Benie Des Dieux to bid to retain mares’ hurdle at Cheltenham Festival
Willie Mullins says it’s ‘not a big worry’ if star mare goes straight to festival
Paul Townend guiding Benie de Dieux to victory in the Mares’ Champion Hurdle at Punchestown last April. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho.
Benie Des Dieux is on course to try and retain her OLBG Mares’ Hurdle crown at Cheltenham in March and, potentially, face another mouthwatering clash with her old rival Apple’s Jade.
The pair clashed twice last season with Benie Des Dieux emerging victorious both times.
Willie Mullins’s star deposed Apple’s Jade from the Cheltenham OLBG throne last March and again relegated her to third at the Punchestown festival over a month later.
This season however Apple’s Jade has looked to be right back to her best with three victories and is currently a 5-4 favourite to recover the Mares’ crown at Cheltenham. The Stayers’ Hurdle has been mooted as a possible alternative by connections.
In contrast, Benie Des Dieux has yet to be seen during the current campaign. On Tuesday though Mullins confirmed the Rich Ricci-owned horse – unbeaten in five starts for the champion trainer – is on course to defend her title.
“She’s in good form and we’re aiming for the Mares’ Hurdle. The only reason she hasn’t run this season is the ground,” he said.
“She has options before that. There’s the Quevega Hurdle at Punchestown, the Red Mills Hurdle and the Boyne Hurdle at Navan. There are options in England too. The problem is the ground.
“But it’s not a big worry if she went into Cheltenham without a run,” Mullins added.
Benie Des Dieux’s first three victories for Mullins were over fences and he admitted to being tempted by a chase campaign for her this season.
“But the way the weather has been I wasn’t tempted to do anything,” he said. “With a wet winter it might have been a different story.”
The Mullins team will hope Footpad can prove his credentials as a challenger to Altior in the Queen Mother Champion Chase should he gain a first success of the campaign in the upcoming Ladbrokes Dublin Chase at Leopardstown.
Last season’s top novice has been beaten in both his starts to date this season and has twice injured himself with overreaches.
“Obviously it’s a concern but maybe it is just coincidence,” Mullins said. “He’s back in full work and hopefully he can return at Leopardstown.”
Mullins has four entries in this Sunday’s Grade Three Novice Chase at Naas including the high-class Coquins Man who carries the famous Hurricane Fly colours of owner George Creighton.
However the three-mile contest could also see the chasing debut of the former Grade One-winning novice hurdler, and Cheltenham festival winner, Champagne Classic.
Famously labelled “without doubt the worst” horse he owned by Michael O’Leary after scoring at Cheltenham 2017, Champagne Classic subsequently earned warmer reviews from the Ryanair boss by beating no less than Penhill, Monalee and Presenting Percy in a Grade One hurdle at Punchestown.
A leg injury meant he hasn’t been seen in action since but Champagne Classic is ready to resume racing – if ground conditions permit.
“He’s had a terrible year because of the ground. He’s been ready to run for the last two months but can’t. He came back from a leg injury and it wouldn’t be fair to run him on better ground.
“We’re at the stage now where we’re asking should we break our novice: he won’t run in a Beginners Chase. We’ll probably run in a decent race and if he wins fair enough. We’d like to get him going but we have to pick his ground,” said the Gigginstown Stud spokesman, Eddie O’Leary.
He also confirmed that Sunday’s Grade Two Thurles winner Tout Est Permis will be kept in both the Gold Cup and the Ryanair Chase at Cheltenham.
“He’s only six which may be a year early for the Gold Cup. We’re favouring the Ryanair because of his age. But it will depend on the ground, and if something happened to Road To Respect.
“He wants in excess of two and a half miles although in fairness there’s a big difference between two and a half at Thurles and at Cheltenham. He will be kept in both,” O’Leary said.