Matt Tombs / Thursday 3rd January 2013 / 12:00
After a disappointing Festival this year, (only 5 winners including 1 Grade 1, down from 13 winners including 4 Grade 1s in 2011,) the Leopardstown Christmas festival could have had Irish eyes smiling again. Perhaps my expectations were too high but I left with the impression that the Irish are going to struggle to win any of the 4 Festival championship races and they haven’t as many top class novice prospects as I’d thought.
The big disappointment for the Irish was obviously the Lexus, (3m, soft). Flemenstar travelled like by far the best horse in the race and I was holding my breath as he turned into the straight praying he’d run right away from the others, but it looked a classic case of lack of stamina and he went down by ¾l. The ground was gluey, he was keen having been ridden to get the trip and he didn’t jump the last 2 with his usual aplomb. Had he done so and scrambled home we’d be thinking more positively, but whilst I haven’t thrown my 25/1 vouchers away, he didn’t look like a Gold Cup horse here, (14/1 looks about right.)
Connections initial reaction was to target the Champion Chase. If they do it’d be really refreshing to see them duck the easier option of the Ryanair and go for a Championship race. However, when the dust settled they wisely decided to keep their options open and give him another chance at 3m in the Irish Hennessy, where they’ll make more use of him. He’s worth another try at the trip, in particular on better or looser ground.
The other big Irish hope, Sir Des Champs, didn’t jump well enough and never landed a blow. He finished really well though to be beaten less than 1l in 4th and if his jumping improves on better ground then he could be a player in the Gold Cup. 7/1 looks pretty short for a horse who hasn’t really been competitive in either start this season and the Mullins magic looks well priced in.
First Lieutenant ran another good race and like Sir Des Champs is bound to improve for better ground. Again he looked as if he didn’t get home and I think he’d have a first rate chance in the Ryanair, (10/1) but it’s hard to see him finishing strongly enough to win a Gold Cup (14/1.)
That left Tidal Bay to pick up the pieces. It’s been another brilliant training performance with an ageing, staying chaser by Paul Nicholls, but surely he can’t win the Gold Cup (12/1) as a 12 year old? He loved the horrible ground here and whilst the extra 2½f would be to his advantage in the Gold Cup, the likely good ground wouldn’t. If it were to come up soft you could see him outstaying the others but otherwise the World Hurdle (8/1) might be his best hope of Festival glory.
Sizing Europe duly won the 2m Grade 1 chase at 1/3, (soft) by 2½l from Rubi Light. The underrated runner-up is unexposed at 2m but Sizing Europe had to win this more easily to have any chance against Sprinter Sacre in the Champion Chase, (8/1). Unsurprisingly he doesn’t look to have the same toe now rising 11 and the Ryanair (10/1) looks a better option. If the ground was on the quick side, it’d be great to see connections take a punt and run him in the Gold Cup. I doubt he’d get home but Stan James are brave laying 50/1 for such a good horse who loves the track.
The World Hurdle looks very open but whilst I was pleased to see Monksland win the Grade 2 Christmas Hurdle (3m, soft), the way he got tapped for toe in the back straight suggested a horse that mightn’t hold a position at Cheltenham. He’s going straight to the Festival so we won’t get any more clues in the interim. 10/1 looks about right given the uncertainty of what he’ll face there.
If the Irish do win a Championship race, it’ll probably be Hurricane Fly in the Champion Hurdle. With Thousand Stars not sparkling at home and Unaccompanied on the comeback trail, the Istabraq (2m, soft) looked a penalty kick and he won like a 1/5 shot should, (9/2 for the Champion.) This showed only his wellbeing and given that he looked to boil over in last season’s renewal and he’ll be 9 by raceday, that’s not an ante-post betting proposition for such a fragile horse.
In the novice chase division, Ireland looked to have 2 realistic contenders for the Arkle and they clashed in the 2m1f Grade 1 novice chase, (soft). Arvika Ligeonniere took the drop back in trip in his stride, piling on the pressure from the front and Oscars Well could never really land a blow. The concern was that Arvika Ligeonniere jumped badly out to his right at the 3rd last and last and it’s hard to imagine that he could get away with that in the Arkle. 8/1 looks big though for all he’ll face a formidable opponent in Simonsig, as he may face little else. The Irish Arkle is the ideal opportunity to get some more practice going left handed. Oscars Well is out to 14/1 and I’m not optimistic of getting a run for my money in the Arkle.
The Grade 1 3m novice chase (soft) looked a cracking renewal. However Dedigout, Lyreen Legend, Mount Benbulben & Jenari were all let down by their jumping. That left the Mullins pair Back In Focus and Aupcharlie to fight out the finish with the former’s stamina the decisive factor in getting him up by a neck. It was a shade disappointing that with conditions to suit Back In Focus only scrambled home. Mullins has suggested he has the action to go on good ground, but he bombed the only time he tried it. He’s 16/1 for the RSA and his ability to handle the ground might be the big imponderable of the race on the day.
Willie Mullins suggested Aupcharlie could come back significantly in distance (declared for this rather than in Argocat’s race at Limerick in error) and he again travelled like a class horse but didn’t find much. It may have been lack of stamina but the jury is out on whether he finds much off the bridle. He’s 16/1 for the RSA but the Jewson (10/1) looks the more likely option and he could outclass his opposition there.
One Irish horse whose target is clear is Jezki who demolished a classy looking field in the Grade 1 novice hurdle (2m, soft). He’s a pure 2 miler and with 4 runs under his belt has plenty of experience. The turn of foot he showed here was exciting and he’s much better on good ground. It had been shaping into a strong Supreme but plenty of bubbles were burst over the holiday period and he may end up the classic Irish banker - 11/2 is probably still too big. Hopefully he can get the portfolio off to the sort of flyer Cinders and Ashes did last season.
In a strong 2m maiden hurdle the highly touted Ned Buntline got off the mark over hurdles beating Urano by 2l. This was a step in the right direction after getting turned over by Bright New Dawn at Fairyhouse, but the disdain with which that horse was dealt with by Jezki shows how much improvement Ned Buntline needs to make to become a contender for the Supreme, (25/1).
Not all the good action was at Leopardstown and the Grade 2 novice chase at Limerick (extended 2m3f, heavy) is often a good event. Argocat was getting 11lb as a 4 year old but bolted up and is improving rapidly. His form with Twinlight got a boost when Baily Green ran so well behind Arvika Ligeonniere and he may go straight to the Jewson. He’s not quoted at the moment but would go there as an unexposed improver.
I was pleased with Salsify’s 2nd run of the season at Down Royal in the hunter chase, (2m7f, heavy). He gave 4lb to Tammy’s Hill and was beaten 3½l on ground he’d have hated. He takes a couple of runs to come to himself and he’s shown much better form than in his first 2 runs last season. I was astonished to see him pushed out to 12/1 for the Foxhunters and, for anyone not already on, that’s a great price. Tammy’s Hill (also 12/1) has racked up a good sequence of wins in points and hunters but will have to improve again to confirm the form with Salsify if the ground is good at Cheltenham.
Finally, hats off to Patrick Mullins for breaking the longstanding amateur’s calendar year record of 72 winners. Of course he has the huge advantage of his father’s patronage but it’s an amazing haul. He’s been more effective in bumpers than over obstacles so far and that’s worth keeping in mind for the Festival. In the last 5 years he’s won the Bumper twice, on 12/1 & 16/1 shots, when the stable had others shorter in the betting. We don’t yet know if Willie Mullins has anything good enough to win it this season, but it’s long odds-on Patrick, not Ruby, will be on his best chance.