Strong raiding party adds extra lustre to Ballybrit showpiece
The usual suspects, plus a couple of interesting British runners, should ensure an exciting Galway festival, writes Ronan Groome
I t is pretty difficult to find a suitable comparison in racing, or any other sport for that matter, to match against the Galway festival. At Cheltenham, you have the Olympics of jump racing, while Royal Ascot provides the same-style championship races for the Flat circuit, in terms of quality and prize money.
Galway would not hold a candle to these top races. Yet, the majority of trainers heading to Ballybrit this week would probably trade an Ascot or Cheltenham winner any day for a rare success in the west. That is the magic of Galway, that intangible characteristic it has that other big festivals don't.
If it is competitive racing you are after, Ballybrit is the place to be and once again the headline races on Wednesday and Thursday remain the flag-bearers for the festival. In the Galway Hurdle and the Galway Plate, jumps trainers have two reasons to keep interest up during the quiet summer months.
The Plate has a typical look to it again this year. Typical in the fact that Dermot Weld has a major player lining up and typical in the fact that there are a whole host of horses with chances in behind him. Majestic Concorde, which won Monday's feature race two years ago, is the favourite for the all-conquering Weld, a name you will probably hear more than once this week. The seven-year-old hasn't been seen over fences since last October, when winning comfortably at Sligo, but he did run a big race to finish fourth in the Chester Cup on his last start on the Flat and having already won around Ballybrit, he has vital course form which is a huge positive.
Paul Nicholls was the first British trainer since 1998 to take this prize when the well-backed Oslot came home impressively under Ruby Walsh two years ago. He is represented again this year by Five Dream, which was a classy juvenile hurdler, and it's probable that the English champion has mapped him out for this since the end of the season. Nicholls won't have the services of Ruby Walsh though, ruled out of the festival because of the broken arm he sustained at Aintree.
The English challenge is boosted further by Grand Slam Hero, winner of the Summer Plate at Market Rasen on his last start; he is going in search of a four-timer now for his Gold Cup-winning trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies.
Neither of Ireland's most recent champion trainers, Willie Mullins and Noel Meade, have fared particularly well in this race. Themoonandsixpence represents the Co Carlow-based Mullins this time round, but he will have to overcome a lack of experience over fences with only two starts over the larger obstacles.
Noel Meade's main hope, Nicanor, has been the subject of some bullish reports from the trainer, who seems confident of a big run from the only horse to have beaten Denman over hurdles. He has had his problems since that race; he was off for nearly three years with a tendon injury until he made his comeback last season. With only nine starts over fences, there could be a lot more to come from him and given the patience his trainer has shown with him, he would go into the category of special, if he were to lead them home here.
The field is headed by The Fonze, carrying top weight, which is another going in search of a fourth successive win, while Paul Nolan's Cuan Na Grai will be bidding to follow in the footsteps of Ansar, and do the Galway Plate and Hurdle double. Ansar made history when he took the Plate in 2005, becoming the first horse to win the two major races since King Errant in the 1950s.
The Galway Hurdle will provide the main attraction on Ladies Day on Thursday. The two-mile event looks wide open again but it has been a good race for punters in recent years as three of the last four winners were well-backed on the day. It has become notoriously difficult for horses high up in the weights to get involved, which is not a good sign for the current market leader, British raider Overturn, and also last year's winner, Pat Flynn's Bahrain Storm, which will bid to become the first horse to win back-to-back Hurdles since Pinch Hitter did it in 1983.
Overturn has done extremely well over hurdles so far. He took the Scottish Champion Hurdle at the back-end of the jumps season and he was an impressive winner of the ultra-competitive Northumberland Plate on the Flat at Newcastle on his last run. But with the weight trend against him, the history trend also suggests he has it all to do; he will be bidding to become the first British-trained horse to win since Sagaman was victorious in 1991.
While Weld has been taking the headlines as per usual at this time of year, a couple of new faces are beginning to make waves on the jumps scene. Gordon Elliot has been making his own headlines this summer. The Meath-based handler, who has astonishingly been champion trainer at the Scottish track Perth for the last three seasons, has been in scintillating form.
A three-week spell towards the second half of June saw him land 14 winners, including four separate hat-tricks. Dirar got that sequence started by winning on the Flat at Ayr, and he will be Elliot's main hope for the Hurdle. The five-year-old has won four of his last five starts over hurdles, looks to be on the upgrade and he should get to race off a manageable weight.
Elliott, who also has a live chance with Nedzer's Return running in the Plate, could also be represented by recent Perth scorer Wikaala and Grand Opera.
Jessica Harrington is another trainer who has been in good form this summer. She has come close to winning this race in the past, and her main hope this year will be Gimli's Rock, which had a good spin at The Curragh on his last start and was a winner at the Punchestown festival when last seen over hurdles.
Incidentally, Paul Nolan, the most successful trainer of this race in recent years having trained three different winners in the last eight years, does not have a runner this year.