looked a big threat when he loomed alongside Teahupoo (4-1) at the final flight, only for the 4-9 favourite to come down.

That left Gordon Elliott’s runner to win as he liked by 15 lengths in the hands of Robbie Power and make a winning debut for the County Meath handler. Teahupoo had won his only start for French trainer Gabriel Leenders at Auteuil in October.

Druid’s Altar was second with Autumn Evening half a length away in third.

“He’s a nice horse. Obviously we had a lot of luck on our side there with Willie’s horse going at the last,” said Elliott.

“I said to Robert ‘you were definitely beat’, but he said ‘I’m not so sure because my horse galloped from the last to the line’.

“He said he could see about three strides away from the last that (Paul) Townend’s horse was just starting to be squeezed along. I thought Willie’s horse would have won and we had luck on our side.

“He’s probably more of a stayer next year than a two-miler. I loved the way he put his head out and galloped from the last to the line.”

Teahuphoo was cut to 14-1 from 25-1 for the JCB Triumph Hurdle with Betfair, who left Youmdor unchanged at 14s.

Roseys Hollow (10-11 favourite) showed a neat turn of foot between the last two flights to run out a ready winner in division one of the Follow Fairyhouse ‘Racing From Home’ Mares’ Maiden Hurdle.

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The Jonathan Sweeney-trained seven-year-old quickened nicely for Mark Walsh to open up a crucial advantage and the JP McManus-owned mare galloped on strongly to score by four lengths from main market rival Global Equity.

It was a poignant first winner of the year in Ireland for McManus, who suffered the tragic loss of his daughter-in-law Emma on December 30 at the age of 40.

“It was very good and it’s great to get it,” said Sweeney.

“It’s great for JP and his family in tragic times. I pass on my deepest sympathies to them. 

“She jumped well, travelled, did everything well and Mark was happy.

“We’ll get over today and I’ll have a chat with Frank (Berry). He’ll talk to JP and see what the plan is. She’s a nice mare.”

La Chanteuse (10-1) caused a minor upset in division two when flooring the 8-11 favourite Manitopark Aa.

JJ Slevin pushed the Stuart Crawford-trained seven-year-old into the lead before the second-last flight and went on to score by six lengths. Norwigi was 16 lengths back in third place.

“We’ve always thought plenty of her. On her first run back at Down Royal, Ben (Crawford) rode her and he was disappointed with her,” said Crawford.

“She probably really needed it as she blew up halfway around. She came here today and obviously has come on a good bit from it.

“JJ gave her a good ride and it’s great to get it, they are hard to win.”

He added: “We were disappointed not to get a bit of black type with her in her bumpers. We didn’t sell her, and she’s owned by my mother, so there is a bit of extra pressure on.

“She’s entitled to take her chance in a better race. We could go across the water for a novice, but at this point in time we’d probably be trying for a bit of black type.”

Aramax gave Elliott a double after the victory of Teahupoo when scoring in the McManus silks in the Irish Stallion Farms EBF Beginners Chase.

The 14-1 chance defeated the 8-11 favourite Port Stanley by two and a half lengths in the hands of Keith Donoghue.

“He won the Fred Winter (at Cheltenham) last year. Keith said he got an awful lot of confidence from the last day and he was a different horse. He was happy,” said Elliott.

“It’s great to get him back winning with him being a Cheltenham winner the year before.”

Gerri Colombe (8-13 favourite) gave Elliott a treble with an easy success in the Racing Again January 30th (Pro/Am) INH Flat Race.

A point-to-point winner for Colin Bowe, the £240,000 purchase looked an exciting prospect when scorching home by 24 lengths under Jamie Codd.

“He’s a nice horse. He’s probably going to be a big chaser more than anything, a big staying horse down the road. We like him,” said Elliott.

“I don’t think you’ll see a whole lot more of him this season, he might have one more run. Obviously I’ll have to talk to Brian (Acheson), but these horses are all bought for the future. He’s one for down the road.”

When asked if he could be a Cheltenham horse, he added:- “If I put my hand on my heart I’d probably say it just mightn’t be the right thing to do, but obviously I’ll have to speak to the owner.”

Gerri Colombe was introduced at 14-1 for the Champion Bumper at Cheltenham with Betfair.

Envoi Allen all set for Punchestown

Gordon Elliott has confirmed Envoi Allen an intended runner in the Sky Bet Killiney Novice Chase at Punchestown.

The Cheveley Park Stud-owned seven-year-old already has two Cheltenham Festival victories on his CV, having won the Champion Bumper and the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle, and he is the even-money favourite to make it a hat-trick in the Marsh Novices’ Chase in March.

He will be widely expected to make it three from three over fences by extending his unbeaten record under Rules to 11 overall in Sunday’s two-and-a-half-mile Grade Three, where his potential rivals include his high-class stable companion Andy Dufresne.

