Final preparations being made for Cheltenham

With only just over a fortnight until Cheltenham now the leading Irish contenders are now starting final preparations to cross the water for the 2013 festival.

With only just over a fortnight until Cheltenham now the leading Irish contenders are now starting final preparations to cross the water for the 2013 festival.

With some of the most open races in years set to take place at Prestbury Park over the four days keep an eye on our column and our Facebook page, turf talk racing, for all the latest info on Irish runners.

Novice fields start to take shape

With only 15 days to go before the start of the Cheltenham Festival, the eight novice hurdles and chases are beginning to take shape following the latest confirmation stage.

A total of 53 go forward for the William Hill Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, with JP McManus holding a strong hand with My Tent Or Yours and Jezki. Among the 41 horses scratched were Nicky Richards’ duo of Duke Of Navan and Eduard and Clive Cox’s Poet. Of the remaining entries, 18 are Irish-trained including Un Atout, Champagne Fever, Pique Sous and Mozoltov for Willie Mullins.

Many contenders are also in the Neptune Investment Management Novices’ Hurdle including The New One and Don Cossack. Also among the 74 to stand their ground are Pont Alexandre, Whispering Gallery and Taquin De Seuil. All the major contenders are left in the JCB Triumph Hurdle, with 47 in the field, while 76 are left in the Albert Bartlett following 31 scratchings.

A total of 21 remain in the Arkle, headed by hot favourite Simonsig, although Boston Bob and Cantlow were among 12 withdrawals. There are 58 left in the John Oaksey National Hunt Chase, including Back In Focus, Harry Topper and Goulanes, while Houblon Des Obeaux and Rocky Creek have been taken out.

The RSA Chase has just 31 going forward with 15 of them hailing from Ireland. The likes of Boston Bob, Lord Windermere and Lyreen Legend will take on a home team headed by Dynaste. Boston Bob also remains as one of 40 in the Jewson, along with Dynaste. Among the 23 Irish entries are Texas Jack and Aupcharlie.Captain Conan, Molotof and Module are also there.

Gold first choice for Morris

Mouse Morris would prefer to run First Lieutenant in the Betfred Gold Cup rather than the Ryanair Chase at Cheltenham next month. First Lieutenant, owned by Gigginstown House Stud, is second-favourite at around 9-2 for the Ryanair, while he is a general 12-1 chance for the blue riband. However, Morris feels the eight-year-old would be better suited by the longer distance of the Gold Cup.

The trainer told At The Races: “My preference with the ground drying out would be the Gold Cup. Bryan Cooper has ridden him before and he’s available, so that is the way I would like to go with him. We are going to discuss it next week.”

While without a victory this year, First Lieutenant has performed with credit, finishing third in the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury and runner-up to Kauto Stone in the JNwine.com Champion Chase at Down Royal and to Tidal Bay in the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown.

“He’ll stay forever, it’s just if he has enough toe for the Ryanair, and I don’t think he would,” said Morris.

“He runs above himself at Cheltenham and he’s done nothing wrong this year. He’s just not got his head in front. He ran well at Down Royal, he ran well in the handicap at Newbury (Hennessy) and ran a blinder at Leopardstown.”

Morris is leaning towards the Ryanair for the Michael O’Flynn-owned China Rock, who found the Gold Cup distance too far last March when eighth to Synchronised before going on to win the Punchestown Gold Cup. The trainer said: “He ran a good race in the Gold Cup last year but just didn’t get home. He had a wind problem which a tongue strap appears to have fixed. He hacked up in the Punchestown Gold Cup and he ran a good race up to the last in the Lexus (fifth). He has enough toe for the Ryanair.”

Morris is looking forward to running Rule The World in the Neptune Novices’ Hurdle. The six-year-old, another owned by Gigginstown, is around 10-1 for the two-mile-five contest after winning three of his four starts over hurdles.

Bolger hoping for Festival magic.

Enda Bolger is keeping his fingers crossed Drawn N Drank gets into the final field for the John Oaksey National Hunt Chase at next month’s Cheltenham Festival. Although the seven-year-old has some experience of competing over larger obstacles having run in point-to-points, hunter chases and a cross-country race, Drawn N Drank has been kept to hurdles this season.

It has proved a profitable campaign so far as the chestnut has won two of his last three races and was a good second on his latest appearance at Thurles a month ago. Bolger feels the four-mile trip of the National Hunt Chase will be right up his charge’s street, but should he not get a run, he could switch to either the Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase or stick over hurdles for the Albert Bartlett at Cheltenham.

