After the stunning success of the inaugural Dublin Racing Festival, last year’s two-day extravaganza was a disappointment, with unseasonably quick ground leading to a spate of withdrawals on the Sunday.
Indeed, only two Leopardstown runners — Envoi Allen and Klassical Dream — went on to do the business at the 2019 Cheltenham Festival, six less than in 2018.
With rain a more regular visitor this winter, the hope is normal service will be resumed this weekend. And with stars and potential stars like Honeysuckle, Chacun Pour Soi, A Plus Tard, Latest Exhibition, Aspire Tower, Faugheen, Battleoverdoyen, Kemboy, Delta Work, and Presenting Percy, putting their Cheltenham credentials on the line, this weekend looks certain to provide a host of Festival clues. Here’s eight things to look out for from the eight Grade Ones up for grabs.
An explosive start
A bit like a James Bond film, the Dublin Racing Festival starts with a bang with the Nathaniel Lacy & Ptnrs Solicitors “50,000 Cheltenham Bonus For Stable Staff” Novice Hurdle pitting three exciting sorts against each other in the shape of Latest Exhibition, Elixir D’ainay, and Fury Road.
All three bring high-class form to the table. The Paul Nolan-trained Latest Exhibition took the notable scalp of Andy Dufresne at Navan in December, Elixir D’ainay kept Envoi Allen honest in a Naas Grade One last month while Fury Road survived a blunder at the last obstacle to complete a hat-trick when scoring at Limerick at Christmas.
A fascinating contest lies in store but Latest Exhibition might just be able to outstay his market rivals and provide Bryan Cooper with a first Grade One success since April 2017.
Revenge on the menu
Like the opening race, the Ladbrokes Dublin Chase looks an absolute belter with A Plus Tard and Chacun Pour Soi, first and second over course and distance at Christmas, renewing their rivalry with Min, a dual winner of this race, also in the mix, along with promising stablemate Cilaos Emery.
Given his reputation, it was somewhat disappointing to see Chacun Pour Soi brushed aside so readily by A Plus Tard last month but, on reflection, the winner had the benefit of a run under his belt coming into that contest while quite a few of Willie Mullins’ horses have needed their first run of the campaign.
He’ll need to find significant improvement to turn the tables on A Plus Tard but it’ll be no surprise if does so.
And should he oblige, current odds of 4-1 for the Champion Chase will disappear as quickly as an election promise.
Seconds out, round two
The ERSG Arkle Novice Chase sees another rematch as Henry De Bromhead’s Notebook and Joseph O’Brien’s Fakir D’oudairies, first and second over course and distance at Christmas, clash again with added spice provided by the presence of the Willie Mullins-trained trio of Cash Back, Bapaume, and Melon.
Given he’ll be on worse terms than he was last month, there’s no obvious reason why Fakir D’oudairies should turn the tables on Notebook, who should prove a very tough nut to crack.
However, at the likely prices, it might be worth chancing Cash Back.
This horse made a winning reappearance when scoring at Navan in November and was wildly impressive when making all at Naas last month.
This represents a big step up but Cash Back looks a progressive sort who could take passing.
D-Day for Honeysuckle
Today’s headline act, the PCI Irish Champion Hurdle, revolves around Honeysuckle.
There are negatives surrounding Henry De Bromhead’s mare, namely that she has yet to race left handed and the fact her best form, her two Grade One successes included, has come over two and half miles.
Against that, she’s unbeaten in seven career starts and will arrive at Leopardstown on the back of a scintillating performance in the Hatton’s Grace at Fairyhouse in December.
And when you factor her 7lb mares’ allowance into the equation, it’ll take a huge performance to lower her colours.
And if she wins decisively here, she’ll surely end up in the Cheltenham equivalent. And she’ll be hard to beat there too.
A star in the making
The first of tomorrow’s Grade Ones, the Tattersalls Ireland Spring Juvenile Hurdle, looks likely to see Aspire Tower enhance his Triumph Hurdle credentials.
The Born To Sea gelding was no star on the Flat when trained by Steve Gallings but the move to Henry De Bromhead’s and the sight of obstacles has had a transformative effect with a 13-length victory at Punchestown in November followed by an 18-length annihilation job at Leopardstown over Christmas.
Given he took time to settle on both occasions, the fact he had plenty left at the business end of proceedings suggests he’s a horse with a serious engine.
Another Elliott v Mullins showdown
The Chanelle Pharma Novice Hurdle lost some of its lustre yesterday when Gordon Elliott opting against declaring Envoi Allen and/or Abacadabras.
Elliott instead relies on Easywork but, while he should put up a bold bid to complete a four-timer, he faces a stiff test against the Willie Mullins-trained trio of Mt Leinster, Asterion Forlonge, and Blue Sari.
Of the Closutton contenders, the unexposed Asterion Forlonge appeals as the most intriguing so he gets the marginal vote.
Déjà vu all over again?
An ageing Willie Mullins-trained warrior against an emerging Gordon Elliott-trained talent. For Faugheen v Samcro at Limerick at Christmas now read Faugheen v Battleoverdoyen in the Flogas Novice Chase at Leopardstown tomorrow.
Logic seemed to dictate that a few days short of his 12th birthday, Faugheen wouldn’t have the legs to go with Samcro but the 2015 Champion Hurdle hero defied the odds to trash a horse once thought to be the second coming.
Can he repeat the feat? It would lift the roof off the Leopardstown stands if he could but, his desperate effort in last year’s Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle aside, Battleoverdoyen is unbeaten and it’s hard to see him folding as tamely as Samcro did at Limerick.
This time, youth should trump experience.
In search of gold
Like the Champion Hurdle, the Cheltenham Gold Cup picture is anything but clear.
The Paddy Power Irish Gold Cup should help provide some much-needed clarity, pitting as it does three of the four leading Irish contenders for the Blue Riband in Delta Work, Kemboy, and Presenting Percy.
It’s a big day for all three but particularly for Presenting Percy. Pat Kelly’s stable star looked an absolute superstar when cruising to victory in the 2018 RSA Chase but very little has gone right since. A promising return over an inadequate trip at Punchestown on his first start of the season provided encouragement but he failed to build on that when fifth in a slowly run Savills Chase at Leopardstown at Christmas.
Delta Work won that Grade One but the exposed Monalee getting within a head of victory makes that questionable form and his jumping remains a slight concern.
Kemboy was back in fourth that day but, unlike Presenting Percy and Delta Work, the Savills Chase was his first run of the season and he shaped as though he desperately needed it.
A three-time Grade One winner last season, culminating in victory over Gold Cup hero Al Boum Photo, Kemboy is the joint-highest rated chaser in training and with cobwebs now removed he can land the spoils. And it might not be the last time he strikes gold this season.
12.50: Latest Exhibition
1.25: Chacun Pour Soi
2.00: Cash Back
1.25: Aspire Tower
1.55: Asterion Forlonge
3.00: Battleoverdoyen (NB)
3.35: Kemboy (Nap)