Elliott said: “Envoi Allen runs at Punchestown on Sunday. He’s in good form and worked yesterday (Tuesday) morning. I’m looking forward to running him.

“He has plenty of weight to give away, but we said that’s where we’ll go. It’s a nice distance for him and it looks like the ground will be grand and safe.

“I’m not sure if Andy Dufresne will run. He’s in good form – but whether we will run the two of them against each other, I’m not sure. We’ll have to talk to the owners and see what happens.”

On the same Punchestown card, Elliott plans to run Magic Tricks in the Sky Bet Moscow Flyer Novice Hurdle, a Grade Two contest he has won in each of the past two seasons with Felix Desjy and Andy Dufresne respectively.

At Fairyhouse on Saturday, the Cullentra handler has several entries for the Dan And Joan Moore Memorial Chase – while the exciting Quilixios could put his unbeaten record on the line in the ITM Virtual Stallion Trail Hurdle.

Elliott added: “Magic Tricks will run in the Moscow Flyer. He won well in Navan, and Christmas was always going to come a bit quick after that so we had this race in mind for him. It’s been a lucky race for us the last few years.

“I’ll run four or five in the Dan Moore at Fairyhouse. Chosen Mate was disappointing the last day, and maybe he struggles on heavy ground – he could be a horse for the Grand Annual again.

“I’m not sure if we will run Quilixios at Fairyhouse or keep him for Leopardstown next month. We’ll run something in the race.”

Percy Warner prevails in Fairyhouse feature

Gordon Elliott was on course for only the second time since testing positive for coronavirus to witness Percy Warner claim a dramatic victory in the feature event at Fairyhouse on Tuesday.

The Cullentra handler was unable to travel to either Leopardstown or Limerick over the Christmas period as he had to undergo a period of isolation after contracting Covid-19.

He returned to the racecourse at Fairyhouse on January 3 and was back at the Ratoath venue for the track’s latest fixture.

Elliott said: “I don’t know how I got it (coronavirus). Everyone in the yard was tested and everybody (else) was negative.

“I’ve done my isolation. I had a couple of rough days – it was like having bad flu. I had no energy at all, but I’m fine now, thank God.”

With Never Do Nothing and, more notably, the prolific Dreal Deal taken out, Percy Warner was one of just three runners who went to post for the Fairyhouse Racing From Home Webpage Hurdle.

Following an impressive chase victory at the track last month, Jessica Harrington’s Sizing Pottsie was the 4-9 favourite – and everything appeared to be going to script for much of the two-mile contest.

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The market leader was weary, but held a long lead on the run to the final flight, when he took a tired fall under Paddy Kennedy.

His exit left Percy Warner (11-4) and the Willie Mullins-trained Low Sun to fight it out and it was the former who clung on by half a length in the hands of Jack Kennedy following a ding-dong battle on the run-in.

“We were probably a lucky winner with the horse falling. I wasn’t even watching the leader jumping the last, I was watching the other two,” Elliott added.

“Jack said the leader was tying up very quickly going to the last. He said our horse probably needed more runners around him and a more competitive race. He was left in no man’s land on his own. He’s only had one run on the track.

“He’s a grand horse. He was bought to be a chaser and that’s what he’s going to be. This was a nice race to win.”

Duc D’Allier had earlier made a successful return from 949 days off the track in the Fairyhouse Supporting Local Business Beginners Chase.

Joseph O’Brien’s 9-2 chance had not been seen in competitive action since winning a maiden hurdle at Clonmel in the summer of 2018 when trained by Henry de Bromhead, but proved he retains plenty of ability with an eight-and-a-half-length success under JJ Slevin.

O’Brien’s assistant, Brendan Powell, said: “It was a good performance. He does everything right at home.

“He was in last year and was nearly ready to run when the ground went quick. He’s a big horse and obviously had a few problems as it’s June 2018 since he last ran.

“He’s always jumped well and galloped well. It probably wasn’t the greatest race in the world, but he can’t do it any better than that.”

O’Brien and Slevin doubled up with Fun Light (11-4) in the Fairyhouse Racecourse Maiden Hurdle.

Charles Byrnes and Kevin Brouder combined to land the Bar One Racing Supporting Irish Injured Jockeys Maiden Hurdle, with 2-5 favourite Light Brigade getting the better of Purdey’s Gift by just half a length.

“It was a good opportunity as he was getting 8lb and he likes the ground,” said Byrnes.

“He had things in his favour today as he was well-in. He made heavy enough work of it, but he won anyway.

“It’s great to get the win out of him. He’ll probably go handicapping now.”

