Road To Respect’s back-to-back credentials look rock-solid
Grand National runner-up Pleasant Company returns to action over hurdles
Sean Flanagan guides Road To Respect to victory in comes home to win The Leopardstown Christmas Steeplechase last December. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Perhaps Presenting Percy’s absence from Friday’s Savills Chase robs the race of some longer-term significance but it considerably helps Road To Respect’s short term chances of winning Leopardstown’s €175,000 highlight for a second year in a row.
As expected, the unseasonably quick ground conditions have prevented an eagerly-anticipated return to action by Presenting Percy.
The Pat Kelly-trained star remains at the top of the Cheltenham Gold Cup betting although, having missed both this race and the Durkan, options appear to be running out if connections are to get the two pre-festival starts into the horse they say they want.
In contrast, conditions both in terms of ground, trip and going left-handed look to be ideal for Road To Respect.
He led home a Gigginstown Stud rout a year ago when Michael O’Leary’s team filled five of the top six finishers. This time Gigginstown have five hopes to secure five-in-a-row in the most valuable Grade One of the Christmas period.
They also include the 2016 winner Outlander, last year’s runner-up Balko Des Flos and the star mare Shattered Love who gets a valuable 7lb sex allowance. However Road To Respect looks to be the operation’s No 1 hope.
A year ago he progressed from finishing runner-up in the JNwine Champion Chase to win in style here as an 8-1 shot. This time around Road To Respect has an impressive Down Royal victory under his belt and so looks to hold rock-solid claims to win again.
The last horse to win this significant Cheltenham Gold Cup trial back-to-back was Beef Or Salmon in 2004-05.
He could never replicate his best Leopardstown form at the festival but an elite trio of Synchronised (2011,) Denman (2007) and Best Mate (2003) have won this race under its various guises on-route to ‘Blue Riband’ glory.
Road To Respect had his own Gold Cup shot last season when going as well as anything coming down the hill before making crucial mistakes at the third last and second last.
He is currently a 16-1 shot for this season’s Gold Cup – the shortest priced among this field for the Cheltenham feature – and the evidence of his Down Royal outing suggests a horse still progressing.
With that run under his belt, Road To Respect holds an edge in race fitness on the Punchestown hero Bellshill while Monalee will provide a useful form link having finished runner-up to Presenting Percy in last season’s RSA.
The biggest threat to Road To Respect however could come from Shattered Love who should relish a return to the three miles over which she first won at Grade One level at last year’s festival.
Willie Mullins sends Kemboy into action alongside Bellshill in the big race and pitches three against Apple’s Jade in the Squared Financial Christmas Hurdle, including the wonderful veteran Faugheen.
One of the highest-rated Irish hurdlers ever, Faugheen relived former glories in memorable style when upped to three miles at Punchestown last Spring.
He failed to fire on his return in last month’s Morgiana but time could mean he simply needs a distance of ground to be seen at his best these days. If that’s the case Apple’s Jade could have plenty served up to her.
Mullins has nine declared for Leopardstown in total and Elite Charboniere makes his Irish debut in the opening maiden hurdle. A bumper winner in his native France last February he should be a leading player.
Considering he was a top-class novice hurdle, Bacardys has proved a bitter disappointment over fences. After two starts over the bigger obstacles last season Mullins switched him back to flights and Bacardys ran a stormer in the World Hurdle until falling at the last.
Despite that he was sent back to fences at Naas last month but again failed to impress behind Discorama.
Another former Grade One winning novice hurdler Tower Bridge is among Bacardys’ opposition in Friday’s Beginners Chase. He made a bad mistake two out behind Ben Dundee on his chasing debut but it was his first start over fences and he’s entitled to tighten up his jumping.
The Grand National runner-up Pleasant Company return to action in the Pertemps Hurdle Qualifier and off a mark of 128 could be well ahead of the handicapper.
Pleasant Company hasn’t run over flights since his first three starts for Mullins back in 2015 and has proved himself a high-class chaser since then.
He agonisingly failed in the final stride to overhaul Tiger Roll at Aintree in April and all roads are ultimately pointing towards Liverpool again for a potential third National attempt. However for a horse rated 154 over fences, a hurdles mark of 128 looks exploitable.
Liam Cusack’s Bog War hasn’t had a busy 2018 with just four runs, including winning on the all-weather at Dundalk in January. The second of his two hurdles starts since then at Fairyhouse this month looked encouraging in the context of his chances in Friday’s other handicap hurdle.