Last year’s Cheltenham Gold Cup winner, Sizing John, may not be here to defend his crown but trainer Jessica Harrington has an able deputy in the shape of Our Duke, who can land racing’s blue riband on the final day of another very successful Festival for Irish-trained runners.
A winner of his first two starts over fences, including a Grade One at Leopardstown’s Christmas meeting, he wrapped up a great season with a spectacular performance in the Irish Grand National.
This season began on a low note, when he picked up an injury on his return, but he showed signs of a return to form when fourth behind Edwulf in the Irish Gold Cup.
Having made a bad mistake at the second-last that day, Harrington felt the need for another spin over fences, which she gave him in the Red Mills Chase at Gowran Park.
He had to concede 7lbs to novice Presenting Percy in that race but came out on top to the tune of a length, and the form of that race could not have received a bigger boost when the runner-up posted a huge effort in winning Wednesday’s RSA Chase.
Jumping remains the only concern for Our Duke as he has shown he can handle testing conditions, and stamina is of no concern.
He has a touch of class which many of his rivals lack, and if he can put in a clean round of jumping he will be right there as they race up the hill.
Might Bite is one of Our Duke’s rivals who certainly doesn’t lack class.
He has ability in abundance and put in a remarkable effort to win last year’s RSA Chase. He all but threw away the race with his wayward antics after the last but picked up again to deny stable-companion Whisper.
Today’s longer trip is a concern, particularly in testing conditions, and he won’t get away with any quirky antics at this level. The problem is he is too classy to ignore.
Nicky Henderson is the leading trainer and Barry Geraghty the leading jockey in Triumph Hurdle history and they can combine to enhance their record by taking this afternoon’s renewal with Apple’s Shakira.
The filly won her only start in France and has added three more hurdle victories since joining the Seven Barrows team.
On the first of those three outings, she was heavily backed to beat then Triumph Hurdle ante-post favourite Gumball — and obliged with a considerable amount in hand. She had little trouble following up at the expense of Nube Negra, and again when beating Look My Way in late January.
All three wins were at Cheltenham, two of them over today’s course and distance. Henderson knows better than anyone what is needed to win this race, and he can claim a seventh victory in the race, and a sixth for Geraghty.
Gordon Elliott has enjoyed another memorable meeting and can take the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle with Flawless Escape.
The five-year-old impressed in winning his maiden at Leopardstown’s Christmas meeting, when the final hurdle was omitted, resulting in a long run-in.
He won with a bit to spare that day and ran as well as could be expected when third behind Gold Cup hope Total Recall last time out, over three miles.
On that occasion, stable-companion Delta Work finished upsides, and that form looks particularly strong now, with the last-named winning the Pertemps Final here yesterday. There is certain to be plenty more to come from the selection, and he can take this competitive race at the expense of Deal D’estruval, who ran a super race in defeat in a hot handicap on his most recent start.
Santini can take the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle for trainer Nicky Henderson and jockey Nico De Boinville.
The six-year-old won a point-to-point in March of last year and made a successful track debut when beating stable-companion Chef Des Obeaux, who re-opposes, in a two-and-a-half-mile novice hurdle at Newbury in December.
The form of that effort reads very well in light of the runner-up’s subsequent exploits, but it’s the form of Santini’s recent form which is even more encouraging. In a Grade Two over two and a half miles on the New Course at Cheltenham, he got up late to deny Black Op by three parts of a length, with the remainder a long way back.
While it could be argued the runner-up went for home a little early, it was a great effort by Santini, and one which suggested he should appreciate the step up to three miles, which he gets today. If that proves to be the case, he will be hard to beat in a race which his trainer won with subsequent Gold Cup winner Bobs Worth in 2011.
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