Kevin Blake

Leading racing writer Kevin Blake analyses the pick of the action from the Dublin Racing Festival.

  • Monday 04 February
  • Blog
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Dublin Racing Festival produces excellent action

The second edition of the Dublin Racing Festival played out at Leopardstown last weekend and proved to be both exciting and informative. There are any number of talking points to have emerged from it, but without going down the “five things we learned…” road, here is a chronological whistle-stop tour of some of what can be taken from it all.

•    APPLE’S JADE has been a star this season. Her demolition job in the BHP Insurance Irish Champion Hurdle and subsequent U-turn by her connections regarding the Champion Hurdle has all of a sudden made that race arguably the most intriguing of the entire Cheltenham Festival.

•    ENVOI ALLEN doesn’t seem to be the type to ever do much more than the minimum in victory, but he did enough in winning the Grade 2 bumper under a safety-first ride from Jamie Codd to suggest he is a potential star in the making. An absolute cracker of a physical specimen, he would have you dreaming of what he might do once given the opportunity to race over obstacles in the seasons ahead.

•    With a number of potential challengers to Altior’s crown in the two-mile chase division having fluffed their lines this season, MIN gave notice that he is still the Number 1 contender with a smooth display in a Dublin Chase that somewhat fell apart. While his connections have flirted with longer trips for him, a two-mile chase run at a Championship pace appeals as being his optimal conditions and the Queen Mother Champion Chase appeals as the best target for him, for all that Altior has looked imperious in the last 12 months.

•    LE RICHEBOURG has hardly put a foot wrong since being sent over fences and recorded a smooth success in the Frank Ward Solicitors Arkle Novice Chase. While he has been on the go since the Galway Festival, he looked better than ever on Saturday and is the clear pick of the Irish-trained two-mile novice chasers. The faster the go in the Arkle Challenge Trophy at the Cheltenham Festival, the better it will suit him.

•    SIR EREC took a really strong step in the right direction to win the Spring Juvenile Hurdle. Everyone knows about the strength of his form on the Flat, but he needed to improve on a number of fronts from his winning hurdling debut to fulfil his potential and did just that on Sunday. His jumping was significantly better and he bossed what was a smart field every step of the way from the front. An increased emphasis on stamina will only show him to better effect. He looks to be the leading light amongst a very strong group of juvenile hurdlers stabled with Joseph O’Brien on Owning Hill.

•    The numerically weak British challenge was a disappointing aspect of the Dublin Racing Festival, so it was great to see the bravery of the connections of LA BAGUE AU ROI rewarded with a victory in the Flogas Novice Chase. She is a thoroughly admirable and talented mare and while her victory may have been one for the “away” team, it was greeted with great enthusiasm by the home crowd. Irish racegoers love a proper horse regardless of where they are trained and she very much fits into that category. Fair play to Warren Greatrex and her owners for having a crack. Hopefully more follow their example next year, as it will only enhance the meeting if they do.

•    The Unibet Irish Gold Cup was decimated by non-runners, but the four runners that remained produced a fabulous contest with BELLSHILL just edging out Road To Respect by a short-head. Ruby Walsh gave the winner a ride of subtle excellence, seeming to get a breather into his mount in between the last two fences when almost any other jockey would have been asking for everything. That was likely to be the difference maker on the day, as he only just got up by a short-head. That said, as good as the winner was, the connections of the runner-up would likely relish a rematch given that it was not one of his better days in the jumping department. This won’t be the last that these two see of each other, but it is difficult not to think that Presenting Percy remains “the one” in the staying chase division in Ireland.

A tribute to Special Tiara

For all the highlights and memorable moments of the Dublin Racing Festival, proceedings hit a real low point on Saturday with the sad loss of SPECIAL TIARA.

Henry De Bromhead’s 12-year-old is unlikely to ever appear in any list of all-time greats in the two-mile chase division. However, there is something about a free-going bold-jumping front-running two-mile chaser that really lights a fire of affection in the hearts of National Hunt people and he encapsulated that profile as much as any horse has in recent decades. His habit of taking off an absolute mile away from his fences made him an exhilarating watch every time he stepped onto a racecourse and he acquired a substantial following as a result.

Following his demise, social media was awash with multiple pictures and videos of him flying through the air with almost reckless abandon at his fences. It is a testament to his athleticism that in his 32 starts over fences he only fell or unseated his rider on two occasions. What a thrill he was to watch.

On his favoured good ground, he was a test for any top two-mile chaser and took some notable scalps through his career including the great Sprinter Sacre. His finest hour came when winning the Queen Mother Champion Chase at the Cheltenham Festival in 2017, but his wins around Kempton and Sandown will be just as fondly remembered for the sheer exuberance and boldness with which he jumped around those tracks.

Special Tiara was a mighty horse, he really was. He will be missed on the racecourse of Ireland and Great Britain, but he will undoubtedly be missed most by those closest to him in Henry De Bromhead’s yard and by his owner Sally Rowley-Williams. His like don’t come around all that often.

Leopardstown ground comes under scrutiny again

In what has been a remarkably dry winter, the possibility of the free-draining turf of Leopardstown being firmer than ideal was a focus point long before the Dublin Racing Festival took place last weekend. As was the case for Irish Champions Weekend last September, Leopardstown were dealt a cruel hand with a weather forecast that promised sufficient rain to produce the desired surface, but failed to deliver when it mattered, resulting in ground that was considered too firm for many sets of connections to run their horses on Sunday in particular.

This corner is always very reluctant to criticise those in charge of the racing surface in cases like this. It really is a hugely difficult job to produce a surface that pleases the majority in a country where the weather can be so changeable and localised. Not to mention the political pressures that can be applied by different interest groups with different ideas as to what approach should be taken. It really is one of the toughest jobs in racing.

That said, for a meeting such as the Dublin Racing Festival that lies so close to other prominent meetings, one wonders will those in charge regret not taking a safety-first approach to watering in the build-up to the meeting. It is unlikely that such a freakishly dry winter will prevail again anytime soon, but one would like to think that this unusual experience will be learned from not just by Leopardstown, but by all track managements that witnessed it. Softer-than-ideal ground is a frustration, but firmer-than-ideal ground is a problem.

Kevin Blake
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