THERE are so many races to savour this weekend but Ruby Walsh is in no doubt as to the one he is most looking forward to, the Chanelle Pharma Irish Champion Hurdle on Sunday.
Walsh, who was speaking on a press call on Wednesday morning, was ideally placed to comment on the weekend, with his punditry hat on but also given his role for Willie Mullins, who dominates the declarations for the majority of the Grade 1s.
Honeysuckle bids to win her fourth Irish Champion Hurdle and perhaps more significantly, prove her doubters wrong. It’s conceivable that tomorrow could be her last appearance on the racecourse but Walsh isn’t looking any further than Leopardstown, preferring to savour what could be a tightly fought affair.
“I think this will be the most tactical race of the weekend, I think I’ll be a great race,” he said. “Who makes it? Who’s the cat and who’s the mouse? What way does this race shape up?
“Honeysuckle is the champion. State Man has done nothing wrong this year, he’s the Morgiana and Matheson winner. Vauban is last year’s Triumph winner and his comeback was brilliant in the Matheson.
“It’s a small field so it’s going to be really tactical but what you get in a small field, tactical race is when they jump the second last you’ll be able to throw a blanket over them and I think the crowd in Leopardstown will be fairly hopping when these roll off the home turn.”
While Walsh will naturally be willing on both State Man and Vauban, he admitted his admiration for Honeysuckle, who has been written off by plenty after her comeback effort.
“This is Ireland,” Walsh said. “A champion gets knocked down and then when she goes and wins again we’re all behind her again!
“With my Willie Mullins hat on I’d love to see State Man or Vauban win but with my human hat on I’ll be shouting for Honeysuckle. I think she’s been an incredible race mare, and I think herself, Henry and Rachael have been incredible for the promotion and popularity of the sport. They are incredible.
“I don’t see her going to Cheltenham if she’s well beaten on Sunday. You’re now at the beginning of February and I wouldn’t be surprised if she was wound down over the next six weeks and her next visit was to a stallion in that scenario. But that is a doomsday way of looking at it. All I know is they will just be thinking about the Irish Champion Hurdle for now.”
THE Irish Arkle is an absolute belter and that is all down to Willie Mullins. Appreciate It, Dysart Dynamo, El Fabiolo, Saint Roi and Flame Bearer will all make the trip up from Closutton to take each other on.
“This’ll be a cracking race,” Walsh said. “Dysart Dynamo was very good at Christmas, El Fabiolo probably has to jump better than he did at Fairyhouse, Saint Roi came from well off the pace to win here at Christmas and that is strong form.
“Fil Dor made a mistake at the third last and to be fair it was only his second start over fences, he had beaten Saint Roi at Navan so you wouldn’t be surprised with a better round of jumping if he turned that around.
“Then you have Appreciate It, who has had two starts and done nothing wrong and he looks rock solid. I think the better ground that we’re going to get at the weekend compared to the Drinmore will suit Banbridge better.”
Tactically, the race will be fascinating, with Dysart Dynamo knowing only one way to go about his business and Appreciate It likely to go forward as well. Asked about this, Walsh said: “You’re looking at it and thinking, that’s the kind of race that sets up for a closer and that could be Saint Roi. That’s the way he’s ridden, that’s the way he won at Christmas.
“He’s a good jumper, he’s a County Hurdle winner which is a stiff two miles at Cheltenham. The makeup of the race could suit up for a horse like Saint Roi coming from off the pace.”
THERE was an interesting line from Tom Mullins in last week’s Big Interview. Asked about the dominance of his brother Willie, Tom said: “I’d be biased in wanting Willie to succeed but you’d often come away from the races some days and wonder whether the sport can handle that.”
Looking ahead to one of the biggest weekends on the Irish racing calendar, it’s hard to forecast anything other than another Closutton steam roll. When the entries were published on Tuesday, there were just 66 in the eight Grade 1s and exactly half of them were provided by the champion trainer.
“Willie has 33 capable of being entered, they’re entered,” Walsh said. “The bigger question to me is where are the rest of the horses?
“Are we breeding less horses? We are probably from the peak in 2007 - but I don’t think it’s come down since 2012.
“You’re looking at Willie with 33, we’re looking at 66 in total - have we only bred and imported 66 horses in total that are capable of being entered this weekend? Maybe that’s too deep a way of looking at it
“Willie has the ones he has but they’re all here - I’d be thinking where are the rest of them?”
Walsh was then asked if he is at all worried that another Mullins steamroll is a bad look for the sport.
“Put it this way, I would mind if you walked into Leopardstown on Saturday and Willie had just declared Lossiemouth (for the Spring Juvenile Hurdle) and she was just taking on Darraby and Ascending.
“The same for the Irish Arkle. What if Willie just decided Dysart Dynamo is the best choice and left the rest at home. I think that would be a significantly worse-off state to be in.
“Of course you would love the competition to be more. But do you blame Dublin for winning six All-Irelands in a row? Is it their fault or were they just better than the opposition. Do you blame Kilkenny before that or Limerick for their dominance in hurling now?”
RUBY Walsh admitted he was worried watching Galopin Des Champs for the first half mile of the John Durkan Chase.
“Willie was delighted with him but I wasn’t standing beside Willie,” he recalls. “I was just thinking this is a different horse than the one we saw last year. It was his first run of the season, you’d be thinking he should be lit up, he should be a bit over exuberant but he wasn’t, he was relaxed, he wasn’t standing back off fences when he should have been getting in close, he was doing everything right.
“Willie didn’t do anything different with him but his jumping was much more measured, he was a much more relaxed horse.
“We thought he was a stayer but last year he caught us by surprise by being over enthusiastic, by being too brave at his fences, whereas this year, you’re going with what he’s shown you and looking at the John Durkan, Paul felt it, Willie thought it, he looked like a horse that wanted to go up in trip whereas last year he looked like a horse who wanted to be coming down in trip not going up.”
That said, three miles around Leopardstown is one thing and an extended three miles and two furlongs around Cheltenham is another. Walsh is best placed to attest to that.
“That will always be the doubt, I always walked away from Leopardstown thinking Florida Pearl would win (a Gold Cup), but he never quite got home. I won two Gold Cups, if I could have got paid out from the last at how many I was going to win, I’d have two more to add to it on Djakadam and probably more if I thought about it. That last furlong in a Gold Cup is just so far and so taxing.
“So even if Galopin wins the Paddy Power Irish Gold Cup, can you walk out of Leopardstown with your hand on your heart and say, he’ll definitely get three and a quarter? None of us can, none of us will know until the Friday afternoon at Cheltenham in March.”
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