Elimay booked her ticket to the inaugural running of the Mares’ Chase at Cheltenham with victory in the BBA Ireland Limited Opera Hat Mares Chase at Naas as she highlighted a treble for Mark Walsh.
The grey finished a creditable second to stablemate and Ryanair Chase favourite Allaho last time out – and with Willie Mullins seemingly having his strongest ever team heading to the Festival, Elimay made sure she will be on the list of many with a smooth display.
Mullins’ Yukon Lil and Gordon Elliott’s Shattered Love appeared keen to make it a test of stamina, as both have form over further than this two miles – but so does Elimay, and she was able to cruise into contention on the home turn.
The three jumped the second-last in line, but then Elimay was given just an inch of rein by Mark Walsh and she put the race to bed before jumping the last.
Those who backed her at 8/15 had little to worry about as the JP McManus-owned seven-year-old strolled to a five-and-a-half-length win.
Coral trimmed Elimay into 3/1 from 4s for the Mares’ Chase, while Betfair go the same price from 7/2.
“That was a nice race to win and shows up Allaho’s form. It’s great to win the Opera Hat in honour of Valerie Cooper’s good mare and hopefully this mare might some day be as good as her,” said Mullins.
“Mark was happy to let the pace materialise up front and the ground is quite boggy down the back. The further the race went, the better she was going and Mark was very pleased how she finished. That’s a nice stepping stone towards Cheltenham. I’ll have a word with connections, but I would imagine that will send us towards the Mares’ Chase.”
Walsh also won the second division of the Naas Business Club Members Maiden Hurdle on Gentleman De Mee (2/7 favourite) for Mullins and the Naas Handicap Chase on the Gordon Elliott-trained Minella Till Dawn (12/1), both in the McManus colours.
Joseph O’Brien will be hoping lightning can strike for a third time in the case of Druid’s Altar. The previous two winners of the Naas Rated Novice Hurdle, O’Brien’s Band Of Outlaws and Gordon Elliott’s Aramax, have gone on to win the Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival.
Sent off the 13/8 favourite, Druid’s Altar was hard pressed on the run-in by Zoffanien, but Hugh Morgan galvanised him and he ended up going away to win by two-and-a-quarter lengths. Betfair and Paddy Power cut the winner to 14/1 from 25s for the Boodles next month.
“He has a good attitude and stays well,” assistant trainer Brendan Powell said. “Hugh said he was better there with a bit of company, because he’s made it a few times. He was in top-class company on his last few races and it’s nice to get his head in front again. He’s done it nicely in the end and he seems to cope with most types of ground. He’s a big horse and will jump a fence some day.”
Owner JP McManus and jockey Mark Walsh enjoyed a treble on the card, instigated by expensive French purchase Gentleman De Mee (2/7 favourite), trained by Willie Mullins. “He had a setback early in the season,” Mullins said, “so I hadn’t as much done as I would have liked. It was pure natural ability what he did there. We’ll aim for the festival here later on in the spring.”
Ryan Moore is a fairly rare visitor to Lingfield at this time of year, but he once again advertised his class in the saddle when winning on four of his five rides at the Surrey venue. Moore, who next weekend hopes to be in Saudi Arabia, was booked for five rides for five different trainers, and only Richard Hannon’s odds-on Mummy Bear in the Fillies’ Novice Stakes let him down, finishing third.
The day began for Moore with a victory on Ed Dunlop’s Ahdab (even-money favourite) in the Bombardier “March To Your Own Drum” Novice Stakes. Dunlop’s travelling head lad Robin Trevor-Jones felt the addition of a new Wexford round gallop at La Grange stables played a part in his first win.
“It’s an excellent soft sand facility and this is the first horse to come off it and win for us,” he said. “The boss is friendly with Jamie Osborne, who said that he uses one and that he has many more sounder horses because of it. This horse is a lovely, big Shamardal and Ryan said the surface was deep and he liked it.”
The Roger Teal-trained Gurkha Girl (4/6 favourite) was next in the Play Ladbrokes 5-A-Side On Football Fillies’ Novice Stakes and she eventually came home two-and-three-quarter lengths in front of 50/1 shot Waltzing Queen.
Martyn Meade’s Crackling (10/11) was another to justify odds-on favouritism, in the Bombardier British-Hopped Amber Beer Handicap. It was hard work, though, as Crackling, having just his fourth run at the age of five, still showed signs of inexperience in beating Apex King a neck.
“Ryan is a great asset to have on a horse like this who is still a bit green and improving with racing,” said assistant trainer Freddie Meade. “He’s lightly raced and looked like the progressive one in the contest. We’ve taken our time with him and he’s come back happily to show us that he’s in good spirits.”
Meanwhile, Keri Brion expects to have a clearer idea of French Light’s potential ambitions after running in the INH Stallion Owners EBF Novice Hurdle at Punchestown this afternoon. The six-year-old is one of a handful of horses currently based in Ireland with the former assistant to US Hall of Fame trainer Jonathan Sheppard — and made a promising Irish debut when finishing second at Clonmel last month.
Having missed an intended appearance in the Chanelle Pharma Novice Hurdle at last weekend’s Dublin Racing Festival, French Light instead tests the water at Listed level this weekend.
“He had a little cough before Leopardstown,” Brion said. “It was nothing too serious, but he needed to be 120 per cent to go up against those horses, so we decided to wait for this weekend. Quite a few of the horses in the race are probably future graded horses, but we think highly of ours and he’s come on a lot from his run at Clonmel, so we’re looking forward to it really.
“The ground is going to be soft or soft to heavy, but I don’t think is going to be any worse than it was at Clonmel and I like the fact we’re coming back from almost two and a half to two miles. This run will tell us where we’re going next, for sure. I know there’s only six runners, but there’s some good horses up against us, so this will give us a pretty good gauge.”