Festival of fallen heroes - drama, heartache and thrills with the shocks
It was a week of Christmas shocks as real doubts were raised over big Cheltenham fancies
Leopardstown's Christmas Festival rivalled the festive soaps for drama, heartache and thrills with the shocks growing bigger as the week wore on and the sad departure of a champion somehow seemed a fitting finish to the fare on Friday.
One by one the giants tumbled as Min, Sizing John and Faugheen - whose appearances were as anticipated as the man in the red suit last week - lost their crowns, albeit in differing manners.
Min's defeat in Wednesday's Grade One Paddy's Rewards Club Chase was only the first act of an astounding drama that afternoon which featured Willie Mullins as the central character.
Sent off 2/7 favourite to regain the winning thread, Min was instead deemed to have caused serious interference to Simply Ned as the pair fought out the finish of the two-mile chase and Nicky Richards' English raider was handed his first success at the highest level in the stewards' room.
Min lugged into his left when challenged by Mark Walsh and the 10-year-old Simply Ned on the run to the line, twice bumping into his rival and on the second occasion pushing him into the rail, sending a piece of white plastic airborne. It was Simply Ned's fourth run in the race, he had been placed on his three previous attempts.
"It's took a bit of doing but we got there at the end of it. He's been a great horse and very consistent at a high level. It's great that he'd had his day at the top. It will probably be the plan to come back here in February," said Richards, who praised Walsh's performance. "Mark gave him an absolute peach of a ride, he did absolutely everything he was asked. I asked him to ring Brian Harding (Simply Ned's regular jockey) and he done everything Brian said."
If that wasn't enough excitement, two of Mullins' three horses fell independently of each other at the last in the Grade One Future Champions' Novice Hurdle when the scene was set for a Christmas 1-2-3 for the stable. Whiskey Sour, ridden by David Mullins, avoided his stricken stablemates and cruised home by 19 lengths. The fallers, Sharjah and Real Steel, looked like having the race between them coming to the final flight after red-hot favourite Mengli Khan, trained by Gordon Elliott, ran out at the second last hurdle.
"I've never seen anything like it. Losing the other race in the stewards' room, then Mengli Khan jumping out at the second last," said a disbelieving Mullins. "I thought at least then we'd be first, second and third going to the last and then the two of them fall individually. It was extraordinary stuff and I was just waiting for them to bring down our third runner and really cap the day.
"Whiskey Sour was definitely the fourth of ours coming into the race and he ends up winning it. I said to David, 'How did you miss all those horses', and he said, 'It's lucky he's small'. He's probably the smallest horse in the yard. It was a lucky win, end of story."
Thankfully, both horses and riders were unscathed after their misadventures, but death cast a long shadow over Leopardstown on Thursday with the loss of Grade One Ladbrokes' Stayers Hurdle hero Nichols Canyon and Zabana, successful in the 2016 Grade One Growise Champion Novice Chase at Punchestown.
Nichols Canyon, at that stage the only horse to beat Faugheen, was sent off favourite to beat Apple's Jade in the Grade One Squared Financial Christmas Hurdle because the eight-times Grade One winner had assured stamina. However, the little horse with the huge heart took a terrible fall at the fifth flight which was to prove fatal for the Willie Mullins-trained hurdler. Apple's Jade had a battle with Jessica Harrington's Cheltenham Festival winner Supasundae up the home straight and it was the five-year-old mare, ridden for the first time by Davy Russell, which eked out the victory.
"She just loves a battle," remarked the proud trainer Gordon Elliott. "Davy said that if he was to ride the race again, he would have gotten into a battle earlier as she just loves it. Even the way she won at Cheltenham last year, she always grinds it out and she's a fighter. She's even like that in her work at home and she has to be out in front. She's a bull. She is as tough as old boots, to think she's only five years of age and that's her seventh Grade One win, it's great isn't it?"
Sizing John, which won the Grade One John Durkan Chase at Punchestown three weeks ago, was expected to end 2017 unbeaten with victory in the Grade One Christmas Chase on Thursday to go with his unique treble of Cheltenham, Irish and Punchestown Gold Cups.
However, Harrington's seven-year-old looked in distress a long way from home and was found to be clinically abnormal after the race. Results of blood tests taken on Friday will determine what next for last season's star chaser.