Trainer John McConnell was fined 3,000 euros, jockey Conor Walsh banned for 21 days and Tango Theatre suspended from running for 60 days after her fourth place in that race.

The stewards inquired into her effort and found the six-year-old had not obtained the best possible placing.

Envoi Allen the star name among Punchestown possibles

Envoi Allen could be the star attraction at Punchestown on Sunday after appearing among 11 entries for the Sky Bet Killiney Novice Chase.

The Cheveley Park Stud-owned seven-year-old is arguably the most exciting National Hunt horse in training, having won each of his 10 starts to date, including a pair of victories at the Cheltenham Festival in the Champion Bumper and the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle.

Gordon Elliott’s charge has made a smooth transition to fences this season, most recently producing a foot-perfect display in the Drinmore Novice Chase at Fairyhouse – and having sidestepped the Christmas action, he is set to return in this weekend’s Grade Three contest.

Elliott has back-up in Andy Dufresne and Conflated, while the Willie Mullins-trained Asterion Forlonge could bid to bounce back from a fall in the Grade One Faugheen Novice Chase at Limerick three weeks ago.

Caspian Caviar Gold Cup winner Chatham Street Lad would be a fascinating contender for Mick Winters, although he is expected to run in the Dan & Joan Moore Memorial Chase at Fairyhouse the previous afternoon.

Joseph O’Brien’s pair of Fils D’oudairies and Sempo also feature, along with Dinny Lacey (James Motherway), I’m A Game Changer (Andrew McNamara), Punitive (Henry de Bromhead) and Rebel Gold (Tom Foley).

Grade Two honours are up for grabs in the Sky Bet Moscow Flyer Novice Hurdle.

Willie Mullins has saddled a record seven previous winners of the race, with Mikael D’Haguenet (2009), Vautour (2015), Douvan (2015) and Min (2016) among the Closutton stars to have claimed victory.

This year Mullins has three contenders in Echoes In Rain, Ganapathi and course-and-distance winner Power Of Pause.

Gordon Elliott has landed the last two renewals with Felix Desjy and the aforementioned Andy Dufresne. The master of Cullentra could chase the hat-trick with either or both of Joseph Conrad and Magic Tricks.

Other hopefuls include the prolific Dreal Deal from Ronan McNally’s yard, Henry de Bromhead’s Gua Du Large and Paddy Corkery’s Master McShee, who was last seen impressing in handicap company at Leopardstown.

De Bromhead cues up Bob Olinger to state case in Lawlor’s

Henry de Bromhead plans to let Bob Olinger “do the talking” in the Lawlor’s Of Naas Novice Hurdle.

Impressive in winning a point-to-point and a Gowran Park bumper last season, Bob Olinger made a promising start to his hurdling career when pushing last season’s Champion Bumper winner Ferny Hollow all the way in November.

The Sholokhov gelding duly went one better at prohibitive odds when stepped up two and a half miles at Navan last month, and will bid to follow up at the top level in Wednesday’s rescheduled Grade One.

“We’ll let him do the talking and see. He works really well, and we like him a lot, so fingers crossed he’ll do it on the track,” de Bromhead told Sky Sports Racing last week.

“We’ll get (this race) out of the way and we’ll know more then. He won his point-to-point and looked good at Navan the other day.

“He’s got a lot of pace as well, though. We’ll probably enter him for the three novice hurdles at Cheltenham and see nearer the time, but in my mind it will be either the Supreme or the Ballymore, as opposed to the Albert Bartlett.”

Willie Mullins relies on Blue Lord in a bid to add to his record haul of eight victories in the Grade One contest.

The French import looked a high-class recruit when winning on his Irish debut at Punchestown, and connections are optimistic that he can prove his worth in Grade One company.

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Patrick Mullins, assistant to his father, said: “We were very impressed with Blue Lord in Punchestown. We think there’s a lot of improvement to come from him.

“He’s a horse who will jump a fence in time, but we think he is up to Grade One level, and this will tell us more.

“He came to us very well-schooled and he has always jumped well at ours.

“It’s a big step up, but that’s the way the programme is in Ireland. You’re only taking on horses with one or two more runs, so that’s not a major worry.”

Ashdale Bob and Crosshill give Jessica Harrington a strong hand.

Having claimed Grade Two honours in the Navan Novice Hurdle just over three weeks ago, Ashdale Bob arguably sets the standard here – while stablemate Crosshill won by 11 lengths on his hurdling bow before at Punchestown before chasing home Power Of Pause at the same venue.

“Ashdale Bob won the last day in Navan, and we’ve been very happy with him,” said Harrington’s daughter and assistant, Kate.

“Crosshill was very impressive over two and a half miles when winning his maiden hurdle, and that form has worked out well. We dropped back to two miles the last day, and I think we got the tactics wrong on that occasion.

