It’s been one amazingly frustrating season for everyone involved in jumps racing.
Last week it had looked as if the season had finally got going, but typically of late the promised rain never materialised amounting to firm ground at Leopardstown leading to depleted fields across the two days.
A mere four runners in the Irish Gold Cup on Sunday typified just how unsuitable racing conditions were.
It was still a weekend of top-class racing in Dublin however, and a few horses did at least manage to stake very sound claims for Cheltenham Festival glory.
We have a cracking Champion Hurdle on our hands.
I wasn’t alone in doubting how adept Apple’s Jade would be over two miles. Well, she proved she is indeed just fine over the minimum trip.
She jumped and travelled at speed and had her rivals beaten easily turning in. It was a fantastic performance on fast ground. She ticks a lot of boxes going into March.
I’m delighted to see that Gordon Elliott and the O’Leary’s have decided that she is now well worth her place in the Champion Hurdle. It’s the only reasonable decision to make.
Of course, it’s not all that hard to pick holes in the form as Melon once again didn’t show up at Leopardstown and Supasundae hasn’t really been firing this season. This is probably immaterial though as it was a very aesthetically pleasing performance, and the time is rather impressive too.
The Cheltenham hill will only play to her strengths and she will get that crucial seven-pound sex allowance. If she’s out in front turning in, it’ll take a very good horse to catch her.
Whilst she can only beat what’s put in front of her, I can’t get away from the feeling though that it’s a race that rather fell apart.
I’m still keen to take her on in March.
She’s very unlikely to get it her own way out in front and I’m still concerned about her slight habit of jumping right at her hurdles. She will not get away with it in a truly run two-mile championship race.
You could easily say I’m being very picky in that observation, but these are the fine margins you must consider at the very top level of horse racing.
Despite my trepidation, it’s fantastic that she adds a fascinating further dimension to Tuesday’s showpiece and for the first time in a few years we are looking at a very deep and intriguing Champion Hurdle.
Laurina will have another run, Buveur D’air was smooth in his victory at Sandown Park on Saturday and many in the field will feel they have a chance too.
I also think it would be foolhardy to completely dismiss Melon off the back of that run. He flopped as badly in this race last year, before going on to nearly win the Champion Hurdle. 12/1 might be too big about Melon, were he to suddenly bounce back to form.
It’s looking like a cracking renewal – here’s hoping they all stay sound for the next few weeks!
Whisper it quietly, but Joseph O’Brien might finally be edging closer to disrupting the Elliott & Mullins conglomerate in Irish Jumps Racing.
His string ran superbly at the weekend and he is starting to build a formidable team of horses to go to war with.
Now it’s hardly a “rags to riches” story, but a welcome development for Irish racing nonetheless.
On Sunday, Sir Erec showed the world why connections think so highly of him with a supremely easy win in the Spring Juvenile Hurdle.
Bounced out early by Mark Walsh, he made all to see off a smart field at his ease.
We expected a much closer rematch between Tiger Tap Tap and Sir Erec, but it never materialised as Sir Erec was simply far too good. He came home comfortably in front and in the end saw off his stablemate Gardens Of Babylon to lead home a 1-2 for the young trainer.
Joseph now has three of the top six in the Triumph Hurdle betting after Fakir D’Oudairies demolished the field at Cheltenham the previous week. He easily could end up saddling a 1-2-3 in March.
On Saturday after a host of admirable placings amongst his battalion, Joseph O’Brien’s Le Richebourg displayed his clear Arkle credentials with a smooth victory in the Irish Arkle Novice Chase. Us And Them followed him home, another Grade One 1-2 for the yard.
This was far from a vintage renewal, but the Arkle division has been like this all year on both sides of the Irish Sea.
Le Richebourg is rightfully on top of the 2019 Arkle market, where he belongs to be. I still think Cilaos Emery has a hand to play in that race just yet.
Commander Of Fleet really impressed me in the Grade One novice hurdle (2m6f) in the first race on Saturday.
I see he is being mentioned for the Albert Bartlett, but I genuinely think he’d be much better over the Ballymore trip. He stays and travels, two facets that lend itself beautifully to that contest.
