Donn McClean: Dazzled by Disko moves
Donn McClean says Mega Fortune must now be 'a mega-player' in the Triumph Hurdle, while Disko's style looks obviously suited to the JLT Novices' Chase.
Disko takes the final fence clear in the Flogas Novice Chase.
There was plenty to cheer about at Leopardstown on Sunday, as the temperatures dipped and the laurels were shared. Four Grade One races, four different winners, four different owners, four different trainers, four different riders. And one of the loudest cheers was for Bellshill, when he got to his feet on the landing side of the final fence just after the Flogas Chase had been run.
Stan James Irish Gold Cup day is a massive day on the Irish National Hunt racing calendar, the only day on which there are four Grade One races. These are proper Grade One contests, targets as opposed to stepping stones, yet this game being the future-focussed game that it is, and the Cheltenham Festival being the all-dominant behemoth that it is, you can't help but look forward.
Mega Fortune was very good in winning the Spring Juvenile Hurdle. He and Davy Russell traded the lead with Ruby Walsh and Bapaume from early: second, then first, then second, then level, then first, and that was where Mega Fortune remained until he hit the winning line.
This was Mega Fortune's day. Chris Jones' horse had a length and a quarter to find with Bapaume on their running at Fairyhouse in December, and he had a length and three quarters to find with Willie Mullins' horse on their running at Leopardstown on St Stephen's Day, but there were two key differences between those days and yesterday: the ground and the cheekpieces.
The soft ground made this a true test, and that suited the Gordon Elliott-trained gelding perfectly. Put that with the cheekpieces and the aggressive ride, and his strength in the market was justified.
He was strong at the line too.Bapaume closed a little when the winner got in tight to the final flight, but Mega Fortune was going away again at the winning post.
Davy Russell said afterwards that he would make some chaser, but there is the Triumph Hurdle to consider in the meantime.The Fred Winter must be long gone off the radar.
The Spring Juvenile Hurdle is an unusually accurate pointer to the Triumph Hurdle these days. Four of the last five Triumph Hurdle winners ran in the Spring Hurdle: Countrywide Flame, Our Conor, Tiger Roll and Ivanovich Gorbatov. Also, Unaccompanied and Hisaabaat both won the Spring Hurdle and finished second in the Triumph, while Guitar Pete won the Spring Hurdle and finished third in the Triumph. The Leopardstown race has a massive bearing on the final day curtain-raiser.
Mega Fortune is a mega player in the Triumph now. The Triumph Hurdle is as much a test of stamina for juveniles as it is a test of speed, and the Soldier Of Fortune gelding has bags of stamina. Also, Gordon Elliott is top notch at aiming his juveniles at Cheltenham, he won the Triumph Hurdle with Tiger Roll in 2014 and he put a set of blinkers on Flaxen Flare before the Fred Winter Hurdle in 2013, and sent him out to spring a 25/1 shock. If the ground happened to come up softish on the last day of the Festival, so much the better for Mega Fortune.
Interestingly, while this race has thrown up four of the last five Triumph Hurdle winners, only one of the four had won the Spring Hurdle. The beaten horses are also of interest. Bapaume ran a cracking race to finish second on ground that was probably softer than ideal for him. It was just Willie Mullins' horse's third run over hurdles too, and the score between him and Mega Fortune is now 2-1 in his favour. It could be very close between the pair of them again on better ground.
Meri Devie was keener than ideal through the early stages of the race. She remains a talented filly, she just needs to settle better.
Dinaria Des Obeaux is another talented filly. She was right there behind the front two at the second last flight when she made a significant error. She wasn't going as well as the front two at the time, but she did well to re-group after that and keep on as well as she did to finish third.
The Gigginstown House filly was seriously impressive in winning on her debut for Gordon Elliott at Cork in December in a good time, this was just her second run over hurdles and you wouldn't go giving up on her as a Triumph Hurdle candidate just yet.
Bacardys stayed on strongly to land the Deloitte Hurdle. Held up at the rear of the field by Patrick Mullins early on, he was stone last, 10th of 10 as they moved out of the back straight. Still ninth as they started around the home turn, he picked up well when his rider asked him to and made his ground on the outside of his field on the run to the final flight.
Willie Mullins' horse was in to his left at that obstacle, which took him to the inside of leader Bunk Off Early, but he was strong up the run-in, going from a length behind his stable companion to three parts of a length in front of him by the time they got to the winning line.
It was interesting that his trainer said afterwards that the Albert Bartlett was more likely than the Neptune for the winner at Cheltenham. The Sky Bet Supreme did not appear to be even in the reckoning, which is kind of unusual for a Deloitte winner. Two of the last four winners of the Deloitte – Champagne Fever and Vautour – went on to win the Supreme Novices' Hurdle for Willie Mullins.
