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Energumene impressive as he stays unbeaten over fences

The Irish Arkle could be next on the agenda for Energumene after he maintained his unbeaten record over fences with an impressive display at Naas.

Having already won a point-to-point, a bumper and on his sole start over hurdles, the Willie Mullins-trained seven-year-old made a smart start to his novice-chasing campaign when registering a wide-margin victory at Gowran Park in November.

The French-bred gelding faced a tougher test in the Irish Stallion Farms EBF Novice Chase, with Henry de Bromhead’s high-class performer Captain Guinness among his three rivals, but he ultimately got the job done in fine style.

Sent straight to the lead by Paul Townend, 10-11 favourite Energumene jumped accurately throughout to keep the pressure on those in behind.

Captain Guinness closed the gap rounding the home turn and briefly looked set to make a race of it, but the market leader asserted between the final two fences and pulled clear on the run-in to score by eight and a half lengths.

The winner’s stablemate Blackbow was a long way behind in third.

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Mullins said of the winner: “That was very impressive, and his jumping was a key factor. He’s got a great method to jump.

“I brought him back to two miles to see if he would be as effective. He loves jumping.

“That was very testing going, and (he was) making all his own running. Paul just gave him a breather turning for home, and he’s picked up again. I was very taken with it.

“I’d imagine we will go down the two-mile route now, and the Arkle at Leopardstown would look the place to go.”

Paddy Power cut Energumene to 5-1 from 12-1 for the Arkle Trophy at Cheltenham in March, making him their clear second-favourite behind Shishkin.

Mullins went on to double his tally with 9-4 favourite Belle Metal in the Rushe’s Supervalu (Pro/Am) Flat Race, ridden by Jody Townend.

“We will be looking to up her in grade, although the owners may be keen to sell, so she could be in different colours the next day,” the champion trainer added.

Henry de Bromhead and Rachael Blackmore were among the winners
Henry de Bromhead and Rachael Blackmore were among the winners (PA)

Henry de Bromhead and Rachael Blackmore also combined for a double on the card, with the Grade One success of Bob Olinger preceded by the comfortable victory of Epson Du Houx in the Eastcoast Seafood And Gouldings Hardware Handicap Chase.

The 9-4 favourite travelled strongly to the lead in the home straight and passed the post with six and a half lengths in hand.

“We didn’t get our own way in front, and it was a little bit messy like that, but I was impressed with him – and hopefully there are a few more days in him,” said Blackmore.

Amateur rider Harry Swan, son of the multiple champion jockey Charlie Swan, struck gold on his very first ride over hurdles aboard the Timmy Hyde-trained On Eagles Wings.

The 18-year-old, riding his fourth winner overall, steered the 2-1 shot to a two-and-a-half-length verdict from Captain Kangaroo in the I.N.H. Stallion Owners EBF Maiden Hurdle.

Hyde said: “On his bumper form I thought he had a good chance, but you never know what you are coming up against in these races from the big stables. I was very happy with him.”

Charlie Swan added: “Timmy, myself and Harry have all now won on our first ride over hurdles.”

Joseph O’Brien’s Miss Pernickety justified 4-7 favouritism in the Irish Stallion Farms EBF Mares Beginners Chase under JJ Slevin.

Mullins eyeing more Market Rasen glory with Grangee

Grangee could bid to provide Willie Mullins with back-to-back victories in this weekend’s Listed mares’ bumper at Market Rasen.

The Closutton trainer saddled his first ever runner at the Lincolnshire venue when sending Panic Attack across the Irish Sea to win this race 12 months ago.

The daughter of Canford Cliffs was impressive under Paul Townend before subsequently being sold to join David Pipe, for whom she ran in the Champion Bumper at Cheltenham and has since won two hurdle races.

Grangee made a successful start to her career at Galway in October – and like Panic Attack, could be bound for Cheltenham if she can come through Saturday’s assignment in the Alan Swinbank Mares’ Standard Open National Hunt Flat Race.

