Old firm eye Grade One success with Tidal Bay
Select field to contest feature race but testing conditions likely to favour Nicholls’ veteran
Trainer Paul Nicholls with Ruby Walsh after winning onboard Tidal Bay in the Lexus Steeplechase at the 2012 Leopardstown Christmas Festival. Photograph: Inpho
Tidal Bay still gets tagged with the “quirky” label but defeating tomorrow’s Hennessy Gold Cup opposition could finally shake off that reputation and provide the once successful partnership of Ruby Walsh and Paul Nicholls with another memorable Leopardstown win.
The Hennessy is the €160,000 highlight of a hugely significant card containing four Grade Ones and other potentially informative clues for a Cheltenham festival now just over four weeks away. Last year the Hennessy meeting threw up five festival winners plus a Gold Cup runner-up in Sir Des Champs: a victory for Tidal Bay, however, will significantly dilute hopes for any blue-riband improvement in 2014.
With Sir Des Champs on the sidelines, there is something of a “best-of-the-rest” vibe to the home team which is headed by First Lieutenant, a general 10 to 1 fourth favourite for Cheltenham and an admirable character with an unfortunate habit of winning only rarely, just once in his last 14 starts.
The latest in his series of commendable near misses came in a Lexus defeat by Bobs Worth at Christmas, a piece of form that makes him a legitimate favourite here, but also encourages a look elsewhere. And even a cursory look recalls an even more memorable Lexus in 2012 where Tidal Bay swamped First Lieutenant in the closing stages of as exciting a race as Leopardstown has staged.
Walsh was at his brilliant best then. And his ability to coax the best out of the 13-year-old has at least partly contributed to a career for Nicholls that should have by now put to bed the old wariness of Tidal Bay as something of a talented dodge pot.
Four wins and four places in 11 starts for Nicholls is more consistent than most. And it’s significant how the leading trainer in Britain this season immediately opted for another trip across the Irish Sea once his erstwhile jockey became available. What also helped that call is the likelihood of very testing conditions.
Tidal Bay thrives on it, as he showed with a fine run in the Welsh National. First Lieutenant acts on soft ground, but prefers a much sounder surface. And like Gigginstown Stud’s other hope, Last Instalment, is unlikely to relish an absolute slog. Lyreen Legend is bred to act on heavy going though and will have Barry Geraghty on his back for the first time.
Official figures have him a stone behind Tidal Bay who emerges best of all on ratings and the veteran can strike a Grade One blow for wrinklies everywhere.
Tony McCoy travels for just two rides and could emerge with a top-flight success to justify the trip. A field of just three for the €75,000 Dr PJ Moriarty Novice Chase is disappointing, especially since Champagne Fever misses out in favour of his stable companion Ballycasey.
That the Mullins runner could easily start favourite testifies to his reputation. But he
is in against a pair of proven Grade One winners and on the back of his Christmas victory here over three miles, Carlingford Lough is taken to reverse Drinmore form with Don Cossack.
Another Mullins runner with a big reputation is Ivan Grozny who puts his Triumph Hurdle credentials on the line in the Gala Spring Juvenile Hurdle. The ex-French horse has to reverse a narrow defeat to Aidan O’Brien’s Plinth here at Christmas but was hugely impressive afterwards at Naas.
The second and third that day have been beaten since though and in the circumstances Gigginstown’s decision to supplement their new purchase Tiger Roll looks interesting.
The Tullow Tank’s credentials for completing a Grade One hat-trick in the Deloitte are hard to knock. Apparently able to act on any going, a quarter mile step-up in trip looks if anything to his advantage.
The dual Cheltenham-festival hero Salsify is not back for another crack at the Raymond Smith Memorial Hunters Chase. But it is still a quality field and the 2012 Hennessy winner Quel Esprit should be tough to beat on the back of a recent wide-margin point-to-point victory.