Dramatic day at Punchestown hands initiative to Elliott

Gordon Elliott must count himself fortunate that a trainers’ title lead of €520,000 remained relatively healthy at just over €400,000 by the end of a dramatic day one of the Punchestown Festival.

Willie Mullins dominated the early exchanges, with Draconien causing an upset to land the Herald Champion Novice Hurdle. Getabird was sent off a short-priced favourite but as at Cheltenham the Mullins-trained six-year-old disappointed. Elliott had hoped for a huge run from Mengli Khan, however, a scrappy jumping display put paid to his chances as he came home third. It was left to the unconsidered Clossuton contender, Draconien, to make a late and successful challenge, guided to victory by the classy Noel Fehily. The winner had previously been beaten out of sight by the talented yet unpredictable Getabird at Fairyhouse.

Momentum was with Mullins, and continued as he took first and second in the Champion Chase. The race had been billed as a three-way tussle between Douvan, Un De Sceaux and Min. At the drop of the flag, the former was a shade of odds-on. But Douvan isn’t quite the force of old and several jumping errors meant that he was unable to keep tabs on a forcefully ridden Un De Sceaux. The winner jumped beautifully throughout and had almost four-lengths to spare at the line. A Toi Phil grabbed some much-needed prize money for Elliott in third, with Min coming home fourth.

With €162,250 awarded to the winner and €52,250 to the runner-up, this result did much to reduce the gap between Mullins and Elliott. And at this stage of day one, Elliott must have been fearing the worst.

The County Meath handler began the fightback in the Goffs Land Rover Bumper, with his trio of runners filling the first three places. Commander Of Fleet proved an impressive winner and looks a tasty prospect.

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Next came a truly incredible Growise Champion Novice Chase. Henry De Bromhead’s Monalee was installed as favourite, following his runner-up finish in the RSA Chase at Cheltenham. He travelled well throughout, shadowing the Mullins-trained Invitation Only for much of the race. As the pair approached the second-last they were joined by another Mullions contender in Al Boum Photo. But that penultimate fence was where the drama began.

Monalee stepped at it, hit the deck, and in doing so brought down Invitation Only. The incident appeared to hand the race to Paul Townend aboard Al Boum Photo, though Finian’s Oscar was raising a late effort under a power-packed ride from Robbie Power. As the pair approached the last, Townend glanced behind him and suddenly veered to his right, seemingly attempting to swerve around the final fence. In doing so he carried out a bewildered Robbie Power and his mount.

That late drama left a Gordon Elliott trio to pick up the pieces, headed by the grateful Davy Russell aboard The Storyteller. Having looked likely to come home last, Monbeg Notorious charged late to snatch second, with Jury Duty coming home third. Rarely have we witnessed a race with such changing fortunes from the second last fence. Any of four looked likely to win, yet a fifth was left to take the spoils.

Elliott could hardly believe his good fortune, saying: “We got a bit of luck on our side and we needed it with the way the day started off. I don’t know what happened to Paul Townend, it all happened that quick. I was standing at the last and when I saw Paul going I wasn’t sure if it had been bypassed. It worked out great for me, so I can’t complain.”

That unlikely result put almost €90,000 into the Elliott war chest, whilst Townend received a hefty ban from the Punchestown stewards. There’s sure to be more twists and turns as the week progresses, though we’re unlikely to witness a more dramatic finish to a race.

De Bromhead novice can Sparkle in the Arkle

It’s possible that the Arkle Novices’ Chase could prove the highlight of this year’s Cheltenham Festival.

Both the Stayers’ Hurdle and the Gold Cup have a wonderfully competitive look to them and are likely to provide thrilling finishes. But it’s the Arkle that has Jump racing purists smacking their lips in anticipation.

The front four in the betting have made a seamless transition from hurdles to fences. Footpad has been dominant in Ireland, though defeated a ring-rusty Petit Mouchoir last time at Leopardstown, with the pair expected to be more closely matched at Cheltenham. Sceau Royal has set the standard in the UK and was particularly impressive when slaughtering the opposition in the Grade One Henry VIII Novices’ Chase at Sandown. And then there’s Saint Calvados – the beast from the south-east (just over the English Channel in France), now under the guidance of Harry Whittington and fresh from three destructive performances over the larger obstacles.

Money has come in recent days for Nicky Henderson’s Brain Power, suggesting that this is not merely a battle of the Fab Four, but possibly a clash of the Famous Five. This fella certainly looks a chaser, though has blotted his copybook of late with mishaps at Sandown and Ascot.

So, which of these can add their name to a stunning roll of honour that includes two-mile chasing goliaths Moscow Flyer and Sprinter Sacre?

Six and seven-year-olds have proved dominant in recent years, though Moscow Flyer and Sizing Europe were both eight, whilst Voy Por Ustedes and Well Chief were just five when landing this prestigious prize.

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Of the main protagonists, Saint Calvados is the ‘spotty-faced teenager’, though arguably arrives with enough experience to do himself justice. Three from three over fences, he’s a sizeable unit for a baby, and has been simply sensational in romping to victory at Newbury (twice) and then in the Kingmaker Novices’ Chase at Warwick. Those wins came in testing ground and there had been a concern as to whether he’d adapt to a sounder surface at Cheltenham. However, the great British weather has done its best to accommodate this French-bred son of Saint Des Saints. He’s sure to be bounding along at the head of affairs, more than likely shadowed by race favourite Footpad. The pair have been electric over obstacles thus far and could provide a spectacular display for an expectant crowd.

Footpad has been foot-perfect throughout the winter and would make it three wins from the last four renewals for Willie Mullins. He forms part of two-pronged assault from owners Simon Munir and Isaac Souede along with the Alan King-trained Sceau Royal. This fella was slightly better over hurdles and has the requisite size and scope to excel. He’s demonstrated the ability to stand-off a fence but also the aptitude to ‘shorten-up’ when required. He looks to have a high cruising speed, which was seen to great effect when accounting for Petit Mouchoir last time. There’s the potential for a heated battle at the front end, with the possibility that this may benefit a contender that sits a little off the pace.

One that looks sure be held up is the Munir/Souede UK entrant, Sceau Royal. This fella isn’t the biggest but has been wonderfully slick over fences this winter. He jumped as well as any novice when simply sensational at Sandown in December. His only defeat over fences came at Cheltenham when runner-up to North Hill Harvey. He was giving the winner 5lbs, though looked in control approaching the last, before being out-battled during the final climb to the finish. He certainly wasn’t stopping that day, but connections would have been a little disappointed that he couldn’t nail the winner late on. Sixth in last year’s Champion Hurdle (Petit Mouchoir third, Footpad fourth, Brain Power eighth), I have a feeling he may find one or two of these possess a little more firepower during that final climb.

Henry De Bromhead saddled Sizing Europe to win in 2010 and has a leading contender in Petit Mouchoir. Brilliant on his chasing debut in October, the seven-year-old then suffered a minor joint injury which kept him off the track for almost four months. He returned at Leopardstown and was thrown in at the deep end when trying to keep tabs on Footpad in the Irish Arkle. Certainly rusty early on, he undoubtedly warmed to the task, jumping well for the main part despite Footpad setting a searching gallop. Fitness surely played a part in the five-length defeat and after the race connections looked thrilled. The question is whether he can improve enough to turn the tables at Prestbury Park.

Nicky Henderson’s attempt at four wins in the last seven renewals rests with Brain Power. He’s failed to finish in two of his three starts over fences and has undergone wind-surgery since his fall at Ascot in January. Something of a ‘bridle horse’, he’s often looked a little weak in a finish. If the operation is successful, he has the talent to be a major player. Nevertheless, I’d be surprised if he powers up the famous hill to victory.

North Hill Harvey remains an interesting contender should the ground at Cheltenham dry-out enough prior to the off. He has a terrific record at Prestbury Park and has won both his chase starts at the track. He probably lacks the gears to beat the main protagonists, though could pick up the pieces as warriors fade up the final hill, or should one or two of the favourites underperform.

This looks a fabulous renewal and I’ve spent many hours considering the likely outcome. Footpad has looked exceptional over the winter, sweeping up the races that tend to point to an Arkle winner. But I was impressed with Petit Mouchoir’s return and will put my trust in De Bomhead’s ability to produce high class two-mile chasers. Best of these in last year’s Champion Hurdle, it’s Petit Mouchoir for me. If testing conditions prevail on the opening day of the Festival, I would fear the relentless power of Saint Calvados. His age and lack of Cheltenham experience are a negative, though he has looked mightily impressive over the winter.

Best of luck to those having a punt. I think we’re set for an absolute thriller.

Get-on Getabird – the First Festival Banker

With less than a fortnight to go until the Cheltenham Festival, the time has come to start previewing some of the action.

The Supreme Novices’ Hurdle opens the show and is a race that has been kind to Willie Mullins in recent times. With three wins and a trio of runners-up finishes in the last five renewals, the Closutton team are the ones to watch in the Festival opener.

Many of those Mullins winners have carried the silks of the Ricci’s, and this year’s race favourite Getabird is hoping to continue that successful run. He’s a six-year-old, which is handy, as those aged five and six dominate the race. Unbeaten under rules, he’s two from two over hurdles and owes his place at the head of the market to the devastating performance last time at Punchestown in the Grade Two Moscow Flyer Novice Hurdle.