Instead, it was Road To Riches, for Seán Flanagan and Noel Meade, which led home a 1-2-3 for Michael O'Leary's Gigginstown House Stud with the Henry de Bromhead-trained Balko Des Flos in second and last year's winner Outlander third this time around for Elliott.
The winning trainer was thrilled: "Everything went according to plan. The hood obviously worked well. Seán rode him the other day and he said maybe a hood might help him to settle early on. He settled great and he gave him a most beautiful ride. I suppose when it works out it's always a great ride but it was actually an absolute peach of a ride. He jumped brilliant, one or two slow but clever. I always felt we were travelling like a winner. I didn't let a yip out of me until they were 50 yards from the line."
Faugheen was expected to continue his winning comeback from injury in Friday's Grade One Ryanair Hurdle but the 2/11 favourite was not his sparkly self and jockey Paul Townend pulled him up two hurdles from home. After the race, Faugheen was examined by the Turf Club vets who found nothing visibly wrong with the horse but samples were taken for analysis. Townend reported that the nine-times Grade One winner, which spent 22 months off the track with a serious leg injury, never travelled during the race. Officially 10 years old tomorrow, suspicions abound that Friday may have been the last race for Faugheen.
Elliott and Davy Russell were celebrating once again when Mick Jazz, owned by the trainer along with George Mahoney, who is based in America, got the better of Cilaos Emery, trained by Willie Mullins and ridden by his nephew David in a fight to the line.
The winning trainer's first words, however, were of concern for Faugheen. "Faugheen looked a certainty but there is no such thing as a certainty in horse racing and I hope he is okay, I didn't see him coming in. This was Mick Jazz's day. George Mahoney flew all his family over for the County Hurdle at Cheltenham and the horse was lame on the day of the race so today was his day in the sun."
Originally Elliott and Mahoney had America's jumps races in mind for Mick Jazz when they purchased him off the Flat but his Grade One triumph on Friday might see him aimed at targets a little closer to home.
"George is a good man and he has a few horses with me so it's nice to be able to repay him. I bought him with the plan to go to America but he had a few niggly problems and I'm glad he did now! He'll have to have an entry now but we'll enjoy today and see what happens," Elliott said.
Friday's other Grade One, the Neville Hotels Novice Chase, also offered drama for the watching crowds when favourite Monalee and Davy Russell suffered a horrible fall when travelling sweetly down the back straight. Paul Townend and Rathvinden were brought down by Monalee in the aftermath but luckily both horses and riders were not seriously hurt.
Mark Walsh, riding the six-year-old Yeats mare Shattered Love, claimed his second Grade One of the festival. Shattered Love, in the familiar maroon and white of Gigginstown House Stud, relished the test and made the best of the way home to initiate a Grade One double for Elliott.
"She's brilliant," smiled Walsh. "As you can see from the size of her, chasing was always going to be her game. Gordon said to me pop her out and have her handy, if she takes you there let her go. She was winging them down the back and she got in front six or seven out and I let her go on."
St Stephen's Day was not an accurate barometer of what was to come as Willie Mullins' Footpad was supreme in the only Grade One race of the day, the Racing Post Novice Chase.
"He's electric. From the first day at home that I saw him jumping over fences I thought he was the best I've seen for a long while," enthused the trainer. "He was good on his debut at Navan but today he was just awesome. He gained lengths at his fences and he's one to really look forward to.
"I'd imagine he'd come back here for a similar type of race at the new Dublin Festival of Racing (Leopardstown, February 3 and 4) and then, hopefully fingers crossed and everything stays right, on to Cheltenham."
Blackbow was impressive in the concluding bumper and Mullins has Cheltenham bumper aspirations for the four-year-old, which was making his racecourse debut.
The festival also got off to a great start for Waterford trainer Henry de Bromhead who enjoyed an opening-day treble. Smart young hurdler Paloma Blue was the highlight of the trio, and a bright light in a dark time for owner Chris Jones, who was to lose Zabana on Thursday.
"He's still a big baby and has taken a lot of work in the last few weeks and has gone from strength to strength. I'm delighted to get a winner here for Chris and his family. I hope he's a Graded horse and possibly we'll aim at the new Festival weekend back here in February," remarked the delighted trainer, who ended Christmas week with seven winners.
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