There was only one place to begin this week’s offering, writes Tony Stafford. Leopardstown provided two days of intoxicating, top-class sport, making a brilliant success of the much-heralded Dublin Racing Festival. Excellent performances were interspersed with some of the most head-scratching results ever in my experience, although in fairness Messrs Mullins (W), Elliott (G) and O’Brien (JP) are well accustomed to such equine alchemy.
At The Races, under the threat of imminent loss of the Irish racing portfolio to Racing UK, packaged its heavy hitters Matt Chapman and Mick Fitzgerald to join home team performers Gary O’Brien and Kevin Blake, bolstered by Ted Walsh yesterday when both UK fixtures were on the other channel.
With Samcro showing almost Golden Cygnet-like potential in the two-mile novice hurdle; Mr Adjudicator running a decent Triumph Hurdle trial in the juvenile race; Footpad looking Arkle material and Total Recall switching back to hurdles off a toadying 125 after his Ladbrokes Gold Cup (ex-Hennessy) victory at Newbury off 147, punters had a chance of some pretty easy profits.
Any two-day fixture which offers seven Mullins winners against only one for Elliott – that one was Samcro – will have gone a long way to altering the perception that there has been a definitive change in the Irish jumps power-base.
But two results will have had both Goliaths looking over their shoulders in understandable anxiety as the boy Joseph was at it again. I was at Lingfield on Saturday, reasonably enough expecting victory for Joe’s Adam Kirby-ridden Paparazzi in the opener. In my opinion, he got a shocking ride, never in contention and only third under sufferance in a weak affair.
Minutes later, there was Tower Bridge in the McManus colours coming from last to first to win the stayers’ novice hurdle in the Festival weekend’s opening race at 25-1 with a storming late run. Tower Bridge won the last two of three bumpers last summer; ran a stinker first time over jumps at Down Royal before putting up an improved display with a fourth over Saturday’s track over Christmas. You could suggest maybe a two stone improvement this time.
Yesterday’s offering by O’Brien junior was even more extraordinary. Watching the preliminaries, my eye kept getting attracted to the name of Edwulf in the Unibet Irish Gold Cup Chase in which Our Duke, Djakadam and Outlander made up the most likely group. He was as large as 66-1 at one stage, hardly surprising after having run only once this term, when pulling up also as a 66-1 shot in the three-mile Grade 1 Leopardstown Christmas Chase.
Edwulf has a more than interesting history. After a couple of Irish points – he fell in the first of them – he turned up in the Ben Pauling stable and was despatched to the 2015 Punchestown Festival where he was a 39-length seventh, ridden by Derek O’Connor.
Switched the following season to Aidan O’Brien, he was in the process of running away with a novice chase first time out when as a 33-1 shot he fell with the race at his mercy. The McManus talent scouts were soon on the case, and it was in the green and gold that he made a winning hurdling start soon after, comfortably beating 24 maidens at Naas. A fall late on in a Grade 2 novice ended that campaign.
It also curtailed his time at Ballydoyle, as Edwulf was among the initial Joseph intake in the summer of 2016. He began with a third to Min, a convincing Saturday winner, before unseating in a race won by Our Duke. It was pretty much feast or famine after that with a second, a win, another fall and a second chasing victory before, reunited with Mr O’Connor, he came to the closing stages of the four-mile National Hunt Chase at Cheltenham looking the probable winner.
Sadly, he went wrong after a terrible mistake two out, and O’Connor was forced to pull him up just onto the run-in. The top amateur kept the ride at Christmas and again yesterday, when after shortening to 33-1, he happily cantered round at the back and on the wide outside of his field while the majority of Ireland’s best staying chasers dropped away one by one.
Turning for home he was still apparently going easily, and once Our Duke and Djakadam dropped away and, notably, Killultagh Vic toppled at the last when looking the winner, there was only Elliott’s Outlander to account for, a task he and O’Connor managed with authority. This was yet another six figure prize for the modern-day miracle man.
A generation and a bit earlier Joseph’s dad was sharing Jim Bolger’s unique knowledge with, among others, Willie Mullins and A P McCoy. Willie achieved a couple of bits of sleight of hand of his own – with Total Recall, of course, unbeaten after three runs since leaving Sandra Hughes when she retired – but even more astonishingly with Patricks Park in Saturday’s 40-grand to the winner two-mile handicap chase.
As recently as last October, Patricks Park had the first of only two runs for Matt Sheppard, having been trained previously in Ireland by David Harry Kelly for whom he won a maiden hurdle. Readers of this column and more particularly adherents to the web site which hosts it will be aware of The Geegeez Geegee. It was that estimable horse – sadly now in other ownership – that gave Patricks Park a 33-length hammering at level weights on that Sheppard debut in a handicap chase. Less than three weeks later, backed from 50’s to 33-1 Patricks Park romped home by 12 lengths over two miles, five furlongs on the soft at Ffos Las, off his mark of 113.
Between late October and New year’s Day he was repatriated to Ireland and, now with Mullins, started 11-8 favourite for an 80-109 handicap hurdle over two miles seven furlongs at Tramore off what appeared a gift mark of 104, but finished unplaced, 33 lengths behind the winner.
On Saturday, in a 20-runner 0-150 handicap chase over two miles and a furlong, he readily came home in front under Rachael Blackmore! How does he do that?
True, there was the disappointment of Faugheen’s inability to stave off the sustained challenge of Supasundae, and Yorkhill ran lamentably behind stablemate Min, but otherwise it was very much Mullins’ and Joseph’s meeting.
As to the imminent switch of allegiance of Irish racing from At The Races to Racing UK, I’m with such as Eddie O’Leary of Gigginstown and JP McManus in wondering what could possibly be the benefit to viewers. Surely, when the major UK Flat racing gets going, some Irish coverage must at best be truncated, and smaller summer fixtures could be lost in the way that even At The Races sometimes has to drop Down Royal. In its present location, everyone can see the good stuff without interruption. It’s decision day tomorrow. Let’s hope common sense prevails and they restore the status quo.