Getabird sprinted clear of Mengli Khan that day (was in receipt of 6lbs) causing connections to change focus from the Ballydoyle to the Supreme. He’s slick over the obstacles and clearly has gears. He’s also a beautiful mover, and I’d be stunned if better ground (he’s been winning on heavy) was to cause any concerns. His odds of 13/8 look skinny, but he ticks so many boxes, especially the Mullins/Ricci box.

Mengli Khan is not your typical Gigginstown contender. He learnt his trade on the flat under the guidance of Hugo Palmer. He’s taken a while to get the knack of hurdles, however is now maturing into that sizeable frame. A decent juvenile though some way off the best, he’s improved plenty this winter and may well take another step forward on better ground at Cheltenham. I don’t think he has the gears to cope with Getabird, but he may well be good enough to hit the frame. Gordon Elliott was responsible for last year’s surprise winner Labaik.

Many pundits believe that Amy Murphy’s Kalashnikov is the main danger to the favourite. Three from four over hurdles, this five-year-old (box ticked) suffered his only defeat in testing ground at Sandown. He bounced back to form with an impressive victory at Newbury in the Betfair Hurdle, defeating Bleu Et Rouge by four and-a-bit lengths.

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A son of Kalanisi out of an Old Vic mare, he has the size and scope for fences, but therein lies my concern for this contender. He’s a huge unit and can take some time to get stoked up. Though there’s the famous hill to climb, Cheltenham’s Old Course (used on day one and two) is a sharper track than the New, and Kalashnikov may find himself too far back when it counts. He’ll be charging home, but I fancy the bird will have flown.

Summerville Boy defeated Kalashnikov at Sandown in the Tolworth Novices’ Hurdle and is a major player if the ground on the opening day is testing. He’s already suffered two defeats at Cheltenham this winter, though reversed form with one of the adversaries, Western Ryder, in the Sandown race. A fast run two-miles will help this fella, but he needs the ground to be in his favour if he’s to land a telling blow.

At a decent price I quite fancy Tolworth flop Western Ryder. Prior to the Sandown run, this Warren Greatrex-trained six-year-old had landed a couple of races, including the win at Cheltenham in December (Summerville Boy almost six-lengths back and receiving 6lbs). He clearly likes the track, having finished fifth in last year’s Champion Bumper, despite interference late in the race. He’s already run 11 times under rules, which suggests he’s somewhat exposed. But I fancy that experience will prove useful and at 33s I think he’ll run well.

Like Willie Mullins, Nicky Henderson has a cracking record in the opener, though his Claimantakinforgan looks set for a place finish at best. He was third in the Champion Bumper 12 months ago and was two from two over hurdles until disappointing somewhat last time at Musselburgh. He lacks gears and though a decent sort I’d be surprised if he had the ‘Va Va Voom’ for this.

Henry De Bromhead could have an exciting opening day (has Petit Mouchoir in the Arkle), and his Paloma Blue looks capable of running well in this. He travelled like a dream last time at Leopardstown before being outgunned by Samcro late-on. He was a little keen that day and should appreciate a faster run race on a sounder surface. He’s an each-way player.

I’d also give Vision Des Flos a mention, following his return to form last month after having a wind-op. He was a seriously good bumper horse in Ireland but had disappointed in his three starts over hurdles this term. An operation in January coupled with a drop back in trip at Exeter last month seems to have brought about an improved performance. He probably didn’t beat much, but at 33s, Colin Tizzard’s five-year-old is sure to attract each-way money.

I’ve already got a few quid riding on Getabird and I think he’ll win. Mullins has a terrific record in the race and this fella looked special last time. I fancy Mengli Khan will get nearer and I’m also a fan of Paloma Blue. The Irish have a great record in the Supreme, and I can’t see this year’s race being any different. The one UK contender that could break their stranglehold is Western Ryder. I’m hoping he comes here rather than taking in the Ballymore. If he does, I’ll be having a bit of that 33/1. He may be bigger on the day, and there’s a chance that a bookies special may give us an extra place for our each-way cash.

Best of luck to those having a punt in what is sure to be a fabulous curtain-raiser to this wonderful festival.

Cheltenham Festival Shorties – Thrash or Crash

For today’s piece I’ve decided to take a closer look at the Cheltenham Festival ‘shorties’ and assess whether they will thrash the opposition or unexpectedly crash and burn in the cauldron of Prestbury Park.

Year after year horses arrive at the Cotswolds in March with a huge reputation. They’ve often impressed in slowly run affairs, with small fields and usually in deep winter ground. Some duly arrive and conquer, confirming their status as potential stars. But others find Cheltenham an inhospitable place. The ground proves too quick and the opponents run too fast. They feel crowded in the larger fields and the fences are much trickier than those they have encountered before.

You only need to look back to last year’s Festival to see how Cheltenham in March can prove an immense assignment.

Yanworth lined-up as the 2/1 favourite for the Champion Hurdle having won three from three during the winter. Nevertheless, he came-up short when it mattered. Never slick enough over the obstacles, he was then badly outpaced coming downhill. By the time the field had turned for home his race was run.

Douvan was injured during his attempt to land the Champion Chase, but was he also a victim of a soft campaign? He arrived at Cheltenham having defeated 138-rated Realt Mor in a Grade Two at Punchestown. Thrown in at the deep end, in arguably the most intense National Hunt race of the calendar, the 2/9 favourite was forced to go a yard or two faster than at any time during the winter. He stood off way too far at the third and fourth fence, before putting in a short one at the fifth. Those early errors may have caused the physical damage which ultimately led to his demise, though there can be little doubt that chasing Special Tiara on Spring ground played a significant part.

Death Duty looked a non-stayer before coming down at the last in the Albert Bartlett, though during a dominant winter campaign in Ireland had looked sure to appreciate a step-up in trip. He’d ‘kept on well’ to thump Monalee at Navan in December, yet at Cheltenham, when sent-off a 13/8 ‘sure thing’, was run off his feet and had nothing left when faced with the infamous hill. His pedigree shouts stayer! Yet quicker ground and the inevitable stronger pace of a Grade One at The Festival proved insurmountable for the talented young hurdler.

Unowhatimeanharry had swept all aside en-route to last year’s Festival. He’d looked hugely impressive in taking the Long Distance at Newbury, the Long Walk at Ascot and then the Cleeve at Cheltenham. A 5/6 favourite for the Stayers’ at the off, Harry Fry’s hurdler did little wrong, travelling powerfully through the race, but lacked gears on the livelier ground and was beaten into third.

Each year these stories are repeated and without doubt there’ll be several ‘shorties’ turned over in March. The difficulty comes in predicting which of the ‘Festival bankers’ will fail to deliver.

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Getabird is already a 7/4 shot for the opening Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. If Samcro heads to the Ballydoyle as anticipated, the Mullins-trained six-year-old will be hugely popular with punters, especially of an Irish persuasion. He’s arguably the sort that we should be taking on. His pair of hurdles victories have come in heavy ground, and as a point-to-point winner, we know he’ll stay much further in time. He could be tapped for toe in a quick-fire Supreme. Nevertheless, at this moment in time I’m a believer rather than a doubter. He’s looked slick and destructively quick in winning those two races. The Mullins/Ricci combo have a tremendous record in the opener and with no Nicky Henderson contender to beat, I’m taking this fella to thrash the opposition much to the delight of the Irish contingent.

The Mullins team have another short-priced favourite for the second race of the meeting - the Arkle Chase. Owned by Simon Munir and Isaac Souede, Footpad has been brilliant over the winter, winning all three chase starts and taking to fences like a duck to water. An even-money favourite with most bookies, he’s earned the right to top the market and will be many punters banker of the opening day. Despite a faultless campaign to date, I’m taking Footpad to crash in a renewal that looks hugely competitive.

Petit Mouchoir, Sceau Royal and Saint Calvados could ensure that this is the race of the festival. A strong pace is guaranteed, and the winner will need to travel powerfully before staying on strongly up the famous hill. You could argue that Sceau Royal’s performance in winning the Henry VIII at Sandown was the most impressive by any novice this winter. I just have a slight concern as to whether he’ll be strong enough when faced with Cheltenham’s stiff finish. Saint Calvados was devastatingly good at Warwick last time, though needs to prove himself on a sounder surface. But it’s Petit Mouchoir that I fancy can turn the tables on Footpad. He should improve a ton for the run at Leopardstown last time. And producing two-mile chasers is Henry De Bromhead’s speciality.

Buveur D’Air is a certainty in the Champion Hurdle. Sure to thrash his challengers, those with plenty of cash can still get on at around 4/9.

I’m taking a huge risk with the next ‘Festival banker’. Samcro will look to maintain his perfect record under rules, with plenty believing that he cannot be beaten. Hugely impressive last time in the Deloitte Novice Hurdle, he’s odds-on to take the Ballymore. Spring-heeled at his obstacles, he has gears and is bred to appreciate this trip. Those winter wins have come on heavy ground, but he’s by Germany, a stallion that has produced previous festival winners Faugheen and Captain Cee Bee. He has the credentials, but in On The Blind Side and Next Destination, the opposition looks strong.

