Elliott and O’Leary amassing a strong team for ‘Winter Festival’
No British raiders bound for Fairyhouse despite three Grade Ones on prestigious card
Apple’s Jade (left) ridden by Bryan Cooper leads home Vroum Vroum Mag ridden by Ruby Walsh in last year’s Bar One Hatton’s Grace Hurdle at Fairyhouse. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho
It seems a trio of Grade One races and a tumbling value in sterling isn’t enough to tempt even one cross-channel raider to this Sunday’s prestigious ‘Winter Festival’ card at Fairyhouse.
Instead the first major top-flight programme of the jumps campaign could revolve around the pursuit of an unprecedented clean sweep of the Grade One prizes by the powerful local combination of Michael O’Leary and Gordon Elliott.
O’Leary’s Gigginstown Stud team currently has a third of the 71 entries left in the three top class contests on Sunday which are topped by the €100,000 Bar One Racing Hatton’s Grace Hurdle.
The complexion of the races will become more clear after Tuesday’s forfeit stage but Fairyhouse’s authorities are confident the Ryanair boss’s star mare Apple’s Jade will be back to defend the Hatton’s Grace title she won in a dramatic finish with Vroum Vroum Mag in 2016.
Apple’s Jade also holds an entry in Saturday’s Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle, a race that’s likely to see the reappearance of the Champion Hurdle winner, Buveur D’air.
“I’m sure Michael would prefer to win here and It looks likely Apple’s Jade will come. Gordon could have the big three favourites on Sunday with Death Duty (Drinmore Novice Chase) and Mengli Khan (Royal Bond Novice Hurdle) coming as well,” said Fairyhouse’s manager, Peter Roe on Monday.
Nobody has yet to pull all three Grade Ones on the one day although Willie Mullins has come close on a number of occasions.
The champion trainer is set to be represented in all three once again on Sunday and before that is set to pitch the ante-post favourite Total Recall into Saturday’s Ladbrokes Trophy – formerly the Hennessy Gold Cup – at Newbury.
Mullins can call too on Children’s List and Pleasant Company for the Newbury race in which Noel Meade’s A Genie In Abottle is also among 22 left in. However despite efforts by the Fairyhouse team there will be no British raiders at the prestigious Irish fixture a day later.
Fairyhouse’s Easter festival has featured a number of high-profile cross-channel successes in recent years. However even with sterling continuing to drop in value in comparison to the Euro, the ‘Winter Festival’ still doesn’t have the same drawing power.
“We spoke to a number of British trainers but they appear reluctant to travel, especially this early in the season,” Peter Roe said.
“It’s not just us. If you look at Leopardstown at Christmas, how many actually come over for that? Punchestown is at the end of the season and there’s nothing else so they go there. And we get a few at Easter. But even with Grade One races and good prizemoney, they don’t seem to like travelling.
“Some of that has to do with the perceived strength in depth of the horses in Ireland at the moment. I think it’s also to do with this meeting being early in the season. Only one horse can win, a lot of bubbles are going to be burst in the novice races, and it’s not even Christmas yet.
“And the thing with racing is it’s all about the dream and not so much about the monetary. There’s half a million for the Irish National which is a different kettle of fish. But with these potential Grade One horses it’s still early in the season and you want the dream to live on,” he added.
The Royal Bond Novice Hurdle has been won twice in the past – Dunguib (2009) and The Tullow Tank (2013) – by the controversial trainer Philip Fenton who was disqualified from racing for three years by the Turf Club in 2014.
He was found in possession of unlicensed medicines, including anabolic steroids, at his yard in 2012.
Fenton’s ban finishes on Tuesday and, although he has indicated he has no intention of returning to training, the Turf Club has confirmed he can apply again for a licence if he wishes.
“We haven’t heard anything from him but he can apply and the licensing committee will consider it the same as any application,” Turf Club chief executive Denis Egan said on Monday.
In October of 2014 Fenton was found guilty in the District Court on eight counts of possessing unlicensed animal remedies.
Among them was 1kg of Nitrotain paste and a 25l bottle of Illium Stanabolic, both anabolic steroids, as well as a number of prescription-only antibiotics for which there were no prescriptions.
A Department of Agriculture vet said at the hearing that Nitrotain is “probably the most potent anabolic steroid you could source”.
Fenton, whose list of big race successes also include the 2014 Hennessy Gold Cup at Leopardstown, was fined €6,000 and had to pay costs and expenses of €2,200.
During his disqualification, Fenton was not allowed enter, train or ride a horse at a race meeting and was also banned from attending meetings.