There was a bumper feast of racing to savour from the likes of the Dublin Racing Festival at Leopardstown, Musselburgh, Sandown and Wetherby over the weekend (5-6 February) and we were spoilt for choice with pointers to the Cheltenham Festival in March. Here are some key names to add to your Cheltenham ones to watch notebook and this week they come from Ireland, Scotland and England…
Far from grinding out victory in the William Hill Towton Chase at Wetherby, Ahoy Senor (one of H&H’s horses to follow at the start of the season) showed an impressive turn of foot up the home straight, having jumped immaculately most of the way and, in particular, when it mattered over the last four. He remains in the Gold Cup but with the more likely option of the Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase (former RSA if you are getting confused with race sponsor changes).
“He’s still a novice,” said trainer Lucinda Russell. “He’s got immense talent but we’re still crafting him. We didn’t lose anything in defeat at Kempton [to Bravemansgame] and if we’d gone straight from his win at Newbury we wouldn’t have learnt anything, but Kempton taught us something.”
The reigning Champion Hurdler may even have stolen Tiger Roll’s mantle as the most popular horse in Ireland judged on Sunday’s clap-o-meter. Honeysuckle became the only horse to win their first 14 races over hurdles when she ran out a comfortable winner of the Irish Champion Hurdle; previously she shared the record with Bula. She was sent off the 1/5 favourite and beat Zanhahiyr 6½ lengths under Rachael Blackmore, but she will certainly face a stiffer test at Cheltenham.
“The crowd here today is unbelievable,” said the jockey, who won last year’s Grand National in front of two men and a dog and landed the Champion Hurdle in front of fewer.
Gordon Elliott already has the horse, Galvin, which I consider the trump card in this year’s Boodles Gold Cup in his Meath yard. But he threw a spanner in the works on Saturday when Conflated, an 18/1 outsider rated 18lb inferior to Minella Indo whom he beat by 6½ lengths, won the Paddy Power Irish Gold Cup. If Elliott chooses to go the Gold Cup route, Conflated will go there still as something of an unknown quantity.
“Thankfully Michael and Eddie [O’Leary, Gigginstown House Stud owners] let me run him so I could find out how good he is,” said Elliott. “ I said to them he’d either win or pull up. I know he has a massive engine but he’s not straightforward and can be very hot and cold. We have the Gold Cup and Ryanair and he’s in the Grand National as well but we’ll have to see where we go.”
Venetia Williams has her horses in cracking form, and 20 years to the day since Golden Goal won her last Grade One, L’Homme Presse hacked up in the same race, the Virgin Bet Scilly Isles Novices’ Chase at Sandown, by 21 lengths.
“There is no point in thinking of alternatives, it’s Cheltenham now,” said the trainer.
- Read Marcus’s full report on the weekend’s racing action in Horse & Hound, in shops on Thursday 10 February
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