This corner learned long ago that, when not based too far from here, Jim Bolger used to begin working his horses for the forthcoming Flat season while Christmas festivities still ensued. He probably still does. Which might explain why he who is now the master of Coolcullen always wracks up plenty of winners early in the season.
While Dermot Weld has, for many years, trained a small string to compete in National Hunt fare, with a great degree of success too, in terms of crossover between flat and NH, that’s been as far as it’s gone from the flat side since Aidan O’Brien began working for Coolmore.
Before that, of course, O’Brien was a multiple times champion trainer in the jumps sphere. His dominance fuelled by such stars as Istabraq and Theatreworld. Since then, Noel Meade and Willie Mullins have been the standard bearers. Indeed, Mullins recently surpassed O’Brien’s record of 156 wins in a season. Don’t bet against him topping 200 before season’s end.
Things might be about to get a lot more competitive though. At some point during the summer, it was noted that O’Brien had entered Brave Hearted – a 4yo Galileo gelding – in a bumper. When the horse failed to appear out, it seemed the idea had been shelved. Far from it. Ballydoyle sent out two runners in a Punchestown bumper last month.
Both Egyptian Warrior and Shield ran decent races but it could hardly be said they set the world alight. Switches began to flicker, though, when the latter duly won a Leopardstown it was clear bigger things were afoot. Things that will start with an O’Brien return to Cheltenham for the first time since the days of Istabraq and end God knows where!
And, it’s in how the return to Cheltenham came about that reference was made to Jim Bolger. You see, Shield booked his plane ticket by getting the better of Dermot Weld’s Grecian Tiger. It was more like a finish you’d see in a Group race on the flat than in a bumper!
The significance of it can’t be understated however. Already, the prospect of O’Brien returning to Prestbury Park will have racing people buzzing. If causing a degree of trepidation for some of them too. The trainer himself will of course have added diesel to the enthusiasm by firstly confirming that Joseph – his son and the outgoing flat champion jockey – will ride and also that he has an albeit small string of horses for the other code!
Ballydoyle lurking on the Cotswolds horizon makes it extremely difficult to shield enthusiasm for the best week of the year. They wouldn’t be going to the lengths they are without thinking Shield has some chance. That said, experience has proven that the Cheltenham Bumper – like most races at the Festival – is something of a lottery.
In looking forward to the epic action, it must be said that this enthusiast’s spark for the event was dampened a little bit – only a little mind you – before it has even begun. Noel Meade’s Monksland and Clondaw Court trained by Willie Mullins were my two big fancies for the meeting and – as happens some high profile performers every year – both have been ruled out by injury.
Still, Cheltenham is Cheltenham, the action is bound to be enthralling and unforgettable. I can never remember the build up being so low key. That’s possibly due to most of the races being so open. There are no such things as certainties in racing but surely Sprinter Sacre must be the nearest thing to one there is.
As ever, most Irish hopes will rest with Willie Mullins. Expect him to begin his impact as early as the opening contest – the Supreme Novices Hurdle – with Un Atout. Hurricane Fly and Pont Alexandre are also among our best chances while if Dessie Hughes’ Our Conor could well be a player in the notoriously trappy Triumph Hurdle if bringing over his best form.
The said contest is undoubtedly the most difficult of the four days to figure out. Due to the huge field therein and the frenetic pace they will go. Yes, there will be huge numbers in most of the races but those in the Triumph Hurdle will be the most inexperienced participants in any heat during the week.
Being honest, as much as it would be hoped some of the Irish representatives might lift the prize, I’ve had a strong fancy for the Paul Nicholls trained Far West for some time and am not of a mind to change at this stage.
On the subject of fancies, from a betting perspective, punters could do a lot worse than speculate a few euro on the following:
Lucky 15 with:
Lucky 15 with:
Sir Des Champs
Each way options: Bog Warrior, Colour Squadron, Shield, First Lieutenant, Rule The World