I hope it isn't sacrilege to admit that the build-up to Cheltenham 2018 hasn't really got me excited yet, but it's a different story with this weekend's Dublin Racing Festival. A fine couple of days await us at Leopardstown with the entries suggesting it is going to be a very competitive two days.
In truth it's like a mini-Cheltenham as it presents the opportunity to back good horses at good prices. For lazy Irish punters like me, it might even be better than Cheltenham; while some have criticised the lack of UK runners (a valid point) it does mean no struggling through the UK form! Other critics will say there is too much Mullins versus Elliott but not only are they taking each other but with multiple runners in many races and there will be a healthy dose of Jessica Harrington, Henry De Bromhead and Noel Meade horses mixed in too.
The Irish National Hunt Trainers Championship is another major narrative for the Dublin Racing Festival - full market available here - and I've covered some of the numbers behind it elsewhere this week. It's worth noting some of the salient points ahead of the weekend though. Mullins and Elliott have played out a score draw in terms of graded race wins though the latter has an edge in the Grade 1s.
Mullins, for all that his strikerate is ever-impressive, needs to get more runners to the track to retain his title though January was the first month since last September in which he had more winners than his rival. Elliott's success seems more sustainable as he has had a lot more seconds and placed horses than Mullins.
Dublin Racing Festival Saturday: Stroll a bit of value in Coral Hurdle
A few of Saturday's feature races look set in terms of the market and I would be in no rush to oppose Samcro in the Nathaniel Lacy & Partners Solicitors Novice Hurdle or Footpad in the Arkle. The former looks set to face a weak field with Next Destination is going straight to Cheltenham while the latter's main rival Petit Mouchoir is likely to need the run. The Champion Hurdle is another race I am lukewarm on at this stage; Willie Mullins is saying Faugheen will run but he has to get to Saturday afternoon intact and in any case he flopped badly last time. Still, his form is well-clear of these and the trainer is not one to take chances on wellbeing.
The competitive Coral Hurdle might be the best race for a bet on Saturday where Robert Tyner's Midnight Stroll looks overpriced. His trainer has a long-standing record in these valuable Leopardstown handicaps but more than that his horse seems likely to be suited by a drop back in distance having raced over two-and-a-half miles the last twice. He is a particularly strong traveller so the big field and likely strong pace will help and his bumper form at Newbury last March reads particularly well; that fact that Tyner even took him there for his first run says plenty about how he is regarded.
Dublin Racing Festival Sunday: Duc can be Deloitte Genie
If Saturday's card is about the short ones in the Grade 1s, Sunday is the opposite; I think the fancied horses in each of the four top-level contests are underpriced which makes them betting races. Spring Juvenile Hurdle favourite Espoir D'Allen has yet to achieve a time-figure of note despite four runs to date and faces three meaningful rivals in Stormy Ireland, Farclas and Mr Adjudicator. There are also reasons for opposing the front three in the Flogas Novice Chase; Sutton Place did not impress with his jumping on chase debut while both Al Boum Photo and Monalee are coming into the race off falls. The way into this race might be the Punchestown novice won by Invitation Only with Koshari and The Storyteller in behind but I can wait until the weekend to see what is declared.
Sharjah is rightly at the head of the market in the Deloitte Novice Hurdle having looked the likely winner when falling at the last over Christmas but he seems very short all the same. Debuchet too looks underpriced; his maiden hurdle fourth looks ordinary and this requires a massive step up. The horse that seems well-overpriced is Duc De Genievres though there are concerns with him; it's Willie Mullins and it's Wednesday ahead of a race on Sunday so there is no guarantee he will run but this is his only entry over the weekend and 25/1 is just too big not to take the chance on participation.
He reminds me a little of Apple's Jade in how he had made his debut in this country; like her, he was pitched straight into graded company despite coming off a break and only having one previous run and acquitted himself well in finishing third to Next Destination and Cracking Smart. Both of those are trading at single-figure prices for Cheltenham novice hurdles, the time was good and Duc De Genievres travelled best of all suggesting he could cope with a shorter trip. There should be plenty of improvement to come and while his owner also has Real Steel in the race it wouldn't be the greatest surprise if he went for the longer novice hurdle on Saturday with how he raced last time.
The story with the market leaders in the Irish Gold Cup is similar. Our Duke is coming off a break and an injury while his jumping has not been good to date; Killultagh Vic could be a star but has to improve at least a stone; Anibale Fly is another with plenty to find though at is in form. The value in this race seems to be among the older horses and Outlander is one that has attracted support lately. It is easy to see the case for him given his love affair with Leopardstown while Djakadam too has to have a chance; he is only coming off one bad run and it was surprise to see Willie Mullins say Paul Townend would ride Killultagh Vic.
The one I came down on however is Valseur Lido. He has a fine record in six runs in three-mile Grade 1 chases, winning twice, unseating when set to win this race in 2016 and hitting the frame in another. He's not going to be mixing it with Might Bite at Cheltenham but then again only Our Duke is on the only horse in this field that has pretensions of doing that and he has questions to answer. As a rule, this is a weak race year in-year out with Sizing John last season being a rare exception.
A peak-form Valseur Lido is more than capable of winning a race of this nature and there was plenty of promise in his fifth place finish here at Christmas, ridden more negatively than is often the case, travelling typically well and not given a hard time. That was his first run in a year and off a number of setbacks while he conceded fitness to the four that finished ahead of him. He always improved plenty for the run when trained by Willie Mullins and I suspect Henry De Bromhead had this race in mind for him rather than the Christmas contest.