The Dublin Racing Festival was the place to be this weekend, as the Irish warmed up for the Cheltenham Festival with several stunning performances to get stuck into.
Saturday was dominated by the sumptuous display of Apples Jade in the Irish Champion Hurdle. Dropping to two miles for the first time since the 2016 renewal of the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle, it was a real test to see just how versatile Gordon Elliott’s mare really was.
Jack Kennedy spoke in the week that there should be no fear in the 7yo’s speed, and she put up an outstanding array of jumping, acceleration and overall ability to storm away from any of her pursuers.
Supasundae – a classy individual from Jessica Harrington’s yard was left in the mares wake, and just could not keep tabs with the winner, along with last year’s Champion Hurdle second Melon also providing no impression.
Options for the Stayers, the Mares and now the Champion Hurdle lie ahead, but after interviews with Racing TV on Saturday and Sunday, it appears trainer Gordon Elliott and owner Michael O’Leary seem content on a bid for the Champion Hurdle again over two miles, and looks a major danger to Buveur D’Airs crown.
Later in the day, Min landed a second Ladbrokes Dublin Chase for Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh – who on the whole had a great weekend, and seems to serve it up to Altior in the Champion Chase for the second year in a row.
However, the race was marred by the sad loss of Henry De Bromhead’s Special Tiara, who having led, was pulled up before the first. The 2017 Champion Chaser darted off buoyantly as he usually does, and was one of those few horses who just loved to race.
Later in the day, Le Richebourg won yet again for Joseph O’Brien – leading home a one-two for the yard in the Arkle Novice Chase. Winning by seven lengths, he was one of the main market movers from the weekend ahead of the Cheltenham Festival, now being priced no bigger than 4/1 for the English equivalent, against a sea of British challengers in waiting.
You can read all our other major market movers ahead of Cheltenham by clicking HERE.
On Sunday, Joseph O’Brien was at it again with another successful juvenile in the Spring Hurdle – when Sir Erec got the better of Rich Ricci fancy Tiger Tap Tap for the second time since moving from dad Aiden’s yard.
Sir Erec – fourth to Stradivarius in the Long Distance Cup at Ascot in October, has improved a great deal since heading over hurdles, and led home a one-two for the yard, with the Barry Geraghty ridden Gardens of Babylon nabbing second from Surin on the line.
Ruby Walsh proved his superior prowess is still ever present when getting back up aboard Klassical Dream from stable companion Aramon in the Chanelle Pharma Novice Hurdle, before the Irish as a whole had to sit back and rest second best to the sole British challenger in the Flogas, where Warren Greatrex’s La Bague Au Roi made it four wins from four over fences.
The 32Red Kauto Star winner was left at the front of the market after the disappointing withdrawal of Delta Work – on a day of multiple non-runners due to the firm going.
The job was still left there to be done, and another top performance from Richard Johnson got the mare home, who certainly looked vulnerable to many challengers in between the final two flights.
The feature race of the day was the Irish Gold Cup, a Grade One over three miles, and in a much depleted field, we were left with one of the finishes of the season – that certainly got Jerry Hannon very excited in the commentary box.
It looked a match-up between Willie Mullins’ Bellshill and Noel Meade’s Road To Respect, who finished fourth and third respectively over this course and distance in the Savills Chase over Christmas.
On reflection, Road To Respect’s sketchy jumping certainly handed the iniative to Bellshill – tipped to be a leading Irish fancy for the Grand National in future weeks, but Mullins might have a major contender for the Gold Cup first.
Over the last they went in unison, and the 9yo gradually wore down the leader inside the final furlong to just lead in the final strides – officially landing the spoils by a short head.
The victory capped off a great weekend for Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh, who certainly proved to his critics he still has what it takes to be the sports best.