Kevin Blake

Leading racing writer Kevin Blake delivers his verdict on the inaugural Dublin Racing Festival.

  • Monday 05 February
  • Blog
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Dublin Racing Festival a roaring success

Irish racing can seem a quite factional game at times, but to be fair to it, when it matters most the numerous interest groups have the ability to band together for the greater good. We have seen it in recent years with the conception and success of Irish Champions Weekend and last weekend saw the culmination of another example of this with the Dublin Racing Festival at Leopardstown.

While there will always be sceptics circling around anything new, they were tellingly few in number around the Dublin Racing Festival as it just seemed a very sensible and strong concept from the outset. Thankfully, it was strongly embraced by Irish trainers and owners, resulting in a feast of National Hunt racing action never before seen outside of the leading spring festivals. Some cynics had billed it as no more than a Cheltenham trials day, but it stood tall as a stand-alone event that really captured the imagination of both the racegoers that attended and those that watched it on television.

No doubt some will quibble about the attendance numbers, but I couldn’t care less what the numbers were. What matters most to me at least is that passionate racing fans not just from Ireland, but from all over Great Britain and even further afield came to Leopardstown in their droves to support the meeting. It is those racegoers that create the atmosphere, flooding to the parade ring and responding in a knowledgeable and passionate manner to the action on the track. It was their presence that ensured a vibe and energy at the Dublin Racing Festival that would be the envy of all but a couple of couple of top-class race meetings under either code in Europe.

Those that attended were treated to a special two days of National Hunt racing. With the vast majority of Irish-trained stars in each division turning up to stake their claims for glory, what the meeting produced was an array of informative, dramatic and classy action that proved to be the perfect antidote to the series of phony wars we have become so accustomed to in the months leading up to the Cheltenham Festival in recent years.

There were so many highlights over the two days that it is difficult to know where to start. The main event on the first day was the BHP Insurance Irish Champion Hurdle and the dominant talking point was whether Faugheen could bounce back from his lifeless showing in the Ryanair Hurdle. While Faugheen certainly put up a much better performance, he fell well short of his very best. There was a moment after the second-last flight where the old Faugheen would have powered away from his opposition, but this time it just didn’t happen and SUPASUNDAE was able to grind him down and ultimately finish well on top of him. While Supasundae clearly improved for putting in what was the best round of jumping of his life, that Faugheen could only see off Mick Jazz by 4¾ lengths contextualises the level he ran to.

Supasundae would almost certainly be sent off the second favourite for the Champion Hurdle if he were to be supplemented for that race, but he seems likely to run in the Stayers Hurdle instead, a race where he would have a slight stamina question to answer. As for Faugheen, Willie Mullins will have to work some more magic if he is to get the 10-year-old back to a level that can see him truly compete in the Champion Hurdle, as what he did on Saturday is unlikely to be nearly enough to threaten Buveur D’Air.

Race replay: BHP Irish Champion Hurdle.

As tricky as the Irish Champion Hurdle was to weight up pre-race, the Irish Gold Cup was even more difficult. Between horses that needed to bounce back from poor runs and those that had yet to prove themselves at the highest level, it was a contest full of questions and many of them were left unanswered after what was a tremendously dramatic race.

While there was no shortage of carnage in behind, what emerged from it was a winning story that will struggle to be any time soon in the shape of the Joseph O’Brien-trained EDWULF. It may have been difficult to anticipate his success based on the formbook, but his victory was made endlessly more remarkable by the reality of what he has come back from. Many racing followers will have been aware that Edwulf was in big trouble in the aftermath of the National Hunt Chase at last season’s Cheltenham Festival, but it was only in the post-race fallout on Sunday that the details of what exactly happened became more widely known. For those that haven’t read the specifics, this article by Mark Souster in The Times is the most comprehensive account out there.

It was understandable that the post-race focus was on the incredible story behind the victory, but that shouldn’t take away from what was a high-class performance from the winner. Dropped in by Derek O’Connor, he travelled enthusiastically and jumped well. Indeed, he has jumped with notably more consistency in his two starts this season than he had previously. He caught the eye making smooth headway approaching the straight and while many have expressed the view that Killultagh Vic was travelling best when falling at the final fence, Edwulf was travelling just as well just two lengths behind him. We’ll never know for sure what would have happened had Killultagh Vic jumped the last fence cleanly, but what we do know is that Edwulf and Outlander galloped all the way to the line and came well clear of the rest.

