WITH the Cheltenham Festival almost upon us, last weekend’s racing was of a much lower ilk as you’d expect with Cheltenham-bound horses fine-tuning their final preparatory pieces of schooling before boarding flights and ferries for the UK.
Doneraile jockey Darragh O’Keeffe was in top form in Navan on Saturday recording a double, including victory in the featured Grade 3 Flyinbolt Chase aboard the progressive Indiana Jones trained by Mouse Morris, following up a recent easy victory at Punchestown.
Thurles is next on the agenda on Saturday week for Indiana Jones who is a huge horse with scope to progress even further.
Darragh hopes to team up with the same connections at Cheltenham with French Dynamite for Robcour and Mouse in the Grade One Ryanair Chase.
He ran well for a long way at Thurles in their January feature and had gone close at Cheltenham in the Paddy Power Chase in November.
Darragh is well aware that Shiskin sets a very high bar in the Ryanair on the back of a very impressive return to form in the Betfair Chase at Ascot recently. He believes Shiskin would have had valid claims in the Cheltenham Gold Cup and he might have taken that route if he were in owner Joe Donnelly’s shoes.
Darragh was really impressed with Gordon Elliot’s Mighty Potter at the recent Dublin Racing Festival and when I pressed him for a Cheltenham Banker he had no hesitation in nominating him as his festival nap in the Turner’s Chase on the Thursday.
Darragh was also optimistic about Honeysuckle regaining the winning thread in The Mares Hurdle after back-to-back defeats in her two outings this season.
Many well-respected pundits have been writing her obituary ahead of her swansong at Cheltenham and well-known Youghal professional punter Johnny Dineen told me Honeysuckle was his lay of the meeting and he can’t see her ending her career on a high.
In typically abrasive Dineen style he told me “She has no chance,” he believes she represents poor value at her current odds.
Two Cork-owned horses got a favourable mention from Dineen with the Joseph O’Brien trainer Home By The Lee his each way nap of the week in the Stayers Hurdle next Thursday.
Blood Destiny gives Paul Townend something of a dilemma in the Triumph Hurdle as the East Cork jockey has to choose between him and Lossiemouth who was such an unlucky loser at the recent Dublin Racing Festival.
Mullins assistant trainer David Casey has been waxing lyrical about the Cork-owned Blood Destiny at some Cheltenham Preview Nights and he was adamant this would be the Closutton flag bearer in the Triumph Hurdle on the back of scintillating performances at Cork and Fairyhouse.
He’s been working the house down by all accounts but Lossiemouth sets a pretty high bar despite her shock defeat at Leopardstown.
Darragh O’Keeffe and Dineen were agreed that Nicky Henderson’s mare Luccia is a potentially vulnerable favourite in the Mares Novice Hurdle, particularly carrying a penalty.
Dineen suggested she’d be double digits if she were trained by anybody other than Henderson.
Darragh gave a positive mention to Mahler Mission in the National Hunt Chase having ridden against him when he was mugged by Churchstone Warrior in the Ten Up Chase recently in Navan.
One horse I’m personally looking forward to at Cheltenham is Vauculet for Derrylin-based County Fermanagh trainer David Christie in the Hunters Chase on the final day of the Festival. His trainer has an embarrassment of riches in this sector and his Winged Leader was a really unlucky runner-up in last year’s renewal.
Vauculet has had the perfect prep winning on boxing day in Down Royal allied to a P2P win in Portrush.
Vauculet has stamina in abundance as we saw in Stratford last May and he will relish the likely decent ground at the festival. He has all the attributes you’d associate with a stereotypical Hunter Chase winner and his trainer has probably got the best three hunter chasers in these islands just now. Barry O’Neill in the plate is an added bonus.