Festival a new dawn for Irish jumps scene
Faugheen dilemma will be resolved on star-studded weekend
Racing is often seen as a conservative sport in the sense that it's full of tradition, and is very slow to change. But the powers that be deserve a big pat on the back for creating the Dublin Racing Festival this weekend at Leopardstown, which includes seven Grade Ones.
The music after racing and gourmet food end of things wouldn't really be my cup of tea, but it attracts a new audience that wouldn't normally go racing, so it's a good news story for the sport overall with very few negatives.
Irish Champions Weekend on the Flat has been a big success so it's worth trying something similar with the jumps, and the meeting effectively merges the best races from the traditional three big Leopardstown meetings which took place in the first couple of months of the year.
Much has been made about the lack of British entries which is a shame in one way, but I don't see this as a snub by our friends across the water - they are simply being realistic about the strength of the home team.
The expense and logistics of sending a horse across to Dublin to take on some of the best in the business just doesn't make financial sense for many owners and trainers, although in the sporting sense, it would be nice to see a few non-Irish trainer names on the race cards.
Handful Long gone are the days when a handful of Irish-trained winners were cause for a big celebration at Cheltenham, and all the records were smashed last year with an incredible 19 winners from 28 races - the downside being that the British are too afraid, or don't see a point, in entering the lion's den over here.
In an ideal world, most of the winners wouldn't come from the same top yards in Ireland - but, on the other hand, we must give credit where it's due to the likes of Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott for taking Irish jumps racing and training to a whole new level, just like Aidan O'Brien has done on the Flat.
The biggest question to be answered this weekend is whether Faugheen can bounce back in the Irish Champion Hurdle (3.30) from his flop in the Ryanair Hurdle here in December, in which he was pulled up having gone off as the metaphorical dead-cert, priced 2/11.
The winner of that race, Mick Jazz, takes him on again but stablemate Melon and British entry Defi Du Seuil (Philip Hobbs) certainly have chances if the favourite fluffs his lines once again. So with Faugheen priced around 5/4, this is a no-bet race for me.
Of course, an on-song Faugheen would blow the opposition out of the water and on official ratings, he's almost a stone superior to Melon - but we can't pretend Christmas simply didn't happen. Even the greats can have the odd once-off blip, and we all hope he returns to form, but I'm not interested in spending money in finding out if the old Faugheen is back, and I'll keep my wallet in my pocket.
In tomorrow's Unibet Irish Gold Cup (3.35), Our Duke is a worthy favourite and I'm happy to take the 11/4 available in the early markets yesterday. That said, a leap of faith is also required here as he too flopped last time out in the Jnwine.com Champion Chase priced 5/6, having previously destroyed his rivals in the Irish Grand National.
But he scoped badly after and a back problem (which is reportedly now fixed) came to light, so that's easier to forgive than Faugheen.
Across the water at Sandown, a chance is taken on Terrefort in the Betfred TV Scilly Isles Novices' Chase (2.25), expected to go off in the region of 11/8. Formerly trained in France by Guillaume Macaire, there was plenty to like about his British debut for Nicky Henderson in a novice handicap at Huntingdon last time, suggesting he's ready to take the step up in class. Paul Nicholls' Cyrname is also respected. Modest over hurdles, he's really come to life over fences and was able to step up from handicap company to win a Grade Two at Kempton.
There's also Graded action from Wetherby and Nigel Twiston-Davies' Ballyoptic is tipped to land the Grade Two totesport.com Towton Novices' Chase (2.40), priced around 11/4 under Tom Bellamy.
Backing a horse which is making its handicap debut is a tricky business, as it involves trying to spot where the assessors have got it wrong. That can be lot harder to do than it sounds.
But you can often be rewarded with a decent bet at a nice price when you make a different judgement than the experts, and I reckon an opening mark of 127 for Dashing Perk might be a little low.
He's raced just three times over hurdles, and got off the mark in good style last time when beating an even-money favourite in a novice race at Wincanton.
How much improvement he has in him is the big question, but he's got a Grade One entry for one of the novice races at Cheltenham, so connections must be somewhat optimistic.
I believe he's still unexposed, and odds of 9/1 make appeal each-way in the Grade Three Betfred Heroes Handicap Hurdle at Sandown (3.0) today.
1.10 Leopardstown: Fabulous Saga
2.25 Sandown: Terrefort
2.40 Wetherby: Ballyoptic
3.0 Sandown: Dashing Perk (9/1)
3.05 Lingfield: Victory Bond
3.35 Leop'town: Our Duke (tomorrow)
DO THE DOUBLE
Soccer: Crystal Palace sit one place ahead of Newcastle in the League at 13th, but Roy Hodgson has made a big difference at Palace and that’s reflected in the relegation betting with his side at 10/1, and Newcastle 9/4. A draw with City just over a month ago proved Palace are hard to beat, and they can taste success against an out-of-sorts Magpies side tomorrow, priced at 21/10.
Racing: Although he wasn’t good enough to make an impact, Victory Bond took in some group races last summer and that big-race experience has served him well now that trainer William Haggas has made the switch to the all-weather. A winner in two of his last three races on the artificial surfaces, the five-year-old is back in action today for the Betway Winter Derby trial at Lingfield (3.05) and on my ratings, he’s got at least 2lbs in hand, priced around 11/8.