The Jockey Club held a media event at Leopardstown Racecourse yesterday (Sunday 5th February), day two of The Dublin Racing Festival, when trainers Henry de Bromhead and Joseph O’Brien plus jockey Danny Mullins talked about their hopes for The Cheltenham Festival in 2023.
HENRY DE BROMHEAD
All eyes at Leopardstown yesterday were on Honeysuckle, winner of the Unibet Champion Hurdle in 2021 and 2022, who contested the Grade One Chanelle Pharma Irish Champion Hurdle.
Having been defeated for the first time in her career at Fairyhouse when third in the Grade One Hatton’s Grace Hurdle in early December, Honeysuckle put up a stronger performance in yesterday’s contest but was still unable to overhaul 6-5 Favourite State Man, finishing the four and three-quarter lengths runner-up under her regular partner Rachael Blackmore.
Speaking straight after the race, de Bromhead said: “I thought she ran really well and we’re happy with her.
“We don’t have to say anything about her courage or her attitude, she was brilliant all the way to the line.
“That (reception) is incredible, they’ve always been massive fans and that’s amazing, but that’s National Hunt racing through and through.
“He (State Man) looked very good. Obviously, there is also Constitution Hill in England but that’s not something I need to worry about too much, I will leave that up to them.”
As regards Honeysuckle’s future and whether she will race again, de Bromhead was non-committal.
He continued: “I’m not sure, I can’t answer that. The plan was to finish out this season, but we’ll see.
“it’s not for me to say, I’d prefer to speak to Kenny (Alexander, owner) and Peter (Molony, Racing Manager) and everybody - we’ll make a decision together.
“She has options, there is the Mares Hurdles as well as obviously which we’ve said all along. We’ll see.”
Speaking later in the afternoon, de Bromhead elaborated further on the option of running Honeysuckle in the Grade One Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle at The Festival – a race she won in 2020.
He said: “It’s not entirely down to my thinking, but my thinking would be if she was to go to Cheltenham, she would for me go for the Mares’ Hurdle. There is obviously Constitution Hill over there and State Man looked good today.
“My job if we go to Cheltenham is to find the race that we have the best chance of winning. I am not saying it’s an easier race, or we are going to win it (the Mares’ Hurdle) but I think it’s fair to have we have a better chance of winning that race than the Champion Hurdle.”
The last two renewals of the Boodles Cheltenham Gold Cup have gone to de Bromhead with Minella Indo in 2021 getting the better of A Plus Tard before the placings were reversed in 2022.
This season has seen Minella Indo make a winning reappearance in the Grade Three Savills New Year’s Day Chase at Tramore while A Plus Tard ran disappointingly when pulled-up in the Grade One Betfair Chase at Haydock Park in November before a late setback ruled him out of the Grade One Savills Chase at Leopardstown over Christmas.
The County Waterford handler said: “It was frustrating with A Plus Tard at Christmas but that’s what happened and we just have to deal with that. I would love to have had another run under his belt but we didn’t and he’ll go straight there. Touch wood, he seems great now.
“He wasn’t right when he came back from Haydock – it was too bad to be true – then he got a knock on the day of the Savills which was really frustrating. We are able to get him ready though and I saw him this morning and he was in great form, so we will just try and get him there as good as we can.
“Indo’s run was great in Tramore and we were delighted with him that day. Every year up to now we went to Cheltenham defending his form – when he won the Albert Bartlett (at 50-1 in 2019) he was a maiden and in the Brown Advisory he’d just got over the line in a beginners chase at Navan. But he’s incredible horse and when he gets to Cheltenham - he just loves it there.
“He’s 10 now and a bit older but was still second in the Gold Cup last year and is a previous winner. This year we worked backwards from the Gold Cup and it was Robbie (Power’s) suggestion to run at Tramore. The stats might be against him but he’s in mighty form.”
