Under starters' orders
17 consecutive days of racing in Ireland get under way tomorrow. Richard Forristal looks ahead to the start of the marathon and picks out some local heroes, a couple of dark horses and one race the punters should definitely avoid
When the two-year-olds burst from their stalls in the opener at Cork racecourse tomorrow, the dash to the line will signal the start of a marathon journey.
They may only be racing over a blink-and-you-miss-it five furlongs, but the rest of us will hardly get a chance to draw breath from here on, with just six blank days this side of Galway.
The Easter festivals mark the start of the summer season, a point highlighted by the 17 consecutive days of racing that kick off tomorrow. While the Bank Holiday weekend will provide a pick and mix of racing activity for everyone, the marketing heads at both Cork and Fairyhouse have been busying themselves scheduling every conceivable promotion known to the game to add to the general merriment of it all.
Indeed, the Mallow executive have gone even further than that, with their Racing Home For Easter theme now having evolved into a monster bonanza that includes street performances, live music, a food and drink fair, a family fun cycle and, wait for it, a water dunk tank. Not to mention the three days of actual racing.
Fairyhouse's family day on Sunday and Most Stylish Lady Competition on Monday would seem almost quaint alongside such a veritable feast of gaiety were it not for the €9,000 worth of prizes on offer for the latter event.
Of course, the Meath track does boast the pick of the on-course activity, Monday's Ladbrokes Irish Grand National being the cornerstone that the whole weekend is built around.
Fairyhouse also hosts Easter's only Grade One contest, Sunday's Powers Gold Cup, as well as a variety of other quality jump races.
Noble Prince, one of 13 record-breaking Irish-trained winners at last month's Cheltenham Festival, will tackle the Powers, and our 12 other Prestbury Park heroes will join him for an earlier parade.
Cork cannot match that kind of equine pulling power but, then again, it isn't trying to do so.
Tomorrow's card is exclusively Flat, while Sunday's is a mixed programme. On Monday, five of the seven races are dedicated to the point-to-point fraternity, so there's a fair chance you'll get to see a few stars of the future.
Cork and Fairyhouse's catchment areas are both well populated with trainers, many of whom have impressive strike-rates at their neighbouring racecourse.
At Cork in recent years, Kinsale-based Robert Tyner has sent out 15 winners over jumps for a 10pc return, while Upton handler John Murphy has saddled 13 winners across both codes. Other jumping men to look out for at Cork on Sunday and Monday are Eugene O'Sullivan (9/217), TJ Nagle (8/75) and John Joe Walsh (8/179).
Local stats are even more impressive at Fairyhouse. Noel Meade's 10-year haul stands at 94, while Tony Martin equals Meade's percentage of 12 with 36 firsts. Chasing up both of those in a hurry is Gordon Elliott. In less than three seasons, the Trim native has notched up his first seven Fairyhouse winners from just 71 runners.
With the national cricket team on tour at Fairyhouse on Sunday, outsiders might be the theme for the weekend.
Looking ahead to the big race on Monday, which no favourite has won since Desert Orchid obliged in 1990, Deal Done is worth an each-way investment at 33/1.
Trainer Dessie Hughes knows what's required to win this, having landed the spoils with Timbera in 2003, and Deal Done didn't run at all badly when third in the Kim Muir at Cheltenham, having blitzed a breakneck pace early on. If he settles a bit better on Monday, he could defy his odds to again make the frame.
English-based horses have won three of the last seven Irish Grand Nationals, while Dandy Nicholls struck with Inxile, his first Irish runner of the season, at Naas last week.
Inxile is one of two Nicholls entries in the featured Listed race at Cork tomorrow, and there are still nine British entries left in the National.
One of those, Hello Bud, is in the care of Nigel Twiston-Davies, who is also responsible for the Barry Connell-owned Frascati Park, the only foreign contender for Sunday's meeting at Fairyhouse.
Fairyhouse Festival Trivia
With a total prize fund of €250,000, the Irish Grand National is the richest jump race on the domestic calendar.
The biggest SP returned for a winner of the prestigious handicap in recent times has been 33/1, the last being Niche Market two years ago.
Only one female rider, Ann Ferris, who partnered Bentom Boy in 1984, has ever won the race, but six of the last 12 winners have raced from out of the handicap proper.
Sunday's Powers Gold Cup will be the 51st year that the whiskey giant has promoted the two-and-a-half-mile Grade One, making it the longest-running sponsorship of a horse race in this country.
Of the jockeys currently riding, Tommy Treacy, David Casey, Ruby Walsh and Tony McCoy have all recorded two wins apiece in the Powers, with Paul Carberry the only rider to triumph three times.
Cork will be awash with the point-to-point brigade on Monday, but there is also a champion bumper at Fairyhouse on the same afternoon for horses that have finished in the first four between the flags this season.
To add a bit of spice to proceedings, Michael O'Leary will offer to buy the winning horse for €100,00 live on RTE. The successful owner must decide on the spot whether or not to accept a proposal that has a further €50,000 available in potential add-ons. If this correspondent were to pick one in advance, it would be Colin Bowe's Allthekingshorses.
Successful on good ground when a well-backed favourite on his debut at Lingstown, the King's Theatre five-year-old is related to the likes of Galmoy and Direct Route.
Significantly, he is the Wexford point-to-point supremo's only entrant.
A race to avoid
It may pay to delay your punting until after the first race at Fairyhouse on Sunday. Of the 64 entries, 22 have finished second on no less than 50 occasions across all codes.
The worst culprit is Willie Mullins' Rattan, with seven near misses to his name -- not one to be taking short odds about, even if one R Walsh is booked.