THURLES’ biggest National Hunt fixture of the year often delivers pointers for the Cheltenham Festival, and Allaho again attempted to use the meeting as a launchpad to Ryanair Chase success when getting back on winning tracks in the Grade 2 Horse & Jockey Hotel Chase.

After losing some of his air of invincibility when third in the King George VI Chase at Kempton last month, the Cheveley Park-owned dual Ryanair Chase winner needed to bounce back with a win in the race he had won twice before.

A weather warning may have put off some racegoers from attending, but it was a cough that ruled Envoi Allen out of what initially looked strong running of this €40,000 event, while Savills Chase third Capodanno was a non-runner due to a temperature.

That made the task more straightforward for the 8/13 favourite, ridden by Paul Townend, and he did not face pressure on the lead that might have been expected from stablemate Appreciate It.

Despite jumping left on several occasions, he always looked to be doing enough to account for his three rivals, with the previously out-of-form Stattler finishing closest without ever looking a massive threat, beaten 13 lengths. Appreciate It and French Dynamite failed to give their true running in a one-two-three for Willie Mullins.

Speaking on behalf of his father, Patrick Mullins said: “He looked back to himself. He probably just didn’t quite get home in the King George, and he’s not getting any younger. It took him a while to warm up to his jumping but what more could you want. It was a Grade 1 race in all bar name. All four horses are Grade 1 horses, so it’s brilliant for Thurles and the Horse & Jockey, for sponsoring it.”

Allaho was as short as 2/1 for the Ryanair Chase after this display but sadly news broke on Thursday evening that the horse was lame after the race with a sprained hock and would miss Cheltenham. There is a possibility he could return in time for Punchestown.

On the beaten Closutton runners last Sunday, Patrick Mullins said:” That was brilliant from Stattler. He’s just started to spark in the last month. He lost his form completely after the Gold Cup and so now we can start aiming big with him again.

“Danny [Mullins] said he had a great position on Appreciate It, travelled great, jumped great, but once they quickened, he found nothing.

“It’s disappointing as I thought he’d be challenging Allaho. He wears a tongue strap, so maybe nicer ground might help.”

Hero of the hour

The champion jockey and trainer doubled up when High Class Hero (2/7 favourite) continued his unbeaten run since joining connections in the W.T. O’Grady Memorial Irish EBF Novice Hurdle - a smart performance that saw him promoted to outright 6/1 favourite for the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle with some firms.

Townend, sporting the colours of Sullivan Bloodstock Ltd, Neill Hughes and Pat Crowley, said: “It turned into a dash off the final bend and he made up a lot of ground when we quickened. In an instant he got in there, a bit like he did at Limerick last time. I was always holding them from there. The conditions are testing.

“I think he has enough runs [for a race like the Albert Bartlett]. I think he has the right attitude as well. I think he is progressing.”

Two rides equals two winners for Kennedy

JACK Kennedy and Gordon Elliott continued their fine season with a double on the card from their only two runners together, including an important success for owner Tim O’Driscoll in the Grade 2 Carey Glass Irish EBF Mares Novice Chase with Harmonya Maker.

It was the owner’s first win at Grade 2 level with the useful mare, who had disappointed at the Limerick Christmas Festival but roared back to form with a battling victory over old foe Hauturiere by a length and a half at 10/3.

Kennedy said: “She did what we were expecting her to do all along. For whatever reason, she was disappointing the last couple of runs but she’s back to what we thought she’d be. Once she keeps her mind on the job, hopefully she can progress.”

The trainer-jockey brace was initiated by an overdue success for Pioneer Racing’s Purse Price in the opening Connolly’s Red Mills Irish EBF Auction Maiden Hurdle over just shy of two miles - taking advantage of a golden opportunity at 7/4.

The easy 16-length winner raced professionally to get off the mark at the 13th attempt over hurdles.

Kennedy said: “It’s great for her to get her head in front because she’s been consistent. It was probably a weak enough contest and she put it to bed fairly easily. Hopefully there’ll be another race or two in her, and that she gains confidence from this.”

Hogan back in business

Arguably the ride of the day came over the same distance in the Horse & Jockey Handicap Hurdle by Mark McDonagh aboard Little Mixup, who was delivered right on time to reel in the front-running Pakens Rock for a four-and-three-quarter-length victory at 12/1.

Carrying the colours of the winning rider’s father, Mark, the recent course third provided Denis Hogan with his first National Hunt winner since returning from suspension.

“Being honest, I thought the handicapper had him,” said the winning trainer.

“I asked him to drop him in the weights to run in a 0-116 handicap, but it looks like he was right. He’s a game horse and thanks to the McDonaghs, who support me well.

“I have to thank all the owners who stood by me. It was a tough end to the year but we’re driving on into a new year. It was messy [during the suspension]. I advised owners to send horses here and there, and thankfully I got them all back. We’re very busy with young horses.”

Ferns is new Cheltenham favourite

THE concluding Carey Glass Hunters Chase was a key pointer to the St James’s Place Festival Hunters’ Chase at Cheltenham in 2022 when David Christie’s Winged Leader got the better of Billaway, with the tables turned dramatically in a thrilling finish at the Festival.

Could this year’s Thurles contest have similar implications on the spring festivals? Christie is certainly hoping so with his impressive 2024 winner Ferns Lock, who proved a class apart from his rivals as 8/15 favourite.

The mount of Barry O’Neill raced and jumped with enthusiasm on his way to an eight-length success over the useful Romeo Magico. Owner Ray Nicholas’ seven-year-old is now the ante-post favourite for his Cheltenham target (cut to 11/4 from 4/1 with Betfair Sportsbook).

Christie said: “His goal is Cheltenham this year, and I hope he’ll step up again from this. He’s a beautiful mover who wants better ground. He has an awful size of an engine but is very immature. He’s learning with every race.”

Regarding the application of a tongue-tie this season, he added: “On heavy ground - it started last year - after he’d finished a race there’d be a little palate noise. It was nothing major so we put on a tongue-tie as a safeguard. On nicer ground he wouldn’t really need it but I’ll leave it on because he’s quite happy with it.”

Falco flies home

Last year’s Duggan Veterinary 4Cyte Handicap Chase was won by subsequent Kim Muir runner-up Stumptown, and Eric McNamara is considering a tilt at another major handicap with the latest winner of this extended-two-mile-and-five-furlong contest, Falco Blitz.

The ex-Nicky Henderson-trained 10-year-old was given a supremely confident ride by Conor McNamara and came through smoothly to record a 16/1 success by seven lengths.

“This winner means a lot to me because it’s for his owner Shane Carmody - a great supporter of ours,” said the winning trainer.

“The horse had been a solid, consistent horse who deserved his day. He was bought the same day as Real Steel but took longer to win.

“He’s entered in the valuable O’Driscolls Leopardstown Handicap Chase at the Dublin Racing Festival and that’s a possibility for him.”