At the outset, an admission – traditionally the Thursday of The Festival hasn’t been too kind to me. Then again, if you’re not in, you definitely won’t win. So here we go…
MARSH NOVICES CHASE
One name which jumps of the race card at you almost immediately is that of FAUGHEEN. The ‘People’s Champion’ was a title first affixed, to my knowledge, to Danoli many years ago. Since then, Hurricane Fly, Istabraq and most recently Tiger Roll and Envoi Allen are among those to garner similar status.
Rich Ricci’s iconic 12-year-old is on a par with any of them, at the very least. Many people, if they were fortunate enough to own even a hair in the backside of such a superstar would surely have retired him given all that he has already achieved in the sport. However, a few thoughts abound here.
Willie Mullins is a genius at almost everything he does, but if there’s one thing that stands out, to me at least, it’s his ability to keep horses going into their twilight years. Then, there’s the old adage about horses telling you themselves whether they’ve had enough or not. Well, with the star commonly know as’The Machine’ has taken to chasing like a duck to water. And one need only had to see and hear the reception Patrick Mullins and his partner received at Limerick over Christmas to know how much he mans to people.
Not surprisingly, the Carlow man is mob handed in the contest. Tornado Flyer is possibly the only one of his that could be ruled out. MELON and BAPAUME would be have chances in their own right, while to my mind SAMCRO may be the forgotten horse in the contest. With the Henderson horses remaining in sparkling form, a chance will be taken on MISTER FISHER to be fighting out the finish.
Last year’s victor, SIRE DU BERLAIS comes back to defend his title and, off a 3lb higher mark cannot be discounted. That, along with the fact that Barry Geraghty has chosen him from the McManus battalion, and the inclination that he was prepared specifically for this race must be noted.
With Willie Mullins not having a representative in the field, Paul Townend is an interesting booking aboard Colm Murphy’s RELEGATE. The mare, a former winner of the Champion Bumper, was, of course, formerly trained in Closutton. There is, however, Mullins representation, in the form of ROCKET LAD trained by Emmet. Don’t be at all surprised if that one outruns its current odds of 33/1.
Skandiburg, from the Olly Murphy yard, has long looked like a gelding capable of doing great things. It took the 6-year-old a good while to get his head in front, but, having done so, he then followed up. Off a nice racing weight, he certainly can’t be excluded from calculations. Again, however, I’m drawn to a Henderson runner – this time WELSH SAINT.
The 6-year-old evidently relishes cut in the ground, and with the form which ties in with Protektorat who ran a fine race in defeat on Wednesday, he looks sure to be a big player.
I always think this race doesn’t get the respect it deserves. However, this year may be different. In my view primarily due to the presence A PLUS TARD in the field. Given the form that Cheevley Park, Henry De Bromhead and Rachael Blackmore have been in of late, the son of Kapgarde was always likely to figure prominently in any assessment of this renewal. However, even without those factors boosting his likability, he’s hard to get away from anyway.
His form, in putting clear daylight between himself and Chacun Pour Soi looked very impressive at the time. And though the latter was a very unfortunate non runner in the Queen Mother, his subsequent triumph over stable mate MIN had him deservedly billed as a leading contender .
The last-named Mullins inmate cannot be dismissed either. At times, the Ricci-owned animal has looked in and out, but, as his run behind Chacun demonstrated, there still remains immense talent under the bonnet.
Similar sentiments can be ascribed to last term’s winner FRODON. Day 2 also proved the sometimes form can go out the window simply because Paul Nicholls is a genius at having horses ready for when they’re needed most. That said, the old maxim of ‘If it aint broke don’t fix it’ will be adhered to here – Henry and Rachael to deliver again!
A bit like the Queen Mother Champion Chase, the build up to this race has been dominated by one horse, PAISLEY PARK. As the two mile main event proved, though, there’s no such thing as a foregone conclusion. Even if the case for it being so here seems even more clear cut than in the aforementioned chase.
To me at least, there are strong echoes of how the mighty Big Buck’s was once campaigned during his spell of dominance in this division. Ran sparingly but always primed for his big day. A race is still there to be run however and in L’AMI SERGE, CITY ISLAND and PENHILL there are enough talented performers there to take up any slack were favourite to have an off day.
