The Grade 1 Lawlor’s Hotel Novices’ Hurdle is the undoubted feature race at Naas on Sunday. It has been run under various guises in recent years but only in 2015 was upgraded to Grade 1 status. It’s last two winners were both trained by Willie Mullins, namely McKinley and Bellshill (successful on both his starts over fences so far this season, including a Limerick Grade 2 on St Stephen’s Day), and the trainer also took the renewals in 2005, 2009 and 2011 with Homer Wells, Mikael d’Haguenet and Gagewell Flyer respectively. The 2013 renewal was won by none other than the most recent Grand National winner, Rule The World, who had the long odds-on Champagne Fever way back in third. Another subsequent National winner, Pineau de Re, was among those beaten by Gagewell Flyer in the race, while the future Gold Cup winner War of Attrition finished last of the seven runners in the 2004 edition won by McGruders Cross. Davenport Milenium, another trained by Willie Mullins, finished only fifth of seven to Canary Wharf in the race in 2002 but went on to win his next three starts, including two Grade 1s (the Champion Novices’ Hurdle and the Champion Hurdle) just two days apart at the Punchestown Festival.
Mullins has two entries for this year’s renewal, with the most interesting being Augusta Kate. She showed form bordering on smart in five bumper outings, winning three times, including a listed race at Punchestown last spring, and made the perfect start to her hurdling career in a big field at Thurles in November. She didn’t beat much that day but she several cuts above the opposition in doing so, and she’s open to any amount of improvement over timber.
The gelding Turcagua wasn’t as good as Augusta Kate in National Hunt Flat races, but he built on his hurdling debut in a maiden at Punchestown in November when winning a 20-runner similar race there in December by nine and a half lengths. He’s undoubtedly open to more improvement, though just where he sits in the pecking order at Closutton remains to be seen, while he’s very much a chaser on looks.
The one they all have to beat on weight-adjusted ratings, however, is the 162p-rated Death Duty from the Gordon Elliott stable. A winning pointer who won two of his four outings in bumpers, including a listed event, Death Duty has looked every inch a Grade 1 performer in winning his three outings over hurdles this season. After winning a big-field Roscommon maiden in October by eight lengths, Death Duty quickened clear between the last two flights when winning the Grade 3 ‘Monksfield’ Novices’ Hurdle at Navan in November by an almost identical margin. Gigginstown House Stud’s gelding then improved further to complete his hat-trick in the Grade 2 Navan Novices’ Hurdle in December by three and three-quarter lengths from Monalee. Death Duty jumped well in the main for his latest success and typically travelled strongly. He remains over two and a half miles here, though he’ll stay three miles if it’s required and he’s already a short-price favourite for the Albert Bartlett at the Cheltenham Festival in March.
The six-strong field is completed by Blood Crazed Tiger, a stablemate of Death Duty, who completed a hat-trick in a listed race at Cork last time and has earned this step up in class, Stand Up And Fight, who was third behind Death Duty at Navan in November, and Bel Ami de Sivola who comes here chasing a hat-trick, having got his act together in his second season of hurdling.
The Lawlor’s Hotel Novices’ Hurdle is the feature on Sunday, however the preceding novices’ chase looks a cracker despite only four horses going to post. Willie Mullins has won two of the last four renewals, including with Shaneshill twelve months ago, and he will be hoping that American Tom can further enhance his lofty reputation (strong in the betting both starts on Irish soil). He looked a smart prospect in making a winning start over fences after 13 months off at Punchestown last month, however there is only 4 lb separating all four runners on weight-adjusted ratings so all three needs respect. Some Plan was yet to be asked for an effort when falling two out at Cheltenham last time, while Road to Respect represents a yard in good form and he improved again when third to Min at Leopardstown over Christmas. Fellow Gigginstown runner Stone Hard confirmed the promise of his chasing debut six weeks earlier when winning at Limerick last month and, though he has plenty to find on hurdles form, he looks set to make up into a better chaser.