3:40 Martinstown Opportunity Series Final Handicap Hurdle
Next to impossible with plotted-up horses aplenty I’m sure about to leave their form miles behind. Many small yards have won this Final in the ten years since it was first run and Willie Mullins would be the only big name trainer to have won it. The seven winners between 2004-2010 carried no more than 11st but classier horses have taken over recently with the last three winners carrying 11st 4lb, 11st 7lb and 11st 8lb, notably Beau Michael who became the oldest winner of this race when successful as a nine-year-old at 25/1 last year and he is back to defend his title. Maguire’s Glen, Master Oscar, Ghareer, Hotelinthewall Bar and Highbrow Blue line up here off the back of last-time-out wins.
Beau Michael can put in a bold bid to win this race for the second year running. He is only off a 1lb higher mark this time than last year and had a warm up for this with a spin on the Flat 18 days ago. He also prepped on the Flat ahead of winning this race last year. He was also fourth in this race in 2012 so you can be certain this has been the season-long plan and I couldn’t put you off an each-way sniff in this huge field. Sea Light arrives here off the back of break of 95 days and Charles Byrnes has turned to Ger Fox claiming 4lb so I would argue that he has the best rider in the race on his side. The longish break could also suggest this has been the plan since mid-winter when he completed a hat-trick in the space of five weeks before finishing fourth in the always-competitive Boylesports.com Hurdle. I doubt that the market will miss him however. Master Oscar appeals most of the five last-time-out winners on his handicap debut for Christy Roche having won a maiden hurdle four weeks ago in first-time cheekpieces. Whether he is a mudlark is an obvious question in which case he might struggle but I would be hopeful it might have been the new headgear that worked the oracle last time, in which case, he’s a player. Diyala would be my final stab in the near dark in a ridiculously-difficult handicap hurdle. It’s just a gut feeling more than anything else as I like the fact Gordon Elliott has not run her for 138 days (if that is by design) and this is her first handicap over timber having had little chance taking on Faugheen two starts back.
4:20 Louis Fitzgerald Hotel Hurdle
Restricted to horses with no more than one win over timber of any age and the horse to beat on official ratings is the eight-year-old, Cheltenian. However, since his good fourth in the Betfair Hurdle at Newbury in a race dominated by novices, he was pulled up after being backed into 5/1 favouritism for the County Hurdle but bounced back when fourth of 22 beaten just over two lengths when upped to this 2m4f trip at Aintree so I don’t know what happened at Cheltenham. Despite his age, Cheltenian has only had nine runs in his career and this looks a great opportunity for him and the Hobbs yard who do well on their trips to this meeting which his owner, Roger Brookhouse, also loves. Interesting that Alan King sends over Carraig Mor who was ante-post favourite for the Albert Bartlett until he was beaten at long odds-on at Ascot in November after which his trainer said he needs plenty of time. Beaten at odds-on again on his next start at Huntingdon, that tight course wouldn’t be his track being a big horse who is very much a three-mile chaser in the making. Whether he would be racing here if he wasn’t running in the same ownership as Balder Succes who runs here on Thursday, I have severe doubts, and he could find this all happening too quickly at this stage of his career. A third British challenger is Nicky Henderson’s dual Irish point-to-point winner, Medieval Chapel, who receives 6lb from all bar one rival being a maiden. He wasn’t disgraced when fourth to the subsequent Tolworth Hurdle winner on his hurdles debut at Ascot but was a bit disappointing behind the classy Seeyouatmidnight next time at Musselburgh but he is lightly raced and has been given plenty of time by his patient handler.
The Irish team is headed by Le Vent D’Antan who had a big reputation as a bumper horse and started joint-favourite for last season’s Weatherbys Champion Bumper when seventh behind Briar Hill and he is a big horse just starting to work out what is required over hurdles. Placed on his first two starts over timber over 2m, he then won when raised to this trip by nine lengths when fully expected to at odds of 2/5 but his best run was second last time out in a Grade 2 behind Lieutenant Colonel. Willie Mullins runs two; Beluckyagain who was a seven lengths’ second to stablemate, Adriana Des Mottes, in the Grade 1 Mares’ Novice Hurdle at Fairyhouse three weeks ago (don’t read anything into that Grade 1 status though) at 20/1 and Val De Ferbet who disappointed badly on his only run for Mullins beaten 39 lengths having been sent off 6/4 favourite having won at Pau on his previous start, so it is hard to know what to make of him.
