French Light could provide landmark success at Punchestown

Keri Brion expects to have a clearer idea of French Light’s potential ambitions after running in the I.N.H. Stallion Owners EBF Novice Hurdle at Punchestown on Sunday.

The six-year-old is one of a handful of horses currently based in Ireland with the former assistant to US Hall of Fame trainer Jonathan Sheppard – and made a promising Irish debut when finishing second at Clonmel last month.

Having missed an intended appearance in the Chanelle Pharma Novice Hurdle at last weekend’s Dublin Racing Festival, French Light instead tests the water at Listed level this weekend.

Brion said: “He had a little cough before Leopardstown. It was nothing too serious, but he needed to be 120 per cent to go up against those horses, so we decided to wait for this weekend.

“Quite a few of the horses in the race on Sunday are probably future graded horses, but we think highly of ours and he’s come on a lot from his run at Clonmel, so we’re looking forward to it really.

“The ground is going to be soft or soft to heavy, but I don’t think is going to be any worse than it was at Clonmel and I like the fact we’re coming back from almost two and a half to two miles.

“This run will tell us where we’re going next, for sure. I know there’s only six runners, but there’s some good horses up against us, so this will give us a pretty good gauge as to where we’re at.”

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French Light’s five rivals include the Willie Mullins-trained Power Of Pause, who has already won over the course and distance and was last seen finishing third in the Grade Two Moscow Flyer Novice Hurdle.

Noel Meade is in contention for Punchestown honours
Noel Meade is in contention for Punchestown honours (PA)

Noel Meade saddles recent Navan scorer Thedevilscoachman, while Joseph O’Brien is represented by Fire Attack and the long-absent Uhtred, who has not been seen in competitive action since landing a Listed bumper at Navan in December 2019.

“Fire Attack made a really promising hurdling debut when second in a Grade Three novice at Navan in November, but hasn’t built on that in two starts since,” O’Brien told Betfair.

“He isn’t the easiest of rides as he can get quite strong in his races, but he has the ability to be competitive in this sort of company if headgear (hood) can convince him to race more efficiently.

“Uhtred is a promising horse that has won both his starts in bumpers and made a promising hurdling debut in between those two wins last season.

“We had a small setback with him earlier this season which held us up, but he is a good shape now and ready to run. This is a tough enough ask for his seasonal reappearance, but we’ll be hoping that he can show plenty of promise.”

Harry Kelly’s rank outsider Confusionanddelay completes the line-up.

Alpha Des Obeaux is in action for Gordon Elliott at Punchestown
Alpha Des Obeaux is in action for Gordon Elliott at Punchestown (Brian Lawless/PA)

The most valuable race on the card is the 80,000 euro Punchestown Grand National Trial, in which Gordon Elliott could saddle six runners.

The Cullentra handler has declared top-weight Alpha Des Obeaux, as well as 2019 winner Dounikos, Roaring Bull, Monbeg Notorious, Out Sam and second reserve General Principle.

Elliott said: “Alpha Des Obeaux hasn’t been at his best this season and could never get involved in the Thyestes last time. It would be hard to have confidence in him, but at home he is showing that he still retains plenty of ability, so it wouldn’t shock me if he were to bounce back to form.

“Dounikos won this race two years ago and has done very little of note since then. He has dropped back to a rating which would give him a chance, though.

“Roaring Bull isn’t the easiest to predict, but he was second in the Troytown this season and he also ran much better than his final position in the Paddy Power Chase would suggest. I could see him running a big race here.

Monbeg Notorious is another Gordon Elliott contender
Monbeg Notorious is another Gordon Elliott contender (PA)

“Monbeg Notorious should find this race right up his street and this could just suit him better than the two he has contested so far this season. He is another horse who is starting to look reasonably handicapped.

“Out Sam could run well. On his four starts this season I think he has shown that he can win again and the twice he has fallen he looked like he was going to run well both times.”

O’Brien has a trio of hopefuls in Smoking Gun, Thermistocles and High Sparrow, while Peter Fahey’s The Big Dog and Midnight Maestro from Enda Bolger’s yard are among the market principals.

