Racing Commentary: Irish hold their aces in a Festival pursuit: A nation's jumping talent stays at home and lifts prospects of a new dawn of Cheltenham domination

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FOR THE last 10 years in Irish jumps racing, everything has been for sale but the nation's optimism.

Britain's voracious appetite for well-bred throughbreds has seen just about every horse that could raise a gallop being purchased for competition across the Irish Sea, but, despite the loss of their best beasts, the Irish have never been short of confidence going into the Cheltenham Festival.

In the Republic this weekend the talk was yet again of impending glories at Prestbury Park in March, predictions which have met with a sad reality in recent years. For once, however, there may be substance behind the words.

The recession in Britain and sterling's diminishing value against the punt are such that the leading horses nurtured in Ireland are staying there, provoking notions of a return to the Festival dominance of a dozen years ago.

'People are just not around to give big money,' Ted Walsh, a former champion amateur rider and trainer, says. 'And that means you could see us going back to the early Eighties, days when the first five horses in the betting would be Irish horses and they would all arrive at the last together.

'We've got Montelado and Tiananmen Square, who would normally have been sold, but they're both still here, and another outstanding bumper called Bucks-Choice. They'd all be in the hundred grand-plus horses bracket and you just can't get that money.'

Montelado and Tiananmen Square have already shown their prowess at Cheltenham, having occupied the first two places in the newly-instituted bumper race at the Festival last year. In days of old, it would not have been worth the bother for these horses to return home after such an achievement, but when the geldings began their jumping careers this season it was at Limerick and Fairyhouse, on Saturday, respectively.

'My horse is not on the market anyway,' Pat Flynn, Montelado's trainer, said yesterday. 'After his last run he got a bad throat infection and we lost a lot of ground with him, but I didn't mind because we're in no rush and Cheltenham is a long way away. I can say that he's back perfect again because I rode him this morning and he's in brilliant order.'

Montelado will return to the racecourse around Christmas, either back at Limerick or at Leopardstown, which may also be the venue for Tiananmen Square's next venture.

Noel Meade, who trains Tiananmen Square, also expects a fruitful catch at National Hunt's focus in three months' time. 'The situation has always been that we've been been breeding horses to sell them, but over the last two years they just haven't been sold because the English trade is not there to the extent it was,' he says.

'Because of that I thought we would do well last year, and although we didn't have as many winners there were a few horses there or thereabouts, so I think we're on the way back all right.

This is a two-edged sword, though. A consequence of the British absenteeism is larger fields of more talented horses in Ireland, a situation which makes success at home even more elusive.

'For sure our racing is much better and more competitive than it's been for a long time,' Meade says. 'We've a lot of good novice hurdlers and good novice chasers in the country at the moment which just haven't been bought. It's much harder to win here, but we can't have it every way.'

The young chasers at the forefront of these thoughts are Flashing Steel and Soft Day, who met at Punchestown yesterday. Soft Day was the victor here, taking advantage of his market rival's fall and further suggesting that he will erase the memory of his poor run in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle last season.

On the same card, Cahervillahow, who has been carrying Ireland's banner in the top staying chases in recent seasons, was beaten for the third time this season. The Durkan Brothers International Chase went instead to Gold Options, who held on narrowly from General Idea.

The winner, formerly trained by Jimmy FitzGerald, could yet show that the traffic across the Irish Sea has not been brought entirely to a standstill. 'Gold Options may go back to Jimmy FitzGerald, as there are probably more options for him over there,' Seamus McCaghy, the 10-year-old's owner, said.

The weekend's staying event of note in Britain was the Rehearsal Chase at Chepstow, where Miinnehoma's Cheltenham Gold Cup credentials weakened as he was beaten by stablemate Run For Free. Despite lengthy mitigation from the nine-year-old's trainer, Martin Pipe, Ladbrokes pushed the horse out to 14-1 (from 10-1) for the Blue Riband.

Pipe's Granville Again may be fighting to restore his honour in the family on Saturday, when he and full-brother Morley Street are pencilled in for the Bula Hurdle at Cheltenham.

If the match goes ahead there will be both the chance for Granville Again to avenge defeat at his sibling's hand last month and evidence of how racing used to work in yesteryear. Both of these outstanding brothers have made their names in Britain after being brought up in Ireland.

(Photograph omitted)