That seems highly unlikely, mind you, and with Emma Lavelle’a charge having a fondness for coming from off the pace, if the going remains on the soft side that should play right into the market leader’s hands.
2M 4F HANDICAP CHASE
A very wise individual imparted a timeless piece of advice a long time ago – “There’s no sentiment in betting”. Occasionally though, it’s impossible not to let the heart rule the head. Think of equine greats such as Best Mate, Kauto Star, Hurricane Fly, Moscow Flyer – this list could be endless. The point is, there are some steeds that command special places in the hearts of racing folk.
Now, it will probably come as no shock to some that a few Noel Meade-trained representatives will always be atop any such list for me. The highly talented but ‘unique’, to put it extremely mildly, Harchibald and in more recent times SNOW FALCON. There aren’t many more versatile and consistent performers in training anywhere.
From Royal Ascot to Cheltenham to Aintree and all the big festivals here at home, the 10-year-old has danced every dance. Admittedly, this time around he is saddled with top weight, but, the 7lb claim of the stable’s burgeoning conditional Eoin Walsh should offset that to some extent.
Looking at the race objectively however, the eye is unquestionably drawn to Gordon Elliott’s BEN DUNDEE. The Dunsany-owned gelding has long been an animal of immense potential, seldom runs a bad race and could well run into the money here. With the Henderson team not represented here, it could be an opportunity for Willie Mullins to re-enter the limelight, as if he was ever out of it!
So, with him triple-handed here, both BLAZER and ROBIN DE FORRET merit consideration. A chance, however, will be taken on the Dan Skelton-trained OLD GRANGEWOOD for an each way flutter. The son of Central Park more often than not earns himself a payday when turning out.
Stamina won’t be an issue, as was proven by his two most recent victories, one of which was at today’s venue, when he had some decent types in the shape of Saint Calvados and Kalashnikov in behind him. Harry Skelton won’t lack for confidence either after yesterday’s heroics aboard Politilogue.
MARES NOVICES HURDLE
A relatively new addition to the Cheltenham programme but a very welcome one given the amount of talented race mares there are in training these days. To this end, the addition of a mares chase going forward is an even more welcome development.
Not surprisingly, both Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott are mob handed here. Though presently it’s the Blackmore/De Bromhead combination who head the market with MINELLA MELODY. Of the Mullins battalion, COLREEVEY is deservedly the shortest priced while Elliott’s ARD ABHAINN and FLORESSA from the Henderson establishment could also be major players.
However, every so often a horse gets into your head and a keener than normal interest is taken therein. CONCERTISTA is one such steed in this corner. She rocked up at The Festival a year ago, without a run, and went on to finish a very creditable second in the Fred Winter Juvenile Hurdle.
This time around, the French bred has had a couple of outings. Which have only served to embolden fondness for Daryl Jacob’s mount in this seat. Specifically, her third placing in the Paddy Mullins Mares Hurdle at the Dublin Racing Festival. A race won by Black Tears who ran a cracker yesterday.
KIM MUIR CHALLENGE CUP H’CAP CHASE
Another one of my favourite events during the magical four days. Primarily as it is an amateur riders contest which of course means more of Jamie Codd! With that in mind, LA BREUIL is the first to jump off the card as appealing. The wonderful Wexford man basically lifted Ben Pauling’s star home at The Festival last year.
However, given Nicky Henderson’s alacrity at gathering gongs at this fixture CHAMPAGNE PLATINUM must be on any shortlist as well. Especially as the services of Codd’s great rival Derek O’Connor has been enlisted in the famous green and gold hoops. As is fairly routine now, the proprietor of those silks is multiply represented here and Patrick Mullins is a very interesting jockey booking for the Paul Nolan-trained FITZHENRY.
JP is not the only owner multiply represented, mind you, with fellow veteran enthusiast Trevor Hemmings also supplying two of the field. DEISE ABU for whom Philip Hobbs has engaged the services of top pilot in this sphere, Will Biddick, and CLOTH CAP on whom the wily Jonjo O’Neill has deployed Richie Deegan. The latter named gelding undoubtedly has the ability to figure in a race and no big meeting would be complete without a Jonjo moment! A small each way shot will do for me to round off the day.