It is also unusual that the Albert Bartlett appears to be favoured over the Neptune, given that this two-and-a-quarter-mile trip is the longest trip over which the Coastal Path gelding has raced since he won his point-to-point in April 2015.
That said, he does stay well. He stayed on well to finish third in the Champion Bumper at Cheltenham last March, and he stayed on well to beat his stable companion Battleford in the Aintree bumper in April.
Runner-up Bunk Off Early also ran a cracker to finish second. He was keen through the early stages of the race, and that, combined with the soft ground, just left him vulnerable from the final flight.
A son of sprinter Zebedee, and winner over a mile on the Flat for Andy Oliver, he is all pace. This was just his second run over hurdles, so he should progress for the experience. There is every chance that he will settle better next time with this run under his belt.
Back to two miles, back on better ground, in a bigger field and with a stronger pace, he would be an appropriate contender for a Supreme Novices' Hurdle for the Supreme Horse Racing Club.
Disko was dynamite in the Flogas Novice Chase. There is something heart-warming about a grey horse bowling along in front, measuring up his fences and pinging them with metronomic precision, every single one of them, one, two, up. And there is no better stage for such a performer or such a performance than Leopardstown's back straight.
Sean Flanagan was just about motionless on Disko's back down there, he just let him pop away, ping away, until they got to the second last fence. The rider saw a long stride there a fair way out and asked his horse to go for, which he duly did, and landed running.
Fully four lengths clear of his only real pursuer Our Duke as they rounded the home turn, the Noel Meade-trained gelding met the final fence as well as he had met the previous 13 and, while Our Duke's peck on the landing side just about ended any chance that he had of catching the leader, the grey horse wasn't stopping. He only got home by a length and three quarters, but he was a worthy winner, the winner on merit, as he provided his talented rider with his first win at the highest level.
The Gigginstown House horse was reversing placings with Our Duke from their running in the Neville Hotels Chase at Leopardstown's Christmas Festival. That was over three miles. The drop down to this two miles and five furlongs obviously suited him well.
This could be his optimum trip, as least for now. He stays it well, and it means that his rider can be as aggressive as he likes on him. Consequently, it looks like the JLT Chase over the intermediate distance is the race for him at the Cheltenham Festival. We know that he goes on better ground – he won his beginners' chase on yielding ground at Punchestown last October and his two good bumper runs were on goodish ground – and his prominent style of racing is a style that has been well rewarded in the short history of that race. Five of the six winners were ridden prominently.
It is a pity that Our Duke is not Cheltenham-bound, because he would be a big player in the RSA Chase if he was. It is a brave decision by Jessica Harrington and the Cooper family to eschew the Festival, not many make that decision when they have a horse who is as talented as Our Duke is, but it is a decision that is obviously governed by the long game. The Oscar gelding should improve when stepped back up in trip, and remember, this was just his third chase and just his eighth race under all codes. He is only getting started.
Then Bellshill got up, and the near-10,000-strong crowd cheered.
And speaking of Jessica Harrington, she had Sizing John primed for the Irish Gold Cup, and the Midnight Legend gelding duly delivered.
This was his first try at three miles, and he stayed it well. He had to stay it well if he was to beat proven stayers Don Poli and Empire Of Dirt from the back of the final fence, up the hill on that soft ground, and he did. Under a powerful ride from the only-just-returned-from-injury Robbie Power, he ran all the way through the line.
Sizing John was essentially a two-miler until recently and, most of the time when he ran over two miles, over both hurdles and fences, he was chasing the shadow of Douvan.
When he lined up for the Kinloch Brae Chase at Thurles last month, it was just his second run over two and a half miles, and he saw it out well, staying on strongly around the bypassed final fence to beat the talented Sub Lieutenant by two and a half lengths.
Sunday's step up to three miles was obviously a step into the unknown, but both Power and Harrington were more than hopeful that he would get it, and an SP of just 100/30 told you that lots of people shared their optimism.
Of course, the Gold Cup is another step into the unknown, three miles and two and a half furlongs of relentlessness and forgivelessness. But we know that Sizing John goes well at Cheltenham, at the Cheltenham Festival – where his record reads, third in a Supreme Novices' Hurdle, second in an Arkle – and he is such a good jumper that he should be even more effective on the better ground that he would surely get on Gold Cup day.
Imperial Call is the last horse to win the Irish Gold Cup and then go to Cheltenham and win the Cheltenham Gold Cup, and Imperial Call is 21 years ago now, so the stats are against him. But the momentum is with him.
The Ryanair Chase is still an option, but you have to think that he deserves a shot at the Gold Cup now. He is only seven, so he still has the potential to progress as a staying chaser.
Then he came into the winner's enclosure, and the crowd cheered again.
* For more of Donn's thoughts, visit www.donnmcclean.com.
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