Donn McClean: Gift of the Zab
Donn McClean picks out five horses to follow in Ireland over the festive period with Zabana's chance highlighted in the Lexus.
Zabana: An interesting contender in the Lexus Chase
With so much going on next week, it is going to be difficult to know where to look, but here are five Irish horses who might be worth a second glance.
Zabana (Trainer: Andrew Lynch)
This year's renewal of the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown is shaping up to be a cracker, but Zabana is fully deserving of his place in the line up.
The Andrew Lynch-trained gelding was a high-class handicap hurdler two seasons ago – he was only beaten a neck when he tried to make all in the Coral Cup at the 2015 Cheltenham Festival – and he won his beginners' chase at this meeting last year.
He had a forgettable 2016 Cheltenham Festival, when he unseated in a messy start to the JLT Chase, but he put that behind him when he landed the Grade 1 Growise Chase at the Punchestown Festival in April. He had Outlander and Sub Lieutenant – second and third respectively behind Djakadam in the John Durkan Chase at Punchestown two weeks ago – behind him in second and third places that day. It is high-class form.
That was his first time to race over three miles over fences, and he seemed to appreciate the step up in trip.
Weak in the market before his debut this season at Down Royal, he didn't jump as fluently as he can, but he stepped up on that at Gowran Park last time, when he stayed on well over an inadequate two and a half miles to get the better of Kitten Rock and Champagne West. He should appreciate the step back up to three miles now for the Lexus.
Chris Jones' horse is just seven and he has raced just six times over fences, so he still has lots of scope for progression. Heavy ground at Leopardstown would be a concern, but Leopardstown is a quick-draining track, and the weather forecast is not bad from Monday to Wednesday. Also, the ground was soft at best when Zabana was impressive in winning his beginners' chase at this meeting last year. It looks like he is a little under the radar, and he could run better than odds of 8/1 suggest.
Diamond King (Gordon Elliott)
It was a little disappointing on the face of it that Diamond King could only finish fifth in the Grade 1 Drinmore Chase at Fairyhouse three weeks ago when he was sent off as favourite. However, time may show that that was a hot Drinmore Chase, and he was right there with a big chance until the run to the second last fence. Indeed, were it not for a bad mistake at the final fence, he could have finished third.
Gordon Elliott's horse remains a high-class individual. He progressed nicely over hurdles last season – his first with Elliott – and he put up a career-best performance when he landed the Coral Cup at Cheltenham off a mark of 149.
He was very good on his chasing bow at Galway in October. He travelled really nicely for Davy Russell, he jumped superbly for a debutant and he easily came clear of his rivals from the final fence up the hill. He was a high-class hurdler but, on the evidence of that run, he could make up into an even better chaser.
He is set to take his chance in the Grade 2 Shannon Airport Novice Chase at Limerick on Monday, a race that has been won by Sir Des Champs, Gilgamboa and Outlander in recent years, and it looks like a good race for Diamond King at this stage.
Jezki (Jessica Harrington)
It looks like Jezki is on track to return to the racecourse in the Squared Financial Christmas Hurdle over three miles at Leopardstown on Wednesday, and that is exciting.
We haven't seen JP McManus' horse since he beat Hurricane Fly in the World Series Hurdle at the 2015 Punchestown Festival, and his return is eagerly awaited
Jezki is top class, that goes without saying. You don't win eight Grade 1 races, including a Champion Hurdle and an Aintree Hurdle and a Punchestown Champion Hurdle and a Hatton's Grace Hurdle if you are not top class. Only fourth behind Faugheen in the 2015 Champion Hurdle, the step back up to two and a half miles for that Aintree Hurdle seemed to bring about improvement, and the Jessica Harrington-trained gelding proved that he could stay three miles when he beat Hurricane Fly at Punchestown in 2015.
He is fascinating now, embarking on a road that will hopefully lead him back to Cheltenham in March for the Stayers' Hurdle. Of course, there will probably be rustiness, and he will be taking on talented and race-fit rivals, but he does go well fresh, his record on his National Hunt seasonal debut reads 1112, and he has the class to run a big race, despite a 20-month absence.
Housesofparliament (Joseph O'Brien)
It will also be fascinating to see Housesofparliament make his debut over hurdles for Joseph O'Brien, probably in the three-year-olds' maiden hurdle at Leopardstown on Tuesday.
A son of Galileo out of a Grade 1-winning mare over a mile in the States, JP McManus' horse was a high-class stayer on the flat during the summer for Aidan O'Brien. He won the Group 3 Bahrain Trophy at Newmarket in July, then followed up by finishing second behind his stable companion Idaho in the Group 2 Great Voltigeur Stakes, before rounding off the season by finishing a close-up third in the St Leger.
It is difficult to know how ex-flat horses will take to hurdling, with two stone more on their backs and eight or nine obstacles in front of them, but Housesofparliament has every chance of making it. He has always had a good, willing attitude on the flat, and he is a high-class recruit, a 113-rated horse on the flat.
His trainer has done well with his juvenile hurdlers this season so far, and it is interesting that the yard won Tuesday's juveniles' maiden hurdle last year with subsequent Triumph Hurdle hero Ivanovich Gorbatov.
Martello Tower (Mags Mullins)
It is no secret that local owner Barry Connell likes to have runners and winners at Leopardstown's Christmas Festival, so it is probable that his Martello Tower will be well primed for his engagement in the Grade 1 Neville Hotels Novices' Chase on Thursday.
Winner of the Albert Bartlett Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival in March 2015, the Milan gelding had a fairly truncated season last season in staying hurdles, but he ran a cracker on his debut this term, his chasing bow, in a beginners' chase at Navan last month when he finished a close second to Anibale Fly.
That was over two miles, which is a wholly inadequate trip for Martello Tower, yet his jumping was very good and he travelled well to the third last fence. And there was no disgrace in going down by three parts of a length to Anibale Fly, who enhanced the form of that race with his subsequent run to finish second to Coney Island in the Grade 1 Drinmore Chase.
Martello Tower stepped up to two miles and five and a half furlongs at Fairyhouse three weeks ago, and he duly got home by a neck from A Genie In A Bottle, who stayed on well to win his own beginners' chase back at Fairyhouse last Saturday. The Mags Mullins-trained gelding should step forward again for the step up to three miles on Thursday.
- For more of Donn's thoughts, visit www.donnmcclean.com.
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