Inevitably, some will focus on the underperformance of many of the fancied horses, but in trying to assess what the winner achieved there is every reason to believe that Outlander ran close to his best in second. Gordon Elliott’s charge may not have the most consistent overall profile, but he has an exceptional record around Leopardstown and with it seeming likely that he ran to a mark in the mid-to-high 160s, that puts Edwulf’s performance right up with the best staying chasers in Ireland. He shouldn’t be underestimated going forward.

Race replay: Unibet Irish Gold Cup.

SAMCRO was the shining light for Gordon Elliott on what was a frustrating weekend for him, but what a star he is. The six-year-old dominated a solid field in the Deloitte Novice Hurdle and at this stage it seems highly likely that he could win either the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle or the Ballymore Novices' Hurdle, with him seeming more likely to go for the latter.

Race replay: Deliotte Novice Hurdle.

The two Grade 1 novice chases at the meeting were truly a pleasure to watch.FOOTPAD put in another tremendous performance in the Irish Arkle, though the eye was drawn to the run of Petit Mouchoir back in second on his return from a short injury-enforced absence. The rematch between the two in the Cheltenham Festival equivalent will be a contest to savour, for all that Footpad is likely to prove difficult to beat.

Race replay: Frank Ward Solicitors Irish Arkle.

In the two-mile five-furlong contest, the Henry de Bromhead-trained MONALEE showed that the horrendous tumble and kicking he had suffered at Leopardstown’s Christmas meeting had left no mark on him, with a return to front-running tactics seeing him put in a beautiful round of jumping. While he seemed in big danger on a couple of occasions in the straight, I suspect he may well have been dossing in front, as every time one of his rivals got to him, he found more and went away again. He looks tailor-made for the RSA Chase and the clash between him and Presenting Percy will be one to savour.

Away from the Grade 1 races, the most significant performance with a view to the Championship races at the Cheltenham Festival looked to be the Dublin Chase and it was MIN that took centre stage. His credentials for the highest level had come into question after he struggled to see off Simply Ned at Leopardstown’s Christmas meeting, but this was a different story. A strong pace set by the admirable Special Tiara allowed David Mullins to ride Min with more patience and having jumped his way into contention, he powered away to beat his old rival Simply Ned by 12 lengths. It was a performance that very much puts him into the mix for the Queen Mother Champion Chase and one can only hope that Altior turns up so we finally get to see a rematch between the two that has been two years in the making.

The big disappointment of the Dublin Chase was Yorkhill. The drop back to the two-mile one-furlong trip promised to finally settle the argument of what his ideal trip is and while it is easy to suggest that his abysmal run exhibited his unsuitability to the shorter trip, when one looks back at it in the cold light of day, it is likely that it told us nothing. The one constant in Yorkhill’s career from every trip from two miles to three miles is that he has taken a grip ranging from a strong to a fierce hold in the early stages. That is his way. 

While the pace was as strong as he would have ever encountered on Saturday, he was held up a long way off it, yet quite simply never travelled a yard. His performance was in such contrast with what we have come to expect of him that it should not be taken at anything like face value. Racecourse rumour suggested he hadn’t been pleasing in his recent work which, coupled with a wild pre-race drift on the exchanges, suggest that all was not well with him on the day. With him now having run two very poor races since returning this season, he has a lot of questions to answer going forward that are far more serious than what his optimum trip is.

Race replay: Coral Dublin Chase.

It is situations such as these with a short-priced contender drifting in the market and running abysmally that the raceday stewards should automatically investigate on behalf of the racing public, but quite remarkably, the Leopardstown stewards didn’t see fit to seek an official explanation for his run. Indeed, on such a high-profile day of racing it was disappointing that there were only three official notes made by the stewards on the day, with the disappointing performances of the likes of Fabulous Saga, Kilfenora and Defi Du Seuil to name just a few to add to Yorkhill all going officially unquestioned.

The stewards are there to protect the integrity of the sport and they should be asking for explanations and reports from the connections of short-priced horses that disappoint as a matter of routine. Leaving such runs unquestioned does nothing but harm for the perception and image of Irish racing. In a week where the BHA created a Twitter account specifically to relay their already detailed and plentiful stewards’ reports to the racing public in as timely a manner as possible (@BHAStewards), it serves to illustrate just how far Irish stewarding and the communication of it to the racing public has to improve to come up to scratch.

Inadequate stewarding apart, the Dublin Racing Festival can only be considered a huge success. It was embraced by all in Irish racing and the racegoers that matter most, the passionate supporters of the sport, turned out in great numbers on both days. It was an absolute pleasure to be there and one suspects that it will only get bigger and better as the years go on. Long may it prosper.

Kevin Blake
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