“The step back up in trip will definitely suit.”

Gordon Elliott, who has landed three of the last four renewals with Death Duty (2017), Battleoverdoyen (2019) and Envoi Allen (2020), saddles two outsiders in Wide Receiver and Ragnar Lodbrok.

He told Betfair: “Wide Receiver is rated 130, but I think he is better than his rating suggests – and his form so far this season is good.

“His second to Ashdale Bob in a Navan maiden hurdle looks like a very good run in hindsight, and I was delighted with his effort at Leopardstown over Christmas when he won a maiden hurdle in good style – I could see him running a big race.

Gordon Elliott provides two of the contenders in Wednesday's Grade One at Naas
Gordon Elliott provides two of the contenders in Wednesday’s Grade One at Naas (PA)

“In truth Ragnar Lodbrok faces a stiff enough task here. But he’s in good form, and I think if he can put together a reasonable round of jumping, he could give a good account of himself.”

Gavin Cromwell’s Gabynako and the Noel Meade-trained Flanking Maneuver, who won a Fairyhouse maiden hurdle less than a fortnight ago, are the other hopefuls.

Meade said: “It’s a Grade One race and a big jump up from a maiden, but we like the horse and said we’d have a rattle at it.

“Putting the race back three days is a help, and he took his maiden race win really well.

“He actually never lost a pound from one day to the next, and that was part of the reason that we decided to run. He lost no weight at all.”

Monday Musings: Trainer Titles

The frost relented at three of Paul Nicholls’ most productive racecourses on Saturday morning and the 11-times champion National Hunt trainer took heavy toll with a remarkable seven winners, writes Tony Stafford. Kempton, Chepstow and above all Wincanton are the three.

At the same time he was emphatically (albeit inwardly) announcing that his re-building of stable strength back to that of its heyday when Kauto Star and Denman were in their pomp, has been fully achieved.

I was half aware of somebody being quoted on the television last night – definitely not in my favourite French-language and subtitled detective show Spiral on BBC4. It was: “Men can lie, women can lie, but numbers can’t!” The numbers are there for all to see in the 2020-21 jump trainers’ championship.

The Nicholls decline, if you could call it that, was characterised last season by a first failure in 19 to reach 100 wins, when 96 victories from 445 runs brought total UK prizemoney of £2.34million. Nicky Henderson, his sole realistic challenger over the past decade, won his fifth title and third of the last four with 118 winners and £2.54million in prizemoney.

That said, the normal post-Cheltenham section of the campaign with its handsome prizemoney levels especially at Aintree, Sandown’s finals day, and the Ayr Scottish Grand National meeting distorted the figures. Nicholls’ routine century would have been assured and the relatively close money margin for Henderson could easily have been bridged.

Henderson’s first interruption of a near-Martin Pipe-like monopoly for Nicholls since his first title in 2005-6 came in 2012-13, 27 years after his own first Trainers’ Championship in 1985-6. Henderson, now 70, lacks nothing in energy and horse-power but the die is already cast for 2020-21.

While Nicholls has been serenely proceeding towards title number 12 with already 107 victories and £1.46m in money won, Henderson is languishing on less than half the monetary rewards with £673K and just over half the winners, 57 from 268 runs, both well down on his normal schedule.

Considering the jumps season didn’t begin until July 1, Nicholls’s pace has been remarkable but so too has Dan Skelton’s 74 wins and £823k from 408 runs even allowing for the fact that his customary summer starting splurge has been abandoned – for the better – with some potential stars in the pot.

Lower down, some interesting names follow and Evan Williams, after his emotional capturing of the re-scheduled Coral Welsh Grand National with the heavily-backed and well-named in the circumstances favourite, Secret Reprieve, just edged over the half-million mark from only 30 wins.

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Williams was talking up the prospects of Secret Reprieve’s tackling a Grand National at Aintree and he will be hoping on Tuesday morning to see the Ruckers’ seven-year-old getting a few pounds more than his present mark of 142 – he was able to run on Saturday off 8lb lower after his previous win.  Secret Reprieve would probably make it into the top 40 with 142 but 145 makes it a certainty - if Covid doesn’t intervene again.

The next three trainers in the list, all within a winner or two of getting over the half-million are Messrs O’Neill, Fergal O’Brien and Twiston-Davies. Fergal’s consistent form has brought him to 70 compared to a previous best of 63 and with expansion firmly in place, a first century is the aim and seemingly a realistic one with three months to go, subject to acts of God, God forbid!

Nicholls’ Saturday seven-timer was also a contributor to another multi-winning performance on the day. Daryl Jacob must have gone to Wincanton confident of winning the opener on Ben Pauling’s highly-regarded Malinello but found Nicholls’ Flash Collonges, one of two Harry Skelton winners for his former boss, much too good.

