The highlight of the Irish racing year is at Ballybrit next week and Tony Keenan has had a crack at the two feature races ahead of Galway 2018...
"The 2017 Plate produced the joint-highest rated chaser in Ireland last season in Balko Des Flos and solid Grade 2 performer A Toi Phil was fourth in the race; Slowmotion was in amongst them in third when coming from further back than ideal and races off the same mark now."
Betting on races like the Galway Plate and Hurdle a few days out needs to come with a word of warning; the overrounds are high at this point, the top 20 in the market for the Hurdle coming out at 129% for instance and that's when you consider only top price across all the bookmakers.
Of the final 20 that make the field next Thursday, I would make a rough guess that five will be shorter than they are now, five will be roughly the same price and 10 will be bigger so there is certainly a case for biding your time. Finding horses that fall into the first category isn't easy.
Furthermore, you will have the opportunity to bet into close to a 100% book on the Exchange at that point (plus commission) and there will likely be extra place offers available (admittedly at one-fifth the odds) with the firms. Perhaps most importantly though, you will more information with the ground being the key factor; it is no given that the surface will be fast at Galway next week. The track are known (and roundly praised) for their zealous approach to watering and there is rain forecast between now and then. There is also the Willie Mullins factor to consider and both of these races have almost Cheltenham handicap feels to them as it is a guess-up about what he will run.
Having said all that, I'm still going to defy my own advice and have a go at sorting both races.
Galway Plate: Slowmotion and Kalondra the two to be with
The Plate may not be quite the guessing game the Hurdle is. A recent Mullins interview left the impression he would run whichever of his chasers got into the race. He also felt that some of his like Robin De Foret and Listen Dear (currently 29 and 30 on the ballot respectively) would struggle to get a run; typically, one might expect horses in those positions to get in as the maximum field size is 22 but everyone wants to run as it's Galway and the initial entries are made quite close to race day so there may not be many to come out.
If all these horses towards the top of the weights run we are going to have a race like some of the valuable UK flat handicaps with a field full of highly-rated but thoroughly-exposed runners, many of whom are on the downgrade, and the ones that might have a few pounds in hand won't make the cut. That would leave us with a sub-standard race at least compared to last year and that is the starting point for my first selection Slowmotion.
The 2017 Plate produced the joint-highest rated chaser in Ireland last season in Balko Des Flos and solid Grade 2 performer A Toi Phil was fourth in the race; Slowmotion was in among them in third when coming from further back than ideal and races off the same mark now. She was only six then and had no run going into the race but this time had an ideal preparation with a good fourth in the Grimes Hurdle over an insufficient trip. In a way her prep is reminiscent of how Tigris River was successfully readied for last year's Hurdle and while the big prices about her dried up yesterday, double-figure odds are still perfectly acceptable.
Both market leaders Tully East and Patricks Park have their chances but the other one I'm interested in is Kalondra. His trainer reports him an intended runner and the way he went through his last race at Cheltenham suggests he can win off 147. Trapped wide for much of that race, he tanked into things three out but looked to get there too soon only to be worn down from two coming from further back. His previous form with Coo Star Sivola reads well now and he was thought good enough for Grade 1 novice races last season.
Galway Hurdle: Course specialist Whiskey Sour should go well
Trying to predict the intentions of Willie Mullins is difficult but central to the Hurdle market at this stage; I would guess that the main aim for Low Sun is the two-mile handicap on Monday and his participation here depends on how that goes while Stratum will not run at the meeting with most/all of the rest taking their chance. Beyond that, the Hurdle seems to be a clash of in-form types (read Mullins) and plot horses (read Joseph O'Brien and JP McManus).
With the three O'Brien/McManus horses - Ivanovich Gorbatov, Tigris River and Le Richebourg - it is easy to see how they might be well-handicapped now going back on good ground. Yet it is far from certain the ground will be that way and they look to be priced very defensively at present for all that both Ivanovich Gorbatov and Tigris River showed glimmers of form last time.
Good Thyne Tara has attracted support early and both her trainer and jockey have commented that she has improved recently; still, she has gone up 11lbs since the start of the summer for winning ordinary races and 144 could be high. The one I like - and he is a very obvious one - is Whiskey Sour. His course form is excellent and it is worth remembering he won a flat maiden for Eddie Lynam before last year's big handicap double. He mixed it with some good novices last season and was a bit better than the result when third in the County, coming from further back than ideal, and I like the fact that he ran so well at Royal Ascot as it would have been more difficult to bet him for this had he come into it without a run since Punchestown where he had two races in a short space of time.
Of those at bigger prices, I will be backing Cartwright and Top Othe Ra if they run but now is not the time to play as the former may run elsewhere and the latter may not get in. Cartwright had a good prep on the flat at Fairyhouse and like Whiskey Sour ran in some decent novice races last year. This hasn't really been a meeting where Gordon Elliott has performed (five winners from 160 runners here since 2010) but his record in the Hurdle is good with three runners-up and three other placed horses. Top Othe Ra on the other hand is a dual winner at the meeting and is only three pounds higher than his last winning mark. He has been in good form on the flat lately, running on the level with a view to protecting his hurdle mark, and hopefully it hasn't been too well-protected.