They say time flies and remarkably it’s four years since my RTE colleague Ted Walsh sent a lightly weighted ten year old in the shape of Jack High across the Irish sea to win the then Betfred Gold Cup, and tomorrow I fancy another Irish challenger to scoop the final major prize of the British National Hunt season.
The race which will be referred to forever and a day as the Whitbread in now sponsored by Stoke-on-Trent outfit bet365, and I reckon the latest name to be engraved on their Gold Cup will be that of another nicely weighted Irish-trained ten year old: Church Island.
The selection has been in good nick this year winning a competitive veterans’ chase at Doncaster (third that day Briery Fox came out and won at Ascot beating a good horse), before a decent second at Newbury behind tomorrow’s top weight Darkness.
A no-show at Ascot preceeded a tilt at the Irish National less than a fortnight ago, and you couldn’t fail to be impressed with the way he saw out the marathon 3m 5f trip, finding only Niche Market too strong after racing prominently for the majority of the race. If he can re-produce a similar display then he’s entitled to be bang in the mix in what doesn’t look the strongest renewal.
Youngster Luke McNiff was in the plate that day, and he deservedly got his share of praise for getting the horse into a nice rhythm over his fences – clumsy, error strewn jumping had been his undoing at Ascot, and with Denis O’Regan now taking over steering duties he has a cracking chance providing O’Regan can eliminate the one danger area and get him popping away over the Railway fences.
However, what really appeared to eke out a big improvement at Fairyhouse was the application of first time blinkers, and it’s no surprise to see wily County Limerick trainer Michael Hourigan re-apply the head gear for this test.
Hourigan, best known for his exploits with multiple Irish Grade 1 winner Beef Or Salmon, is more than capable of getting one ready for a big occasion.
What’s more, the defection of Roll Along means the weights have taken an inevitable rise, leaving Church Island on an acceptable looking 10st 11lb.
Admittedly, Sandown will be a new test to this experienced horse, but as the winner of seven of his 38 races he’s found no problems on testing tracks such as Punchestown, Sandown and Galway, so let’s hope Sandown can also be taken in his stride.
A few showers are forecast for tonight so the likely good ground will be perfect. Back Church Island each way at 12/1 with Paddy Power (despite the frustrating declaration of 15 horses for each way punters).
Of the opposition, Lacdoudal, Oodachee and Kilbeggan Blade all have realistic claims, but the one I really fear is Paul Nicholl’s Hoo La Baloo - the eight year old thrives around Sandown, and having finished third in this 12 months ago now benefits from a 9lb lower mark.
Nicholls has had this race in mind for ages, so I’ll be investing in a win only saver just in case Church Island’s jumping goes to pot.
Later in the day at Haydock I can also pass on a very strong message from camp Noseda for the ultra quick Rublevka Star - this improving filly can leave them chasing shadows and get one on the board for favourite backers at the Lancashire track. Don’t miss out!
Saturday’s bet365 Gold tip (3.10pm Sandown Park):
9 Church Island (each way) @ 12/1 (Paddy Power)
2 Hoo La Baloo (win) @ 11/2 (general)
6.10 Haydock Park:
9 Rublevka Star (win)