The former is trained by Nicky Henderson and is also unbeaten under rules. He was mightily impressive at Sandown in December and is highly thought of by his trainer. The Willie Mullins-trained Next Destination is unbeaten over hurdles and ran well in last year’s Champion Bumper at Cheltenham. He’s accounted for some decent sorts over the winter and looks sure to run a huge race. Samcro has looked awesome thus far, but I fancy the opposition is strong enough for him to be vulnerable here. Despite a huge amount of talent and a colossal reputation, he’s a crash rather than a thrash.

Like Buveur D’Air, Altior cannot be defeated. A two-time Festival winner, he’s in a different league to the rest. Min may be challenging approaching the last, but Altior will no doubt surge clear approaching the line. This fella is sure to thrash all-comers in the Champion Chase.

Though I’m stretching it a little in calling him a ‘shortie’, Might Bite has dominated the Gold Cup market since his King George success at Christmas. Hugely talented, though undoubtedly quirky, Henderson’s young chaser will face by far his toughest assignment at Cheltenham and I fear the infamous hill will prove his downfall. Almost chinned late-on in last year’s RSA, he faces better horses in March and arguably stronger stayers.

Sizing John needs to bounce back to form, but last year’s winner will probably do so. Native River has been aimed at this one race and looks sure to go close. Road To Respect is a Festival winner and has improved a ton during the winter. And there’s no doubting that Minella Rocco will be charging up the hill as others cry ‘enough’. I wouldn’t be at all upset if Might Bite proved me wrong, but for me he’s likely to crash when challenged by talented and more proven stayers.

So there you have it. Some will leave the Cotswolds with huge reputations intact, whilst others head home having found Cheltenham a place where dreams fail to come true.

Samcro Cruise, Faugheen Blues and bags of Cheltenham Clues

Edwulf caused a monumental upset when landing a thrilling Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown.

This was a truly remarkable success, as the horse had almost died at the Cheltenham Festival little more than 10 months earlier. He’d collapsed in the latter stages of the four-mile chase, and vets had worked tirelessly to save him. Only after a summer vacation did connections give any thought to a return to racing.

Our Duke was sent-off the 9/4 favourite, but Jess Harrington’s young chaser fluffed his lines when getting the second-last all wrong and stumbling badly on landing. The Willie Mullins-trained Djakadam had bowled along in front, but as the leading contenders approached the last it was his stablemate Killultagh Vic that looked to have made a decisive move. However, he too made a crucial jumping error, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

Outlander was left at the head of affairs as he looked to add to his terrific track record. But in a pulsating finish he was unable to withstand a power-packed finish from Edwulf and jockey Derek O’Connor. A neck separated the pair at the line, with Djakadam 10-lengths further back in third.

It was one of the finest moments in the saddle for O'Connor and he said of his mount: “I'm exceptionally happy for the horse. He ran himself into the ground for me at Cheltenham and we thought his career was over but he's after coming back to his best.”

For trainer Joseph O’Brien, this is yet another prestigious prize in such a fledgling career. He looked stunned when speaking on At The Races and said: “He's always been a great horse. It's a credit to everyone involved - the staff at home, the vets at Cheltenham last year and JP (McManus, owner) and Frank Berry (McManus' racing manager), who gave him all the time in the world. It's been a long road to get him back from where he was at Cheltenham when we thought he was gone.

“Derek is an unbelievable horseman. Horses just jump unbelievably well for him and he gets on great with this fella. We're over the moon. We'll see how he comes out of this first and we'll think about Cheltenham then. It's not too often you get a horse good enough to run in the Gold Cup so if he's well, I'd imagine he might go there.”

Gordon Elliott will also send the runner-up to contest the blue riband at Prestbury Park. The County Meath handler said: “He ran his heart out and seems to like it here. We have to run in the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Where else would you go?”

Our Duke’s error at the second-last put-paid to any hopes of winning, but jockey Robbie Power was pleased with his efforts, saying: “I'm absolutely delighted with him. Down Royal was a non-event for him and realistically this was his first run of the season. He was very ring-rusty and he'll improve an awful lot from it.”

Earlier in the day Gordon Elliott’s Samcro had further enhanced his reputation as one of the sports most prodigious new talents. He cruised to victory in the Deloitte Novice Hurdle, slamming a strong field by more than five-lengths. The powerful six-year-old is now a shade of odds-on for the Ballymore Novices’ at Cheltenham. He also heads many Supreme markets along with the Willie Mullins-trained Getabird. The Ballymore may prove the easier option, though connections will no doubt decide nearer the time.

The Flogas Novice Chase had looked an exceptionally competitive renewal, with a field of 11 going to post. And so it proved as five jumped the last almost in a line across the track. Monalee had led from the off and despite plenty having a crack at him, he simply refused to let anyone past. Henry De Bromhead’s chaser is now second-best to Presenting Percy in the RSA betting.

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On Saturday many had flocked to Leopardstown in hope of seeing a resurgent Faugheen. The ex-champ has had his problems of late and was on a recovery mission after a poor performance over Christmas. He was sent-off an odds-on favourite to land his second Irish Champion Hurdle, but despite a much-improved effort he was unable to hold off the prolonged challenge of Jess Harrington’s Supasundae.

Mullins had clearly hoped for more when saying: “I was disappointed with him. He's sort of half back on track, but he'll have to improve a lot to be back where he was. I was actually very happy when he was coming round the last bend, but by the time they lined up for the last, the writing was on the wall. I was hoping at that stage he might pull something else out, but it wasn't to be. I'm just hoping spring ground, spring air and spring sunshine might rejuvenate him, but there's just no spark there, I think.”

Of the much-improved winner, Jess Harrington said: “He's never jumped as well before, he jumped absolutely super and was always travelling. I thought they'd go too quick for him over two miles and Robert was sure when he had Faugheen in his sights at the last he would stay every inch of the way, and he did. I came here to give him a prep run for the three-mile hurdle at Cheltenham and to win this is some prep run!”

She added: “He's only in the Stayers’, so that's where he'll be going. He is a much better horse on better ground, he doesn’t like slogging around in very muddy ground and that's why he comes into his own in the spring.”

Footpad put in a commanding performance to land the Arkle Novice Chase. Run at a cracking pace, the young chaser led from the drop of the flag, chased throughout by Petit Mouchoir. The runner-up, returning from injury, lost little in defeat, and should get a lot closer to the winner at Cheltenham.

Mullins was more than satisfied with Footpad, saying: “He did it the hard way and jumped well in front. I think he pecked a bit at the last, but it was a very good performance. We didn't set out to make it, but Paul wasn't happy there was enough pace so he went on. We are heading for the Arkle unless something else changes.”

He added: “Footpad was fourth in a Champion Hurdle, but we thought he would be going two and a half miles or more over fences. The first day he jumped he was very good and when you can jump, you can go any trip.”

The trainer’s comments were interesting, especially as owners Munir and Souede have Sceau Royal lined up for the Arkle at Prestbury Park. The bookies were taking no chances, shortening Footpad to a shade of odds-on for the two-mile event, whilst several cut him to as short as 2/1 for the JLT.

Any Mullins and Ricci disappointment in Faugheen was tempered by the stunning success of Min in the Dublin Chase. He romped to victory and now looks a serious challenger for the Champion Chase at Cheltenham, with or without Altior. Travelling powerfully throughout, he breezed past long-time leader Special Tiara as they approached the last before stretching clear for a 12-length success. Ordinary World had looked like throwing down a challenge, but he blundered badly at the last and Davy Russell did well to stay on-board.

The inaugural Dublin Racing Festival has proved to be a huge success. And many horses took the opportunity to enhance their reputation with Cheltenham little more than a month away.

Supasundae must have a great chance in the Stayers’ following his stunning success in the Irish Champion Hurdle. Better ground will suit, and he already has a Festival victory on his CV. Footpad has looked sensational over fences and is sure to go close in the Arkle Chase. He’ll have a slightly fitter Petit Mouchoir to contend with at Cheltenham and I’d expect the rematch to be a thriller.

Monalee was a gutsy winner of the Flogas Novice Chase and should go close in the RSA. Runner-up in last year’s Albert Bartlett, the seven-year-old clearly goes on the track. However, don’t discount Al Boum Photo when looking for a likely winner. The Willie Mullins-trained six-year-old finished to great effect and was less than a length adrift at the line. And he’s still available at 25s with a couple of bookies.

Min must have a great chance in the Champion Chase having romped to victory on Saturday. But I’d also be interested in Ordinary World back at Prestbury Park on decent ground. De Bromhead’s chaser was mounting a fair old challenge when getting the last all wrong. He was third to Altior in last year’s Arkle and though he’s not good enough to win, he could be on hand to pick up a place as others fall by the wayside. He’s available at 50/1, with many of those above him in the betting likely to run elsewhere. I’ve had a little each-way, as that price is simply wrong.

It’s also interesting to see that the bookies have given-up on Espoir D’Allen after his disappointing effort in the juvenile race. He ran far too freely yesterday before floundering in the mud. Cheltenham will be different, with a decent pace assured, and better ground likely. A couple of years back Ivanovich Gorbatov flopped in the same race, yet at Prestbury Park a month later was able to fend off Apple’s Jade in the Triumph Hurdle. Footpad was a well-beaten third that day. You can now get 20s on an Espoir upset and I’m seriously tempted.

