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Belfast Banter graduates to Grade One company in style

Belfast Banter handled the huge step up to Grade One company from handicaps to win the Betway Top Novices’ Hurdle at Aintree.

Peter Fahey’s six-year-old only made it into the County Hurdle off bottom-weight, but he enjoyed the slightly better ground at Cheltenham and looked even better on Merseyside.

For Pleasure adopted his customary role at the head of affairs, with Nico de Boinville keen not to give him too much rope on the favourite Dusart.

Having just his second run, Dusart made several errors and it was to his credit he still had a chance jumping the last. But by then Belfast Banter was still on the bridle.

Do Your Job emerged as the biggest threat, although Kevin Sexton had enough in reserve to see him off by a length and a quarter. Dusart was back in third, a further length and a quarter away. Houx Gris was a relatively early faller.

Fahey said: “I’m absolutely thrilled – we’re celebrating here at home!

“After Cheltenham we picked out this race and I said to the owners we were just hoping he’d go over and run a big race. To come out and win is absolutely unbelievable.

“We went into the race thinking we were riding him to be placed, just because he’s that type of horse that follows along, so to go and win has given us all a massive buzz.

Belfast Banter and Kevin Sexton in full flight
Belfast Banter and Kevin Sexton in full flight (David Davies/Jockey Club)

“I don’t think he’ll go to Punchestown, to be honest. I’ll have a chat with the owners, but he’s not in any of the graded races there.

“The plan was to go to Aintree and if he ran well and went up a couple of pounds, he’d be guaranteed to get into the Galway Hurdle.

“We’ll see what way things are now and see what the handicapper does – we might be out of handicaps now, I suppose.

“The Galway Hurdle is worth a lot of money, but I’d take a Grade One over that any day.”

Belfast Banter has loudest cheer in County Hurdle

Belfast Banter was yet another winner for Ireland when springing a 33-1 surprise for County Kildare trainer in the McCoy Contractors County Handicap Hurdle at Cheltenham.

Ridden by Kevin Sexton, who has having his first Festival winner, the six-year-old came with a terrific run after jumping the last in fourth place to hit the front in the last 100 yards and claim the prize.

Global Citizen, Mengli Khan, Gowel Road and Fifty Ball were among the leaders in the early stages, but there was all to play coming to the second-last where Third Time Lucki made his bid.

That was covered by Milkwoodm with Petit Mouchoir, Eclat De Beaufeu, Edwardstone and Ganapathi also in the mix.

Belfast Banter made his challenge in the centre of track to land the spoils by one and a quarter lengths from Petit Mouchoir with Milkwood a length away third and Eclair De Beaufeu a head back in fourth.

Sexton said: “I’m in shock and it hasn’t sunk in. I was second here a couple of years ago and I never thought I’d get the chance again.

“I came here to ride a favourite yesterday (Royal Kahala) and when she disappointed I thought it would never happen.

“This lad has tended to finish second a lot, I have a love hate relationship with him!

“I thought if we were in the first five we’d be delighted, but he jumped and travelled and took me everywhere.

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“I planned on switching out, but I didn’t get the chance and I was lucky that I never got stopped down the middle and he stuck it out really well.”

Sexton was quick to pay tribute to winning trainer Peter Fahey.

He added: “It was unbelievable when we jumped the last, I got quite emotional. I’d actually given up two years ago, but through the support of my family I gave it one last go and I haven’t looked back since.

“I might have given up, but lucky enough no one else had given up on me. Peter got me back in love with racing and put me on Peregrine Run who I won plenty of races on. Otherwise I might have gone to America.”

Porlock Bay just denied Billaway in a terrific finish to the St. James’s Place Festival Challenge Cup Open Hunters’ Chase.

The pair crossed the line virtually inseparable after a ding-dong tussle on the run to the line, but it was Porlock Bay who got the verdict.