Henry De Bromhead’s Sizing Granite is interesting having improved with each of his three hurdle runs culminating in an easy win last time, Dessie Hughes also runs a last-time-out winner in Emperor Of Exmoor who beat 24 rivals at Fairyhouse last week and also don’t dismiss the giant Flaming Dawn for Edward O’Grady and J P McManus who has been disappointing since he made a winning debut over timber but was considered an Albert Bartlett type after he won at Tramore. Wounded Warrior completes the field for Noel Meade who has a shout on his fourth to Sure Reef in a Grade 2 at Leopardstown in January.
Le Vent D’Antan
Cheltenian is the horse to beat for sure having won a Champion Bumper but more so on his fourth in the Betfair Hurdle and another competitive handicap hurdle at the Grand National Meeting. He will be tough to beat if he can reproduce that level of form on his travels and has more experience than these plus the Hobbs yard do very well on their trips to the Punchestown Festival. I suspect the well regarded Carraig Mor is only running here as Balder Succes runs in the same colours tomorrow and this will be too tough a task at this stage of his career so Medieval Chapel appeals more and especially receiving 6lb. He may have been beaten 14 lengths at Ascot on his hurdles debut but Henderson usually runs his most promising novices at that course in the early part of the season so I reckon he will end up being pretty useful, in which chase, I can see a big run here, and his young horses traditionally fare well at this meeting. Best of the Irish can prove to be Le Vent D’Antan who is getting to grips with what is required and there was no disgrace in finishing second to a quality novice in Lieutenant Colonel last time out.
4.55 Irish Daily Mirror Novice Hurdle
First run in 2008 and upgraded to a Grade 1 race two years ago having previously been a standard novice hurdle and then a Grade 3 and Grade 2, therefore this staying novice hurdle equivalent of Cheltenham’s Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle is still finding its feet to an extent so trends are thin on the ground.
In its half a dozen runnings however, this contest has provided a few shocks with The Midnight Club being the only successful favourite in amongst four double-figure priced winners – Morning Assembly becoming the latest 12 months ago at 14/1. Askanna is the biggest priced winner when beating Mossey Joe at 33/1 three years ago. Possibly significantly, even if it is early days, is that of the six winners only The Midnight Club (third in the Albert Bartlett) ran at the Cheltenham Festival and that was then this was only a Grade 3 novice hurdle. Three of the front four in the market ran at Cheltenham with Very Wood taking the Albert Bartlett in first-time cheekpieces at 33/1 where he had Apache Jack 4½ lengths back in third, and Don Poli recorded a higher official rating when winning the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle. Shanahan’s Turn also ran at Cheltenham where he finished eighth in the Neptune having run well for a long way.
Willie Mullins has won two runnings with The Midnight Club and Marasonnien but was out of luck last season when his favourite and second-favourite, Ballycasey and Inish Island, finished third and second respectively behind Morning Assembly. He did saddle the 1-2-3 the previous season however. He relies on Don Poli this time with Walsh in the saddle for the Gigginstown-owned runner who are also represented by Very Wood with Paul Carberry keeping the ride.
Surprisingly, only The Midnight Club of the race’s six winners had won over three miles under Rules but it is early days yet and as far as I am concerned, a win over this trip has to be viewed as a positive. Beat That and Very Wood have both won Grade 1 races over 3m+. Five of the six winners were aged five or six – Lots Of Memories and Captainofthefleet are seven-year-olds.
Cheltenham Festival form has not been a significant factor so far, in fact five of the six winners bypassed that meeting so, in a race where trends are still finding their feet, perhaps Beat That is the one to concentrate on of the big four in the betting having had four months off in between finishing second in a Grade 2 at Sandown over 2m4f in December where he shaped like the best horse but looked immature and when winning the Grade 1 Sefton Novices’ Hurdle at Aintree over 3m1f where he and the runner-up pulled 25 lengths clear of 16 rivals. Very Wood reversed Slaney Novice Hurdle form with Apache Jack when causing a 33/1 shock in first-time cheekpieces in the Albert Bartlett under a terrific hold up ride when they both improved for the step up to three miles. Those tactics might not be so well suited to a smaller field but he did win one of the bumpers at this meeting last year. Given Willie Mullins’ record in this race, I would just side with Don Poli over the Albert Bartlett form, especially as the Handicapper rated that handicap win a better performance than Very Wood recorded in the Grade 1 staying novice event at Cheltenham and I just have to question the Albert Bartlett form as the big two of Briar Hill and Kings Palace both fell, though the latter was well beaten at the time.
