Irish racing has a new folk hero as Peter Casey’s Flemenstar continued his progression through the ranks with his third Grade One victory in the John Durkan Memorial Punchestown Chase.
Not since the days of Tom Foley and Danoli has the racing public taken a horse and trainer so much to heart - and in Casey the seven-year-old has a trainer revelling in the limelight with the horse of a lifetime.
He took his winning run over fences to seven and in the process turned on the afterburners to beat the Willie Mullins-trained Sir Des Champs by a comfortable five lengths.
Both horses are now prominent in the betting for the Cheltenham Gold Cup over three and a quarter miles, so how much relevance this victory over two and a half miles will have in March is up for debate.
Flemenstar (even-money favourite) made all the running under Andrew Lynch and once again jumped with such alacrity at the head of affairs that his lead was continually stretched in effortless fashion. Last year’s winner Rubi Light trailed in a well-beaten last of three.
Flemenstar and Sir Des Champs could well clash again in the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown on December 28.
In the immediate aftermath, Casey raised the possibility of running in the Dial-A-Bet Chase over two miles and a furlong at Christmas, but that option was later ruled out as he is unlikely to be supplemented by owner Stephen Curran, who is keen to try three miles next.
Casey said: “I’m delighted with that, and he’s still not ready! He’ll go to Leopardstown at Christmas and will get three miles. I’ve never had any doubt about him getting three miles. We’ll have to see how he comes out of this race first. The Gold Cup is still the plan long-term.”
Mullins said of Sir Des Champs: “My fellow ran a good, solid race, and there is a lot to look forward to. He will probably run at Christmas and I will have to chat to the owners. We were staying on well at the finish, he jumped well enough and it was his first run of the season.
“I don’t think three miles will be a problem, he galloped all the way to the line. He’s entered in the Lexus, King George and the Dial-A-Bet. He could run in the two-mile race (Dial-A-Bet) to get further experience, but we will have to see how he comes out of this and discuss it.”
Upset Nicholls bids Kauto farewell
Paul Nicholls admitted his “sadness” after Kauto Star’s time at his Ditcheat yard came to an abrupt end on Tuesday.
The winner of five King Georges and two Cheltenham Gold Cups had been officially retired in late October and was expected to remain at Manor Farm Stables in Somerset until Boxing Day, when he was due to parade at Kempton.
Owner Clive Smith had announced on Monday that the 12-year-old would be moving away to be prepared by European bronze medalist eventing rider Laura Collett and long-time Great Britain manager and coach Yogi Breisner for a new career in the world of dressage - a decision not popular with Nicholls and his staff.
The winner of 19 races for the champion trainer, including four Betfair Chases and two Tingle Creeks, Kauto Star had been with Nicholls for eight years and was invariably ridden by his head lad Clifford Baker.
Nicholls told his Betfair column: “It is with great sadness that I have to report that Kauto Star has left the yard for the last time. It has been no secret that Kauto’s future has been a great source of debate since we announced his retirement. And, to be brutally honest, this morning I felt the time had finally come for me to take control of the situation, and to start making the decisions.
“Now, I am fully aware that Kauto is Clive’s horse and he can do as he wishes, even though I would personally have loved Clifford to have looked after him for the rest of his years. But what upset me and my team here is when Clive announced that he had spoken to experts about the horse’s future - but failed to consult and listen properly to the team that had looked after him here for the past nine years. That really upset us.”
Nicholls went on: “So we had a team meeting here this morning. And after listening to everybody involved - there were about six of us in the meeting - I rang up Clive, said I don’t want to fall out, but we think it is in the best interests of everybody concerned to take Kauto to Yogi Breisner’s this afternoon so that he could start his new career in the dressage field as soon as possible.
“Which we did with the saddest of hearts. But I like to think with a lot of dignity, too. And, yes, there were plenty of tears too. He was a member of the family here at Ditcheat, and we will all miss him so much. I would just to like say that it was a privilege for us here at Ditcheat to train the horse. Good luck, old boy. You were the best - and deserve the best.”
