Monday 21 August 2017

'Festival of Jumps' gets the thumbs up

New two-day meeting at Leopardstown in early February a smashing initiative, with the HRI targeting crowds of 30,000 at Foxrock track

Danoli and Tom Treacy (right) see off Jodami and Mark Dwyer in a thrilling renewal of the Leopardstown Gold Cup 20 years ago, when thousands flocked to the track. Officials will be hoping the new Festival can attract similar crowds. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Danoli and Tom Treacy (right) see off Jodami and Mark Dwyer in a thrilling renewal of the Leopardstown Gold Cup 20 years ago, when thousands flocked to the track. Officials will be hoping the new Festival can attract similar crowds. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

It seemed appropriate that while the British media was wrapped up in what one should be allowed to wear at Royal Ascot and whether or not the Queen might miss one of the days this week, Irish racing was announcing a spectacular new jumps festival.

Thursday's news that a two-day Leopardstown extravaganza, featuring overall prize-money of €1.5m (likely rising soon to over €2m) and seven Grade Ones, had been a secret guarded over recent months. In some respects it was packaged as something greater than it is - a patently logical changing of some key fixtures - but one cannot but be excited.

Horse Racing Ireland approved the creation of a new two-day affair to be run for the first time on the weekend of Saturday, February 3, next. The Irish Champion Hurdle will be the feature on the first day, the Irish Gold Cup will headline the Sunday card.

It is envisaged every race will be worth at least €100,000 within a handful of years. Both days will marry depth and a pivotal race - setting it apart from all other festivals in Ireland with one exception: Champions Weekend, the success of which spawned this very idea. There will be no bad races.

It will tend to clash with Six Nations rugby, but HRI personnel have said that this could be a positive thing, and it may even encourage the GAA to manipulate league fixtures such that Dublin are playing in Croke Park on each Saturday night, as part of a self-styled 'Festival of Sport'.

Surprising

Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott have come out to back the initiative. A Twitter poll illustrated 84pc support; if anything it is surprising it is not higher. Among those to laud the idea were bookmakers, who appreciate that festivals work much better than one-off days.

The Listed mares' bumper that Fayonagh won at Fairyhouse last February and the Grade Two Tied Cottage - won at Punchestown by such horses as Moscow Flyer, Sizing Europe and Douvan - look set to be rerouted to Leopardstown and the acquiescence of such other major tracks will be important if this is to take off.

It is known that some bookmaker interests liaise with HRI on various things like race planning and had been pushing this idea for some time. It is understood that the preference of one vested interest would have been for the Hatton's Grace and John Durkan cards to be moved together with a view to sponsoring it, but one of the major tracks was reluctant: it would have had to swap races from its card.

Timing is critical. It is almost equidistant between the four-day Leopardstown Christmas meet and Cheltenham. Indeed, it may even become an alternative to Cheltenham if you deem your horse more suited to it.

Mullins spoke of the certainty of "overseas support". This is where the idea could get especially interesting, as there is nothing much of note on the British jumps calendar festival-wise between Christmas and Cheltenham.

With such eye-catching purses on offer, the ease of travelling to Dublin and a 'Festival of Jumps' that will become a major social occasion, it will be attractive. Newbury's Betfair Super Saturday fixture (featuring the Denman Chase) in February may take a superficial hit, yet the narrative reads favourably for Irish racing.

HRI CEO Brian Kavanagh is aiming for crowds of 25,000 rising to 30,000 per festival - a realistic and a boost to the local economy. It is expected that no fixtures will be lost, and Leopardstown will hold a minor meeting around Cheltenham trials day in the shake-up.

This is a terrific concept, which will be publicised as if it were the second coming, and there will be very many of us who soon will say that we cannot countenance not being there. In the words of Gigginstown's Eddie O'Leary, it "will make a proper mid-season festival with all roads to Cheltenham afterwards. Any initiative to improve the public enjoyment and spectacle of our sport should be applauded."