Min was imperious in his bloodless victory in the Dublin Chase. Whilst he has it all to do against Altior once again, he’s well worth his place to take on Nicky Henderson’s charge in March.
I almost feel sorry for Min, in that similarly to Excelebration bumping into Frankel, had Altior not been around we’d be talking about him as a truly great horse and a two-time Cheltenham Festival winner. That’s racing, I suppose.
Bellshill and La Bague Au Roi were brave winners on Sunday, but in truth they won depleted races that are very hard to gauge in terms of their probable festival targets. As much as you must recognise the clear talent of both, I’d be keen to take them on at a festival.
Ruby Walsh stalled any retirement chatter onboard the aforementioned Bellshill and a truly fantastic ride on Klassical Dream to win the Chanelle Pharma Novice Hurdle from his stablemate Aramon.
I’m not keen on either particularly for any novice race at the festival, but they served up a spectacular finish on Sunday. The third, Vision D’Honneur, is the one I think will turn out to be the best of these. You could tell by his pronounced knee action that he despised the firm ground. Back on normal festival ground he should come back to his best and might end up overpriced on the day with some give underfoot.
Honeysuckle goes from strength to strength for the Mares Novice Hurdle, despite not even running, with Sassy Diva’s victory in the opening Mares Handicap Hurdle on Sunday franking her form no end.
I feel Sassy Diva should have won more comfortably, but her and jockey Donagh Meyler got stuck in a perpetual pocket of trouble and she got him out of trouble close home to prevail by two lengths.
Honeysuckle beat her with consummate ease at Thurles earlier in the season.
This boost augurs well when you consider that Alletrix won this race last year, after being similarly put away by the eventual Mares Novice winner Laurina.
Uradel is the first horse to have struck me as a handicap winner at the festival after a big run in fifth behind Off You Go in the handicap hurdle (two miles) on Saturday. The same owners and trainer had Bleu Berry run in this race and then go onto Coral Cup (two miles, four furlongs) glory and there’s no reason why Uradel can’t follow suit.
He travelled well but didn’t have the finishing kick to reach the front four over what looked an inadequate trip. Going up in trip will be the making of him.
He’ll need a few pounds from the English and Irish handicapper, which he should get, and he’ll go very close at the Cheltenham Festival off a low weight.
The JLT Novice Chase is another headache inducing division at the minute, but you could only be impressed by the victory of Defi Du Seuil in Sandown on Saturday. He will be very interesting at March as he seems to only be improving.
The green and gold of JP McManus had a good weekend and by the looks of it, could have a tremendous festival week also.
There’s only way to finish this week’s piece and it’s with the legend that was Special Tiara.
It’s always gut wrenching when a horse loses his or her life on the racecourse, but there is something particularly sickening when it’s an old warrior like Special Tiara who had given racing so many good days.
He jumped like a stag, had the heart of a lion and on good ground he put it up to any horse. This was typified in his huge run behind Sprinter Sacre and Un De Sceaux back in 2016 in the Champion Chase.
He epitomised what makes Henry De Bromhead a great trainer, he very rarely put a foot wrong over fences. He was as solid a horse as you could have dreamed of owning, as in over 30 starts over fences he only fell or unseated his rider twice.
He had his day in the limelight in 2017 when going one better and finally winning the Champion Chase at the Cheltenham Festival.
Superstars come and go, but horses like Special Tiara who run at the top level for what seems a lifetime are particularly special.
Beasts like Special Tiara is what makes the general public fall in love with jumps racing – seeing the same names in these big races repeatedly is almost comforting in its familiarity.
Rest well old warrior.
0.50 Pts E/W Espoir D’allen 20/1 (Champion Hurdle)
0.50 Pts E/W Saldier 20/1 (Champion Hurdle)
2 Pts Win Penhill 5/1 (Stayers Hurdle)
0.50 Pts E/W Black Op 14/1 (Stayers Hurdle)
0.50 Pts E/W Al Boum Photo 14/1 (Gold Cup)
Odds are provided at time of writing, please check your betslip to confirm they have not changed before betting.