The Festival looms large on the horizon

Though I know it upsets a fair few folk when Cheltenham becomes the only topic of conversation, I must admit that it’s becoming a little difficult for me to think of anything else.

Admittedly, there’s still plenty of top-class racing between now and March 13, though most of the racing news will be dominated by ‘Festival Fever’. At this point in the National Hunt calendar, even races that carry huge prestige, tend to be viewed more as Prestbury Park pointers.

This weekend’s Clarence House Chase is such an example. The Grade One is worth £85,425 to the winner, and the race has a stunning roll of honour. Desert Orchid won an epic 1989, when the race was still a handicap. Master Minded and Sprinter Sacre were modern day two-mile goliaths, with the former winning this twice. Un de Sceaux has captured the last two, but should he make it a magnificent three in-a-row, much of the post-race chat will focus on his form as he heads to defend his Ryanair crown in March.

Nicky Henderson’s Brain Power is also in the line-up on Saturday, with Nicky Henderson hoping for an improved performance in a race he feels should suit his novice chaser. Via his Unibet blog, the champion trainer said: “With Un De Sceaux, the race is likely to be run at a decent gallop. He wants dropping-in and doesn't want to be doing silly things like going out and making the running like he did at Sandown. It was the wrong way to ride him in the Henry VIII Novices' Chase, so a good gallop around Ascot might well suit him better than if you run in a small four-runner novice at a little track. The Arkle is obviously where we'd like to end up.”

In little more than a week we have the aptly named Festival Trials Day from Cheltenham. The Grade Two Cotswold Chase is the feature, and though the roll of honour is another tasty one, its timing lends itself to the role of Gold Cup prep-race. It’s fair to say that in recent times it’s rarely given many clues towards the blue riband in March.

The same cannot be said of the Cleeve Hurdle, which takes place on the same card. Inglis Drever, Big Buck’s and Thistlecrack have all won this prestigious staying hurdle in recent years, prior to heroic performances when returning to the track in March.

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From Cheltenham, attention will turn to Ireland in early February, when Leopardstown play host to the Dublin Racing Festival. The two-day event has certainly captured the imagination, and is a terrific effort by organisers to make this a ‘stand-alone’ treat for Irish racegoers. Indeed, there’s plenty of Jump racing fans from the UK who, if not travelling over this time, will be watching with interest and making a note in diaries for future reference.

The Irish Champion Hurdle headlines on day one, a race that both Istabraq and Hurricane Fly made their own. The following day’s showpiece is the Irish Gold Cup, won last year by Sizing John, prior to his glorious excursion to the Cotswolds. The card is packed with high-class action, and of course those vital Cheltenham Festival pointers. Nevertheless, the quality of racing is such that those attending may give little thought to the looming presence of the Prestbury Park gathering. Along with the equine talent on display, racegoers will be treated to comedy, music and the best of Irish food and drink. It sounds like a cracking event.

Newbury is next on the radar, with the valuable Betfair Hurdle its centrepiece. Established in 1963, this is rarely a race won by elite hurdlers, though Make A Stand took this in 1997 en route to Cheltenham glory. My Tent Or Yours was another high-class winner, when landing the spoils in 2013.

Far less valuable though arguably of greater significance, is the Denman Chase, which takes place earlier on the Newbury card. In its relative short history, the race has been won by See More Business, Kauto Star, Denman, Long Run and Coneygree. Native River landed the pot 12 months ago, prior to going close in the Gold Cup at Cheltenham. I’d expect another powerful line-up come February as trainers look to ‘fine-tune’ their talented staying chasers.

Buckle-up as we accelerate to the inevitable. Outstanding racing is still to be had, as Cheltenham looms on the horizon.

Faugheen set for Lead Role

The Champion Hurdle picture is set for a shake-up this weekend with major events at Haydock and Leopardstown.

On Sunday Ireland’s leading two mile hurdlers are set to clash in the Irish Champion Hurdle. It’s a race dominated in recent times by the wonderful Hurricane Fly. Unbeatable at Leopardstown, ‘The Fly’ was an incredible racehorse.

Willie Mullins has the three leading protagonists for this much anticipated renewal, and they just happen to be the top three in the market for the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham. For all that Faugheen is the reigning Champion hurdler and a short priced favourite to follow up in March; this weekend’s race is far from being a formality.

He faces two exciting opponents in Arctic Fire and Nichols Canyon. The former chased him home at Cheltenham last March; whilst the latter caused a major shock when beating him on their seasonal bow in the Morgiana Hurdle. Nichols Canyon followed up with a hard fought win over Identity Thief at Leopardstown. Faugheen travelled over to Kempton and proved completely dominant in the Christmas Hurdle.

As for Arctic Fire, it appears that Mullins was keen to test him out in the staying hurdles division. After victories at two and a half miles over Monksland and then Alpha Des Obeaux, he was stepped up to three miles for the Christmas Hurdle at Leopardstown. However, the experiment backfired when he trailed home in fourth place, a dozen lengths behind the impressive Prince Of Scars.

He has a little to find with Faugheen on all known form, and dropping back from three miles is hardly the ideal prep for this. Whatever he does here, I’d expect him to perform better at Cheltenham, when the stiff finish off a strong pace is sure to suit.

