Cheltenham Countdown with John McIntyre
THE unthinkable happened at last year’s Cheltenham Festival when the Irish raiders achieved a record haul of 14 winners to outscore the home defence for the first time ever in the illustrious history of the great March National Hunt meeting.
Racegoers had never seen such a triumphant Irish invasion of the Cotswolds and there are many punters preparing to wager that similar rich ‘green’ pickings are on the cards next week, especially as Willie Mullins is assembling a raiding party of quite staggering range and depth.
Ireland’s top trainer and the leading handler at the festival in two of the past three years, Mullins has some powerful armoury at his disposal for the annual Olympics of National Hunt racing and, admittedly, loose predictions that he could even reach double figures for the meeting are no longer being dismissed as fanciful.
A measure of the extraordinary firepower at Mullins’ disposal is that he was responsible for a scarcely believable 22 of the original 102 entries for next Tuesday’s Supreme Novices Hurdle – the traditional festival opener – while he will have a host of candidates to fire at virtually every other race over the four days.
In fact, the continuing biggest test for Mullins on the eve of the 2014 festival is juggling his huge raiding party to ensure the best return for the yard, but many racegoers will simply row in behind Ruby Walsh’s chosen pick in those races where Ireland’s champion trainer has multiple starters.
It’s makes perfect sense too as Walsh has been top jockey at Cheltenham in seven of the last ten years and has amassed a record-breaking career haul of 38 festival winners so far. The pair have dominated Ireland’s equivalent to Cheltenham – the Punchestown festival – over recent seasons, but 2014 could mark a Mullins/Walsh takeover of UK’s landmark racing event to a similarly unprecedented level.
Though the festival is only days away, punters have been forced to resort to an educated guessing game in relation to what races some of Mullins’ star battalion will be aimed for, but that only adds to the intrigue of the build up to Cheltenham. In any event, Mullins isn’t the only trainer whose plans are fluid for some of his festival’s big hopes.
At least, there is no ambiguity about the target of Hurricane Fly, one of only two horses – Comedy Of Errors being the other – to have regained the Champion Hurdle and which will attempt to land Tuesday’s feature for the third time in four years. The ante post favourite has only been turned over once (third behind Rock On Ruby two years ago) in his last 17 runs and has twice put young challengers, Our Conor and Jezki, in their place at Leopardstown this season.
The big negative against Hurricane Fly, however, is that only one horse aged 10 (Sea Pigeon in 1980) has landed the Champion Hurdle since 1951, while the record-breaking Grade One winner also has to contend with the strongest field assembled for the big race in over a decade – a combination which is likely to scuttle Mullins’ stable flagbearer.
Jessica Harrington’s Jezki, bound to be made use of, probably lacks that killer turn of foot to land a Champion Hurdle, but the other big Irish contender Our Conor has stronger credentials even if Dessie Hughes’ hope doesn’t have the statistics in his favour either as only two five-year-olds (See You Then and Katchit) have been successful in the past 40 years.
For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune.
Ten of the best for trainer Mullins at summer festival
IT may have been a Galway Summer Racing Festival like no other at Ballybrit last week, but it made no difference to trainer Willie Mullins.
The champion National Hunt handler has taken over the ‘King of Ballybrit’ mantle from Dermot Weld over the past four years and Mullins’ monopoly of the Galway trainers’ title was again rarely in doubt behind the closed-doors meeting.
His ten-winner haul was highlighted by the impressive weight-carrying performance of the highest rated contender in the Guinness Galway Hurdle. Aramon’s success was the second time in three years that Mullins has snared the Thursday festival highlight with the ‘class horse’ of the race.
And similar to Sharjah’s triumph in 2018, leading amateur Patrick Mullins – son of the trainer – was again in the plate as Aramon’s turn of foot from the last saw off Hearts Are Trumps and that reliable yardstick, Petit Mouchoir.
It was only fitting in the circumstances that Mullins completed his ten-winner haul at Ballybrit with Eight And Bob in the concluding Fr Breen Memorial Handicap on Sunday.
The meeting’s other flagship race, the Tote sponsored Galway Plate, went to the Joseph O’Brien handicap debutant Early Doors which got the better of Mullins pair, Royal Rendezous and Cabaret Queen, in the teeming rain.
Course form has always been an asset around Galway’s undulations and Great White Shark, successful in the two-mile Connacht Hotel Amateur Handicap at the 2019 festival, again showed his liking for Ballybrit by landing Friday’s feature, the Guinness Handicap Hurdle, over two-mile and six-furlongs.
