Mark Milligan previews tomorrow's excellent John Durkan Memorial Chase at Punchestown...
"Allaho produced a strong-galloping, relentless effort from the front, conjuring up memories of the imperious Denman at his top-class best"
Does anyone remember seeing last year's John Durkan Memorial Punchestown chase?
No, me neither.
The race was run in an absolute pea-souper, with virtually nothing visible of the runners after the first five fences, and even when they came (sort of) back into view at the business end, the cameraman failed to pick out precisely what was happening in the gloom.
For reference, Min apparently emerged as the winner, notching his third successive victory in the race. Unsurprisingly, a meeting that probably shouldn't have gone ahead in the first place was called off shortly afterwards.
Thankfully, the weather looks set fair for the 2021 renewal of this prestigious Grade 1 contest and what an absolute cracker it promises to be.
There have been few more exciting recruits to chasing over the last few years than Envoi Allen, who hardly put a foot wrong during the first half of his maiden season over the bigger obstacles.
After winning his first three chase starts in effortless fashion, he was then transferred to the Henry De Bromhead yard in the wake of Gordon Elliott's ban.
Despite being the subject of some discouraging reports, the son of Muhtathir was sent off a short-priced favourite to maintain his unbeaten record in the Marsh Chase at the Festival. However, he didn't get very far that day, a rare jumping error seeing him exit at the fourth fence.
Things didn't get any better on his second start for his new yard, Envoi Allen returning lame having been pulled up in the Dooley Insurance Champion Novice Chase at Punchestown the following month.
With plenty to prove all of a sudden, he made a winning comeback in a weak Grade 2 affair at Down Royal in late October, comfortably taking care of the 90-rated Echoes Of Family by 22 lengths.
That basically told us nothing new about Envoi Allen, and it remains to be seen if he can live up to the promise he was showing at this time last year. Quite obviously, this will be his toughest task to date, and for all that he remains an exciting conveyance, it would be a braver man than me who wanted to go in at around 13/8 in this company.
Allaho the form standout
It's probably fair to say that Willie Mullins is chucking everything bar the kitchen sink at this race, fielding no less than seven of the ten declared runners.
Of his battalions, it's Allaho who is the form standout.
Perhaps unfairly labelled a bit of plodder in his early chasing days, he went from Allah-slow to Allah-go in the Ryanair at Cheltenham, producing what for me was the highlight of the entire Festival.
Ridden aggressively by Rachael Blackmore, Allaho produced a strong-galloping, relentless effort from the front, conjuring up memories of the imperious Denman at his top-class best. Jumping superbly, he fairly tanked along and had everything in trouble from some way out, eventually passing the post 12 lengths ahead of Fakir D'oudairies.
Dropped back to 2m for his final start of last season, Allaho was no match for stable companion Chacun Pour Soir in the Champion Chase at Punchestown, but there was no disgrace in being a little out-speeded by that horse over the minimum trip.
Of the other Mullins runners, it may be Asterion Forlonge who gives the best account.
Rather held back by his sticky jumping initially, this one finally put it all together in a valuable novice handicap chase at Punchestown in April, conceding plenty of weight all round but still putting up a borderline high-class performance as he came home 14 lengths clear of Walk Away.
If he can produce that sort of level in this deeper race he'll be a threat to all.
While Fakir D'oudairies was no match for the powerhouse Allaho in the Ryanair, he gained handsome compensation in the Melling Chase at Aintree, slamming Nuts Well by 11 lengths.
Seemingly rather stretched for stamina when only third in the Punchestown Gold Cup next time, Fakir D'oudairies bounced back to his best in a Grade 2 at Clonmel last month, emphatically drawing clear of Royal Rendezvous by 15 lengths.
Connections have stated that they want another crack at 3m with him this season, and it's not hard to see them going for something like the King George on Boxing Day if he puts up a good account here, the flat 3m around Kempton likely to play to his strengths.
However, it's hard to dismiss the memory of how easily Allaho dismantled Joseph O'Brien's charge at Cheltenham and he'll have plenty on trying to reverse that form if the same Allaho shows up here.
A value bet
Without teaching anyone to suck eggs, the key to successful betting is being able to back horses at prices that underestimate their actual chances of winning, and I feel here that Allaho has definitely been overpriced.
A quick glance at the official ratings show us that he has the best level of form in the race, and it's worth noting that the 176 Timeform rating he currently hold is the highest that any horse has brought into this particular race this century, just shading the likes of Djakadam and Min.
While Envoi Allen is undoubtedly the 'sexy' horse in the race, his overall level of form needs to be improved upon if he's to be winning here. Now obviously there's every chance he's going to prove better than his 163 official rating (164p Timeform), and he does hold a fitness edge over Allaho, though at the current prices this is a no-brainer for me.
If Allaho bounces out and is ridden as aggressively as at Cheltenham, he'll put a real premium on his owner-mate's jumping, and there's every chance that Envoi Allen might not be up to the task. If he is, I'll be the first to stand back and admire a true superstar, though at the prices there's only one bet in this race for me.
Mark's 2021 P&L
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