David Cleary's Cheltenham Countdown: Flu frustrates Festival plans

King George winner Clan des Obeaux - among those to miss out on Newbury
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David Cleary looks at recent Irish action, as well as the potential impact of the equine flu outbreak on next month's Cheltenham Festival...

"As for Konitho, he had won a maiden over course and distance on his Irish debut, but he was ill served by the test of speed on this occasion. He may well fall short of the standard required for Cheltenham at this stage (holds three entries currently), though remains a useful prospect when stepped up in distance."

Gold Cup hopefuls among those affected

The equine flu shutdown has put a spoke in the wheels, so far as Cheltenham planning goes on this side of the Irish Sea. In particular, the loss of Newbury's prestigious Betfair Hurdle card on Saturday denied quite a few leading candidates from having their final tune up.

The prospective clash between Gold Cup rivals Native River and Clan des Obeaux in the Denman Chase would certainly have been informative, while the leading Supreme Novices' contenders Al Dancer and Getaway Trump were set to line up for the feature. The ante-post Supreme favourite Angels Breath (pictured below) had been declared for Thursday's Sidney Banks Hurdle at Huntingdon before that was called off at the 11th hour. It is interesting that he was set to run over two-and-a-half miles, suggesting that connections might have been weighing up a possible switch to the Ballymore. As it is, connections of Angels Breath will be hoping for a prompt resumption, or else he could end up going to Cheltenham very short on experience.

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Novices stake their claim on quiet weekend

The action in Ireland over the weekend was rather low key as well - not surprisingly given all the goodies packed into the Dublin Racing Festival the previous Saturday and Sunday. Most of the significant pointers that there were came in the novice divisions, with the four-year-old Band of Outlaws' victory in the rated hurdle at Naas arguably the most taking performance.

Band of Outlaws showed a useful level of form in a busy campaign on the Flat last year and looks set to be even better over hurdles. He built on a promising debut when winning at Limerick after Christmas and took his form forward significantly when following up on Saturday. He was well served by less testing going and a test of speed over stamina, finding a good turn of foot from a slightly tricky position early in the straight.

The Joseph O'Brien-trained Band of Outlaws is in the Triumph and the Supreme, though the Fred Winter appears to have been the plan, prior to Naas at least - he was the stable second string on paper, though well backed against his stable's 11/10 favourite Konitho. He is also a stable companion of the short-priced Triumph favourite Sir Erec, so it may be connections will want to aim Band of Outlaws elsewhere. The emphasis on stamina in the Triumph might not be ideal, either.

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Konitho worth another chance up in trip

As for Konitho, he had won a maiden over course and distance on his Irish debut, but he was ill served by the test of speed on this occasion. He may well fall short of the standard required for Cheltenham at this stage (holds three entries currently), though remains a useful prospect when stepped up in distance. Konitho had been bought by J.P. McManus since his maiden win, the news coming through in the week that the owner had also purchased Fakir d'Oudairies, which presumably increases the chance of that one running in the Supreme rather than the Triumph (McManus also owning Sir Erec).

City Island - Ballymore bound

The opening novice at Naas went the way of City Island (pictured below), who had little difficulty landing odds of 5/1-on. He's still very much in the 'could be anything' mould, this the fourth time in a row that he'd been first past the post since finishing runner-up in a bumper on debut last spring (disqualified from a win at Galway last August after traces of arsenic were found in his post-race sample).

Unusually, City Island has just the one Cheltenham entry, though as his owner sponsors the Ballymore, it's not surprising that that is the sole focus of attention. City Island has a tremendous pedigree on the dam's side and although he faces a much sterner test next month, he will clearly merit close consideration.

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Sinoria overcomes drop in trip

Highlight of Punchestown's card on Sunday was the gutsy win of the mare Sinoria in the listed two-mile novice hurdle. A winner over four furlongs further at Down Royal on her previous start, she left the impression that she won despite rather than because of the drop in trip, grinding down the favourite Chosen Mate from the last. Sinoria is clearly a useful hurdler with more to come and she would be worth her place in the Dawn Run at Cheltenham, although her connections also have the current favourite for that event in the shape of Honeysuckle.

The first two pulled clear of the remainder, with 20/1-chance Top Moon home in third, his starting price in contrast to his debut a month previously, when he was a warm order for a bumper at Naas and just touched off. Here, Top Moon showed his inexperience, up against it in this company on hurdling bow, but ran a race full of promise. He seems sure to win races over hurdles before long.

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