Last month’s Cheltenham Festival was perhaps the best indication yet that Irish racing has excelled well past the quality on show in Britain. With just a quick glance at the horse racing results from the Prestbury Park meeting, the Irish dominance is clear. In the end, they thrashed the Brits to the Prestbury Cup, with a score of 23-5 confirming the trophy headed back across the Irish Sea for a sixth year in a row.
If that wasn’t a bitter enough blow for all those involved with British racing, even the Festival’s top jockey Rachael Blackmore ended the week with more winners (six) than the Brits in total, and they were denied a single win over hurdles across the four days.
It certainly makes for dire reading, and everyone from fans of the sport right up to the horse’s owners will be desperately seeking answers as to how the Irish have become so dominant at the iconic Festival.
However, looking forward, the upcoming Grand National Festival presents the opportunity for Britain’s best to bounce back from Cheltenham and show the nation that they still have that star quality, even if the meeting doesn’t exactly give them the chance to strike the revenge that they so crave.
The Grand National is unquestionably the pinnacle of the three-day meeting, and it is no secret that the Irish have taken the race by the scruff of the neck in recent years, with Tiger Roll winning the last two renewals, alongside Rule The World’s triumph in 2016.
It’s no surprise that the Grand National racecard is littered with Irish entries, and Cloth Cap, who is trained by Irishman Jonjo O’Neill, is set to line up for starter’s orders at 7/2, which would make him the shortest favourite to win the race in over 100 years!
There is, however, hope for the Brits in the meeting’s other big races. It is expected that the Irish are instead going to target the Punchestown Festival and the Fairyhouse Easter Festival, which both boast their fair share of Grade 1 outings as well as the Irish Grand National, as opposed to making the trip back across to England to compete at Aintree.
That leaves the Grade 1 meetings in Merseyside open to the Brits, and day one of the Festival (Liverpool’s NHS Day) kicks off with four top races, including the Manifesto Novices’ Chase, the 4yo Juvenile Hurdle, the Bowl and the Aintree Hurdle.
Wille Mullins’ Kemboy is the defending Bowl champion, which is day one’s feature. However, given his disappointing run in the Gold Cup, it’s not clear if the Cheltenham Leading Trainer will target the Aintree outing or keep the nine-year-old on home soil. That would leave the door open to the Colin Tizzard-trained Native River and Frodon, who is trained by Paul Nicholls, to nab a victory in the race.
The Aintree Hurdle is also open to a British winner with the unbeaten Honeysuckle, who won the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham last month, set to stay in Ireland and focus on the Paddy Power Champion Hurdle at Punchestown instead.
Moving onto day two (Ladies’ Day) and another four Grade 1 races are on offer – the Top Novices’ Hurdle, the Mildmay Novices’ Chase, the Melling Chase and the Sefton Novices’ Hurdle.
The Melling Chase is often filled with quality from the prior Cheltenham Festival, and it has been hinted that Shishkin, trained by Nicky Henderson, could make the step up for the two-mile, four-furlong race. We could also see the Paul Nicholls-trained Bravemansgame compete in the Sefton Novices’ Hurdle, which will be filled with future stars.
As already mentioned, the National will steal the spotlight on April 10th. However, there are also three Grade 1 races throughout the day, including the Mersey Novices’ Hurdle, the Novices’ Steeple Chase and the Liverpool Hurdle (known as Ryanair Stayers’ Hurdle for sponsorship reasons).
With Paddy Power Stayers’ Hurdle champion Flooring Porter tipped to stay in Ireland and head to Punchestown, that gives Paisley Park, who was the heavy favourite for the Cheltenham contest, the chance to bounce back and redeem himself with another Grade 1 victory. It’s more of a chance for the Brits to lick their wounds as opposed to anything else. However, it could be just what they need after the embarrassment imposed at the Cheltenham Festival.
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