Eight Cheltenham Festival winners used the Dublin Racing Festival as a springboard in 2018, but the number was only two last year. Everybody, including Irish trainers (because the British ones tend to not want to play), is still figuring out their relationship, of how one connects to the other and which horses can fire up at both Festivals, but, for now at least, Leopardstown is a companion piece to Cheltenham.
Each race, therefore, has two functions: a big prize to be won and a bigger pointer to Cheltenham. Which, then, are the Cheltenham events most susceptible to a shake-up by what happens this weekend. Let’s investigate.
The phrase ‘not seeing the wood for the trees’ means the inability to grasp a general understanding of a situation due to being preoccupied with specific details. In the case of the Champion Chase, there’s certainly an element of the English Oaks of Altior and Defi Du Seuil obscuring the larger landscape. But the Dublin Chase on Saturday will change all of that.
Behind the interplay between Chacun Pour Soi and A Plus Tard at Christmas, and the stealth approach by Cilaos Emery, there’s the forgotten fact that Chacun Pour Soi taught Defi Du Seuil a lesson at Punchestown last May, which is the last connective tissue between this bunch, thinking that the 12-y-o Un De Sceaux has come over to Britain this winter to win, but also to recce.
Un De Sceaux is an elder statesman, but Willie Mullins’ new wave are all out to play on Saturday, almost a race within a race, to become the champion of Closutton before setting about the Champion Chase, with Min also in the mix, alongside Chacun Pour Soi and Cilaos Emery.
Min has bowed to Altior in past meetings, but one or the other of Chacun Pour Soi and Cilaos Emery could clear the English Oaks into favouritism for Cheltenham if they can demolish a doozy of a Dublin Chase.
It’s a parallel picture for the juveniles as the champion chasers, only a little less defined, because the best of British – Allmankind and Goshen - have their flaws as well as their fire; in fact, they have their flaws because they have such fire. And, because of that, Aspire Tower has the chance to plant an Irish flag in the Triumph Hurdle.
In most championship clashes it’s the contrasts that increase the intrigue, but with this generation it’s their similarities. Allmankind and Goshen are cut from exactly the same cloth, as, so it seems, is Aspire Tower.
However, even though Aspire Tower has made all for his two wins, it has seemed controlled as opposed to carefree, in that it has been more of a means to an end for him than a necessity.
A clean and clinical performance by Aspire Tower in the Spring on Sunday could suddenly see a short-priced favourite for the Triumph.
More stats than specifics, but the last two winners of the Champion Bumper at Cheltenham used the Dublin Racing Festival as a stepping stone, Envoi Allen and Relegate; and the preceding winner, the ill-fated Fayonagh, came from a Fairyhouse race that was upgraded and replaced into the revamped Festival at Leopardstown, but was run on the same weekend.
So that’s the last three Champion Bumper winners that arrived via this upcoming weekend. Towards the top of an ambiguous ante-post market for Cheltenham are Eric Bloodaxe and Appreciate It, representing Joseph O’Brien and Willie Mullins respectively, and they’re on a collision course at Leopardstown in the Grade 2 bumper on Saturday.
Whoever emerges on top will theoretically be in the driving seat for Cheltenham, more so given recent trends, but in practice they’re both some way off Champion Bumper-winning standard, and so any reaction – depending, of course, on the style and substance of the success, may be a little artificial. Something to keep in mind.
Even the name is the same, for the Cheltenham novice championship and its Irish equivalent, and Saturday’s race looks every bit as much the divisional decider as March, given the threadbare team that Britain is cobbling together, in contrast to what Ireland has to offer: and most of them are squaring up on Saturday.
It’s the rematch of Notebook and Fakir D’Oudairies from Boxing Day, when the balance of power shifted to Notebook, and the weight-for-age allowance is less now for Fakir D’Oudairies than it was then. But what makes this so much more than a regulation re-run is that Mullins is throwing the lot at it, with not one, not two but three worthy contenders, as well as a bit-part player in Royal Rendezvous.
Melon is a dual-Champion Hurdle runner-up who has 3l to make up on Fakir D’Oudairies from Navan in November, but clearly has the scope to do so, while Cash Back and Bapaume are both fast getting their act together over fences.
This is an Irish-only affair, but the Arkle at Cheltenham is highly likely to be, too, which makes Saturday like the semi-final that has higher stakes and significance than the final itself.