Patrick Mullins, assistant to his father, said: “Grangee is very petite – and we were worried about the soft ground at Galway, which is a tough track, but she handled it very well.

“She surprised us with how impressive she was in a very strongly-run race, so Willie nominated her for the Champion Bumper at the Cheltenham Festival afterwards.

“We thought this race at Market Rasen would be a nice stepping-stone on the way. Market Rasen is very different to Galway, but we have no reason to think that it won’t suit her.

“Panic Attack was very good in the race last year, and these Listed Mares’ bumpers are very valuable for owners and breeders looking to get some black type, so we’re always on the lookout for those races in England.

“Everyone who was at Market Rasen last year was very complimentary about how it all went.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ashdale Bob and Crosshill give Jessica Harrington a strong hand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday Musings: Trainer Titles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blue Lord out to extend Mullins’ record in Naas Grade One

Willie Mullins bids to add to his record tally of eight victories in the Lawlor’s Of Naas Novice Hurdle when Blue Lord lines up, weather permitting, in Sunday’s Grade One.

Blue Lord is set to bid for top-level glory on the back of a debut success over hurdles at Punchestown in November.

The six-year-old had three runs in the French provinces in 2019 and was then bought by Simon Munir and Isaac Souede to join Ireland’s champion jumps trainer.

Gordon Elliott has lifted this weekend’s prize three times in the last four years and is two-handed with Wide Receiver and Ragnar Lodbrok as he tries to maintain his fine record.

Jessica Harrington is also doubly represented with Ashdale Bob, a Grade Two winner at Navan last month, and Crosshill.

Bob Olinger is an interesting contender from Henry de Bromhead’s stable, having hacked up at Navan when sent off the 1-8 favourite after going down by one length to last season’s Cheltenham Champion Bumper winner Ferny Hollow on his hurdles debut.

Completing the nine-strong field are Noel Meade’s Flanking Maneuver, Gavin Cromwell’s Gabynako and Great Bear, trained by Thomas Gibney.

However, the course is currently unfit for racing because of frost, and an inspection has been called for 1.30pm on Saturday.

Faugheen likely to miss Cheltenham

A sixth Cheltenham Festival appearance for Faugheen is highly unlikely this season.

Now 13, the 2015 Champion Hurdle winner met with a setback earlier in the season and he was not entered this week for the Ryanair Chase or the Gold Cup in March.

Having had his attentions turned to chasing late in life, Faugheen won two Grade Ones last season before finishing a close third to Samcro in the Marsh Novices’ Chase at Cheltenham.

Stablemate Douvan, another injury-prone star at the Willie Mullins yard, is also on the sidelines once more and is currently only in pre-training.

“They’ve both had setbacks. Faugheen is in the yard, he got clipped during the week. Cheltenham, with his profile, is it going to be tough?” assistant trainer Patrick Mullins said on Racing TV’s weekly Road To Cheltenham show.

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“If it comes about, great, but I suppose Willie thought at the moment it’s unlikely.

“Douvan is in pre-training – he’s coming back from another setback, so at this stage it would be unlikely.”

Mullins jnr partnered Douvan to win a Grade One novice chase in 2015, and was also on board when in front but falling in the 2018 Champion Chase.

Injuries have prevented Douvan from reaching the heights that once looked likely
Injuries have prevented Douvan from reaching the heights that once looked likely (Niall Carson/PA)

“I’ve been very lucky to sit on some very good horses, and I just think he is a different species,” he added.

“His race record does not really reflect how good a horse he was.”

Mullins also had news on useful novice mare Shewearsitwell, who is unbeaten in three but is also set to miss the Festival.

“Shewearsitwell is probably not going to make Cheltenham, which is a pity, as she has as much ability as the others,” he said.

“She had a bit of a setback. She missed the Royal Bond, and it’s going to be tight for Cheltenham, so it’s not definite she’ll make it – we’ll have to see.”

