Champion Hurdle dark horse Espoir D’Allen continued his progression when winning his first race outside his own age group in the Limestone Lad Hurdle at Naas on Sunday.
A smart juvenile last season, the five-year-old has only lost one of his eight races, when going wrong in the Spring Juvenile Hurdle at last season’s Dublin Racing Festival.
He has looked an improved performer in this campaign, winning at Naas and Limerick, but he faced a different test in this Grade 3 affair, conceding 7lb to older rivals including Grade 1 winner Wicklow Brave.
Everything went smoothly in the main for Barry Geraghty, who gave the 4/9 favourite a flick down the neck approaching the second-last, with his mount quickening impressively.
His only blemish came at the final flight, where he landed awkwardly, but he had enough left to hold off Wicklow Brave by a comfortable two and a half lengths.
Cromwell said: “It was a good performance to give 7lb away to those horses. It was a bit of an unknown taking on the older horses for the first time, but you would have to be happy with that.
“Where we go from here, I’m not sure, and I’ll have to talk to Frank (Berry, racing manager) and J.P. (McManus, owner). Obviously they have the favourite for the Champion Hurdle (Buveur D’Air) and there are plenty more options.
“He was very long at the last and he let him shorten. He picked up well again after the last and won well. He’s a good jumper and makes up ground at his hurdles. He has fair scope.”
In the Champion Hurdle, he would in all probability be ridden by Mark Walsh, should as seems highly likely Geraghty opt to stick with dual champion Buveur D’Air.
Geraghty said: “He’s a lovely horse, jumps really well, though he missed the last, but he’s a smart sort with lots of scope. He was giving 7lb to reasonable opposition and did it nicely. He doesn’t have options, the division he’s in now is the Champion and if Buveur D’Air wasn’t there he’d be a nice ride.”
Ballyward ran out a wide-margin winner in a dramatic renewal of the Naas Racecourse Business Club Novice Chase.
Willie Mullins’ seven-year-old looked set to have a real battle on his hands approaching the final fence in the Grade 3 event alongside Paul Nolan’s Discorama, only for the latter to take a crashing fall.
While both Discorama and Bryan Cooper escaped unscathed, it robbed the race of the exciting finish it deserved as a handful of promising novices were involved.
Henry de Bromhead’s Chris’s Dream attempted to make all for Robbie Power and was still in front approaching the home turn, where the challengers looked menacing.
They included Gordon Elliott’s Champagne Classic, not seen since winning at the Punchestown Festival in 2017 and who unsurprisingly just got tired close home having made a pleasing comeback.
It boiled down to who could jump the last best and whereas Ruby Walsh got a good leap out of Willie Mullins’ Ballyward (7/2), Discorama hit the deck, allowing Chris’s Dream to claim second.
Mullins said: “I’m delighted with that considering it was just his second run over fences. Whether we give him another run over a shorter trip for experience before Cheltenham I’m not sure. I’d imagine the RSA will be the race for him. He has lots of stamina and seems to jump well enough.”
Walsh added: “There was plenty of form in the race and Champagne Classic ran a cracker after so long off. He wasn’t doing a lot in front, but it was a good run and I’m sure his trainer will be thinking of crossing the (Irish) sea (for Cheltenham). He’d improved a good bit for his first run and he had decent form over hurdles in the Albert Bartlett and at Punchestown.”
Joseph O’Brien saddled his second smart juvenile to victory in the space of 48 hours as Konitho ran out a ready winner of the BetVictor Maiden Hurdle.
Making his Irish debut having run in a French Grade 3 on his last outing, he travelled supremely well throughout for J.J. Slevin.
Slevin made sure he grabbed the rail running to the last, forcing Paul Townend to switch on the favourite Runrized, and Konitho (8/1) breezed clear to win by five lengths from the staying-on Lethal Steps.
O’Brien said: “He was working well at home, but it was a bit of a surprise that he won like that. J.J. said he jumped fantastic and he felt comfortable all the way. He’s a fine, big horse and his three runs in France were a big help today. It’s early days, but he’ll have to have an entry in the Triumph. Leopardstown is only next week so will come too soon for him I think.”
Regarding Saturday’s Cheltenham winner Fakir D’Oudairies, O’Brien said: “You couldn’t but be impressed with him, he was really impressive and jumped very well. J.J. said he got to the front much earlier than planned, but he was going so easily. Obviously he’ll head back to Cheltenham now. He actually ran over fences in France, which has obviously stood him in good stead.
“We’ll run as many as we can at Leopardstown, and there is also a graded race at Fairyhouse, so we’ll see how things are after that.”
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