Unfortunately, I’ve probably missed the boat on Samcro. His price has contacted too much for the likes of me, though those with deep pockets will no doubt be lumping on for what looks the banker of the meeting. Those going antepost will hope that they choose the right race, which, at the moment, appears to be the Ballymore Novices’.

And what of Edwulf? Can he really go to Cheltenham and win the Gold Cup? It would be some story, if he was to return to the track that almost took his life, only to win one of jump racing’s most sought-after prizes.

Outlander to continue Leopardstown love-affair

Who’d be a tipster? Things haven’t gone according to plan in recent weeks, so I’ve decided to travel across the Irish Sea (not literally) in search of a winner.

The Dublin Festival at Leopardstown begins on Saturday and it’s Sunday’s Irish Gold Cup that I’ve decided to scrutinize for this week’s preview. It’s a competitive renewal though many will be disappointed not to have Sizing John and Road To Respect in the line-up. The former took this race 12 months ago prior to his successful trip to Prestbury Park, whilst the latter landed the Christmas Chase (formerly the Lexus). They’re arguably Ireland’s top two staying chasers, although many would fancy Our Duke as a potential star.

Established in 1987, the first winner was the classy, if sometimes unpredictable, Forgive ‘n Forget. The 10-year-old had captured the Gold Cup at Cheltenham two years earlier but was often apt to put in an erratic round of jumping. A strong traveller through a race, when he did get it right he proved to be mighty impressive. His victory at Leopardstown in ‘87 was one such occasion.

Jodami completed a hat-trick of wins in the 1990s along with a single victory in the Cheltenham Gold Cup. And at the turn of the century Florida Pearl matched that success with his own trio of wins. Trained by Willie Mullins, the horse became an Irish chasing goliath. He captured a fourth Irish Gold Cup (then the Hennessy) in his final start at the age of 12. Although never cracking Cheltenham’s Gold Cup, he did manage to land the King George at Kempton in 2001.

Mullins has found it impossible to win Cheltenham’s Gold Cup but has a terrific record in Ireland’s equivalent. He landed three-in-a-row from 2011 to 2013 (bringing his total to nine), with Sir Des Champs taking the latter. Much to the trainer’s frustration, he too came up just short back at Prestbury Park when losing out to Bobs Worth.

The champion trainer has two entries in Sunday’s renewal with a huge disparity in experience. Djakadam has been contesting these top-class events since 2015 and has proved wonderfully consistent. He’s won or been placed in 10 Grade One’s, though his two victories came in the John Durkan at two and-a-half miles. It would be wrong to say he isn’t effective at three miles, but he tends to find one or two a little too strong in a finish. I’d forgive him his last poor performance at Leopardstown over Christmas, when appearing to be suffering the effects of his previous clash with Sizing John. Nevertheless, on all known form he looks set to be placed at best.

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Mullins’ second challenger is Killultagh Vic who only has two chase outings to his name. It’s quite incredible that a horse with so little experience and having only had one outing in the past two years (that was over hurdles) can find himself second in the betting. There’s no doubting the nine-year-old is talented, but it probably says more of the doubts surrounding other contenders. I’d be astounded if he wins and of the pair I’d be siding with Djakadam.

Jess Harrington trained Sizing John to win a year ago and has eight-year-old Our Duke primed for the challenge on Sunday. Ireland’s best novice chaser last year, his return in the was a disaster. Found to have a back issue post-race, he’s had an operation and is reportedly ready to put his best hoof forward. His Irish National success last April was mightily impressive, though he still must prove himself at the highest level against more experienced campaigners. He’s favourite for the race and needs to go close if to be considered a contender for Cheltenham’s Gold Cup in March.

Gigginstown have three entered though only two are likely to challenge. Outlander and Valseur Lido certainly have the ability to go close, though the former is unpredictable whilst the latter is only recently back from injury. Outlander is four from five at Leopardstown and ran another cracker at the track when third in the Christmas Chase. He’s looked as good as ever this winter and I fancy he’ll go close.

I remain to be convinced that Valseur Lido truly sees out the three-miles at this level. When part of the Mullins team, his trainer was convinced that the horse needed ‘a trip’. But he looked a certain winner approaching the last in the Lexus of 2016 before fading. Then off the track for a year, he returned to contest the same race (now known as the Christmas Chase) and again faded late-on. He’s sure to strip fitter this time and now a nine-year-old may well have the stamina required. He’s arguably the most talented horse in the field and will likely be at the head of affairs approaching the last.

Many are singing the praises of Anibale Fly and it’s true he was impressive in winning the Paddy Power Chase at the track over Christmas. This is a much tougher assignment and his novice form leaves him a little shy of Our Duke. He’s only eight and there’s certainly room for further improvement, but I’m not convinced he’s quite up to this.

This track doesn’t play to Minella Rocco’s strengths. It would come as no surprise to see him staying on powerfully to grab a place, but he needs a stiff finish to be seen at his best. This will serve as a warm up for Cheltenham, where I can see him again going close.

I hope Our Duke wins and he may well do so. A talented novice, he’s the horse in the field that has star quality. However, there’s enough doubt for me to look elsewhere. Outlander’s record at the track is exceptional and I take him to land the spoils.

Best of luck to all those having a punt. And enjoy what is set to be a sensational Dublin Festival.

Destination Dublin – Equine Elite flock to Leopardstown

It’s the Dublin Racing Festival this weekend from Leopardstown with jump racing fans in for a real treat.

Proposed by the racecourse and enthusiastically backed by Horse Racing Ireland, the decision to combine three stand-alone meetings into a two-day extravaganza appears a masterstroke. The festival is ideally positioned between Leopardstown’s Christmas gathering and the Cheltenham Festival in March, with the intention of attracting equine elite from Ireland and hopefully the UK.

It’s fair to say that trainers this side of the Irish Sea have yet to grasp the nettle, though in years to come many are likely to add this to their winter schedule. Despite something of a UK ‘no show’, many of Ireland’s leading lights will be on duty, aiming to land prestigious prizes and further advertise their Cotswold credentials.

Leopardstown tends to attract the best at this stage of the campaign. Petit Mouchoir defeated Footpad in the Irish Champion Hurdle last year. The pair are set to meet over fences this weekend in what could prove the clash of the meeting. In recent years Faugheen, Hurricane Fly, Sizing Europe, Brave Inca, Hardy Eustace and Istabraq have all landed Ireland’s showpiece hurdle.

The Flogas Novice Chase (formerly Dr P.J. Moriarty) is often a target for Ireland’s best young staying chasers. Disko took last year’s renewal, defeating Our Duke and Balko Des Flos in the process.

The Irish Gold Cup will be one of the highlights this weekend, having gone to Sizing John a year ago. Jess Harrington’s powerful chaser followed up at Cheltenham, though that double had not been completed since 1993 when Jodami was at the peak of his powers. Harrington has Our Duke primed for a return in Sunday’s renewal.

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The Deloitte Novice Hurdle also takes place on Sunday and has gone to numerous high-class performers over the years. Nichols Canyon, Vautour and Champagne Fever are recent winners, whilst Brave Inca and Istabraq also have their names engraved on a stunning roll of honour.

The action starts on Saturday with the Grade One Irish Champion Hurdle the feature. The mighty Faugheen is due to run and heads the market with stable companion Melon. ‘The Machine’ is on a recovery mission after his unexplained flop last time at Leopardstown. There must be a concern as to how the ex-champ will react when put under pressure, and one wonders if time spent on the sidelines is finally catching up with him. Melon travelled like the best horse for much of the International Hurdle at Cheltenham last time, before being out-battled by the more experienced duo of My Tent Or Yours and The New One.

Defi Du Seuil is set to travel over for the race and like Faugheen, needs to get his campaign back on track. Last year’s top juvenile ran a shocker on return at Ascot but is expected to show his true form on Saturday. He’ll need to go close if he’s to be considered a realistic Champion Hurdle contender back at Cheltenham in March.

The Arkle Novice Chase looks a straight duel between Footpad and Petit Mouchoir. The former has a slight edge on experience and race fitness. He’s looked terrific on his two runs over fences and is a short-priced favourite for the corresponding race at Cheltenham. Henry De Bromhead’s chaser has been off the track since his impressive debut in October. You’d expect him to improve for the run and the likelihood is that he’ll come off second best this time. That may not be the case back at Prestbury Park.

Another cracker on the opening day is the Grade Two Dublin Chase. Min, Special Tiara and Yorkhill are set to clash, with the latter looking to get his chasing career back on track. Undoubtedly hugely talented, this looks a mighty test for the unpredictable eight-year-old. Min is a classy racehorse and we all know what Special Tiara can do. This is a terrific renewal with plenty of questions waiting to be answered. The winner will likely endorse their position towards the head of Cheltenham’s Arkle Chase market.

Sunday’s showpiece is the Irish Gold Cup, with Our Duke looking to re-establish himself as one of Ireland’s leading staying chasers. He’ll have plenty on his plate as Mullins arrives double-handed with Djakadam and Killultagh Vic. Outlander and Valseur Lido are Gigginstown’s dynamic duo, whilst Jonjo sends Minella Rocco back to Ireland. Sizing John and Road To Respect are missing, but this remains a mighty renewal.

