The 32-20 defeat to England in the rugby or the equine influenza outbreak that could potentially lead to the cancellation of the Cheltenham Festival? It is tough to say which has been the more worrying story for Irish sport this week, but the response to both has been very much the same. Indeed, at a time when knee-jerk decisions could easily be reached, top trainer Gordon Elliott pretty much summed up the Irish attitude with three simple words on Thursday: ‘business as usual’.
And, so it is that Ireland went to Scotland on Saturday intent on getting their Six Nations campaign back on track, while Naas and Punchestown host the only National Hunt racing on either side of the Irish Sea this weekend. Elliott sends 15 runners to the latter meeting on Sunday, with six of those set to line up in the day’s feature race, the Grand National Trial at 4.20pm.
General Principle, who is only 3lbs higher in the weights than when winning the Irish National itself last season, looks the pick of the Elliott-trained sextet, but the one who most appeals at the prices is Paul Nolan’s Fitzhenry. Still unexposed in staying handicaps, he produced a career-best when third in the Paddy Power Chase at Leopardstown over Christmas, and with blinkers added for the first time here, it would be no surprise if he had an even bigger effort in the locker.
The Mark Walsh/J.P. McManus combination could already have a winner on the board by that point, with Josies Order appearing to hold sound claims of landing the opening cross country chase at 1.45pm. A winner at the Cheltenham Festival in 2016, Enda Bolger’s charge looked as good as ever when third at the same venue last time and, 3lbs clear of the field on weight-adjusted ratings here, he is fancied to put the finishing touches to this year’s Festival preparation with a defeat of Ballycasey.
It is not possible for humans to get infected with equine influenza, but stare too long at the silks carried by Discordantly in the maiden hurdle at 2.50pm, and you might start to feel like you need a lie down. It will all be worth it in the end, however, as Robbie Power’s mount looked one to keep an eye on when third in a similar event at Navan last time, and with more improvement on the cards after just three starts over hurdles, he is fancied to dazzle his rivals into submission.
Finally, we return to a familiar name for the concluding bumper at 4.50pm, in which that man Gordon Elliott appears to hold all the aces with Cats For Cash. Admittedly, Noel Meade’s Battle of Midway looks a big danger on the evidence of his encouraging debut at Fairyhouse, but Elliott knows what it takes to win this race, having done so on three occasions since 2015, and it is once again fancied to be ‘business as usual’ on Sunday, with Cats For Cash a confident selection to go one better than when filling the runner-up spot in her two starts to date.
*All odds correct at time of posting