Assessing the depth of this year’s Gold Cup field, de Bromhead said: “Galopin Des Champs looks very good. They said A Plus Tard was the third best winner in the last 40 years when he won it and Indo was very good too, plus there are others coming through.”
In September last year, de Bromhead and his wife Heather tragically lost their 13 year old son Jack, who was killed in a freak fall at Glenbeigh horse and pony races.
Reflecting on that tragedy, de Bromhead concluded: “The year I’ve had has put a lot of things in life into perspective. You are still under pressure (preparing horses for The Festival) but you have a different perspective on life. The support we get is incredible. It was very kind of Michael O’Leary to name the mares’ novices’ hurdle at The Festival after Jack.”
This year de Bromhead expects his team for The Festival to number between 16 and 20, with other contenders likely to include Inthepocket (Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle), Magical Zoe (Jack de Bromhead Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle) and Hiddenvalleylake (Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle).
The trainer also revealed that Ain't That A Shame will be entered for the Randox Grand National – entries for which are revealed tomorrow (Tuesday 7th February).
De Bromhead has trained 18 winners and The Festival in total. He also saddled the 2021 Randox Grand National winner Minella Times.
Jockey Danny Mullins has enjoyed two winners at The Festival, both of which have come on Flooring Porter in the Grade One Paddy Power Stayers’ Hurdle (2021 & 2022).
Mullins rode three winners at the Dublin Racing Festival, all of which came at Grade One level – Gala Marceau (Spring Juvenile Hurdle), Gentleman De Mee (Ladbrokes Dublin Chase) and Il Etait Temps (Tattersalls Ireland Novice Hurdle). The trio are all trained by the jockey’s uncle Willie Mullins, Ireland’s champion Jump trainer and the winning-most trainer of all-time at The Festival with 88 winners.
The 30 year old outlined his Cheltenham hopes for 2023.
He said: “Cheltenham has been great for me for the last couple of years - it’s down to partnering good horses which makes things easy for me.
“Flooring Porter is a very good horse. Things happened as I expected on the day when he won and you can’t do that without the horse.
“Fingers crossed, he’ll make it to Cheltenham. There is no better than Gavin Cromwell (trainer) as you’ve seen this weekend, when he has got the ammunition he is well able to hit the target. While I’m lucky to be part of Willie’s team, it’s fantastic to riding winners for Gavin as well as he is up and coming trainer.
“The Stayers’ Hurdle looks a strong race. Home By The Lee has pitched himself in there and Teahupoo looks good on what he has achieved.
“Cheltenham is about taking each other on in proper championship races. I have to keep riding well to get the chance to ride there.
“Cheltenham is Cheltenham and it is the week of the year when us in horseracing get the chance to hit the mainstream media. We get recognised outside of our sport and while it is important to be riding well day in day out, Cheltenham is the place where it hits all of the headlines in all of the papers. I’ve been lucky enough to win there before and hopefully can win again.”
While Mullins does not know what he will ride at this stage for his uncle, one horse he is looking forward to is Princess Zoe who is trained by his father Tony. The eight year old mare won the Group One Prix du Cadran on the Flat in 2020 and made a successful hurdling debut when dead-heating at Punchestown on January 30th.
Mullins continued: “It was a good performance and more a case of job done than being elated (referring to her hurdling debut).
“She was at the sales in December and didn’t start schooling until the new year. Coming from Tony’s I think there is bags of improvement there compared to a horse coming from a big team like Willie’s.
“She is going to need to find improvement to be competitive at Cheltenham but she will learn plenty and got the job done when she won – she was good and tough to battle after hitting the last.
“You couldn’t say she will win the mares’ novices’ hurdle but she should be a competitor with the improvement you would expect. She is a strong stayer and not short of pace so two miles at Cheltenham (in the Jack de Bromhead Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle) should suit her.”
JOSEPH O’BRIEN – Q&A
Joseph O’Brien has saddled three Festival winners. The former Flat jockey, who twice rode the winner of The Derby, outlines his thought for the 2023 Festival below.