I’ve no doubt that when that one lost he didn’t expect to win on five of his remaining six mounts.

The Nicholls winner for Jacob was Capeland, a 6-1 shot in the second most valuable race of the day there, the two-and-a-half-mile handicap chase and the jockey also won races for Robert Walford, Alan King, Pauling and Milton Harris.

Within that quintet, he collected the big race, the re-staged Dipper Novices Chase, just a three-runner affair, on Messire Des Obeaux, where Alan King’s gelding shocked odds-on Protektorat in a rare reverse for the Skeltons in recent times. Both Flash Collonges and Messire Des Obeaux are sons of the late-lamented Saddler Maker.

Jacob’s five-timer worked out at a massive 3275-1. Nicholls’ septet, while not quite his best - he’s had an eight-in-a-day before now – amounts to more than treble that at 10,418-1. Of course to get the latter up, you’d need to navigate the 11 losers that besmirched his record. Jacob has surged onto 39 wins for the season but the title-holder Brian Hughes, with 90, looks to have a strong grip on his trophy, currently having 15 and 19 in hand of the two Harrys, Cobden and Skelton.

It’s very unusual in the depths of winter that Ireland suffers more than the UK, but there has been a flurry of abandonments across the Irish Sea with frost as the principal factor. Whatever happened to the milder west winds picking up moisture as they sweep across the Atlantic?

The perennial struggle at the top of the table there between Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott is as compelling as ever. Usually at this point in the season Elliott has been ahead but this time it’s the other way round.

Mullins has already gone past the century with 104 wins from only 326 runs to earn €2.18m at a spectacular 32% strike rate.  An impressive 76 of the 162 individual horses he’s run since racing resumed have won.

Elliott is only around €70k behind Mullins in winnings but it has taken 125 wins from a bumper exactly 800 runs – almost double both Nicholls’ and Skelton’s number and treble Henderson’s – to get that close. Equally he has needed 292 horses, 90 of which have won, to make it that far.

Mullins is having his normal effect on the jockeys’ title race. Since Ruby Walsh’s retirement Paul Townend has been in pole position, but third-placed Henry de Bromhead’s 69 victories have given a big boost to Rachael Blackmore, his stable jockey.

Townend leads on 69, all but five for the Closutton trainer, but is far from secure for another title as Blackmore’s 46 wins for her boss have been supplemented by another 19 from outside rides making the deficit only four.

Talking of jockeys, the 2021 Flat championship will be very interesting given Oisin Murphy starts the year under a three-month ban imposed by the French authorities. He managed to get it reduced from the original six months on appeal and while it doesn’t interfere with the championship which starts in May, or the first phase of turf racing or indeed anything after March 11, it could still have an effect on his confidence.

No need to go into how he got the trace of drugs in his system. In these perilous times I wonder how many people contracting Covid, like my mate Steve Gilbey who said it was the most frightening experience of his life, know where they caught it. He says maybe it was Christmas shopping in Sainsburys.

Steve, a one-time repo man and night club bouncer before his more acceptable roles as a bodyguard and then Ray Tooth’s much-valued right-hand man, has seen and heard of many friends and some family members who haven’t managed to stave off the effects of the virus. I pray – as does Ray – that he’ll get through, just as I do that my son, his wife and their son, whose symptoms are less severe, will all recover soon.

Back to Flat jockeys, though, and as I said it could be a pivotal year. One Whatsapp I received just the other day made very interesting reading. It claimed that Ben Curtis would be joining Mark Johnston as stable jockey. Now confirmed as true, his odds of 10/1 for the title have plummeted to 3/1.

Mark’s most active jockeys, Joe Fanning and Franny Norton, both celebrated their 50th birthdays last year. Norton is the older by eight weeks, his birthday coming on July 27 to Fanning’s on September 24th (the same as my son incidentally!).

Between them they rode 56% of Johnston’s winners and 55% of the stable’s runners. Fanning was the busier – well, he’s younger, it makes sense! – with 50 wins from exactly 400 rides in 2020. Old-man Franny was only 75% as busy but just as tidy with his 45 from 300 rides. No other jockey achieved more than the 15 wins of P J McDonald. Then came William Buick and Silvestre De Sousa with ten each.  Curtis had six wins from 35 rides for the stable.

Their longevity says much for their iron constitutions but even more for the amazing loyalty of the trainer. Had he not kept them on, riding many of the yard’s best horses as well as the majority of the lesser performers, they would probably have retired a while ago.

A second compelling item on the same Whatsapp message concerned Paul Mulrennan who it seems might be getting closer to a connection with Karl Burke. Interesting? Not many!

Elliott seeking new opportunities for Savills Chase trio

Gordon Elliott plans to give Delta Work, Presenting Percy and Samcro the opportunity to bounce back before the Cheltenham Festival after failing to run up to expectations in last week’s Savills Chase.

