The weekend’s action on this side of the Irish Sea was decimated by the equine influenza outbreak, with Betfair Super Saturday the most notable casualty in terms of Cheltenham Festival clues – the list of big names who have completed their Festival preparations at Newbury in recent years is a lengthy one, with Altior and Native River becoming the latest to win at both meetings just last year.
There is still some big hope that the meeting’s big races might be saved, but, for now at least, we have only last week’s Irish action – and some fairly low-key stuff at that – to reflect on, meaning that this will likely be one of the briefest editions of the Ratings Update that I’ve ever had the privilege of writing.
The ITV cameras were at Naas on Saturday, where arguably the most notable performance of the day came in the opening novices’ hurdle. Admittedly, a seven-length success for 5/1-on favourite City Island (remains on 131p) didn’t tell us anything that we don’t already know about him, but his Leopardstown form over Christmas had already been boosted when the runner-up, Dallas des Pictions, won a handicap from a mark of 130 the previous weekend.
City Island will presumably step up in grade now, with the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival a potential target, and he would be no back number for that, unlikely that we have seen the best of him yet.
The feature race on the card was the listed Opera Hat Mares’ Chase, in which Pravalaguna (up 3 lb to 137p) improved again to take her chase record to two wins from three starts, impressing with the way she attacked her fences, and having little trouble seeing off a couple of rivals who are at their best over a good bit further.
Pravalaguna is a comfortable winner in the BBA Ireland Limited Opera Hat Mares Chase at @NaasRacecourse— ITV Racing (@itvracing) February 9, 2019
It's a 3rd win in four years for @WillieMullinsNH
Watch LIVE on @ITV4 pic.twitter.com/3e76QT5DfE
It was a third success in four years in this contest for Willie Mullins and, while Pravalaguna has a little way to go before she's at the level of either Gitane du Berlais or Benie des Dieux, she's quickly on her way to reaching a smart level over fences, and would be a lively outsider if lining up in either the Arkle or the JLT at Cheltenham.
The juvenile event that followed went the way of Band of Outlaws (up 8 lb to 130p), yet another good prospect in this division for Joseph O’Brien. Improving in leaps and bounds, Band of Outlaws is clearly destined for better races before long, having seen off some fairly useful rivals with complete ease here, though his trainer expressed some reservations with regards his suitability to the Triumph Hurdle test (best up to 1m on the Flat).
Josies Orders (remains on 147) won the Cross Country Chase at Cheltenham in 2016, and though well into the veteran stage of his career now, he confirmed that he is still one of the very best this division has to offer when resuming winning ways in ready fashion at Punchestown on Sunday, notching up his seventh cross-country success in the process.
It is another Cross Country Chase success for Josies Orders who goes one place better than last year in the P.P. Hogan Memorial Cross Country Chase @punchestownrace.👏👏— Racing TV (@RacingTV) February 10, 2019
Results ➡ https://t.co/7iJOPsdIyZ pic.twitter.com/vPIbvGTPqJ
With an enviable course record at Cheltenham (four wins from seven starts in cross-country events there), too, he will head to the Festival as one of the likeliest dangers to Tiger Roll, having not been at his best when sixth behind that rival last year.
Elsewhere at Punchestown, the listed novices’ hurdle was a steadily-run affair, in which the complexion of the race changed markedly when two of those still in contention were let down by their jumping at the second last. That left Sinoria (up 6 lb to 131p)and Chosen Mate (up 7 lb to 137p) to draw clear in the straight, with the former proving just too strong in receipt of a 7-lb sex allowance.
The winner was going away at the line and could now come under consideration for the Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham, though, with the same combination already having Honeysuckle (ante-post favourite), she may well be tasked with tackling the geldings again. Chosen Mate is also open to more improvement, particularly with a view to longer trips (former winning pointer).
Finally, the Grand National Trial was staged on abnormally quick ground, meaning that the race didn’t provide the same searching test of stamina as can often be the case, also steadily run until after halfway and not many getting seriously involved as a result.
Dounikos stays on strongly under @_Davy_Russel_ to land the @BoyleSports Grand National Trial at @punchestownrace and leads home a 1-2-3 for Gigginstown House Stud! 🥇🥈🥉— Racing TV (@RacingTV) February 10, 2019
Results ➡ https://t.co/7iJOPsdIyZ pic.twitter.com/OFMaLTB3Mo
In the event, Dounikos (150+ from 148) returned to form from out of the blue to lead home a one-two-three for Gigginstown House Stud, possibly suited by the relative emphasis on speed trying this sort of trip for a second time, having folded tamely when pulled up in last season's Irish Grand National. It would be no surprise now if he makes a return visit to Fairyhouse on Easter Monday – the Aintree equivalent is also a possible target – though the handicapper will clearly have his say, and his in-and-out profile to date suggests that he is far from certain to back this up.
Of those who tried to come from off the pace, Fitzhenry (down 4 lb to 135) shaped well in fourth, likely to have finished closer to the winner if a couple of minor late errors hadn’t hampered his progress (beaten 12 lengths). Also placed at Fairyhouse and Leopardstown on his two previous starts, he continues to leave that the impression that he is up to winning a decent handicap from his current mark, perhaps over slightly shorter given how well he went through much of this race.