With the Ireland v England Six Nations clash shunting the Irish Hennessy card forward a day, we’re blessed with an afternoon dripping with big race excitement here in Leopardstown and across the water, with cards at Newbury and Warwick also potentially packed full of Cheltenham pointers.
For the first time in a while it’s neither cold, pouring with rain, nor blowing a gale or threatening a hurricane here in Dublin, and fingers crossed it’ll help boost the crowd figures on an afternoon where they’d struggle to have attracted anything better in terms of equine talent on a bona fide A-list day.
The RTE cameras certainly won’t be deterred, and if you can’t make it down here then be sure to tune in from 2pm, shortly after which a field of eight are set to go to post for the Grade 1 Deloitte Novice Hurdle, run over two and a quarter miles (2.15pm).
Dual Cheltenham and Punchestown Champion Bumper winner Champagne Fever will go off favourite in the hands of Paul Townend, and his three Cheltenham entries are testament to the high regard in which he is held by Willie Mullins, despite being comprehensively turned over when sent off at 1/4 at Naas last time out.
He was found to be suffering from a respiratory tract infection after that puzzling defeat, but even so the calibre of opposition here is red hot.
Dermot Weld’s Waaheb has never finished out of the front two in six racecourse appearances, and got to within six lengths of the brilliant Jezki in Grade 1 company at Christmas time.
He’s rated just three pounds inferior to Champagne Fever, and has to be a live danger.
The same applies to Bright New Dawn and Minsk.
Bright New Dawn was third behind Jezki and Waaheb at Christmas time, while Minsk is a perfect illustration of how a supposed superstar can unravel, or at least take longer than expected to bloom: 12 months ago his clued up trainer was predicting great things for a horse rated 105 on the Flat, a year on he is just one from four and has been something of a slow burner over timber.
That said, for all the quality on show there might be one to show them all a clean pair of heels, with Suffolk bloodstock agent turned trainer John Ferguson sending over Flat recruit Buthelezi.
Also rated 105 on the level, this five year old son of Dynaformer made a pleasing start to his hurdling career at Aintree just before Christmas, bagging his maiden hurdle by a comfy seven lengths.
The fact that on just his second start over obstacles his talented trainer pitches him in here, and avoids easier targets at home is eye catching, and he surely isn’t here just to make up the numbers!
None of the Irish trained contingent are able to beat Jezki, and at a standout 7/1 with Betfred they might be about to encounter another irresistible force here.
Regular pilot Denis O’Regan is riding like a man possessed, and he’ll relish the opportunity to return to Ireland and showcase his talents on one of the biggest days of the lot.
His treble at Doncaster (from three rides) on Thursday was a sight to behold, not least his perfect judgement of pace when riding my own family’s runner The Chazer in the 2m 3f Chase.
It was reminiscent of Paul Carberry at his best, but perhaps even better…
It had waiting-ride aficionado and stable accomplice Trifleman considering a marriage proposal in the paddock afterwards; I think the understated O’Regan was happy to bolt for the safety of the weighing room, as far away as possible from the hovering desert devotee.
Fortunately for Denis the ever-enthusiastic Trifleman will be at Newbury this afternoon, and he can concentrate on getting the job done on Buthelezi.
Just over an hour later we get the chance to enjoy the day’s headline event, with the Grade 1 Hennessy Gold Cup the day’s feature at 3.20pm.
It has the makings of a thriller too, with heavyweights Flemenstar and Sir Des Champs meeting for a third time this season.
The score stands at 2-0 to Flemenstar, after he easily saw off Sir Des Champs over two and a half miles in the John Durkan at Punchestown, before finishing a place ahead of him when third in the Lexus at Christmas, a race which few who witnessed it will ever forget.
For Flemenstar and his colourful handler Peter Casey this represents another chance to prove he really does stay three miles in a true run race, while for Sir Des Champs it’s a chance to show the kind of form that saw him win so easily at both Cheltenham (Jewson) and Punchestown (Champion Novice) last March.
The problem is I’m not convinced Flemenstar is at his optimum over the three mile trip, despite the stamina influence from his family and the margin of defeat in the Lexus.
He loves to bowl on and attack, and maybe that means there might not be as much as ideal left in the tank in the closing stages.
For his part, Sir Des Champs is obviously a significantly better horse on better ground, and though a drying wind in recent days will have helped they’re still forecasting Soft ground on the chase track.
He was flawless in the 2011/12 campaign, but now has to prove he can see off Flemenstar.
So is it a two horse race?
Official ratings would certainly have you believe that, but I’m going to suggest a backing a horse who stays all day long and also has plenty of class.
Running in the same Gigginstown House Stud colours as Sir Des Champs is Tony Martin’s runner Bog Warrior, who returns to fences after three easy, confidence-boosting wins over hurdles.
He was thrashed by Flemenstar at Naas last March when something was clearly amiss, but bear in mind this is also the horse who ran away with the Grade 1 Drinmore Novice Chase back in December 2011, with a whopping 31 lengths the margin of victory.
He’s three from six over the larger obstacles, and what’s more has absolutely no qualms about trip or ground.
If he can translate his recent hurdles form back over fences then he has a huge chance, and at 10/1 (Ladbrokes) in a five horse race you can’t say the bookmakers are being tight-fisted! Win bet.
The ratings would suggest he has a mountain to climb at level weights – Bog Warrior 150, Flemenstar 171, Sir Des Champs 166 – but if you want a precedent for an upset then look no further Tony Martin and Benefficient a fortnight ago in the Irish Arkle here at Leopardstown.
He was 12 and 17 pounds wrong with Oscars Well and Arvika Ligeonierre respectively, but it didn’t seem to do him too much harm when winning at a not unbacked 10/1.
Meanwhile, over at Newbury, an almost impossible looking task awaits punters trying to unravel the 23 runners in the Betfair Hurdle, with it looking difficult to completely rule out almost anything.
One that does catch the eye though is top weight Petit Robin, who’s a remarkably consistent campaigner, making the frame on 15 of his 22 runs, mainly at a very high level.
Nicky Henderson is in form, Nico De Boinville takes seven pounds off, and Petit Robin simply loves the rough and tumble of a big field handicap, as demonstrated by his second to the re-opposing Cause Of Causes in the Ladbrokes at Ascot three day before Christmas.
Newbury is a happy hunting ground for Petit Robin – his record there from three runs reads: 1, 1, 3.
For a horse available at 33/1 each way with either bet365 or Paddy Power, both of who are offering us five places, more of the same will do nicely.
Lastly, I can pass on a good word for Charles Egerton’s Seedling in the concluding Newbury bumper (4.40pm).
He won his only start when taking a three year old bumper on the All Weather at Lingfield, but improvement is expected in the hands of AP McCoy.
He might be worth a dabble at what’s likely to be quite a big price.
Saturday’s best bets:
2.15 Leopardstown – Deloitte Novice Hurdle – 5 Buthelezi (win) @ 7/1 (Betfred)
3.20 Leopardstown – Hennessy Gold Cup – 1 Bog Warrior (win) @ 10/1 (Ladbrokes) (Non Runner)
3.35 Newbury – Betfair Handicap Hurdle – 1 Petit Robin (each way) @ 33/1 (bet365 or Paddy Power)
4.40 Newbury – Betfair NH Flat Race – 10 Seedling (each way) @ 8/1 with Skybet
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