Punchestown can hardly be seen to benefit on paper, yet one of its personnel said: "This is a good mid-season feature and good for the build-up to the big festivals."

Leopardstown is a fine venue at which to promote the sport, the media will embrace the novelty of it all - and it helps to solidify Irish racing's ascendancy over Britain, which has been evinced at the Cheltenham Festival in recent years. It will do nothing to deter the major owners, some of them non-nationals - to whom Irish racing owes a considerable debt - to keep their best horses in this country.

All ascot eyes on Ballydoyle

The last time Aidan O'Brien targeted a big meeting in Britain, aeroplanes let down the Ballydoyle runners heading to Epsom for the Oaks.

As ever, the great man dealt with the matter diplomatically, but he was clearly not particularly happy that plans on Oaks Day would be interrupted to the degree they were. Likely there will be no issues ahead of Royal Ascot tomorrow, with a stunning week of racing ahead.

With Dermot Weld's string a little quiet, John Oxx having so few runners and Jim Bolger lacking a star, Irish hopes in Berkshire rest almost solely on the shoulders of O'Brien - though plenty of other trainers will have runners, notably Jessica Harrington, Michael Halford and Ger Lyons.

Horses that interest me from a betting perspective include Halford's Irishcorrespondent, stepping up to ten furlongs in the Hampton Court Stakes. Aidan O'Brien could run juveniles Clemmie, September and Murillo, all smart prospects, while connections of the Harrington-trained Alpha Centauri will be worried about the ground ahead of the Albany.

The 'mug accumulator' of Churchill (St James's Palace), Ribchester (Queen Anne), Winter (Coronation), Caravaggio (Commonwealth), and Order Of St George (Gold Cup) pays nearly 20/1. It looks worth a fun punt - if you can get on, of course.

Bookies biting hand that feeds them

I heard tell a while back of a middle-aged man who couldn't get bets on so he opened an account in the name of his mother-in-law. She might have been expecting a mass card in the post one day but instead the postman gave her a Bet365 welcome pack.

I had to laugh - and I have sympathy for bookmakers dealing with a form of benign skulduggery - but the conduct of the firm on Saturday was staggering.

Bet365, which tends to make a profit of in the region of £500m a year, purged accounts with a frenzy the Soviets would have been proud of - and in every case of which I am aware, the punter had the utter temerity to back Ben Button at Downpatrick with them.

Because of slack odds compiling, what should have been an odds-on shot was briefly - very briefly - 7-2 on Friday evening. A mate who had done nothing of note on his account had €190 at 9/4 on the horse, which incidentally was beaten. His account has effectively been shut down: he has been reduced to betting buttons.

This comes in the same month that saw Paddy Power stop laying Irish races overnight. Bookmakers need to be careful what they wish for, but it is clearly time that they are obliged to offer a fair bet if they are to be associated with racing. Something has to give.

One of the great challenges facing the world will be what jobs to give people when technology renders human toil redundant. As banks replace staff with machines, bookmakers want models to generate prices rather than odds-compilers. I was not alone last Saturday when I wondered whether the time had come to give up on racing altogether. Bookmakers already have.

Ride of the week

Riding almost from gate to wire without irons, Donnacha O'Brien would not have enjoyed the maiden in which Band Of Outlaws was second on Monday at Roscommon, but he did a fine job to finish second. The horse won on Saturday at Limerick.

Gamble of the week

Harangue, which was available at 14/1 ahead of his run at Fontwell on Thursday, was backed in to 7/2 on his first start for Peter Fahey. He hacked up, the first leg of a double for the stable.

Quote of the week

"It is the biggest initiative in Irish racing since Punchestown became the festival that it is now."

Willie Mullins' take on the new festival.

Tweet of the week

"When asked what do I look for when buying a good horse. Simple. A CHEQUE BOOK."

- Trainer Tony Mullins (@tonymullins84) has not lost his wit.

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