Porlock Bay is usually ridden by his trainer Will Biddick, the most prolific winner of point-to-points in the UK and a winning rider at the Festival, but with amateurs unable to ride due to covid restrictions, he booked Lorcan Williams for the ride.

The conditional jockey proved an able substitute as he got the better of Paul Townend on the Willie Mullins-trained Billaway, was also second 12 months ago.

Staker Wallace was third and Latenightpass fourth.

Williams said: “He jumped the last really well and I’m delighted for Will, who was always sort of an idol of mine growing up. It’s been a pleasure to ride for him.

“We weren’t sure he would stay the last day, but I felt he did stay and I wasn’t overly hard on him. He’s come out fresh today and in really good form.

“I was always one or two off the rail and going down the back I gave him a bit of light and I wanted to make our ground and be handy at the top of the hill.

“He sort of just came alive and I was probably going too well.

“I managed to fill him up and his jumping was so accurate, which has probably just got him there.”

Galopin Des Champs clinched the trainers’ title at the Festival for Willie Mullins when winning the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle.

It was Mullins’ sixth success at the meeting, the same as Henry de Bromhead, but the Closutton handler got the nod on countback.

Galopin Des Champs (8-1) was always travelling well for Sean O’Keeffe and bounded up the hill to beat Langer Dan by two and a quarter lengths, denying Dan Skelton’s runner a £50,000 bonus should he have won at Cheltenham following his victory in the Imperial Cup a Sandown last weekend.

Floueur was nine lengths away in third place, with Whatsupwithyou fourth.

Mullins said: “Sean just bided his time and gave him a very good ride.

“I had this horse entered up in a lot of handicaps and we divided them up as best we could.

“We had two jockeys on the horses we thought had a chance. Gentleman De Mee was just too keen, but he’s obviously a good horse.”

The Big Dog strikes chasing gold in Grand National Trial

The Big Dog opened his account over fences after coming out on top in a thrilling climax to the Punchestown Grand National Trial.

Peter Fahey’s charge had been placed in his first three completed starts in novice company over the larger obstacles, most recently finishing third when a hot favourite at Navan last month.

Entering handicap company for the first time since his hurdling days, The Big Dog was the 5-2 market leader for Punchestown’s 80,000 euro feature, with top amateur Jamie Codd in the saddle.

The eight-year-old travelled with more zest than many of his rivals for much of the three-and-a-half-mile journey and looked likely to win comfortably after kicking clear rounding the home turn.

However, Screaming Colours finished to good effect in the testing conditions and made The Big Dog pull out all the stops to claim victory by half a length.

Fahey said: “His runs in all his beginners’ (chases) were good after coming back from a year off. I’m delighted for the Kellys (owners), as they are huge racing supporters and its great for them to win a good pot.

“He’ll tip away in good handicaps and see how it goes. He’s lairy and you have to make plenty of use of him, which is tricky in beginners’ chases as when you force it in front, he’s losing ground jumping.

“His jumping was brilliant today until he took it up and he just looks around.”

Considering future targets, the trainer added: “If the ground was heavy we might think about the Irish Grand National, but he’ll probably need to go up a bit in the weights to get into it. We’ll see when the time comes.”

Bareback Jack leads McCain’s Musselburgh raid

Few trainers have started 2021 in better form than Donald McCain, who takes some of his big guns up to Musselburgh for this weekend’s Cheltenham trials meeting.

Bareback Jack is arguably one of the most exciting prospects in McCain’s team, having won his first two outings over timber as well as a point-to-point.

He is set to put his unbeaten record on the line in Sunday’s Bet365 Scottish Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.

“We think he’s a nice-ground horse, which is why we took him up to Musselburgh for his debut,” said McCain.

“He then won on heavy at Catterick – but that doesn’t get as heavy as some places, and we’re getting to the point where we have to run them. It wasn’t a great race, but he couldn’t do any more than he did.

