While the Dublin Racing Festival this coming weekend will provide many concrete Cheltenham pointers, the weekend just passed has seen plenty of horses shorten for festival targets at Cheltenham.
It was trials day on Saturday at Prestbury Park and there were at least three legitimate contenders on show while Naas, Doncaster, and Fairyhouse played their part too.
If there is a horse that could be confidently described as a banker at the Cheltenham festival, the Paisley Park surely fits the bill. The horse is fit and well, will definitely be going for the Stayers' Hurdle and as is often the case the competition looks limited, unless Benie Des Dieux turns up. On all known form, trainer Willie Mullins will run his mare in the mares' race.
In the Cleeve Hurdle on Saturday, Paisley Park was again devastating. Similar to previous staying hurdle greats, he hit a brief flat spot in-running. His rider Aidan Coleman didn't panic and gave his mount a little squeeze to pick up Summerville Boy readily before immediately idling as he hit the front.
"He's just brilliant. He's gone around there in 2nd gear and then he's took the piss up the run-in."@AidanColeman a happy man! 😂
Another brilliant win on Paisley Park!#VMTVRacing pic.twitter.com/IDC1zF5TR7
— Virgin Media Sport (@VMSportIE) January 25, 2020
The only concern for Paisley Park and his backers would be a fast finisher nabbing him on the line when he pricks his ears as he did on Saturday. Unfortunately not many are able to get even remotely close enough to Emma Lavelle's stable star to land such a shocking blow.
Paisley Park is odds-on across the boards now for the Stayers' Hurdle after the weekend, and deservedly so. It's a race with many repeat winners on its roll of honour.
Nicky Henderson has won the Gold Cup twice, a third looks a possibility after Santini bounced back to form in the Cotswolds Chase at Cheltenham on Saturday. Santini has been a divisive figure among racing fans with his occasionally ponderous style not likely to set many pulses racing.
Our team on Santini:
"He's done everything you could have possibly asked. He's firmly a Gold Cup contender" - Jonathan Neesom
"I think this was a tremendous Gold Cup trial" - Steve Mellish pic.twitter.com/qQHdaof2Se
— Racing TV (@RacingTV) January 25, 2020
The Gold Cup trip is an extreme one, as shown by previous Welsh National and National Hunt Chaser winners capturing Gold Cups in the recent past at Cheltenham. He beat a solid yardstick in Bristol de Mai on Saturday and given it was his first run off the back of a break and a wind operation, further improvement by March 13th is a given.
Connections have been very sweet on this horse since the start, and only two horses have finished in front of him over fences. He was beaten by an exception looking novice in Topofthegame in last year's RSA, but Don Cossack, Long Run, and Mr Mulligan were all beaten in that race who went on to take the Gold Cup the following year.
Santini has shortened up significantly in the betting for this year's renewal, deservedly so.
The Solerina Hurdle at Fairyhouse has become one of the key trials for Cheltenham. the race has provided two of the four winners of the Dawn Run Mares' novice hurdle at the festival. Minella Melody staked her claim and shot to the top of the betting for the Cheltenham contest after she gave weight all round to the rest of the field to win comprehensively.
Cheltenham Festival contender?
Minella Melody lands our highlight, the Grade 3 Eco Friendly Cups Solerina Mares Novice Hurdle.
Congratulations to @HenrydeBromhead, @rachaelblackmor and Kenny Alexander 👏 pic.twitter.com/UkBh2iYvTT
— FairyhouseRacecourse (@Fairyhouse) January 25, 2020
Minella Melody was giving connections back to back wins in the race as they obliged with Honeysuckle 12 months ago.
After the race trainer, Henry De Bromhead said he would enter her in both the Dawn Run and also the Ballymore. However, he seemed to be edging more towards keeping to her own sex later in the afternoon. Irish race fans will get a chance to see her back at Fairyhouse for the Grade One EBF Mares Novice Hurdle over Easter, a race also won by Honeysuckle last season.
The win by Minella Melody strengthens Henry de Bromhead's Cheltenham chances even further, with the trainer likely to have up to seven runners at single-figure prices come March.
Willie Mullins in January
It was mentioned how December wasn't a brilliant time for trainer Willie Mullins, with several high profile defeats over the festive period. The champion trainer has blown the cobwebs off with a blistering start to the new year, with 24 winners already on the board for the month.
The four winners at Naas on Sunday all look Cheltenham bound, while Allaho booked his festival ticket at Fairyhouse on Saturday. Allaho has options in the March and RSA, but assuming Faugheen lines up in the Marsh in March, the RSA looks the likelier target.
How impressive was team @WillieMullinsNH yesterday with a 4⃣ timer!🏇
We are looking forward to following this lot to the @CheltenhamRaces Festival➡️⛴️
Which performance impressed you the most? #NaasRC #NurseryOfChampions pic.twitter.com/Dl2nhZJPbl
— Naas Racecourse (@NaasRacecourse) January 27, 2020
Stormy Island made it three out of three for the season and the trained confirmed afterwards he was likely to head to the Mares' Hurdle at the festival next.
“She was rated 148 coming into this race so she is good enough to be entered and run in the Mares Hurdle at Cheltenham after that run." Mullins told the assembled press.
Carefully Selected has only one entry at the Cheltenham Festival, the National Hunt Chase, in order to qualify for that he needed to finish in the first four home at Naas on Sunday. He won with authority although his jumping was a little sketchy at times.
Patrick Mullins will be patient with him at the festival one imagines as there are question marks about his jumping, but the engine looks beyond reproach.
The Big Getaway had been a disappointment so far having been beaten in two bumpers and on hurdling debut, but he made no mistake under positive tactics from jockey Paul Townend. The Big Getaway made every yard and the well-named enormous son Getaway looks a big player in the Albert Bartlett.
Patrick Mullins could have a brilliant festival as Billaway heads to the Foxhunters Chase, a race the most successful amateur rider in history has never won. Billaway was bought specifically to end Patrick's drought according to the trainer's post-race comments, given the quality of the opposition on Sunday at Naas, he's a deserved favourite for the race.