Are you looking at the strongest team you’ve ever taken to Cheltenham?
“I don’t think so. I think we have some nice horses to go to war with for the spring festivals but I think we’ve taken stronger teams, and certainly bigger teams, before.
“There’s an awful lot of time to go between now and Cheltenham and we’re really excited to go there with some nice prospects and we’re looking forward to the week.”
Are you where you want to be with six weeks to go?
“Absolutely, the horses have ran well all season. We’re very pleased with where we are at this stage of the year.
“The spring festivals are very important and that’s what it’s all about so hopefully we can have a good second part of the season as well.”
The Festival is always special the week for everyone, isn’t it?
“It really is, it’s the Olympics and all the different phrases you want to describe what Cheltenham is for National Hunt racing. It’s the most important week of the year and it’s important that we’re not only there but we perform well there. We’re excited to go there with hopefully some nice prospects.”
Top of the list - Home By The Lee?
“Home by the Lee has a big chance in the Stayers’ Hurdle. Obviously, it’s a very competitive race now with a couple of horses springing into the market that were potentially going elsewhere up until recent weeks. He’s done nothing wrong all season.
“Stamina is really his forte and he’s shown that this season. He ran quite well in the race last year (finishing sixth), he wasn’t beaten far, and obviously looks an improved horse this year.”
Was that always the hope that he would improve, or has it been a pleasant surprise?
“You always hope for more, but I suppose when he won at Navan that was a surprise and it looks as though he’s taken a step forward and kind of proved that when he came back at Christmas time.
“When we won at Navan we didn’t expect to beat Bob Olinger over two-and-a-half and that probably showed he was a better horse than the year before.
“He proved that here at Christmas time and we think he’s a horse that likes to be fresh so the plan was to go straight to Cheltenham.”
What do you put that improvement down to?
“I think he’s just a year older and he won chasing and was a decent novice chaser but lost his way.
“He came back over hurdles and we were in no man’s land a little bit and kind of feeling our way. He’s taken his form to the next level this season.
“I think he has a good chance as any but there have been some impressive horses in that division in the last few weeks, or last month. It’s certainly looking a hot race but he’s in there with a good a chance as any at the moment.”
We won’t be seeing Banbridge over two miles again?
“It looks as though he’ll go up in trip. He ran very well here yesterday, he finished strongly and really looked as though he was crying out for a bit further.”
Experience of Cheltenham- that he has got which is a big plus?
“Absolutely. He’s a course winner over hurdles and fences and we know he can perform there which is a big help.”
Fakir D'oudairies – see how Ascot goes and take it from there?
“Yeah exactly, that is what it comes down to. We’ll see how Ascot goes, it looks a really hot race this year. From there we’ll make a plan for Cheltenham, Aintree and Punchestown.
“He’s still only an eight-year-old but he’s been around for a long time. Ascot is the plan and then he’ll be left in the Ryanair and the decision will be made late and we’ll speak to JP (McManus, owner) and Frank (Berry, Racing Manager) as to whether he’s going to Cheltenham or waits for Aintree.”
Any other contenders?
“We do and have a couple of juveniles. Comfort Zone is in there for the Triumph, he’ll have a couple of entries, but he looks a smart horse as well.”
Compare, if you can, being a trainer to being a jockey. Is it a different type of challenge? Do you enjoy it?
“Brendan (Powell) is a big part of the team as everyone knows and I suppose we’ve been doing this for a few years now and it’s exciting to go to Cheltenham with a big team, with Brendan part of the team.
“We have a great team of people at home as well and obviously with any big yard it’s all about the people there behind you and with you and I’m very lucky to have a team of people who in my opinion stand up there with everyone in the world.”
What would have to happen for it to be a good week for Joseph O’Brien?
“A winner. We’ll take one and go and be happy with a winner.”