The Grade One Flogas Novice Chase also looks hugely competitive. This appears to be a strong division in Ireland with the main protagonists set to clash. Monalee and Al Boum Photo both hit the deck last time, whilst Invitation Only, Snow Falcon and Sutton Place all impressed. The Storyteller is no mug, in a race that could prove an absolute thriller.

Others to watch for during the two-day spectacular are Espoir D’Allen, Samcro and Sharjah. This trio of young hurdlers all look capable of careers at the top table. This weekend’s thrilling action will tell us more.

A Tale Of Two Miles – by Henry De Bromhead

Henry De Bromhead is in the midst of another successful campaign, currently lying fourth in the Irish Trainers Championship.

It’s little more than a year since the Potts family moved their horses from the County Waterford stable, yet a potentially devastating blow sparked something of a revival in the yard’s fortunes. The arrival of several Gigginstown-owned horses certainly softened the blow, and last season proved to be one of the best, with five victories at Grade One level, including a thrilling success in the Champion Chase at Cheltenham for Special Tiara.

That two-mile division over fences has proved a rich vein of success over the years, typified by stable star Sizing Europe. Described by the trainer as a horse of a lifetime, the stunning chaser won six Grade One’s over fences, including an Arkle and a Champion Chase at Prestbury Park.

The stable possibly lacks that equine star at present, though there’s several young chasers that have the potential of stepping into those sizeable horseshoes.

Petit Mouchoir put in a stunning display to win his chasing debut at Punchestown. Already a Grade One winner over hurdles, the seven-year-old was third in last year’s Champion Hurdle. Sadly, he’s been off the track since Punchestown, but looks likely to return at Leopardstown in a couple of weeks. There’s the likelihood of a tasty clash with Footpad, though I’m sure De Bromhead would settle for a safe round of jumping, with the prospect of sharpening up his youngster for a serious crack at the Arkle Chase in March. I’m a huge fan of this exuberant front-runner, and fancy he’ll replicate Sizing Europe, assuming he returns to the Cotswolds in peak physical shape.

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De Bromhead has the current Champion Chase winner in the yard, though Special Tiara will face a much tougher task should Altior line-up against him. He defeated Fox Norton in a thrilling victory back in March, and though now an 11-year-old, is said by his trainer to be ‘as good as ever’. He needs a sound surface to be at his best, and should the return of Altior fail to materialize, he’d be a decent each-way proposition at around 20/1.

Balko Des Flos and Monalee are another pair that give De Bromhead hope of further festival glory. The former ran a cracker last time, when runner-up in the Christmas Chase (formerly Lexus) at Leopardstown. He’s another from the yard that needs better ground to shine, and is likely to get that at Cheltenham in March. He’s as short as 10s for the Ryanair and more than twice those odds for the Gold Cup. He’d be a serious player for the shorter trip on decent ground.

Though a faller last time, Monalee remains favourite for the RSA in March. The seven-year-old was runner-up in last year’s Albert Bartlett, but must now prove that the fall at Leopardstown has not left its mark. He looks set to run there again in February before the trip to Prestbury Park. He appears to be Ireland’s leading three-mile novice chaser.

De Bromhead would also have been thrilled with the return to action of Valseur Lido. It’s worth remembering that this talented chaser is still only nine, and should he return to his best he’s more than capable of a huge performance at the Cheltenham Festival. It’s nearing a couple of years since he finished runner-up to Vautour in the Ryanair Chase, and that sort of display would see him competitive at the highest level. He’s as big as 50s for the Gold Cup, a race that previous trainer Willie Mullins, felt he was tailor-made for.

Another from the yard that may prove interesting if sent to Cheltenham, is Ordinary World. Third in last year’s Arkle, this eight-year-old son of Milan is shy of top-class, but his handicap mark may well make him an interesting contender for the Grand Annual, should connections go that route. He’s ultra-consistent over fences, and must have decent ground to produce his best.

Of his younger crop, De Bromhead’s Paloma Blue could prove a surprise package when stepped-up in trip. He’ll be a better horse when sent over fences, but was an impressive winner at Leopardstown over Christmas at the minimum trip over hurdles. He’s bred to stay further and whether he proves good enough for the Ballymore in March remains to be seen. Nevertheless, he is one for the notebook, and a track like Cheltenham, with the stiff uphill finish may well prove ideal for this powerful looking youngster.

De Bromhead’s record at Cheltenham in both the Champion Chase and the Arkle is eye-catching. His team are firing on all cylinders, and he’s very much a trainer to have at the forefront of your mind when The Festival arrives.

Domesday Delight – Edmunds Festival First

Based just a stones-throw from the M1 near Newport Pagnell, Stuart Edmunds has been training horses for more than 30 years, and was assistant to the late Renee Robeson. Last Thursday at the Cheltenham Festival he had his proudest moment as a handler, when Domesday Book caused a 40/1 upset to win the Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Challenge Cup Handicap Chase.

With less than 30 horses at his disposal, this was an extraordinary success for the yard. The seven-year-old was previously trained in Ireland by Henry De Bromhead, and was delivered with a storming late run by 25-year-old amateur Gina Andrews, to deny Pendra in a thrilling finish. The runner-up looked to have got the better of a prolonged duel as the pair turned for home. But Pendra’s stamina began to run-out from the last, and less than a length separated the pair at the line.

Edmunds could hardly believe his good fortune, and speaking after the win said: “It's unbelievable, it hasn't sunk in. I think it's as big a surprise to me as everyone else. He was recommended to me by a late friend. He ran okay at Leicester on his first run, and we thought the further the better, so we put him in this and told Gina to be forceful on him, and he just kept responding. I thought he was beat but she gave him a smack and he's always behind the bridle, the blinkers did their job. I came here thinking if he finished mid-division we'd be happy.”

For the young jockey, the result was a dream come true: “This has literally been my lifetime ambition, just to ride here never mind win. Stuart told me he'd never be on the bridle, but to be honest he was never off it until we turned in, so that was a pleasant surprise. He rallied well, but I thought I'd be second jumping the last, the loose horse helped - I'm delighted.”

Wolf Of Windlesham had been the star of the Fences Farm stable in recent times. A talented young hurdler, he’d won three of his four starts as a juvenile, including a Grade 2 at Cheltenham and a valuable handicap at Sandown last April. He was still going well, when coming down in the Greatwood Hurdle in November, though has not been sighted since finishing down the field at Ascot in December.

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Edmunds has his team in good order, and Apasionado has become another yard favourite, having won three of his six starts since arriving from Ireland. A novice hurdler now rated in the mid-130s, he was a fast finishing runner-up at Kempton a few days back, and looks more than capable of going-in again before the season ends.

The handler also has some decent mares in the yard, few better than the promising youngster Maria’s Benefit. A win and a second-place finish from her two bumper outings, she looked a nice prospect when winning cosily last time at Huntingdon. She has an attractive pedigree, being by Beneficial out of an Anshan mare. Her breeding gives hope that she’ll make into a smart staying hurdler in time.

Molly Childers is another with potential, though she’s struggling to get her head in front. Three seconds, and a hugely promising fifth in a listed event at Sandown last time, suggests she’ll be winning soon. She appeared to find the soft ground an issue in her latest run, but the daughter of Stowaway looks a nice sort.

Grey Warbler is another that looks sure to be in the winners’ enclosure soon enough. Runner-up in both her bumper starts, she possibly lacks gears, and is another that will probably need a trip when sent over hurdles. She also has a smart pedigree, being by Notnowcato, out of a Sir Harry Lewis mare.

A festival winner is sure to boost confidence throughout the yard, and Edmunds will be hopeful that the success will attract new owners, looking to put their trust in the small yet beautifully formed Buckinghamshire outfit.

Magnificent Martaline – A Leading French Stallion

The career of talented chaser Dynaste came to an end at the weekend, following a slightly disappointing run in the Veterans’ Handicap Chase at Sandown.

The popular 11-year-old grey had been one of David Pipe’s stable stars for almost half a dozen years. The racecourse highlight came when winning the Ryanair Chase at the Cheltenham Festival back in 2014. He followed that performance with a second-place finish in the Betfred Bowl at Aintree, and later that year was runner-up to Silviniaco Conti in the King George at Kempton.

Though an attractive looking grey, Dynaste could not compete in the looks department with his talented father Martaline. The truly gorgeous French stallion is virtually white from nose to tail. A strikingly powerful colt, he stands at Haras De Montaigu, a beautifully picturesque stud in North-West France.

A classy horse on the flat, Martaline was at his best as a four-year-old in 2003, when runner-up in the Group 2 Grand Prix De Chantilly before winning the Prix Maurice De Nieuil at Longchamp. That victory came at 1m6f, when he defeated an outstanding stayer in Westerner. He was victorious or placed in 12 of his 22 career starts. It’s also interesting to note, that his most disappointing performances came on heavy ground.

As a leading French National Hunt stallion in recent years, he has produced numerous talented jumpers for trainers on both sides of the English Channel.