The tactics should prove intriguing, as numerous experts now believe the ‘Champ’ needs an uncontested lead in order to prevail. I’m not sure I buy into that theory, and am of the opinion that Faugheen will have improved sufficiently from his seasonal debut to reverse placing’s with Nichols Canyon. Chances are that he has the extra gears needed to win on this track, in this deep winter ground, over this minimum trip.

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A day prior to that ding-dong battle in Ireland, the best that Britain has to offer is set to clash at Haydock in the Champion Hurdle Trial. The New One and Peace And Co appear the only two from this side of the Irish Sea capable of challenging the might of Ireland. It’s fair to say that both are on something of a recovery mission.

The New One was well beaten in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton though that was his seasonal opener and trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies was at odds to point out that his fella would improve plenty for the run. Earlier this week he said: “He's been really good so far. He'll be much fitter than on Boxing Day, so he should be a lot better. He's been to Haydock twice and won twice, so conditions should be all right for him, and all being well he's going to the Champion Hurdle.”

A spinal issue curtailed last season’s campaign and Twiston-Davies will be hopeful that his stable star can get back to the form he showed in 2014, when many thought him unfortunate not to win the Champion Hurdle.

Oozing class and travelling like a dream through his races, Nicky Henderson’s Peace And Co looked a future star when winning the Triumph Hurdle last March. The wheels came off quite dramatically at Cheltenham in December, when he refused to relax during his seasonal opener and went out like a light from the second last. It was a pretty disastrous return, though Henderson refused to be overly downbeat.

He is to be fitted with a different bridle in an attempt to settle him in the race, and has been showing all the right signs at home. He is clearly a hugely talented horse, but needs to run well on Saturday if he is to be considered a contender for the Champion Hurdle in March.

We have an exciting and intriguing weekend ahead. Two British trainers will certainly have fingers crossed that their Festival dreams remain intact.

Hurricane Fly Retires – ‘A Legend of a Horse’

The Wonderful Hurricane Fly

The Wonderful Hurricane Fly

The time had to come, and most would surely agree that the decision is the correct one. However, a Jumps season without the wonderful Hurricane Fly is sure to feel a little empty.

Over the past dozen years or so, he developed into one of the greatest hurdlers of all time. Completely dominant in Ireland he also swept to glorious victories at the Cheltenham Festival. A stunning hurdles career ends with 24 wins from 31 starts, including 22 at Grade 1 level. The Fly; all silky style and swagger, captured the imagination of an adoring public. For some, it took time to warm to his charms, but by the end of his illustrious career the masses were united in their respect for the wonderful diminutive star.

Oozing talent as a novice, it was unfortunate that he had to miss the Cheltenham Festival of 2009 due to a setback, having already beaten the Supreme Novices’ winner by ten lengths earlier in the season. He confirmed that form with Go Native at Punchestown in the Champion Novice Hurdle when cruising to a seven length success.

Further niggling injuries disrupted his six-year-old campaign, though he did return to the track to win the Champion Hurdle at the Punchestown Festival. The following winter was far more like it, with Mullins’ stable star sweeping all before him. He powered to five Grade 1 victories including the Champion Hurdles at Cheltenham and Punchestown.

Hurricane Fly enjoyed a spell of almost unparalleled domination. From May 2008 through to January 2014, he was victorious 21 times from 23 starts. To maintain such a consistent level of performance is quite astounding. Plenty of praise has to go to trainer Willie Mullins, who managed to bring his champion to the boil at exactly the right times.

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Late in his career, after yet another success in the Christmas Hurdle at Leopardstown, Mullins said of his charge: “I think he's the best anyone has ever trained over jumps. I'll never have another horse like him. He's unique. When he got over the last he put his ears back and no horse I've ever seen can battle like him.”

He remained undefeated at his favourite track, and after his fifth victory in the Irish Champion Hurdle, it was Ruby Walsh’s turn to wax lyrical, saying: “He's come back here now and won five of these and 22 Grade Ones, he's a pleasure to ride, he's a credit to Willie and the staff at Closutton, he's just a marvellous little horse.”

Walsh then paid Hurricane Fly the greatest compliment by comparing him to equine stars he has had the good fortune to ride, when adding: “This horse means a huge amount to me. I ride so many horses with potential but for horses to go and deliver and to go and repeat it and deliver - Kauto (Star) managed it, Big Buck's, it takes iron horses to do it and that's what they are, they're incredible horses and I'm just very lucky to have come along at a time when these good horses are around.”

And so say all of us Ruby. Hurricane Fly gave us moments of pure magic. Whether the incredible reception he received from 50,000 ecstatic fans after his win at the Cheltenham Festival in 2011; or the drama of the pulsating finish to his final Ryanair Hurdle victory at Leopardstown, when pinning back his ears and sticking out his neck to fight off Jezki and stable companion Arctic Fire.

It seems only right to leave the final words to Willie Mullins, who yesterday said: “He's come back into training and he's really well in himself, but having had a chat with the owners, they were keen enough to retire him while he is still in great order. This day was always going to come and it's great that we're doing it on our terms, rather than due to an injury or something like that. He's a horse who has everything - speed and stamina and an incredible bravery and aggressiveness. He's a legend of a horse.”

