I was a fairly late comer to horse racing, only starting to fully engage with the sport in my late teens around the early 2000s. The period from 2002 to 2005 was a special period in time for the Leopardstown Christmas Chase, then and for many years known as The Ericsson and Lexus Chase, now called the Savills Chase, with the 2018 renewal set for Friday the 28th of December.
A trip down Leopardstown Memory Lane…
It was a barmy but brilliant horse called Beef Or Salmon, trained by Michael Hourigan, who really made me start to appreciate the Leopardstown Christmas Festival. In his customary hold up and pounce late style, Beef Or Salmon was absorbing to watch and he made this race his own, winning it three times between those years. In 2003, one Best Mate upset the applecart somewhat with an outstanding performance, scooting merrily clear of Beef Or Salmon by 13 lengths.
That season, Best Mate was an invincible. A two-time Gold Cup winner at the time, who wouldn’t be seen again until March, where he duly completed the hat-trick and cemented his Legendary status in National Hunt racing. The following December, Best Mate was back again for a tilt at the Lexus Chase and he was odds-on to beat Beef Or Salmon once again. But Beef Or Salmon was strong in the market and although I had Best Mate in a multiple bet that day, I had a feeling the Hourigan horse – who I didn’t know a great deal about at the time – was going to spoil the party.
He was given a brilliant ride by Paul Carberry in the 2004 Lexus, cheekily waving on Best Mate behind him as he strode clear of Henrietta Knight’s toiling star. It was then I realised two things, that seemingly invincible horses do lose horse races and that Beef Or Salmon was a very special talent indeed. The following year, Beef Or Salmon once again proved his brilliance with dominating display over another Gold Cup winner in the shape of War Of Attrition. Beef Or Salmon ran up to a Racing Post Rating of 174 that afternoon, one of his finest performances and one he was unable to run up to again before being retired. But in winning the Leopardstown Christmas Chase three times, given his unique style of racing and his quirks, Beef Or Salmon was the horse that very much tapped into my imagination and showed me how special this Leopardstown Christmas meeting really is.
In the following years, there was a host of household names who came over from the UK to win the Lexus Chase. Denman is one of the great chasers of all time and few will remember him for his 2007 win in the Lexus, where he justified 4/9 favouritism with an excellent victory over Mossbank, 2006 winner The Listener and an 11 year old Beef Or Salmon well held back in 4th.
Between 2011 and 2013, three top class UK trained horses won the Lexus Chase. In 2011, Synchronised bolted up by 8 lengths under Sir AP McCoy, before going on to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup in March under the same famous jockey. The following year Tidal Bay got up on the line under a vintage Ruby Walsh ride, to deny First Lieutenant, Flemenstar and Sir Des Champs in a four-way battle and a Classic finish to the Lexus. Paul Nicholls deserves so much credit for the work he did with an ageing Tidal Bay when he joined the yard as a 10 year old and the 2012 renewal, for all it wasn’t the classiest of Grade 1s, it is certainly one of my favourite all time renditions of this ever-popular staying steeplechase.
In 2013, another all time favourite – Bob’s Worth – conjured up a typically mesmerising and sustained turn of foot to outgun in his Leopardstown rivals. He was a diminutive chaser, but boy he was brave, and had gears to boot. Again this wasn’t a vintage renewal in regard to quality, Bob’s Worth only had to run up to 164 to win it, but it was another memorable performance from a very popular horse.
Gigginstown Domination at Leopardstown
Since 2013, the Irish and in particular the Gigginstown horses have dominated what is now called the Savills Chase. Last year’s winner ROAD TO RESPECT returns to the Leopardstown fold on the back of a career best run first time out at Down Royal for a resurgent Noel Meade stable. Presenting Percy is the Gold Cup market leader and rightly seen as the young up and comer on the back of his RSA Chase escapades back in March. But it is worth keeping in mind that Road To Respect is only a 7 year old too and looks to be approaching the peak of his powers. While the 2018 Savills Chase will act as a stepping stone to Spring for Presenting Percy, Road To Respect will be absolutely cherry ripe for his defence of the Christmas crown and he looks the one to be on and a horse that could pick up where Beef Or Salmon left off all those years ago by winning the Leopardstown Christmas Chase more than just the once, which is no mean feat for any horse. If he does win it again, which I think he will, his now double figure price for the Cheltenham Gold Cup will disappear. He does need decent ground to have any chance there in 2019, but 2018-2019 could just be his season.
If pushed for a Christmas Banker, I’d go with Samcro in the Ryanair Hurdle. This two mile hurdle project is just that – a season long project. They learned at Down Royal that he needs a first run, they learned at Newcastle that holding him up off a snail’s pace against a dual Champion Hurdler doesn’t really work either. This time and with two runs under his belt, I’d like to see Jack Kennedy take the bull by the horns and show us what this horse can do. Samcro needs a statement win to be taken seriously for his date with hurdling destiny in March and I think he’ll achieve it next week.
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