This is some weekend for Irish jumps racing and we’ll all have a better idea of the pecking order of our Cheltenham hopefuls after it.
Regardless of what emerges for the March festival, Willie Mullins will also be looking to put a serious dent in Gordon Elliott’s lead at the top of the Irish Trainers’ Championship.
Let’s jump into all the action…
Samcro’s absence has obviously had a massive impact on the opener at Leopardstown’s Dublin Festival, as he would have been a major obstacle to Carter McKay and Fabulous Saga getting into the winner’s enclosure.
Carter McKay was third to Getabird over 2m at Punchestown and steps up to 2m 6f, while Fabulous Saga keeps surprising us and has proved very tough on game in two recent wins at Cork and Limerick. He’ll love this trip at the Dublin course.
Paul Townend had a couple of big calls to make this weekend and the first is that he’s chosen Yorkhill over Min (David Mullins rides) here. It’s a long time since Yorkhill ran over 2m, but he’s so good and I reckon he’s more than capable of winning over any distance.
Min was a little disappointing at Christmas. Even though he won – and subsequently got thrown out by the stewards, he was making it hard work of it.
It mustn’t have been an easy decision for Paul and I’d have been tossing that decision around in my head for a few days yet. It’s hard to split them.
Yorkhill is the harder horse to ‘settle’, but with Special Tiara lining up, he’ll be going fast enough up front and that should suit the Mullins’ pair.
Min is probably more proven over 2m than Yorkhill, but Yorkhill has won twice at the Cheltenham Festival.
One of the many mouth-watering clashes this weekend.
Footpad faces his stiffest test to date over fences in the Arkle Novice Chase where he faces off against last year’s Champion Hurdle third Petit Mouchoir.
Footpad is unbeaten in both his starts over fences this season. I love the way he attacks his obstacles and gets away from them quickly.
Henry De Bromhead’s runner had the measure of Footpad over hurdles though. Even though we haven’t seen him since he beat Brelade at Punchestown last October, he’s a very good horse too.
It’s a long time since I’ve seen a 2m 1f handicap chase as competitive as this at Leopardstown or anywhere else in Ireland.
Townshend and Patricks Park look more like natural two milers to me, even though Townshend ran a fair race in the Grade 1 Drinmore Chase over 2m 4f when fifth to Death Duty.
His official rating of 145 reflects that run, but both he, and Patricks Park (who has only run once for Willie since switching stables) have only won summer chases and this will be a different ball game to what they’ve faced before. Both would want the ground to stay dry.
Again, Paul has chosen Faugheen who seems in wonderful order at home and we’re very happy with him. Then again, we went into Christmas feeling the same way and look what happened. We’ve no explanation for it and his preparation is the same as it always been.
That’s the worry. We won’t know until he lines up and runs whether that was just a once-off blip or whether there’s something more serious that we haven’t detected. He did his routine work on Tuesday and all was well, so this is the big test on Saturday.
Melon steps back up to Grade 1 company and has improved both mentally and physically from his Cheltenham run, when third to My Tent or Yours and The New One in the Grade 2 International Hurdle. He had to give the winner 6lbs that day, is a bit more street-wise now and brings a fair level of form to the contest.
I don’t know how much he has to improve to be a leading contender on Saturday and I believe he’ll beat a lot more horses than will beat him.
Defi Du Seuil was an exceptional juvenile and won the Triumph Hurdle in style last season. He bombed on his seasonal reappearance at Ascot, but connections will want to get a run into him to see what his options are for the rest of the year.
Trainer Philip Hobbs’ yard is in a lot better form now and maybe there’s more improvement to come from the five-year-old.
Bleu Berry hasn’t run since last April and should improve for the run. He likes the drying ground and could be better in the spring.
Karalee has never brought her homework to the racecourse and has been pretty disappointing on her last three starts. She works like a good filly, but runs like a pretty ordinary one. She’ll have to prove herself on the track first to me, however I’ve always held her in high regard.
Makitorix won at Listowel, but has run badly since. He works like a fair horse, but like Karalee has been running like a pretty average one.
He’s been running too free in his last two starts and could wear a hood or ear plugs at least, but still has a bit to prove.
Deal D’Estruval made hard work of his Tramore win over 2m 5f, but could be interesting getting in here off a light weight and my sister Katie rides. He could be the most unexposed of our runners.
Low Sun ran a cracker here at Christmas when second to Hardback and his jumping has improved with every run. He’ll need to keep on improving as he steps into open handicap company, but I believe he could be on a mark that he will eventually win a race off.
I wouldn’t have a huge opinion about the bumper horses. Patrick Mullins has picked Blackbow over Minella Encore.
Both were winners here at Christmas and while Minella Encore looked more workman-like, maybe Patrick thinks Blackbow has the potential to improve more.