With a Christmas festival blitz that provided a host of surprises now in the rearview mirror, the focus turns to what lies ahead in 2019,writes Darren Norris
Here are 10 dates for the diary
The inaugural Dublin Racing Festival on the first weekend of last February was a huge success with three Leopardstown victors - Footpad, Samcro, and Relegate – going on to score at the Cheltenham Festival a month later.
However, the Irish Gold Cup, the biggest of the seven Grade Ones up for grabs, provided a major shock as Joseph O’Brien’s 33-1 outsider Edwulf, who so nearly lost his life in the 2016 Cheltenham Festival, ran out a fairytale winner in the hands of Derek O’Connor.
Having been well beaten in the Savills Chase at Leopardstown last Friday, Edwulf will probably again be a big price to repeat the feat next month but, given he’s already proved himself the equine equivalent of Lazarus, it’s dangerous to write him off.
Impressive Savills Chase winner Kemboy looks likely to sidestep this engagement and go straight to Cheltenham but, with the likes of ante-post Cheltenham Gold Cup favourite Presenting Percy, Monalee, Road To Respect, Bellshill and Anibale Fly all potentially on a collision course, a cracking Irish Gold Cup lies in store.
Christmas 2018 threw up a number of unwanted surprises for punters but no shock was quite a seismic as the sight of dual Champion Hurdle winner Buveur D’Air getting nailed on the line by stablemate Verdana Blue in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton.
Nicky Henderson’s charge had looked better than ever when hammering Samcro in the Fighting Fifth 25 days earlier but was far from imperious at Kempton, barely leaving the ground for the third last hurdle en route to a first defeat since the 2016 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.
Despite the lapse, Buveur D’Air rightly remains a warm-order to emulate the mighty Istabraq by completing a Champion Hurdle hat-trick on day one of the 2019 Cheltenham Festival.
Buveur D’Air, who like Istabraq is owned by JP McManus, has arguably yet to get the recognition he deserves but that will surely change if he makes it three. In truth, he should do just that as the Champion Hurdle division lacks both quality and quantity at the minute.
The Willie Mullins-trained Laurina could be a potential threat but she hasn’t been seen yet this season and needs to improve a hell of a lot to trouble the history-chasing favourite.
In a festive period where high-profile favourites brought very little joy to their supporters, one horse lived up to his superstar reputation. It was no surprise to anyone that Altior was that one horse, Nicky Henderson’s charge stretching his unbeaten run to 16 with a 19-length demolition job in the Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton.
Those 16 successive triumphs include a seven-length victory over Min in last year’s Champion Chase and, come March, the gelding will be a long odds-on shot to become the first back-to-back winner of that race since Masterminded completed his double in 2009.
Given his fearsome reputation, Altior will probably frighten off most of the opposition but, while he won’t be a betting proposition for most, seeing this majestic chaser is full flight will still be a sight to savour.
It would be nice to think Footpad might put it up to Altior but given he was beaten by Simply Ned, a horse who turns 12 today, at Leopardstown last week, that looks unlikely.
A procession awaits. And that being the case...
With Altior a seemingly irresistible force in the two-mile division, alternative engagements are sure to be sought for a host of would-be Champion Chase contenders. The Ryanair Chase could be the chief beneficiary.
Take Min for instance. Beaten seven lengths by Altior in the 2016 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, he went down by the same margin in last year’s Champion Chase so there’s no reason why he should make it third time lucky in 2019.
That Min started this season by winning the John Durkan, over two and a half miles, suggests trainer Willie Mullins realises that reality too and the Ryanair Chase over just a furlong further will surely be his Cheltenham Festival target.
There he could encounter a familiar face in stablemate Un De Sceaux.
Winner of this race two years ago, Un De Sceaux was second to Balko Des Flos last March and will surely rock up again looking to regain his crown in what, aged 11, could prove his Cheltenham Festival swansong.
Add Ruth Jefferson’s Waiting Patiently to the mix and you’ve quite a race.
That Presenting Percy, a horse not seen since waltzing to victory in the RSA Chase last March, heads the market for the blue riband of jump racing says plenty about a pretty unclear Gold Cup picture.
It was hoped Christmas might bring some order to proceedings but the festive period raised more questions than it answered.
The King George saw last year’s Gold Cup winner Native River taken off his feet before rallying bravely to finish third; Might Bite bombed for a second successive race; Bristol De Mai fell and took out Waiting Patiently and a surprise winner in Clan De Obeaux, who beat Thistlecrack by a length and a half.