Flat action dominated Galway’s weekend programme and the Tony Mullins trained Princess Zoe augmented her winnings from the previous Monday’s Connacht Hotel Handicap, with a snug success from Emperor Of The Sun in the Galway Shopping Centre Handicap.
The final-day feature, The Irish Stallions Premier Handicap, saw the luckless Njord again having to settle for the runners-up prize for the second time at the festival when just failing to catch the Ado McGuinness trained Current Option (15/2). It was a third winner of the week for the Lusk-based handler.
Extended report in this week’s Connacht Tribune.
Jack’s the Lad for the Ladies
Dermot Weld may be the King of Ballybrit but Meath trainer Tony Martin could soon be knighted as the champion of the Galway Summer Festival after he claimed his second consecutive Guinness Galway Hurdle Handicap with Quick Jack in the feature event yesterday afternoon.
Having claimed the top prize with Thomas Edison – the defending champion was unfortunately a faller at the last this time around – Martin saw his other charge Quick Jack (9/2) romp home under the expert direction of jockey Denis O’Regan.
O’Regan had travelled home from England to ride this one for Martin, who was understandably ecstatic at winning back-to-back Galway Hurdles.
“Magic, wonderful feeling,” beamed the winning trainer.
“It couldn’t have been better going to the last. Unfortunately poor auld Thomas [Edison], a good friend of mine, came a cropper. It is the first time he has fallen and I hope he is okay.”
With money pouring onto Quick Jack in the betting ring, there was a lot of confidence in him running a big race. Martin again had little doubt. “The horse has run well all year and he came here with the right backing behind him.
“He had a great run the last day at Chester and we felt he was in as good a form as he has been at any time of the year. The ground was probably in his favour today. It is the first time he got really nice ground. So, he was in great form and everything went right in the lead-up to the race.
“As I said, we couldn’t have been happier with him coming here. All we wanted was luck in running and Denis was very good on him and we got that.”
Quick Jack was the nap of the meeting of Tribune tipster George McDonagh who told readers of our Galway Races Special last week to ‘get on Quick Jack’.
It was double delight for Martin who also saw Ted Veale (16/1) arrive home in third, with 10/1 shot Max Dynamite finishing in second. However, this was Quick Jack’s day and having looked comfortable throughout, it was no surprise to see him coast up the straight to claim the €180,000 first prize.
Afterwards, owner John Breslin described the victory as “unbelievable” – exclaiming “The Galway Hurdle! I never thought I would win this one” – while delighted jockey O’Regan beamed: “I always wanted to win that race in Galway”.
For a complete report on the week’s racing so far week this week’s City Tribune here
Lee makes turf history in taking Ascot Gold Cup
GALWAY jockey Graham Lee rewrote the racing record books at Royal Ascot last Thursday when steering the supplemented Trip To Paris to a surprise success in the meeting’s most prestigious race.
Though much of the pre-race spotlight was on Dermot Weld’s unbeaten favourite, Forgotten Rules, the Mervue native upset the odds in becoming the first jockey to ride the winners of both the Aintree Grand National (Amberleigh House in 2004) and the Ascot Gold Cup.
Having switched codes from the National Hunt to the flat three years ago, Lee experienced his first Group One triumph on the 12/1 chance Trip to Paris after getting a dream run along the rail inside the final furlong for the Ed Dunlop stable.
Top jockey at the Cheltenham festival in 2005, Lee has made a successful transition to the level, having finished third in the jockeys’ championship behind Richard Hughes and Ryan Moore last season.
“That’s an awful question,” Lee said when asked if winning an Ascot Gold Cup ranked above the Grand National triumph.
“I’ve had a great day in the office. It’s lovely to ride a winner here, and a Group One as well.
“The second I got legged up on him in the parade ring I knew he was going to run well. He was asleep, he was relaxed all the time and conserving energy. The race went well and happy days. Thank the man above, everything went good.”
Trip To Paris’s success under Lee in the Chester Cup in May paid for a £35,000 supplementary entry fee into last Thursday’s feature.
“Credit must go to the owners for stumping up,” said trainer Dunlop.
“Graham Lee has been a big part of this. I thought it was a great ride. Trip To Paris has made phenomenal progress this season, he’s won four of six and is one of the most improved horses in training.”
Some of the money from Trip To Paris’s latest success may now be reinvested in a ticket to Australia in November for the Melbourne Cup, a race that Dunlop has gone close to winning several times with Red Cadeaux