St Stephen’s Day novice talent divided between Leopardstown and Limerick
Laurina and Fakir d’Oudairies top bill in Dublin, Faugheen v Samcro down south
Ireland’s depth of emerging steeplechase talent means dividing it between Leopardstown and Limerick on St Stephen’s Day still throws up a couple of €100,000 Grade One clashes to savour.
Leopardstown’s Racing Post Novice Chase promises to boil down to a head-to-head between JP McManus’s exciting young French import Fakir d’Oudairies and Willie Mullins’s hugely promising mare Laurina.
That would traditionally entitle the Dublin track to assume it had the principal big-race focus on Irish racing’s busiest day of the year.
However the promotion of Limerick’s Matchbook Betting Exchange Novice Chase to top-flight status a year ago has changed things.
Ruby Walsh spending St Stephen’s Day in Limerick for the first time in over two decades dominated the Christmas festival build-up in 2018.
This time it has been the head-to-head prospect of a clash of two major names in Samcro and Walsh’s former ally Faugheen. The 2015 Champion Hurdle winner Faugheen is just a week from officially turning 12 but veteran status hasn’t stopped Willie Mullins sending him over fences.
Enough of the old fire that made ‘The Machine’ a genuine superstar at his peak appears to remain judged by how he rallied from a horrendous blunder to ultimately win his chasing debut in impressive style.
Now he faces a rival in Samcro who is four years younger and whose fans believe he might yet be able to achieve a similar level of accomplishment over fences that Faugheen managed over flights.
Despite having partnered Faugheen last month, the lure of Laurina means champion jockey Paul Townend has opted to go to Leopardstown on Thursday.
So an unexpected ingredient has been added to Limerick’s feature with Patrick Mullins riding Faugheen for the first time since the horse’s racecourse debut in a bumper in 2013.
While there’s no competition for Faugheen in the St Stephen’s Day sentiment – and no more popular potential victory during any Christmas festival anywhere – Leopardstown will still be the centre of the most significant action this week.
Thursday’s feature is the first of seven Grade Ones over four days with total prizemoney of €1.4 million up for grabs.
Over 55,000 race fans are expected over the four days with about 12,000 anticipated for the St Stephen’s Day card which is a post-Christmas tradition for many Dubliners in particular.
Once-a-year punters will notice a number of changes on the back of the track’s continuing €18 million redevelopment which is due to be completed by next September’s ‘Irish Champions Weekend’ date.
“They will notice new facilities including the new racing hall. There will also be a kids area, both indoor and outdoor, with entertainment for families throughout the four days. There will also be live entertainment after racing in the marquee,” explained the track spokesperson, Vicki Donlon.
The two busiest days will be Friday and Saturday which are each expected to bring crowds of up to 17,500 for the Paddy Power Chase and the Savills Chase programmes respectively.
Whatever about the goodwill that will be behind Faugheen, Paul Townend’s presence at Leopardstown looks a cold-eyed long-term calculation.
Laurina’s sole defeat in eight starts for Willie Mullins came in last season’s Champion Hurdle where she struggled home fourth behind Espoir D’allen.
The level of expectation surrounding this strapping mare has always been such that that reverse left many in the Mullins camp stunned. If championship status over flights didn’t happen there are still many who think even that Gold Cup success might not ultimately be beyond Laurina’s capabilities.
Such ambitions will be tested on just her second start over fences in a five-runner field that also contains the proven Grade One Drinmore winner Fakir d’Oudairies.
His jumping was a sight to behold at Fairyhouse where a potentially epic finish was denied due to Samcro’s departure at the second last. Fakir d’Oudairies looks capable of testing any opponent’s jumping and as a four year old he races off level weights with Laurina.
Both are coming back to the minimum trip from two and a half miles and supporters of Notebook could reckon that’s significant.
It all represents a major test for the sole mare in the race but Laurina could pass it in style.