The Grade 2, 2m4f Kinloch Brae Chase is the centrepiece of the racing year at Thurles and this Thursday’s event has attracted a top-class entry headed by Grade 1 winners Champagne Fever and Don Cossack as well as last year’s winner Texas Jack.
A vintage renewal lies in store with most of the attention being lavished on the Gordon Elliot trained Don Cossack and Willie Mullins’ Champagne Fever. Don Cossack has won three graded races this season scoring at the top level in the John Durkan Chase at Punchestown last month. The high-class Boston Bob was among his victims that day and after a bad mistake at the third last, it was pleasing how well he stayed on at the finish over a similar intermediate trip to the one he faces on Thursday.
Resolution has often been seen as an issue in the past with this Gigginstown owned gelding but it might well have been that this is a horse who was still strengthening up and is better suited by two-an-a-half miles than three, anyway. A dual grade 1 winning 8yo with perhaps his best still in front of him, this strong travelling type is likely to go close here en route to the Ryanair Chase at Cheltenham. With connections keen not to bottom him with the festival in mind, holding or gluey ground might compromise his chances on Thursday, though.
Champagne Fever has an enviable Cheltenham Festival record having won the Bumper, and a vintage Supreme Novices’ Hurdle there as well as placing in the Arkle last year. Conventional wisdom has always been that he would improve over a staying trip with Ruby Walsh remarking that he would ‘stay 4 miles.’
Tipped for stardom among the ranks of Gold Cup contenders, things have not materialised quite as hoped for Champagne Fever who finished a brave fourth in the 3 mile winter showpiece that is the King George last time out. It seems that the flying grey is simply too exuberant to operate properly over 3 miles where he is liable to pull too hard due to the slacker early pace.
Proven at this grade, in the ground and over the 20f trip, Champagne Fever couldn’t have been more impressive in landing the Clonmel Oil Chase in similar conditions in November. We are getting towards his time of the year now and he would look to be the one to beat here with Mullins keen to figure out what route to take with him at Cheltenham.
Texas Jack ran made a pleasing enough return in the Durkan behind Don Cossack and should travel well into contention if near his best. He doesn’t always find as much in a finish as looks likely, however. Ballycasey has looked a bit triples at or near the top level and while 20f could well indeed be his metier, he is beginning to develop a bit of a patchy profile, is another who you wouldn’t want in a finish and is always well found in the betting. Mullins other runners still in at this stage are Twinlight and Djakadam. The former was a surprise 16/1 winner of the Grade 1 2 mile chase at Leopardstown’s Christmas meeting but is likely to be kept for something else. Djakadam is also likely to be elsewhere with a staying handicap at Leopardstown on the 24th a more likely next port of call. There should be a good pot in him yet off a mark of 145.
Don Cossack has been a winning machine this season and will not be without his supporters. However his trainer has made no secret of his big target being in March. Champagne Fever might just be the more ready and may find the ground more amenable than his main rival. Willie Mullins’ horse was deeply impressive in similar conditions in November and gets the nod on that basis.
Neill Dennehy, Pundit Arena.