Ligeonniere's star continues to rise
RACING:Any fears that champion trainer Willie Mullins would fail to come to the rescue of St Stephen’s Day punters were dismissed when Arvika Ligeonniere secured Grade One glory at Leopardstown yesterday.
On a festive afternoon when amateur jockey Sam Waley-Cohen gave favourite-backers near-heart failure with a dramatic King George VI triumph on Long Run at Kempton, it was Irish jump racing’s most powerful operation that eventually carried the day at home.
At the end of the busiest day on the Irish racing calendar, Mullins was nudging the €1.5 million prize-money mark for the season while maintaining a near 35 per cent strike-rate with his runners.
But it was not all plain sailing. After finishing runner-up in the first two races at Leopardstown, Mullins watched his odds-on hotpot in the Grade Two feature at Limerick, Mikael D’Haguenet, take a crashing fall.
And later, Mullins’s jockey son Patrick was out of the money in his attempt to finally break the 97-year-old record for winners ridden in a year by an amateur jockey. But in front of a holiday crowd of just over 14,000, normal service was resumed when it counted as Arvika Ligeonniere won the featured €80,000 Racing Post Novice Chase and for good measure Blood Cotil landed the Grade Two Juvenile Hurdle.
“He might just be the horse we thought he might be after Fairyhouse,” mused Mullins of Arvika Ligeonniere, who adopted his usual front-running tactics but in the end had to fight to hold off his rival Oscars Well.
The victory didn’t impress everybody, but American owner Rich Ricci was delighted with his big-race double and Arvika Ligeonniere and Blood Cotil will be pointed towards the most important festival of all, at Cheltenham in March. Mullins has a prime Cheltenham Gold Cup candidate in Sir Des Champs who will race tomorrow in the Lexus Chase, but it is the 2011 blue-riband winner Long Run who remains the Gold Cup benchmark after a thrilling King George success at Kempton.
Long Run appeared set to put up a dominant display when taking the initiative at the third last fence but there was no repeat of his King George rout of Kauto Star two years before.
The Nicky Henderson-trained star seemed to wander on the approach to the penultimate fence and then looked to have all but thrown it away with a last-fence mistake that gave Captain Chris the initiative.
Waley-Cohen might not have appeared to have given his mount the most decisive of rides up to then. But with no obstacles in front of them, the partnership rallied to just nail Captain Chris in the shadow of the post.
“He was so brave. I had to keep asking him – I asked him early and maybe I asked too much as he was tired but so brave,” explained the rider.
“This is his fifth year of competing at this level and he means an enormous amount to my family . . . I can’t put it into words.”
It was much more straightforward in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton when Darlan jumped to the top of many Champion Hurdle antepost lists with a dominant display under Tony McCoy.
The JP McManus-owned star instigated a big-race double for trainer Nicky Henderson.
“We’ve always thought he had a lot of ability . . . You’d think he’ll have one more run before Cheltenham,” said Henderson.
There are a pair of Grade One prizes on offer at Leopardstown today but the big-money pot will be the €190,000 Paddy Power Handicap Chase.
Another large crowd is anticipated at the south Dublin track which attracted 14,091 yesterday. Betting figures also slid with Tote turnover of €288,009 only down over €5,000 on last year but bookmaker turnover dived more from last year’s €924,483 to yesterday’s €775,091.
Racing also continues at Limerick with the first of a seven-race card off at 12.35pm.