At home, the Savills Chase saw Bellshill fail to land a blow, Road To Respect finish third after a luckless trip and another surprise winner in Willie Mullins’ Kemboy.
It all means that the case for the Pat Kelly trained Presenting Percy was enhanced without him leaving the comfort of his own box.
Right now, it’s hard to envisage the 2019 Gold Cup living up to last year’s titanic battle between Native River and Might Bite but it’ll still be enthralling viewing. It always is.
The Gold Cup may be the race for the National Hunt purist but the Grand National remains the greatest jumps spectacle of them all.
Critics say the race isn’t what it was but it remains a formidable test of man and beast. The fact only 12 of the 38 starters completed the race last year illustrates that reality. The first of those 12 was the diminutive Tiger Roll, Gordon Elliott’s charge just holding off the fast-finishing Pleasant Company to give Davy Russell his first Grand National victory.
Tiger Roll will be back again this April but weight and the weight of history will be against him. He’ll have to carry more weight than he did last year and the fact no horse has won the Grand National more than once since Red Rum illustrates the scale of the task facing the three-time Cheltenham Festival winner.
The Sue Smith-trained Vintage Clouds just missed the cut for last year’s Grand National but should make it this time and the Trevor Hemmings-owned grey possesses the endless reserves of stamina this test demands.
For the first time since 2014, the ante-post Newmarket 2000 Guineas favourite resides outside Ballydoyle.
Clarehaven Stables in Newmarket is the home of the John Gosden-trained Too Darn Hot, a colt who proved just that as a two-year-old, winning all four of his starts, culminating with a brilliant victory in the Group 1 Dewhurst Stakes.
He looks a horse of exceptional promise, one who could light up the 2019 Flat season in a Frankel-esque manner.
His first big test will come on the first Saturday of May in what could be a vintage 2000 Guineas. There he could meet another unbeaten colt with immense potential in Quorto; Coventry Stakes winner Calyx; Aidan O’Brien’s progressive Ten Sovereigns; his stablemate Magna Grecia; Andre Fabre’s French raider Persian, and Martyn Meade’s Advertise. If Too Darn Hot can brush that lot aside, he could be something really special.
Given his stunning exploits as a two-year-old, it’s no surprise Too Darn Hot will begin 2019 as the Epsom Derby favourite.
However, a question lingers: Will he stay a mile and a half? Given the pace he has shown to date, there has to be a doubt and John Gosden has publically admitted he has his doubts.
“He has won over a mile already, and a mile and a quarter should not be a problem, but beyond that I don’t know,” he said last October.
Last season, Gosden’s Roaring Lion finished a non-staying third at Epsom before winning three Group 1s over 10 furlongs. It would be no surprise if Too Darn Hot was to do something similar.
That could open the door to Quorto, a Group 1-winning two-year-old who could provide Charlie Appleby and Godolphin with a second successive Derby triumph.
The 2019 Irish Derby will have to go some to top last year’s renewal when Latrobe, trained by Joseph O’Brien and ridden by his brother Donnacha, got the better of Rostropovich and Saxon Warrior, both of whom were trained by their father, Aidan. However, whatever happens on the track, this year’s Irish Derby will be significant as by then the Curragh redevelopment will be complete.
The decision to continue racing during the redevelopment was controversial with a 6,000 attendance limit imposed for 2017 Irish Derby. In the event, only 5,412 turned up to see Capri get the better of Cracksman and Epsom Derby winner Wings Of Eagles.
To put that in context, over 25,000 turned up to see Jack Hobbs triumph in 2015. The hope has to be that this year’s Irish Derby will see an attendance figure closer to 2015 than 2017.
It’s rare a high-profile sporting occasion lives up to the hype. That is the reason why Muhammad Ali’s trilogy with Joe Frazier and the Rumble in the Jungle with George Foreman endures nearly half a century later.
However the 2018 Prix de l’Arc bucked the trend in that it delivered more than even the greediest could have demanded.
Enable, the heroic reigning champion overcame a nightmare preparation to just thwart the young pretender, the fast-finishing Sea Of Class.
In doing so, Enable joined a select club, becoming only the eighth horse to have won the Arc twice.
No horse has won the great race three times.
The tantalising prospect of being the first was enough to persuade owner Khalid Abdullah to keep Enable in training while the sense of what might have been persuaded Christopher Tsui to go again with Sea Of Class.
The prospect of a rematch is a mouth-watering one but, should she have an uninterrupted preparation, it’ll take something special to deny Enable her place in history.