Patrick Mullins has struck up a real partnership with Sharjah and won a third Matheson Hurdle at Christmas
Patrick Mullins has struck up a real partnership with Sharjah, and won a third Matheson Hurdle at Christmas (PA Wire)

On a more positive note Mullins is looking forward to maintaining his partnership with Sharjah, who won a third Matheson Hurdle recently and is set for another crack at Honeysuckle before heading to Cheltenham.

“I’m definitely looking forward to a rematch with Epatante (at Cheltenham), but first we have to have a rematch with Honeysuckle in the Irish Champion Hurdle,” he said.

“He was electric in Leopardstown. He has his off days, and that’s probably why he goes under the radar. I somehow got him beat in an amateur handicap at Galway this year, but on his day he’s as good as anything around.

“In a smaller (Champion Hurdle) field with a better gallop (than last year), I’d like to think that brings him more into it.”

Min tops 50 contenders for Ryanair Chase gold

Last year’s winner Min is one of 50 entries for the Ryanair Chase at the Cheltenham Festival in March.

Having previously chased home Altior in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and the Queen Mother Champion Chase, the Willie Mullins-trained Min finally enjoyed his day in the sun at the showpiece meeting 12 months ago.

Having kicked off the current campaign by winning his third John Durkan Memorial Punchestown Chase, the 10-year-old is the ante-post favourite to successfully defend his Ryanair crown and become just the second dual winner after Albertas Run (2010 and 2011).

An 11-strong Mullins contingent also includes Allaho, Chacun Pour Soi, Kemboy, Melon and Tornado Flyer, although several have alternative engagements in one or both of the Queen Mother Champion Chase and the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

Other contenders for the Ryanair include last year’s runner-up Saint Calvados, trained by Harry Whittington, Henry de Bromhead’s Savills Chase winner A Plus Tard, Nicky Henderson’s superstar chaser Altior and Kim Bailey’s Imperial Aura, who is set to run in the Silviniaco Conti Chase at Kempton this weekend.

Bailey said: “Imperial Aura is in good form and he runs on Saturday – that race is essentially his prep run for the Cheltenham Festival, where he will hopefully line up in the Ryanair Chase.

“He won at the Festival last year and I have been delighted with his performances so far this year.

“I am very happy with him and Saturday should hopefully tell us more, but Cheltenham is definitely a target for him.”

Amy Murphy is considering multiple options for Kalashnikov ahead of a likely tilt at the Ryanair.

Having shaped with promise when seventh on his reappearance over hurdles at Haydock, Murphy’s stable star was a well-backed favourite for the rescheduled Peterborough Chase at Cheltenham last month and emerged with plenty of credit in finishing second to Mister Fisher.

She said: “Kalashnikov in great form. He’s been in very light work since Cheltenham – we haven’t done a lot with him at all.

“We’ve freshened him up. He’s received an entry in the Ryanair Chase at the Festival and he’ll have one more run between now and then.

“I’ve put him in the Sky Bet Chase at Doncaster, there’s Newbury in mid-February and Warwick in mid-February as well, so he’s got a few different options.”

Al Boum Photo headlines Gold Cup contenders

Dual winner Al Boum Photo heads 41 entries for this year’s Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup.

Willie Mullins’ nine-year-old enjoyed his usual preparation recently with a straightforward victory at Tramore and will head straight to Prestbury Park in his bid to emulate the likes of Arkle, Best Mate and Golden Miller as a three-time winner of the blue-riband event.

Mullins has a host of other contenders for the showpiece event on March 19, including Kemboy, Melon and Allaho, who were second, third and fourth respectively in the Savills Chase at Leopardstown.

The winner of that race was Henry de Bromhead’s A Plus Tard, already a Cheltenham Festival winner in the past and who was placed in the Ryanair last year.

However, the betting indicates at the moment De Bromhead has an even better chance with Minella Indo, who was caught close home in the RSA Chase last season but was an early faller in the Savills Chase.