French Champion Hurdle Preview

Hurricane: The Fly in the Champion Hurdle ointment?

Hurricane: The Fly in the French Champion Hurdle ointment?

Hurricane can Fly at Auteuil, by Nigel Howard

The spectre of the great race mare, Dawn Run, looms large at Auteuil on Sunday as it stages the Grand Course de Haies, or French Champion hurdle, the race in which she so tragically perished only three months after her heroic victory in the 1986 Gold cup. The image still remains of her battling up that famous Cheltenham hill to fend off the challenge of two other greats of the timber, Wayward Lad and Forgive‘n Forget.

A far cry from any British or Irish jumps track, Auteuil, which on Sunday will be competing against the men’s singles final at Roland Garros across the road, boasts a stone wall, huge water jump and broom topped fences for the chasers to negotiate and a hurdle course who’s ‘haies’ are more akin to mini fences than the hurdles back home; hit one of these hard and your race is run.

Bizarrely sandwiched between the Jockey Club (French Derby) and Prix Diane (French Oaks) in the French racing calendar the race reads more like a World Hurdle than a Champion Hurdle as it is run over 5100 meters (3 miles 1 furlong). This year’s renewal sees no less than seven overseas contenders from four different stables. Top billing goes to Hurricane Fly who actually started his career on the flat in the south of France when trained by the Jean-Luc Pelletan back in 2006.

He is now the winner of two Champion Hurdles and a staggering 22 group 1 events. He comes into this race on the back of a fine run in defeat behind old adversary Jezki at Punchestown. A reproduction of that form would surely see him at the head of affairs come Sunday and Willie Mullins confirms, saying “Hurricane Fly is in great form after his effort behind Jezki at Punchestown. He has good form at Auteuil when a 4 year old so I’m excited to see him run again over this course. I would have liked to return to France before now but sadly it just wasn’t possible.”

The other overseas contenders are also a talented bunch. Top of the list, Zarkandar,  who might have troubled the World Hurdle winner Cole Harden without a bad mistake at the second last and who has winning form over this course and distance when taking the Grand Prix D’Automne last November. He must have strong claims with stable jockey Sam Twiston-Davies in the saddle. Paul Nicholls explained, “He ran too soon at Aintree after The Festival.  It was the same story last year but we won’t make the same mistake again. He’s had a break since and is now in great form. I think he’s better in the autumn when he’s fresh but he should run well if the ground is sufficiently soft. He knows Auteuil very well now!”

Next on the list is the David Pipe-trained Ballynagour, the mount of stable jockey Peter Scudamore. He will be strongly fancied based on his impressive win back in May at this track with the Prix la Barka considered a key preparation race for Sunday’s contest. Pipe confirmed his well being saying “He’s been very well since his win at Auteuil. My only worry is that he’s travelled a lot in a small space of time having been to Punchestown and Auteuil twice. However, everything seems to have gone well since he arrived in France on Friday morning”.

Val de Ferbet, another Mullins runner was five lengths back in second behind Ballynagour and can’t be ruled out following that much improved performance after having been pulled up at Punchestown on his previous start. Said Mullins, “I think he will improve over this longer trip and should therefore have place claims”. He also saddles the admirable grey, Thousand Stars, already twice a winner of this race in 2011 and 2012. He’s not without a chance on his best form although his trainer is worried about the weather stating “He is working well at home and should progress from his latest outing but it will be a worry for him if it turns out hot on Sunday”.

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David Pipe’s other runner, Un Temps Pour Tout, is a French import who already has form at Auteuil when trained by François Nicolle as a 4 year old, picking up a Grade 3 event. His experience over these obstacles will be to his obvious advantage. James Reveley takes the mount and he shapes up as an interesting runner who could be a big price on the pari-mutuel. David Pipe believes he’s got a sporting chance, “I’ve had this race in mind for while now… He prefers soft ground and we know that the course and the distance won’t be a problem.”

That leaves the Harry Fry-trained Activial, a five year old and as a result in receipt of 2kg, (5lbs), based on the conditions of the race against older horses. His latest effort was a creditable fifth in the Grade 2 Prix Leon Rambaud at Auteuil at the end of April where he met trouble in running and was promoted to fourth. Fry is hopeful, saying, “This will be his biggest challenge to date but he does have experience at Auteuil. The longer distance will suit him and Daryl Jacobs rides Auteuil very well which can only help him”.

The pick of the locals is Voiladenuo, winner of his last 3 races. He had Activial comfortably beaten on his last outing and this 6 yr old son of Network, sire of Sprinter Sacre, still looks relatively unexposed.  He seems sure to run a big race and will no doubt have the weight of a partisan French crowd behind him.

So, the stage is set for this fascinating contest with all eyes on Hurricane Fly and his attempt to lift his 23rd Grade 1 prize. With the ground sure to be soft due to the systematic watering policy at the course he should have the underfoot conditions he prefers. As a betting contest the value in the race may come from following the each way market on the Pari-mutuel where some of the English & Irish contingent might go off at very interesting prices.

