The Lawlor's of Naas Novice Hurdle takes centre stage at Naas this Sunday. Ever since the entries were released and Gordon Elliott confirmed it as being the next target for Envoi Allen, he has been the focus point of the race.
That Elliott has picked this target for Envoi Allen took many by surprise in itself. At the start of the season, many would have considered Envoi Allen to be most likely to end up over mid-range trips over hurdles. Indeed, Elliott himself said as much in a stable tour with At The Races in mid-October:
"If you watch him in his bumpers last season, he looked in serious trouble a couple of times, but just ground it out to win. I think stepping up to two-and-a-half miles over hurdles will be a help to him as he'll probably be travelling at a gallop that is a bit closer to his comfort zone."
However, having made a winning start over hurdles in a two-mile maiden hurdle at Down Royal in November, Elliott choose to keep Envoi Allen at the minimum trip for the Royal Bond Novice Hurdle at Fairyhouse last month. This was seen by many as a testing of the waters to see how he could cope against the best available opposition over the minimum trip with a view to assessing his trip preference going forward.
As it transpired, Envoi Allen passed the test with something to spare, making most of the running and seeing off the notably pacey Abacadabras by an authoritative one-and-a-half lengths. Given that he won in good style, and that his jumping has looked more than slick enough to cope with two milers, many assumed that Envoi Allen would be kept to the minimum trip going forward, thus why it was a surprise when Elliott revealed his intention to skip Christmas with Envoi Allen and aim him at the Grade 1 over two-and-a-half miles at Naas.
Longer trip is fascinating prospect
Truth be told, as a neutral analyst the prospect of him running at Naas is far more fascinating than him facing Abacadabras again in the Paddy Power Future Champions Novice Hurdle at Leopardstown's Christmas meeting. Running at Naas will allow us to assess how Envoi Allen adapts to the longer trip and there are a number of interesting questions surrounding this change that will be answered on Sunday.
The question of how they'll ride him will be the first one that gets answered. When one looks back at all of Envoi Allen's runs, it's very notable just how much of a safety-first approach Jamie Codd and Davy Russell have taken with him.
In bumpers, Codd gave the outside to no one in all four of his runs. Envoi Allen was positioned four wide with no cover in both the Grade 2 bumper at the Dublin Racing Festival and the Champion Bumper at the Cheltenham Festival. While a wide passage may not been a disadvantage given the way the track was playing that day at Cheltenham, one can't help but wonder was there a deeper reason why Envoi Allen was ridden this way, which is in contrast to Codd's usual style.
Envoi Allen's connections haven't taken any chances with how they have ridden him over hurdles either. He dictated an uncontested lead in a slowly-run race on his hurdling debut and again mostly dictated the pace from the front in the Royal Bond, albeit with some company on his outer.
With all of this in mind, it is worth considering that a feature of Envoi Allen's career thus far is that he can take a grip in his races. He doesn't race freely by any means, but he is always there in his rider's hands taking a good grip. It is purely speculation, but perhaps the reason his riders have been so keen to keep him out of cover in his races is that he may have shown a tendency to get notably strong in amongst horses at home or in schooling races.
Time to abandon safety first approach?
All of this adds up to an interesting scenario for Envoi Allen on Sunday. While it would be a major shock if a lack of stamina is an issue for him over the longer trip of two-and-a-half miles, his connections will want him to relax over the longer trip. The final field will reveal the likelihood of an uncontested lead being a possibility for him, but with Elizir D'Ainay, Janidil, Anything Will Do and French Dynamite all having helped force the pace in recent races, it will be a surprise if a soft lead is available to him.
What will be most interesting to see is whether Davy Russell again adopts a safety-first approach of sitting on the outside edge of the field or whether he will look to cover up Envoi Allen for the first time in his career. While a safety-first approach has served Envoi Allen well so far, such a ride will not be as easy to get away with when he meets bigger and deeper Grade 1 fields such as what he is likely to experience at the Cheltenham Festival. If his connections wish to find out how he responds to being covered up, Sunday might well be the place to do it.
Another aspect of Envoi Allen that hasn't attracted that much attention yet is his pre-race temperament. He played up prior to the Royal Bond to an extent we hadn't seen before with him, giving Davy Russell (pictured above) a hard time both when he mounted him in the parade ring and as he looked to get him lined up for the start. When asked about it by Gary O'Brien on RTV after the race, Davy Russell confirmed that Envoi Allen can be a little bit tricky at times and takes some managing both at home and at the track, but there are no issues once his races start.
While the way Envoi Allen behaved when initially mounted and down at the start wasn't enough to be a notable concern, it will be worth keeping a close eye on him in this regard on Sunday. Sometimes behaviour like this can get worse with time, so it is worth monitoring on the off chance that it does.
Some will have you believe that nothing can be learned when horses are sent off at very short prices such as what Envoi Allen is likely to be at Naas on Sunday, but frankly that is a load of rubbish. There are any number of angles to what Envoi Allen faces on Sunday that could potentially make it a very informative chapter in the story of his career so far. I can't wait to see it.