Tony Keenan's Irish Angle

With the spring festivals on the horizon, our Irish expert Tony Keenan picks out some interesting contenders from his side of the Irish sea who could run well at Cheltenham and Aintree.

  • Wednesday 20 February
  • Blog
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EARLY GRAND NATIONAL THOUGHTS

It is the weighting time of the jumps season, the Grand National weights announced last week, those for the Festival handicaps due out next week. These things rarely go off without someone complaining and often it is someone Irish; have you ever met a trainer that was (publicly) happy with a handicap mark?

As a general rule, Irish connections have no business giving out about how their horses are treated in the UK looking at recent records in Cheltenham handicaps at least but Enda Bolger may well have had a point in wondering about the ‘puzzling’ mark of Auvergnat, 143 at home but 152 for Aintree.

The nine-year-old had looked quite exposed before winning the Paddy Power Chase in first-time blinkers over Christmas, the win coming on his thirteenth run in a handicap chase. BHA Handicapper Martin Greenwood did describe him as the ‘hardest one I had to deal with’ in the National, mainly due to his abundance of cross-country form.

We might call that the ‘Tiger Roll factor’ and that one was in the news over the weekend for winning the Boyne Hurdle despite being only 75 per cent fit according to his trainer. His collection of big-race wins is striking not only for its eclecticism but for the order they were achieved in and he is already a true public horse.

The definition of a public horse is necessarily loose but for me it has a few key criteria: they should win a lot of big races while running frequently, have a degree of longevity and on occasion attract irrational support in the betting market.

Hurricane Fly is perhaps the best example in recent years but at the moment I think there are three (or maybe two-and-a-half) such horses in Ireland at the moment: Tiger Roll, Apple’s Jade and Samcro. The last-named is the half having blotted his record this season and he certainly seemed to attract a degree of unwarranted support on occasion, something that wouldn’t be any surprise again should he make it to Cheltenham for the Stayers’ Hurdle.

I digress. The Grand National is a changed race since the alterations to the fences making it more of a standard handicap chase than the unique test that went before. In the ‘old National’ it often paid to look for an older horse with back class but now it seems to make more sense to focus on younger runners with scope to improve and it could be argued that each of the last four winners – Many Clouds, Rule The World, One For Arthur and Tiger Roll – fit that profile, three of them eight-year-olds, the other nine.

With that in mind, one Irish horse who stands out at this early stage is Up For Review. He shaped well on his seasonal return in the Thyestes, doing best of those held up despite coming very wide on the second circuit, and looks on a good mark judged on that effort. Currently number 57 on the list, he seems sure to get in; numbers 71, 72 and 73 at this point made the cut last year.

The other interesting Irish one is Folsom Blue, currently number 62 in the weights. He has the profile of an ‘old National’ winner and might have been the most unlucky horse in last season’s Irish National, a race where quite a few were better than the result. His record over three-and-a-half miles plus reads:150U34B4708148, consistent given runs have all come in Nationals or National Trials of some sort.

CHELTENHAM ARKLE POINTERS

Typically the Arkle market is dominated by classy hurdlers with a string of ones ahead of their names over fences, invariably from a yard with a long history of Cheltenham success. This is not your typical Arkle. Three of the front four in betting are trained by Joseph O’Brien, Kayley Wollacott and Mick Channon, who between them have trained one Festival winner, officially at least.

The exception is Cilaos Emery from a stable that has trained three of the last four winners of the race. Rated 159 over hurdles, he put up an excellent time-figure for a debutante last time (Timeform rated it 147) and the form keeps working out. The concerns about him are obvious though; his price has more than halved since his Gowran win and the preparation of one chase run, one chase win is sub-optimal for all he may overcome it if he lines up at Cheltenham - news emerged this morning he pulled a muscle schooling at Navan on Sunday.

LE RICHEBOURG has concerns too. He is unproven at the track, lacks the hurdles class and may not be suited by softer ground but the most important thing – his ability over fences – is not one of them. He has not only the best piece of form in the race, but the three best pieces of form judged on his last three Grade 1 efforts, and while odds around 3/1 may seem tight enough to some, I expect him to go off shorter on the day.

ONE TO SHINE IN A MAIDEN HURDLE

ML Bloodstock Limited have had one or two good horses in Ireland in recent years, notably the enigmatic Twinlight, but they have taken things up a notch in terms of numbers this season with the likes of Fakir D’Oudairies and Blue Sari, both of whom have since been purchased by JP McManus.

Flash De Clerval is hardly in that league but he caught the eye on hurdles debut at Gowran on Saturday behind Star Max. An unconsidered 33/1 shot, he made a big move from rear of midfield out of the back into a closing sixth at the last hurdle where he fell, his rate of progress in the straight suggesting he may well have come fourth.

With improvement for both the run and hurdling experience likely, he could be up to winning an ordinary maiden hurdle though Liz Doyle may all consider reverting to a bumper with him.



Tony Keenan's Irish Angle
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