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Agrapart was a high-profile success for the French sire recently, when taking the Grade 2 Relkeel Hurdle at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day. Trained by Nick Williams, the six-year-old clearly thrived in testing conditions, when getting up late to beat L’Ami Serge, with Cole Harden seven lengths back in third. He’s likely to head for the Stayers’ Hurdle at Cheltenham in March, though he looks a chaser in the making, and certainly has the action over hurdles to suggest that he’ll suit a fence.

Another with a Cheltenham success to his name this season, is the Colin Tizzard trained Viconte Du Noyer. Owned by the Potts’, he’d previously been trained in Ireland by Henry De Bromhead, and was winning the Grade 3 Betvictor Handicap Chase on his first run for the new yard. He failed to take to the Grand National fences next time at Aintree and then ran below par in testing ground at the Welsh National. His win at Cheltenham suggested there’s plenty more to come, so I wouldn’t be losing faith in this fella. Better ground may well be essential, and he’s worth a second luck with conditions to suit.

One from the bloodline that does enjoy Aintree’s National fences, is the Gordon Elliott trained Ucello Conti. He was fourth in the Becher Chase in December, having been sixth in the Grand National last April. It’s tough to say whether he truly stayed the trip that day on soft ground, but he’s likely to be back for another crack this year, and on a more attractive looking handicap mark.

Noel Meade also looks to have a talented chaser on his hands with the six-year-old grey gelding Disko. He seemed to appreciate better ground when running a cracker at Leopardstown over Christmas. His third-place finish in the Grade 1 three-mile novice chase was a personal best, and he’d be a live contender at Cheltenham in March, for either the JLT or the RSA. He’s not short of speed. Meade’s last Cheltenham Festival winner was another son of Martaline, with Very Wood landing the Albert Bartlett of 2014 at huge odds.

Another from the Martaline production line, who is rapidly going the right way, is Tim Vaughan’s hurdler, Theligny. Despite four victories and three second place finishes from his eight outings over hurdles, the six-year-old remains on a fair handicap mark. He was impressive at Newbury last time, when showing a terrific attitude in holding off the Rebecca Curtis trained Geordie Des Champs. That came at two and a half miles, and the target may well be the Martin Pipe Conditional at The Festival, with classy claimer Alan Johns likely to be on-board.

As an 18-year-old, Martaline continues to prove an extremely popular stallion. A strike-rate of 31% this season for his offspring, shows just how potent he is. It would be no surprise to see many more of his progeny travelling across the Channel in the coming years.

De Bromhead Fights Back

As Mullins and Elliott launch into a titanic struggle for Ireland’s trainers’ title, so Noel Meade and Henry de Bromhead set about leading the chasing pack.

I recently wrote of Meade’s impressive start to the latest campaign, and the yard’s outstanding form was confirmed with a treble at Punchestown on Saturday. De Bromhead’s place towards the top of charts, comes despite a seismic shock as the season began.

News broke in September that owners Alan and Ann Potts had ended their association with Henry de Bromhead, and had removed 13 horses from the Waterford trainer’s yard. An alliance that had brought huge success for almost a decade had finally come to an end.

The shining light of the union was of course Champion Chaser Sizing Europe. He won the Greatwood Hurdle in 2007, before victory in the Irish Champion Hurdle a couple of months later. Made favourite for the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham, he looked the winner when cruising into contention, but faded rapidly in the latter stages. His trainer later reported that he’d suffered a back injury.

It was when switched to fences in 2009 that Sizing Europe’s career leapt to another level. He won the Arkle Chase as a novice and a year later took the Queen Mother Champion Chase. He went on to win six Grade 1s, including the Tingle Creek in 2011 and the Punchestown Champion Chase in 2012 and 2014. He was retired at the end of the 2015 campaign having won more than £1,300,000 in prize money.

But he was by no means the only Potts-De Bromhead success story. Sizing Australia took the Cross Country at the Cheltenham Festival, and twice won Punchestown’s equivalent. More recently, Shanahan’s Turn won the valuable and prestigious Galway Plate, and the talented Sizing John had captured a Grade 1 over hurdles before proving himself a top-class chaser when chasing home Douvan in the Arkle. Connections also produced the talented yet diminutive grey, Smashing, to win a pair of Grade 2s over fences.

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Despite the pre-season blow, De Bromhead has knuckled down to the task of producing winners. And with a strike-rate of 18%, and 34 wins already on the board, he’s doing a terrific job.

The Waterford handler has benefitted from the arrival of Gigginstown’s useful young chaser, Sub Lieutenant. His seasonal return at Limerick was eye-catching, and the seven-year-old may well prove competitive at the highest level this winter. He was third for Sandra Hughes in the Champion Novice Chase at Punchestown back in April, and looks to have a bright future.

De Bromhead already has a potential star chaser in the yard, with young novice Identity Thief. Another owned by Gigginstown, he looked a natural at Punchestown over the weekend, and is set to take high rank over the coming months.

The trainer will also be excited by the return of Sadler’s Risk, who romped to victory in a Grade 3 chase earlier in the month. The handicapper is sure to make life difficult for the talented eight-year-old, but he looks a staying chaser with plenty more to offer. Already a winner of the Munster National, the trainer is sure to have Aintree on his mind.

Another novice chaser worth keeping a close eye on, is recent Grade 3 winner Three Stars. More than handy over hurdles, the son of Westerner is already two from three over the larger obstacles. His breeding suggests a step-up in trip is on the cards, and he could prove a surprise package this winter and beyond.

De Bromhead also tasted success at Cheltenham last week, when Heron Heights led home stable companion Full Cry in the stayers’ novice chase. Showing a terrific attitude up the famous hill, he could be one for the four-miler back at Cheltenham in March. Decent ground appears to suit, so don’t be surprised if he disappoints in deep winter conditions.

Since taking over from his father in 1999, De Bromhead has continued to build a powerful team at his Waterford base. Success and failure go hand in hand in this unpredictable sport, and this latest chapter in his training career must have proved a testing time. Nevertheless, this talented trainer has plenty to be optimistic about, and looks set for another lucrative and successful campaign.

Please Sire – Can We Have Some Moore

Last Fence Drama at Sandown

Last Fence Drama at Sandown

Gary Moore’s current purple patch is testament to the highs and lows of our great sport.

Since sustaining a painful injury at his Sussex stables which saw him hospitalized for several days, the fortunes of the yard have turned dramatically, culminating in yet another treble at Sandown on Saturday, including victory in the Grade 1 Tingle Creek for stable star Sire De Grugy.

Travelling with far greater verve than when last seen at Exeter, and spring-heeled at his fences, the nine-year-old was sent to the lead at the Railway Fences and looked to have the race in safe keeping turning for home. However, Special Tiara renewed his challenge and at the final fence the two collided mid-air before Sire De Grugy pulled out more towards the finish.

The impact at the last was substantial and there’s certainly a strong case for the result having been reversed by the stewards. Ultimately the result stood and Gary Moore along with the exuberant connections were able to commence celebrations. The relieved trainer said: “He has put Devon behind him and one or two runs last season. Hopefully he can progress from today. When he jumped the ditch the first time he was positive at it. In my mind this ranks higher than winning the Champion Chase. Everybody seems to make Cheltenham the be all and end all, but I don't and to me this is as good as winning at Cheltenham.”

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Henry De Bromhead, trainer of the runner-up, was rather less than impressed with the result, saying: “He should have won, obviously he was coming to win the race and the other horse took him out, it was as simple as that. I was delighted with his run, and we will decide where we go next when we get home.”

That final fence drama should not detract from a wonderful performance from Moore’s fella. The ex-champion is certainly back to something like his best, though down the line may well find a certain Un De Sceaux plying his trade at a different level.

Back in third on Saturday was Vibrato Valtat. At a track he clearly enjoys, and with conditions appearing to be in his favour, he just came up short. Outpaced by Sire De Grugy he briefly closed turning in, but was then put in his place by the front two. At the age of six there is time for further improvement, but it’s likely he’s simply not quite good enough in this type of company.

Earlier on the card Moore had saddled the winner of the Grade 1 Henry VIII Novices’ Chase, when Ar Mad caused something of an upset with an outstanding front running display. Wonderfully slick over his obstacles, he set strong fractions before staying on well to run out a 10 length winner. He has to go right handed, and his trainer was quick to dismiss the Cheltenham Festival as an end of season target.

A pair of Grade 1 victories and trebles on consecutive days at the Esher track was a truly exceptional performance from the Sussex handler and his team. Few would grudge one of racing’s most likeable families every bit of their well-earned success.

Mullins Says No To Un De Sceaux Sandown Show

Un De Sceaux misses Tingle Creek

Un De Sceaux misses Tingle Creek

Disappointing news arrived from Ireland yesterday with the withdrawal of Un De Sceaux from the Betfair Tingle Creek Chase on Saturday.

Mullins announced on social media that his Arkle winner would not run at the weekend having been ‘a little flat in himself the last few days.’ He is now likely to run over Christmas in the Paddy Power Dial-A-Bet Chase at Leopardstown. The Champion Chase favourite had been a short price to win at Sandown, and his absence leaves the Paul Nicholls trained Vibrato Valtat as the new favourite.