It was Nicky Henderson’s Champ who flew up the hill to catch him in the RSA and although he has not run since, he remains one of the leading contenders for the Gold Cup.

Champ flew up the hill in the RSA to catch Minella Indo and Allaho
Champ flew up the hill in the RSA to catch Minella Indo and Allaho (Andrew Matthews/PA)
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Henderson also has last year’s narrow runner-up Santini, winless in two outings so far this season, while Gordon Elliott is keen to get another run into Delta Work, Samcro and Presenting Percy after they failed to trouble the judge over Christmas.

Frodon booked his spot in the Gold Cup when making all the running in the King George VI Chase on Boxing Day under Bryony Frost and has been entered by Paul Nicholls along with Cyrname and Real Steel.

Waiting Patiently ran a fine race for North Yorkshire trainer Ruth Jefferson at Kempton to chase Frodon home, on what was his first racecourse appearance in over a year.

Outlining options for her stable star, Jefferson said: “Waiting Patiently is very well at home and has come out of the King George absolutely bouncing.

“We have decided to enter him in all of the possible targets at the Cheltenham Festival just to keep our options open – at least for now. The Champion Chase, Ryanair Chase and the Gold Cup are all championship races and it just makes sense at this stage to keep him in all three.

Waiting Patiently will have plenty of options at Cheltenham
Waiting Patiently will have plenty of options at Cheltenham (Julian Herbert/PA)

“We still don’t know how far he will be dropped back down in trip so the Champion Chase comes into the equation and he has got an entry for that.

“The Ryanair Chase is obviously another race to consider, whilst the Gold Cup, given these uncertain times, could be an interesting race.

“With so much going on, entering in all three races just keeps our options open and then we’re not tied down about having to go for one particular race.

“He will probably run again before Cheltenham, but where we go is something we are still discussing. The Ascot Chase was originally the race I had pencilled him in for, but I don’t know whether that will then be too close to Cheltenham and it therefore becomes difficult to run in both.

“With that in mind, I am not sure where we will go next at the moment, but I would like to get another run into him before Cheltenham.”

Bristol De Mai won his third Betfair Chase in November and may have another crack at a race in which he finished third in 2019 before possibly heading for the Grand National.

Trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies said: “Bristol De Mai is fine, he has just been ticking over since Haydock so he is fresh and well.

“He didn’t win this Betfair Chase by as far as his others, but it was a very classy field he beat and he did it well.

“I don’t know whether he goes to the Cotswold Chase. He could go there or wait. It’s a bit up in the air.

“I would like to look at the Gold Cup, but if all the others turn up we might side-step it and go for the National.

“He was third in it (Gold Cup) before and he is right up there on ratings. He has been to the Gold Cup a few times, but has not won it yet. If he goes there hopefully he can prove them all wrong this year.”

Saint Calvados, Lostintranslation, Native River and Imperial Aura and among a host of other interesting possibles.

Mullins more than happy with Al Boum Photo after Tramore return

Willie Mullins reports dual Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Al Boum Photo to have come out of his traditional season-opener at Tramore in great heart.

The nine-year-old will be bidding to join an elite list of National Hunt greats in March, with Golden Miller (five times), Cottage Rake, Arkle and Best Mate the only horses to have won the blue riband more than twice.

Minutes after he crossed the line on New Year’s Day, Mullins was rather nonplussed with the performance and briefly contemplated another run before March – but on reflection he feels the run was better than it appeared.

“He seems great after his run,” said Mullins, speaking at Fairyhouse on Sunday.

“I think the longer break, with not going to Punchestown, he was a bit more ring-rusty than we expected.

“The first two miles of the race were run at two-mile pace with Djingle cutting out a fast pace.

“When we put it all together I was much happier when I analysed it at home than I was leaving the racetrack.

“He didn’t stop going through the line. He just idled mid-race when he had no company around him. Danny (Mullins) was way ahead on Acapella Bourgeois.

“He just idled, but once he got close to him around the home turn, to beat a 150 horse 19 lengths could be as good as any performance over Christmas.”

