Dan Overall Eye-Catchers: Four to take from the Dublin Racing Festival at Leopardstown

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What a fantastic weekend of racing we just experienced.

There were so many highlights that it would take a full article (and more) to get through them all, but with my eyecatchers hat on I would have to point to Vauban as a performance I particularly enjoyed. Flagged in this column following his debut, he now sits at the top of the Triumph Hurdle market alongside Pied Piper, who narrowly beat him in that fateful maiden hurdle at Punchestown. I’m of the view that Vauban’s win at Leopardstown is of more substance than Pied Piper’s Cheltenham procession and so I would be siding with the former to prevail in March.

Friday 4th February – 1:20 Chepstow – Pepe Le Moko (4th)

I’m always keen to keep an eye on Jane Williams’s juveniles; many of them are well related and make up into smart horses down the line. 

Pepe Le Moko certainly fits that mould and there was a lot to like about this run considering it was his racecourse debut. Taking on his elders, many of whom had already achieved a solid level of form, Pepe Le Moko shaped encouragingly to finish fourth, staying on stoutly where many others couldn’t maintain the gallop.

Understandably green, Chester Williams gave him a lovely ride which will have certainly prove beneficial to his development. By Saint Des Saints and a half-brother to four winners, he certainly looks capable of winning races down the line. He’s one to keep in your trackers with a view to the long term.

Saturday 5th February – 1:05 Leopardstown – Minella Crooner (2nd)

The opening race of the Dublin Racing Festival produced a minor upset, with Minella Cocooner making all to prevail thanks to a superb tactical ride by Danny Mullins, who time and time again proves himself to be a top-class jockey.

Minella Crooner was the one I would be taking out of the race with a view to Cheltenham, namely the Albert Bartlett. Being held up in a steadily run race certainly didn’t aid his chances; neither did his fairly indifferent jumping. He did lack fluency on his hurdling debut, but was much better last time so perhaps the step up in class was to blame for his jumping woes on this occasion.

Still, he ran on resolutely to finish second, beaten just under three lengths and finishing ahead of Hollow Games who is a solid yardstick. Given the way he finished here, the extra two furlongs at Cheltenham look sure to suit and 7/1 is a fair price.

This is the second time he’s featured in this column, but this run definitely deserves to be highlighted.

Saturday 5th February – 1:35 Leopardstown – Il Etait Temps (3rd)

While Vauban’s impressive performance was undoubtably the main story to take out of this race, Il Etait Temps ran a very nice race in third; a run that is all the more noteworthy when you consider that this was his first run over hurdles and his first start for Willie Mullins.

The least fancied of Willie’s quartet, he was ridden patiently by Danny Mullins and despite some less than fluent jumping, he found generously under pressure on the run to the last to briefly look a threat. While he could never lay a hoof on Vauban, he fared best of those that were held up on bare form, this is up there with one of the best hurdling debuts by a juvenile this season.

Since he remains a maiden, there are plenty of options for him but given he is trained by Willie Mullins, I expect him to be kept at the top level; if he manages to break his maiden tag in Grade 1 company then great but, if not, he will remain a novice for next season. 

So while I’m firmly in the Vauban camp for the Triumph, baring the above in mind has led me to having a saver on Il Etait Temps at 20/1. He’s by the same sire as Farclas who finished second on his only two starts prior to winning the Triumph, which both came in graded company, and we often see form reversals in this division given that they are young, improving horses.

A lot of the discussion will invariably revolve around Vauban, Pied Piper and Fil Dor but 20/1 about Il Etait Temps looks far too big.

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Saturday 5th February – 3:15 Leopardstown – Minella Indo (2nd)

For the second season in a row, Minella Indo came into the Irish Gold Cup with plenty of questions to answer. His seasonal reappearance was satisfactory but his bizarre effort in the King George left many pondering whether his Cheltenham Gold Cup success took more out of him than we initially thought. While you could make excuses (Kempton not suiting/cheekpieces not working/poor ride), it was concerning to see the top staying chaser of last season look a shadow of his former self.

With that in mind, his second-place finish here must be seen as a huge step in the right direction. With the cheekpieces dispensed with, he travelled well and considering he wasn’t best placed when the race began to unfold, he kept to his task nicely. 

Given we’re dealing with the reigning Cheltenham Gold Cup winner and, generally speaking, a horse that has always reserved his best for the Festival, he looks to have a very strong chance of retaining his crown. 6/1 looks a very fair price in an open renewal.

Sunday 6th February – 2:25 Leopardstown – Gallant John Joe (4th)

Despite his last win coming way back in March 2019, this horse has developed a cult-like following. 

His loyal followers have been patient beyond all measure, and when Gallant John Joe was declared for this handicap after running in a succession of competitive graded races, they thought their fortitude may finally be about to pay off.

And for a long way, it looked like it might. He was going nicely in midfield but when Max Flamingo hampered him at the ninth, it all began to go wrong. The loose horse galloped upside Gallant John Joe and to make matters worse, Foxy Jacks began jumping errantly out to his right, carrying both the riderless Max Flamingo and Gallant John Joe with him. 

This put Oliver McKiernan’s stable star on the back foot at a vital time, while the loose horse continued to prove a challenge. As the race began to develop and those who eventually finished 1-2-3 started to make their move, Gallant John Joe was adrift of the main pack and being squeezed along to regain the ground he lost through no fault of his own.

And to his credit, he plugged on gamely to finish a gallant fourth.

So while his fan club may have been left pondering what might have been, they will be buoyed by this effort under the circumstances and there is certainly a good handicap in this horse.

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