An attendance of up to 20,000 is projected for this weekend's Dublin Racing Festival where the combination of Paul Nicholls and Bryony Frost will try to strike a rare cross-channel blow at Leopardstown.
The fifth renewal of Irish National Hunt racing’s €2.1 million shop window event once again looks like being a mostly local affair.
Only the Warren Greatrex-trained La Bague Au Roi in the 2019 Ladbrokes Novice Chase has emerged on top for the raiders over the previous four years.
At a time of unprecedented dominance by stables here it is perhaps no surprise that potential visitors are scarce although Nicholls is prepared to once again take on the challenge of beating the Irish in their own backyard.
Britain’s champion trainer memorably struck at last season’s Punchestown festival through Clan Des Obeaux while Frodon emerged on top in October’s Grade 1 event at Down Royal.
Nicholls has confirmed the latter is on course to return to Ireland and line up in Saturday's €250,000 Paddy Power Irish Gold Cup.
His stable companion Greaneteen is likely to appear in the following day’s Dublin Chase.
Jonjo O’Neill’s Sky Pirate and the Gary Moore-trained Editeur Du Gite are also still engaged in that two-mile Grade 1 ahead of Tuesday’s acceptance stage.
I'd expect to get 15 to 20,000 over the weekend. We've only really had 10 days' sale to go at it
"Before Covid hit one of the things we wanted to major on was increasing the number of UK horses coming over in order to cement the importance of the Dublin Racing Festival as a major National Hunt festival in its own right as opposed to a stepping stone to Cheltenham, " Leopardstown's chief executive Tim Husbands said on Monday.
“Now that Covid, hopefully, has passed us, it will be a major objective for us next year. I think the release of the protocols have come a little too late for us (in 2022) to persuade the UK trainers to come over.”
Last year’s festival was held behind closed doors due to the pandemic but in 2020 an overall attendance of 26,474 attended the two days.
Relaxation of restrictions
Husbands is anticipating a dip on that this weekend due to the relatively recent relaxation of pandemic restrictions by the government.
“I’d expect to get 15 to 20,000 over the weekend. We’ve only really had 10 days' sale to go at it,” he said.
“We may well get a bit of a rush on over the last four to five days so there is an opportunity we may get much more than that. But that’s where the trend is sitting at the moment.”
Much of the professional interest on the run up to a programme featuring eight Grade 1 contests will revolve around the ground.
Dry January conditions look like continuing into the first week of February with only the possibility of rainfall overnight on Saturday.
A watering policy will be maintained this week on the back of 160mms of irrigation having been applied in January.
“I don’t want to say I’m going to put 20 or 25mms on but that’s why we thought it would be useful to give updated figures as to what we’ve done since Christmas,” Husbands said.
“We think that’s helpful and informative and gives everybody some sense of reassurance that we’re looking to try and achieve the ground.
“To achieve yielding would I think be a really good result.”
The state of Leopardstown’s ground, particularly on the steeplechase track, has been controversial in recent years.
Some of the sport's top figures, including champion trainer Willie Mullins, have expressed unease at running some of their top horses this weekend if it gets too quick.
Despite 45mms of rain on Christmas Day, watering was resumed before Day 2 of the festive action but Husbands insists that long-term work on the issue involving a specialist turf consultancy firm is paying off.
“Very much so: the work that we’ve done even since Christmas you can see that the water is being retained for longer in the turf and it’s going deeper than perhaps it had done previously,” he commented.
“I think a combination of the draining and the tactical watering is showing benefit already.”