RACHAEL Blackmore, arguably the greatest lady rider of all time, can have Irish eyes smiling by guiding the imposing Notebook to victory in the Arkle Trophy at Cheltenham today.
The seven-year-old is miles better as a chaser than he ever was over flights and, when starting his new career at the start of the current campaign, it was impossible to envisage him developing into a live Festival contender.
He began his new discipline with a pair of smooth successes in relatively modest contests at Punchestown and then stepped up class to record two more wins, both at Leopardstown.
Notebook landed his first Grade 1 at Leopardstown at Christmas when, rather surprisingly, proving far too good for the much more highly regarded, at least at the time, Fakir D’Oudairies.
There was a length and a half between them and, in theory, Notebook should have no trouble confirming the placings on 7lbs better terms.
But the ground was on the quick side for Fakir D’Oudaires then and he subsequently swerved the Dublin Racing Festival, back at Leopardstown, because the surface was too fast for him.
As a result, Joseph O’Brien’s charge will arrive a fresh horse, the more rain that falls the better and he is reportedly very strongly fancied.
Since Christmas, however, Notebook has gone on to score again in Group 1 company, at the aforementioned Dublin Racing Festival.
The bare form is nothing to be getting excited about, but it was the manner in which Henry de Bromhead’s charge overcame adversity that was impressive.
He did his best to run away with Blackmore on the way to the start and she did well to get him anchored.
There was plenty to worry about then and he wouldn’t have been the first horse to be beaten, even before the starter let them go.
But Notebook is made of stern stuff and found enough from the back of the last to squeeze home three parts of a length in front of Cash Back.
The latter re-opposes on the same terms and, like Notebook, is a far more potent force as a chaser, compared to a hurdler. He doesn’t have a whole lot to find and has a life.
This shapes as a superb Arkle and it will be fast and furious with little margin for error. Hopefully, there will be no repeat of his uncharacteristic behaviour at Leopardstown last time on the part of Notebook and this magnificent jumper gets the nap.
Feature event is the Unibet Champion Hurdle and, in contrast to the Arkle, this 17-runner affair looks as modest a renewal as you could get.
It was a dreadful race a year ago, the ill-fated Espoir D’Allen winning by 15 lengths, and this looks just as bad!
The each-way nod falls on Nicky Henderson’s Pentland Hills, who has numerous critics and is thought of, at least in some quarters, as a weak finisher.
Last season, though, there was little wrong with the manner in which he saw out his races, powering up the hill here a year ago to win the Triumph Hurdle going away by three lengths.
A couple of weeks later he went to Aintree and displayed lots of courage to outbattle the tough Fakir D’Oudairies and land a Grade 1 by a hard-earned neck.
The selection has failed to deliver in two outings this season, but there were extenuating circumstances to explain the defeats.
At Cheltenham, in the middle of December, he travelled like the best horse in the race for most of the journey, until lack of an outing counted and he faded in the closing stages to finish fifth behind stable companion, Call Me Lord.
Then Pentland Hills got nabbed in the dying strides, on terrible ground, and was beaten a nose into second by Ballyandy at Haydock in January.
He can take a fierce hold, but with such a big field there should be loads of pace on, and Nico de Boinville to thread his way into contention on Pentland Hills in the straight is the prediction.
Asterion Forlonge has a tendency to jump to his right and that is a worry as we go with him in the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.
We can only pray it won’t come into play, or be too pronounced, because he possesses a big engine and is more than capable of a massive showing.
Pentland Hills (e.w)