THE long road to the Cheltenham Festival begins this weekend with racing taking place behind closed doors at headquarters.
The early season action has been dominated by Paul Nicholls across the water and he is churning out the winners on a daily basis.
While the real superstars of the game may not be in action tomorrow there are a couple of intriguing clashes to get the juices flowing for punters. The highest-profile jump race of the weekend is the Old Roan Chase which is a Grade 2 handicap at Aintree.
The Olly Murphy-trained Ithy Feet is the favourite and will be ridden by Innishannon’s Aidan Coleman who will ride for Murphy as stable jockey this season.
That announcement caught plenty of people by surprise last week as Coleman has been linked to the JP McManus job that has been vacated by Barry Geraghty who retired.
It now appears that the McManus team will use the best available jockey going into the new season. Traditionally the national hunt season over here starts off with Graded action at Down Royal next weekend.
Gordon Elliot has committed a number of his stable stars to this meeting including Champion Hurdle contender Abracadabra and Gold Cup contender Presenting Percy.
But the action on the flat sees Princess Zoe travel to France again this weekend.
She has been the story of the flat season and Seamie Heffernan will take over in the saddle from suspended apprentice Joey Sheridan when Princess Zoe bids to double her Group One tally in the Prix Royal-Oak at Paris Longchamp.
The Tony Mullins-trained mare has enjoyed a meteoric rise since being bought from Germany this year, progressing to claim top-level honours in the Prix du Cadran on Arc weekend.
Mullins is a regular visitor to Leeside for the Cheltenham Festival preview circuit and is one of the great characters of the racing game.
Mullins said: “She’s as fit as she can be. Seamie sat on her on Sunday and was very happy with her, and we were very happy with him. Joey is obviously suspended, which is a shame.” “We’re very happy with the mare. All I can say is that in the back of my mind I’m thinking a two-and-a-half-mile race less than three weeks ago has to take its toll at some stage, but there is no evidence at the moment, so we’re set to go. We’ve done all our blood tests, and everything is perfect. I would say the next one is the acid test, in the last 100 metres next Sunday.”
Trainer Johnny Murtagh has enjoyed a brilliant season training 41 winners so far culminating in Champers Elysees victory the Matron Stakes. The former jockey may finish in front of Dermot Weld and Jim Bolger which is testament to the form of his horses all year. But getting to the next level requires high-quality horses and Murtagh received news that he will also be training horses for the Aga Khan next season.
Murtagh enjoyed some of his greatest days as a jockey in the owner’s famous green and red silks. He won the 2000 Derby at Epsom on Sinndar, with whom he also went on to follow up in the Irish version and win the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe for the Aga Khan and trainer John Oxx.
Murtagh said: “I am delighted to renew our partnership with H.H. the Aga Khan and his team. A hugely successful owner-breeder operation worldwide, I look forward to receiving his draft of yearlings here at Fox Covert Stables and hopefully many winners to come, to add to our great association together.“
Pat Downes, manager of the Aga Khan Studs in Ireland, said on www.agakhanstuds.com: “We have watched Johnny’s training career develop over the last few years, and undoubtedly 2020 has been a highly successful year for him.
“We are delighted to have the opportunity to have him train for the Aga Khan Studs, and we will be sending him some yearlings in the coming weeks.
“His Highness and Johnny have enjoyed some great days in the past together, and hopefully there will be good days to look forward to in the future as well.” Murtagh will join Dermot Weld and Mick Halford as trainers for the Aga Khan in Ireland.
Ger Lyons has revealed that his dual Group 1 winner Siskin will head to stud in Japan after one final potential start in his care at the Breeders’ Cup. The Juddmonte homebred was unbeaten in a striking juvenile campaign which culminated in victory in the Keeneland Phoenix Stakes. He returned for 2020 to land the Irish 2,000 Guineas under a steely ride from Colin Keane and was a commendable third behind Mohaather in the Sussex Stakes.
“I didn’t want to send him as a three-year-old to a Breeders’ Cup but he won’t be staying in training at four so the Breeders’ Cup now becomes an option. At this moment in time, he’s being trained with that in mind.”
“I’m delighted for him because he’s going to get a quality book of mares that he probably wouldn’t get in Ireland, but I’d have loved to have trained him at four,” he said. “But it just goes to show you where we are in the industry when powerhouses like Juddmonte, Coolmore still sell their best horses and have to sell their best horses for economic reasons.”