Cheltenham clues abound at Dublin Racing Festival
Stand by for a host of Cheltenham clues at Leopardstown’s two-day Dublin Racing Festival on Saturday and Sunday (5 & 6 February). First held in 2018, it’s now among the season’s most important fixtures.
Ireland’s leading trainers will be saddling many of their Cheltenham hopes at the two-day extravaganza. Perennial champion Willie Mullins won no less than nine of the meeting’s 15 races last year and he’s guaranteed to have another strong squad ready to go this time.
However, Gordon Elliott and Henry de Bromhead will be seeking to ensure it’s not another Mullins benefit, while Paul Nicholls brings a couple of top-notchers over from his Somerset base.
1.15 Nathaniel Lacy & Partners Solicitors Novice Hurdle (Grade 1) 2m 5f
Several of the leading fancies are stepping up to Grade 1 company after winning maiden hurdles. They include two of Willie Mullins’ three entries, Bronn and Minella Cocooner. Both are around the 8-1 mark with Betfred but Minella Cocooner was easily the more impressive when winning at Navan in December.
Gordon Elliott trains the similarly-named Minella Crooner, who, like the Mullins duo, makes the leap to Grade 1 level after winning a Punchestown maiden hurdle two weeks ago. He’s 8-1 with William Hill to follow up here.
A key race is the Grade 1 novice hurdle at Naas on 2 January, in which Henry de Bromhead’s Grand Jury finished second, 4¼ lengths behind Ginto, with stablemate Hollow Games a close up third and Willie Mullins’ Whatdeawant four lengths further back in fifth. Interestingly, Hollow Games is currently a general 9-4 shot, whereas Grand Jury can be backed at 6-1with Sportnation, the same price as Whatdeawant.
Henry de Bromhead has also entered Journey With Me, winner of all his three starts. He currently shares favouritism with Hollow Games at 9-4. He too is stepping up to Grade 1 level, having won a point-to-point, a bumper and a maiden hurdle, the latter over this course on 29 December.
Joseph O’Brien’s Eric Bloodaxe was sent off second favourite for the Goffs Future Stars bumper on this card last year, only to finish a well beaten seventh of eight. However, he’s two from three since going over hurdles. On his most recent start, he trounced Freedom To Dream (also entered here, a 25-1 chance) by 7½ lengths in a Grade 2 at Limerick on 27 December. He’s currently available at 8-1 with bet365.
VERDICT: Graded form is usually more reliable than that of maiden hurdles and there was no fluke about Eric Bloodaxe’s victory at Limerick. There’s little between Grand Jury and Hollow Games on their Naas running but, at 8-1 with William Hill and Coral, Eric Bloodaxe makes most appeal.
1.35 Spring Juvenile Hurdle (Grade 1) 2m
This is the first of the genuine Willie Mullins versus Gordon Elliott match-ups, with the two trainers being responsible for the first four in the betting.
Elliott’s unbeaten Fil Dor will be hard to beat, having won his three hurdles by a combined margin of almost 25 lengths. The latest was a Grade 2 contest over this course and distance. Bookmakers go 5-4 about him extending that winning streak to four at his first try in Grade 1 company.
But he’ll come up against the Willie Mullins-trained Vauban, a half-length second on his rules debut to Pied Piper at Punchestown on New Year’s Eve. There’s nothing between them in the betting, because Pied Piper more than franked the form when cruising home at Cheltenham last weekend and is now vying for favouritism with Fil Dor for the Triumph Hurdle.
Mullins also runs Icare Allen, winner of a bumper and a maiden hurdle on his only starts. He’s a 6-1 chance with LaoVegas. Elliott too has a second string in his recent Punchestown maiden hurdle winner The Tide Turns, currently available at a standout 8-1 with 888.
Noel Meade takes on the big two with Ben Siegel, unraced since winning at Punchestown in November. He’s a best-priced 14-1 with Vbet.
The remaining four runners can all be backed at big prices and look up against it.
VERDICT: This race should have a huge bearing on the Triumph Hurdle in March, with three of the first four in the Cheltenham betting due to meet here. There’s very little to choose but Fil Dor just gets the nod over the Rich Ricci-owned Vauban.
2.10 Irish Arkle Novice Chase (Grade 1) 2m 1½f
This is the race in which Energumene announced his arrival on the scene 12 months ago. His trainer Willie Mullins has three of the seven entries, namely Blue Lord, Saint Sam and Haut En Couleurs, who all boast unbeaten records over fences. Blue Lord is a best-priced 6-4 with 10bet while the other two are both around the 3-1 mark.