Delta Work was the defending champion in the Grade One contest, while Presenting Percy had looked back to his best in beating Kemboy and Monalee in a Listed contest at Thurles in November.

Hopes were also high for dual Cheltenham winner Samcro on his first appearance over three miles since his point-to-point days.

However, Delta Work unseated jockey Sean Flanagan at the ninth fence, Presenting Percy finished a well-beaten eighth and Samcro was pulled up before the second fence from the finish.

Samcro (left) disappointed at Leopardstown
Samcro (left) disappointed at Leopardstown (Tim Goode/PA)

Elliott said: “They are all back riding out, but each will have to have one run before a possible run in Cheltenham.

“There are options like the Irish Gold Cup, the Kinloch Brae Chase at Thurles and a few other races for them, but they’ll have to run between now and Cheltenham.”

The Cullentra handler went on to confirm the death of high-class grey Labaik.

The nine-year-old effectively refused to start in three successive races before winning the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at the 2017 Cheltenham Festival, under a then-17-year-old Jack Kennedy.

He ran twice at Punchestown the following month, including a fourth-placed finish in the Punchestown Champion Hurdle on what proved to be his final career start.

“Labaik died of a colic two or three months ago here in the yard,” Elliott added.

“It has been reported (on social media) he sustained a cut to a leg and was put down, which wasn’t true. He wasn’t being ridden out and had been retired.

“He won a Supreme Novice Hurdle for us, was very talented and a very good horse.”

Shattered Love hunting Grade Three honours at Fairyhouse

Cheltenham Festival heroine Shattered Love bids to get back on the winning trail in the John And Chich Fowler Memorial EBF Mares Chase at Fairyhouse on Sunday.

It will be three years in March since Gordon Elliott’s charge won what is now the Marsh Novices’ Chase at the showpiece meeting in the Cotswolds, after which she pushed subsequent dual Gold Cup winner Al Boum Photo all the way in the Ryanair Gold Cup at Fairyhouse.

While she has found victories hard to come by since, Shattered Love successfully defended her crown in a Listed event at Clonmel on her penultimate start, before being well beaten in a competitive handicap hurdle at Navan last time.

“She’s been a great mare for us for the last few seasons and I thought she looked as good as ever when she won well from Cabaret Queen at Clonmel a couple of months ago,” Elliott told Betfair.

“Last time out I brought her back to hurdles for a big pot at Navan, but it just didn’t happen for her. She got never get involved and was well beaten.

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“I don’t think we saw the real Shattered Love that day and she should do much better back over fences and in mares only company.

“There’s a few decent mares in here, but if she runs her race, she must have a great chance.”

As well as Clonmel runner-up Cabaret Queen, Willie Mullins saddles Salsaretta, who won her first four starts over fences last season, but fell at the first on her reappearance at Punchestown in November.

Agusta Gold (Mags Mullins), Ellie Mac (Henry de Bromhead), Miss Pernickety (Joseph O’Brien) and Moyhenna (Denis Hogan) also feature.

Elliott is keeping his fingers crossed Queens Brook can show her true colours earlier in the afternoon when she contests the Wishing Everyone A Healthy 2021 Mares Hurdle.

An excellent third behind the Mullins-trained pair of Ferny Hollow and Appreciate It in last season’s Champion Bumper, the daughter of Shirocco was made to work hard to justify prohibitive odds on her hurdling debut here in October.

Since then, Queens Brook has been touched off by Skyace in a Grade Three at Down Royal and finished a distant third behind the exciting Concertista in a Grade Two at this venue.

Elliott said: “I suppose you could say that her season hasn’t quite gone to plan, but I think there is more to come from her over hurdles and she hasn’t yet gotten back to the form that saw her finish third in the bumper at Cheltenham.

“In hindsight her second to Skyace at Down Royal in October wasn’t a bad run and we probably asked to much of her last time when she took on Concertista and had to settle for third.

“I don’t think she gave her running that day and I’m expecting better from her this time, but this does look a hot race and it looks a Graded class contest in everything but name.”

Mullins relies on impressive course winner Hook Up, while Dermot McLoughlin’s Delvino and Peter Fahey’s Royal Kahala are others in the mix.

Grand Roi rules at Limerick

Grand Roi registered a Grade Two success for Gordon Elliott on just his second start for the yard in the Grant Thornton Hurdle at Limerick.

After Grand Roi won three times for Nicky Henderson in the UK, Noel and Valerie Moran paid £400,000 for him at the Goffs Summer Sale.

He was a fair third of four on debut for his new yard at Galway behind the smart Beacon Edge – and Elliott found the perfect race for him on this occasion, back in against last season’s juveniles.