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Aidan O’Brien hoping to dominate The Classics

Hills hoping for Classic repeat

Hills hoping for Classic repeat

Jezki got the better of his old foe Hurricane Fly to win the World Series Hurdle at Punchestown yesterday.

Travelling best throughout, though a little keen, his new jockey Mark Walsh sent him to the front turning for home. Tracked all the way by ‘The Fly’, Harrington’s Aintree Hurdle winner again proved his stamina and found plenty for pressure to hold off the persistent challenger. In truth, Ruby never looked like getting up, and Hurricane Fly tasted defeat in Ireland for only the third time, with all those defeats coming at Punchestown.

Owner JP McManus was noble in victory, saying: “It's nice to beat Hurricane Fly but when you think of all the Grade 1's he's won, he's such a marvellous horse. We thought Jezki would get three miles and didn't think stamina would be his problem.” Jess Harrington added: “That was brilliant. I was hoping he'd get home as he was pretty free and tanking with Mark. He jumped brilliantly and lasted home. Up until the last two runs it would have been a disappointing season but he's won two Grade Ones now so we can't say it's too bad."

Bookies reacted by cutting the winner to 6’s for next year’s World Hurdle at Cheltenham.

Today’s highlight is likely to see Faugheen and Arctic Fire fighting it out in the Punchestown Champion Hurdle. It’s hard to imagine the former being beaten, but it will be interesting to see just how near Mullins’ second string can get to ‘The Machine’. It’s a great shame that only four turn up for the event, but hopefully that will do little to detract from the spectacle.

Away from the Jumps, there’s the small matter of the Classics taking place at Newmarket over the weekend, with Aidan O’Brien hoping to dominate. He has the favourites for both the 2,000 and 1,000 Guineas with Gleneagles hoping to strike first for Ballydoyle.

Outstanding as a two-year-old, the son of Galileo will be ridden by Ryan Moore, whilst Joseph O’Brien is set to ride Ol’ Man River for his father. Aidan O’Brien has taken the 2,000 Guineas four times in the past 10 years, though only once in the last six.

The French raid is led by Andre Fabre with the Godolphin owned Territories. A winner of a Group 3 at Longchamp a few weeks back, he was third to Gleneagles in the Grand Criterium as a two-year-old; though the winner was later disqualified and placed third. On that bare form, the two seem pretty closely matched.

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Hamdan Al Maktoum is double-handed with the Greenham runner-up Estidhkaar and the relatively inexperienced Intilaaq. The former appears the team’s best hope of success and his two-year-old form in the Champagne Stakes and the Superlative would give the team hope of him going close. His pedigree suggests he may struggle to get home over a mile, though he didn’t appear to be stopping last time at Newbury.

Richard Hannon took the race last year and has a powerful hand in this year’s renewal. The aforementioned Estidhkaar has a great chance, but they also saddle Ivawood, Moheet and Kool Kompany. Richard Hughes keeps faith with Ivawood, but the leading two-year-old has to prove he’s effective over the trip. His third in the Greenham Stakes has left plenty of doubts, and being the son of Zebedee suggests speed rather than stamina.

Kool Kompany surprised many with his win in the Craven Stakes and remains a generous looking each-way price.

On Sunday it’s the turn of the Filly’s as we turn to the 1,000 Guineas. The betting suggests that the race, like the Colts Classic, will be dominated by Ballydoyle, Godolphin and Hamdan Al Maktoum. Found has been favourite for the race for some time, but her participation is still in doubt. The stable also have Together Forever as a likely contender.

Lucida runs in Godolphin blue for trainer Jim Bolger. She arguably carries the best form into the race, with her only disappointing run coming on soft ground at Newmarket behind Together Forever last October. She found little at the finish on that occasion, which was very different from her previous performances on a sounder surface.

Fadhayyil represents Maktoum and was last seen chasing home Lucida at Newmarket last September. Barry Hills won this race with the same connections in 2009 and hopes are high of a repeat. It would be wonderful for the 78 year-old trainer who is in his final season. In a recent interview he spoke of handing over the reins to Sir Michael Stoute’s assistant: “Owen (Burrows) was the only person we interviewed. The idea is for him to take over next year, with me helping to steer him into it. I'll continue to be involved, but the time will be right for me to step down as trainer. I can't go on forever.”

It’s sure to be a thrilling weekend as the Flat season bursts into life.

Don Cossack Storms To Punchestown Gold Cup Success

The Mighty Don

The Mighty Don

‘Don One’ may have fluffed his lines on the opening day, but Gigginstown simply rolled out ‘Don Two’ and he stormed to success in yesterday’s Punchestown Gold Cup.

Don Cossack added his name to the list of horses owned by Michael O’Leary that are likely to challenge for the Cheltenham Gold Cup in just under a year’s time. Connections had Road To Riches back in third, the two being separated by Team Ricci’s Djakadam. It’s been a long tough season, but these three horses are without doubt the outstanding Irish staying chasers at this point in time.

For the winner, this confirmed how far he has come since being thrashed by Holywell at Aintree in 2014. Always rated highly by his trainer, Don Cossack has finally strengthened into that huge frame and his performances during this campaign have been top-class. His jumping has developed, and his only defeat this winter came when he lacked the speed to get to Uxizandre in the Ryanair Chase at Cheltenham.

