This 2018/19 National Hunt Season
When it comes to Cheltenham nowadays, there is a championship race for each of the four days, taking hold of the narrative. On Tuesday, we have the Champion Hurdle, Wednesday the Champion Chase, Thursday the Stayers’ Hurdle and Friday the biggest of them all: the Gold Cup. Given how good Irish racing has become, that we only took one of the four races last year, Penhill winning the Stayers Hurdle, rates something of a disappointment. Perhaps this year we will go one or two better.
These are the races around which the season revolves, yet there are Grade 1 races aplenty beforehand. Would you mind being a champion at Leopardstown at Christmas or Punchestown in April? Thought not.
Walking around Fairyhouse last weekend, that of Hattons Grace day, with wellingtons and waterwear, it was hard to believe that Michael O’Leary was who he is.
It was hard still to believe that he owned the winner of the big race, her 20-length domination suggesting she could yet become one of the greatest mares of all time. That was a simply astonishing performance – even the taciturn Jack Kennedy purred after riding her – and she will take some stopping against mares – and geldings – this season.
Would that Michael attempt to win a Champion Hurdle with her, a race he has yet to win? Make it so Michael – she has already won the mares’ race!
The story goes that I was offered a leg in this horse before he ran in his point-to-point. Apparently it is true, and it is not a story I readily repeat.
In any event, he went on to greatness, and after some uninspiring runs that suggested he was finished, he bounced right back with an incredible all-the-way win on his first try at three miles at the Punchestown Festival last season. Two miles seemed too short for his ageing legs on his return at Punchestown, but what is to stop Faugheen being right back at his best over farther later in the season?“Faugheen the machine” is something we haven’t heard the last of. Willie Mullins still believes and so do his merry band of disciples.
On the face of it, this exuberant second-season chaser’s return at Naas was deeply disappointing. Already floundering under Ruby Walsh, he fell when seemingly beaten at the last.
It transpired that the horse had suffered an injury during the race. Both Walsh and Willie Mullins were not downbeat afterwards and, unbeaten as a novice last year, he can bounce back.
He absolutely devours his fences and stepping up in trip should be no issue to him. Could he put it up to the mighty Altior in the Champion Chase? Of course he could.
Willie Mullins clearly believes that Melon can find at least a neck of improvement in this horse – the distance he was beaten in last year’s Champion Hurdle. Second in the Supreme Novice Hurdle the season before, his run in March was superb, and he may well have beaten Samcro at the Punchestown Festival, only for the pair to fall independently.
That was incredible stuff and it is remarkable that neither is chasing the season.Connections are now conscious that when Melon gets a strong gallop he is really smart and we await his return with impatience.
From the day this filly has run, Willie Mullins – who has looked after some great mares in recent years like Quevega and Annie Power – has not hidden his regard.
Last year’s winner My Tent Or Yours is on course to make his seasonal reappearance in the £140,000 Grade 2 Unibet International Hurdle at Cheltenham on Saturday, December 15 – but likely he will have his hands full to beat Laurina. This dashing mare absolutely hammered everything she ran against last year and the question for Mullins is: Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham in March of Mares’ Hurdle?
Speaking at the HRI annual awards dinner this week, one thing is abundantly clear: all is well with Laurina. Could she be the next Dawn Run?
Speaking to me for the HRI blog series lately, his trainer Philip Reynolds was full of beans. “Presenting Percy is in great form. I’m here signing in the rain, hoping for once the rain continues as all roads will lead to the John Durkan.
“The trip is probably too short, the track is not his happiest of hunting grounds but we want to see him out. Until we do I cannot say he has improved enough to be a real Gold Cup contender so for now I just keep dreaming.”
With Might Bite and Native River both beaten on their seasonal return, the former particularly disappointing, last year’s RSA Chase winner – who is two from two at the Cheltenham Festival – must rate a major player in the Gold Cup. A beautiful jumper who travels well, his trainer Pat Kelly looks after but a handful in southeast Galway, and it would be quite the coup for the county were he to win the Gold Cup.
There is every chance it will happen, with Sunday’s John Durkan likely to tell us more.
Noel Meade has never won the Gold Cup – nor indeed has Willie Mullins – but the genial County Meath man has a chance this year in Road To Respect. Meade is a big fan of the Royals’ footballers and we can say with some certainty he may win a Gold Cup before Meath win an All-Ireland!At his best on good ground, Road To Repect produced possibly his best performance yet when winning at Down Royal in November. His rider, Sean Flanagan, has a pilot’s license, and he could be flying to Cheltenham to ride an aeroplane come Gold Cup day! Before all of that, there is Leopardstown at Christmas and again for the Dublin Racing Festival in February.
It was “house private” for many Irish punters when Samcro was demolished by Buveur D’air at Newcastle earlier this month. I for one was not so much gutted that he was beaten but pretty demoralised about how comprehensive that beating was.
Here was a horse Michael O’Leary famously said “was not the second coming of Jesus Christ” and three defeats on the spin suggests he was right. I retain plenty of hope that, held up off the pace in a race run at a fierce gallop, he has a lot more to offer, though I still argue he should be chasing rather than hurdling!
Samcro, we still believe. After Christmas, maybe we will believe even more.
Providing Jessica Harrington, in her 70s, with both her first runner and first winner in the Gold Cup (back in 2017), it was desperately disappointing that he was ruled out of a tilt at the race this year due to injury.
This guy used to be trained by Henry De Bromhead, who tended to keep the horse at two miles, and Harrington is going back to the future too. Sizing John could come back in trip to two miles at Leopardstown over Christmas. The 2017 Cheltenham Gold Cup hero has not been seen in racecourse action since last December but could have a gallop after racing at Punchestown next weekend.
Harrington told At The Races on Sunday: “Kate (Harrington) rode him this morning. Very much so (shows old ability), he really does – and just might surprise you by going over two miles at Christmas (at Leopardstown).”
This hugely popular horse’s return to the fray will be eagerly anticipated by all in Irish racing. “John”, as they call him, is worth waiting for. The death of the brilliant Our Duke, who ran in the Gold Cup for the stable last year, makes us cherish him even more.
In the circumstances, running against the magic mare, Apple's Jade, was not an easy start for Supasundae this season. He takes a bit of getting fit and she had already had a run, so finishing second to her probably rated an excellent run.
I think he could have beaten Penhill last March had the rain stayed away and his was a superb campaign, tried in so many top races over different trips. This is a rare sight, a top-class jumper sired by Galileo, and he is a pleasure to watch at a hurdle. Fast, hardy and gutsy, he will surely have another excellent campaign for Mrs Harrington.