Road To Cheltenham: Delta becomes the alpha

Delta Work picked up a second Grade 1 success on the bounce in Sunday's Irish Gold Cup.
Delta Work picked up a second Grade 1 success on the bounce in Sunday's Irish Gold Cup.

In the latest edition of our weekly series, Nick Seddon looks back on a weekend bursting with Grade 1 action, and postulates what it all may mean in terms of the Cheltenham Festival

Bearing in mind that this column regularly becomes rather meaty even without the addition of an introduction, I’ll avoid wittering in too much detail about the issue of participation at the Dublin Racing Festival, and the fact that you could count the number of British-trained challengers on one hand.

It is something that perplexes me, however, particularly when you consider that there’s a whopping €2.1 million in prize money up for grabs over the two days. Of course, the proximity of the Dublin Racing Festival to both the Cheltenham Festival itself and the likes of Festival Trials Day a week before means that connections are rather spoilt for choice when it comes to placing their horses, but it seems a real shame that we seem to be in a situation where British and Irish runners clash just once or twice a season. 

The lack of a British presence didn’t dampen an all-star line-up, however, and we were treated to Cheltenham clues aplenty across the weekend’s eight Grade 1 contests, including in Sunday’s Irish Gold Cup - which was won in particularly game fashion by the Gordon Elliott-trained Delta Work

Perhaps unfairly, he arrived here with the aura of a runner who still had something to prove, despite taking the notable scalps of both Kemboy and Presenting Percy in the Savills Chase over Christmas. Plenty, including yours truly, felt that the latterly-mentioned pair would reverse the form with Delta Work here considering they arrived much more finely-tuned having had that run under their belt, but after the trio jumped the final flight in unison, neither Presenting Percy nor Kemboy could muscle their way past the game winner. 

The picture for the Cheltenham Gold Cup feels just as muddied as it did coming into the weekend as a consequence, though it would be foolish not to now consider Delta Work a bona fide contender. Both he and Santini advertise the strength of last season’s RSA Chase impeccably, and it’s equally as fair that Al Boum Photo is the 7/2 outright favourite, too. We’ve only seen him once, though he was impressive as he needed to be in winning at Tramore on New Year’s Day, and he’s following the same lightly-raced preparation as he did 12 months ago. Presenting Percy and Kemboy are by no means out of it, though there’s a niggling feeling that the former perhaps has something to prove now after three starts this term, while Kemboy is entitled to strip fitter for this once again. Meanwhile, Native River feels like the forgotten horse, and the combination of some rain over the next five weeks, and a straightforward success in Saturday’s Denman Chase at Newbury should ensure he’s far shorter come post time than the 12/1 that’s currently on offer. 

Comfortably older than all eight of the runners who competed in the Irish Gold Cup is the 12-year-old Faugheen, who continued his simply remarkable campaign by collecting his second Grade 1 novice success on the spin at the grand old age of twelve. The engine of “The Machine” is still very much there, and it’s created an interesting dilemma for Rich Ricci and Willie Mullins as far as the Cheltenham Festival is concerned. The Marsh Novices’ Chase is still Faugheen’s most likely destination over two miles and five furlongs, though he shaped as though he’d be equally as suited by the three-mile test of the RSA Chase, and bearing in mind that the market leaders in the latter - Champ and Minella Indo - both have something to prove at present, it could certainly come under consideration. 

Willie Mullins commented after the race that this could well have been Faugheen’s ‘Gold Cup’ performance, and the 12-year-old’s excursions will surely catch up with him sooner or later. With that in mind, why not throw him into a Championship race? Of course, he owes us nothing and you’d think he’d need to improve considerably on his jumping to have any sort of a chance, but with both the Ryanair and the Gold Cup looking wide open this year, his presence in the latter would be something to savour should Ricci and Mullins roll the dice and supplement him. 

Stepping out of fantasy land and back into reality, another who impressed on Sunday was Asterion Forlonge, who catapulted himself into the reckoning for next month’s Festival. His reputation rather preceded him considering he carries powerful colours and cost a fair old whack as a four-year-old, but he took the step into Grade 1 company in his stride, and put the race to bed in particularly taking fashion. He’ll be a danger wherever he goes, and bearing in mind that his owner also has the current favourite for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle in Shishkin, it could be that he heads to the Ballymore (though he's also entered in the Albert Bartlett). 

