December 07 2012
There are few more enjoyable race meetings over the winter than the Christmas Festival at Leopardstown racecourse near Dublin. The four-day bonanza, which begins on St Stephen’s Day (as locals call December 26), brings together the top steeplechasers and hurdlers in Ireland, competing for over €830,000 of prize money. There is a hugely convivial atmosphere, lubricated by liberal amounts of hot Irish whiskey, and the winners of the big sponsored events invariably become leading contenders for the Cheltenham Festival in March.
Of particular appeal to high rollers is its very strong betting market, and the stories of gambles won and lost are legion. In 2004 a horse called Keepatem outstayed 29 opponents to win the Paddy Power Chase. His owner, JP McManus, admitted afterwards that he’d “had a little bet that one of my runners would win, just to pay for the party”. But, according to the racecourse bookmakers, the “little bet” amounted to a sizeable six-figure payout.
In Ireland, the biggest betting event of the day is often the last one, which is traditionally known as the Bumper. These contests are flat races for young horses that are destined to face hurdles and fences in the future and are taking the first steps in their careers. All of the runners are ridden by amateurs, but Irish amateurs, male and female, are a match for any professional. The eventual target for the best of these horses will be the Weatherbys Champion Bumper at Cheltenham, an event that has been farmed by Irish stables, who have won it 15 times since 1992.
The man with the best record in Bumpers is the champion jumps trainer Willie Mullins, who likes to run his choicest prospects at Leopardstown.
Pre-race speculation reaches fever pitch as punters ask themselves, “Is this the one? Is this going to be Willie’s Cheltenham horse?” Twelve months ago Mullins ran a highly regarded young debutant called Champagne Fever in the Boxing Day Bumper. All the talk was of him beforehand and he went off the 4-5 favourite in a field of 13, but could only finish second. Yet punters who had their fingers burnt got their money back in style at Cheltenham, where he started at a generous 16-1 for the Weatherbys Bumper and beat a high-class field convincingly. He’s now jumping fences and is likely to be in action again at Leopardstown this Christmas.
The most prestigious contest of the meeting is the €150,000 Lexus Chase, which takes place on December 28 and has been won in the past by such steeplechasing legends as Best Mate and Denman. They were both trained in England, but I expect one of a very good bunch of young Irish chasers to take the prize this time: maybe Sir Des Champs or First Lieutenant, who are both owned by Michael O’Leary’s Gigginstown House Stud. The former is trained by Mullins and is the current ante-post favourite for the Cheltenham Gold Cup at 6-1 with Boylesports. But I’m also a big fan of the latter, whose canny trainer, Michael “Mouse” Morris, was also responsible for Keepatem and is second to none at preparing a horse for a big race. Whatever First Lieutenant achieves over Christmas, he’ll improve by March and he looks great each-way value for the Gold Cup at 16-1 with Coral.