Noel Meade enjoys birthday winner as Bloke delivers at Cork

Hes A Hardy Bloke provided Noel Meade with a winner on his 70th birthday with victory in the opening race at Cork on Saturday.

The Tu Va handler has established himself as one of the great Irish National Hunt trainers of the modern era since saddling his first winner some 50 years ago – and has won the Irish trainers’ title on multiple occasions.

Meade’s many Grade One winners include Harchibald, Go Native, Pandorama and Road To Riches.

Carrying the colours of six-times Cheltenham Festival-winning mare Quevega, Hes A Hardy Bloke was the 11-8 favourite for the GAIN Rated Novice Hurdle – and was not hard pressed to beat Takarengo by four lengths in the hands of Sean Flanagan.

The jockey said: “Happy days – it’s nice to get one for the birthday boy!

“The have gone a really nice gallop in the ground. He is a horse we thought had a very high cruising speed, but he has got through the ground quite well and has done it easily.”

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The Mouse Morris-trained Gentlemansgame ran out a wide-margin winner of the CorkRacecourse.ie Maiden Hurdle.

A 250,000 euros purchase two months ago after impressing on his sole start in the point-to-point field, the grey looked an exciting recruit judged on this 21-length demolition job under Rachael Blackmore.

“He is a real chaser – he is a good, genuine type of horse who loves jumping and should have a nice future over fences,” said Morris.

“He wouldn’t show you a whole lot at home. We’ll now talk to Robcour (owner Brian Acheson) and see what they want to do.”

Willie Mullins continued his fantastic run of form, with the champion trainer’s nephew Danny Mullins steering Koshari to glory in the GAIN Handicap Hurdle.

The 4-1 shot defied a lengthy absence of 875 days to score by three and a half lengths from Fairyhill Run.

“It was nice to get it and it’s a proper training performance from Willie to have him back here in that shape after a long lay-off,” said the winning rider.

“He has done well physically from his break, did it well today and hopefully he can pick up a few more races.”

Velvet Elvis was an 11-8 winner of the Happy New Year From All At Cork Maiden Hurdle for Tom Gibney and Darragh O’Keeffe, before Robert Tyner and Phillip Enright combined to land the Thanks To All The Frontline Workers Beginners Chase with even-money shot Exit To The West.

Enright said: “She was entitled to do that on her form – she jumps and she stays and is proven on her two chase runs.

“She didn’t really do any more than you’d expect with the type of race it was.”

Robert Widger is eyeing high-profile races at Leopardstown and Cheltenham for Treacysenniscorthy after claiming top honours in the GAIN Handicap Chase, with Kevin Brouder the winning rider.

Widger said: “He’s racing off a lower mark than his hurdles rating and probably a lot of those horses today were exposed, so off his hurdles mark you’d have given him a chance.

“The Leopardstown Chase is one aim and there’s a Grand National trial at Naas over three miles and four furlongs in March. We’ll aim him for Leopardstown and if the ground is OK he’ll go for that.

“We half-thought he might be entitled to a little squeak in something like the Kim Muir at Cheltenham – three miles and two furlongs on better ground would suit him.”

Dot Love’s Betty Zane was a surprise 25-1 winner of the concluding bumper.

Minella Escape impresses with Tramore triumph

Minella Escape looks sure to go on to bigger and better things after making it third time lucky over hurdles at Tramore.

A £100,000 recruit from the Irish point-to-point field, Henry de Bromhead’s charge fell at the final flight when odds-on for his hurdling bow at Punchestown in September, before filling the runner-up spot at Navan a month ago.

With the Willie Mullins-trained French recruit Gorki D’airy all the rage as the 5-4 favourite, Minella Escape was second best in the market for the Goodbye 2020 Hello 2021 Maiden Hurdle at 2-1, but proved seven lengths too strong under Rachael Blackmore.

De Bromhead said: “He was a little bit unlucky the first day. He was off for a bit before Navan and I wonder did that just catch him out.