5:30 Bibby Financial Services Ireland Punchestown Gold Cup
It is advantageous to race on the pace on the chase course at this meeting and five of the last eight winners were leading from as far as four out. Extend that to six of the last eight were in front three out if including Sir Des Champs last season who also committed for home earlier than you might have expected.
A very good race indeed for favourite backers with eight of the last 12 proving successful and six of the last seven Irish-trained favourites have won. Maybe Boston Bob will usurp the ante-post favourite, On His Own, at the head of the market now that Ruby Walsh has opted to ride the Melling Chase winner over the narrow Gold Cup runner-up.
I have to confess, I thought Sir Des Champs finished so legless when second in the Cheltenham Gold Cup last season that he would struggle to run to the same rating but in beating the Gold Cup third, Long Run, by a similar margin as six weeks earlier it looks like they both ran up to their best despite being the pair that forced the issue in jumping’s blue riband on the second circuit 12 months ago. Either that or they both ran a little below form but were still good enough, which is very possible. I mention this as I suspect this season’s Mullins-trained Gold Cup runner-up, On His Own, will also struggle to match his Cheltenham performance as he had one heck of a hard race being on the pace from the outset before dropping back and re-rallying under an ultra strong ride that earned his jockey a seven-day ban to almost get up to beat Lord Windermere. Sir Des Champs’ victory meant that seven of the last ten winners contested the Cheltenham Gold Cup of which On His Own and Lyreen Legend (6th) took part this year. Two years ago China Rock was the only Gold Cup representative in the field though he could finish only eighth in the blue riband beaten 48 lengths bur he won here at 20/1.
Given that the best Irish guide of the John Durkan Memorial Chase has no representation this season, the Lexus Chase, which has thrown up four of the last 11 winners, looks to be the Irish race to concentrate on. First Lieutenant finished second in that race for the second time this season and had Lyreen Legend back in fifth who was having his seasonal debut so he was entitled to need that run. The Irish Hennessy Gold Cup has not been a good Gold Cup guide but it is catching up with the Lexus as a Punchestown Gold Cup pointer featuring three of the last ten winners but only one of those horses completed the double. First Lieutenant also had Lyreen Legend behind that day when they finished third and fifth respectively. You may also want to bear in mind that three of the last 12 winners contested last year’s renewal, two of which finished in the first time two. Sir Des Champs beat Long Run by ¾ length last season with a half a length back to First Lieutenant.
Nine of the last ten Irish-trained winners had won at Punchestown before. Therefore, since this became a Grade 1 race in 1999, only Follow The Plan was recording his first success at Punchestown of Irish-trained winners. Boston Bob, First Lieutenant, Foil Dubh and Noble Prince are the only course winners taking their chance.
When China Rock won as a nine-year-old two years ago in a very weak renewals he a little surprisingly became the oldest winner since 2003 so any if the four ten-year-olds, Medermit, Foil Dubh, Noble Prince or On His Own, would be an unusual winner in this respect.
Eight of the last 12 winners had already won a Grade 1 race though how much we should read into that I have my doubts as three of the last five winners were breaking their duck at the very highest level when victorious here.
I don’t particularly like his right-handed course profile or the fact that for a horse with his talent First Lieutenant has won just once in his last 16 starts but being a course winner like nine of the last ten Irish-trained winners, a Grade 1 winner like 8 of the last 12 winners who likes to race prominently and has contested many of the key guides, though not the biggest of the Gold Cup, he would be the trends pick and his supporters will be hoping first-time blinkers can help him travel better than when slightly disappointing on his last two starts. On His Own would be the oldest winner for over a decade and had a very hard race in the Gold Cup so I can see why Ruby Walsh has opted for the fresher Boston Bob who did not race in the first half of the season and who bounded away over a trip many thought was too short for him in the Melling Chase, and his decision could easily see him start favourite and six of the last seven Irish-trained favourites have won. Lyreen Legend was unplaced in the Lexus Chase , Irish Hennessy and Gold Cup but they have been the best three relevant guides and he has improved with all three races this season and will be fresher than most so I would fancy a big run from him and expect him to repay each-way support.
