THE festive racing period doesn’t end until next Sunday, January 8th, when Naas stages the Grade 1 Lawlor’s of Naas Novice Hurdle and, judged on recent runnings, the €100,000 contest is very likely to produce a top-class winner.

Envoi Allen won this two-and-a-half-mile event in 2020, en route to Cheltenham glory, and last year’s winner Ginto was travelling well at Cheltenham until suffering a fatal injury.

Gordon Elliott trained both of those Naas winners and has actually won four of the last five runnings, so his representatives must be respected next Sunday.

At the official press launch for the 2023 edition, Elliott put forward three possible candidates – Imagine, Irish Point and Three Card Brag. Irish Point has the strongest form, having just been pipped by Marine Nationale in the Royal Bond Novice Hurdle, and the extra distance at Naas could bring about further improvement.

Willie Mullins has already hinted he will run the unbeaten Grangeclare West in the Lawlor’s of Naas Novice Hurdle, and he also has the option of running Cheltenham runner-up Gaelic Warrior.

Dawn Rising (Joseph O’Brien), Joyeux Machin (Paul Nolan) and Affordale Fury (Noel Meade) are other names to look out for at next Tuesday’s six-day entry stage.

Established race

Racecourse manager Eamonn McEvoy is not too surprised the race has become an established stopping point on the road to Cheltenham. Five Irish-trained Cheltenham winners in 2022 had their final prep race at Naas. “If you’re aiming your horse at Cheltenham, you might as well test them on a stiff left-handed track like Naas before you go,” he said.

McEvoy is thrilled to see the prize money for the Grade 1 rise to €100,000 this season. “It’s mainly down to the support of Jack Tierney in Lawlor’s. He is a legend in the hotel business. If you go in there, you will see Jack flying around, always on the go. He has done a phenomenal job with the place.”

Lawlor’s Hotel and Naas Racecourse are two of the town’s oldest businesses and McEvoy says the partnership works well. “The race is performing so well that it is constantly referred to in previews leading up to the Cheltenham Festival. So Lawlor’s is getting good publicity from its sponsorship.”

Next Sunday’s card also boasts a good novice chase which has thrown up Blue Lord and Energumene in recent years. McEvoy said: “Willie Mullins nearly always runs a good one in it, so maybe he might run Appreciate It this time. It’s a winners-of-one but is a graded race in all but name.”

Award winner

It’s been another excellent year for Naas. In October the track was named Racecourse of the Year by the Association of Irish Racehorse Owners. “That award meant a lot to us, because we place great importance on encouraging owners to run their best horses at Naas,” McEvoy said.

He reckons it is not just the racing surface or the facilities that owners like about Naas. “I’d say a lot of it is down to the food,” he says. “During Covid we took a chance and began working with a new caterer, Lily & Wild.

“They were a start-up, owned by Kevin Walsh, and they were just operating out of a coffee van. It was a risky move but we liked their food and, since we have moved back indoors, owners are now enjoying it too. It’s certainly getting a good reaction.”

Naas Racecourse has also invested in improving catering standards all over the track. Barista-quality coffee is served in all cafés and restaurants.

Of course, the track itself has undergone significant upgrades in recent years and the work is not finished yet. McEvoy reports:L “We’re doing a job on the 10-furlong course on the round track. Aidan O’Brien mentioned it to our chairman Dermot Cantillon and work began almost immediately. It’s a big undertaking but we will have a fresh strip of ground there when the new flat season starts.”

Shane Webb is the new track foreman, having moved to Naas from Down Royal. He succeeds Roy Butler who has taken a position with Sean Mulryan’s Ardenode Stud.

Group 1 winners

It’s not unusual for top-class flat horses to run at Naas. The 2022 Group 1 winners Auguste Rodin and Little Big Bear won their maidens at Naas, and Breeders’ Cup winner Meditate won a Group 3 at the Royal Ascot Trials Day at Naas in May before landing the Albany Stakes at the Royal meeting.

Getting the support of locals and the racing industry is the key to racecourse success and, with that in mind, Naas will be making some interesting sponsorship announcements in the coming weeks. “Watch this space,” says McEvoy.

In the meantime, there is plenty of off-track entertainment planned for next Sunday. This includes a €3,000 best dressed competition, sponsored by Residence Day Spa, Aria Boutique in Naas and Lawlor’s Town Centre Hotel.

There is a free creche and playground onsite, and there will be entertainment for children and adults during racing.

Racing starts at 12.50pm and admission is just €15.