Sunday 5 February 2023 Dublin: 9°C
Morgan Treacy/INPHO French Aseel in action at Leopardstown last month.
# Preview
Johnny Ward: Cheltenham without the Irish is a dispiriting thought
Our columnist looks ahead to the March festival and offers his recommendation for the Triumph Hurdle.

EXTENDED THE WITHERED ‘happy new year’ greeting last week, one felt obliged to reply: “Sorry, I’ve made other plans.”

January can be a difficult month. I cruised through November without a beer but got as far two days in the quest for Dry January. I gave in meekly, without a semblance of fight. At least we have racing.

The catastrophic Covid-19 escalation over the past month has been staggering. If racing were called off or even if elite sport were suspended, one would feel reluctant to complain and justifiably so. As such, those of us who are healthy and love sport have extra reason to be thankful. It could be worse, much worse.

Racing without racegoers is little different to those who never go racing: on TV it’s much the same. I’ve attended behind-closed-doors fixtures and you’d want to be paid to go. They’re boring, soulless and demoralising.

They serve no other purpose than to keep an industry going. And if Cheltenham is to go ahead with nobody there, what will it mean?

Will owners care as much about a Cheltenham winner? Will Irish runners be allowed for certain?

Mates have suggested long-term bets on British-trained horses at Cheltenham on the basis that the Irish might be kept at home. If Ireland without the Irish meant nothing to James Connolly, Cheltenham without the Irish would be a sporting disaster.

It’s a dispiriting thought and my first antepost column will be in the spirit of hope, hope that at least Irish runners will partake come March. Right now it seems fanciful that we’ll have Cheltenham’s usual attendance, even if a capacity crowd were allowed.

William Hill’s “To Win Any Race” market is one to which I will return in forthcoming weeks. My first selection, however, is a bet to win the Triumph Hurdle on the Friday of the four-day meet.

When Dark Voyager was sent off even-money favourite in a Ballinrobe three-year-old maiden hurdle in October, it is possible that Willie Mullins felt that he was running his best juvenile. Dark Voyager ran well but Zanahiyr pulled two and a half lengths ahead.

Dark Voyager was sent off odds-on on his next start, again suffering defeat. Next time out, he was a 5-1 chance at Leopardstown only to be beaten 41 lengths by French Aseel.

jack-kennedy-onboard-zanahiyr-comes-home-to-win Ryan Byrne / INPHO Zanahiyr with Jack Kennedy on board at Leopardstown. Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO


Dark Voyager’s owner, Joe Donnelly, saw enough in French Aseel to fork out a huge sum of money after the race, ensuring that Mullins had a Triumph Hurdle contender after all.

I got wind of the transfer last week and backed French Aseel for the Triumph, thinking he would shorten more than he has done for the race. That he has not allows us a chance to back him at 6/1, in my view great value.

French Aseel had run over an extended six furlongs on his last French start and I was suspicious about the gamble on him at Leopardstown, whilst he also ran a little freely, suggesting he would struggle to get home, but he looked in a totally different league to some promising horses, scoring by 22 lengths.

The 28-length third, Ilmig, was well-fancied, had won a Flat maiden and gone close on his hurdling debut.

When I rang Mullins about his acquisition, he seemed keen to focus on how “professional” French Aseel was at Leopardstown. There’s no doubt Ellmarie Holden can train but his jumping can be improved upon and Willie Mullins is Willie Mullins.

Exclusive Six
Nations Analysis

Get Murray Kinsella’s exclusive analysis of Ireland’s Six Nations campaign this spring

Become a Member

Zanahiyr deserves to be favourite for the Triumph but the rest are much of a muchness, with one obvious exception. It’s rare you have a horse who clearly stays well over hurdles but with the killer asset of the pace that this horse has.

He could be anything, has joined the man who tends to dominate Cheltenham and has only run once over hurdles, producing a performance that compelled the owner of Al Boum Photo to pay a small fortune to get him.

I presume French Aseel and Zanahiyr will clash next month at Leopardstown, that is if racing is still going ahead. Hopefully, we’ll all be in a much better place in two months’ time, cheering home a Cheltenham winner.

French Aseel to win Triumph Hurdle
2pts 6/1 (scale of 1-5)

Screenshot 2020-11-24 at 9.04.07 AM

Your Voice
Readers Comments
This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
Leave a Comment

    Leave a commentcancel