Nicholls’ young chaser looked in tip-top shape when an impressive winner of the Haldon Gold Cup on his seasonal debut at Exeter. He comfortably beat Third Intention that day, though Tizzard’s fella has since been pulverised by Vautour and Ptit Zig, questioning the strength of that Exeter victory. However, Vibrato Valtat looks progressive and soft ground would certainly aid his chance of success. Nicholls has a sensational record in the race with seven victories in the last 10 years.

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Another who looks likely to take his chance is Nicky Henderson’s talented chaser Simonsig. On the comeback trail after a lengthy spell on the side-lines, we all know how talented he was, though it was hard to judge the strength of his return, when just failing to overhaul Bobs Worth at Aintree. He did travel like a class act that day, and if he is back to anything like his best he will prove a threat on Saturday. However, it remains a huge ask to win the Tingle Creek having not jumped a fence in competition since March 2013.

Sire De Grugy is said to have ‘turned a corner’ in recent weeks with Gary Moore expecting a far better performance than his lifeless effort at Exeter behind Vibrato. He’s three from three at Sandown over fences, including a win in this race back in 2013. Like Simonsig, it is hard to rule him out yet just as hard to summon any real confidence in a major performance.

Henry De Bromhead struck at Newcastle last weekend when his Identity Thief took the Fighting Fifth Hurdle. He’ll attempt another successful raid when sending Special Tiara in to battle, the eight-year-old having won the Grade 1 Celebration Chase at the track in April. The bold front-runner can be spectacular over his obstacles, and could take some catching if he’s on a going day. He won the Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton last Christmas and clearly loves these jaunts across the Irish Sea.

The loss of Mullins’ star chaser is a blow, yet the race still remains competitive and intriguing. Several have a reputation to rebuild and others will look to take advantage in the absence of the division’s leading lights.

Charting the Irish Jumps Trainers

It might be a sign of age, writes Tony Keenan, but I find myself ever-more interested in the role of trainers in winning races. On my initial ventures into racing I thought that jockeys were the central figures but over time – and perhaps helped by Mick Kinane utterly blanking my attempts to heartily congratulate him after winning the Vintage Crop at Navan in 2006 – it is the role of the trainer, with all their strategic decisions that has fascinated me.

Whereas jockeys tend to be quite boring – Michelle Payne excepted – trainers, by dint of being the boss, can say many more interesting things when the notion takes them. This is not a slight on jockeys as much as a recognition of their role; they are amidst a ‘yes sir, no sir’ culture that leaves them in thrall to trainers and owners  and are, in the main, clamped from saying what they might like to.

With that in mind, let’s delve into some trainer numbers for the Irish national hunt scene in the hope of uncovering some angles, betting and otherwise. Let’s begin with getting a global sense of where trainers are going in terms of their careers, taking their winners from 2009/10 through to the end of last season as a starting point.

I’ve broken these winners into a pair of three-year pockets, taking the years from 2009/10 to 2011/12 and from 2012/13. By separating them out into three-year phases it allows a decent sample size while still being current and gives us a broad picture of what is going on with this cohort of  trainers, who is trending up and down, and who is going up and down on the spot. The trainers listed below are simply the top 25 in terms of winners trained in Ireland last season; there are only 23 below because neither Sandra Hughes nor Aidan O’Brien had been training jumpers in previous seasons.


Trainer Average Season Wins, 09/10 – 11/12 Average Season Wins, 12/13 – 14/15 Wins                                           Difference Percentage Improve/Decline
W. Mullins 130 188.3 58.3 44%
G. Elliott 42.7 67.3 24.6 57%
N. Meade 57.o 47 -10 -17%
H. De Bromhead 25.3 43 17.7 69%
T. Martin 26.7 36.3 9.6 36%
J. Harrington 32.3 31.3 -1 -3%
T. Mullins 12.3 13 -0.7 -5%
R. Tyner 12 22.3 10.3 85%
P. Nolan 27.7 20 -7.7 -27%
J. Hanlon 20.3 13.7 -6.6 -32%
L. Doyle 6 14.7 8.7 145%
M. Hourigan 18.3 17.3 -1 -5%
JJ Walsh 9.7 11.3 1.6 16%
J. Dreaper 4.7 7 2.3 48%
C. Bowe 9.3 9.3 0 -
P. Fahey 4.5 10 5.5 122%
D. Hogan 5.3 11 5.7 107%
C. Roche 16.3 12 -4.3 -26%
E. O’Grady 41.7 13.3 -28.4 -68%
E. Bolger 6.7 11.7 5 74%
C. Murphy 21.3 12.7 -8.6 -40%
C. Byrnes 22 15.7 -6.3 -28%
M. Morris 14.7 16.7 2 13%

In short, the big risers are: Willie Mullins, Gordon Elliott, Henry De Bromhead, Robert Tyner, Liz Doyle, Peter Fahey and Denis Hogan. Heading the other way are: Noel Meade, Paul Nolan, Shark Hanlon, Christy Roche, Edward O’Grady, Colm Murphy and Charles Byrnes.

In the unlikely event there is to be a challenge to Willie Mullins as top trainer it will almost certainly come from the risers Elliott and/or De Bromhead and not the older brigade like Meade though I was surprised that Meade hadn’t fallen back as much as I thought. Edward O’Grady however has seen his winner totals fall of the edge of a cliff; his numbers have dropped each year since 2009/10 from 53 to 47 to 25 to 16 to 14 and 10 last year. Of those trainers on the up, Liz Doyle is one that stands out; her profile seems well behind her ability at this point which is somewhat surprising given her mother was a prominent Irish politician – maybe Michelle Payne has a point!

The total wins for all jumps trainers in Ireland since 2010 makes for interesting reading too but perhaps more notable are their records in different types of National Hunt race. Time and again it is seen that trainers are better with one type of horse than another and you can peruse the raw data for yourself. I have put the national average at the bottom though we need to allow that these are the top twenty trainers in the period covered and by definition are better than the norm.

Irish Jumps Trainers since 2010, by discipline

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Trainer Total Wins Bumper SR% Hurdle SR% Chase SR%
W. Mullins 932 35.3 28.8 25.7
G. Elliott 363 23.8 12.3 16.7
N. Meade 274 19.7 16.1 11.7
H. De Bromhead 214 12.6 13.0 18.0
J. Harrington 196 10.4 12.4 13.0
T. Martin 188 16.1 12.6 13.4
E. O’Grady 134 13.9 12.5 8.3
P. Nolan 127 10.6 8.6 14.5
C. Byrnes 109 11.8 15.8 12.3
J. Hanlon 101 5.6 6.2 10.8
M. Hourigan 99 6.8 8.2 8.8
E. Doyle 98 12.2 8.4 13.5
R. Tyner 96 17.6 7.1 12.0
C. Murphy 90 9.3 11.0 14.3
M. Morris 88 8.3 7.6 11.4
C. Roche 81 17.2 9.4 9.3
P. Rothwell 74 4.6 3.0 6.0
J. Kiely 72 11.9 13.4 19.0
D. Weld 69 37.3 20.9 20.5
J. Walsh 69 5.3 10.0 7.7
National Average 8.3 7.6 9.3


I’ve knocked Willie Mullins’s record with chasers in the past and while that is probably justified in open and handicap chases, it’s worth pointing out that his strike rate over fences is still much the best of the top trainers. It remains below his strike rate over hurdles and particularly in bumpers and that is one of the uses of these figures; they allow one to compare trainers with themselves as well as with others. Regarding the Mullins chase stats, there’s every chance he simply blows them out of the water this season anyway; he’s spent the last half-decade doing just that with other historical numbers and has such reserves of talent in store that casting doubt on Closutton is often folly.

In terms of pure strike rate, Dermot Weld is the only trainer who approaches Mullins’s overall record though he seems to be moving away from jumpers at the moment. There is no surprise to see Henry De Bromhead’s returns improve as he sends his horses over fences though Edward O’Grady’s strike rate of 8.3% with chasers seems particularly poor: that might give backers of Kitten Rock for the Arkle and other novice events slight cause for concern.

The only response I muster about Philip Rothwell’s strike rates is ‘ugh’ while John Kiely’s return with chasers was a pleasant surprise. He’s widely regarded as a bumper trainer whose horses tend not to progress over obstacles but a strike rate of 19% over fences is impressive.

