La Bague Au Roi was victorious in Kempton’s prestigious Kauto Star Novices Chase on Boxing DayDublin Racing FestivalVenue: Leopardstown (February 2 and 3)Coverage: Commentary on BBC Radio 5 live It’s not just rugby union’s two much-anticipated Six Nations matches that are making Dublin such a sporting hub this early February.The second staging of the Dublin…
|Dublin Racing Festival|
|Venue:Leopardstown (February 2 and 3)|
|Coverage:Commentary on BBC Radio 5 live|
It’s not just rugby union’s two much-anticipated Six Nations matches that are making Dublin such a sporting hub this early February.
The second staging of the Dublin Racing Festival brings together many leading contenders for jump racing’s Cheltenham Festival in March – mainly Irish, but a few British too – during a weekend of races at Leopardstown dripping with intrigue and potential significance.
And while British officials are nervous about freezing weather conditions disrupting their fixtures, the Leopardstown management reports the track has been frost-free in the build-up.
If ice and snow do indeed perform their worst back home, Lambourn, Berkshire-based trainer Warren Greatrex will be extra pleased he’s been targeting a race at the Dublin course for months with stable star La Bague Au Roi.
The eight-year-old mare, known to all at Greatrex HQ as the rather simpler ‘Lolly’, arrives for the Grade One, 125,000 euro Flogas Novices Chase (Sunday) on something of a crest of a wave, having been unbeaten in three races from three starts over steeplechase fences, each time ridden by champion jump-jockey Richard Johnson.
After successes at Newbury, twice, the silks of her owners, Nicky Turner and Andrew Merriam, were most recently seen in a Grade One-race winners’ circle after Kempton’s prestigious Kauto Star Novices Chase on Boxing Day.
A quality hurdler who competed at the highest level, she’s proved tuition over the bigger obstacles given by retired Cheltenham Gold Cup-winning trainer Henrietta Knight to be worth every penny.
“Lolly is in great nick, really thriving,” Greatrex told BBC Sport. “She seems to have come on again since Kempton and is in tip-top order.
“Any horse that wins 13 races from 18 starts, Grade Twos and now a Grade One is very, very good, and I think you’re seeing the finished article.
“Thank God she did win a Grade One because I’ve been banging on about her for a while.
“She’s entered at the Cheltenham Festival, but I’m not totally convinced Cheltenham’s her track – this and Aintree are important to us; it’s not all about Cheltenham, but we’ll see after Leopardstown.”
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La Bague Au Roi is one of the burgeoning, 80-plus string under the care of the Greatrex team at Uplands in Upper Lambourn, the stables made famous by the late champion trainer Fred Winter.
I recall Greatrex, father of twin-brother Flat jockeys Eddy and Tom, first mentioning this race and the distance – just short of two and three-quarter miles – back in the autumn, and that despite always knowing they’d be up against horses from some of Ireland’s biggest-name stables, including that of the ever-formidable Gordon Elliott.
But Greatrex seems relaxed about all that especially as La Bague Au Roi is conceded racing’s sex-weight-allowance, an absolute gift for the most talented female runners.
“For her to get seven pounds from the boys makes it hard for them,” he said.
“And I think the track and the distance around there should be right up her street, and I wanted to support the Festival too because it’s a good initiative and good prizemoney.
“Also, we’re an unknown to them – they run against themselves all the time – and even if it doesn’t give us an edge because we’re in their backyard, we are something a bit different so you never know.”
Also at Leopardstown…
Saturday is Irish Champion Hurdle day in which another top-drawer mare Apple’s Jade – owned by airline tycoon Michael O’Leary’s Gigginstown House Stud racing operation and trained by Gordon Elliott – is due to line-up. Like La Bague Au Roi, she is conceded weight by rivals including Melon, runner-up behind Buveur D’Air in the 2018 Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham.
In the Grade One Dublin Chase, Simply Ned, trained by Nicky Richards in Cumbria but described at Leopardstown as “practically living here” having raced at the track six times, is back. The 12-year-old’s never been out of the first three in those six races, and renews rivalry with an old rival, Min, from whom he gained a Grade One race at Leopardstown in 2017 after a stewards’ inquiry.
On Sunday, Cheltenham Gold Cup fancies, including Road To Respect and Al Boum Photo, are due to strut their stuff in the Irish Gold Cup.
At Sandown on Saturday – which has survived the winter weather – two-timer Champion Hurdle winner Buveur D’Air ought to have an easy dress rehearsal for the Cheltenham Festival against four rivals in the Contenders Hurdle, while the unbeaten Vinndication looks to extend his run to seven out of seven in the Grade One Scilly Isles Novices’ Chase.