Punters under starter's orders for racing bonanza


Racing Correspondent Brian O'Connor sets the scene for the feast awaiting punters after the turkey is downed

Close on 100,000 racegoers are expected at the traditional Christmas holiday fixtures which begin on St Stephen's Day.

Leopardstown and Limerick will both race for four days, with Down Royal in action on Thursday.

There will also be Irish interest in Britain where Florida Pearl will try for a second win in the King George VI Chase at Kempton. Native Upmanship is the other Irish-trained runner in the race.

However, most local focus will be on Leopardstown, which is traditionally one of the biggest and best attended race meetings of the year.

Up to 19,000 people will cram into the Foxrock track on Thursday and Friday, lending the racing a unique atmosphere.

"A lot of us live for Leopardstown and that whole atmosphere. It is nearly like our Cheltenham. The crowds and everything else about the place make it wonderful," said jockey Barry Geraghty yesterday.

Geraghty is widely regarded as being the jockey to follow on St Stephen's Day with the coveted ride on the JP McManus-owned Le Coudray in the €100,000 Denny Gold Medal Chase.

Already favourite for the SunAlliance Chase at Cheltenham in March, Le Coudray will be the top attraction for the race crowds.

Leopardstown general manager Matt O'Dwyer said yesterday: "We are asking everyone to come early and avoid the traffic. The numbers mean that there will be congestion. Access is the key issue.

"We have plenty of car-parking space. There is still access from the Ballyogan Road and even though the car park is temporary, there is plenty of space."

Over €6 million is expected to be bet with the Tote and the on-course bookmakers at Leopardstown alone, with plenty of interest in the Irish runners in the UK also.

As well as Florida Pearl in the King George, trainer Willie Mullins runs Davenport Milenium in the Christmas Hurdle and One Night Out in the Feltham Novices Chase.

"I believe the ground at Kempton is good to soft but there is a forecast for about 10mms of rain. If that comes it won't help Florida Pearl or Davenport Milenium.

"As he gets older Florida Pearl's preference for better ground is becoming more marked," Mullins said.

Florida Pearl's main opponent will be the Cheltenham Gold Cup hero Best Mate, who will be ridden by Tony McCoy. The Co Antrim born jockey is just one short of his 200th winner of the season.

It was confirmed yesterday that the star novice chaser Beef Or Salmon will have just his third start over fences in Saturday's Ericsson Chase at Leopardstown. It was news that delighted the Leopardstown executive.

"The crowds on the third day have been getting better and I would expect maybe up to 16,000 here on Saturday. The fourth day is usually the quietest but Istabraq will be here to parade before the race he used to run at Christmas," Matt O'Dwyer added.

Conditions for the four days will be testing however, with the ground at Leopardstown forecast to be "heavy."

One Christmas Eve boost for the sport, however, came yesterday with further indications that the feed-related morphine problem that has plagued racing in recent weeks is disappearing in Ireland.

Turf Club chief

executive Denis Egan said: "The meetings at Navan and Thurles were clear at the weekend and the worst appears to be over. "Test results from the first two days at Leopardstown, the first three days at Limerick and the meeting at Down Royal will be known on December 29th."