6:05 Attheraces Champion Bumper
The most prestigious of the six bumpers scheduled at the Punchestown Festival and, unlike the Weatherbys Champion Bumper, it is restricted to amateur riders and seven-year-olds are allowed to take part. As the Weatherbys Champion Bumper is the only other Grade 1 race of its type, it stands to reason it is likely to be the most significant guide which is the case by a huge margin. Since this Grade 1 event at Punchestown was first run in 1992, 11 winners contested the Cheltenham version of which ten finished in the first six at Prestbury Park. Three of the first six winners finished second at Cheltenham so we had to wait 17 years until Cousin Vinny became the first horse to complete the Cheltenham-Punchestown double and he was quickly followed a year later by the Philip Fenton-trained Dunguib (disqualified months later due to a banned substance found in his system) in 2009 and then Champagne Fever won both races two years ago. This year’s race features four of the first six home at home at Cheltenham headed by Dermot Weld’s Silver Concorde who in victory had the Willie Mullins trio of Shaneshill (2nd), Black Hercules (4th) and Killutagh Vic (6th) behind, but not that far behind as the latter, who was officially top-rated heading into the race but generally regarded as the stable third string, was only beaten five lengths. Value At Risk also ran and finished thirteenth. Of the 11 winners that ran in the Weatherbys Champion Bumper only Hidden Universe (19th) in 2010 had finished out of the first six. Regards Silver Concorde, although three Champion Bumper winners passed the post in front here, it is also worth remembering that five winners were also beaten here.
Very strange how British-trained horses have a far better record in this Grade 1 race than the Weatherbys Champion Bumper at the Cheltenham Festival and the David Pipe-trained The Liquidator was another winner last year. Since this race became a Grade 1 in1995, the Brits started to take a keener in interest and won four times in the next 11 years when they were seriously outnumbered which was certainly surprising to me given that they could hardly bag a Weatherbys Champion Bumper within the same time frame when being responsible for the majority of the field. In addition to their five winners, British-trained horses have supplied five runners-up. David Pipe returns again, this time with Seven Nation Army who beat the subsequent Weatherbys Champion Bumper third at Ascot before disappointing in very heavy ground at Newbury so he has the form to go close. The second British raider is the Harry Fry-trained Jollyallan who won his only start 28 days ago by 15 lengths at Wincanton making all and quickening clear. In fact he was so impressive that J P McManus stepped in and said yes please. If he wasn’t now owned by McManus, you can be virtually certain that Harry Fry wouldn’t be sending him over.
It is hard, however, to win this race off just one run as only one once-raced winner has won which was Sweeps Hill (also in the McManus silks) who was the chief beneficiary of Dunguib’s disqualification a few months later. In addition to Jollyallan, Aniknam also arrives here off the back of winning his only start. So, just one run isn’t ideal and neither is too many runs as 12 of the last 15 winners had raced no more than three times under Rules and two of the three that didn’t were trained by Noel Meade who is unrepresented. So, a twice or thrice-raced bumper horse would be ideal which is against Silver Concorde, Killultagh Vic and Seven Nation Army who have run in four bumpers.
As with the Weatherbys Champion Bumper, there was a time when I was keen to take on four-year-olds but, after struggling terribly in this race (as they did at Cheltenham) it has been different of late (as it also has for Cheltenham) with Dermot Weld’s Hidden Universe winning in 2010 aged four and the same yard went close again the following season with another four-year-old when Waaheb was only beaten a short-head. Although he is not a four-year-old, Silver Concorde’s supporters can take from the fact he is Weld-trained given he knows what it takes in this race and his stable continues in excellent form. The two four-year-olds to take their chance are Aniknam and Willie Mullins’ supposedly fourth-string Aminabad in his bid for a fifth win in this race and he has booked Katie Walsh who has won two of his three starts.
The Weatherbys Champion Bumper has to be the starting point with 11 of the 22 winners having recorded a top-six finish in that race. There are four such qualifiers here but as Killultagh Vic has had four bumper runs and seemingly beaten on merit by three of his rivals, I can let him go. Of the eight winners that have attempted to complete the double, three passed the post in front on the day which is a fair return and, as Silver Concorde is also trained by Dermot Weld who has a recent winner and narrow runner-up in this race, it would be harsh to leave him off the short list because he has run in four bumpers which is one more than ideal. Shaneshill beat Black Hercules by 2½ lengths when they were second and fourth behind Silver Concorde but there should not be much between them given plenty of use was made by Black Hercules that day and he also ran wider ran the final bend than the winner and runner-up plus Patrick Mullins keeps the ride whereas Walsh is now replaced by Jamie Codd on Shaneshill as this race is restricted to amateur riders. Both have a big chance of giving Willie Mullins a fifth win in the race. Seven Nation Army has the form to be a factor for last season’s winning stable but he didn’t run at Cheltenham which has been a very positive stat and has had one more run than ideal but he can still run well.