However, Gordon Elliott has a live contender in the mare Riviere D’Etel, who, having won her three chase starts by a combined total of 44 lengths, failed by 1½ lengths to peg back front-running Ferny Hollow in the Grade 1 Racing Post Novice Chase at this course over Christmas. Although she was receiving 13lb from the winner, she made a top-class horse pull out all the stops. Unibet go 5-2 about her returning to winning ways.
VERDICT: While Mullins bids to win this for the fifth time in eight years and appears to hold the upper hand, Gordon Elliott could spoil the party with Riviere D’Etel.
3.15 Paddy Power Irish Gold Cup Chase (Grade 1) 3m ½f
This may be an Irish racing festival but there’s an opportunity for Britain to collect some valuable prize money, because Paul Nicholls runs the front-running ten-year-old Frodon, winner of the Grade 1 Champion Chase at Down Royal in November.
Nicholls won the Irish Gold Cup as a jockey in 1988 on Playschool and as a trainer in 2009 with Neptune Collonges, the most recent British-trained winner of the race. Nicholls’ most recent runner in the race was Tidal Bay, who finished second in 2014.
Frodon had Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Minella Indo five lengths back in third when scoring at Down Royal. Frodon has to bounce back from a fourth-place finish in Kempton’s King George VI Chase, a race he famously made all to win in 2020. There were excuses; they went very quick in what was tacky, tiring ground. Minella Indo also failed to fire in that race, being pulled up three fences from home. He has yet to recapture last season’s Gold Cup form.
Kemboy has won just once since May 2019 but it was in the this very race 12 months ago, when his victims included Delta Work (third) and Minella Indo (fourth). He loves Leopardstown and was beaten less than a length by Galvin and A Plus Tard in the Grade 1 Savill’s Chase here over Christmas, with Jondil (fifth) and Delta Work (sixth) in arrears.
Kemboy’s trainer Willie Mullins has also entered the frustrating Asterion Forlonge. He appeared to hold every chance when unseating his rider three out in the John Durkan Chase at Punchestown. Next time out he was in second place when crashing out at the last fence in the King George VI Chase. Given a clear round, he could go close, but his jumping has to be taken on trust.
Race sponsors Paddy Power make it a close thing at the top of the betting, going 5-2 both Frodon and Kemboy and 3-1 Minella Indo. Meanwhile, William Hill go a standout 5-1 about Asterion Forlonge.
Gordon Elliott runs Mount Ida, winner of a Grade 3 mares’ chase at Fairyhouse on New Year’s Day. She will find this a far tougher assignment and bet365 go a standout 12-1 about her chances.
VERDICT: Kemboy’s liking for Leopardstown, coupled with his latest performance in the Savill’s Chase, gives him a great chance of recording back-to-back wins in the Irish Gold Cup.
4.25 Goffs Future Stars (C & G) INH Flat Race (Grade 2) 2m
Willie Mullins is spoilt for choice when it comes to bumper horses. Mercurey or Redemption Day could have gone for this, but he relies on Facile Vega, an easy six-length winner at Leopardstown on 26 December. Mullins also won the following day’s bumper with Embassy Gardens, though this one only scraped home by a nose, and the runner-up has been beaten since. Hence, whereas Embassy Gardens is available at around 14-1, Facile Vega is a warm odds – on chance with all major firms.
His main rival comes not from Gordon Elliott’s yard but that of Peter Fahey. His impressive 16-length Punchestown winner The Big Doyen, owned by the Money For Jam Syndicate, is a 9-2 chance to make it three from three in bumpers.
Elliott relies on Itswhatunitesus, who has been supported and is now a 9-2 chance. His six-length win at Navan in December was franked when the runner-up won next time out.
Another interesting runner is Paul Nolan’s Sandor Clegane, a 15-length winner of his only start at Punchestown in December. Paddy Power are a best-priced 7-1 about his prospects.
VERDICT: Facile Vega currently heads the market for the Champion Bumper at Cheltenham next month and can enhance his claims with victory here.
1.20 Ladbrokes Novice Chase (Grade 1) 2m 5½f
The Willie Mullins-trained Galopin Des Champs, a winner at both Cheltenham and Punchestown last year, looks the standout here. The manner of his victory on his chasing debut over 2m 5½f at Leopardstown over Christmas was flawless. He achieved one of the highest ratings ever given to a horse making his first start over fences. He’s long odds-on to follow up here.
