The Path To Glory: Part Four (Dublin Racing Festival & The Irish Horses)
The abnormally dry autumn and winter in Ireland has led to trainers keeping their best
horses under wraps, reluctant to expose their stable stars to firm ground any more often
than absolutely necessary. But with no let-up in the ground conditions, time is running out
before Cheltenham, and trainers’ hands are being forced: older horses need to run to get fit
and sharp, while younger horses need to gain vital big-race experience. This meant that the
Dublin Racing Festival, the two-day Leopardstown meeting held last weekend, came at the
perfect time. Thankfully, despite the lack of cut in the ground, most of the key players took
their chance. The pecking order among Irish horses in certain divisions – although by no
means all – is notably clearer as a result, and the focus will be on identifying the essential
performances to note with Cheltenham in mind.
The Irish look to have a total stranglehold on the four-year-old division this year, with one
trainer in particular responsible for an embarrassment of juvenile equine riches. Joseph
O’Brien saddled a one-two in the Grade One Spring Juvenile Hurdle at Leopardstown, with
Gardens Of Babylon chasing home Sir Erec. The latter won by six lengths without being
overly extended, and given his extraordinarily strong form on the flat – he was third in the
Long Distance Cup on Champions Day at Ascot, only two lengths behind the mighty
Stradivarius – he is now a short-priced favourite for the Triumph Hurdle in March.
He is rightly that short in the market, because the British challenge looks weak. Remarkably,
O’Brien had already notched another one-two in the other key pointer for March, the
Triumph Trial at Cheltenham in January. Fakir D’Oudairies hammered the opposition,
winning by 13 lengths from stablemate Fine Brunello, with best-of-British Adjali a further
three lengths back. The Brits’ only hope is Paul Nicholls’ unraced (in the UK) wild-card Pic
d’Orhy, who boasts some excellent French form.
There’s no doubt that O’Brien holds all the best cards; the question is how he will play
them in March. Recent comments from race planner Kevin Blake – and market moves –
suggest that Sir Erec may be viewed as such a Triumph Hurdle banker that Fakir D’Oudairies
will take his chance against older horses in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle. With an eight-pound
weight allowance for juveniles, and his obvious love for the Prestbury Park hill, he would have
every chance of landing this bold gamble if it takes place.
Unusually, the current favourites for all three novice hurdles are British horses, which
reflects the lack of an obvious Irish superstar in performances so far this season, but four
horses did advance their claims at Leopardstown over the weekend.
Klassical Dream and Aramon fought out an epic finish over two miles, and Ruby Walsh just
managed to coax the former into heading his rival on the line to land the Grade One prize.
Both Willie Mullins-trained geldings jumped efficiently and travelled strongly throughout,
and with so little to separate them Walsh will have a difficult choice in March. They
will be powerful contenders for the Supreme, a division without a clear British banker.
There was another close finish in the two-mile, six-furlong Grade One on Saturday, where
Joseph O’Brien’s Rhinestone was narrowly defeated by Gordon Elliott’s Commander Of
Fleet. Both horses looked obvious stayers rather than speed merchants, and would be
competitive in the three-mile Albert Bartlett Novice Hurdle rather than the sharper
Ballymore Novice Hurdle at Cheltenham. Commander of Fleet is particularly intriguing; his
trainer was hugely excited about this strapping five year old’s prospects at the beginning of
the season, but he had thus far disappointed over shorter trips. Elliott is a
tremendous judge of talent, so he may possess a touch more class than his JP McManus-
Irish horses dominate the Champion Bumper market, and rightfully so given their impressive
performances so far this season. Envoi Allen is unbeaten in his three bumper starts, and he
landed the Grade Two at Leopardstown for Elliott in fine style. This victory displayed
his battling qualities, with JJ Codd encouraging the big five-year-old to stay on under
pressure. Perhaps more visually striking was Andy Dufresne, another Elliott-trained gelding.
He had all eight of his rivals off the bridle two furlongs from home at Down Royal, and won
by 10 lengths without so much as a reminder from Derek O’Connor. Having said all of that, it
would be brave – and maybe foolish – to bet against Mullins, who has saddled nine of
the last 22 Champion Bumper winners. As usual, his stand-out candidate for the crown
remains hard to discern, even at this late stage.
Arkle Novice Chase
Irish horses are struggling to make an impression in the JLT Novice Chase ante-post market,
especially given that La Bague Au Roi was victorious against her Irish rivals at Leopardstown
in the Flogas Novice Chase. Warren Greatrex says his mare, who prefers flat tracks, remains
“highly unlikely” to run at Cheltenham; even so, Defi du Seuil and Lostintranslation were
both superb in the British JLT trial at Sandown, and the Irish have it all to do.
Over two miles, however, it’s a different story. Joseph O’Brien’s Le Richebourg propelled
himself to Cheltenham Arkle favouritism with his facile win in the Leopardstown equivalent.
After Knocknanuss fell at the second fence, the winner didn’t have much to beat, but this
was an impressive display regardless, backing up previous graded victories. All of his English
adversaries have major question marks against them – see Part Three of this series – while
Le Richebourg is a rock-solid and reliable proposition, and that makes his short price entirely
Last But Not Least – Apple’s Jade
The stand-out performance of the Dublin Racing Festival belonged to Apple’s Jade. So
thorough was her demolition job of proven Grade One performers Melon and Supasundae
in the Irish Champion Hurdle that she may have performed a miracle: changing her owner
Michael O’Leary’s mind! O’Leary had previously stubbornly insisted that the magnificent
mare would be limited to taking on her own sex in March in the Mares’ Hurdle, but he had
to concede that “it would probably be mad not to” run her in the Champion Hurdle after
this extraordinary display. She is now narrow second favourite for the March showpiece
behind two-time champion Buveur d’Air, and if she does line up in top form – she has been
underwhelming twice in March previously – then her seven-pound allowance would make
her hard to beat.
The prospect of this grand showdown, perhaps with the added spectacle of the pair taking
on Mullins’ superb mare Laurina, is enough to make any racing fan impatient for
Tuesday 12 March. Meanwhile, there are plenty more form clues still to be analysed
between now and then, so stay tuned to this column.