‘Horse of the Year’ Sizing John on track to make Durkan return
O’Brien and Mullins fly the Irish flag in Hong Kong’s International races at Sha Tin
Sizing John ridden by Robbie Power en route to winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup last March. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Willie Mullins’s big-race focus spans the globe on Sunday but there will be no disputing Sizing John’s right to centre stage should Ireland’s new ‘Horse of the Year’ return to action at Punchestown.
The Jessica Harrington-trained star secured a unique triple crown of Gold Cup victories last season, including steeplechasing’s ‘Blue Riband’ itself at Cheltenham, making his status as 2017’s ‘Horse of the Year’ at Tuesday’s HRI awards a near formality.
If his appearance in the €85,000 John Durkan Chase survives the cold snap – and officials remain hopeful the Co Kildare track will escape the worst of forecast snow – Sizing John’s comeback will shove even the vastly lucrative Longines Hong Kong Carnival to the margins.
Aidan O’Brien has runners in three of the four International races at Sha Tin on Sunday morning.
His stalwart performer Highland Reel is favourite to bring his dazzling racing career to a winning end by repeating a 2015 victory in the Vase.
Highland Reel was also runner-up in the Vase a year ago and O’Brien said on Friday: “He has been an incredible horses for us. He has so many qualities. He enjoys what he does, he’s a great traveller and a joy to have trained. He’ll be hard to replace.”
The mile-and-a-half contest due off at 6.00 Irish-time is worth almost €2 million and also includes the Mullins-trained Max Dynamite.
Should Max Dynamite join an exclusive group of just three Irish-trained horses to win an International contest in Hong Kong it will rank among Mullins’s finest achievements.
Certainly, with O’Brien also hoping to increase his world record haul of 27 Group One victories courtesy of both Lancaster Bomber and Roly Poly in the Mile, and Deauville and War Decree in the Cup event, there is a significant Irish presence at the final major flat event of the world racing year.
But the principal focus for most Irish race fans is now resolutely on the jumps and winter conditions far removed from Far Eastern humidity.
Ordinarily Djakadam’s attempt to become the first horse to win the Durkan three times would concentrate attention.
However it seems to be the Mullins star’s fate to concede centre stage. A previous pair of Gold Cup placings at Cheltenham didn’t prevent many believing last March would see Djakadam get his turn in the sun but he ultimately could finish only fourth to steeplechasing’s new superstar.
It was a lot closer over a month later in the Punchestown Gold Cup but once again Sizing John emerged on top of his rival.
Mullins has indicated doubts about Djakadam being as forward in his fitness for this Durkan compared to previous years whereas Harrington had Sizing John wound up for Haydock last month only to make a late change of plan.
Prior to that, Sizing John’s jockey Robbie Power will have two top-flight opportunities at Sandown on Saturday, stepping in for the sidelined Bryan Cooper on Fox Norton in the Betfair Tingle Creek Chase and Finian’s Oscar in the Randox Henry VIII Novice Chase.
There will also be a significant Irish presence at Aintree on Saturday, including four hopefuls in the Becher Chase over the famous National fences. Mouse Morris’s Alpha Des Obeaux later takes his chance in the Grade Two Many Clouds Chase over the Mildmay track.