THE PUNTER'S EYE: The horses to back at the inaugural Dublin Racing Festival
The Dublin Racing Festival at Leopardstown is a new venture on the Irish calendar and it has certainly attracted the stars this weekend. Here are the horses we are backing as serious Grade 1 action warms us up for Cheltenham:
Unsurprisingly, the Willie Mullins pair of Min and Yorkhill dominate the market in the 13:45 race at Leopardstown on Saturday with the latter currently trading as the 8/11 favourite. However, despite being demoted to second place behind Simply Ned at this track last time out following a stewards inquiry, it is far too early to write Min off. Taking that technicality out of it, he has got his head in front on six out of seven starts since December 2015. The only horse to actually finish ahead of him was the imperious Altior at Cheltenham in 2016. At odds of 9/4 on Saturday, he is the value and can get one over on his better-fancied stable companion.
The Irish Champion Hurdle at 15:30 on Saturday sees the re-introduction of Faugheen who was pulled up on his long-awaited return to action at Leopardstown on December 29. Willie Mullins insists he's come out of that well, and although he faces a live British raider in the shape of Defi Du Seuil, Faugheen can recapture his Champion Hurdle winning form. He's won 12 of his 14 hurdles starts, each one as facile as the next, and the fact that his return was dimmed by the sight of him pulling up perhaps explains his odds of 5/4. Defi Du Seuil is on a rescue mission after finishing fourth and 17 lengths behind Lil Rockerfeller at Ascot in November, but before that he'd been flawless with seven straight wins. Beyond that, Melon could be a future champion hurdle prospect, but this level may be a bridge too far for him at this stage.
On Sunday, Espoir D'Allen, one of the hottest hurdling prospects around, puts his unbeaten record on the line in the 13:15 contest. He is hugely fancied for Cheltenham success in the Triumph Hurdle in March, and Gavin Cromwell is one of the in-form trainers around. Espoir D'Allen will face horses he's beaten before in this race, including Mitchouka and Farclas, but Willie Mullins is lining up a formidable challenger hoping to halt his march to Prestbury Park. Mr Adjudicator could have a big say after winning easily at this track on December 27. Nevertheless, I think Espoir D'Allen will have far too much for all comers on Sunday, and is a worthy of inclusion in any multiple bet at odds of 4/5.
One of the big 'sure-things' of the weekend is the unbeaten Gordon Elliott six-year-old, Samcro. A horse regularly described as a 'monster' and perhaps the best in a stellar yard, Samcro can make it six from six on the track after an unbeaten run stretching back to November 2016, not to mention a cosy point-to-point win at Monksgrange in April of that year. A criticism levelled at this horse is that he hasn't beaten real top opposition yet, but the manner of his wins over decent animals, Mind's Eye, Jetz and Cluan Dara was so impressive, it's hard not to be taken with the imposing chestnut gelding. He's priced at 4/7 for the 13:50 at Leopardstown on Sunday and could very well grab all the headlines. He could very well be doubled up with Espoir D'Allen in a bumper double.
Finally, Minella Rocco has what it takes to land the Irish Gold Cup at 15:35 on Sunday and odds available on him as of Friday afternoon range from 8/1 to 16/1. The Jonjo O'Neill-trained eight-year-old will handle the trip and testing conditions, and has proven his staying prowess over and over again, not least when he beat Native River over 3M 7F at Cheltenham in 2016. He was also second to Sizing John in last season's Cheltenham Gold Cup. Lately, he's been in action here in Ireland and was a respectable fourth, nine lengths behind winner Road to Respect in the Christmas Chase at this track on December 28. He'll have to overturn form with Outlander and overcome top prospect Our Duke, but this horse usually gets better as his season progresses. A big run is expected at a good each-way price.