Some doubted whether he would stay the trip at Punchestown yesterday, but he appeared to get home well, powering clear from the last to beat the talented Djakadam by seven lengths. The Gold Cup at Cheltenham will be a more severe test, but connections will head into next season with high hopes.

Owner Michael O'Leary said: “When you look at the size of him, he's a huge big horse and as a novice over hurdles he probably hadn't filled into his frame. Gordon said he's a totally different horse. He was outstanding in Aintree and he's been outstanding here today. It's great for Gordon, he's an outstanding trainer and it's lovely to win the Gold Cup here in Punchestown.”

Of the remainder in yesterday’s showpiece, it was great to see Cue Card mixing it with the best again. He finished fourth, and although some way behind the winner, it was still a terrific performance from a horse that has endured such a troubled path in recent times. Colin Tizzard will hope for a smooth run into the next campaign and races such as the Betfair Chase and the King George will again come under consideration.

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Today’s highlight at Punchestown is the World Series Hurdle with Hurricane Fly and Jezki stepping up in trip to take on Dedigout, who has arguably been Ireland’s outstanding staying hurdler of the season.

It’s anyone’s guess as to whether ‘The Fly’ will get the trip. Mullins appears confident, saying: “Remember he won over two and a half miles as a four-year-old in France and we thought over the years three miles wouldn't be a problem. Sometimes he can be very keen, if it's a slow-run race, but I think the trip is no problem. I think he deserves a crack at it and we'll know where we are going as regards the future.”

Jezki appeared to stay strongly at Aintree last time, and his half-brother Jetson certainly has no issues with the trip. Of course that doesn’t guarantee that Harrington’s star hurdler will last home, but chances are he will. I’d expect Lieutenant Colonel to perform far better on home turf, after his disappointing trip to Cheltenham, though he would probably prefer a little more give in the ground.

Of the remainder, it would be no surprise to see Lots Of Memories run well, now back over hurdles. His career best came at last year’s festival, when a close third on similar ground behind Beat That and Don Poli.

Another cracking day lies ahead, with the intriguing World Series Hurdle very much one of the most eagerly anticipated races of the whole meeting.

The Punchestown Festival – Mullins Set To Dominate

Mullins and Ricci

The Usual Suspects

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Neptune Novices’ Hurdle – Stars Will Shine


Forpadydeplasterer with Adoring Fans

The ‘Neptune’ has become a feeding ground for Cheltenham Festival Read more

Faugheen Or ‘The Fly’ – Ruby has Champion Hurdle Headache


Champion Hurdle favourite Faugheen

Jump racing’s elite assemble at Prestbury Read more

Hurricane flies into the record books

Hurricane Fly - 17 Grade 1 wins

Hurricane Fly - 17 Grade 1 wins

Hurricane Fly ran into racing’s records books yesterday at Punchestown as he notched up a 17th Grade 1 success. That took him past the total achieved by the legendary Kauto Star and top American flat horse of the 1970s and 1980s, John Henry. Read more

Cheltenham Open Review… and My Mistake

Cheltenham win machine, Balthazar King

Cheltenham win machine, Balthazar King

It was a brilliant weekend of racing, as Cheltenham's Open meeting went toe to toe with Punchestown's Morgiana Hurdle weekend. As well as some cracking winning performances, and plenty more of great promise, there was also a bit of an error on my part. More on that, including how you can help ensure it doesn't happen again, towards the end of this post.

But first, let's dwell on a wonderful few days of jump racing. The overlapping period of the last couple of weeks of the flat and the first few of the jumps offer little in the way of solid form, or competitive racing. All that changed, though, with the rise of the tape for the first race at Cheltenham on Friday. It may have only been an amateurs' handicap chase, but the scene was set for a thrilling three days.

Highlights on Friday included Taquin de Seuil showing he can act on ground better than soft when he outkicked Oscar Whisky after the last. In truth, it was a muddling race, and the ground may have been closer to good to soft (or 'dead' as some jockeys were calling it) than the official quote of good at race time. Take nothing away from the winner who was always in the right place, and it was AP McCoy doing the stiffening after the last.

For Oscar Whisky fans, while this was another blow after the disappointments at the end of last season, the real shame might be that he failed to convince in his jumping, looking every inch like a horse which - after five years hurdling - cannot fathom how to get a foot or two higher at these revised obstacles. He could be one to oppose at short prices in the near future.

The following handicap hurdle resulted in a smooth win for Thomas Crapper over a field bristling with potential. Numerous horses were heavily backed, but none could live with the horse named after a firm of toilet manufacturers. If anything, three-quarter length second, Angles Hill, may have been flattered by his proximity given that the winner seemed to idle once hitting the front.

His narrow margin of victory may save him from draconian measures by the handicapper and, if that comes to pass, he's capable of notching the hat-trick next time.

Angles Hill was running second in the race for the second year in a row, and he had daylight to spare over the third placed Whisper, the best finisher of the gambled-on nags.

