Reputations on line as Festival fever begins
Nestling comfortably between the twin peaks of Christmas and Cheltenham, the Dublin Racing Festival debuted last winter. Offering two days of high-class action, featuring some of the finest equine talent in the country battling for serious prize money, it proved an instant hit. Next weekend, we get to do it all again.
Once more there are eight Grade One contests over the weekend with a touch over €1.8m up for grabs. But more than that, there is the chance to take in some top-class action before the festivals of Cheltenham, Aintree and Punchestown.
And while most of the country has been delighted with the mild, dry winter so far, owners and trainers have been doing a rain dance in the hope of getting softer ground to run their horses on. Cheltenham will water the course, so there is a guarantee of soft ground in the Cotswolds, conditions which Ireland's Festival hopefuls haven't experienced so far this season.
"We know that's going to happen," says trainer Jessica Harrington. "Hopefully we will get enough rain between now and then and it will happen naturally, but there's no use trying to speculate, what will be, will be. We'll just have to have the horses there ready to go on whatever ground they provide for us."
One of those horses she's busy preparing is Supasundae. Top class over two, two-and-a-half and three miles, all being well he'll take his chance in the BHP Irish Champion Hurdle on Saturday.
"He's a wonderful horse," says Harrington. "Our idea this season was to start him off in the Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown over two miles, then go to the Hatton's Grace over two-and-a-half at Fairyhouse and come to Leopardstown at Christmas for the three-miler. But the ground was too quick at Punchestown, so he didn't run, and we went for the two-miler at Christmas on the basis that he's never been able to beat Apple's Jade over two-and-a-half miles or three miles.
"Unfortunately, he didn't get the run of the race there. Supasundae got stopped turning into the straight and he's a big horse who takes a while to get going again - the race was gone from him.
"But he's the most wonderful horse to have and train. Last season he ran in six Grade Ones. He won the two most important two-mile races in Ireland, was second and third in a pair of two-and-a-half mile Grade Ones and second in two Grade Ones over three miles, including the Stayers' Hurdle at Cheltenham to Penhill. How many horses even run in a breadth of races like that, never mind do so well? He's a superstar, but he's nine now and it may be that 2019 will be his last year at the top level.
"Good ground is great for him and in hindsight I should have entered him for the Champion Hurdle last year because, by the time the Stayers' came around on the Thursday the ground was getting very tacky and there was a strip of ground where they ran across the Old Course and it was really bad. He started to paddle a bit and lost a bit of momentum."
Harrington won't make a call on what race he will tackle at Cheltenham until the picture is clearer - in terms of ground and opposition.
"The ground will play its part. Goodish ground will see me lean towards the three-miler, but there's also the question of how the races stack up. We thought Buveur D'Air was invincible in the Champion Hurdle - now we know he's not. Now Brain Power has come back to hurdling too. Over here, there's Sharjah, but he's a good-ground horse, There's every way to go and we'll just see what happens with Supasundae next Saturday."
Harrington has enjoyed many good days at the big Festivals, of course, one of the best with 2017 Gold Cup winner Sizing John which missed all of 2018 having suffered a hairline fracture to his pelvis in the build-up to last year's Cheltenham.
"I've been hoping to get a racecourse gallop into him, but the going is just not right. Yes, it is frustrating with him, he's showing me all the right signs at home, but having come around after so long out, I didn't want to set him back by forcing the issue.
"Let's hope I can get him back now, he's so close and things can come together quickly. We could go for the two-miler at the Dublin Racing Festival, not the Unibet Gold Cup, and not bottom him out for his first run back. He's actually a very decent two-miler, he saw the backside of Douvan in every race they ran when they were younger."
The dry winter has left many owners frustrated at not being able to see their charges on the racecourse, but National Hunt racing is a game you have to be in for the long haul, and Harrington is aware that her owners realise this.
"Owners understand if you explain it is for the best. A place like Cheltenham can really set a young horse back.
"I only discovered the other day that Moscow Flyer never ran there until he was eight. His novice hurdling year he was hurt and then the next year was the foot and mouth, so it was as an eight-year-old winning the Arkle that he finally got to Cheltenham. And then of course he was still winning the Champion Chase at the age of 11, so that's the other end of it, if you don't heap on the pressure as younger horses they can certainly last longer. You have to be patient with National Hunt horses, it's a completely different mindset to Flat horses, who have to deliver the goods at two and three."
Some questions will be answered at Leopardstown next weekend and some will remain unanswered. Reputations will be made or lost and decisions will be made that will affect the campaigns for the remainder of this season and into the future.
"This slots in perfectly, five weeks after Christmas and five weeks before Cheltenham, and then you go on to Aintree and Fairyhouse and Punchestown in April," Harrington adds. "With the way the end-of-season Festivals are spaced out this year, a horse would be able to take on all four of them. He'd want to be a strong one, mind you, but he could."
It's a mouth-watering prospect.
Sunday Indo Sport