To the fore throughout under Denis O’Regan, Grand Roi powered away in the closing stages to beat Wolf Prince by eight lengths at 6-1.

“His jumping was superb on that ground. He travelled beautifully and has the makings of a very nice horse for a four-year-old,” said O’Regan.

“I reckoned he ran better than the form suggested in Galway over two-five – and coming back to two miles here, we could pop him out and use his jumping.

“He’s obviously taken a little time to get accustomed to Gordon Elliott’s stable, and he seems a nice horse.”

Farouk D’alene digs deep to take Limerick honours

Farouk D’alene just held off the late thrust of Vanillier in a war of attrition for the Lyons Of Limerick Jaguar Land Rover Novice Hurdle at Limerick.

The race was transferred from Sunday’s card – which was abandoned because of waterlogging – and while the going was still extremely deep, it was at least raceable.

It nonetheless made the two-mile-seven-furlong trip an extreme test for a field of novices who did not have that much experience to call upon.

Gordon Elliott’s Farouk D’alene took over from Costalotmore with a mile to run and appeared to have everything in hand under Jody McGarvey.

But turning into the straight, Darrens Hope looked a big threat before her stamina ran out between the last two.

It was left to Vanillier, who had been ridden patiently by Conor Maxwell, to keep the 2-1 favourite up to his work after the last – having lost a bit of momentum with a slow jump – but he was able to hold on by three-quarters of a length.

The winner was left unchanged at 33-1 by Betfair for the Albert Bartlett at Cheltenham in March.

McGarvey said: “It is very tough work out there and it takes a lot of getting.

“It was my first time riding him – and he was super tough, jumped and travelled beautifully. He dug deep up the straight when I needed him and ground it out well to the line.

“I was confident he’d stay, but we went a nice enough gallop for the ground and it was going to be hard work – (so) thankfully I was able to save enough before the turn-in to get me home.”

McGarvey had earlier teamed up with Willie Mullins to win the Future Ticketing Maiden Hurdle on Ciel De Neige, runner-up in the Betfair Hurdle last season at Newbury.

After the favourite’s two-and-a-quarter-length success, at the prohibitive odds of 1-8, Mullins said: “He eventually got his head in front. He did what he was asked to do.

“He’s just a horse that makes life hard on himself. Hopefully he can go on now and progress from that.”

Minella Indo out to rubber stamp Gold Cup ticket

Minella Indo bids to enhance his Cheltenham Gold Cup claims in a mouthwatering renewal of the Savills Chase at Leopardstown.

Mowed down late on by Champ in an epic RSA Chase at last season’s Cheltenham Festival, Henry de Bromhead’s charge has been hugely impressive in winning his two starts this term at Wexford and Navan.

The seven-year-old is second only to dual Gold Cup hero Al Boum Photo in ante-post lists for the blue riband next March – and his credentials will face a thorough examination on Monday, with several multiple Grade One winners in opposition.

De Bromhead said: “It’s obviously a very good race and it will be Minella Indo’s first time really out of novice company.

“I’m looking forward to seeing how he gets on.”

The Knockeen-based trainer also runs Balko Des Flos and A Plus Tard, with the latter a fascinating contender as he tackles the three-mile distance for the first time.

A Plus Tard is an interesting second string for De Bromhead
A Plus Tard is an interesting second string for De Bromhead (PA)
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De Bromhead added: “They all seem in good form. A Plus Tard is going up in trip and we’ll find out a lot about him. It’s certainly worth trying and he’s kind of limited by only going left-handed.

“It was either run over two miles or three miles and we said we’d try him over three miles and see how he fared. He seems very adaptable.”

Gordon Elliott also launches a formidable three-pronged assault, with last year’s winner Delta Work joined by esteemed stablemates Presenting Percy and Samcro.

Presenting Percy looked back to his best when landing a Listed prize at Thurles on his latest appearance, while Samcro steps up to three miles for the first time since his point-to-point days.

“Delta Work won the race last year and then won the Irish Gold Cup in February. He is a real Leopardstown specialist and I’m very pleased with how he has come forward from his first run of the season at Down Royal,” Elliott told Betfair.

“Presenting Percy was impressive at Thurles last time and looks to be back on track. I think he showed at Thurles that he could still be a Gold Cup player and he is another who has probably improved again since his last run. I’m really looking forward to running him.

“It’s going to be fascinating to see how Samcro gets on at three miles. I could see him travelling best of all on the run to two out and what happens after that is a bit of an unknown. A big run here would open up new options for him.”

Delta Work (right) sees off Kemboy and Presenting Percy in the Irish Gold Cup
Delta Work (right) sees off Kemboy and Presenting Percy in the Irish Gold Cup (PA)

Willie Mullins saddles five runners, with Allaho, Kemboy, Melon, Tornado Flyer and Easy Game all declared.

