AND breathe. After the madness of four action-packed days at Cheltenham, there is a slight calm in the air this weekend with just one meeting in Ireland at Thurles today and the Boulton Group Midlands Grand National (3.00) taking centre stage on the same afternoon in Britain.
Rest assured, there will still be plenty of thrills and spills and Willie Mullins could again be a thorn in the side of British trainers after a fruitful week at Prestbury Park.
The record-breaking Closutton maestro will bid for his first win in the Midlands National with Captain Kangaroo, who has failed to complete in his four starts since keeping on strongly to win the Cork Grand National in November.
It was too early to know how he’d have fared last time in the Grand National Trial Handicap Chase at Punchestown when falling at the 13th of 21 fences, though he had generally been jumping soundly on the front end at the time.
He will attempt to make it back-to-back wins for Irish-trained horses in this serious stamina test after Screaming Colours struck at 12/1 for Bill Durkan 12 months ago, though only two visiting runners have managed to claim the £150,000 prize since 2007.
Iwilldoit, who has shown massive improvement in the space of his last three runs to progress from a mark of 130 to 155, looks a worthy favourite for Welsh trainer Sam Thomas. However, the stats are against the top-weight, who must shoulder 12st, as no horse has won the Midlands National carrying more than 11st 5lb since the Martin Pipe-trained Bonanza Boy in 1991.
Closer to home, Thurles’ seven-race card sees the return of Asterion Forlonge, one of three rides at the meeting for Paul Townend, in the End Of The Season Hurdle (2.15). We haven’t seen the talented grey since his seventh behind A Plus Tard in last year’s Cheltenham Gold Cup, but he had been left in the Paddy Power Stayers’ Hurdle entries until just before the declaration stage this week, which is probably a positive sign in terms of his wellbeing after a long layoff.
Summerville Boy won the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle around this time in 2018 but he isn’t the force of old at the age of 11. However, he still showed some spark when a distant runner-up to Stayers’ Hurdle second Teahupoo in the Galmoy Hurdle in January.
Representing the Honeysuckle combination of Henry de Bromhead and Rachael Blackmore, he could find out any chinks in Asterion Forlonge’s armour if the Mullins challenger has an off day. Gordon Elliott saddles younger challengers Jaycean and Vina Ardanza.
Jones out to uphold family tradition
Thurles’ feature is the Grade 3 Pierce Molony Memorial Novice Chase (2.30) and Mouse Morris is hoping history can repeat itself when saddling the hat-trick seeker Indiana Jones.
The recent Grade 3 Flyingbolt Novice Chase winner is a half-brother to French Dynamite, who won this race 12 months ago for Morris, Darragh O’Keeffe and Robcour. Indiana Jones holds leading claims for the same connections.
Exquisitely bred as a half-brother to Mighty Potter too, he went 0-8 when first sent chasing (including three falls) but has now developed into a smart operator over fences.
Morris told The Irish Field: “It’s great that he’s got his act together over fences lately, and hopefully he can keep it together while he’s going this way. He did it well last time at Navan and hopefully this race should suit him too.
“It’s not ideal that we’ve got a 7lb penalty for winning the last day and I’m just hoping the ground will be okay for him. He probably wouldn’t like it to turn too testing.”
On stable star French Dynamite, who finished a fine fourth in the Ryanair Chase on Thursday, Morris added: “He ran a cracker and he seems to have travelled home in good nick. We’ll let the dust settle before deciding on where he’ll go next. Fairyhouse [next month] would look a realistic option for him. There’s also Aintree or Punchestown.”
Sole out to shine for Lee
Flame Bearer is one of Indiana Jones’ biggest dangers but Sole Pretender also has solid claims for Co Galway-based trainer Norman Lee, a trainer enjoying by far his best season.
This will be the nine-year-old’s first start since finishing third to Banbridge in an Arkle trial at Cheltenham in November.
“Things have been going well for us,” Lee told The Irish Field. “We’ve had 10 winners and 12 seconds this season from having about 15 horses on the go, as well as some youngsters.”
On a day when Cheltenham stars Mullins, de Bromhead, Elliott, Townend and Blackmore have big chances to hit the headlines again, Lee is optimistic of striking a blow for his smaller-scale operation.
“Hopefully the ground will keep drying out for Sole Pretender because he seems to like nice ground,” said Lee.
“He’s in great form at home. I think he’s been running well in better races than this so we’re going there hoping for a big run.”