It was a low-key weekend of racing, with the cold snap resulting in the high-class cards at Newbury and Warwick being rearranged, but there were still some notable efforts with the Cheltenham Festival in mind.
Elimay had assumed favouritism for the Mares' Chase when running a cracker to finish runner-up to stablemate Allaho – a leading fancy for the Ryanair Chase – at Thurles last month, and she underlined her credentials with a smooth success in the listed Opera Hat Mares' Chase at Naas on Saturday. Elimay did not need to improve on the level of form she had shown behind Allaho but she completed the straightforward task in pleasing fashion, having no trouble with the drop back to two miles and booking her ticket to Cheltenham with a comfortable five-and-a-half-length success. That was her third win from four starts over fences and her rating of 159 identifies her as the one to beat in the Mares' Chase. Trainer Willie Mullins has won nine of the 13 runnings of the Mares' Hurdle, all five editions of the Mares' Novices' Hurdle and will have a strong hand in the inaugural Mares' Chase as he can also call on the unexposed Colreevy (147p) and potentially Benie des Dieux (151p).
Elimay was making it a double on the card for Mullins, whose Gentleman de Mee (126p from 116p) had no trouble landing the second leg of the maiden hurdle on his debut for the yard. He always looked in control and won by four and a half lengths to justify odds-on favouritism, something stablemate Captain Kangaroo (remains on 123) was unable to do in the opener that was won by Hurricane Cliff (125p from 119p). The pair had the race to themselves from a long way out and Hurricane Cliff asserted between the final two flights to win in the style of a horse with more to come, particularly when he is sent chasing next season.
Of greater interest in the short-term is You Raised Me Up (131 from 129) as he has the County Hurdle on his agenda after winning the novice hurdle. He failed to score from four starts over hurdles last season, but he showed plenty of promise, most notably when finishing third in the Ladbrokes Hurdle at the Dublin Racing Festival on his only attempt in handicap company. He comfortably registered an overdue success in maiden company at Listowel in September and then defied another absence to give weight and a beating to a promising sort at Naas, despite a drift in the betting suggesting he would come on for the run.
You Raised Me Up's Festival prospects clearly depend on what mark he is handed by the assessor, but he ran a cracker on his only previous outing in a handicap, appears to be on an upward curve and is trained by Martin Brassil, who is well capable of readying one for the big day, as he proved with City Island in the Ballymore a couple of seasons ago. He's one to look out for.
Those with an eye on the Cheltenham Festival will also have taken a keen interest in the four-year-old novice hurdle on the card as the last two winners, Band of Outlaws and Aramax, both followed up in the Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle. It would be a surprise were this year's contest to prove as significant a pointer, however, as the winner, Druid's Altar (122 from 120), will be up against less exposed rivals and might need a step up in trip to show his very best. Saturday's contest was an easier task than many Druid's Altar has faced this season and he showed a good attitude to take advantage of the opening.
The action in Ireland continued at Punchestown on Sunday and it's worth being positive about The Big Dog (143 from 136) after his victory in the Grand National Trial. He was heavily backed on his handicap debut and won with more in hand than the winning margin of half a length would suggest as he idled in the lead but found extra when challenged on the run-in. He is much less exposed than many of the runners you tend to get in these marathon chases, so he should continue giving a good account.
🐶 The Big Dog is top dog— Racing TV (@RacingTV) February 14, 2021
What a ride & what a race as @CoddJJ pulls it out of the fire to guide The Big Dog to victory in the €80,000 @punchestownrace Grand National Trial
Results & free replays ➡ https://t.co/sBcsavHpYf pic.twitter.com/29cio2dll1
Willie Mullins won both divisions of the maiden hurdle and Jungle Boogie (124P) was especially impressive on his first start over obstacles. Admittedly, a starting price of 2/13 highlights that it was not a strong race, but Jungle Boogie – a winner of his only start in bumpers – was still impressive, and looks capable of making a mark at a higher level.
Mullins was out of luck in the listed hurdle on the card as his Power of Pause (133 from 133p) proved a disappointment and finished last behind the Noel Meade-trained Thedevilscoachman (remains on 135p). Thedevilscoachman came up short in Grade 1 company over Christmas but has won his other four starts under Rules and scored with more in hand on Sunday than a two-length margin would suggest – a falsely-run race prevented him from showing his superiority. He is worth another crack at a graded contest but it will be interesting to see if he is given a handicap entry at the Cheltenham Festival.
A Cheltenham handicap could well be on the agenda of the progressive Brinkley (143 from 137), who relished the test of stamina in the Pertemps qualifier at Exeter. Brinkley had looked a horse of some potential when bolting up on his first start for David Pipe at Newbury last season and, while he flopped on his return, he has shown improved form the last twice to score at Wincanton and Exeter. He is still relatively lightly raced, particularly when the emphasis is on stamina, so may be able to raise his game further in the Pertemps Final, though it's worth noting he has only raced on a testing surface.
The listed novice hurdle has an illustrious roll of honour, featuring a host of subsequent Grade 1 winners including Native River and Politologue. It's unlikely this year's winner Wilde About Oscar (138 from 132) will scale similar heights but he deserves credit for bouncing back from a blip in the Challow Hurdle and handing out a seven-and-a-half-length beating to The Glancing Queen (126 from 126p). He'll need to jump better than he did on Sunday if he is to make a big impact back in Grade 1 company, however.
The only action that took place over jumps during the week was at Fairyhouse on Monday, but it was an interesting card, headlined by the Grade 3 Solerina Hurdle. The Solerina Hurdle has been used as a stepping stone on the way to the Mares' Novices' Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival by Limini and Laurina in recent years and their trainer Mullins was represented by Gauloise (131p from 132p). She had to settle for third, however, behind Roseys Hollow (132p and 118p), who travelled powerfully, jumped well and kept on strongly to score by a couple of lengths over the 11/10 favourite Royal Kahala (134 from 130p). Royal Kahala, who was giving the winner 4 lb, failed to travel with her usual fluency but was by no means disgraced and remains towards the top of the betting for the Mares' Novices' Hurdle along with Roseys Hollow.