No way the DRF will ever be run on any sort of quick surface again

It is interesting to contrast the influence last year’s Dublin Racing Festival at Leopardstown had on Cheltenham, compared to this year’s renewal.

No way the DRF will ever be run on any sort of quick surface again

It is interesting to contrast the influence last year’s Dublin Racing Festival at Leopardstown had on Cheltenham, compared to this year’s renewal. The two-day Dublin Racing Festival takes place in early February and is nicely positioned to give our horses the perfect preparation for Cheltenham in mid-March. But, of course, the extraordinary dry winter we experienced turned so much on its head, with horses having to race on surfaces that were far faster than ideal. And there is no doubt the big casualty was the Dublin Racing Festival. On the lead-in to the meeting Gigginstown’s, Eddie O’Leary, pleaded for decent ground.

Said O’Leary: “We need, as an industry, safe ground, or else you risk bursting up your Cheltenham horses. These are Cheltenham preps and we need a safe surface. You have to guarantee it - Cheltenham would. I am hoping to God soft will appear somewhere (in the ground description).’’

Soft did not appear in the ground description. On the Saturday it was good to yielding on the hurdles and bumper track and good on the chase track. It remained the same on the hurdles and bumper track on the Sunday, but was good, good to firm, on the chase track. Ground or no ground there were plenty willing to run their horses, with massive prizemoney on offer. An exception, however, was Sunday’s Irish Gold Cup, which was set to have a competitive field of ten runners. But six horses were withdrawn on the day, all because of the ground. They were Al Boum Photo, Anibale Fly, Balko Des Flos, Edwulf, Monalee and Noble Endeavour.

Now that Irish Gold Cup doesn’t half send a clear message about running, or not running, on a surface that is simply much too quick for National Hunt Horses. Al Boum Photo and Anibale Fly went on to finish first and second respectively in the Gold Cup at Cheltenham. The Irish Gold Cup was won by Bellshill, but he never went a yard at Cheltenham, made a series of mistakes and had to be pulled up. In the end the Dublin Racing Festival only produced two subsequent Cheltenham winners, we had 14 in total, in Klassical Dream and Envoi Allen.

Essentially, you can argue, those two got away with it and were expected to improve substantially when getting onto soft ground. That was precisely what happened and they were very impressive at Cheltenham.

Other Dublin Racing Festival horses weren’t so lucky. We have already spoken about Bellshill and then there is Le Richebourg.

He was our idea of the likely winner of the Arkle at Cheltenham from a fair way back. Le Richebourg was superb when winning at the Dublin Racing Festival - he also won at Leopardstown at Christmas on good ground - but in the end had to be ruled out of Cheltenham. Sir Erec also won at the DRF and was then quickly installed at a tight price for the Triumph Hurdle at Cheltenham. He went to Cheltenham under a bit of a cloud and, sadly, it all ended in tragedy when he broke a front leg just after the fourth flight. Two others from the Dublin Racing Festival that ran stinkers at Cheltenham were Apple’s Jade (admittedly reported to have scoped dirty) and Min, both of them failing to lift a leg.

Another example is Hardline, who was a bit of a gamble to land the Arkle. He never went a yard, trailing in a remote seventh behind Duc Des Genievres. So, you can argue that, as preparation for Cheltenham, the DRF did more harm than good! Comparing last year with this year tells its own story. Last year’s DRF was run on ground that was described as either soft or soft to heavy, in other words perfect conditions with Cheltenham in mind.

There were no less than eight subsequent Cheltenham heroes that ran in that initial festival in 2018. They were Footpad, Samcro, Delta Work, Relegate, Rathvinden, Bleu Berry, The Storyteller and Farclas. The difference that operating on genuine National Hunt ground makes is self-explanatory. Could Leopardstown have done more to provide a better surface? Probably not. We rarely saw soft ground through the most amazing winter and Leopardstown was then hampered in the days before their festival by the threat of snow. Watering in winter is largely unheard of anyway, but global warming may yet demand a radical rethink on that score. There is one certainty going forward. I am willing to wager that, in the event of a repeat of the same weather we had this winter, there is no possibility the Dublin Racing Festival will ever be run on any sort of quick surface again.

Willie Mullins seemed surprised at just how many people were delighted, after Al Boum Photo had given him his first ever success in the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Well, he shouldn’t have been, because most of the racing nation desperately wanted him to finally set the record straight. Failing to win any big race doesn’t define your career, but if Mullins was to retire, without landing the one that really counts, then it would, at best, have been disappointing. There are some big names who retired without a Cheltenham Gold Cup win, none more so than Martin Pipe and his more than able lieutenant for many years, Peter Scudamore.

Pipe revolutionised the training of National Hunt horses, while Scudamore, who was no stylist, was a grimly determined and fiercely courageous pilot. The pair were expected to win the 1992 running with Carvill’s Hill, in what is regarded as an infamous Gold Cup.

I was there that day and will never forget the air of tension, much worse than normal, as the horses walked around the parade ring. The race is considered infamous, because the front-running Carvill’s Hill was taken on for the lead for much of the contest by Jenny Pitman’s 150-1 no-hoper, Golden Freeze. In the end, Golden Freeze was pulled up, with Carvill’s Hill finishing fifth of five finishers and miles adrift of the eventual winner, Cool Ground (25-1), and Adrian Maguire.

The other big name to fail to land a Gold Cup was the quite brilliant Charlie Swan. In other circumstances he would have partnered Imperial Call to win in 1996. Imperial Call had become Swan’s ride, after he guided him to take a two and a quarter mile handicap chase at Leopardstown in January of ’96. Fergie Sutherland’s charge subsequently contested the Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown in February, but Swan stayed loyal to Aidan O’Brien and rode Life Of A Lord, which pulled up. Sutherland then turned to Conor O’Dwyer and the combination shaped like an old married couple, so well did they get on, notwithstanding that Imperial Call blundered badly at the final fence. Imperial Call crossed the line six lengths clear of Master Oats, who had won the previous year’s Cheltenham Gold Cup by 15 lengths. Following much soul-searching, Sutherland concluded that leaving well enough alone was the way to proceed and O’Dwyer was again in the plate on that famous Cheltenham afternoon.

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