Further back, Upswing was given a metaphorical mountain to climb which, allied to the literal hill he was required to scale, proved too much. Nevertheless, he can improve markedly on this, and looks likely to go close in a decent contest as the season wears on. This isn't the first time a McCoy-ridden McManus-owned horse has been exaggeratedly out of its ground before closing all too late, and it's become something of a blueprint for getting horses handicapped.

The cross country races aren't everyone's cup of tea, but I loves 'em. Here's why: firstly, although they can be run at a pedestrian pace, they offer plenty of variety in the jumping tests, and they also feature some of the more, erm, mercurial (read, doggy) members of the equine fraternity. That leads me to the second reason I loves 'em: they are excellent betting heats.

Take Balthazar King, for example. A stand out prospect for the race for all sorts of reasons alluded to in Friday's post, he was available at 2/1 for much of the morning, and as big as 9/4 the night before. He returned 5/4 in the end, and my weekend expenses were covered then and there. I don't bet a lot of short-priced horses, but value comes at all prices and he was knocking value.

Plenty in behind will never a Festival Cross Country winner make, and the stage looks set for some new blood to take on BK if they're able. Perhaps Enda Bolger's Love Rory, staying on winner of the Risk Of Thunder Chase over Punchestown's banks twenty-three-and-a-half-hours later, could be the pretender come March. He'll only be six then, but he already looks a stayer of some promise.

Ruby Walsh made a rare foray over for the one ride: Quick Jack in the last on Friday, and he made it worth his while when sluicing up atop the 15/8 favourite. This fellow is clearly progressive, and he's going to get plenty of cargo to carry when next he faces the starter after this romp.

Jack's mark here was 113, and he's likely to be nearer 125 next time. He's also to have a break now, before coming back in the New Year. Doubtless the Festival will be on the agenda, and most likely a tilt at the County Hurdle, a race won this year by the same connections.

The placepot slipped away on Friday as AP got the better of Barry Geraghty in that win only heat, and with it about £2,500 in dividends evaded my betting account.


Saturday was Paddy Power Gold Cup day, and a cracking race looked in prospect, with almost every runner having a case made for them in one quarter or another. The babies were first to take the floor, with Royal Irish Hussar laying down a good early season benchmark for the Triumph Hurdle next March. He'll need to jump better to win at the Festival though, and the 16/1 quoted by Ladbrokes is a good bit more sensible than the 8/1 offered elsewhere.

It's entirely possible the Triumph Hurdle winner is hacking round a field somewhere in France just now, so keep that powder dry!

The novices' chase was noteworthy mainly for the poor showing of African Gold on his fencing bow. On this showing he's more of a contender for the four miler than the RSA, but I'd be inclined to think he's better than he showed, and wait on his next start before taking a firmer view.

Le Bec won well enough, but ought not to be up to RSA Chase standard, gritty and determined though he is.

The placepot went west in leg three, as Monbeg Dude - who jumped to last to give a lead to Godsmejudge - capitulated to fourth on the run in, with the 'judge still just behind him. The trio who scooted by up that debilitating hill were led by Alvarado, a talented "monkey" according to his jockey, Paul Moloney.

He was kicking off a fat-priced double for local trainer, Fergal O'Brien, a man worth following.

Johns Spirit won the PP Gold Cup

Johns Spirit won the PP Gold Cup

As for the Dude, well he doesn't want to be in front too long, and perhaps if regular pilot Paul Carberry had been in the saddle, he'd have been delivered later. That said, he was weighted to finish behind Bradley on their last year one-two in the race, and that's pretty much exactly what he did.

The big race was up next, and I was happy enough with my three against the field: Champion Court, Astracad and Attaglance. Midway through the race, I was far less content, as Champion Court put in a hollow effort, perhaps getting stuck in the dead ground, but still failing to match expectations.

Astracad on the other hand ran a lot better than his finishing position of eleventh might imply. He's got a nice race in him somewhere along the way this term. As for Attaglance, he remains an enigma over fences. It might be that three miles is his trip now, or it might be that he's just not as good over a fence as he was over a hurdle. I suspect the former, and I wouldn't be at all surprised to see him make the frame - at least - in the Festival Handicap Chase on Festival Tuesday.

The winner was Johns Spirit who, like Thomas Crapper and Balthazar King before him, was doubling up after success at the October meeting here. This game is so easy with hindsight, isn't it?

I gave Johns Spirit a chance, but he seemed short enough in the betting to my eye. Be that as it may, he was clear best here, and taking his time under a stylish Richie McLernon, he went the longest way but never looked like losing from the turn in. This was off a perch of 139, and he'll be a 150 horse in future. That may put him in the picture for such as the Ryanair, though in truth it could leave him a bit betwixt and between handicaps and Graded company, assuming there's not another ten pounds of improvement still in him.

Easter Meteor was running a massive race when falling two out and, if none the worse for that, is of clear interest next time, assuming the market doesn't overreact (as it often does with such horses).

In the penultimate race, the handicap hurdle, Salubrious put in one of the performances of the weekend... and still lost! That he was carrying 11-07 to the winner's 9-11 tells the story and, after an impressive weight-carrying effort when winning the Martin Pipe off 11-08 last term, he shouldn't be ignored when lumping top weight in handicaps.

