Wednesday 13 December 2017

Fairyhouse has spring in its step

Today's triple play of Grade Ones will be compelling, says Ian McClean

Dedigout ridden by Davy Russell
Dedigout ridden by Davy Russell

Ian McClean

Death, taxes and soft ground at Fairyhouse in December: somehow we've managed to hoodwink the elements all the way into the 12th month this year – to the point that Fairyhouse's seasonal festival is being staged in ground conditions without the words 'soft' or 'heavy' in the official going report for the first time since the turn of the millennium. If they got this in April, they'd be delighted.

However, any suspicion that jump-bred winter horses have an imperative predilection for 'squelchy to bottomless' is undermined by the quality of the card turning up for the triumvirate of Grade Ones this afternoon. Rarely can a contingent of such calibre have appeared for what is already traditionally the best race-card this side of the Leopardstown Christmas Festival.

An irresistible blend of the known and the unknown, in the novice division (the Royal Bond and the Drinmore) we get the chance to assess the relative merits of those whose individual potential at this point still seems limitless; while, among those more familiar, four of the five lining up for the Hatton's Grace have already achieved a rating of 150 or more.

There hasn't been a back-to-back winner of the Hatton's Grace Hurdle since the Bowe family hegemony of Solerina and Limestone Lad. However, last year's winner Zaidpour bids to right that on his seasonal debut in spite of not having won a race in eight starts since.

The Mullins gelding started favourite for the race last year but is far from holding that position this afternoon as he faces, at a minimum, two upwardly mobile young guns just out of the novice stream with pretensions to even greater things. Both Jezki and Rule The World made a proper impression at the Cheltenham Festival without quite winning and they each have opened this campaign with a proficient success against lesser company.

As the season matures both are likely to go in opposite directions in terms of distance – a factor that only adds to the intrigue of today's event over the intermediate trip of two-and-a-half miles.

Impressive winner of the Royal Bond on this card last year, Jezki suffered just one defeat in six starts last season. His races, however, were all at the minimum trip. Today's assignment questions his stamina more than his ability but trainer Jessica Harrington is relatively unperturbed.

"Judging by the rest of his relations, stamina has never been as issue," she says. "You have Jetson who stays three miles well, Jenari got two miles four furlongs no problem and Jered got more than two miles too so I don't think it's an issue when you look at his pedigree. He's so much more relaxed this year too so that will help him get the trip better. You could see that at Down Royal."

Rule The World is a chaser in the making but is trying another season over the smaller obstacles in the meantime. He too had a profitable novice time – winning three times before finding The New One just too good in the Neptune. He suffered an apparently serious injury behind Jezki at Punchestown in April, but has been restored to top order by trainer Mouse Morris.

The addition of the supplemented Gigginstown runner Dedigout gives the race further fascination. Hardly covering himself in glory as a chaser (just two wins from eight), this Grade One-winning hurdler is actually five from six over the smaller ones and it may be he is the overpriced one today in spite of the fact that he would appreciate ground conditions more naturally associated with the time of year.

The Grade One novice chasers are no less intriguing in their own way. Gigginstown again fields two in the Drinmore, a race where half the field are unbeaten over fences. Furthermore, ever remember a Galway Plate winner to compete in a Drinmore? Answers on a postcard, please.

Subsequent to his Galway Plate victory, Carlingford Lough ran a gallant second in the Kerry National off 147 (and is now rated 150 as a result). In a

race where experience confronts promise, Carlingford Lough's performance this afternoon should give us a great barometer as to where these novices stand in their freshman year over fences. And today's opposition is overflowing with promise.

Henry de Bromhead describes Sizing Rio as his "great white hope". Still only five, this hugely likeable sort put in an exhibition round of agility in a Grade Three at Cork to win unchallenged recently and the better ground will be a major plus for his chance here.

Don Cossack is stepping back in trip after a win at Galway and a gutsy, narrow defeat by Morning Assembly at Punchestown. I just wonder whether the combination of trip and ground will prove too sharp at this stage. Road To Riches on the other hand showed a clean pair of heels to a decent field at Naas, with his acceleration from the last fence the hallmark of that performance. If this race doesn't come too soon for a horse that typically prefers space between races then he could have a major say.

Six of the ten horses lining up for the Royal Bond have won on their latest start. This is a race where last year's winner and runner-up (Jezki and Champagne Fever) went on to fill two of the first three places in the Supreme at Cheltenham in March.

Such a repetition is unlikely but not impossible given the scope of what's on offer. With six of the ten runners priced at 7/1 or under, choosing between the substance of the non-collateral formlines is already proving difficult for punters.

Ruby Walsh chooses the Graham Wylie-owned French import Alonso from among the Mullins trio. Described by the trainer as "more a spring than a winter horse," he will certainly benefit from the spring ground and won well from the ill-fated Aircraftman at Wexford on his introduction here.

Alonso shares favouritism with the unbeaten Minellaforu which, according to one race-reader, has now won a point-to-point, a maiden hurdle and a sprint after his victory in a farcically-run For Auction at Navan in November. Pitch into the mix Gilt Shadow, Gambling Girl, The Tullow Tank and Very Wood – any of which could still be anything – and you've got a beguiling contest that is poor on certainty and rich on intrigue.

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