ST Patrick came to the Cheltenham Festival this week as Irish trainers delivered a record number of winners, dominating the British on home turf.
The village of Glanmire erupted as Un De Sceaux put in an electric display in the Ryanair Chase. Youghal roared home Denis O’Regan and Davy Russell while Coppeen native Noel Fehily enjoyed a stellar week headlined by Champion Hurdle hero Buveur d’Air and Champion Chaser Special Tiara.
Un De Sceaux was many punters idea of a “good thing” in the Ryanair Chase and he didn't give them a moment of worry. He took the race by the scruff of the neck with his typical terrier like style, taking a quality field apart fence by fence. He excelled over the extended distance, while putting to bed any doubts that he doesn't operate on quick ground.
Sub Lieutenant ran well in second but strong fancy Empire of Dirt couldn't land a blow, leaving Michael O’Leary fruitless in his own race once again. It was the second of four winners on the day for Mullins and Walsh, following hot on the heels of another dominant chasing display.
Yorkhill has been called a few names in the past but there's no denying his raw ability. Testing the arms of Ruby Walsh from flagfall, the imposing chestnut was delivered with a well-timed challenge to account for Top Notch and Disco. It's fair to say that such a performance was expected from the horse but the man on his back was more than impressed with Andrea and Graham Wylies charge, stating: “he has the Gold Cup written all over him.”
Huge praise from a man who rarely gets excited and knows exactly what it takes to win the blue ribboned event.
The Pertemps Handicap Hurdle is often a maze of equally talented horses, making it exceptionally difficult to find the winner. However, on this occasion, it appeared Pat Kelly had the perfect horse to give him back to back wins in the race, following Mall Dini’s triumph last year. Davy Russell showed all his class on Presenting Percy, riding him as if defeat was out of the question.
Ultimately, he ran out an impressive winner, prompting Russell to apologise to Britain handicapper Phil Smith live on ITV in his post race interview. Trainer Pat Kelly suggested he would put him away for the remainder of the season and campaign him over fences next year but he might be swayed back to Punchestown considering how well he performed on better ground conditions on Thursday.
Fellow Youghal native, Denis O'Regan gave Barry Connell's Tully East an ultra cool ride in the closing race on day one. Dropped in off the pace, O’Regan was at pains to hide his mount until the opportune moment after the final fence. There were shades of Paul Carberry about this ride and one that only O’Regan has the nerve to execute with such precision.
Retained rider to Foxrock businessman O’Connell, Denis has tasted plenty of Festival success in the past with great horses like Inglis Drever and Tidal Bay but I'm sure this would have given him particular satisfaction as he hasn't been in the limelight as much as his talents merit but once again proving that his class is permanent.
The strength of Irish-bred and trained horses shone brightly once again this week, particularly in the mare’s division. Considering there is already a Mare's Novice Hurdle and Mare's Feature Hurdle, natural progression would suggest that a Mare’s Chase will be next on the agenda.
It wouldn't prove a difficult programming issue considering there are a number of handicaps that could easily be replaced - the Festival should always aspire to provide quality over quantity and it is only a matter of time before such measures are taken.
In a time when many of the smaller training outfits are struggling to survive, the top end of the scale have raised the bar another notch – blowing away our British counterparts in the process. It's a sign of the times and a testament to the competitiveness of racing in Ireland. Is it any wonder it's seriously hard to win a race over here?
Hopefully some of the stars we saw this week will come out in force for the Punchestown Festival in May but one wouldn't be surprised were the British to stay at home rather than do battle with Irish trainers in the Emerald Isle!