Collett, 22, who is an aspiring Olympian based at the Membury Estate in Wiltshire, tweeted: “I feel very privileged and extremely honoured to have been asked to ride Kauto Star. I will be working closely with Yogi to give Kauto Star the best chance of a second career in dressage.”
She later added: “Kauto Star has arrived safe and sound. Had a nice roll, now happily munching on his hay!”
‘Mad fresh’ Tidal ready for Lexus
Tidal Bay remains on course to challenge for the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown on December 28.
Trainer Paul Nicholls is looking to win the Grade One for the third time, following the victories of Denman and What A Friend, and his latest contender deserves a chance back at level weights after a stellar effort in handicap company.
Winner of the John Smith’s Hurdle on his comeback, Tidal Bay was then beaten only by Bobs Worth when carrying top weight in the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury.
“The more I think back about it, Barry (Geraghty) rode a great race on Bobs Worth,” said Nicholls.
“The horse is mad fresh at the moment and is going to run in the Lexus.”
O’Brien in running for top prize
Joseph O’Brien has made the shortlist for the RTE Sports Person of the Year Award.
The last representative from the world of racing to land the prestigious Irish sports prize was Barry Geraghty in 2003 and the 19-year-old has some stiff competition.
O’Brien had an incredible season, combining with his father to become the first jockey-trainer combination to win the Investec Derby aboard Camelot, as well as taking the Irish Derby and the 2000 Guineas on the colt.
Other Group Ones the father and son team achieved came in the likes of the Coronation Cup and Grand Prix de Paris, while O’Brien junior was eventually crowned champion jockey in Ireland.
To scoop the prize on December 23, selected by a panel of RTÉ Sport journalists and editorial staff, he must beat boxer Katie Taylor, who claimed the country’s first Olympic gold medal for 16 years at London 2012.
Others in the mix are last year’s winner and world number one golfer Rory McIlroy, European cross country star Fionnuala Britton and decorated rugby star Rob Kearney.
Mullins closing in on record
Patrick Mullins edged closer to making history as victory aboard the impressive Mozoltov at Gowran Park left him just three away from breaking the record for the number of winners in a calendar year for an amateur rider.
Mullins headed to County Kilkenny on the 69-winner mark for the year and with a fantastic book of four rides for his father, champion trainer Willie Mullins.
Although out of luck on his first ride aboard Upazo, the talented jockey struck gold an hour later as smart bumper horse Mozoltov won as a 1-4 favourite should when scoring by 24 lengths in the Students Day At Gowran Park 2013 - Tuesday April 9th Maiden Hurdle.
The winning trainer said: “He jumped well but he was a bit keen. He’ll go for a novice now, probably after Christmas. He’s a big horse but he’d go over any trip. Hopefully he’ll win more hurdles but he has the makings of a chaser.”
Mozoltov was cut to 20-1 from 25s for the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham by Stan James.
The rider appeared to have good chances of adding to his tally later in the day, but Champagne Agent was a disappointing favourite in the Gowran Park Racing Club 2013 Maiden Hurdle won by 33-1 chance Dante Anna and Super Mix was second to 25-1 shot Kick On Boss in the bumper.
Mullins is now two winners behind Billy Parkinson, who rode 72 in a year as an amateur in 1915, and looks sure to surpass that number if he stays injury free between now and the new year.
Mullins and Upazo had to make do with the runner-up spot in the Race That Stops A County - Jan 24th Thyestes 2013 Maiden Hurdle as fellow 5-4 joint-favourite Umpact made a most impressive Irish debut. The Tony Martin-trained French bumper winner eased clear of his main rival under Davy Russell and passed the post five and a half lengths to the good.
Martin said: “He’s a nice horse and he’d shown us that at home. He’s a good prospect. He won a schooling race in Thurles but how good, or what he is we don’t know yet. This is nothing to get carried away about and I’m not making any big plans. We’ll see in a fortnight where to go next but I doubt he’ll run at Christmas time.”
Stan James make Umpact a 25-1 shot for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival.