With racing prospects looking extremely doubtful for the weekend due to the Arctic weather, it is an opportune time to look forward to Cheltenham’s Blue Riband in just sixteen days time.
Nicky Henderson, who trained the 2011 winner, Long Run, and the 2013 Victor, Bobsworth, is hoping to bring up the treble with current market leader, Might Bite, and following a highly satisfactory racecourse workout at Kempton Park last Saturday, the master of Seven Barrows expressed himself highly delighted with the condition of his challenger. Currently available at around the 4/1 mark he has won his last five races, three of them at Grade1 level, culminating with victory in the 3m King George V1 Chase last time. However his win at Kempton, again raised some doubts about his stamina, as his seven lengths advantage over the 50/1 runner up, Double Shuffle, turning into the straight, was reduced to a length at the post. Pilot, De Boinville, is convinced that the horse wasn’t tiring, only idling in front, a view I’m inclined to agree with, remembering the courageous way he fought back in last year’s 3m 1/2f RSA Chase at The Cheltenham Festival, where having got the last wrong, and hanging violently right, he still found the reserves to get back up in the shadow of the post. However the fact remains that the furthest he has won over is 3m1f and that was over the flat Mildmay course at Aintree, and despite his stamina laden pedigree, ( By the stayer Scorpion out of the Presenting mare, Knotted Midge, whose own dam, Bula Beag, got that strong staying chaser Drombeag ) the jury remains out, and its anyone’s guess how he will cope with the demands of a Gold Cup, invariably run at an attritional pace.
The record of Irish stables in the first twelve renewals of the new millennium, with only two wins, Kicking King 2005, and War Of Attrition 2006, was hardly impressive, but the last four years has seen a dramatic improvement in the fortunes of The Emerald Isle runners, with three of the last four Gold Cups going across the Irish Sea, and with messers Harrington, Mullins and Meade, fielding strong challenges, it wouldn’t be long odds against the trend continuing this year.
Jessica Harrington runs both last year’s winner, Sizing John (pictured), and her impressive Irish Grand National winner, Our Duke. The former marked himself down as a really exceptional performer last term when becoming the first horse to achieve the amazing treble of winning the Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown in February, The Cheltenham Gold Cup the following month, and The Punchestown Gold Cup in April. He carried on the good work on his reappearance seven months later in December, beating Djakadam by seven lengths at Punchestown, but was a bitter disappointment eighteen days later in The Christmas Chase at Leopardstown, trailing in 32L behind the winner, Road To Respect, in seventh place, at the cramped odds of 9/10. As well as the race coming “too soon” and some other non specific illness being blamed, no one really knows what caused the upset, but given a complete rest, he is reported to have put his problems behind him, and delighted Jessica with a scintillating workout last Tuesday. If he is indeed fully recovered, he will make them all go on the 16th.
Mrs Harrington’s other contender, Our Duke, was a hugely impressive winner of last year’s Irish Grand National, winning the 3m5f contest by 14L from Bless The Wings. He let his supporters down badly when trailing in 51L behind Outlander, when sent off the 5/6 fav for a Grade1 Chase at Down Royal, on his reappearance, seven months later. However a back problem was diagnosed and the 8yo subsequently underwent corrective surgery. He was less than convincing again with his jumping, three months later in The Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown, making a real howler at the penultimate fence when in contention. However he did show what an engine he has, by getting going again, and running on to finish fourth. Obviously short of match practice, Jessica ran him again two weeks later over an inadequate 2m4f at Gowran Park, where despite some sticky jumping he got the better of the evens favourite, the talented Presenting Percy. Our Duke was foot perfect in the Irish National, a race run at a good even clip throughout, and outstanding trainer Harrington, feels that given the pace at which The Gold Cup is invariably run the son of Oscar, wont have any trouble at the obstacles, and if she proves to be correct, it will take a good one to beat him.
The one glaring omission from the Mullins C.V. Is The Cheltenham Gold Cup, and Willie would dearly love to emulate father, Paddy, who won with the great mare, Dawn Run, in 1986. His two likeliest candidates look like being Djakadam and Killultagh Vic and as the former, despite some brave efforts, runner up twice, and fourth last year, doesn’t seem to quite get up the famous hill, his best chance of correcting the deficiency in the C.V. would seem to lie with the lightly raced Killultagh Vic. Considering it was only his third race over fences, Killultagh Vic was in the process of running a super race when coming down at the last in The Irish Gold Cup, when travelling like the winner. He has gone well over Prestbury Park’s undulations in the past, finishing 5L behind Silver Concorde in The Champion Bumper in 2014 and winning over hurdles at the 2015 Festival. A strong stayer, (outstayed Thistlecrack to win the Grade1 3m Hurdle at the 2015 Punchestown Festival) if fully over his fall at Leopardstown, could be the one to end the Mullins “Drought”.
The Noel Meade trained Road To Respect beat Baron Alco by 6L in a Grade3 Handicap Chase (2m5f) at last year’s Cheltenham festival off a mark of 145, and four weeks later, took the step up to Grade1 level in his stride, winning by a neck from Yorkhill at Fairyhouse ( 2m4f) earning a rating twelve pounds higher. He made a highly satisfactory return six months later, winning comfortably at Punchestown, (3m1f) and two weeks later, was sent off at 7/2 for a Down Royal Grade1. Clearly uncomfortable on the right hand track, and never jumping fluently, I thought he put up an excellent effort to only go down by 1/2 L to the enigmatic Outlander, earning a mark of 163. Further progress was made when he won the Grade1 Christmas Chase at Leopardstown comfortably from Galway Plate Victor, Balko Des Flos, and he is now rated 22lbs higher than he was for that Cheltenham victory. Clearly an improving animal, shrewd trainer, Noel Meade has kept him away from the exhausting winter ground, and he will be one of the freshest animals lining up at the start on the 16th.
Selection : Road To Respect
E.W. : Sizing John