“I’m delighted to get a winner here. He is a lovely horse, he won his point-to-point well and the way he jumped there, you’d be looking forward to a fence with him in time.”

Despite Gorki D’airy’s defeat, Mullins still enjoyed a double on the card, with the victory of dual Gold Cup hero Al Boum Photo preceded by a winning debut over obstacles for Mr Coldstone in the David Flynn Construction Maiden Hurdle.

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The 8-1 shot did not race beyond seven furlongs in three outings on the Flat for Johnny Murtagh two years ago, but proved he has the stamina for jumping with a near three-length verdict on his return from a lengthy absence under Paul Townend.

“That was a nice performance. Paul said he jumped well and he took a good blow, so he thinks he will improve again. We will just go up in grade with him now,” said Mullins.

“I’m very happy to see him coming off three runs on the Flat over less than seven furlongs to be able to settle back into jump racing. I thought that might be a big ask for him on his first run over hurdles, but he did it well and Paul was very happy with him.

“He looks a nice, strong type and he will probably be a nice dual-purpose horse.”

Shakeytry justified 7-2 favouritism in the Core Bullion Traders Handicap Hurdle for trainer Edward O’Grady and jockey Phillip Enright.

Shakeytry in action at Tramore
Shakeytry in action at Tramore (PA)

O’Grady said: “It was his first run in a long time at Cork the last day and it was natural for him to come on for that. It wasn’t a particularly strong race today and it all seemed to work out well.

“He has very rarely been out of the first four and that is his third win today. The boys in the yard have done a great job with him because he hasn’t got great legs. They deserve great credit.

“Maybe we will go for another hurdle with him now before he goes back over fences.”

Days after his last-gasp victory aboard A Plus Tard in the Savills Chase at Leopardstown, jockey Darragh O’Keeffe was once again seen to good effect as he steered Andrew McNamara’s Lessofdnegativity to a narrow victory in the Tramore Medical Clinic Handicap Hurdle.

Robbie McNamara, representing his father, said: “He’s had a little wind operation since his last run. We just rode him a bit different today and gave him more of a chance early. Darragh took his time and gave him a brilliant ride – he is worth his weight in gold.

“He (Lessofdnegativity) is a half-brother to Joe Farrell, who won the Scottish National. He has a good, staying Irish pedigree and chasing will be his game.”

John McConnell’s Itsalonglongroad (7-2) landed the VS Direct No Limits Marketing Rated Novice Chase under 5lb claimer Simon Torrens.

The concluding Tom Carroll Memorial Handicap Chase went to Whoyakodding (14-1), trained by Garrett Ahern and ridden by James O’Sullivan.

Al Boum Photo claims Tramore hat-trick on seasonal bow

All roads lead back to Cheltenham in March for Al Boum Photo after the dual Gold Cup hero registered a third successive victory in the Savills New Year’s Day Chase at Tramore.

The Willie Mullins-trained nine-year-old lined up for the extended two-mile-five-furlong contest almost by accident two years ago, after sidestepping the Savills Chase at Leopardstown and subsequently the Irish Gold Cup on account of unsuitably fast ground.

With Al Boum Photo finally ending his trainer’s long wait for a Gold Cup winner in the Cotswolds a couple months later, Mullins followed the same route again last season, and his charge again produced the goods on the biggest stage of all.

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Making his first competitive appearance since his latest triumph in the blue riband last March, Paul Townend’s mount appeared to face a relatively straightforward task, with just four inferior rivals in opposition.

Djingle set a sound gallop from flag-fall, before giving best with a circuit to run, after which last year’s runner-up Acapella Bourgeois and his stable companion Al Boum Photo were the only two that counted.

Townend never looked entirely happy in the saddle aboard the 2-9 favourite, but he took over the lead from his tiring stablemate rounding the home turn and ultimately passed the post 19 with lengths in hand.