James Best was blubbing like a baby when interviewed after his last gasp win here, and fair play to the lad: it clearly meant everything to him.

The concluding bumper exemplified my luck for the day. Having a speculative loyalty £15 on Lilly Waugh, trained by Anthony Honeyball and ridden by Rachael Green, I'd snared 22.0 on Betfair, which implied only a slim chance in this Listed bumer. Miss Waugh, under Miss Green, traveled extremely sweetly turning in and looked for all the world like the winner... before getting mugged by the rattling-home The Govaness, for that man, Fergal O'Brien. At 28/1?!

Meanwhile, over the pond at Punchy, Champagne Fever was making an eye-filling impression in the novices chase. Always thought of as a chaser in the making (aren't they all?), the fact that he's been good enough to win both the Champion Bumper and the Supreme Novices' Hurdle prior to filling his vocation over the big buggers should have made him a very exciting prospect. And he wasn't going to disappoint.

Up against a very talented ex-pointer in Marlbrook, Champagne Fever was much the best and looks to be a strong fancy for the Arkle, though the Jewson may also be considered for a horse who seems to have stamina to match his speed. It's not impossible that he might be a Gold Cup horse next season, but let's first see how he goes through this term.

For the contrarians amongst you, it's worth noting that Champagne Fever was beaten a few times last season prior to outstaying Jezki and My Tent Or Yours, so don't be too perturbed if he does flounder on deeper ground-er 'twixt now and middle March.

Your first 30 days for just £1


Sunday, and I get a pass to head to the track. Cheltenham with my great mate Gavin (of Nag Nag Nag, Trainer Track Stats and Festival Trends fame), and his family (including long-shot king, brother Gary). I was also able to catch up with Nicky Doyle, who has just relaunched his excellent Bet Alchemist service. He's had the typical losing start as soon as new subscribers come on board, but has shown some promising signs with the nomination of two placed 33/1 shots in Attaglance and Rawnaq. I wish him well with his service, and I'm certain he'll continue to find value for those who 'get' what he's doing.

To the racing, and we kicked off with a big field handicap hurdle, in which I had no view. I'd banked on Lieutenant Miller in the placepot, and that meant I didn't need to bet anything else. Just as well, really, as I'd never have found Home Run, the 40/1 winner and a portent of a golden day for David Pipe. He also saddled the second placed horse, and went on to greet three more beasts in the winners' enclosure before the day was out.

Cumulative odds amounted to 5,995/1 and that tells you much about the facility (or lack thereof) of locating this little quartet.

The second race of the day was a novices' hurdle, featuring two very promising sorts in Sea Lord, high class on the flat and protecting a six race unbeaten run over hurdles; and The Liquidator, an excellent bumper horse now making his name over timber.

As it turned out it was a mismatch: The Liquidator went to the front and stayed there, while Sea Lord toiled and laboured, and flapped and flailed. I'd backed the Sea Lord (of course), and I - like the hordes who shortened him to even money from an early 11/8 - knew my fate pretty early.

If anything, Sea Lord deserves credit for staying on to be a respectful second, as he barely jumped a hurdle all the way round and looked errant enough on the flat too. It could be that the dead ground did for him; it might be that the undulating track wasn't his bag... but this run strongly suggested that Cheltenham won't be his happiest hunting ground, and I would rather wager him on Aintree's pan-flat plains than Cheltenham's big dipper.

Take nothing away from the winner: he jumped well throughout, and was kept up to his work all the way to the line. The fact that Scudamore continued to encourage him - more vigorously than the distance of his lead suggested he needed - implies that he may have been running out of gas. That's conjecture on my part, and I'd like to see him in a deeper field where getting his own way in front is less assured.

Yes, I'd backed Sea Lord, in a double with Ted Veale, the County Hurdle winner in March, and now faced with fences. He was up against Dodging Bullets, a horse I've consistently crabbed, and Raya Star, a smart hurdler that had made a nice start over the birch.

Well, sometimes you just get it all wrong. Ted, who I topped up with a single after double with Sea Lord had mutinied, ran a listless race in third. Raya Star ran well enough. But neither was much of a match for Dodging Bullets, who fair bounded away up the hill and looks a smart recruit to novice chasing. He'll probably continue to be suited by small fields, and he's much more likely to get that scenario over fences than hurdles.

It was the second leg of a stellar novice chase double for owner Martin Broughton, whose Taquin de Seuil had lowered the Oscar Whisky colours on Friday.

As for Ted Veale, well, my suspicion is he was under-cooked and that he'll be tilting at the Grand Annual (two mile handicap chase) come Festival time. A nice low weight, having had a sighter over the Prestbury fences and a couple of muddling mud runs back home: just the job.

The feature of the afternoon was the Greatwood Hurdle, and both Gavin and I had reasonable confidence in our nominations. Gavin was in the Ifandbutwhynot camp, and I was in the Sametegal camp. As it transpired, we were both in the losing voucher camp, though I earned pole position on the whingeing grid, Sametegal having looked set to win before the €280,000 purchase, Dell'Acca duffed him - and my bet - up on the run in.

