THE Dublin Racing Festival is now one of the highlights of the national hunt season and has firmly established itself as a key trials weekend for the Cheltenham Festival.
There are eight Grade 1 contests with a galaxy of stars taking part at the famous Leopardstown Racecourse. The Irish Gold Cup is the highlight of the weekend and a small but select field hold entries.
Other highlights include the Irish Champion Hurdle with Honeysuckle trying to maintain her unbeaten record while Chaqun Pour Soi supporters will hope he can cement his position at the head of the Champion Chase betting for Cheltenham in March.
The Irish Gold Cup is the feature race, and it revolves around the Henry De Bromhead trained Minella Indo. The 2/1 favourite and is on a redemption mission following his premature exit in the Savills Chase over Christmas at Leopardstown. That race was won by A Plus Tard who will head straight to Cheltenham.
Kemboy and Melon, who finished second and third, will lock horns again this weekend although the heavier ground conditions are unlikely to suit either.
Gordon Elliot is represented by Delta Work who also fell at Christmas but will have the brilliant Jack Kennedy back in the saddle this weekend.
But this race is there for Minella Indo to win and lay down his credentials for the big one at Cheltenham in March. Minella Indo is 10/1 in the betting for the Gold Cup at Cheltenham and having won the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle and been caught in the shadow of the post by Champ in the RSA last season, Prestbury Park certainly holds no fears.
Minella Indo’s owner Barry Maloney admits his charge “needs to deliver” in the Paddy Power Irish Gold Cup on Sunday.
“Look, it was a very novicey mistake last time, he got too close and never rose up. He’d not put a foot wrong before that and hopefully, it was a one-off. Rachael (Blackmore) was up on him last week and jumped a few and he was jumping beautifully with no adverse effects and we’re hopeful.”
The Irish Champion Hurdle is another fascinating contest and the favourite Honeysuckle will face a maximum of five rivals when she bids for back-to-back victories in the Chanelle Pharma Irish Champion Hurdle.
Henry de Bromhead’s charge was a narrow winner of the feature event on the opening day of the Dublin Racing Festival last season, before going on to claim the notable scalp of Benie Des Dieux in an epic clash for the Mares’ Hurdle at Cheltenham.
Honeysuckle’s biggest threat appears to be the Willie Mullins-trained Sharjah, who disappointed in last year’s renewal but was last seen winning his third Matheson Hurdle over the course and distance.
Sharjah’s stablemates Saint Roi and Saldier, who were fourth and sixth behind him over Christmas, are set to be in opposition once more, while the field is completed by Gordon Elliott’s pair of Petit Mouchoir and Abacadabras, who were third and fifth in the same race.
Jockey Rachael Blackmore is in a titanic battle with Paul Townend for the jockey's title right now and will ride Honeysuckle as well as Minella Indo. Blackmore is brilliant from the front and she is relishing the ride on Honeysuckle.
“She seems well at home and was good in the Hatton’s Grace. There is no Grade One out there that is easy to win and she seems to have produced the goods every day, so I can’t fault her.
Willie Mullins appears to hold all the aces in the Ladbrokes Dublin Chase, with last year’s one-two Chacun Pour Soi and Min set to renew rivalry. Paul Townend is looking forward to the ride on Chacun Pour Soi in the featured Ladbrokes Dublin Festival on Saturday as Mullins gelding bids to continue his impressive season.
“He is definitely as good a two-miler as I've ridden; I was lucky enough to have ridden Golden Silver in his career but they are two completely different horses and Chacun is the flashy two-miler that everyone dreams of getting the spin on.
"Chacun seems to have 'it', whatever 'it' is and it is what separates the good horses from the very good ones. His record speaks for itself at the moment; he is fragile enough but hopefully, we can keep him in one piece now.”
A couple of other horses to look out for over the weekend are Gaillard Du Mesnil and Monkfish both trained by Willie Mullins and will be ridden by Townend. The Cork jockey gave these two a very favourable mention in these pages a few weeks back.
Gaillard Du Mesnil is owned by Cork man Joe Donelly who also owns the Gold Cup favourite Al Boum Photo. Monkfish has looked imperious over fences and has just edged out Paul Nolan's stable star Latest Exhibition on two occasions.
Ground conditions are likely to be key in deciding which race Latest Exhibition will contest at this weekend’s Dublin Racing Festival.