By Johnny Ward
It has been a relatively quiet week in Ireland but the Cheltenham Festival is dominating everyone’s mind right now, and the media days on Monday at Willie Mullins’ and Tuesday at Jessica Harrington’s, which we will cover extensively on this website, will remind us just how close the extravaganza is.
Fairyhouse’s feature event on Saturday, the At The Races Bobbyjo Chase, amounts to a rather classy renewal, while Sunday’s fare at Naas features an excellent Grade Two Paddy Power Onside App Novice Hurdle.
This meeting is nominally a trials day for the Festival and, while realistically more of a stand-alone fixture, it always entertains.
Whisperinthebreeze travelled sweetly just off the pace when third to Scarpeta at Gowran on Thyestes Chas day last month and, while his finishing effort was relatively meek, the ground was exceptionally testing and it was common on the afternoon for a horse to be legless jumping the last – or indeed refusing because of tiredness.
This promising point winner ought to relish the stiff finish at Naas and shaped well in a bumper before his Gowran effort. It’s likely there is a great deal more to come.
Whisperinthebreeze’s trainer Jessica Harrington won this race last year and has a solid contender now in Impact Factor, but Speak Easy may provide Joseph O'Brien with another winner.
He looked a smashing prospect when winning a Navan maiden hurdle easily on his Rules debut, with the well-beaten second, Dis Donc, doing the job too since.
While he was well-beaten by Next Destination in a Grade One at Naas last month, he was friendless in the market then and, dropping back to the distance of his maiden win, makes some appeal.
This Philip Dempsey-trained horse scrapes into this bracket (rated 116) and looks to have a strong chance, though a 15-runner field in a handicap rarely does anything but frustrate.
He renews a meeting with Mick The Boyo, and is 3lb better off with that rival. His course and distance offering in that last race was highly encouraging and he was well-backed, travelling strongly.
This is not a handicap hurdle laden with lively hopes. Even the Gordon Elliott-trained Bettatogether, ridden by Davy Russell, seems readily opposable, as there has not been much in the way of positives to take from either of his starts since leaving Alan King.
The one to concentrate on looks to be Battling Spirit, who landed a gamble in a similarly moderate contest over just shy of Saturday’s 2m4f two runs back at Clonmel, after which trainer Jonathan Sweeney said: "He was off the track for two years before running last month... he had been doing everything well at home (and) is a lovely horse... touch wood he has stayed in one piece so far."
Wearing a hood, it looked quite obvious that the 11-year-old did not stay three miles here four weeks ago, yet he still ran a fine race in third. Battling Spirit has Katie O'Farrell claiming 7lb in the testing conditions and remains just 11lb higher than he was at Clonmel.
Half The Odds won a big-field bumper on nice ground at Fairyhouse over two and a half miles in April and later a Galway maiden hurdle for Noel Meade. She should pick up handicaps too.
She was favourite at Navan when disappointing last time on the back of two pleasing efforts in Graded company but the ground was practically unraceable and this should be much more up her street.
She was due to run at Leopardstown at the Dublin Racing Festival and, having been nicely backed, was scratched after being kicked in the parade-ring by another horse.
Gordon Elliott’s ability to freshen up horses between races is key to his excellent training regime.
Mala Beach was pulled up when 14-1 for the Irish Gold Cup last time but had previously won the Troytown and should take this race at the weights too.
A course winner, he is especially well-treated in that he gets weight off all bar one of his rivals, yet is officially top-rated at 156.
Bellshill is the obvious danger, but has not been seen since Cheltenham last year. A Genie In Abottle has it all to prove after a lifeless run in the Thyestes.
Cadmium should be all the better for his Navan third on chasing debut, when he finished pretty legless on ground that was about as bad as it gets (on the same card when Half The Odds ran).
The form of his Irish debut, when beating Call The Taxie over hurdles at Limerick, has been really well-advertised by the runner-up since.
There was a gap of over a year between those two runs, so clearly there ought to be more to come here. It is likely Veinard will loom up as a danger but may struggle to pass him.
Johnny Ward weekend tips:
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