We’ve already been treated to some high-class action during this jumps season, notably at Ascot and Haydock last weekend, but Sunday’s card at Fairyhouse is arguably the best meeting of the campaign so far.
The Hatton’s Grace Hurdle features a fascinating showdown between star mares Apple’s Jade and Honeysuckle, while huge reputations are placed on the line in the Royal Bond Novice Hurdle and Drinmore Novice Chase.
The Drinmore (13:30) is a particularly high-class contest and you will do well to find another novice chase this season stacked with so much quality and intrigue.
Samcro attracted a legion of followers during a most promising novice hurdle campaign in 2017/18, notably notching Grade 1 wins in the Deloitte and Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle. He looked like one of the brightest prospects for many a year but badly failed to meet expectations during a truncated, winless campaign last season.
Something was clearly not right with Samcro last season – he tied up far too tamely in the Ryanair Hurdle at Leopardstown at Christmas – but he was given plenty of time off by trainer Gordon Elliott and underwent a breathing operation in the summer.
He had little trouble outclassing his rivals on his chasing debut at Down Royal this month, where he impressed with his jumping and, perhaps more importantly, how he hit the line still full of running, pulling 17 lengths clear. That was a perfect return to action and showed he still retains the potential to reach the very top over fences, but there’s no doubt he will be given a much sterner examination in the Drinmore against battle-hardened rivals such as Burrows Saint and Fakir d’Oudairies.
The Drinmore falls on the final day Burrows Saint can contest novice chases and he sets the standard based on his success in the Irish Grand National at Fairyhouse in April, where he provided Willie Mullins with a first much-coveted win in that marathon chase.
The Irish Grand National is run over a distance nine furlongs further than the Drinmore, but Burrows Saint is not a slow horse – he was an impressive winner of a beginners’ chase over this trip – and his experience will stand him in good stead.
Burrows Saint, however, is not open to the same level of improvement as Samcro, nor Fakir d’Oudairies, who receives a handy 8 lb weight-for-age allowance on account of being a four-year-old. Fakir d’Oudairies may be a young horse but he already looks an assured chaser based on his impressive beating of dual Champion Hurdle runner-up Melon at Navan this month.
He showed ability over hurdles last season, reaching the frame at the three big spring festivals, but he is set to come into his own over fences based on the technique he displayed at Navan. The step up to two and a half miles should suit and, in receipt of 8 lb, he looks sure to go well.
Ronald Pump, a bargain buy who has soared through the ranks and won five of his last six starts, Tintangle and Chef des Obeaux complete the stellar line-up, but, while it is a race to savour, it is not easy to identify a selection.
The Royal Bond (13:00) also looks like a high-class edition and features an eagerly-anticipated clash between Envoi Allen and Abacadbras (both trained by Elliott), the two market leaders for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival.
Joseph O’Brien’s unexposed duo Embittered and Midnight Run add another layer of intrigue, but this is a test most punters expect Envoi Allen – the odds-on favourite – to pass.
Bought for £400,000 after winning a point, Envoi Allen won all four of his starts in bumpers, including the Champion Bumper at the Cheltenham Festival, and was faultless on his hurdling debut at Down Royal this month, jumping fine and quickening clear of a subsequent winner in pleasing style. He is an exciting prospect who has already achieved plenty – his Champion Bumper win was the best in the race since Briar Hill in 2013 – and should prove difficult to beat.
Abacadbras was only fourth in the Champion Bumper, beaten nearly six lengths, but he has clearly taken well to hurdling and was an effortless winner of the Grade 3 For Auction at Navan last time, fully earning a crack at this company. Envoi Allen is likely to prove a tough nut to crack, however.
Benie des Dieux doesn’t run in the Hatton’s Grace Hurdle (14:40) but Apple’s Jade versus Honeysuckle is a clash good enough to headline any card, while the Willie Mullins pair of Penhill and Bacardys add some extra stardust.
Apple’s Jade, a ten-time Grade 1 winner, has landed the Hatton’s Grace for the past three seasons, and was especially impressive last season when bolting up by 20 lengths. However, her form tailed off towards the end of the campaign and she was beaten at 1/4 by Bacardys on her reappearance at Navan this month.
She was readily brushed aside that day and, while she has bounced back from disappointments before, there is clearly an air of vulnerability about her.
Honeysuckle has done everything asked of her and is five from five over hurdles, looking a mare well out of the ordinary. Those five wins include a Grade 1 over this course and distance last year, and it’s noticeable how no horse has got to within three lengths of her. She hasn’t just been winning, she has been slamming her opponents.
Some Performance!— Timeform Live (@TimeformLive) April 21, 2019
Winner for @Timeform Filter, HONEYSUCKLE extends her winning run, running out an impressive winner of the (Grade 1) Mares Novice Hurdle Championship Final at @Fairyhouse, under jockey @rachaelblackmor! 🏇
Penhill, the 2018 Stayers’ Hurdle winner, has an excellent strike-rate and is an interesting runner on his first start for 19 months, while Bacardys looked revitalised when ending a lengthy losing run at Apple’s Jade’s expense last time. However, Honeysuckle is the emerging force in the division and can take this and set up a blockbuster clash with Benie des Dieux further down the line.