Pat Keane: Yet more grounds for concern at Leopardstown

The 2019 Dublin Racing Festival at Leopardstown was a bit of a disaster, but last weekend’s two-day renewal emerged relatively unscathed on Sunday evening.

Pat Keane: Yet more grounds for concern at Leopardstown

The 2019 Dublin Racing Festival at Leopardstown was a bit of a disaster, but last weekend’s two-day renewal emerged relatively unscathed on Sunday evening.

You suspect, though, it was oh so close. On Saturday Gordon Elliott described the ground situation as “just not good enough’’ and one waited on Sunday with bated breath.

But 3mm of rain overnight and extensive watering, presumably, just about saved the meeting. There were plenty of rumours circulating on Sunday morning that high-profile horses might swerve their intended targets but, thankfully, the mutterings proved to be unfounded.

Surely, though, it just isn’t good enough that trainers are faced with such a dilemma. They desperately wanted to run, with over €2m in prizemoney on offer and knowing these two days have the capacity to indicate just how strong a Cheltenham challenger(s) they may have on their hands.

But instead they are left with decisions to make, which is really ridiculous in the month of February. It seems the lessons of last year were barely learnt and another calamitous Sunday was just about avoided.

The Sunday of last year’s Dublin Racing Festival made a laughing stock of Irish racing, producing a whopping 26 non-runners, 22 of them due to the ground.

We all remember the Irish Gold Cup and the farce it became. Ten were set to face the starter, but six of them came out on the day because the surface was deemed to be far too quick.

The race was won by Bellshill and he was the only one of the four to actually later contest the Cheltenham Gold Cup. He pulled up before the ninth.

The Gold Cup, of course, was won by Al Boum Photo from Anibale Fly and they were two of the six horses who were taken out of that Irish Gold Cup.

Another who didn’t meet his engagement because of the ground that Sunday at Leopardstown, Any Second Now, also went on to win at Cheltenham.

Recently, Noel Meade’s best horse, Road To Respect, was ruled out for the rest of the season, after finishing third behind Delta Work and Monalee in the Savills Chase at Leopardstown at Christmas. Meade blamed the ground.

At the Dublin Racing Festival last year, the Joseph O’Brien-trained Le Richebourg was very impressive in winning the Grade 1 Arkle Chase, on ground described as good. Le Richebourg has not been seen since.

It seems obvious Leopardstown, at least on its chase track, has a problem and unless there is substantial rain in the weeks and days leading into one of its meetings then horses may well be on a wing and a prayer as far as the ground is concerned.

The Festival last year only produced one subsequent Cheltenham success story over jumps, Klassical Dream (Supreme Novices’ Hurdle), as well as the Bumper winner, Envoi Allen.

Sad to say there were as many Cheltenham winners among the 26 non-runners as there were among the runners.

The signs for this year’s Dublin Racing Festival were ominous enough last Saturday when two smart horses, A Plus Tard and Fakir D’Oudairies, were withdrawn because of unsuitable ground.

Fakir D’Oudairies was especially interesting, considering he was going to contest the Arkle Chase, the same race as stable companion, Le Richebourg, a year earlier.

For Joseph O’Brien, however, it was clearly a case of once bitten, twice shy!

Right then how many Cheltenham winners were on show at the latest renewal of the DRF? Well, it will be most disappointing if the total doesn’t at least beat last year’s paltry two.

I think top of the list has to be Henry de Bromhead’s Notebook, this week the 7-2 market leader for the Arkle Trophy.

The improvement he has found moving from hurdles to fences has been amazing and, I don’t care who you are, it was entirely unpredictable. He was no more than a useful hurdler and the last time was seen in that discipline had a rating of 130.

Notebook has now won all four of his chases and has just got better and better. He landed last Saturday’s Arkle, but his behaviour before the race was enough to put this punter off.

He virtually bolted on the way down and, at best, was very keen, making it most difficult for Rachael Blackmore.

But the seven-year-old then gave a superb display of jumping and staying power to beat a seriously worthy opponent in Cash Back by three parts of a length. He is rated 158 over fences, two stone above his hurdles mark.

Willie Mullins’ Appreciate It has now become a very strong favourite for the Cheltenham bumper, on the back of a smooth win on Saturday. Those holding tasty ante-post vouchers on him are in a nice place.

Saturday shaped as very competitive beforehand, but Appreciate It coasted through the contest like a dream to win with loads in hand.

Saturday also played host to a third Cheltenham possibility in Paul Nolan’s Latest Exhibition, who showed all the right qualities to win a two-miles and six Grade 1 over hurdles.

There is nothing flashy about this horse, but he knows how to get down and dirty and the three-miles of the Albert Novice Hurdle should be right up his street.

There are plenty raving about Willie Mullins’ Chacun Pour Soi, following his defeat of stable companion, Min, in a two-miles and a furlong Grade 1 chase on Saturday.

I was delighted to see him win, for obvious reasons, and his jumping was a joy to watch. But, at least to my eyes, he was empty enough in the closing stages.

He is, understandably, a major fancy for the two mile-Champion Chase, a race Mullins has never won.

But I am not at all convinced he has what it takes up the Cheltenham hill against two massive rivals in Altior and Defi De Seuil.

It seems common sense is going to prevail and all thoughts of Honeysuckle running in the Champion Hurdle have quickly evaporated .

She is a magnificent mare, with a terrific attitude, but scrambling home in front of Darver Star and Petit Mouchoir on Saturday would give her little chance, even in a sub-standard Champion Hurdle. No, the Mares’ Hurdle is her race, all the more so should Benie Des Dieux head in a different direction.

Anyway, in the end it was a great festival, with Faugheen lighting up Leopardstown on Sunday, Rachael Blackmore winning two Grade 1’s and Bryan Cooper, aboard Latest Exhibition on Saturday, emphasising again that if you give him a chance, he is more than capable of delivering.

The worst news of the weekend, of course, was the broken leg sustained by Jack Kennedy.

He gave Delta Work an inspired drive to win the Irish Gold Cup on Sunday and then had his young world turned upside down in the very next contest.

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