It’s one of Ireland’s most prestigious and informative novice hurdles, with numerous winners striking gold at the Cheltenham Festival a month later.
The Grade 1 Deloitte Novice Hurdle is run over a distance of 2m2f and takes place at Leopardstown on Saturday. Established in 1987 the race has gone to some of Ireland’s great hurdlers. Danoli took the event in 1994 before heading for Cheltenham and winning the Sun Alliance (now the Neptune). He became something of a hero in Ireland and went on to win the Aintree Hurdle in 94 and 95.
Istabraq took the race in 1997 before also stepping up in trip at Cheltenham when winning the Royal & Sun Alliance. He went on to dominate the two mile division with many experts viewing him as one of the all-time greats, if not the greatest ever hurdler. He won the Irish Champion four years running and took the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham three times.
In 2002 it was Like-A-Butterfly taking the Deloitte before winning the Supreme at The Festival. The wonderful warrior Brave Inca completed the same double in 2004. Forpadydeplasterer took the race in 2008, but could only finish fourth when stepped up at Cheltenham for the then named Ballymore Properties Novices’ Hurdle. He did return to Cheltenham a year later however, and was victorious in the Arkle Chase.
Dunguib was billed as the next Irish hurdling sensation when sweeping all before him, including the Deloitte, on his way to contesting the Supreme in 2010. Though running a cracker at Cheltenham he was outgunned by Menorah and Get Me Out Of Here, when many felt he had been given a little too much to do. Sadly injury blighted the rest of his career, and we probably never saw the best of Dunguib.
The last three winners of the Deloitte have all been trained by Willie Mullins. Champagne Fever and Vautour took the race on the way to Cheltenham glory in the Supreme. Last year it was Nichols Canyon who impressed in the Leopardstown showpiece before heading to The Festival to contest the Neptune. A change of tactics were employed to ensure he stayed the extended trip, but he finished only third and in hindsight probably ran far too keenly under restraint.
And so to Saturday’s renewal which looks to have attracted another classy line-up. Sure to be run in testing conditions with further heavy rain forecast, Willie Mullins looks set to unleash Bellshill; so far undefeated over hurdles. Owned by Andrea and Graham Wylie, the six-year-old has looked convincing thus far, though the form of his three hurdles victories is somewhat underwhelming. This will undoubtedly be his biggest test to date, and a clash with Yanworth looms on the horizon.
Tombstone looks to be the main challenger tomorrow having run a cracker in defeat at Christmas behind Long Dog in the Future Champions. Trainer Gordon Elliott appeared pretty bullish when writing in his BoyleSports blog: “He's in great form ahead of his run in the Grade 1 Deloitte Novice Hurdle. We're really excited about running him; it's going to be a great race. Willie will probably have two, we'll have one and there'll be a few others. I really think the trip will suit and the ground will suit him so with a bit of luck, he'll do it.”
Sporting the familiar Gigginstown silks, he’s by Robin Des Champs, and as such may well appreciate better ground at Cheltenham should this rain ever stop.
Willie Mullins appears less likely to run Yorkhill, but looks sure to let his Gigginstown contender Petit Mouchoir take his chance. He was less than a length behind Tombstone at Christmas and is likely to be in the shake-up again. Brian Cooper has chosen to ride Elliott’s contender, and the money has come for him during the week.
Though Mullins and Elliott appear to have the race between them, there has been support for the Edward Harty trained Coney Island. He took a maiden hurdle at Christmas and though impressive on that occasion this is a much tougher ask. By Flemensfirth out of a Milan mare, I’d be surprised if he has the gears needed to win this.
For some an encounter with Min awaits at Cheltenham, and for others Yanworth looms large at The Festival. However, for now the focus is to win one of the most prestigious novice hurdles; a race with a rich history and illustrious roll of honour.