Ground will be a factor in deciding Monalee’s flight path

De Bromhead still ‘50-50’ between targeting Gold Cup or Ryanair Chase at Cheltenham

Trainer Henry De Bromhead expects ground conditions to be an important factor in deciding whether or not Monalee lines up in the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

With a fortnight to the start of National Hunt racing’s highest-profile week of the year, the likely going at Cheltenham is attracting ever-increasing attention.

On the back of an unusually dry winter, extensive watering is being widely anticipated with Paddy Power, which is offering 1-4 odds about an official ground description of “good to soft” for Day One.

Gigginstown Stud’s spokesman Eddie O’Leary has already predicted the track authorities will “sluice water on it” and the opening day will actually be much softer than any official “good to soft” verdict.

With no heavy rain likely for the Cheltenham area before the festival, De Bromhead is, like many other trainers, aiming to leave final decisions on his festival running plans until as late as possible.

Monalee uncertainty

On Tuesday he insisted it was still “50-50” about Monalee lining up in either the Gold Cup or the preceding day’s Ryanair Chase.

Monalee was runner-up in the Savills Chase at Leopardstown over three miles during Christmas. He has also been runner-up when running over three miles at the last two Cheltenham festivals, in the 2017 Albert Bartlett Hurdle and when second to Presenting Percy in last season’s RSA.

He is as low as 16-1 in some ante-post Gold Cup lists. However, his impressive victory earlier this month in the Red Mills Chase at Gowran over 2½ miles means he is disputing ante-post favourite status with Min in many markets for the Ryanair.

“We still have to sit down and make a decision, and I’d say we will put it off for as long as we can. I’d say the ground will be a factor. The softer it will be the more likely he’ll go for the Ryanair,” De Bromhead said.

The Co Waterford-based trainer landed last year’s Ryanair for the big race sponsor Michael O’Leary with Balko Des Flos, who is likely to line up again.

Balko Des Flos’ victory was De Bromhead’s fifth at the festival. His haul includes two wins in the Champion Chase courtesy of Sizing Europe (2011) and the ill-fated Special Tiara two years ago.

This time one of his main contenders is the unbeaten Honeysuckle, who is one of the favourites for the mares novice hurdle.

However, she also holds entries in both the Ballymore and the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys Hurdle, and the trainer wants to keep his options open with her too.

Other Cheltenham contenders include the novices Paloma Blue and Ornua, and De Bromhead added: “Ornua definitely goes for the Arkle. Paloma Blue is in both the Arkle and the JLT, and again that will be decided nearer the time.”

Unusual going

The unusual nature of the going has been a feature of the winter campaign, and this weekend’s action looks no different, with watering taking place at Leopardstown ahead of two meetings this Sunday and Monday.

The traditional pre-festival workouts by Cheltenham horses will take place after racing on Monday. Whether or not some take up the opportunity to school over fences, however, could be influenced by the going, which is currently “good to firm”.

Leopardstown’s chief executive Pat Keogh said on Tuesday: “It will be whatever the trainers want it to be. They’re invited to bring their Cheltenham horses but it’s too early yet to know about numbers.”

Monday will be Leopardstown’s final National Hunt fixture of the season.

“We used to have four meetings between the third week of January and the first week of March. With the Dublin Racing Festival, three meetings got turned into two and this is the extra one,” said Keogh.

He added that the unusual Monday date had nothing to do with television demands.

Gordon Elliott has half a dozen of the 11 entries left in Saturday’s Grade Three Coral Flyingbolt Novice Chase. They include the winner of Limerick’s Christmas Grade One, Hardline, and Mengli Khan, both of whom hold Arkle entries at Cheltenham.

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor is the racing correspondent of The Irish Times. He also writes the Tipping Point column