Saturday’s action was no less dramatic, and we saw Honeysuckle cement her claims for the Champion Hurdle by winning the Irish equivalent in game fashion. She had to battle for it, being pushed all the way by the ultra game Petit Mouchoir, though the fact that Darver Star was able to pick up the pieces and finish second - almost stealing the show to boot - does dampen the look of the form a touch. The destinations of the mares is becoming one of the most interesting subplots of the Festival, and should Honeysuckle head for the Champion Hurdle, she would surely be the one to beat - particularly in receipt of a sex allowance. What she’s shown so far is superior to the other mare at the top of the market, Epatante, and the remainder of the proposed field would all have something to find, though the inclusion of a certain Benie Des Dieux would blow this open even further. Meanwhile, it’s difficult not to love Petit Mouchoir, who produced an excellent effort to place in Grade 1 company for the third run in succession. He’s a proven performer at this level, and it’s difficult not to imagine him being right in the mix next month, meaning there’s plenty of each-way value about the 33/1 currently on offer for him. 

Also successful on the card was Chacun Pour Soi, who took the notable scalp of my beloved Min to win the Dublin Chase - and deny that particular rival a trio of wins in the race in the process. He had a huge reputation coming into the season, and this was far more like it after his shock defeat to A Plus Tard over Christmas. It’s rare that Rich Ricci races his really good ones, and there was a sense that even he wanted to work out his pecking order ahead of the Cheltenham Festival. It’s been no secret about how well Chacun Pour Soi has been doing behind closed doors, and this confirmed in no uncertain terms that there is an engine in the tank. It’s worth remembering that he took the particularly notable scalp of Defi Du Seuil at Punchestown as a novice last season, and he has to be considered a serious threat to all in next month’s Champion Chase. As for Min, it seems that he’s at his happiest over two and a half miles these days, and he’d be some force in the Ryanair Chase if running to his brilliant best - though it’s worth noting that he’s winless in three attempts at the Festival (admittedly each of those defeats were to Altior). Meanwhile, it’s worth mentioning the two-mile novice division, which Notebook is slowly taking charge of. The seven-year-old completed a momentous Grade 1 double on the day for Henry de Bromhead and Rachael Blackmore when winning the Irish Arkle, and he has a fine chance of emulating the likes of Footpad (2018), Douvan (2016) and Un De Sceaux (2015) by completing the Arkle double at Cheltenham next month. 

We also had some top-class racing on this side of the Irish Sea at Sandown, which hosted the Grade 1 Scilly Isles Novices’ Chase, and the headline act was the Irish raider Laurina. The seven-year-old mare swerved a potential engagement at Leopardstown in favour of Sandown, but she proved disappointing for the second start running - never travelling a yard - and she has serious questions to answer now. It would be no surprise to see her switched back to hurdles for the remainder of the season, and her entry in the Mares’ Hurdle catches the eye. Laurina’s disappointing run left the door open for Itchy Feet to take his tally to two from two over fences, and he impressed with the way he won his race. He accounted for some talented rivals on just his second start over the larger obstacles, and he’ll head to the Marsh with a fine chance - particularly when you consider he has proven form at the course. Meanwhile, Quel Destin returned to winning ways in the listed Contenders Hurdle on the card, which had been won for each of the previous three years by a certain Buveur D’Air. Quel Destin upset the odds-on favourite Call Me Lord to take this, and whilst he was full value fore the success, it’s unlikely we’ve seen a Champion Hurdle contender this time around. 

Last but not least, it was great to see Minella Rocco continue his resurgence by winning the hunters’ chase over at Wetherby. The ten-year-old was good enough to finish second in the 2017 Gold Cup, but he's lost his way pretty dramatically since, to the point that he was tailed off in an Ascot handicap off a mark of 142 back in November (having previously been rated as high as 166). He’s now two-from-two in this sphere, and defeated last season's Foxhunters winner in Hazel Hill in the process. Bearing in mind that Minella Rocco has won at the Festival in the past, he’s got to be a serious player for the Foxhunters Chase this season - though he’ll have to defeat the mighty Don Poli to become a dual Festival hero.  

Five weeks to go folks - not long now!

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