Morgan Treacy/INPHO Jockeys waiting at Leopardstown on Sunday.
# Day One
Johnny Ward: Festive crowds sorely missed at muted Leopardstown
Ferny Hollow pipped market rival Rivier D’etel in the spectacle that marked the first day.

IT HAS BEEN said that Omicron variant may be the woke version of the Coronavirus: desperate for attention and shouting a lot but relatively harmless – and everything is relative after almost two years of this.

Almost two months ago, the World Health Organisation called it correctly: it would be the most heavily mutated version of the virus.

But at a muted Leopardstown, and with no reason to even criticise the government for being too cautious, it might have seemed easy to sulk.

The government was allowing 5,000 fans in – and what a cacophony prevailed thanks to the same number over in Limerick. But Leopardstown was so badly hit by staff essentially unable to work that it made the call itself: owners and members only for the four days. And horses.

Patrick Mullins came to Leopardstown for one ride – and one winner – but, with the stable having so many stars to light up day one, he had plenty on his mind.

“I was actually riding work earlier so I watched Sir Gerhard win the maiden hurdle on my phone, but I got to the track to have a run and watch Ferny Hollow in the big one.”

The hugely exciting Ferny Hollow would slug it out from the front with main market rival Rivier D’etel and it would be the spectacle that marked the first day in the novice chase.

Only something wasn’t there.

“I went down to see Ferny Hollow at the finish line,” Mullins said.

Usually you have this huge roar when a horse crosses the line after such a battle as he had with the mare. It was lacking that bit of magic.

“OK, having owners back was at least a lot better than last year. But the whole thing was a bit like a town in a Western.”

For his father Willie, the day could scarcely have gone much better. He only won the King George at Kempton with an apparent rag in Tornado Flyer, the first Irish winner since 2005, and he helped himself to a Leopardstown treble, Ferny Hollow the highlight but possibly not by much.

Ferny Hollow is now as short as 6-4 for the Arkle on March 15, day one of the Cheltenham Festival.

“I thought it was a huge performance to give that weight to a filly that no one has been close to all season,” the trainer said.

paul-townend-celebrates-onboard-ferny-hollow-after-winning-the-race Ryan Byrne / INPHO Paul Townend celebrates onboard Ferny Hollow. Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

“Coming back after an 11-month break with only a three-week gap, I was worried all week that I was asking him too much. Everything was against him and he still pulled it out of the bag. I thought it was an awesome performance.

“He loves jumping and has obviously got an engine. We could have waited another few weeks and gone to Punchestown. We’ll probably come back here for the Dublin Racing Festival and then the spring Festivals.”

There was a bit of awe about Ferny Hollow, the Cheltenham Bumper winner two years ago, when there was nothing that woke about people wondering should there have been thousands at Cheltenham. A year later, also for Willie Mullins and Cheveley Park, Sir Gerhard won the same race, albeit with nobody there.

Sir Gerhard is like a footballer who has played most of his career behind closed doors.

Yet his performance in the maiden hurdle here was pretty spell-binding, the 2-9 shot looking like he barely got out of bed in an eight-length romp.

He’s by Jeremy, like last year’s Supreme Novice Hurdle winner Appreciate It and, at this stage, you can probably guess the rest, with bookies cutting him into 4-1 for the Supreme afterwards.

“He’s smaller than Appreciate It,” said Mullins junior, “but he did pretty much all we expected. He just has to beat Jonbon now.”

A mate of mine was at Closutton one morning and an as-yet-unknown horse that would come to be loved as Douvan careered by him. Willie Mullins told him who he was, setting this intrepid young man on an ultimately fruitless but rollercoaster path of buying Douvan’s dam.

She of course would produce Jonbon, Douvan’s full brother, who is now perhaps worth seven figures (if JP McManus needed the sale) and favourite for the Supreme. Both are by Walk In The Park and the sire produced another potential star in the Mullins team’s Facile Vega, who ran away with the bumper.

His rider said: “He was better than I expected to be honest. I didn’t want it to turn into a sprint. We seem to have all these really good Walk In The Park horses. They have the looks and the Montjeu bit of class that their grandfather had.”

The day’s Grade 2, the juvenile hurdle, produced another stylish performance but this time it was Gordon Elliott who was smiling.

davy-russell-onboard-fil-dor-comes-home-to-win Ryan Byrne / INPHO Davy Russell onboard Fil Dor comes home to win. Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

Fil Dor barely came out of a canter to win at 4-9 under Davy Russell, who said afterwards that the Closutton team “was mad about him as a specimen from day one”.

Despite only being three years of age, perhaps helped by there being nobody there, Fil Dor looked as if a bomb could have gone off in the pre-parade and his stride would not have altered a half.

“We’re lucky to have him,” said Elliott, who has returned to training like a man on a mission.

“The Dublin Racing Festival in February would be the obvious place to go now, either there for the four-year-old race, or straight to the Triumph.

“We were tempted by Chepstow (Grade One Finale Hurdle) and I suppose it was the prize-money which kept us here.”

Elliott and Russell also combined with The Greek in the handicap hurdle at 14-1. So a double for them, a treble for Willie Mullins.

“The only downside is our local, the Lord Bagenal, is closed tonight,” smiled his son afterwards.

They’ll be back, as will the Leopardstown crowds, hopefully come February. 


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