You can’t think about Irish racing without considering UK racing, the two jurisdictions having a symbiotic relationship. Since 2010, there have been 3,939 Irish runners in the UK so that’s a pretty robust sample size. Here’s the overall record of Irish trainers in all UK races this decade:


Irish Trainers in UK Jumps Races since 2010

Trainer Wins Runs Strikerate Actual/Expected
G. Elliott 166 682 24.3 0.98
W. Mullins 44 333 13.2 0.91
J. Lambe 19 150 12.7 0.99
S. Crawford 18 96 18.8 1.06
T. Martin 16 132 12.2 0.89
J. Hanlon 13 131 9.9 0.70
M. McNiff 12 76 15.6 1.30
P. Gilligan 12 69 17.4 1.50
H. De Bromhead 10 76 13.2 1.13
C. McBratney 9 17 8.2 0.65


There’s something false about those numbers, though, with a perception that many of them are soft touches: victories for placement more than quality. The less valuable races in the UK are eminently winnable – since 2012, the average field size for races worth £10,000 or less is 8.4 runners whereas those worth more than £10,000 on average have 10.1 runners. Trainers like James Lambe and Stuart Crawford deserve credit for exploiting this weakness and extracting wins from their horses but stripping out the less valuable races presents a wildly different table:

Irish Trainers in UK Races since 2010 worth £10,000 or more

Trainer Wins Runs Strikerate Actual/Expected
W. Mullins 43 329 13.1 0.91
G. Elliott 20 171 11.7 1.02
H. De Bromhead 8 67 11.9 1.09
J. Harrington 6 46 13.0 1.12
J. Culloty 4 14 28.6 3.45
T. Martin 4 67 6.0 0.73
C. Byrnes 4 34 11.8 0.86
R. Sweeney 3 5 60.0 2.14
E. Bolger 3 37 8.1 0.55
D. Hughes 3 75 4.0% 0.62


It’s more a case of the usual suspects here; the top four all comfortably reside in the top five of overall winners in Ireland in the same period. The one exception is the oft-maligned Jim Culloty though I doubt I’m the only one to think that might be randomness!

- TK

5 Outrageously Bold Predictions for the Jumps

The nature of bold predictions is that they tend to be wrong, writes Tony Keenan. As Nate Silver points out in his excellent book ‘The Signal and the Noise’, the prognosticators who shout the loudest and make the wildest claims tend to miss the mark the furthest. With that in mind, I fully expect all five of these calls to be incorrect but selecting the most likely outcomes for the coming jumps campaign interests no one. Saying Faugheen will win the Champion Hurdle when he’s the shortest price of the Cheltenham favourites is simply boring for all that it may prove accurate.


  1. Bachasson won’t win a race before next summer

Bachasson is already as short as 10/1 for the Supreme after an unbeaten start over hurdles but expecting him to progress to Grade 1 level goes against the typical modus operandi of the Mullins yard; Willie simply doesn’t run his best horses during the summer. Looking at his 34 Cheltenham winners since 2003, only Wicklow Brave and Glens Melody could be described as having summer jumps backgrounds and that was in both their respective bumper seasons whereas their Festival wins came much later.

Furthermore, the best Mullins horses to run over the summer tend to be good rather than great. Looking back as far as 2010, the best horses I could find that ran over jumps for the trainer in the months of June, July and August were Diakali (officially rated 158), Blazing Tempo (155), Blackstairmountain (152) and Tarla (150). Bachasson has a rating of 147, likely inflated because he’s meeting inferior jumpers all summer, and that could be as good as he is.

I wouldn’t be surprised if there were ten novice hurdlers in Clossutton that finish the season rated higher than him. There are the obvious former bumper horses like Bellshill and Yorkhill, not to mention the ones that have been bought from France and off the flat. In fact, it’s possible that two other novices that ran for the yard at Galway could be better than him, Long Dog and Gangster. On a line through Three Stars, who the former treated with contempt at Ballybrit, Long Dog is well ahead of Bachasson already.


  1. Paul Townend will ride more winners than Ruby Walsh (Ireland and Britain)

Since he started riding, Townend has only once ridden more winners in Ireland than Ruby and that was in 2010/11 when Walsh was injured and Townend was champion jockey. Their totals were close last season though, Walsh on 79 and Townend on 71, and with Willie Mullins’s numbers trending upwards the whole time, there is more than enough to go around.

In the three seasons between 2009/10 and 2011/12, Mullins averaged 545 runners a season across both countries but that figure has risen to an average of 647 in the three seasons since and he had 91 UK runners last season, up from a previous high of 68. Townend will be one of the chief beneficiaries of this expanded approach as he is likely to pick up many of the rides on big jumps Saturdays in England with Ruby staying at home for the Irish meetings. Also, Townend could acquire the ‘hired gun’ status while on these raids; he has already managed to link up to great effect with Rebecca Curtis.

Mullins has spent most the last few seasons keeping his best horses apart and we may – and I hope we have – reach a tipping point where they simply have to run against each other as there are only so many races to go around. That means more choices for Ruby and in turn more errors and as we saw at the most recent Punchestown Festival there are times when the retained rider’s choice gets beaten; there were six Mullins second or third strings that won at that fixture, including three Grade 1s.

Ruby is not getting any younger either and while he’s never shy about getting on a big winner – see his Australian jaunt this past summer – he’s more about the big days than the grind now, and he’s arguably a bit injury prone too. If anything this is as much punting angle as prediction as I believe there is little between Townend and Ruby in pure riding ability; but the market certainly doesn’t believe that and I want to be with Townend-ridden second strings this season.

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  1. Don Cossack won’t win another race this season

Don Cossack joined some lofty company this past season, becoming just the tenth horse since 2004/5 to win three open Grade 1 chases and in so doing achieved a Timeform rating of 180 and was that company’s horse of the year. The other triple Grade 1 winners were Kauto Star (three times), Master Minded (twice), Kicking King, Moscow Flyer, Sprinter Sacre and Sire De Grugy while Dodging Bullets and Silviniaco Conti also joined the club this year.

The only horse to really repeat the success of his banner year was Kauto Star while the rest went 4 wins from 17 starts (just one of those wins was a Grade 1) the following season: not a great strike rate for top horses. Don Cossack is rising nine now and only Kauto Star and Moscow Flyer achieved three Grade 1 wins at his age or older. It is fair to say that I think we know at this stage that he is neither Kauto Star nor Moscow Flyer; I suspect he has reached his ceiling and the only way is down.

Injury has tended to follow these chasing superstars in the season following their peak. Moscow Flyer was never the same again which was understandable given his age but Kicking King, Master Minded, Sprinter Sacre and Sire De Grugy all suffered setbacks soon after; repeated peak efforts take their toll.  Nor is Don Cossack trained by Paul Nicholls which is pretty much a requisite to make this list; of the twelve three-time Grade 1 winners, he has trained seven of them. Gordon Elliott is an excellent trainer in many ways but Nicholls is just on another plane with these top chasers.


  1. Henry de Bromhead will improve an ordinary hurdler into a Grade 1 novice chaser

This call may be not be bold at all as de Bromhead has already achieved the feat three times since 2010. An Cathaoir Mor went from 97-rated handicapper to 2010 Irish Arkle winner, Special Tiara had won just a maiden over hurdles before winning the Maghull in 2013 while Sizing Granite won the same Aintree race this year having been rated 130 over sticks.

In terms of purely improving horses for the switch from hurdles to fences, de Bromhead has claims to being the best trainer of chasers in Ireland. Of the 54 horses ‘our Henry’ has won a chase with since 2010, the average improvement, measured by peak official ratings over hurdles and fences, was 9.4lbs. 21 horses improved a stone or more and there were some spectacular jumps along with the three Grade 1 winners mentioned above; Grand Jesture improved 31lbs, Sizing Australia and Lord Ben 30lbs, Days Hotel 20lbs.

Sizing John is this season’s obvious top prospect for novice chases; already a Grade 1-winning novice hurdler and third in the Supreme, there’s a chance he improves into the stratosphere, perhaps even to Sizing Europe level. But he’s already rated 151 over hurdles and there are other lurkers in the yard. Two that might make the leap are Domesday Book and Alisier d’Irelande, neither of whom won anything more than a maiden over hurdles. De Bromhead has certainly been positive about both in recent stable tours and he’s one of the few trainers that really opens up for such pieces.


  1. Willie Mullins will win none of the open Grade 1 chases at the Festival

Judging by the ante-post markets for the Champion Chase, Ryanair and Gold Cup, Willie Mullins is expected to have one and a half winners of those championship races. That’s considering top prices only and horses priced 25/1 or shorter and while there is some overlap – Vautour is priced in all three markets for instance –the layers have the expectation that he wins at least one of those races in 2015.

That’s something that has never happened before though he has gone close in the Gold Cup repeatedly with five runners-up. Mullins’ lack of success in the top chases at the Festival remains the one gap in his domination of National Hunt racing and it is something he will be keen to address; but the numbers suggest that for all the top novice chasers Mullins has had, his conversion rate in getting them to transfer their ability to open company is below average.

Michael Williamson of Timeform (can be followed on Twitter @RacingMDWilly) put together some excellent figures recently on how well the top trainers do in improving classy novices into open company, taking Timeform ratings of 150 (novices) and 170 (open) as the parameters. By Williamson’s numbers, Mullins managed to ‘convert’ just two of his 16 novices rated 150 or higher into 17o horses, a conversion rate of 12.5% that is below the likes of Nicholls (32%) and Henderson (22%) and markedly so. Mullins clearly has the raw material here but the return is disappointing for someone widely regarded as the best around.

Jumping issues may be part of this. Mullins horses are known for lots of things, chiefly the ability to tank through races and still finish strongly, but sound jumping isn’t one of them. Again, I defer to Williamson’s work here as Mullins has a fall/unseat rate of 12% over fences in the last five years while Nicholls’ is only 8.3%. Neither Vautour nor Un De Sceaux, the shortest priced Mullins horse for the Gold Cup and Champion Chase, have been flawless in this regard either.

- Tony Keenan can be followed on twitter at @RacingTrends