Racing: Irish celebrate a Merry Christmas

Richard Edmondson reports on the rich quality of competition at Leopardstown
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The Independent Online
It may have been that the fair citizens of Fishguard, Anglesey and Barrow-in-Furness have begun to hear sniggering coming from over the water in the last few days. While Britain's racing has been locked into cold storage, Ireland (which is constantly reminded about its shabby weather) has been going about its business quite normally.

Neither has the fare over the Irish Sea been unpalatable fodder. The Leopardstown Christmas festival has already witnessed the rehabilitation of the nation's favourite racehorse, Danoli, and yesterday there was another potential Cheltenham parade at the course that was modelled on Sandown and mercifully has not been brought up to date with introduction of frost.

When Santa packed his sleigh he clearly left just about all the baggage space for Richard Dunwoody, who followed up his win in the King George VI Chase with victory on Merry Gale at the Dublin track. Jim Dreaper's gelding has taken some time to return to the intimidating opponent he was two seasons ago, but the trainer attributes this to a prolonged recuperation from a breathing operation. "He was hobdayed as a two-year-old and gradually tissue decay set in in on his larynx," Dreaper said. "So the vet had to cut away the bad tissue and tie back the rest. The horse still can't sing but hopefully he can breathe better."

Merry Gale's win came at the main expense of the Queen Mother Champion chaser, Klairon Davis, whose Cheltenham exploits have not earned him any preferential treatment if Francis Woods' meaty smacks on the way into the home straight were any evidence. Klairon Davis has now failed on his first three starts this season, but as he was asked to give Merry Gale 15lb he hardly returned to booing.

There was also the opportunity for Istabraq to display why he is such a strong fancy to emulate his stablemate Urubande and capture the Sun Alliance Hurdle at the Festival. With the four-year-old's pedigree - he is by Sadler's Wells out of Betty's Secret, the mother of the 1984 Derby winner, Secreto - he should be answering the front door at a breeding den dressed in a smoking jacket. There is one thing that stops him achieving this, however, possibly even two, and they are both missing.

Istabraq no longer runs around in the blue colours of Hamdan Al Maktoum for John Gosden, but he is not making a bad fist of his new career with Aidan O'Brien and does not appear to resent the surgery that has been performed on him. The gelding has probably had harder workouts on the Limekilns than yesterday's race.

There was also a qualifier for the Festival's Cheltenham Gold Card Final, which are always intriguing contests for attempting to find the one horse out of 30 that is actually trying. Miltonfield, the Irish Cesarewitch winner, was handled so tenderly by Conor O'Dwyer here that it looked a blatant "not-off". But then he came through and won.

Leopardstown's feast continues this afternoon with four televised races, including one which will tell us whether Tom Doran was bonkers to resist a bid of pounds 300,000 for his novice chaser, Dorans Pride, earlier this month. The money race is the pounds 50,000 Ericsson Chase, which is rather less compelling now that the Gold Cup winner, Imperial Call, is a non-runner. Fergie Sutherland, the gelding's trainer, believes his seven-year-old has yet to recover from his last-fence fall at Punchestown earlier this month. This uninspiring medical bulletin did not prevent Ladbrokes cutting Imperial Call's odds from 9-2 to 4-1 for the Gold Cup yesterday.

While the resumption of turf racing on Britain hinges on an inspection at Newcastle this morning, moves have already been taken to replace some of the Christmas baubles that have already fallen. A pounds 15,000 added race is to be staged at Uttoxeter on New Year's Day to replace Wetherby's abandoned Castleford Chase, while a version of Kempton's lost Christmas Hurdle will be held at Sandown a week today.