This weekend’s action in the UK, whilst not short of top-class fare with Sandown’s Scilly Isles and Wetherby’s Towton, Buveur D’Air bidding to get back to winning ways in the Contenders Hurdle the highlights of Saturday’s racing and the promising Angels Breath a short-price to win the Supreme Scottish Trial Novices’ Hurdle at Musselburgh, must play second fiddle to the racing from over the Irish Sea. February 2nd and 3rd are home to the second Dublin Racing Festival, a two-day feast featuring eight Grade Ones and prize money of over €1.8 million, increased by €300,000 this year. A high-class amalgamation of Leopardstown’s key winter races, drawn together to providee a scintillating weekend of action and marking the first of four festivals that closes off the National Hunt season, comprising action here, Cheltenham, Aintree and Punchestown. Our own tips and previews will be available for the Dublin Racing Festival the evening before racing.
12.50pm The Nathaniel Lacy & Partners Solicitors Novice Hurdle (Grade 1) 2m6f – The market is headed by Gordon Elliott’s unbeaten Battleoverdoyen, who heads the market for the Albert Bartlett. This acts as a trial for the latter, last year’s winner Tower Bridge finishing fifth in March.
1.25pm The BHP Insurance Irish Champion Hurdle (Grade 1) 2m – Four of the six runners owned by Gigginstown, their hand the strongest with Apple’s Jade, stepping down in trip after two victories over two-miles-four and the latest over three-miles. Connections have said that it is most probable that she will be seen in the Mares’ Hurdle at Cheltenham, however if she hacks up in this, then they will have something about which to think. Of course, Willie Mullins’ Melon and last year’s winner Supasundae trained by Jessie Harrington, will make this a true test of her ability.
3.10pm The Ladbrokes Dublin Steeplechase (Grade 1) 2m1f – Min, the winner last year, heads the market this year, with stablemate and seasonal enigma Footpad second in the betting. This race also contains two British raiders, with Saint Calvados and Simply Ned both available at each-way prices, something of a surprise considering that the pair have both put Footpad to the sword already this season.
3.45pm The Frank Ward Solicitors Arkle Novice Chase (Grade 1) 2m1f – Won last year by Footpad, Joseph O’Brien’s Le Richebourg is a warm order to complete a Grade One double, having won the Racing Post Novice Chase on St. Stephen’s Day. Hardline is similarly aiming to complete a similar feat, and Mengli Khan, beaten six-lengths last-time, is bidding to overturn the form with the likely favourite. The British are represented with Gary Moore’s Knocknanuss.
1.15pm The Tattersalls Ireland Spring Juvenile Hurdle (Grade 1) 2m – Potentially the juvenile race of the season, this forms an important pointer for the Supreme, with the high-class flat performer Sir Erec having his second start over hurdles, bidding to confirm form with Willie Mullins’ Tiger Tap Tap who he beat by just a neck on their respective hurdling debuts.
1.50pm The Chanelle Pharma Novice Hurdle (Grade 1) 2m – A tight market featuring runners from the Mullins’ and Elliott stable, Aramon and Klassical Dream heading the former’s challengers, wishing to depose Gordon Elliott who won this last year with Samcro. His main hope appears to be Vision D’Honeur, who was six-lengths behind Klassical Dream on stable debut, before taking a step forward to score by four-lengths.
3.00pm The Flogas Novice Steeplechase (Grade 1) 2m5f – Two unbeaten chasers go head to head in this. Delta Work has to give Warren Greatrex’s La Bague Au Roi seven-pounds, and could have a hard job in doing so, this the mare’s seasonal highlight given her unlikeliness to go to Cheltenham. Winter Escape, formerly trained by Alan King, has been a reformed character for Aidan Howard, winning his last three, and he heads the main challengers.
3.35pm Unibet Irish Gold Cup (Grade 1) 3m – The highlight of a fabulous weekend’s racing, this year’s edition looks as high-class as ever. Last year’s race was won rather fortuitously by Edwulf, who is the outsider of the field this year. Road To Respect, who was so unlucky when last seen, bids to overturn the form of the Savills Chase with winner Kemboy, who is almost available at the same price here as he is for March as is the competitive nature of this race, and the second Monalee. Al Boum Photo and Bellshill are other high-class runners for the Mullins’ yard who are in with a shout.
