Naas on Saturday and Punchestown on Sunday have stage to themselves

Trainer Dermot Weld backs decision to let Irish racing continue as British racing closes down due to equine flu

British racing’s misfortune to be closed down due to equine flu is turning into Irish racing’s opportunity this weekend.

Naas on Saturday and Punchestown’s Sunday fixture will have the stage to themselves, and authorities in Naas get the boost of five races being broadcast live on ITV4.

“The real plus for us is a first appearance on a terrestrial TV forum in the UK. It makes things busier and there’s an extra spotlight,” said Naas manager Tom Ryan on Friday.

He said no extra money for the track was involved in ITV’s coverage, but added: “We’re just happy to be racing. Losing a meeting would be a blow. And racing is happy to have the platform to be in the public eye.”


However, the fear of equine flu spreading to Ireland, and prompting a similar shut-down to Britain, means racecourses here are being extra vigilant.

“We’re being very prudent and doubled down on cleanliness and bio-security. Disinfecting the stable yard has been redone again to be extra certain, and we’ve broken out the repertoire of disinfectant baths and sanitisers,” Ryan said.

“We want to be seen to be pro-active. This is serious for racing, but we’re on the verge of the breeding season as well. It has a lot of ramifications if it goes wrong.”

The hugely valuable covering season begins next week, with many stud farms in Ireland preparing to take extra precautions against the threat of equine flu.

Mild winter

The decision of Irish racing’s authorities to let meetings continue here has been backed by legendary trainer Dermot Weld. A qualified vet, Weld pointed out on Friday that flu symptoms in horses were particularly prevalent at this time of year, especially on the back of a mild winter.

“I think the authorities here are doing a good job and handling it properly. Thoroughbreds are very well vaccinated. I have no worries there. My only concern would be non-thoroughbreds who may not be vaccinated. That’s where the virus could spread.”

The season’s leading jockey Paul Townend told a bookmaker’s blog on Friday: “We are lucky to still be racing here. Every day will tell a bit more as to how serious it is. We just hope it doesn’t cause any interference here but the likelihood is that it will. You just have to take one day at a time and see what happens. There is a big worry.”

The feature event at Naas is the €32,500 BBA Opera Hat Chase which sees Townend team up with Pravalaguna as she tries to follow up her ultra-impressive win over fences at Limerick during Christmas.

Ruby Walsh’s sole mount on the card will be on Baie Des Iles for his brother-in-law Ross O’Sullivan in the same race.

Mark Walsh could enjoy a successful afternoon. JP McManus’s jockey again teams up with City Island, who can earn a ticket to Cheltenham in the opening novice hurdle.

City Island is a 16-1 shot for the Ballymore Novices Hurdle at Cheltenham, a race sponsored by owner Sean Mulryan, and it will be disappointing if he can’t follow up a Christmas success at Leopardstown.

Walsh is on the course and distance winner Konitho in a novice hurdle, and this one can once again underline the strength of Joseph O’Brien juvenile team. O’Brien’s Front View ran into Blue Sari on his Gowan debut, and should be hard to beat in the bumper.

Free entry

On Sunday, Punchestown stages the €100,000 Boylesports Grand National Trial, with the winner gaining free entry from the sponsors into the Irish National on Easter Monday.

Michael O’Leary’s Gigginstown Stud team has seven of the 17 runners set to line up, including last year’s Irish National hero General Principle. He is one of half a dozen from Gordon Elliott’s yard.

In contrast, Henry De Bromhead has just the one candidate, but Solomn Grundy alone could be enough to scoop the valuable prize.

No cross-channel racing means Tom Scudamore makes the journey to Punchestown to ride De Bromhead’s runner.

“He rides a bit for Solomn Grundy’s owner Roger Brookhouse, and with no racing in Britain Roger felt it made sense to bring him over,” said the trainer.

“This race will tell us a lot more about whether or not he might develop into a type of horse for the Grand National. If he stays well over 3½ miles around Punchestown it would certainly open up a lot of options.”

Sunday’s other black-type contest is the Listed novice hurdle where La Sorelita has her third start for Willie Mullins. She has not quite lived up to expectations in her first two runs since coming from France. But as a four-year-old filly she gets all the allowances, including a stone and a half from her stable companion Prince d’Aubrelle.

NAAS: 12.40- City Island 1.10- Sky Marshal 1.40- Fauguernon 2.10- Pravalaguna 2.40- Konithe 3.10- Scoir Mear 3.40- Thereisnodoubt 4.30- Front View (Nap)

Nap and Double- Front View and Konithe

PUNCHESTOWN: 1.45- Josies Orders 2.20- La Sorelita 2.50- Castle Oliver 3.20- Load Up Time 3.50- Riders Onthe Storm 4.20- Solomn Grundy (Nap) 4.50- Battle Of Midway

Nap and Double- Solomn Grundy and Castle Oliver

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor

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