Saturday’s meeting at Leopardstown will give us an idea of Irish hopes for next month’s Cheltenham Festival, and with four Grade One’s up for decision, the feature event the Hennessy sees Gold Cup hopes Flemenstar and Sir Des Champs take on one another.
Spring Juvenile Hurdle (Grade 1)
The opener sees Champion trainer Willie Mullins with a strong hand. Indeed, a case may be made for the Bagenalstown handler claiming all four Grade One races on the card. In a race that has so often been used as a prep for the Triumph Hurdle, Diakali and Blood Cotil look to be the two main protagonists here, though the previous’ participation remains in doubt. Blood Cotil didn’t come out of second gear when comfortably having three lengths in hand over Stockton’s Wing on Stephen’s Day over the same course and distance. Ruacanaimpressed for John Ferguson in taking the Grade One Juvenile Hurdle at Chepstow last month and may represent some each-way value. I do like the look of OUR CONOR though for Dessie Hughes. He made all of the running in a Grade 3 event in early December and has not been seen since. Though the ground may be a bit testing, his two month lay-off could prove to be beneficial and gets the nod.
Deloitte Novice Hurdle (Grade 1)
With the withdrawal of Melodic Rendezvous in favour of a prep run at Exeter tomorrow instead, this is a renewal which sees three of the leading contenders for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle go to post. Waaheb never seems to run a bad race and only found the brilliant Jezki, current market leader for the Festival’s opener, better over the Christmas. Last year’s Champion Bumper winner Champagne Fever has flattered to deceive at times this season, and on the basis of his last run out in the Slaney in early January where he was beaten forty lengths, others seem more favourable. While I do think that the 6-year-old will come on from that run, he will need to produce something special to see off UN ATOUT. Having missed last year’s Festival, Willie Mullins has got him in tip-top shape this year. He blitzed the field at Naas three weeks ago by twenty lengths and looks the class horse here.
Dr. P.J. Moriarty Novice Chase (Grade 1)
Currently holding favouritism or the second-favourite for 14 of the 27 races at the Cheltenham Festival, Willie Mullins is a man at the top of his powers. In this 2 mile 5 renewal, Boston Bob makes just his second run since finishing runner-up in last year’s Albert Bartlett when sent off favourite. Having won on his chasing debut back in December, owners Andrea and Graham Wylie will be hoping Mullins has him back to his best here. The same owner-trainer combination saddle the much-fancied BACK IN FOCUS. His battling performance under a terrific ride from Ruby Walsh to pip Aupcharlie in the Topaz at the same venue over the Christmas showed he has bags of guts and that just tips the balance in his favour. Mikael D’Haguenet is a horse that is so often a hot topic of debate. Despite two wins this term, he has a tendency to snatch at fences. There is no questioning the horse has class, as was shown last time out when he was comfortable as you like over 2 ½ miles at Thurles. If he gets his jumping right, who knows? Lyreen Legend looked to be going well when falling three out in the Topaz on his last run, but I do feel he may have found one or two slightly better than him that time out. He looks like a stayer so the National Hunt Chase may be a possibility for him in the future. Lord Windermere has not been out of the first two all season for Jim Culloty and will feature for the minor prizes.
Hennessy Gold Cup (Grade 1)
The big event of the day sees two of Ireland’s leading Gold cup hopes do battle. It’s been seven years since Ireland won the Festival’s blue riband event and this three mile chase, the most prestigious Grade One event in the country will go a long way to telling us if we can regain that crown. Willie Mullins holds a prestigious recent record in the Hennessy. The mercurial Florida Pearl won the first of his four Hennessy’s here in 1999, while last year Quel Esprit followed Kempes in 2011 into the winners’ enclosure. Last year’s champion Quel Esprit has not had a run since last May in France and will be looking to regain some form. Mullins will have higher hopes for one-time Gold Cup favourite Sir Des Champs. Beaten into fourth by Tidal Bay in the Lexus over Christmas, connections will be hoping for a better performance this time out. A horse who was won at Cheltenham in the past two year, it would not surprise me in the slightest if he were to return there this year on the grandest stage of them all. My preference does go to FLEMENSTAR here. Peter Casey has enjoyed tremendous success with him all season, not to mention gaining somewhat of a cult status as a result of some inconspicuous post-race interviews as a result. He looked for the entire world the winner in the Lexus but never picked up coming into the home straight. With this just his second start over three miles, that run should bring him on leaps and bounds. Casey has hinted at using earplugs as he got a bit wound up in the parade ring before the Lexus. On his last outing, many judged him to be a non-stayer, with some bookies removing him from Gold Cup betting in favour of a crack at the shorter Ryanair. I think that was a touch harsh given his inexperience over the trip. Only two horses have ever completed the Hennessy-Cheltenham Gold Cup double, Jodami in 1993 and Imperial Call three years later. Bog Warrior takes his impressive form over the smaller obstacles into the race as connections will use this as preparation before a crack at next month’s World Hurdle.
Others of note on the rest of the card, Supreme Carolina looks a solid bet in the mares hurdle. She stayed on well here at Christmas for Ruby and Willie Mullins, and the extra quarter of mile today can see her take the spoils. Salsify will be hoping to get the better of Tammy Hill in the three mile chase having been turned over on his last two outings, while in the 3.50 Tennis Cap will be out to make it a day to remember for Willie Mullins as he looks to add to an impressive showing at Naas recently.