O'Neill hoping star names will enhance festive fare at Limerick
All the critical pieces remain in place after the five-day entries for the second half of Leopardstown's elite Christmas Festival were unveiled yesterday, and there could also be a few treats in store at the Limerick equivalent.
Gigginstown Stud's talented trio of Don Poli, Road To Riches and Sir Des Champs were among 14 left in Monday's Lexus Chase at the Foxrock venue, while the same firm's Alpha Des Obeaux could clash with Mags Mullins' Barry Connell-owned Cheltenham Festival hero Martello Tower in the Squared Financial Hurdle.
Just seven remain in that three-mile Grade One, with Willie Mullins giving both Sir Des Champs and Arctic Fire the option of contesting the €85,000 event. Arctic Fire is far more likely to contest the Ryanair Hurdle alongside stablemate Nichols Canyon a day later.
There will be an emphasis on quality over quantity in the two-mile showpiece, with Henry de Bromhead's Fighting Fifth Hurdle victor Identity Thief and Dermot Weld's Cheltenham Festival winner Windsor Park among six to stand their ground.
Mullins's Outlander and Gordon Elliott's Free Expression feature alongside the latter's precocious stablemate No More Heroes in the Neville Hotels Novices' Chase. Either or both could tackle the Grade One, but they also hold an engagement in Limerick's Shannon Airport-sponsored Grade Two equivalent on St Stephen's Day.
The Munster venue inevitably plays second fiddle to its higher profile sister festival in Dublin. However, it has attracted an increasing share of quality individuals in recent years, and general manager Conor O'Neill is hopeful that it will do so once again.
"Obviously trainers don't like to commit early but they have been very supportive over the years," O'Neill said yesterday. "JP McManus won the good novice chase last year with the Enda Bolger-trained Gilgamboa, and he has Free Expression in this time, so I would hope that he might run.
"Willie Mullins, who has won it twice since 2011, including with the Gold Cup second Sir Des Champs, has four entered, including Outlander. Again, we don't know what is going to be declared, but there are some good horses entered, which is vital."
Heavy rainfall has plagued the south-west of the country in recent weeks. Limerick has had its share, but O'Neill has no fears about getting through the four days. "The ground is heavy, but I am confident that we won't have any problems," he declared. "We had 12mm of rain overnight, but it is raceable and, with the forecast I am getting, we should be fine. I am bringing in a team of 40 people to put back the track after every race as a precautionary measure, and I will have fresh ground for the hurdle track every day."
As well as Gilgamboa, Cheltenham Festival hero Martello Tower and Gitane Du Berlais were others to go on to Grade One glory after winning at Limerick a year ago. Martello Tower beat Outlander in the featured Grade Three Hurdle on day four of the meeting in 2014, while Kitten Rock, My Hometown and Whistle Dixie were other smart performers to strut their stuff at the meeting.
O'Neill, who is overseeing his second Christmas Festival, feels conditions are set fair for another successful fixture. "The place is in fantastic shape," he said. "Our hospitality is sold out on St Stephen's Day and we are well ahead of where we expected to be in terms of ticket sales. At the moment, although we will probably get rain overnight, the weather on racing days looks quite clear and bright, which would be ideal. If it holds up, I'd like to think we could get 40,000 people in here over the four days - that is the target."
Martello Tower, beaten just twice in nine completed starts, will be having its first outing since Cheltenham in March at Leopardstown on Monday. Mullins yesterday sounded cautiously optimistic about the seven-year-old's prospects. "I'm happy with him," she confirmed. "He runs well fresh, but he'll probably need it."
Ferguson set to quit
John Ferguson shocked the racing world yesterday when it was revealed that he will relinquish his trainer’s licence at the end of the season.
Sheikh Mohammed’s long-serving bloodstock advisor has saddled 223 winners and won two Grade Ones with Godolphin cast-offs over five years.
However, with the Sheikh’s Darley bloodstock empire now to be consumed under the Godolphin banner, Ferguson’s duties as the new super-sized firm’s chief executive and racing manager will see his position as trainer under the Bloomfields banner in Newmarket disappear.
The best of his team will join Charlie Appleby, who will not have jumps runners. That means an end to a project that came out of left field but has been a success, with Ferguson fifth in the trainer’s championship.
It is also a blow to Cork-born Aidan Coleman, who is second in the jockeys’ table after succeeding AP McCoy as Ferguson’s stable jockey.