There were plenty of quality horses on show at the Dublin Racing Festival last week and the meeting certainly delivered in terms of showcasing the highs and lows of our sport.
TRIUMPH HURDLE TRIAL
We didn’t have to wait long for some drama to unfold, with the opening Grade 1 contest - the Donohue Marquees Spring Juvenile Hurdle - providing us with the unluckiest loser of the weekend in Lossiemouth.
Willie Mullins’ four year old filly was badly hampered mid-race by stablemate Jourdefete, before rallying strongly to nearly catch another Mullins inmate, Gala Marceacu, close home.
The pair pulled well clear to suggest they are likely to be two of Ireland’s strongest challengers for the Triumph Hurdle.
However, for us, the Cheltenham Trials Day winner, Comfort Zone, still looks the value and may be able to use his stamina to out battle the Mullins fillies.
The third placed horse, Tekao, could be an interesting contender for the Boodles Hurdle at the Festival, whilst there will surely be better to come from Gust Of Wind as the season progresses.
ARKLE NOVICES’ CHASE TRIAL
The second Grade 1 on day one was the Goffs Irish Arkle, which looked to be the strongest novices’ chase run anywhere so far this season.
Willie Mullins again had a very strong hand, with El Fabiolo running out a very impressive winner in the end.
To beat a field of this quality by 10 lengths was no mean feat and his form is certainly stronger than Jonbon’s despite Nicky Henderson’s horse still being at the top of the Arkle Chase betting.
El Fabiolo was only beaten a neck by Jonbon at Aintree last season and he could easily overturn the ante post favourite on the big day.
Banbridge came from a different county to finish second. He is a horse we really like and decent ground at the Festival should see him go close in whatever race he runs.
The Turners Novices' Chase may now be the preferred option.
We also wouldn’t rule out the fourth placed Dysart Dynamo getting closer to the winner if the pair re-oppose at Cheltenham. He set some challenging fractions from the front here and paid for those exertions late on.
A slightly more restrained ride could see him go closer and the sharper Old Course, where the Arkle is run, will suit his style. 10/1 looks a decent each way price.
Don’t forget he was still travelling well when coming down in Constitution Hill’s Supreme last March.
CHELTENHAM GOLD CUP TRIAL
Before racing, many people’s highlight of the day was set to be the appearance of Galopin Des Champs in the Paddy Power Irish Gold Cup and whilst the long odds-on favourite did manage to claim his first win over this trip over fences, some bookmakers weren’t impressed.
The race sponsors, for example, eased him from 11/8 to 7/4.
That seems odd to us given that the only chink in his armour before this race was seen to be a potential lack of stamina, but that it looked to be his stamina that won the day here, as there were times when he wasn’t travelling as well as he often does in his races.
Perhaps it was the relatively slowly run nature of the race that concerned the layers, but however you read the race there is little doubt that he is plenty short enough in the Gold Cup betting given that we are still a number of weeks away from the Festival.
Stattler rallied well in the closing stages to again suggest the Gold Cup test will bring out the best in him. He looks a rock solid each way option at around 8/1.
The other one to catch the eye was Fury Road who looked like he might be capable of causing an upset turning in, only to fade on the run in after an untidy jump at the last.
With his stablemate Conflated looking likely to head to the Gold Cup for the same owners, Fury Road could be a big player in the Ryanair Chase.
The shorter trip there should really suit him, based on what we saw here.
CHAMPION CHASE TRIAL
Day two of the Festival saw a couple of very short price favourite overturned.
In the Ladbrokes Dublin Chase over two miles, Blue Lord looked laboured and short of the pace needed to win a Queen Mother when finishing second to stablemate Gentleman De Mee.
Having already tipped the winner ante post for Cheltenham at 66/1 we were obviously delighted to see him win here.
He looks to be at his best in the spring and on better ground, and he goes to the Festival with a fighting chance in a division that is suddenly looking wide open.
By contrast, Blue Lord would need there to be plenty of rain at Prestbury Park in the lead up to the Champion Chase to have any chance in the big one.
SUPREME NOVICES’ TRIAL
Another disappointing Mullins runner was Facile Vega.
This son of Quevega had been many people’s banker for Cheltenham before his run here, but he was beaten out of sight by stablemate Il Etait Temps in the Tattersalls Ireland Novice Hurdle, where he could only finish fifth.
His trainer felt he had been much too forcibly ridden by Paul Townsend, although to us he seemed to stop too quickly for that to have been the only reason for his disappointing showing.
Mullins seems confident he can get Facile Vega back to his best in time for Cheltenham, but the winner here looked to do nothing wrong and now seems to be a much stronger candidate for the opening race of the Festival.
Indeed, the 5/1 still on offer looks generous.
He travelled like a really good horse and the penny finally seems to have dropped after a series of promising efforts last season, most notable when fifth in the Triumph Hurdle on only his second start over hurdles.
Dark Raven, who finished third, is also worth following as his jumping let him down here. Given that, he did well to finish so close to the winner.
CHAMPION HURDLE TRIAL
In between those two shock defeats, there was a winning favourite for the Mullins yard in the shape of State Man, who landed the odds in the Irish Champion Hurdle.
State Man led from flag fall and was still just over four lengths in front crossing the line.
He couldn’t have done much more than he did here, but it is still hard to see him troubling Constitution Hill, if that horse brings his A game to Cheltenham.
We do, at least, have a clash at Cheltenham to savour, but the line-up for the Champion Hurdle is now unlikely to feature Honeysuckle, who could only finish second here.
She kept trying all the way to the line, but just didn’t seem quite good enough and it is now surely only a matter of time until she surrenders the crown that she has worn so brilliantly for the last few seasons.
Third place Vauban didn’t improve as much from his first run of the season as we had hoped.
He wasn’t helped by some indifferent jumping (which has been his Achilles heel in recent races) and by pulling hard early on.
It is too soon to give up on him and he could still be an each way player at Cheltenham, given that we look set to have a very small and select Champion Hurdle field this year.