That's a chunk of money to spend on a horse with no undercarriage, and connections will be relieved that he's at least made a reasonable dent into the expenses column with the £43,000 he picked up here. I don't suppose they fancy paying me out on Sametegal...? No, thought not.

This was leg three of the Pipe quad, and it returned 12/1, well enough fancied, but unconsidered by me.

Rawnaq ran well for Nicky and his subscribers, claiming 8/1 for the place, or thereabouts; and Flaxen Flare was another who showed plenty with an eye to the future. Last year's Fred Winter winner, he'll need to drop a few pounds, or improve a few pounds, or most likely both, if he's to win again next March. But this performance suggested it's far from impossible for that to happen.

Tanerko Emery was one of the main victims of the fall of Ahyaknowyerself - well, of those that weren't brought down anyway - and he ran with huge credit to finish fifth: another excellent turn from David Pipe horse. He ought to be winning soon.

And Pipe was to complete his four-timer with the unbeaten Red Sherlock, owned by the late David Johnson, and bred from his brilliant race mare, Lady Cricket. Many people offered plaudits to jockey Timmy Murphy for his 'almost off the course' inside line, but let's be clear, the best horse on the day won.

Neck Or Nothing tried to jump a path, and he's a good bit better than the bare finishing position of eighth suggests.


Meanwhile... over the pond at Punchy, Willie Mullins saw David Pipe's four-timer, and Ruby Walsh, the cheeky little showoff, raised them with a nap hand of five consecutive winners!

Whilst the headline horse will be Hurricane Fly, the subtext is that this was a deeply disappointing effort, albeit in victory. The Fly was sent off at odds of 1/16 to win his 'world record' seventeenth Grade 1. He won by one and a quarter lengths. Not a Ruby Walsh cheeky little showoff one and a quarter lengths; more like an almost all out where's the line? one and a quarter lengths.

Most bookies pushed him out marginally for the Champion Hurdle and, given that he'll be ten years old by then, I just can't have him. It's true that I've written off good horses prematurely before, but even if Hurricane Fly was 80% fit, beating a horse rated 37 lbs his inferior in such animated fashion was a weak showing.

Marito for his part may well be on the upgrade, and I understand it's possible he's headed for the Hennessy next, which would be interesting.

That was leg four of the Ruby Showoff Show, and it had been preceded by a 1/5 winner (Faugheen), a 9/4 winner (Felix Yonger), a 6/4 winner (Morning Assembly), and succeeded by a 7/4 winner, City Slicker. Cumulative odds, then, were 27.5/1. Chuck in 10/1 winner, Presenting Beara, and you had a 312/1 six-timer.

Double that and add a bit and you get the €648.50 dividend for a euro that the Punchy Pick 6 paid. There was a juicy rollover and, with those two bankers, I couldn't resist a tilt at it. True enough, I threw 120 €1 lines into the mix. But still it was enough to make a good weekend a very good weekend, despite a fair amount of crossbar-rattling.

I'll let Tony Keenan dissect the Irish racing, as he has a much better handle on such things. But I will say that Faugheen looks like a massive horse, and he virtually walked over the hurdles in his stride. Big. Horse.


Now then, to my mistake. I went looking for a bookmaker to offer a free bet prize based around Saturday's big race. There was a condition - entrants had to place a £10 bet - but, despite that, I have to say I was surprised and a bit disappointed with the number of entries. Thirteen. Five of which had failed to place the qualifying bet. Meaning eight legit entries.

Now that's my issue, and it's my mistake. And it serves me right for assuming I know what you fine people want from this 'ere blog. I should have asked you what you want!

So, closing the competition door after entries horse has bolted (or something), below is a question - please select all answers that apply to you - and next time, I'll be able to frame a comp that will be more popular and, hopefully, fun! 🙂

[poll id="52"]

Thanks in advance for your responses, and I hope you had a great weekend with the geegees.


Sprinter Sacre – ready to better Kauto?

Sprinter Sacre - rated within 2lb of Kauto Star

Sprinter Sacre - rated within 2lb of Kauto Star

The publication of the Anglo-Irish National Hunt classifications on 21 May confirmed Bobs Worth, Sprinter Sacre, Big Buck’s, Hurricane Fly, The New One and Simonsig as the top horses across the seven categories. There were no major surprises, and with the exception of top novice chaser Simonsig, all the winners were rated four pounds or more ahead of their nearest rival. Read more

Cheltenham Trainers – The Big Three…

Henderson Nicholls

Who'll Be Top Festival Trainer?

With the Cheltenham Festival this week Andy Newton takes a look at the three big yards - the form they are heading into the four days of top-notch action, plus their Prestbury Park track stats...... Read more

Trainer Stats: 13th Feb 2013


Mullins Horses Are In Tip-Top Order

A real mixed bag of trainers have made it onto Andy Newton’s 'HOT LIST' this week – see which ones here....... Read more

Trials Day postponement would suit Walsh fine

rubywalsh2It is possible that there will be the return of turf racing at Ayr this afternoon, but the meeting is subject to a second inspection at 1045. Clerk of the course Emma Morley looked at 0730, before reporting that temperatures had fallen to -2˚C overnight, had risen to freezing point, and were due to rise a further couple of degrees. It’s possible. Read more