The Dublin Racing Festival provides a fantastic two-days of racing, and it would be foolish to describe it as merely a trials’ weekend for Cheltenham. Nevertheless, the weekend provides a series of clues that can help us all come March-time. Last year saw Footpad scoop the Arkle double, Samcro scored here before following up in Ballymore, Mr Adjudicator and Farclas finished first and second in the Juvenile Hurdle, form that was reversed in the Triumph, and Relegate win the Champion Bumper having won the last race on the two-day card. Additionally to that, Bleu Berry finished seventeenth in the then Coral Hurdle before winning the Coral Cup upped in trip to two-miles-five. Other notable runners included Min who won the Dublin Chase before finishing second in the Champion Chase, the winner of the Flogas, Monalee, placed in the RSA, and Supasundae who won the Irish Champion Hurdle before finishing second in the Stayers’.
The 2018 edition of the Irish Gold Cup contained four of the runners in Cheltenham’s Gold Cup. Outlander finished a neck down in second before being pulled up in March. Last year’s third Djakadam finished fifth, and Killultagh Vic who was an unlucky faller at the last failed to make amends in March. Anibale Fly atoned for a similarly late fall by finishing third before placing in the Grand National. This year should prove to be even more competitive, and it would be no surprise if we were to see one of the runners do the double, emulating Sizing John who completed that memorable feat in 2017. You can view our own Cheltenham Clues here, which are published weekly.
British challenge –
Last year’s British challenge was rather pitiful, particularly in comparison to the British raiders at the Irish Champions’ Weekend on the flat. The sole runner of note, who returns this year, was Simply Ned who placed in the Dublin Chase. The best of the rest was Lady Buttons, who finished fourth in the Mares’ Handicap Hurdle for Philip Kirby. Minella Rocco fell in the Irish Gold Cup, Shantou Bob finished 10th in a handicap for Warren Greatrex, and Defi Du Seuil was comfortably held in seventh in the Champion Hurdle.
This year’s challenge is similarly thin on the ground, although it’s fair to say it is a lot stronger in its depth. Saint Calvados is one of two raiders in the Ladbrokes Dublin Chase. He made a very pleasing reappearance at Naas, putting Willie Mullins’ charge in trouble before he fell. The other is Simply Ned, who was second last year behind Min, who is twice a Grade One winner over course and distance. Nicky Richards also saddles Duke Of Navan in the Matheson Handicap Chase, who is dangerously weighted if returning to form.
Gary Moore’s Knocknanuss runs in the Frank War Solicitors Arkle Novice Chase. He was a respectable seven-length second behind Master Dino last-time, and whilst this is harder still, there is a lot to like about his profile. Another intriguing raider is the Warren Greatrex-trained La Bague Au Roi. She is three-from-three over fences, the latest a Grade One at Kempton.
It remains disconcerting to see that there are only five British raiders. In the same weekend we see Buveur D’Air aimed at a Listed race for £17,085 instead of running in the Irish Champion Hurdle for a possible €98.875, and the same stable’s Angels Breath denied a tilt at over €70,000 in favour of around £13,000 at Musselburgh. Irish horses and trainers have made a habit of targeting the UK’s valuable races, so why should the British trainers not do the same?
Those worried about the lack of time to prepare their runners should take stock of the achievement of Jessie Harrington, who ran Supasundae four-times in the space of two-and-a-half months in 2018, winning the Irish Champion Hurdle before placing in the Stayers’ and Aintree Hurdle, and then returning to Ireland to win the Punchestown Champion Hurdle just two weeks later, collecting around €400,000. A remarkable feat of modern training, however evidently not an impossible one, and one that British trainers should attempt to emulate. Nevertheless, the shortfall in British raiders does not distract from what is one of the finest two-day festivals available in all of racing.