Richard Forristal: Cheltenham focus
9: That’s the number of Irish winners Richard Forristal is predicting for next week’s Cheltenham Festival
After a long and frustrating winter for fans of Irish jump racing, the sound of the tapes snapping across the track for the start of the Supreme Novices' Hurdle at Cheltenham next Tuesday will be as welcome as it has ever been.
The traditional opening race roar won't send off an Irish-trained hotpot, but the damage done by all the rain and snow will be readily forgotten if the week yields all of what it promises. Only once in the last 10 years have our representatives come away with less than five winners, and that seems a conservative benchmark for 2011.
As ever these days, Willie Mullins travels with the most potent collective, and it's worth noting that he is just one shy of Edward O'Grady's haul of 18 Festival wins, which is the most of any current Irish trainer. It will be a surprise if Mullins doesn't source at least one before the end of the week, but he might need more to top the pile, as O'Grady hasn't gone away.
Lest we forget, the Ballynonty man is the only Irish-based operator to have shared a leading trainer award at the Festival for 30 years. Since 1980, in fact, he has done so on three occasions.
We have chances in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle and the Irish Independent Arkle Trophy, but nothing that you could have much confidence in. While it would be disappointing not to win either of the opening two novices, the last time that happened was back in 2006, a week that ended with the raiders bagging a record 10 winners.
The Spinal Research Handicap Chase will also be a struggle, but Hurricane Fly and Dunguib ought to give us plenty to shout about in what is a vintage renewal of the Champion Hurdle. Although both horses handle good ground, they would benefit from any rain that falls in advance of the two-mile crown.
Should the score read 4-0 to the home side after the feature, compensation won't be long coming. The cross-country race, which has crossed the water every year since its inception in 2005, looks a formality and Quevega is a strong favourite to complete her hat-trick in the mares' contest.
A novices' handicap chase brings proceedings to a close. Of the eight entries from these shores, Tharawaat may have the best credentials.
Prediction: 2 winners
Based on the markets, day two is by far the pick of the week for Irish fancies. The reigning champion chaser Big Zeb leads a strong team that includes Golden Silver and Sizing Europe in the Champion Chase, with So Young and Oscars Well battling for favouritism in the Neptune Investment Novices' Hurdle. Alfa Beat and Chicago Grey do likewise in the four-miler, a race that has come this way only once since 2000.
The bumper has been more lucrative, but there is a distinct lack of hype surrounding this year's prospects. That said, Mullins' Allure Of Illusion has come in for support recently, and the 'Shark' Hanlon-trained Star Neuville could be the mount of Tony McCoy.
While the RSA Chase is Time For Rupert's to lose, both the Coral Cup and Fred Winter Hurdle are wide open. With a few notable exceptions, the English handicapper Phil Smith has been more lenient on the travelling team this year. Mullins' Call The Police is the standout beneficiary in the Coral Cup, with Plan A an eyecatcher for Gordon Elliott in the Fred Winter.
Prediction: 4 winners
The showpiece events on Thursday have not been lucky for Irish horses. Doran's Pride was our last winner of the World Hurdle back in 1995, and the Ryanair Chase has been a home win every year since its inaugural running in 2005.
Fiveforthree and Mourad fly the flag in the World Hurdle this time. You could rule neither out, but it's hard not to see one of Big Buck's or Grands Crus obliging. Edward O'Grady's Tranquil Sea, a former Paddy Power Gold Cup winner, has been laid out especially for the Ryanair, so he will warrant respect in that.
Others to consider on the day are Sivota in the Pertemps Handicap Hurdle, with Beautiful Sound particularly interesting in the Kim Muir Chase. Gordon Elliott's nine-year-old doesn't appear harshly treated.
Prediction: 1 winner
Twenty-one years after winning the race with Rare Holiday, still his sole Cheltenham Festival success, Dermot Weld has another serious Triumph Hurdle prospect in Unaccompanied. Being a mare, the stats are against Unaccompanied, but she is the pick of the Irish entries.
In the County Hurdle that follows, the travelling team arguably boasts its strongest hand of the week. Final Approach, Dirar, Blackstairmountain and Alaivan are four that stand out, with Blackstairmountain maybe the value at 14/1.
Sir Des Champs, in the conditional jockeys' race, and Albert Bartlett-bound Gagewell Flyer are other live Willie Mullins contenders on Gold Cup day. However, for all that the champion trainer's Kempes has potential, the Gold Cup may be a stretch too far. Pandorama is a classier animal, but good ground would be too good for him, it seems, so a place may be the best we can hope for in the game's blue riband event.
In the Foxhunters' Chase, On The Fringe ought to make his presence felt, though the ante-post gamble on Peak Raider might yet come to nothing in the Grand Annual. Tommy Carberry's charge is on a four-timer, but he needs plenty to drop out to get a run.
Prediction: 2 winners