The opening race of this year’s Dublin Racing Festival was a Grade 1 Novices’ Hurdle, in which Commander of Fleet (up 3 lb to 137p) produced a really determined effort to get the better of a sustained duel up the straight with Rhinestone (up 11 lb to 139p), who conceded 2 lb to the winner. Commander of Fleet was clearly much more at home over this longer trip than when beaten over two miles last time, and, borderline smart already, he has the potential to do better still when stepped up to three miles, with the Albert Bartlett appealing as a more suitable Cheltenham target than the Ballymore at this stage.
Gordon Elliott and Jack Kennedy completed a quickfire double for Gigginstown in the Irish Champion Hurdle, with Apple’s Jade (up 7 lb to 167) comfortably handling the marked drop in distance to beat the previous year’s winner Supasundae (remains on 162) by 16 lengths. Only six runners went to post, but it was a quality affair and, while another lacklustre performance by Melon (remains on 166) took some shine off proceedings, it was still a most impressive performance by Apple’s Jade, who put herself firmly in the Champion Hurdle picture at the Cheltenham Festival with a remorseless front-running display, in the process becoming the first mare to win this prize since Like A Butterfly in 2003.
Admittedly, a clash with dual winner Buveur d’Air (remains on 167) – who put the finishing touches to his Cheltenham preparation with a third consecutive win in the Contenders Hurdle at Sandown later that afternoon – represents her stiffest test to date, but her 7 lb mares’ allowance and effectiveness over the course means that she will head there with leading claims of becoming only the third mare in 26 years to land the coveted Champion Hurdle crown.
Gordon Elliott was smiling once again after his Envoi Allen (up 5 lb to 115p) justified favouritism at 6/4-on in the Grade 2 Bumper. Clearly held in very high regard, Envoi Allen is an exciting prospect, not least when sent over obstacles (also won his only start in points), and he will surely run well if taking in the Champion Bumper, now favourite in the ante-post betting, though his trainer had previously suggested Envoi Allen would bypass Cheltenham this season.
Willie Mullins struck back in the following race with Min (remains on 169), who didn’t need to be at his very best to win the Dublin Chase for the second year in succession. The race had been upgraded to a Grade 1 since last year, but this renewal didn't warrant that status, the withdrawal of Simply Ned coupled with the early departures of both the ill-fated Special Tiara and Castlegrace Paddy leaving Min with a simple task. The winner now has both the Champion Chase and the Ryanair Chase as options at Cheltenham, with the latter perhaps offering his best chance of success given that he has met his match on the two previous occasions he has come up against Altior.
The first leg of a Grade 1-double at the meeting for Joseph O’Brien came in the Irish Arkle, courtesy of Le Richebourg (up 3 lb to 156p) who was already set to assume command of the contest when the front-running Voix du Reve (remains on 148) fell at the last, leaving the winner’s stablemate Us And Them (up 2 lb to 147) to chase him home. Le Richebourg has now won four of his five starts over fences, including Grade 1s the last twice, and he rates as exciting a novice chaser as there is around at the moment, sure to take all the beating in the Arkle.
Meanwhile, Sir Erec (up 23 lb to 145p) may have lost Triumph Hurdle favouritism when his stablemate Fakir d'Oudairies won at Cheltenham last weekend, but it didn't take him long to wrest it back. He won Sunday’s Spring Juvenile Hurdle in facile fashion, by six lengths from another stablemate Gardens of Babylon (134 from 128p).
The fact that Sir Erec dominated the market, together with the horse he'd beaten in maiden company over C&D at Christmas, reflects the lack of depth in the division – this contest was further weakened by the ground-related withdrawal of Coeur Sublime and the injury-enforced absence of the Knight Frank winner Rocky Blue – and the Joseph O'Brien/J.P. McManus combination very much hold all the aces at present, with the slightly sterner stamina test of the Triumph unlikely to trouble Sir Erec.
All class - Sir Erec makes all to remain unbeaten over hurdles and strike at the top level in the @tatts_ireland Spring Juvenile Hurdle for @JosephOBrien2 and Mark Walsh #DRF pic.twitter.com/C7LOHrqhGX— Racing TV (@RacingTV) February 3, 2019
The Grade 1 Novices’ Hurdle on Sunday, which was staged over two miles for just the second time, is the best race of its type run in Ireland this season on ratings, with a pair of Willie Mullins-trained novices slugging it out on the run-in, pulling nicely clear of the rest. Klassical Dream (up 6 lb to 143p) arrived with far less domestic experience than the runner-up Aramon (remains on 142), but it did not show as he battled back to lead on the line. He looks sure to go on improving, with both the Supreme and Ballymore (likely to stay further) options open to him at Cheltenham, with connections expecting further improvement when he tackles softer ground.
The sole British winner at the Dublin Racing Festival came in the Flogas Novices’ Chase, with La Bague Au Roi (up 1 lb to 147p) making all the running to maintain her unbeaten record over fences and record a second successive Grade 1 win over fences. She didn’t need to quite reproduce the level of her Kempton win, with Delta Work absent on account of the ground and a few of the others not fully on their game, but there is likely to be a bigger effort in her locker when it is needed; Aintree is seemingly next on her agenda, with connections not convinced that Cheltenham is her track judged on previous attempts.
Bellshill (up 3 lb to 166) is another who has failed to come up to scratch on three previous visits to Cheltenham, but he put himself right in the picture for this year's Gold Cup when coming out on top in a see-saw battle with Road To Respect (remains on 166) in the Irish Gold Cup.
Ground-related withdrawals more than halved the original field, but there are plenty of reasons to be positive about the pair that fought out the finish. Indeed, Bellshill could hardly have jumped any better, and the way that he finished his race suggests that the sterner stamina test at the Festival will hold no fears for him. Generally progressive, he joins Al Boum Photo (one of the withdrawals) and Kemboy in what looks sure to be a strong Mullins team, in his bid for a belated first win in the big one.
What a finish to the feature! Bellshill is now a five-time Grade 1 winner with victory in the Unibet Irish Gold Cup for Ruby Walsh and Willie Mullins at @LeopardstownRC #DRF— Racing TV (@RacingTV) February 3, 2019
Results ➡ https://t.co/7iJOPsdIyZ pic.twitter.com/gGLkpJyfnP
Meanwhile, it was to Road To Respect’s credit that he managed to finish as close as he did after an uncharacteristically sloppy jumping display, and his each-way chance at Cheltenham remains undimmed, having finished fourth when the going was arguably softer than ideal last year.
Finally, we may not have learnt anything new about Buveur d’Air on Saturday’s card at Sandown, but the Scilly Isles Novices’ Chase looks sure to prove very informative with Cheltenham in mind. Indeed, the form looks right up to standard for the race, the first two – Defi du Seuil (up 1 lb to 153p) and Lostintranslation (up 1lb to 151p) – confirming themselves the main British-trained contenders for the JLT, while the third Vinndication (remains on 149p) could yet do better than this another day when receiving a more forcing ride.