Walsh bound for Limerick on St Stephen’s Day for first time in 22 years
Up to 60,000 people expected to attend Leopardstown over four days
Ruby Walsh: has three rides at Limerick for Willie Mullins including Getabird, the hot favourite for the venue’s first ever Grade One race. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho
Wednesday will be the busiest day of the racing year and Ruby Walsh provides a Christmas twist by riding at Limerick on St Stephen’s Day for the first time in 22 years.
One of Irish sport’s most recognisable names has three rides for Willie Mullins including Getabird, the hot favourite for Limerick’s first ever Grade One race, the Matchbook Exchange Novice Chase. Walsh was a 17-year-old amateur the last time he spent St Stephen’s Day at Limerick.
In the interim the legendary jockey’s Christmas focus has usually been on either Leopardstown or at Kempton where he famously won the King George VI Chase five times on Kauto Star.
Irish racing holds its only triple-fixture of the year on St Stephens Day and Leopardstown’s traditional four-day festive action starts just after midday.
However changes to the usual racing landscape are also happening at Down Royal where the management team that has run the North of Ireland track for over 22 years will be in charge of their final meeting.
The new owners of Down Royal, Dublin-based Merrion Property Group, will take over the running of the racecourse in the New Year. The first meeting of 2019 is scheduled for January 29th.
Kempton is one of eight cross-channel fixtures on a massive holiday racing programme which means that, despite the festive atmosphere elsewhere, there will be an all-hands-on-deck policy for many within the sport.
None more so than top trainer Gordon Elliott who has 32 declared runners between the three Irish meetings. Fifteen of them are at Leopardstown alone.
They include the likely odds-on favourite for the Grade One Racing Post Novice Chase, Mengli Khan, owned by Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary’s Gigginstown Stud team.
Up to 60,000 people are expected to go racing at Leopardstown over the four day festival with about 12,000 expected on St Stephen’s Day.
“Dubliners traditionally come on St Stephen’s Day. People from around the country tend to come more for the middle two days,” said Leopardstown’s chief executive Pat Keogh on Sunday.
There is a 12 per cent increase in Christmas prizemoney at the Dublin course with €1.4 million up for grabs over 28 races. Seven of them are Grade Ones.
Limerick’s management has said having Ruby Walsh’s “pulling power” for St Stephens Day is invaluable although Pat Keogh pointed out the rider will be at Leopardstown later in the week.
“It’s great for Limerick and for racing to see Ruby there,” the Leopardstown boss said. “But don’t worry he will be back up with us the following day – you can’t beat a bit of competition!”
The competition between Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott for the bulk of the major Christmas prizes is likely to be as intense as ever.
Elliott also has star names such as Apple’s Jade and Samcro to run later in the week. Mullins could take them on with the likes of Footpad, Laurina and Faugheen.
Elliott outscored his great rival last year by 11 winners to nine overall during the four days of Christmas action.
However in 2016 Mullins enjoyed unprecedented success and recorded a staggering 22 winners during the holiday period.
A largely dry weather outlook is forecast for the week ahead and ground conditions at Leopardstown are currently ‘good, yielding in places’ on the steeplechase course.
There are no Irish runners in the King George VI Chase at Kempton this year. Last year’s winner Might Bite will defend his title against nine opponents. They include Native River who beat Might Bite in a memorable Cheltenham Gold Cup finish in March.