Don Poli can deny Carlingford Lough an Irish Gold Cup hat-trick
Star hunter chaser On The Fringe returns to action at Leopardstown on Sunday
Mark Walsh guiding Carlingford Lough to victory in the Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown last year. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
Irish racing’s most prestigious Grade One card is almost invariably interpreted with an eye kept on its likely impact on the upcoming Cheltenham festival but Carlingford Lough’s attempt at a Stan James Irish Gold Cup hat-trick on Sunday bucks that.
Since he isn’t even entered for Cheltenham’s ‘blue riband’ the centrepiece of a near €500,000 programme containing four top-flight races really will be Carlingford Lough’s ‘Gold Cup’.
That perhaps his biggest threat, Don Poli, is likely to skip the festival too and wait instead for the Aintree National hardly boosts the overall prestige of a race which has twice in the past been won by horses that have gone on to Cheltenham glory a month later.
However it’s 21 years since Imperial Call did the double and the reality now is that Ireland’s two principal Cheltenham Gold Cup hopes – Djakadam and Outlander – skip a hugely valuable prize on their doorstep in order to concentrate on the ultimate one.
Elsewhere Bellshill will try to cement his position as favourite for the RSA while Ireland’s pecking order for the Triumph is likely to be established in the Spring Juvenile Hurdle. Then there’s the festival implications of Willie Mullins’s half-dozen strong Deloitte assault to consider.
But the €150,000 feature itself can be examined on its own merits with the twist that Carlingford Lough is trying to emulate Jodami (1993-95) and Florida Pearl (1999-2001) by winning for a third year in a row.
It won’t be just sentiment that has many rooting for John Kiely’s stalwart either. Two other JP McManus-owned stars travel from Jonjo O’Neill’s yard and one of them, Minella Rocco, is in line to cement a Cheltenham Gold Cup place. Yet Barry Geraghty has still opted for the tried-and-trusted.
With a trio of Michael O’Leary horses headed by Don Poli, this Gold Cup shapes as a likely head-to-head between Irish racing’s most powerful owners.
Perhaps the most significant figure though could ultimately prove to be David Mullins who looked to rejuvenate the notoriously lazy Don Poli in the Lexus over Christmas. They divided Outlander and Djakadam on that occasion and with them out of the way, Mullins and Don Poli can emerge best.
Expensive exerciseRuby Walsh
Presuming on the champion jockey getting his judgement wrong can be an expensive exercise and, even though the former Group One flat performer Meri Devie was impressive on her jumping debut over Christmas, it’s hard to ignore how Walsh has opted for Bapaume instead in the Juvenile Hurdle.
Walsh had six to pick from in the Deloitte and has opted for Saturnas who landed the Future Champions at Christmas under Paul Townend when Riven Light was the apparent stable No.1.
This time Townend is on Bunk Off Early who impressively won his maiden despite racing keenly for much of the race. Given a strong pace he can progress from that enough to earn his Cheltenham ticket.
But on a prestigious Grade One card which already has a veteran crowd favourite in the feature, no one’s going to miss out on the biggest sentimental favourite of all lining up in the following €16,000 Hunters Chase.
On The Fringe created history in 2015 by becoming the first to complete the Foxhunters Triple Crown at Cheltenham, Aintree and Punchestown. Then he did it again in 2016. Now he’s back with a triple hat-trick in his sights.
Since winning the Leopardstown race in 2011, On The Fringe has been beaten three times in it, en route to Cheltenham. The 2015 Irish Gold Cup runner-up Foxrock can get the better of him on Sunday but he isn’t eligible to run at the festival.
Plenty will be examining this race, and On The Fringe in particular, with one eye unashamedly on next month.