“The ground is probably going to be a bit too soft on Sunday. But I can’t not run him now, because of what he did at Catterick – and we’ve got to run them.

“I’m not thinking beyond Sunday – and while you obviously have targets in the back of your mind if things go well, we’ll worry about it after this.”

McCain enjoyed a treble at the track on New Year’s Day – and Fiveandtwenty, who runs in the Bet365 Scottish Triumph Trial, was among those winners.

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“We had the option of here or Doncaster last week, but the ground there would be even more extreme,” said McCain.

“She’s a dual course-and-distance winner – she’s taking on better horses, but we may as well take a punt. Black type would be important for her as well, it being a Listed race.”

Another New Year’s Day winner was Blakeney Point, a classy Flat horse in his day, who runs in Saturday’s Bet365 Scottish County Hurdle.

“I have to say, since there has been a reshuffle in the handicapping, the northern horses seem to be getting a bit better deal – in the short term anyway,” said McCain.

Blakeney Point won a decent race last time out
Blakeney Point won a decent race last time out (David Davies/PA)

“He went up 2lb for his last win, and he didn’t win by far, but in the past he might have gone up a fair bit more. He probably wants better ground – but like everyone else, there is nowhere else to go at the moment.

“We also have Theo (Gillard) taking 7lb off Dear Sire, who has won this race before (2018) – he’s got targets in the spring. He ran very well on the all-weather the other day.

“We’ll have plenty of others, and they are what they are, but let’s just hope they all get to run.”

Traditionally there is a strong Irish presence at the meeting – and despite the complications brought on by the pandemic, there will still be plenty from the Emerald Isle.

Peter Fahey is bringing two of his brightest talents in Belfast Banter, fifth to Not So Sleepy in a valuable handicap at Ascot, and the lightly-raced Born Patriot.

Belfast Banter will take on Bareback Jack, and Fahey said: “The ground maybe told close home at Ascot, but he’s in good form and he should put in a good run. I was pleasantly surprised with his new mark.

“He’s in good nick – I’m just not sure the ground is going to suit.”

Born Patriot was an 80-1 winner on debut, but showed it was no fluke when second to Gordon Elliott’s Frontal Assault at Thurles next time out.

“I think he’s a horse that’s improving all the time. He needs a trip, but a fast pace as well,” said Fahey.

“He’s a lovely horse. He lacks a little in experience – but he’s done very little wrong, and if he can improve from his last run he should have a good chance.

“It wasn’t a surprise when he won on his debut. He’d always worked well, and I was more surprised after the race at the price he was.

“He’s a very nice horse – and whatever he does over hurdles, he’ll be a lot better over fences.”

Kahala ready to test Cheltenham credentials

Peter Fahey hopes Royal Kahala can book her ticket to Cheltenham in the rearranged Race Displays Solerina Mares Novice Hurdle at Fairyhouse.

Saved over from last weekend, Monday’s Grade Three event must survive another wintry outlook – with the ground currently described as heavy.

But if going ahead, it is sure to be an informative affair – with Willie Mullins’ unbeaten Gauloise also set to run.

Currently, the same pair head the betting for the Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle in March.

Fahey said of Royal Kahala: “She’s in good form – it looks a competitive race, the same kind of field it was supposed to be (initially).

“It will kind of let us know where we stand.

“We took on a good bunch of fillies the last day and were lucky enough to win it.”

Fahey can be confident testing conditions will suit his six-year-old, who has completed a hat-trick since early November on soft and heavy ground.

“If she wins or runs a very good race we’re thinking about going to Cheltenham with her for the mares’ novice,” he added.

“Her last three runs, her strongest furlong has been the last one on heavy ground. She seems to cope with it very well and shows a good turn of foot at the end of her race – which is another big plus.

“Her action at home, you wouldn’t say she needs it soft. (But) you wouldn’t run her on very quick ground, because she’s been so effective with it on the soft side.”