Paddy Power make Al Boum Photo the 100-30 favourite from 9-2 to become the first triple Gold Cup winner since Best Mate – and Mullins confirmed his intention to once again head to Prestbury Park without another run.

He said: “It’s a big relief. It was nerve-wracking watching him going around there. The sun was a worry and it probably cost Brahma Bull (unseated rider at second fence).

“He jumped very well and Paul said he was just so idle on his own in the middle of the race, he didn’t even think he was in race. He had to roust him up down the back, but once he got racing he was fine. Lack of company was a bigger worry for Paul than anything else.

“The ground is very, very testing out there. We are happy with his performance, he did what he was asked to do. We just hope now that he comes out of it sound and well and we will plan for the Festival. That’s the first hurdle jumped anyway.

“Halfway around today I was thinking it would have been easier to go to Leopardstown because there would be less focus on him. When you come here, you have to win and you have to win nicely and he did all those things.

“I usually like to do what has worked before and hopefully it will work again. A lot of ours are improving for their first run of the year and I’m expecting him to do the same.”

Bachasson keeps up Mullins’ winning streak

Bachasson rounded off a fantastic end to 2020 for Willie Mullins when completing a New Year’s Eve double for the champion trainer at Punchestown.

The Closutton handler racked up a staggering tally of 16 winners in the space of four days at Leopardstown and Limerick – with Sharjah, Monkfish and Chacun Pour Soi among his six Grade One heroes.

The feature event on the final day of the year was the tote.ie Punchestown Hurdle, a race Mullins had won in each of the three previous years, including with Bachasson in 2018.

The grey was the 30-100 favourite to repeat the feat in the hands of champion jockey Paul Townend, having made a successful start to his campaign in the Clonmel Oil Chase in mid-November.

Those who took the prohibitive odds can have had few concerns, with Bachasson leading from flag-fall and cruising to a six-and-a-half-length verdict over stablemate Scarpeta.

Mullins said: “I was hoping he’d jump a bit better, but Paul said he was just idle out in front on his own.

“We’ll mix it between hurdles and fences for the rest of the season, and we’ll probably keep him down the country over fences.

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“He’s not a big horse, but it’s the size of the heart that counts and not the size of the horse.”

Mullins had earlier saddled 10-1 shot Stones And Roses to win the tote.ie Home Of The Placepot Handicap Chase, with Brian Hayes the winning rider this time.

“He’s improving and is a real old-fashioned staying chaser. Extended trips are what he likes, and he jumps for fun,” said Mullins.

“He’ll probably come back here for the Grand National Trial.

“I’m delighted to give Brian a winner. He’s an integral part of our yard for schooling and riding work.”

Longhouse Poet returns to the Punchestown winner's enclosure
Longhouse Poet returns to the Punchestown winner’s enclosure (Alan Magee/PA)

Longhouse Poet opened his account over fences with a determined display in the Join tote.ie With A 10 Euro Risk Free Bet Beginners Chase.

Placed twice at Grade One level in novice hurdles last season, behind Envoi Allen and Latest Exhibition, the Yeats gelding disappointed on his chasing bow here in October before finishing second and third in successive races at Naas.

Martin Brassil’s charge was a 100-30 chance for his latest assignment under Mark Walsh, and dug deep from the home turn to get the better of a protracted duel with Run Wild Fred by a length and a half.

“He’s a horse that we always thought would need a trip, and he handles the ground. He had the experience from his few runs over fences – and he was fit,” said Brassil.

“He’s not a Grade One horse, so we may look at novice handicaps in the spring over an extended trip.”

Riviere D'Etel in the snow at Punchestown
Riviere D’Etel in the snow at Punchestown (Alan Magee/PA)

French recruit Riviere D’Etel made a successful Irish debut for Gordon Elliott in the Tote Supporting Punchestown 3-Y-O Maiden Hurdle.

Runner-up in a Listed event at Auteuil on her latest competitive appearance in September, the daughter of Martaline comfortably landed prohibitive odds of 8-15 in the hands of Jack Kennedy.

