Irish in mood to upset festival big boys
At the Cheltenham Festival in 2008, Captain Cee Bee, Cousin Vinny, Fiveforthree and Finger On the Pulse were all winning novices, the former trio taking three prestigious Grade Ones.
Yet, last March, we headed for the Cotswolds in the knowledge that average luck wouldn't get an Irish-trained horse within shouting distance of one of the four traditional championship titles.
So it proved. For the second successive year, the best any of our representatives could manage was a place in the World Hurdle, which, with all due respect, is the wobbly leg at the championship table.
This may seem a sorry point to dredge up when we are in the midst of another winter of discontent. As was the case last season, abandonments are cripplingly prevalent, while the industry's funding has been slashed, attendances continue to plummet and sponsors are hard to come by.
Our capitulation in last year's majors is relevant because it highlights how vital it is that we continue to produce talented youngsters. Turning out two or three potential stars isn't enough to take us to the next level. That much is self-evident.
The process that might eventually lead us back to the top table was always going to be a slow one, so the question now is, are we actually getting any closer? In a word, yes.
Last March saw our horses match the previous year's novice haul at Cheltenham of three, and then raised it by two. All five of those were in the high-end events. Hurricane Fly, the freak that looked too good to be true last season, may be out for the remainder of the campaign, and question marks linger over a number of Willie Mullins' other stars.
However, the Cheltenham ante-post markets, always the simplest barometer of where the power lies, are once again dominated by Irish-trained horses.
At this point in time, our band of novices looks almost as potent as last year's. Most encouraging, though, and notwithstanding the two-horse race that is the Gold Cup, we might actually be ready to leave a ripple in the waters of the marquee events.
Sublimity's 2007 Champion Hurdle triumph remains the last of the 'big-four' trophies to cross the Irish Sea. With Hurricane Fly's future in the balance, it is indicative of our broader resurgence in this division that two other Irish-trained horses, Solwhit and Go Native, head Paddy Power's market for the March highlight.
Each of the two has been beaten once this term, but there were mitigating circumstances for those reversals. Significantly, their most recent respective outings couldn't have been more satisfactory.
Davy Condon got a real tune out of Go Native in the Fighting Fifth and Christmas Hurdles, and a decent surface is the key for the seven-year-old. Noel Meade's charge is now unbeaten in three starts in England, having also got last year's Cheltenham Festival off to a flyer in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle.
Solwhit's only blot in his last six starts came in Go Native's muddling Fighting Fifth victory. He put that disappointment behind him with a comprehensive defeat of the 2007 Champion Hurdle winner Sublimity at Leopardstown at Christmas to record a fourth Grade One success. On their day, both Go Native and Solwhit look the real deal.
Zaynar is the pick of the English and is favourite with some layers for Cheltenham, but, as a five-year-old, the stats are against him. Equally, his form isn't as strong as the two Irish horses'.
Voler La Vedette, having beaten Go Native in November, must also enter calculations, and we'll know more about her credentials after she tackles Solwhit in the Toshiba Irish Champion Hurdle at the end of the month. In light of the uncertainty surrounding Quevaga, though, come March, Colm Murphy may find the mares' race a more appealing option for Volver La Vedette.
A one-horse town. As Inglis Drever and Baracouda proved in the last decade, a horse with a touch of true class can dominate the staying hurdling fraternity at will. Right now, that horse is Big Buck's, which Paul Nicholls maintains would be right up there with his Gold Cup horses if that bus wasn't already so full at his yard.
Take out the favourite -- the only odds-on shot for Cheltenham at this remove -- and the Irish horses have as good a chance as any. Oscar Dan Dan and Powerstation are probably the two to concentrate on.
The latter loves Cheltenham and gained a deserved win at Leopardstown last month, while Oscar Dan Dan would be second favourite for the World Hurdle if he had come out on top at the Dublin track.
Tom Mullins' horse disappointed a few onlookers then, but he is still going the right way and 33/1 isn't an accurate reflection of his chance at Cheltenham.
So much depends on whether or not Master Minded is a spent force. At or close to his best, Paul Nicholls' speedster is right up there with the great two-milers of recent times.
Just recently back in training after treatment for the cracked rib that saw him hang so badly on his reappearance, he will head for Cheltenham without a run. If Nicholls can get him in peak condition, a third successive crown will be a formality for Master Minded.