Mullins may also saddle New Year’s Day winner Jungle Boogie, who trades around 5-1 with most firms. Christmas Grade 1 winners Master McShee and Fury Road are also in the mix.
Gordon Elliott’s Fury Road drops back in trip, having won his Grade 1 over 3m at Leopardstown. In contrast, Master McShee, who gave his trainer, Paddy Corkery a taste of the big time when scraping home by a short head over 2m 3½f at Limerick, goes up in distance by an extra quarter-mile. Fury Road trades generally around 7-1, while Mister McShee can be backed at 8-1 with sponsors Ladbrokes.
Best of the rest could be Noel Meade’s Beacon Time, winner of the Grade 1 Drinmore Chase at Fairyhouse in November, when Fury Road finished a close-up third. Beacon Time is a general 10-1 shot to win here.
VERDICT: Galopin Des Champs will find this a far tougher test against proven Grade 1 opposition. but should give Willie Mullins his third win in a row in this contest if repeating the form of his debut win over fences.
1.50 Ladbrokes Dublin Chase (Grade 1) 2m 1½f
What to make of Chacun Pour Soi’s lifeless display in the Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown? He set out to make all but was the first beat, as the Paul Nicholls-trained Greaneteen put his rivals to the sword in the hands of Bryony Frost. Captain Guinness, who reopposes here, was 5¾ lengths back in third that day’
Chacun Pour Soi doesn’t seem the same horse when he travels to Britain. On home soil he’s a different proposition, so we’ll find out whether that’s the case when he takes on Greaneteen again here. Race sponsors Ladbrokes go 5-6 about him returning to winning ways, while offering 3-1 Greaneteen and 5-1 Captain Guinness.
On form, the race rests between those three, with the other five runners all available at double-figure odds. Best of those could be dual Fairyhouse handicap winner Dunvegan, available at 14-1 with William Hill.
Jonjo O’Neill sends over last year’s Grand Annual Chase winner Sky Pirate. He’s a general 16-1 chance but there’s surely only one race that matters for him, and that’s a repeat success at Cheltenham next month, rather than here.
VERDICT: This is another race dominated by Willie Mullins, as Chacun Pour Soi looks to give him a third straight win in the race. However, he has to bounce back from a lacklustre effort in the Tingle Creek in order to reverse the form with Greaneteen, who makes more appeal at the prices.
3.00 Irish Champion Hurdle (Grade 1) 2m
All eyes will be on Honeysuckle, who bids to win the Irish Champion Hurdle for a third time. She’s unbeaten in 13 starts, including nine Grade 1s. Henry de Bromhead’s mare won last year’s renewal by ten lengths.
Her chief rival looks to be the Willie Mullins-trained Appreciate It, who will be making his first start since bolting up by an astonishing 24 lengths in last season’s Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. He’s a best-priced 4-1 with bet365 to defy his long absence.
Gordon Elliott’s Zanahiyr finished second in a Grade 1 over this course and distance at Christmas. The Mullins pair Saint Roi and Echoes In Rain finished third and fourth respectively.
Paul Hennessy’s Heaven Help Us, a 50-1 outsider with Betfred, completes the six-horse field.
VERDICT: Given Appreciate It’s lengthy absence, it takes a giant leap of faith to back against Honeysuckle remaining undefeated. The reigning champion should retain her crown.
3.35 Tattersalls Ireland Novice Hurdle (Grade 1) 2m
Cheltenham Champion Bumper winner Sir Gerhard bids to give Willie Mullins his ninth win in this race in the last ten years. He’s a best-priced 6-4 with Vbet to follow up his impressive Leopardstown maiden hurdle win over Christmas.
There’s plenty of collateral Grade 1 hurdle form on display here. Mullins has also entered the mare Statuaire 7-1 with LeoVegas, who beat the boys when defeating My Mate Mozzie 6-1 with 888 by a short-head in the Royal Bond at Fairyhouse in November with Mighty Potter 13-2 with Unibet back in third.
Mighty Potter then won the Future Champions Novice Hurdle at Leopardstown, beating Three Stripes Life 5-1 with bet365 and Farout 33-1 generally with 10bet.
Then there’s another possible Mullins-trained contender in El Fabiolo, a facile 13-length winner at Tramore on New Year’s Day when making his Irish debut. William Hill go 6-1 about that one.
VERDICT: This looks a real cracker if they all turn up. The choice is Gordon Elliott’s Mighty Potter to follow up his course and distance Grade 1 victory last time out. Sportnation’ 13-2 looks tempting.