The Irish never need a reason to celebrate, but they might have one almighty hangover come Saturday night if they have enjoyed another bumper Cheltenham Festival, topped up by their rugby team denying England the chance of another Grand Slam in the Six-Nations in Dublin.
Champion trainer Willie Mullins has ruled the roost at Cheltenham since the turn of the decade, but grant him one wish for this week and it would be a first Gold Cup victory with DJAKADAM on Friday, which is St Patrick’s Day of all days.
Mullins has saddled six seconds in chasing’s most coveted crown, including the last four years, two of which were courtesy of Djakadam himself, and while he has won almost all the “biggies” at Cheltenham, that Gold Cup has proved so elusive.
However, Djakadam had a rushed preparation 12 months ago, having taken time to recover from a fall at Cheltenham’s New Year meeting, whereas this year everything has gone smoothly.
He has been rested since winning the John Durkan at Leopardstown over Christmas, at eight years old he is in the prime of his life, and, while Colin Tizzard’s “big two”, Cue Card and Native River, have barely missed a dance all winter, Djakadam comes to all winter, Djakadam comes to Cheltenham as fresh as paint.
Cue Card, who looked the winner when capsizing three out last year, is the most popular chaser in training, but he is now 11 and no horse older than nine has won the Gold Cup since What A Myth in 1969, though with the ground drying through the week I expect him to prove better than Native River, who, though a stronger stayer than his stablemate, does not possess as much class.
Indeed, the one for the Exacta could be another challenger from the Emerald Isle in Sizing John, who ended any stamina doubts when winning the Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown last month.
NEON WOLF has looked an exceptional novice this winter and can beat off a strong Irish team for the Neptune Hurdle, which kick-starts today, though the boys in green are likely to be back in the number one spot with DOUVAN in the Queen Mother Champion Chase and ALPHA DES OBEAUX in the RSA Chase.
Douvan, the shortest priced favourite of the week, is as good a two-mile (3200m) chaser as was Sprinter Sacre and looks a “penalty kick”, while Alpha Des Obeaux can be forgiven his flop at Leopardstown over Christmas as he was found to have burst a blood vessel. He was runner-up in the World Hurdle here last year and is a classy individual, whom trainer Mouse Morris tells me “is flying”.
DIVIN BERE is another of today’s fancies, this one for the Fred Winter Hurdle. He beat leading Triumph Hurdle hope Master Blueyes, giving him 2kg, at Huntingdon, and that form makes him the pick of the handicap, while a subsequent wind operation seems to have brought about further improvement.
The Irish nearly always win the Champion Bumper but while the Mullins-trained Carter McKay is a worthy favourite, I can pass on a strong word for another Irish challenger in DEBUCHET, an exciting four-year-old who could pop up at rewarding odds.
The Irish will not have YORKHILL beaten in the JLT Novices’ Chase, tomorrow’s opener, while another I like on day three is EMPIRE OF DIRT, who travelled so well in the Irish Gold Cup that dropping back in trip for the Ryanair Chase should not be a problem. The trailblazing Uxizandre could be the main threat.
UNOWHATIMEANHARRY can justify favouritism in the Grade 1 Stayers’ Hurdle, but I’m all for opposing market-leader Defi Du Seuil in the Triumph, the four-year-old hurdling championship which is the curtain-raiser to Gold Cup Day on Friday.
Defi Du Seuil is 5-5 over hurdles, but does not look a natural and any slip-shod jumping in this big field will prove costly, plus the fact all his best form has been on soft ground and by the final day the going could be riding pretty quick.
The ground could also be a problem for Ireland’s Grade 1 winner Mega Fortune but it will suit Master Blueyes, who was impressive when winning his dress-rehearsal, the Adonis Hurdle at Kempton last month.
However, French-recruit CHARLIE PARCS, who was a warm favourite for that race, only to crash out at the second last, remains the apple of Nicky Henderson’s eye, and I am prepared to give him another chance.
Henderson said: “Charlie Parcs has enormous talent and we’ve put a line through Kempton. He was so slick at his hurdles when winning on his British debut, but he never travelled in behind the next time and it was only when he was pulled out to see daylight going to two out that he grabbed hold of the bridle back again.
“He has been working fantastic since and is as good as any of the youngsters with which I have won this race in the past, so I still have faith.”
Gordon Elliott, who is giving Willie Mullins a run for his money in the race to be champion trainer in Ireland this season, reckons DEATH DUTY is the most exciting novice he’s had, so this fellow should not be opposed in the Albert Bartlett Hurdle, while if we are still in trouble after the 27th race of the meeting I’ll be pinning my hopes on DANDRIDGE getting us out of the mire in the finale, the Grand Annual Chase.
Dandridge walked right through the first fence in this race last year, yet still managed to finish second, and jockey Davy Russell is very sweet on his chance.
Veteran trainer Arthur Moore, one of the legends of Irish racing, began mapping out a return walking off the Cheltenham stand 12 months ago, and Dandridge’s whole season has been planned with 17 March in mind.
All in all, it could be quite a St Patrick’s Day celebration for the Irish, and it will be carried over to Saturday night, too, if they beat the English at rugby.