Should he struggle, Irish horses are well placed to capitalise. Golden Silver, Forpadydeplasterer and Big Zeb are not without their flaws, but, of the horses that aren't Master Minded, only Twist Magic, which struggles at Cheltenham, could claim to match any of them for class in this division.
Golden Silver annexed his second Leopardstown Grade One in the Dial-A-Bet Chase a fortnight ago. Clearly talented and still relatively unexposed, he needs testing ground to be seen to best effect.
The opposite is true of last year's Irish Independent Arkle Trophy winner Forpadydeplasterer, a horse that continues to frustrate. Tom Cooper's star might just be Master Minded's biggest threat come Cheltenham, while he would be a massively exciting prospect over two and a half miles on good ground around Aintree in the Melling Chase, a race the reigning champion chaser is almost certain to swerve.
Big Zeb remains a bit of an enigma. Having given Master Minded a scare at Punchestown in April, he confirmed that promise by getting the season off to the perfect start at Navan. However, he was woefully disappointing when stepped back up in grade in the Tingle Creek, so he has questions to answer now.
For the fourth successive year, last month's Lexus Chase went for export, confirming the fear that Irish staying chasers are a long way off what's required to compete at the highest level. Although it's little consolation, everybody's staying chasers are a long way off the collective might of the Paul Nicholls yard.
Kauto Star, Denman and What A Friend have a monopoly on the division, the latter stepping up to the plate in the Leopardstown showpiece. It will be galling if, as looks likely, we don't have a bona fide challenger in the Gold Cup again this year, but racing isn't your game if you weren't moved by Kauto Star in the King George or Denman in the Hennessy. Both performances were inspirational, and the mouth waters at the prospect of the big showdown in March.
Paul Nolan's Joncol had the world at his feet after his John Durkan Memorial win, so you couldn't but be disappointed that he didn't push on when he got the opportunity in the Lexus. That said, having just turned seven, he will be better for the experience, and all will be forgotten if he gets back on track in Leopardstown's Hennessy next month.
Joncol will renew acquaintance with Cooldine there. The RSA Chase hero has looked a shadow of his old self in his two most recent outings, though Willie Mullins remains optimistic that he will strip fitter in the Hennessy. With Notre Pere also expected to turn up, the February 7 contest promises to deliver a conclusive verdict on how things are.
Money Trix, which gave What A Friend a scare in the Lexus, is also pencilled in for the Foxrock event. Likeable and all as the resolute grey is, you would hope that at least one of the home team can progress enough to prevent the spoils from going to a 10-year-old mud-loving handicapper.
Already Dunguib is the venerable Irish banker for Cheltenham. Following in the footsteps of Hurricane Fly last season, Philip Fenton's charge has seemed invincible in two-mile novice hurdles.
Due to reappear at Leopardstown in the Deloitte Hurdle next month, the seven-year-old has been in a different league to the opposition in every race that he has run in since that solitary defeat on his racecourse debut in April 2008. Barring anything untoward in the meantime, Dunguib will open the festival to massive expectation in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle.
Between now and then, a clearer pecking order is sure to be established among the remainder of our young hurdlers, but Quel Esprit, Enterprise Park and Shinrock Paddy have staked fair claims already. Willie Mullins, who trains the first two, and Paul Nolan, who trains the latter, are likely to keep their respective charges to longer distances in an effort to avoid Dunguib.
Sizing Europe and Captain Cee Bee set a tall standard among the two-milers, and debate will rage until they meet again in March as to which would have prevailed if Captain Cee Bee had stood up at Leopardstown.
Both horses look set to skip the Irish Arkle, where Sports Line, whose last two intended engagements have been lost to the weather, will put his credentials on the line. On paper, the Norwich gelding still has a lot to do, but Willie Mullins holds him in high regard and his chances of progressing aren't lightly dismissed.
Mikael D'Haguenet, of course, would have been expected to feature prominently here had he been sighted on a racecourse this season, and it has fallen to Pandorama to make the staying sector his own. Cousin Vinny is now expected to ply his trade over longer distances too, but Pandorama is the one that continues to raise the bar.
A dual Grade One winner over fences and beaten just once in his life, it's hard to believe that Noel Meade's charge is still 14/1 for the RSA Chase. Weapon's Amnesty is not to be forgotten either. Just run out of it by Pandorama at Leopardstown, Charles Byrnes' horse will relish a return to Cheltenham.