Pat Keane: Festival likely to be a real dogfight

ONLY a major optimist would be in any way confident about making a profit at Cheltenham next week.
Pat Keane: Festival likely to be a real dogfight
Benie Des Dieux appears tobe Willie Mullins’ only ’banker’ at Cheltenham next week.
Benie Des Dieux appears tobe Willie Mullins’ only ’banker’ at Cheltenham next week.

ONLY a major optimist would be in any way confident about making a profit at Cheltenham next week.

I believe this is shaping to be one of the most competitive Festivals of modern times and any trainer who manages four or more winners will have enjoyed an excellent meeting.

That might be regarded as a sweeping statement, given that our two biggest trainers, Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott, have done considerably better than that over the last few years.

In 2015 Mullins had a record eight winners and that was equalled by Elliott in 2018.

In 2017 they both had six winners, with Elliott emerging as the leading trainer for the first time, having had one more second placings than Mullins. In 2016, Mullins had seven winners.

These are staggering figures and, let’s face it, the ongoing success of the juggernauts made winning at Cheltenham almost easy.

Last year, however, it was a bit different. Mullins had four and Elliott three and while less than spectacular, by their amazing standards, they were eminently respectable returns.

I will be more than surprised should either of them get anywhere near seven or eight winners next week.

That is, arguably, a bold statement, perhaps even foolhardy, especially when it comes to Mullins.

He is the leading trainer of all time at Cheltenham with 65 winners and glancing at his record this week made you think twice about

downplaying what he might start to achieve in next week.

Last year saw him win the Gold Cup for the first time with Al Boum Photo, but his record in so many other races is quite extraordinary.

He’s won the Champion Hurdle on four occasions, the Stayers’ Hurdle twice, the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle (6), Arkle Trophy (4), Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle (4) and RSA Novices’ Chase (4). Then there’s the Mares’ Hurdle and the Champion Bumper.

He’s taken both of them nine times. Six of the wins in the Mares’ Hurdle arrived, of course, courtesy of the remarkable Quevega.

So, to underestimate the power of Mullins clearly may not be overly clever, but trawling through all the ante-post markets over the last couple of days revealed that, with the exception of Benie Des Dieux, one struggled to find a Closutton inmate that would shock you if it got beaten.

It now seems certain Benie Des Dieux, disappointingly, will take the easiest possible option — the Mares‘ Hurdle. The Champion Hurdle was never a possibility and, as expected, she wasn’t supplemented into the race.

But we did cling to the hope Mullins might give her the chance to show just how good she really is and take on Paisley Park in the Stayers’ Hurdle.

Mullins, however, has a history — understandably — of running his horses in the races in which he believes they have the best chance of winning and it’s odds-on he will go down that path one more time.

In any case it does seem he has far and away the strongest Irish team, well ahead of Elliott and Henry de

Bromhead.

Mullins will have many, many chances through the week but, at least to my way of thinking, there are precious few so-called certainties among them.

You just never know what might happen in handicaps, but for him to hit say the seven-winner mark then some, or all, of the likes of Benie Des Dieux, Appreciate It, Carefully Selected, Al Boum Photo and Chacun Pour Soi will need to be delivering.

Elliott has apparently pencilled in 45-55 runners and that gives him, at least numerically, a powerful hand.

Again, there is simply no knowing how he will do in the handicaps and if he bangs in a couple of them, then he just might enjoy a great festival.

But as I waded through all the non-handicaps, I was more than surprised at how few chances Elliott seems to have.

Envoi Allen, Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle or Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, depending on what Elliott decides after walking the track, and Tiger Roll, Cross Country Chase, stand out. Delta Work has a life in the Gold Cup, but after that it was a real struggle to find an Elliott horse you would want to be on.

You can actually make a case for De Bromhead having, at worst, as strong a team as Elliott. At least in non-handicaps he can call on Notebook, Honeysuckle, Minella Indo, A Plus Tard, Minella Melody, Aspire Tower, and Monalee.

It is 7-2 the field in the Gold Cup and Champion Hurdle and they are two absolute puzzles, with neither contest housing any sort of outstanding horse.

There are some terribly bad value favourites, especially Shishkin (5-2) in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.

That will all change, obviously, should Envoi Allen line up, Appreciate It (7-4) in the Champion Bumper and Carefully Selected (2-1) in the National Hunt Chase. Surely, they cannot go off that short!

From flag-fall on Tuesday to the last race on Friday, the old Corona permitting, Cheltenham will be our whole world. A little sad, undoubtedly, but who cares?

If we are are ahead at the end of what promises to be a real dogfight then that will be cause for real celebration.

At Leopardstown last Sunday, in a mares’ novice hurdle, the Jessica Harrington-trained Barrington Court looked to have a solid chance.

But the market spoke volumes against her and she drifted from an opening show of 15-8 all the way out to 100-30.

On the off she was available at 9-2 on Betfair.

Experience has long taught me that when a horse hits what might be regarded as a ridiculously generous price then those doing the offering are often telling you “this will not win.’’

And so it came to pass. Essentially, Barrington Court ran no race and was legless when pulled up by Mark Walsh long before the final flight.

Nothing to be getting too excited about at this stage, on the basis that Barrington Court would not be the first mare to under-perform.

Walsh then came in after the race and reported to the clerk of the scales that Barrington Court had gone wrong behind.

Ah yes there had to be a reason for such a dreadful display!

But that is far from the end of the story. You see the stewards, rightly doing their duty, asked the Irish

Horseracing Regulatory Board Veterinary Officer to examine Barrington Court.

And lo and behold didn’t he find the mare to be post-race normal. Maybe I’ve missed it, but I have read nothing about the case in the meantime.

I mightn’t be the brightest card in the pack but I have been left totally confused by the affair.

I mean, what exactly is going on?

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