WITH all the hype surrounding the Cheltenham Festival, it’s easy to forget that a lot of the top class races throughout the year are Grade One races in their own right and are coveted by a host of trainers.
Noel Meade does not have the best record at the big festival in March but as one of Ireland’s leading trainers, he admits that his season does not totally revolve around getting horses ready for Cheltenham.
He made this point while celebrating the impressive victory of Iktitaf in the Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown on Sunday where the Champion Hurdler and Champion Chaser were made to look pretty ordinary, with only Asian Maze putting up a fight. That’s now five victories on the bounce and four of those have been on a soft surface so Meade claims his exciting five year old will be even better on good ground. His seven length trouncing of Straw Bear at Punchestown last April would seem to support this.
While reviews of Iktitaf’s win were mixed, no one could pick holes in the performance of Kauto Star, who was simply breathtaking in his demolition of an experienced field of chasers in the Betfair Chase. Ruby Walsh could hardly contain his excitement but one definite over-reaction has come from Racing Post jumps handicapper Simon Mason who has rated Kauto just five pounds short of all time great, Desert Orchid.
He could do nothing more than beat what was in front of him but the stern test will come when he faces the like of War of Attrition, Kicking King, Monet’s Garden and Racing Demon, who did the job nicely at Huntingdon and for me is the definite value in both the King George and the Gold Cup (at 8-1 and a massive 25-1) respectively with Paddy Power.
There is another cracking weekend of racing coming up with the Hennessy at Newbury and the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle. There is also a good card at Newbury on Friday where the Lane Fox Beginners Chase looks like being a cracker. My Way De Solzen is likely to run at Lingfield on Thursday while O’Maley is another Paul Nicholls French recruit who gets the crucial allowance for being a four year old. But a horse I am very much looking forward to seeing over fences is Briareus. Tony McCoy has being booked to ride Andrew Balding’s charge who was sixth in the Champion Hurdle and this six year old looks built for chasing. He could be a serious Arkle contender.
Also on the card, we have some top staying novice chasers clashing in the Unicorn Homes Novices Chase. Letterman and Boychuk are no slouches but this should be a head to head between Standin Obligation and Gungadu, with the slightest of preferences for the latter, who is an out and out stayer who jumped with real purpose on his debut.
On Saturday, the main race is, of course, the Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup but the Long Walk Hurdle could be a cracker with Inglis Drever and Black Jack Ketchum going head to head. Preference is for the latter at present as Inglis Drever has not seen a racecourse since December but it could be a different story come March in the Stayers.
With Star de Mohaison opting to bypass the Hennessy, the race is absolutely wide open. Cornish Rebel is a worthy top weight as he ran a cracker in last year’s Gold Cup before making a mistake four out. Turpin Green and State of Play have being very well backed and the lightly weighted Presenting Express and Parsons Legacy are in great form. However, if Idle Talk has recovered from his Cheltenham exertions he should go very close. He was only six lengths away in the Sun Alliance and ran a fine fourth in the Scottish National and he will be staying on when a lot are running out of puff.
However, the race of the weekend is likely to be the Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle where a number of Champion Hurdle contenders put their reputations on the line. Harchibald, Desert Quest and Straw Bear are worthy contenders but Mac’s Joy finished last season with aplomb at Punchestown by finally beating Brave Inca. He is still relatively unexposed and is only an eight year old – the age of Brave Inca and Hardy Eustace when they were successfully in the last two Champion Hurdles.
Finally, Denman should make it three out of three over fences on Sunday as the opposition looks pretty tame although Aztec Warrior is highly rated by Henrietta Knight.