Get a kick from Champagne Fever
RACING:Records suggest success at Fairyhouse’s “Winter Festival” is no guarantee of Cheltenham glory later in the season but Champagne Fever could take the first step towards once again proving himself an exception at tomorrow’s triple Grade One meeting.
Considering the top-flight prizes on offer are worth €230,000 between them, a 16-strong declaration for the three races is pretty risible even if Ireland’s most lucrative pre-Christmas National Hunt meeting does usually nod towards quality more than quantity.
Voler La Vedette is back to defend her Bar One Racing Hatton’s Grace Hurdle crown against just four opponents while last year’s Drinmore Chase-winning team of Tony Martin and Gigginstown looks to have a prime candidate again in Dedigout.
However, it is the Royal Bond Novice Hurdle that many long-term views could be formed around when Champagne Fever heads a Willie Mullins trio into action.
“Exceptional” was just one of the phrases being flung around the big grey after a startling bumper campaign which saw him complete the Cheltenham-Punchestown Festival double in rarely-before-seen fashion.
Champagne Fever’s dominant front-running style routed all comers and there was nothing surprising about the way he made a winning debut over hurdles at Cork a few weeks ago.
Already disputing favouritism with Don Cossack for the Neptune at Cheltenham in March, his opposition tomorrow, which includes the dual-Naas winner Jezki and the former Cesarewitch winner Minks, is likely to bank on the two-mile trip as a possible vulnerability.
But Champagne Fever, who will be ridden by Ruby Walsh for the first time, looks one of those to keep on-side until such time as evidence to the contrary appears.
Overall the 18-year history of these Grade One events suggests it is only the very tip-top performers which manage to progress from scoring here to glory at Cheltenham.
Only the Champion Hurdle-winning duo of Istabraq (1997-98) and Hurricane Fly (2010) have taken the Hatton’s Grace en-route, while Hardy Eustace (2002) was the last of just three Royal Bond winners to subsequently score at the festival. No Drinmore winner has ever subsequently doubled-up at Cheltenham that season.
Voler La Vedette came admirably close to joining that select group last season with a career-best effort when runner-up to Big Buck’s in the World Hurdle at Cheltenham.
Colm Murphy’s star mare was a revelation that day and a repeat of that effort would put the Mullins pair of Zaidpour and So Young very much on the back-foot.
The latter flopped in the World Hurdle, the one time since arriving from France that he hasn’t started favourite, and Ruby Walsh has plumped for Zaidpour instead.
He hasn’t been seen since finishing behind Thousand Stars in the French Champion Hurdle in June but the evidence of last season suggests two and a half miles on soft ground is pretty much ideal. And Voler La Vedette did disappoint in her Lismullen reappearance.
Mullins depends on the rarely-seen Arvika Ligeonniere in the Drinmore and the champion trainer was moved to describe the French bred as “electric” following a chasing debut at Punchestown last May.
That was his first run in over two years but it also indicated a sounder surface than this weekend’s could be better for him.
Grade One company on testing conditions brought out the best in Dedigout over hurdles at Punchestown last May though and he was impressive on his chasing debut at the same course.
Stockons Wing can take the other Grade Three hurdle.