Darren Norris selects eight takeaways from the Dublin Racing Festival with a view towards Cheltenham.
It had been a long time between drinks for Paul Nolan and Bryan Cooper. Going into the opening race of the Dublin Racing Festival, the Nathaniel Lacy & Ptnrs Solicitors “50,000 Cheltenham Bonus For Stable Staff” Novice Hurdle, Nolan hadn’t won a Grade One since Defy Logic obliged in the Christmas of 2013 while Cooper hadn’t won at the top level since steering Apple’s Jade to victory at the 2017 Punchestown Festival.
The famine ended on Saturday as Latest Exhibition toughed it out to beat Cobbler’s Way by two lengths. In doing so, he put himself firmly in the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle mix. Nolan and Cooper look to have unearthed a gem.
He looked it when thrashing Defi Du Seuil at Punchestown last May but now we know for sure: Chacun Pour Soi is indeed the real deal. Confidence in Willie Mullins’ fragile chaser was shaken when he was turned over by A Plus Tard at Christmas but a weak finishing effort suggested he badly needed that run, a suspicion confirmed by a brilliant performance in seeing off stablemate Min in the Ladbrokes Dublin Chase.
With Altior having questions to answer and having already beaten Defi Du Seuil once, Chacun Pour Soi looks a huge player in what’s shaping up to be a cracking Champion Chase.
And on the subject of crackers…
As anticipated, the Dublin Racing Festival produced a number of brilliant races, none more thrilling than the ERSG Arkle Novice Chase. The late withdrawal of Fakir D’oudairies could have robbed the race of much of its lustre but his absence was quickly forgotten as Notebook and Cash Back served up a stirring dual, one won by Henry De Bromhead’s charge.
A repeat in the Cheltenham equivalent would do nicely, though the way Notebook bolted on his way down to the start would raise question marks about how he’ll cope with the Cheltenham preliminaries.
It may seem harsh to rain on the parade of an unbeaten mare who has just passed her stiffest test to date but, with Cheltenham in mind, Honeysuckle was a trifle underwhelming in beating Darver Star by half a length in the PCI Irish Champion Hurdle.
Honeysuckle looked likely to win well approaching the last flight but an awkward landing saw her briefly headed and she had to pull out all the stops to prevail. Nor was that last flight an aberration, she lost ground at most of her obstacles and, while she will surely improve for the experience, she didn’t look a Champion Hurdle winner in waiting.
In theory, the Mares’ Hurdle should be an easier race but that could put Honeysuckle on a collision course with the high-class Benie Des Dieux. The Honeysuckle camp have much to ponder in the weeks ahead.
Willie Mullins has won the Champion Bumper nine times and Appreciate It can make it a perfect 10 for Ireland’s champion trainer next month. The 11-10 favourite was wildly impressive when destroying his opposition in the Grade Two Goffs Future Stars (C & G) I.N.H. Flat Race on Saturday and it’ll take something special to lower his colours at Cheltenham.
It’s obviously not ideal that Aspire Tower will head to Cheltenham on the back of a fall but punters who waded in on Henry De Bromhead’s charge at odds of 1-3 could recoup their losses in the Triumph Hurdle. Though the pressure was on, Rachael Blackmore hadn’t gone for everything when Aspire Tower took a tumble after clipping the top of the last flight of the Tattersalls Ireland Spring Juvenile Hurdle. Had he jumped it and won by half a length, he’d have been cut for Triumph. Instead his price has doubled and 8-1 looks a very fair price.
Given he had stuffed Samcro at Limerick over Christmas it shouldn’t have been a surprise that Faugheen was able to bring the house down in the Flogas Novice Chase. After all, this is a 12-year-old novice chaser who has had to overcome a number of ailments throughout his career. Wishing for another miracle seemed to wishing for too much.
But it wasn’t. Faugheen delivered. His jumping was less than impeccable but the will to win was there and he refused to be denied. There’s something magical about Faugheen. He’s kind of become the equine version of Muhammad Ali. Like Ali, Faugheen was invincible in his early days. Neither were as imperious after lengthy lay-offs but both found new assets such as resilience and tenacity, qualities that added greatly to their appeal.
Faugheen was always admired, now he’s truly loved. He doesn’t need to go to Cheltenham to cement his legacy as a National Hunt legend but it would be some story if the dual Festival winner could win there again.
The right horses came to the fore in the Paddy Power Irish Gold Cup, a race that featured all of the leading Irish contenders for the Cheltenham equivalent, bar reigning champion Al Boum Photo. What did we learn? Quite a bit, actually. We learned that Presenting Percy is never going to be the superstar everyone hoped he would become when he won the 2018 RSA Novices’ Chase. We learned that Kemboy, a first fence faller in last year’s Gold Cup, still doesn’t jump well enough to win the Blue Riband.
And we learned that last year’s RSA Chase really was as good as it looked at the time. Delta Work was third to Topofthegame and Santini in that race but when he disappointed on his seasonal return at Down Royal in early November and Santini struggled to convert a penalty kick at Sandown a week later, faith in the RSA was shaken.
However,Delta Work took a big step forward from that underwhelming Down Royal effort to win the Savills Chase at Leopardstown and improved again to win the Irish Gold Cup. In between, Santini put himself in the mix when winning a Grade Two at Cheltenham on Festival Trials Day. Watching recent events unfold can only have added to Paul Nicholls’ frustration that Topofthegame is sidelined for the season.
He would surely have been a contender.