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Donn McClean: Impressive winners at the first Grade 1 races of the year
The Novice Hurdles at Sandown and Naas are fertile ground for Cheltenham Festival winners.

THE NOVICE HURDLERS wheels turned again at the weekend. 

The Unibet Tolworth Hurdle at Sandown on Saturday, the Lawlor’s of Naas Novice Hurdle at Naas on Sunday: the first two Grade 1 races of 2023, and two impressive winners.

The Tolworth Hurdle creeps up on you a bit. You are usually still trying to assimilate all that happened at the Christmas festivals by the time they are going to post at Sandown, but it is a significant contest.

Constitution Hill won the race last year, just his second step on the road to superstardom.  Summerville Boy won it in 2018, two months before he went to Cheltenham and won the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.  Yorkhill won it in 2016, on his way to victory in the Ballymore Hurdle at Cheltenham and in the Mersey Hurdle at Aintree.  Go back further and you get to Noland and Monsignor and French Holly.  The race is a fertile ground for Cheltenham Festival winners.

tahmuras-file-photo PA Tahmuras. PA

Tahmuras won the 2023 renewal on Saturday.  He travelled like the most likely winner from a fair way out.  Widest of all around the home turn, he moved well into the home straight, made his ground easily to join the leader on the run to the second last flight and, despite making a mistake there and again at the last, he stayed on well up the hill on the soft ground to win well.

The race may not have been as strong in the end as appeared to be the case beforehand.  The exciting Irish raider Arctic Bresil undoubtedly under-performed. He never really travelled through his race and he didn’t finish, while favourite Authorised Speed finished fifth of the six finishers, over 30 lengths behind the winner, and he scoped poorly afterwards.

That said, Paul Nicholls’ horse couldn’t have done much more than he did in winning.  He is now three for three over hurdles, and he was still green on the run-in.  There could be a fair it more to come.  

Bookmakers cut his odds for the Ballymore Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival to 16/1 and 20/1, and they went 10/1 and 12/1 for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, his most likely Cheltenham target, according to his trainer.  He should progress from this and he could be a player in the Supreme, especially if the ground comes up on the soft side.  He is an exciting horse for the trainer and for the syndicate that is run and managed by Noel Fehily, who rode Summerville Boy to win the Tolworth Hurdle and the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle five years ago.

The Lawlor’s of Naas Novice Hurdle at Naas on Sunday looked like a deeper contest, with two Grade 3 winners and two unbeaten horses, and another unbeaten when he had completed, among the eight-strong line-up, as well as the second and fourth from the Grade 1 Royal Bond Hurdle at Fairyhouse last month. 

It can’t have been easy for Paul Townend, choosing between the two Willie Mullins runners.  In the end, he chose Grangeclare West, unbeaten in three previous races, a point-to-point, a bumper and a maiden hurdle, and seriously impressive in winning that maiden hurdle at Navan in November.  The market reacted accordingly and predictably, with Grangeclare West put in as favourite and Champ Kiely put in initially at as big as 7/1. 

A jockey’s choice is binary, though: one or zero, he or she rides one horse in a race and doesn’t ride the other(s).  You don’t know the degrees.  You don’t know how difficult a decision it was for the champion jockey on Sunday, how close he came to riding Champ Kiely.

The closer we got to off-time, the stronger Champ Kiely got in the market until, at the off, he was actually a shorter price than the original second favourite Irish Point, who had finished over four lengths in front of him in the Royal Bond Hurdle last month.

You could see the argument.  Champ Kiely was sent off as the odds-on favourite for the Royal Bond, a race in which he was just too keen early on.  He expended more energy than he needed to expend through the early throes of the race, and that almost certainly counted against him in the latter stages. 

He settled much better on Sunday.  He seemed to be happy in front, settled into a nice racing rhythm by Danny Mullins.  The low sun meant that the two hurdles that faced into it, the two flights in the home straight, were omitted, which probably wasn’t a positive for the front-runner.  It didn’t make any difference to the result though, because Champ Kiely picked up well on the front end, and he kept on gallantly up the hill to see off the challenge of old foe Irish Point, with the pair of them finishing nicely clear of their rivals as the Royal Bond Hurdle form came to the fore.

This race was won by Envoi Allen in 2020 and by Bob Olinger in 2021.  They both went to Cheltenham and won the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle just over two months later, and that race looks like a logical target for Champ Kiely now.  The Dublin Racing Festival comes up in the interim, but there is no two-and-a-half-mile Grade 1 novices’ hurdle there, just a two-mile race and a two-and-three-quarter-mile race, so it may be that Champ Kiely will go straight to Cheltenham now, as Envoi Allen did, as Bob Olinger did.

willie-mullins-file-photo PA Willie Mullins. PA

Of course, his Cheltenham target is not certain, complicated by the inevitable existence of other high-class Willie Mullins-trained novice hurdlers.  Last year’s Fred Winter runner-up Gaelic Warrior is also a Ballymore Hurdle possible, as is Impaire Et Passe, who was so impressive in winning his maiden hurdle over two miles and three furlongs at Naas just before Christmas.  Then there is Facile Vega, unbeaten now in four bumpers and two hurdle races, winner of two Grade 1 bumpers and one Grade 1 race over hurdles, and currently warm favourite for the Supreme.  And others.  It’s a deep pool.

Irish Point ran a big race too in finishing second.  He never let up, he pushed the winner all the way and he finished nicely clear of the rest.  Winner of a Grade 1 bumper over a mile and a half in France, Gordon Elliott’s horse stayed the two-and-a-half-mile trip well and, winner of his maiden hurdle over two miles, he has options too. 

And Dawn Rising kept on well to take third place.  A full-brother to Irish Derby winner Sovereign, and second in the Group 3 Bahrain Trophy over a mile and five furlongs on his final run for Aidan O’Brien, Joseph O’Brien’s horse saw out this intermediate trip well, and he could improve for stepping up in trip.

Marine Nationale didn’t race over the weekend, he is off enjoying a well-earned mid-season break, but Barry Connell’s horse is the horse who beat Irish Point and Champ Kiely in the Royal Bond Hurdle and, while that looked like a strong performance at the time, it looks even stronger now.  

The wheels will turn again soon.

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