The jockey said: “She’s going to have to step up in class now, but she couldn’t have done any more today.”

Elliott doubled up in the bumper with the Jamie Codd-ridden Humble Glory (9-4).

Jessica Harrington and Sean O’Keeffe combined to land the Tote Supporting Irish Racing Handicap Hurdle with Wingin A Prayer (3-1), while the Adare Manor Opportunity Handicap Hurdle went to John Morrison’s Danegeld (7-1), ridden by Mike O’Connor.

Al Boum all set for Tramore hat-trick bid

Willie Mullins is looking forward to seeing his dual Gold Cup hero Al Boum Photo bid for a hat-trick in the Savills New Year’s Day Chase at Tramore.

The Buck’s Boum gelding ended up running in the two-mile-five-furlong contest almost by accident two seasons ago, after sidestepping the Savills Chase at Leopardstown the previous week on account of unsuitably quick ground.

With the same issue ruling him out of a subsequent run in the Irish Gold Cup, Al Boum Photo lined up at Cheltenham as no more than a lively outsider but finally provided his trainer with an elusive first victory in the blue riband under Paul Townend.

Mullins’ decision to follow the same route last season again paid off in the Cotswolds in March – and Al Boum Photo will be a red-hot favourite once more to make a successful comeback at the seaside venue on Friday.

Mullins said: “It’s a good preparation. I brought him down there for the proper winter jumping ground, which he enjoys, and it worked two years running. Hopefully it will work again this year.

“We’ve started off plenty of horses that have won at Cheltenham and other big venues in Tramore. We always get very nice jumping ground down there. We get safe jumping ground, and that’s key.

Acapella Bourgeois also represents Mullins
Acapella Bourgeois also represents Mullins (Niall Carson/PA)

“I think that’s key to the preparation of any any jumping horse, and they learn a lot at Tramore. You’re up and down and round – it’s no different from Cheltenham. You’re either turning or jumping – and they learn a good bit there that they might not learn on big, flat tracks.”

Al Boum Photo faces just four rivals in the Grade Three contest, with Mullins also fielding last year’s runner-up Acapella Bourgeois and Brahma Bull – who was last seen chasing home leading Gold Cup hope Minella Indo at Navan.

John Queally’s Djingle and the Andrew McNamara-trained I’m A Game Changer complete the quintet.

Monkfish just too strong for Latest Exhibition again

Monkfish again outdid his old rival Latest Exhibition in the Neville Hotels Novice Chase at Leopardstown.

There was very little between the pair when Monkfish just prevailed in the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival in March, and they dominated the finish in this Grade One too.

Paul Nolan’s Latest Exhibition arrived on the back of a slightly disappointing defeat in Grade Two company last time out, having won on his chasing debut, but he did have the benefit of one extra run over fences.

Monkfish took over the running just after halfway for Paul Townend – and just as he had on his chasing bow, jumped with aplomb.

However, while at one stage it looked like he may just pull further clear, Bryan Cooper moved Latest Exhibition up alongside him on the run to the second last.

There was nothing between them as they raced at full pelt around the final bend and approached the last fence – and both met it on a decent stride.

After the last Monkfish (1-2 favourite) just had a bit more speed, though, and Willie Mullins’ giant pulled three lengths clear as the champion trainer registered yet another notable Christmas success.

The winner was trimmed to 15-8 from 11-4 for the three-mile Grade One at Cheltenham in March.

“It was a very good performance from a horse having his second run over fences, to take on more experienced rivals at a Grade One track. I was very pleased with that,” said Mullins.

“It didn’t seem to be a problem – even when he was meeting one wrong, he shortened himself. He seems to be a natural over fences.

“There was a lot of pressure on him going to the last, with Latest Exhibition -who has a bit more experience than him. He pulled himself together, fought his way over it, and he just had a little bit in reserve.

“I’d imagine we’ll look at the Flogas Chase. We’ll focus on that first – and if all goes well we can look at Cheltenham after that.”