Speaking about Gauloise earlier this week, Mullins said: “I’ll probably let her go there (Fairyhouse).

“She’s done everything right so far, but it looks like she’s got Peter Fahey’s mare to beat.

“She’s looked very good – she’ll be hard to beat. It’s a hell of a race.”

Royal Kahala impresses at Fairyhouse

Royal Kahala displayed a potent turn of foot as she notched a Fairyhouse hat-trick with victory in the Wishing Everyone A Healthy 2021 Mares Hurdle.

A quality field went to post including Delvino, Hook Up and Razzle Dazzle Love, but none of them had an answer to the impressive winner.

Already successful in a bumper and a maiden hurdle at the track, Kevin Sexton took the brave route down the inner throughout on Peter Fahey’s charge.

Delvino was the first of the market leaders beaten with her jumping letting her down on numerous occasions, while Hook Up looked menacing going to the second-last.

Razzle Dazzle Love had led throughout, but had shown a tendency to jump left so Sexton took a gamble to go up her inside and it narrowly paid off, although she still had ground to make on on Hook Up running to the last.

Hook Up met it on the wrong stride, losing momentum, but the way the winner picked up suggested it made little difference, as the 3-1 chance shot five lengths clear.

Paddy Power cut Royal Kahala to 8-1 from 20s for the Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham.

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“To be honest I was fairly confident in her coming into the race,” said Fahey.

“I know it was a hot race, but the way she won the last two she found loads in the closing stages.

“She did it again today and she’s a very nice filly, we are lucky to have her.

Royal Kahala quickened up impressively after the last
Royal Kahala quickened up impressively after the last (PA Wire)

“When I was looking at this race I was thinking it would be an easy target, but when the entries came out it was stiff enough competition.

“I’d say the plan will be to come back here for the Solerina Hurdle at the end of the month. She did it well today and fingers crossed everything goes all right and she comes back here.

“I liked how much she picked up from the back of the last. She stays well and Kevin said she was strong at the line. A fast-run race will suit her even better.”

Fairyhouse Races – January 3rd
Flanking Maneuver clears the last on his way to victory (PA Wire)

Flanking Maneuver backed up a promising effort on his hurdling debut to win the Happy New Year From All At Fairyhouse Maiden Hurdle in the style of a good horse.

A wide-margin bumper scorer, he had chased home a nice type in Percy Warner last time out and Sean Flanagan always looked confident on this occasion.

The 5-4 favourite took a lead into the straight and did not come off the bridle in beating Folcano by six lengths to give Noel Meade, who celebrated a 70th birthday success 24 hours earlier, another winner.

“He’s done it really well and the step up in trip was obviously a big help to him,” said Flanagan.

“His bumper form was quite classy and he always showed a good bit at home. I’m delighted that he’s brought it forward today.

“I’d say the horse that beat us the first day was quite smart, too. I think the step up in trip today really benefited him.”

Dot Love is due to hand over the licence to her assistant Ciaran Murphy in the coming days – and after a winner on Saturday she landed the Happy Retirement Dot Love Ladies Handicap Hurdle with Flindt.

Flindt and Sarah Kavanagh jump the last in front
Flindt and Sarah Kavanagh jump the last in front (PA Wire)

“I thought yesterday was the highlight, but they came through for me. I never ever thought it would happen again today, it’s a fairytale,” said Love.

“It’s special for it to happen here and Peter Roe (general manager) was very good to name the race after me, that was moving.

“Having had the Irish National winner here as well it’s a lovely way to finish.”

There was plenty of chatter about Gordon Elliott’s 470,000 euro purchase Ginto ahead of the closing bumper, but he had no answer to Willie Mullins’ Whatdeawant (9-4) who beat the favourite by two and a half lengths to earn a 33-1 quote for Cheltenham.

Mullins said: “I’d imagine he’ll go for a winners or we could go straight to Cheltenham with him. Patrick (Mullins) was very happy with his performance.”