Exciting times for Keri Brion as Winston C’s trans-Atlantic adventure starts at Navan

Coronavirus has brought worldwide restrictions for millions – but for fledgling trainer Keri Brion, a new international opportunity has arisen amid the pandemic.

American jump racing had to forego several of its highest-profile autumn fixtures last year as limitations were imposed on US sporting events because of Covid-19.

It is as a consequence that Brion finds herself based in Ireland at the start of the new year, with half-a-dozen horses she had been looking after for Jonathan Sheppard and now has under her own name following the recent retirement of the Hall of Fame trainer.

On Saturday, her stable flagbearer Winston C – twice a Grade One winner at Saratoga – runs in the Grade B Navan Handicap Hurdle in preparation for next month’s Chanelle Pharma Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown.

This weekend therefore marks the next big step in Brion’s inter-continental tale of the unexpected.

“It’s been a hectic and stressful few weeks, because I didn’t realise Jonathan was retiring so soon,” said the 29-year-old – who went close when her first runner, French Light, found only one too good at Clonmel on Tuesday.

“It was sprung up on me a bit, and I had to get my stable set up in America from Ireland.

“When he announced he retired he had to relinquish his licence in America – which the horses were under over here – so I had to get it all switched to my name.

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“This whole Ireland experiment came on the radar when it was announced the Grade One races in America were going to be cancelled at the beginning of September, so part of this is down to Covid and not having the races on back home.

“Winston C had been off with a small injury, and his owner asked ‘why don’t we travel him overseas?’. It put the idea into our heads – and I explored it a little, and a couple of other owners were keen – so here we are.”

Winston C, formerly trained in Britain by Harry Fry, is a dual Grade One winner in America – but with a shot at the Unibet Champion Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival on the horizon in March, Brion is under no illusions about the scale of the challenge ahead.

She added: “I’ve entered Winston C in both the Irish Champion Hurdle and Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham, so it puts the pressure on a bit.

“Navan is not necessarily his track, but he needs to start off somewhere. After this, he will run at Leopardstown, and that will be more his track.

“We picked out a race at Punchestown on December 31, but he just wasn’t where we wanted him. The last couple of weeks, he has finally turned a corner, and I’m happy with him going into Navan

“As for Cheltenham, we will have to see what the owners want to do. If he runs well in the Irish Champion Hurdle, though, I don’t think we will do anything else other than go to Cheltenham!”

Had it not been for a meeting with Sheppard during a summer break while on a scholarship in a rather different sport, the career in racing Brion has gone on to enjoy might never have materialised.

She said: “When I was 10 I started to ride a few horses at a farm nearby, and I worked there until I went to Indiana University of Pennsylvania on a pole-vaulting scholarship.

“It was at that time I came home on a summer break, and a friend introduced me to Johnathan, and he brought me in as a freelance.

“I thought I had wanted a break from working with horses, but then working back with Jonathan made me want to get back to working with them.

“I then transferred closer to home to West Chester University, where I completed a business degree while riding at Jonathan’s before then becoming a jockey for four years.”

In recent years, the sight of American-trained runners at Royal Ascot has become a common theme thanks to Wesley Ward – and Brion, who was crowned US champion apprentice jump jockey in 2017, believes her adventure could set a trend in the future.

She said: “Don’t get me wrong, it is not cheap doing this, but luckily we have got great owners. I’d like to do it again, though – and if we have some success it is definitely something we will look into in the future.

“Jump racing is way behind Flat racing in America, but talking to people about coming over here there were some that seemed really intrigued by it.

“I’d say there would be a few other good horses back home capable of doing this. So I hope it might open up a few doors, because we don’t race between November and March – and there aren’t many Grade One options for the top horses back home.”

Emulating the achievements of Sheppard is something Brion acknowledges is not going to be easy, but she hopes her time spent in Ireland can provide the one winner her mentor failed to register during his glittering career.

She said: “The whole thing has had a massive following. It has been bigger than I ever realised it would be, and I’ve so many people reaching out to me – which is great.

“Jonathan never trained a winner in Europe, and it would be cool to have helped him do that before he retired. At the same time I’ve worked very hard the last 11 years, so maybe it’s the way things are supposed to happen, and it would be great for it to work out.”