With the Christmas festival blitz in the rearview mirror, the focus now turns to a new decade and 2020 promises plenty. Here Darren Norris highlights 10 dates not to be missed
It’s amazing how quickly something new can establish itself if it’s good. Before 2018 the Dublin Racing Festival didn’t exist, now we wonder how we ever survived without it.
It obviously helped that the inaugural two-event extravaganza was such a rip-roaring success.
No less than eight runners from Leopardstown went on to score at the 2018 Cheltenham Festival with Footpad, Samcro, and Relegate winning at both meetings.
That return set the bar at an unrealistically high level but the fact only two runners from the Dublin Racing Festival, Envoi Allen and Klassical Dream, did the business at Cheltenham last March can largely be put down to an unseasonably dry winter that meant the Leopardstown ground was significantly faster than would normally be the case.
Hopefully the ground won’t be a problem this time and the expectation the first two days in February will provide a host of clues about will unfold over those four magical days in March.
Going into the Christmas period, the hope was some form of order could be brought to a perplexing Champion Hurdle picture. Some chance.
With the injured Buveur D’Air on the easy list, Nicky Henderson pitched three of his remaining contenders into battle in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton on St Stephen’s Day. In the days before the race, Fusil Raffles was considered the most likely winner with Epatante third on the list of Seven Barrows contenders.
But on the day, a sustained gamble saw the JP McManus-owned mare backed into 2-1 co-favouritism alongside Fusil Raffles and she duly bolted in to catapult herself to the head of the Champion Hurdle market. For his part, the desperately disappointing Fusil Raffles was pulled up two flights from home.
It was a similar story in the Matheson Hurdle at Leopardstown on Sunday where the Willie Mullins-trained Klassical Dream, who had begun the season as Champion Hurdle favourite, was expected to leave an underwhelming reappearance in the Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown behind him.
In the event, he was even worse at Leopardstown, a desperate mistake at the fourth flight putting him on the back foot before he eventually trailed in last of five in a race won by stablemate Sharjah.
Consequently, the Champion Hurdle market has a baffling look to it.
That said, it still promises to be a race to savour.
It always is.
The Champion Chase picture is only slightly less murky than the Champion Hurdle.
Altior won the race for the second year in succession last March but connections made the bold decision to step him up in trip this season with the King George his principal target.
However, Altior surrendered his proud 19-race unbeaten run when turned over by Cyrname over two miles and five furlongs at Ascot last month and had such a gruelling race that the decision was taken to swerve the King George.
He was supposed to run in the Desert Orchid Chase over two miles instead but a late setback ruled him out of that engagement, leaving connections with much to ponder.
As do those of Chacun Pour Soi. The lightly-raced seven-year-old looked a machine when beating Defi Du Seuil at the Punchestown Festival on just his second start for Willie Mullins but blotted his copybook when firmly put in his place by A Plus Tard at odds of 8-15 at Leopardstown over Christmas.
At least Defi Du Seuil has looked the part, building on a Cheltenham Grade Two victory on his return to the fray when getting the better of Un De Sceaux in the Tingle Creek at Sandown earlier this month. Right now, he looks the one to beat.
Willie Mullins finally laid his Gold Cup hoodoo to rest last March, Al Boum Photo doing the business in the hands of Paul Townend. Mullins’ hero hasn’t yet been seen this season but he’s set to return at Tramore tomorrow for what will likely be his sole run before his Gold Cup defence.
With multiple Gold Cup winners so rare, history suggests he’s up against it.
Against that, his likely rivals don’t convince. Stablemate Kemboy is entitled to improve from his belated return to action when fourth in the Savills Chase at Leopardstown on Saturday but he’ll need to.
Presenting Percy already had a run under his belt before Saturday so there’s no reason to believe he’ll improve sufficiently to play a part.
Delta Work won the race but the fact he was all out to beat Monalee raises questions.
Across the water, Lostintranslation looked like the second coming when beating Bristol De Mai in the Betfair Chase but he now has plenty to prove after being pulled up in the King George.
Clan Des Obeaux could hardly have been more impressive in winning the Christmas highlight for a second time but he didn’t seem to stay the Gold Cup trip this year so there’s no obvious reason why he should do so in 2020.