“He’s in good form and his first choice is the four-miler if he gets in,” said the trainer. “He’s also in a hurdle race and I don’t know what sort of handicap mark he’d get in the cross-country, but the National Hunt Chase is his number one aim.

“He’s done well over hurdles this season. He’s won two of his last three and was giving a lot of weight away to the winner when he was second the last day.

“He has experience of running in hunter chases and point-to-points. “He’s in good shape, will like better ground and four miles shouldn’t be a problem to him, it’s just a question of whether he’s good enough.”

Sous team hope for dry spell

Connections of Pique Sous are praying for a dry three weeks before their pride and joy runs at the Cheltenham Festival. The grey finished third behind Champagne Fever in the Champion Bumper last year, but heavy ground has restricted him to just two starts over hurdles and an easy win on the all-weather at Dundalk since last August. He will head straight to Cheltenham now, most likely for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, and Steve Massey, who helps run the Supreme Horse Racing Syndicate who own the gelding, hopes the rain eventually relents.

“He was always going to have a break through the mid-winter as he just can’t act on soft ground, we found that out in the summer,” said Massey of the Willie Mullins-trained six-year-old.

“We’re not worried about going there without a recent run over hurdles, Willie Mullins is a master of his trade - just look at what he does with Quevega each year.

“It probably helps that he has all those good horses to work them with, it’s not like he has just one good horse. “He bounced out of Dundalk in great form and it was great that Paul (Townend) was able to get him settled there as he can be a bit keen.

“All we want now is for it to dry up and to hear no talk of watering!”

Rubi ruled out of Cheltenham

Rubi Light has been ruled out of next month’s Cheltenham Festival after suffering an injury during his disappointing run at Navan on Tuesday. Robbie Hennessy’s stable star was the odds-on favourite to win the Grade Two Red Mills Chase for the third successive year, but was beaten a long way into third by Grand National candidate Chicago Grey.

Hennessy had been looking forward to a third tilt at Cheltenham’s Ryanair Chase with his eight-year-old, having finished third and fifth the last two years, but he is now set to be saved for the Punchestown Festival in April.

The trainer said: “He’s pulled muscles in his hind quarters and is quite stiff and sore.

“Andrew (Lynch, jockey) thinks he must have done it quite early in the race, as he said he was never travelling at any stage. “We haven’t had much luck with him this year as he’s had a lung infection and a foot problem and now this, so it’s frustrating.

“We’ll have to knock Cheltenham on the head now as I’m not going to rush him back. If we rush him, it would probably do more damage than good.

“We’ll give him a bit of time and hopefully we’ll have him back in top form for Punchestown.”

Fringe brushes up for Aintree

Enda Bolger is hopeful leading hunter chaser On The Fringe will have fully recovered from injury in time to compete over the Grand National fences at Aintree in April. The lightly raced eight-year-old was beaten into fourth when joint-favourite for the Foxhunter Chase at Cheltenham in 2011 and although he missed the Festival last year, he ran some fine races, signing off with an impressive victory at Punchestown.

Bolger had hoped to see the JP McManus-owned gelding return to Prestbury Park next month, but an injury picked up over the Christmas period means he will not be ready to make the trip across the Irish Sea. However, the Foxhunters’ Chase at Aintree could now be on his agenda.

“He picked up a stress fracture over Christmas and unfortunately that ruled him out of Cheltenham as he won’t be ready in time,” said Bolger.

“He’s back in action now and will hopefully be ready to go in the spring.

“He could go to Liverpool (Aintree) for the Foxhunters’ there and there is Fairyhouse and Punchestown too.”

O’Brien bumper duo strike out

And finally, champion flat trainer Aidan O’Brien’s first National Hunt runners in well over eight years failed to land a blow in the AES Family Saturday At The Festival INH Flat Race at Punchestown on Wednesday.

O’Brien saddled two runners, with Egyptian Warrior a particularly fascinating contender due to him being a full-brother to Epsom Derby favourite Kingsbarns. He drifted out to 3-1 and although he made some headway in the hands of the trainer’s daughter, Sarah, he was ultimately well beaten in fifth.

Stable companion Shield (10-1), partnered by Kate Harrington, ran a more encouraging race for a long way, but he could only find the one pace in the straight and passed the post one place ahead of Egyptian Warrior. The race was won by the Garrett Power-trained newcomer Yes Sir Brian (20-1), with Ange Balafre second and the gambled-on favourite Guns And Malt third.