Decision to switch Hennessy may pay off
Tepmokea, ridden by Co Leitrim jockey Shane Kelly, leads the field into the final bend during the Grand Prix Guardaval Immobilien at the White Turf meeting on St Moritz's frozen Lake yesterday. photograph: lars baron/getty images
It might not be the preferred option for Dubliners but Leopardstown’s authorities are confident running the prestigious Hennessy Gold Cup meeting this Saturday will pay off in terms of England rugby fans boosting attendance figures.
With anticipation growing over Sunday’s eagerly-awaited Ireland-England clash at the Aviva Stadium, racing’s call to move the last major pre-Cheltenham Grade One fixture back a day looks like it may pay off.
Leopardstown’s manager Pat Keogh is anticipating a crowd of up to 10,000 for a card that features the €160,000 Hennessy Gold Cup with a significant boost from cross-channel rugby supporters making a sporting weekend of it in Dublin.
“It will definitely have an impact. We have had a huge number of bookings and reservations from England with people planning to go racing on the Saturday and the match on the Sunday,” he said yesterday.
The decision to move the Hennessy from its Sunday date was taken last year when the 2013 fixture list was drawn up and Horse Racing Ireland officials anticipated a clash with the Six-Nations calendar.
It followed earlier moves with other fixtures to avoid major sporting occasions, such as the Irish Derby being switched to a Saturday date, partly to avoid a potential clash with a major GAA championship match.
“Obviously we would prefer not to move. Sundays are more popular with people in Dublin. But there are so many people coming for the game that it should impact on the attendance,” Keogh added.
“I would anticipate a crowd of up to 10,000 which might not operate to Christmas levels but is still a very good crowd,” he said. Attendance levels have consistently dipped at many of Ireland’s major fixtures in recent years and the BHP Irish Champion Hurdle crowd eight days ago dropped by almost 1,500 on the previous year.
That Irish Champion Hurdle card was staged at Leopardstown in desperate conditions which provoked the decision to bypass fences on the steeplechase course, including the last fence. “We moved to protect the most vulnerable parts of the track and the rest of the course has come back very well. We’re in good shape,” Keogh declared.
“Weather-wise we are due to get bits of everything through the week but the Saturday itself is due to be a very nice National Hunt day – cold and bright.”
Much of the attention on today’s five-day forfeit stage for the Hennessy will be on clues as to Willie Mullins’s likely representation in the main event.
The champion trainer is pursuing a remarkable ninth success in the Hennessy and is preparing Sir Des Champs to try and copper-fasten his Cheltenham Gold Cup claims with just over a month to go to the festival.
Mullins also has Prince Du Beauchene and last year’s winner Quel Esprit remaining among the list of possibles for a race that increasingly looks like becoming a mainly domestic affair.
Paul Nicholls yesterday ruled out the Lexus winner Tidal Bay from returning to the course and distance of his hugely-exciting Christmas triumph when Flemenstar was third and Sir Des Champs fourth.
“He will go straight to the festival, and we will make a decision on what race he contests there nearer the time, when we have a better idea on the ground.”
Saturday’s action will have a big bearing on not just Ireland’s Gold Cup chances but three other Grade One contests – the Spring Juvenile Hurdle, the Deloitte Novice Hurdle and the Dr PJ Moriarty Novice Chase – also promise to have a significant impact on festival ante-post betting.
Mullins, meanwhile, reports wonder-mare Quevega on course for her bid for a remarkable fifth successive victory in the OLBG.comMares’ Hurdle at next month’s Cheltenham Festival. Just as she has done for the last three years, Quevega will be making her first start of the season at Prestbury Park, but will once again be a red-hot favourite.
Mullins has revealed the nine-year-old suffered a minor setback after returning to training, but the champion trainer is pleased with how her preparations for Cheltenham are going.
“She came back and sure enough, the first week she came back she pulled a muscle but we’ve done two or three bits of work since and I’m very pleased with her,” said.