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28th February 2010

Leopardstown’s after-racing gallops heighten Cheltenham Festival fever

• Punters watch work-outs closely for Cheltenham clues
• Edward O’Grady captures two Leopardstown prizes

The National Hunt season drew to a close here today, but not before the course had performed a final duty before giving way to the Flat. By tradition, many of Ireland’s leading trainers send some of their Cheltenham contenders to exercise on the track after its last jumps meeting of the year, and with Irish-trained runners prominent in the betting for many of the Festival’s races, there was no shortage of optimism or excitement as the darkness started to draw in.

Many Cheltenham gambles have been kicked into motion by half-seen – and sometimes half-imagined – events in the gloom. The ones that succeeded are the ones that people remember, like Missed That and Total Enjoyment in the Champion Bumper, and Sky’s The Limit in the Coral Cup four years ago. Plenty more have come to grief in Gloucestershire a couple of weeks later, but when a bandwagon starts to roll at this stage of the season, it is a brave punter who stands in its way.

The focus of most attention was a horse with a Festival win to his name already, as Mikael D’Haguenet, who took the Ballymore (now Neptune) Novices’ Hurdle last March, jumped fences in public for the first time since his days as a young horse in France.

With Ruby Walsh in the saddle, Mikael D’Haguenet jumped around most of a circuit, taking noticeable care at several obstacles. He looked well beforehand, and had clearly been doing enough work, but with the RSA Chase, one of the Festival’s toughest events, now so close at hand, he did look in need of the experience that only a proper race can provide.

“We can see that the engine is still there, which is delightful for all of us,” Rich Ricci, Mikael D’Haguenet’s owner, said afterwards. “We will school him next week and decide what to do then … [but] he is a potential Gold Cup winner of the future and we don’t want to risk his chance of winning one or two Gold Cups to win one Arkle or one RSA Chase.”

Other horses to work after racing included Mullins’s Cooldine, last year’s RSA winner, who jumped with more polish than his stablemate, while Uimhiraceathair, another possible RSA runner, also pleased his trainer.

Forpadydeplasterer’s fencing was quick and efficient, and last year’s Arkle Trophy winner looks to be back in the reckoning for the Champion Chase, while Sublimity, a former champion hurdler, also completed an easy gallop. Somewhat unusually, there was also a Festival pointer on the main card yesterday, as Tranquil Sea, the winner of the Paddy Power Chase at Cheltenham back in November, contested the Grade Two Newlands Chase, rerouted from an abandoned meeting at Naas last weekend.

Yesterday’s trip of two miles and a furlong was short of his optimum, but Tranquil Sea was sent off at 4-6 and was going like the winner from a long way out. He needed little encouragement to move two and a half lengths clear of Natal at the line, and is 5-1 (from 13-2) with William Hill bookmakers for the Ryanair Chase.

“It isn’t often that things go as much to plan as that,” O’Grady said. “It was a very delicate act beforehand, as we wanted a bit of work, wanted to win the race but didn’t want to have a hard race, and it worked out very nicely. If he improves from that he must have a shout [at Cheltenham], and I think he’s better on better ground.”

O’Grady completed a quick double as Shot From The Hip took the closing bumper, and the winner’s odds were immediately slashed by bookmakers who now make him second-favourite for the Champion Bumper at Cheltenham, where JP Magnier, the son of owner John Magnier, is expected to ride.

The message from the remainder of yesterday’s action was that the Mullins string is in encouraging form ahead of a meeting where his runners are often the bedrock of the Irish challenge. Citizen Vic, part of a treble for the trainer, could yet take up an engagement in the RSA Chase in 16 days’ time.

“My feeling was to go to the Powers Gold Cup at Fairyhouse, and I think we still will,” Mullins said. “[But] he settled well and that opens up longer trips. He’s still in the RSA and the way he settled and jumped, we’re certainly going to have a think about it.” © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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