Unravelling clues at Down Royal’s Festival of Racing

Road To Respect has won each of the last two renewals of the Grade 1 Down Royal Champion Chase.
Road To Respect has won each of the last two renewals of the Grade 1 Down Royal Champion Chase.

Nick Seddon takes a look at this weekend’s Ladbrokes Festival of Racing at Down Royal, which has built up a reputation for unearthing some big names, and highlights a few horses to watch… 

For many, the Jumps season proper begins at Wetherby on Saturday with the Charlie Hall Chase, a Grade 2 contest which is often contested by horses with ambitions of running in the following year’s Cheltenham Gold Cup.

It will undoubtedly prove to be a highly informative affair, though it’s worth noting that the best Cheltenham Festival pointers could instead come on the other side of the Irish Sea, at Down Royal’s two-day Festival of Racing. 

The meeting, which is Down Royal’s big event of the year, was established around the turn of the century, and features no less than four Graded contests on the billing. It has become a popular reappearance point for powerful yards, too, and some big names regularly head here on an annual basis. With that in mind, we’ve taken a look at this year’s entries, and picked out some horses to note. 

Down Royal 12:40 (Friday) - Maiden Hurdle, 2m6f

This race is no stranger to throwing up a smart novice, with last year's winner Fury Road going on to finish third in the Albert Bartlett for Gordon Elliott and Gigginstown Stud, and the same connections could have another smart prospect again this year with Farouk D’alene. The five-year-old is closely related to the high-class performer Triolo D’Alene, and has made a good start to his career so far, winning both of his starts in bumpers, including when tearing to a 17-length success on Rules debut here last December. The step up to 2m6f ought to suit judged on his pedigree, and bearing in mind that Elliott has won four of the last five renewals of this race, it would be no surprise should he have high hopes for Farouk D’alene - who looks to have been found a good opportunity to continue his unbeaten start. 

Down Royal 13:50 (Friday) - WKD Hurdle, 2m 100y

This race is often used as a starting point for horses with Champion Hurdle aspirations, with the likes of Jezki (2013) and Melon (2017) on the roll of honour, though the most infamous runner in this Grade 2 contest is perhaps Samcro, who was turned over at a very short price two years ago. The standout name amongst this year's entries is the Supreme Novices' Hurdle runner-up Abacadabras, who's a 6/1 second favourite at the time of writing for the Festival showpiece next March. He was defeated by the smallest of margins by Shishkin at the Festival, but was a Grade 1 winner at the Dublin Festival prior to that, and Gordon Elliott will be hoping that he can become a key player in an open-looking two-mile hurdling division this campaign - with Shishkin looking likely to go chasing. The main danger looks likely to be the Triumph Hurdle runner-up Aspire Tower, who was a Grade 2 winner last season and will receive a 6 lb age allowance from his main market rival.  

Down Royal 15:00 (Friday) - Beginners' Chase, 2m3f 120y

The highlight on Friday could well be the fifth race on the card, which will see the hotly anticipated chasing debut of the unbeaten Envoi Allen. The six-year-old has won all eight of his starts under Rules to date, with four of those wins coming at the highest level, and he completed the perfect season when signing off with victory in the Ballymore Novices' Hurdle at Cheltenham in March. The world is very much his oyster options wise, with plenty suggesting he should be aimed at the Champion Hurdle, though his connections have opted to send him chasing, and he's the current ante-post favourite for both the RSA Chase and the Marsh Novices' Chase - while he's also prominent in the market for the Arkle Trophy over two miles. He's certainly a chaser on looks, and looked better the further he went when coming from an unpromising position to extend his unbeaten run at the Festival. This initial outing is unlikely to tell us too much, and he's a long odds-on favourite to make a winning start, but it should give us a valuable insight into his jumping ability - and perhaps a hint as to which trip will prove to be his optimum in the spring. 

Down Royal 12:40 (Saturday) - 3-Y-O Hurdle, 2m 100y

The opening race on Saturday's card can boast two subsequent Grade 1 winners on its recent roll of honour in A Wave Of The Sea (2019) and the Champion Hurdle winner Espoir D'Allen (2017), and Gordon Elliott is triple-handed in this year's renewal, with the unbeaten trio of  Duffle Coat, Glorious Zoff and Quilixos. All three are open to plenty of improvement so early into their hurdling careers, though the last-named certainly catches the eye on what he's shown so far, winning both of his starts by emphatic margins. Quilixos has plenty of ability on paper, being closely related to a Group 1 winner over a mile and a half on the Flat, and it will be interesting to see how the jockey bookings work out amongst the Cullentra runners. 

Down Royal 14:25 (Saturday) - Champion Chase, 3m

The feature race of the weekend, the Down Royal Champion Chase has been nothing short of dominated by Gigginstown House Stud of late, and the operation have won each of the last seven renewals. This race regularly acts as a pointer for the Cheltenham Gold Cup, with Don Cossack the last horse to win both races in the same season in 2015/16, and Gigginstown will be hoping that Delta Work can repeat the feat. He could only finish fifth in the Festival showpiece back in March, but enjoyed an excellent season prior to that, winning back-to-back Grade 1 contests, including the Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown. He rather needed the run when fourth in this last year, however, and is best watched. Meanwhile, his new stablemate Presenting Percy is a fascinating inclusion. The 2018 RSA Chase winner has long been regarded as a Gold Cup horse in the making, though he's rather stuttered over the past two seasons, and suffered a crashing fall at the Festival in March. His owners have taken the decision to switch the nine-year-old from Patrick Kelly to Cullentra House, and you get the feeling that it's rather now or never this season for a chaser who's yet to completely live up to his undoubtable talent. 

Down Royal 15:00 (Saturday) - Lough Construction Chase, 2m3f

This Grade 2 contest is regularly won by a very smart chaser, and the star attraction this year is the Marsh Novices' Chase winner Samcro, who has enjoyed mixed fortunes at this meeting. Indeed, the eight-year-old has long been hailed as a monster, though things haven't always gone to plan, and a shock defeat in the WKD Hurdle here two years ago rather set the tone for an assault on the Champion Hurdle that failed to materialise in the 2018/19 season. Samcro put things right when making a winning chasing debut here 12 months later, however, and while things didn't always go to plan in his first season over the bigger obstacles, he signed off with a dramatic win at the Festival.

It will be interesting to see how Samcro is campaigned this year bearing in mind that Michael O'Leary declared him to be a future Gold Cup winner during his novice hurdling days, though if you trust the ante-post markets, the Ryanair Chase (12/1) seems far more likely than the Gold Cup (33/1) at this stage. One who's proven over three miles is fellow Gigginstown horse Battleoverdoyen, who was a Grade 1 winner over that trip as a novice last season. He could only finish fourth in the RSA Chase in March, and it will be interesting to see how he handles a sharper trip here, while the improving Easy Game was a Grade 2 winner at Gowran Park at the beginning of the month and can't be discounted. 

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