Kevin Blake

Leading racing writer Kevin Blake looks forward to two races that intrigue him most at Leopardstown's Christmas Festival.

  • Sunday 23 December
  • Blog
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FAUGHEEN’S TIME AT THE TOP MAY NOT BE OVER YET

Without doubt one of the most interesting races of the entire Christmas period will be the Squared Financial Christmas Hurdle at Leopardstown on Friday. It will be billed as a rematch between Apple’s Jade and Supasundae after they served up a contest for the ages in last year’s renewal, but it might well prove ill-advised to underestimate Faugheen

Following Faugheen’s disappointing second to his stable mate Sharjah when sent off at 2/5 for his seasonal reappearance in the Morgiana Hurdle, many seem very willing to conclude that it represented a strong indication that his best days are gone. However, I would argue that such a conclusion could well be premature. 

Over the years, Faugheen had tended to turn up for his seasonal reappearance carrying plenty of condition and in need of the run. That trend came to an end last season when he absolutely bolted up in the Morgiana on his return from nearly two years off the track. However, it is important to remember that after Mullins had only just run out of time to get him back on the track at the backend of the previous season, he had decided to keep him on the go throughout the summer leading up to that Morgiana. Thus, he turned up in far more forward condition than he had in the past on his seasonal reappearance and it was reflected in his performance. 

In contrast, after Faugheen’s spectacular win in the Champion Stayers Hurdle at the Punchestown Festival last April, a growth the size of a tennis ball was found in his groin area that had to be surgically removed. The recovery from that necessitated him having some time off and when Willie Mullins was interviewed for a stable tour with attheraces.com back in mid-October, he commented: “We only gave him as much time off as he needed and got him back in as soon as we could. He’s been back in for quite a while, but I have to say he is quite heavy at the moment, so it might take him a run or two to reach full fitness.” 

Thus, it seems ill-advised to judge him too harshly on his reappearance run in the Morgiana. The Christmas Hurdle at Leopardstown will be just his third start over three miles and given the most recent one resulted in him slamming the Stayers’ Hurdle winner Penhill by 13 lengths, it is him rather than his two main rivals that brings the best piece of three-mile form to the table. 

Of course, Father Time will catch up with Faugheen eventually, but in the circumstances, it might well be worth speculating that there might be at least one more big day in him by getting behind him at 6/1 on offer for this race. 

ROAD TO RESPECT OUT TO EARN HIS AT LEOPARDSTOWN

The Noel Meade-trained Road To Respectis one of those horses that many people have seemed slow to latch onto. For a horse that is now a three-time Grade 1 winner over fences, he doesn’t seem to have the profile that one would expect, but that might all change after the Savills Chase at Leopardstown on Friday. 

Rated just 127 after the conclusion of his novice hurdle season for Eoin Griffin, a switch to Noel Meade and more importantly being sent over fences seemed to be making of him. That said, he was still a slow enough burner as a novice chaser, being beaten four times before coming alive on a sounder surface in the spring to win the Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Stable Plate Handicap Chase at the Cheltenham Festival and the Ryanair Gold Cup Novice Chase at Fairyhouse. 

Though, he didn’t get full credit for the latter success, as it was seen as a case of the errant Yorkhill throwing the race away rather than Road To Respect winning it, despite Meade’s charge doing his own share of jumping to the left that day. 

Last season saw him take his form up another notch. A fine second to Outlander in the JNwine.com Champion Chase at Down Royal promised plenty considering his tendency to jump out to his left didn’t help him on the day. The thought that a return to a left-handed track would aid him was confirmed when he went and won the Leopardstown Christmas Chase in authoritative style in a first-time hood on his next start. 

That performance put him right into the Gold Cup picture, but there was a disagreement in the camp. Noel Meade stated publicly that he was keen to run him in Irish Gold Cup before going to Cheltenham, but the Gigginstown team decided to have him sent straight to Prestbury Park. Whether that decision helped or hindered him is very difficult to know, but one thing that certainly did seem to hinder him was the rain that led to the Gold Cup being run on soft ground. 

He was travelling as well as any when hitting the third-last fence and only gave best when making another error at the second-last, eventually finishing fourth. His final run of the season resulted in a third-place finish in the Punchestown Gold Cup, but he shaped like a horse that perhaps still wasn’t over his brave effort in the Gold Cup. 

As much as anything else, the case for him in the Savills Chase at Leopardstown on Friday is based on what he did on his seasonal reappearance in the JNwine.com Champion Chase at Down Royal last month. It was almost certainly a career-best effort. While right-handed tracks have posed issues for him in the past, he jumped straight for much of the race and only started to edge left over the final three fences when he hit the front. Once he hit the front, he powered away from the hard-fit and progressive Woodland Opera to score by 16 lengths.

It was a performance that suggested Road To Respect’s very best days may still be ahead of him, starting with the Savills Chase at Leopardstown this Friday. 

While Presenting Percy could well be the Gold Cup winner in the making, Pat Kelly has a well-earned reputation for his ability to peak his horses for the day that matters most at the Cheltenham Festival. One can be sure that he won’t have Presenting Percy’s screws tightened just yet and one suspects that they would be happy with a solid comeback run rather than it all being about winning. Facing up to a race-fit rival in Road To Respect that is coming in off a career-best effort and meeting with close to ideal conditions will be a very tough task for him. 

It could well be a whole different ball game when they meet later in the season, but Road To Respect looks to have everything in his favour in the Savills Chase and he looks overpriced at 3/1.

Kevin Blake
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