Kemboy was a runaway winner of this event two years ago before going on to win at Aintree and Punchestown in the spring, but has failed to recapture that form since, most recently chasing home Presenting Percy at Thurles.

David Mullins rides Kemboy, with stable jockey Paul Townend siding with Allaho, despite finishing a disappointing sixth on his seasonal reappearance in the John Durkan at Punchestown.

Willie Mullins said: “We didn’t see what happened to Allaho the last day, but David (Mullins) said he didn’t jump and missed two fences. He has far more potential than any of the other horses in the race and I thought Paul should ride him.

“Kemboy likes the track and has done it around here before, but the ground might be too soft.

“It’s Melon’s first time over three miles and he has every chance.

“We have five runners, but they could all run well and not finish in the first three.

“It’s a top class-race and probably going to be better than a Gold Cup in Cheltenham.”

Fakir D’oudairies (Joseph O’Brien), Tout Est Permis (Noel Meade) and Jett (Jessica Harrington) complete the stellar field.

Dual Festival winner heads Elliott’s attack on Christmas Hurdle

Sire Du Berlais spearheads a triple assault on the Leopardstown Christmas Hurdle for trainer Gordon Elliott.

The Cullentra handler saddled the brilliant mare Apple’s Jade to claim this Grade One prize in each of the past three seasons and appears intent on adding to his tally on Monday.

The JP McManus-owned Sire Du Berlais is the narrow favourite. The eight-year-old is a dual winner of the Pertemps Final at the Cheltenham Festival and made a flying start to the current campaign with victory in the Lismullen Hurdle at Navan last month.

He is joined by Fury Road, who also impressed on his reappearance at Punchestown, as well as The Storyteller, who reverts to the smaller obstacles after winning the Ladbrokes Champion Chase at Down Royal.

“Fury Road was a really good staying novice and the form of his Albert Bartlett third at Cheltenham looks strong. I’m hoping he will make up into a strong Stayers’ Hurdle contender in the spring,” Elliott told Betfair.

“Sire Du Berlais is heading down the Stayers’ route after winning the last two Pertemps Finals at Cheltenham. I was delighted with his comeback win at Navan and he’ll improve for that run and the step up to three miles.

“The Storyteller is a great favourite around the yard and has done us proud this season already. I think he’s as good over hurdles as he is over fences and we’re trying him at this level to see what sort of route we might take with him through the second half of the season.”

Mouse Morris is represented by Lismullen runner-up French Dynamite, Gavin Cromwell runs Flooring Porter and Willie Mullins saddles both Bacardys and Bapaume.

Patrick Mullins, assistant to his father, he said: “They’re both top-class horses on their day and their ratings entitle them to take part.

“We’re hoping they can pick up some place money, but some funny results can happen at Christmas and if you’re not in, you can’t win.”

Scintillating Matheson Hurdle in prospect

Abacadabras and Saint Roi will renew rivalry at Leopardstown on Tuesday after the pair featured among eight horses declared for the Matheson Hurdle.

Gordon Elliott’s Abacadabras denied the Willie Mullins-trained Saint Roi by a neck in last month’s Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown.

Saint Roi was keen and endured a troubled passage before powering home after the final flight, giving his supporters hope he can turn the tables in the feature event on the fourth and final day of Leopardstown’s Christmas Festival.

Petit Mouchoir, who won this race four years ago, makes his debut for the Elliott team.

Mullins’ hand is strengthened by the Rich and Susannah Ricci-owned pair of Saldier and Sharjah. Saldier has been off the track since landing last year’s Morgiana Hurdle, while Sharjah is bidding to claim this prize for the third year in succession.

Noel Meade’s Beacon Edge, Gearoid O’Loughlin’s Coeur Sublime and Aspire Tower from Henry de Bromhead’s yard complete the line-up.

Grade One honours are also up for grabs in the Neville Hotels Novice Chase, for which the Mullins-trained Monkfish will be a warm order.

Winner of the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle at last season’s Cheltenham Festival, the six-year-old was thoroughly impressive on his chasing bow at Fairyhouse a month ago.

Paul Nolan’s stable star Latest Exhibition was only a neck behind Monkfish at Cheltenham and also made a winning start to his fencing career at Punchestown, but was a beaten odds-on favourite in a Grade Two at the same venue last time out.

Conflated (Elliott), Eurobot (Meade), Foxy Jacks (Mouse Morris) and Heaven Help Us (Paul Hennessy) are the other hopefuls.

Concertista, Buildmeupbuttercup and My Sister Sarah give Mullins a firm grip on the Grade Three Advent Insurance Irish EBF Mares Hurdle, which he is bidding to win for the fifth year in succession.