Perhaps, Al Boum Photo can do it again after all.
It’s a measure of Tiger Roll’s ability, CV, and popularity that last April he was sent off as short as 4-1 to become the first horse since the legendary Red Rum to the win the Grand National more than once.
His supporters barely had a moment’s worry as this remarkable little horse cruised through the race before pulling clear in the hands of Davy Russell.
In 2020, provided Michael O’Leary gives him the green light to run, Tiger Roll could do something beyond even the great Rummy: Win the most famous jumps race of them all three times on the trot. It’s a massive ask as this time Tiger Roll will probably have to shoulder top weight. That said, he carried 11-5 this year and it’s hard to argue an extra 5lbs would have stopped him.
It’s also hard to argue against him being as short as 5-1 to do it again. Indeed that price might look generous if he rocks up at Aintree having won at the Cheltenham Festival for a fifth time.
He’s a truly amazing horse and a third National success would be a truly amazing story. His date with destiny promises to be unmissable.
Like last year, the 2019 Flat season was illuminated by an unbeaten two-year-old.
For Too Darn Hot in 2018, read Pinatubo in 2019.
The Charlie Appleby-trained Shamardal colt made his debut in a lowly Wolverhampton all-weather race in May but ended his campaign a dual Group 1 winner with Timeform rating his nine-length victory in the National Stakes at the Curragh in September as the best performance by a two-year-old in a quarter of a century.
That demolition job earned Pinatubo a Timeform rating of 134, a figure superior to Frankel’s 128 at the same stage in his development.
Providing he trains on, it’ll take an awesome performance to lower his colours on the first Saturday of May. And if he delivers at Newmarket, the focus will quickly shift to the first Saturday of June.
Will he stay? That’s the key question when assessing Pinatubo’s Derby credentials with his pedigree providing mixed messages. Shamardal, Pinatubo’s sire, never raced over a mile and a half and has yet to produce a Derby winner but his dam, Lava Flow, won over a furlong short of the Derby trip so that offers some encouragement.
What is in his favour is his relaxed style of running, an attribute that should help see out a longer trip.
Charlie Appleby believes a mile and a quarter will probably be his optimum trip but if he’s strong at the finish in the 2000 Guineas, connections will surely struggle to resist the Derby temptation.
While it’ll never stir the soul in quite the same way as Cheltenham, Royal Ascot is always a week to savour and the 2020 extravaganza promises to be no different.
With his nemesis Blue Point retired to stud, the King’s Stand Stakes on the opening day of the meeting provides Battaash with a chance to make it third time lucky at the Royal meeting before the three-year-olds do battle in the St James’ Palace Stakes.
Day two revolves around the Prince Of Wales’ Stakes while the Gold Cup on day three is likely to pit John Gosden’s brilliant stayer Stradivarius against Aidan O’Brien’s Kew Gardens.
The speedsters take centre stage on day four while the meeting could conclude with Enable making her first Royal Ascot appearance in the Hardwicke Stakes. It’ll be thrilling. Like always.
The Irish Derby is always one of the biggest days on the Irish racing calendar but the success of the 2020 renewal will be judged on more than just the race itself after the Curragh was heavily criticised in the aftermath of this year’s Classic.
A crowd of 11,957 was significantly less than anticipated but the revamped €81m facility still struggled to cope with lengthy queues for toilets, as well as food and drink, a source of frustration for those in attendance.
The appointment of a top-class operator in Pat Keogh as Curragh chief executive a month later was a step in the right direction and the hope — and expectation — is the racegoer experience will be a good deal better in 2020.
Without doubt, racing’s biggest anti-climax in 2019 was Enable’s agonising Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe defeat in the Longchamp mud.
An historic third Arc seemed to beckon when the wonder mare cruised into the lead two furlongs from home but Waldgeist, a colt who had lost more races than he’d won, a colt who Enable had beaten three times previously, came with a decisive late surge to deny her immortality.
However, pleasure delayed can sometimes by pleasure enhanced and Enable will get the chance to get the record straight in 2020 after connections sportingly opted to keep her in training as a six-year-old. She may yet get her perfect farewell.