6:40 Guinness Handicap Chase
Following novices in handicap at the big spring Festivals is never a bad thing and they have an eye-catching record in the most valuable handicap chase of the meeting winning seven of the last 15 runnings (Klepht being the latest last year at 12/1). Novices taking part are the Arthur Moore-trained pair of Pass The Hat (though a second-season chaser) and Miteball Forluck plus King Vuvuzela for Paul Nolan who won this handicap in successive years with Torduff Boy (2002 and 2003) and his Kymandjen only found one too good two years later. Tony Martin also likes to lay one out for this valuable handicap and has trained two winners. In addition, he has also gone close with Ross River finishing second so his Gift Of Dgab has to be of interest. Surprisingly there are no Willie Mullins runners having won this race five times in the last ten years.
Three fairly recent winners had run at the Cheltenham Festival in the Grand Annual, Byrne Group Plate and Arkle Trophy. Competitive Edge fell in the Grand Annual and King Vuvuzela was tenth in the novices’ handicap chase. Philip Hobbs’ Bouchasson followed up his shock 50/1 win in Ayr’s Future Champions Novices’ chase by winning here 14 years ago but that was the last time a British-trained horse proved successful. That said, the Brits have only found one too good in two of the last five seasons and Paul Nicholls sends over Grandioso and Richard Lee lets Hector’s Choice take his chance.
Eleven of the last 15 winners carried under 11st and, in the last nine seasons alone, 31 of the 36 top-four places have gone the way of horses carrying less than 11st so it was some performance for Scotsirish to win off 11st 10lb three years ago. The previous winner to carry more than 11st 6lb was the Aidan O’Brien-trained Idiots Venture in 1997 who had finished third in a Grade 1 the previous day. And don’t be concerned if your fancy failed to finish in the first three last time out as 11 of the last 14 winners failed to occupy a top-three slot on their previous outing yet 12 of the last 17 winners started between second and fourth-favourite which suggests that this is a handicap for plotted-up horses.
Pass The Hat
Gift Of Dgab
Given the excellent record of novices in this race plus the Paul Nolan yard having saddled two winners and a second since 2002 then his King Vuvuzela makes most appeal. He is also one of just two contenders that took their chance at the Cheltenham Festival where he was held up and could never get on terms finishing tenth in the novices’ handicap chase and, as an added bonus, he also has course-and-distance winning form. On his previous start before Cheltenham, he was a good fourth of 21 in a better handicap than this at Leopardstown in January. Gift Of Dgab has not run over fences since he was pulled up in the Paddy Power Gold Cup at Cheltenham and has the look of a horse that might have been laid out for this race, like his trainer has done twice before and he only carries 1lb over 11st so I can see a big run from him as I can Pass The Hat who looks the pick of the Arthur Moore-trained novices as Mitebeall Forluck runs from 7lb out of the handicap. He is a second-season chaser so wouldn’t have the same scope to progress as King Vuvuzela but he arrives here in great form having won at Leopardstown last time. Wise Old Owl has his first run for 637 days but he is lightly-raced for a ten-year-old and was second in the 2011 Galway Plate two starts ago for J P McManus. With Ger Fox taking off 7lb, it wouldn’t surprise me if this race has been a long term plan even off a long layoff.
7:15 O’Reilly Recruitment Bumper
The fourth running of this bumper for horses not to have won under Rules aged five, six or seven. Unlike the Day 1 bumpers, at least there is some form to dissect as 12 of the 18 runners have run.
Totally Dominant is rather aptly named for a Willie Mullins-trained bumper horse but he has been beaten into in both starts in the Susannah Ricci colours. That said, arguably he marginally has the best form and maybe he wasn’t mature enough to win last year as he has not run for 360 days and his trainer has given him the time he needs? I am only guessing however. The stable won this race two years ago and it wouldn’t shock too many if Totally Dominant returned a stronger horse than when last sighted a year ago and lands this finale. Virtuoso Rouge represents Noel Meade, Nina Carberry and Gigginstown Stud and was second on his sole bumper at Navan as 7/4 favourite having travelled best for the most part after winning a point-to-point on his previous start. The likelihood is that he ran into a decent horse at Navan in Noble Emperor as Tony Martin described him afterwards as a proper horse so he might be the one today. Harry Fry sends over Fletchers Flyer but as he is owned by the same people that own Balder Succes (and Carraig Mor) who both run at the meeting, we can surely assume this is an owner-based decision. Still, he has a chance having won his only point-to-point and then finished second on his sole bumper start at Uttoxeter.