Classy Sir Oj stakes Cheltenham claim

SIR OJ confirmed his place in champion trainer Noel Meade’s team for the Cheltenham Festival when outpointing smart novice Nickname in the Grade 2 Tote ‘Online Betting For Cheltenham’ Newlands Chase at Naas yesterday.

Under a determined Paul Carberry ride, Brian Keenan’s tough nine-year-old edged past front-running Nickname four from home, was headed at the penultimate fence before powering up the hill to land the spoils by a length and a half, giving Meade his 85th success of the season, a personal best.

Meade described Sir Oj as “a lovely horse, tough out” before confirming that he’ll be part of the County Meath trainer’s Cheltenham plans. “The ‘Mildmay’ (now the Racing Post Plate) has been his target all along, but he has a few more entries. He’ll get a 6lb. penalty for the handicaps after this win, but he’s won nearly €40,000 today.

“We’ll wait and have a look at the weights for the handicap and, if we think he’s too high in the weights, he could always go for the Ryanair Chase over the same trip as the ‘Mildmay’. He likes Cheltenham and is a course and distance winner, having won there back in December.”

And Meade added, “Both Paul and myself think Sir Oj could be an ideal type for the Aintree Grand National. And Brian (owner Brian Keenan) is pretty keen on the idea. But Cheltenham is definitely his next assignment, After that, we’ll look at our options.”

While Meade hopes to have at least a dozen runners at Cheltenham, Tom Taaffe nominated just three, Emotional Moment, Tumbling Dice and King’s Advocate after the Barry Geraghty-ridden Merdeka captured the Bar-One Racing Johnstown Novice Hurdle in good style from Back To Bid and favourite Stoneville.

Always highly regarded by Taaffe, Merdeka was redeeming his reputation dented by his third placing, behind Toofarback, in the Slaney Hurdle over the same course and distance last month.

Noel Meade expressed his satisfaction with runner-up Back To Bid despite another display of indifferent jumping, but ruled him out of Cheltenham while Eric McNamara was encouraged by the performance of third-placed Stoneville.

Taking a significant step-up in class, Tony McCoy’s mount confirmed his need for three miles, staying on nicely in the closing stages and prompting McCoy to tell trainer McNamara that he should have made more use of JP McManus’ previously unbeaten six-year-old. Stoneville will have one more run this season and will embark on a chasing career in the autumn.

The market suggested that the other Grade 2 contest on the card, the Anglo Irish Bank Nas na Riogh Novice Chase was a ‘match’ between odds-on favourite Father Matt and Kill Devil Hill.

But the bookies got a result as 12/1 Lordofourown, trained by Shane Donohoe, who is currently on a golfing holiday in Spain, got the better of 20/1 shot Chetwind Music with Kill Devil Hill a distant third.(subsequently found to have a respiratory tract infection).

Odds-on favourite Father Matt was in front when blundering and unseating Paul Carberry at the eighth fence in a race which saw Andrew McNamara ease Lordofourown into the lead before the second last to record a fluent success.

Donohoe’s wife and assistant Samanatha ruled Cheltenham out of plans for the winner, because the track wouldn’t suit him, but nominated the Powers Gold Cup at Fairyhouse, Aintree and Ayr as possible targets.

Timmy Murphy gave the David Marnanae-trained Premier Rouge a confident ride to land the Naas Supporters Handicap Hurdle while Mark Walsh notched his eight win of the season on board the well-backed, Martin Brassil-trained Fanling Lady in the opening maiden hurdle.

And course and distance winner Hairy Molly, ridden for Joe Crowley by Gareth Power, proved the only successful favourite on the card when bolting up in the bumper.

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