THE Irish challenge for the Cheltenham Festival looks very strong after some stirring performances over the Christmas holidays.
Local jockeys Paul Townend and Davy Russell will look forward to some brilliant rides at the festival which is now only ten weeks away.
Trainers Willie Mullins, Gordon Elliot and Henry De Bromhead have strength in depth with Mullins and Townend already having several short priced favourites following the performances of Ferney Hollow, Galopin Des Champs, Klassical Dream, Allaho and Concertista over the holidays.
Elliot also enjoyed a very fruitful Christmas with several high-profile winners including the exciting novice hurdlers Mighty Potter and Ginto.
While Juvenile hurdler Fil Dor is currently favourite for the Triumph Hurdle and looks the real deal. Fury Road finally put several frustrating runs behind him to land a Grade 1 over fences in the colours of Gigginstown House Stud.
But the victory of Galvin under Davy Russell in the Savills Chase which was the highlight of week certainly drew an emotional response from Elliot. Galvin was a winner of the National Hunt Chase at last year’s festival and now is as low as 5/1 for the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
There has been lots of speculation about the form of the De Bromhead horses with Minella Indo really disappointing in the King George at Kempton. A Plus Tard was narrowly beaten by the aforementioned Galvin while a number of the De Bromhead horses certainly ran below par.
Unbeaten Honeysuckle is the stable star and the good news is she is on course for an Irish Champion Hurdle hat-trick bid at the Dublin Racing Festival in early February.
The brilliant mare won last year’s renewal by 10 lengths before going on to justify favouritism in the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham.
She made it 13 wins from 13 starts when seeing off Ronald Pump in the Grade One Hatton’s Grace Hurdle at Fairyhouse in November and, just as she did last season, was kept under wraps over the Christmas period before appearing at Leopardstown in February.
However, the Kenny Alexander-owned mare’s racing manager, Peter Molony, is not unduly worried about the stable’s form.
Molony said: “There is no cause for concern on that score. Henry decided to ease off her a bit after her last run.
Everything is under control and she is on course for the Irish Champion at Leopardstown in early February.”
Honeysuckle is odds-on with most firms to retain her Champion Hurdle crown on March 15.
One trainer leading a fightback to the Irish dominance is the legendary Nicky Henderson who has a couple of very exciting hurdlers in his ranks while Shiskin was breath-taking on his seasonal debut at Kempton over Christmas.
Stable jockey Nico de Boinville has full belief that Constitution Hill can handle the step up to Grade One company on just his second start in tomorrow’s Unibet Tolworth Hurdle at Sandown.
A startlingly impressive winner on his hurdling debut over the same course and distance he faces this weekend, the five-year-old is notoriously laid back at home.
While Nicky Henderson had been slightly concerned regarding his ability prior to his debut given how little he showed on the gallops, De Boinville said his relaxed nature but impressive turn of foot makes him a joy to ride.
“I was delighted with him (on debut), not many finish up that hill at Sandown like that on that ground. I was walking down the horse walk on him and he was so laid back," De Bonville said.
“It wasn’t until I pulled him out going to the last that he really came alive. They are ideal to ride when they are like that.”
Henderson is a master trainer and always has his horses right for the big spring meetings of Cheltenham and Aintree.
He is keen to give exciting hurdler Jonbon more experience before the Cheltenham Festival, but is struggling to find a suitable race for the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle favourite.
JP McManus’s fledgling star romped to an emphatic Grade Two success at Ascot under Aidan Coleman last month to make it two from two over hurdles.
Frank Berry, McManus’s racing manager, said: “All is very good with Jonbon.
"It is amazing with all the racing, but Nicky is struggling to find a novice hurdle over two miles to run him in.
"That is a bit of a problem at the minute. I’d say the first two-mile novice coming up, he’ll have a run in it.
"We hope that, by the end of the month or whatever, Nicky will find a race for him, but there is a bit of difficulty finding one.”
Interestingly, Berry revealed that a decision has yet to be taken on which race the Henderson-trained Champ will contest at the Cheltenham Festival.
Champ overcame a 274-day break to land the Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot last month — his first run since being pulled up in the Gold Cup, and looked better than ever.
Berry said: “Champ has an entry in the Gold Cup and will have an entry in the Stayers’ Hurdle and I’d say we’ll leave it up to Nicky Henderson nearer the time and see what he wants to do.
"We’ll see how he is in the meantime. He is in good form and he has come out of his race very well and Nicky is happy with him.
"He’s a grand horse and it was nice to see him living up to his name!”