Ground worries concentrate minds ahead of Cheltenham festival

Weather woe and gloomy long-range forecast may push connections to shuffle options

The most discussed creature at Naas on Sunday might have been the upcoming “beast from the east” although Cheltenham’s boss predicts it won’t get it’s claws into the looming festival action.

With just over two weeks to go, Cheltenham officials are in Ireland to help with the festival countdown and the Jockey Club's regional director Ian Renton downplayed any potential impact from forecast severe weather.

Much of Europe is braced for Siberian conditions this week and there have been some dire forecasts lingering for up to a month.

If the thought of any impact on jump racing’s greatest festival is enough to send shivers down the spine of all racing fans then Renton’s update was reassuringly warm.


“We are expecting some serious cold and snow this week. But for the last few days the forecasts we’re getting are pretty consistent that it will turn milder towards the end of the week,” he said. “Hopefully we have plenty of time between the end of this week and the start of the festival for snow to melt!”

Whether that will have an impact on the festival action in terms of ground conditions could be a longer-term consideration.

Significantly, neither Michael O'Leary nor Gordon Elliott ruled out a switch to the two-mile Supreme Novices Hurdle for the odds-on Ballymore favourite Samcro in the event of very testing going at the festival.

“If it’s very, very soft he could still run in the Supreme. We still have that option,” said Elliott in a racecourse interview at Naas where he saddled a pattern-race double through Hardline and Doctor Phoenix.

Top trainers

If there’s an unavoidable sense of before the lord mayor’s show about all the immediate pre-Cheltenham action it doesn’t stop practically every runner from the major operations being closely examined for stable form.

So with Ireland’s festival fortunes bound up in a handful of top trainers there was a reassuring sense of nothing to see about Sunday’s action.

Elliott saddled the 6/1 Gigginstown hope Hardline to beat Jessica Harrington's Impact Factor by half a length in the Grade Two Paddy Power App Novice Hurdle. Willie Mullins's novice Uradel won at 14-1 and the champion trainer doubled up in the bumper with Carefully Selected.

In 2009 Go Native landed the Grade Two en route to winning the Supreme at Cheltenham. But even though Hardline got 33/1 quotes for the same race, Elliott ruled him out.

“It’ll be better off to keep him here and we’ll look at Fairyhouse. He battled better there than I thought he would,” said Elliott.

Hardline was winner number 101 of the season for jockey Davy Russell who reached the century on Saturday aboard Grade Three winner Mitchouka, another horse whose resolution the season's leading trainer had been unsure of but now heads to the Fred Winter.

Russell wasted no time reaching 102 on board another Elliott runner, Doctor Phoenix, in the Grade Three Chase.

Doctor Phoenix was usurped as favourite by his stable companion Ball D’Arc but the 11/10 market leader was never going and could only finish a distant fifth.

Elliott expects

In contrast Doctor Phoenix overhauled stable companion Tell Us More at the second last and stretched 13 lengths clear.

"I'm disappointed with Ball D'Arc. He never travelled at all," said Elliott who will target Doctor Phoenix at the Grade Two Webster Cup next. Ball D'Arc was found to be lame afterwards.

Elliott repeated the mantra every trainer, owner and jockey utters about needing to get there first before getting too excited about Cheltenham where he predicted he will have “30-plus” runners.

However having won the leading trainer award last year there will be an even sharper focus on Elliott, especially since they his runners include two Irish bankers in Samcro and Apple’s Jade.

Both are owned by Michael O’Leary’s Gigginstown Stud and the Ryanair boss was in characteristically pessimistic from on Sunday as the nerve-wrecking countdown continues.

“Samcro needs to improve by five to 10lbs. I’m certain he’ll get beat by something at 33/1!” he said.

O’Leary nominated the defending OLBG Hurdle champion Apple’s Jade as his best hope and said: “She is certainly my best chance. Hopefully the race won’t be as good as it was last year when I thought it was the race of the festival.”

Considering she won the Gold Cup with Sizing John last year Jessica Harrington might dispute that.

But with both the defending champion and Our Duke going for the ‘Blue Riband,’ and Supasundae heading for the Stayers Hurdle, Harrington was able to take encouragement from Impact Factor’s run and Whisperinthebreeze landing the maiden hurdle.

Harrington said she was in no hurry about giving Sizing John a racecourse gallop and reported her select festival team to be on target.

Carefully Selected was cut to 10-1 for the Weatherbys Champion Bumper after following up his Christmas victory in impressive style in the finale.

"He's possibly just bought himself a ticket to go across the water with that performance. He's improved since Christmas and he's certainly on the shortlist ," admitted Willie Mullins who has four other contenders for the big festival bumper.

Hollowgraphic, Blackbow, Squadron Commander and Torando Flyer are also in line to try and give Mullins a ninth win in the Cheltenham race.

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor

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