Champion Hurdle entries Quilixios and Teahupoo will bid to stake their Cheltenham credentials at Gowran Park on Saturday with the pair of five-year-olds taking on five older rivals in the Grade 3 RED MILLS Trial Hurdle.
The Henry de Bromhead-trained Quilixios already tasted glory in the Cotswolds last year when landing the Triumph Hurdle in fine style and will be hoping to bounce back to winning ways for the first since last March when reigniting his rivalry with Gordon Elliott-trained Teahupoo and taking on the more experienced pair of Darasso and Saldier.
A race which boasts a fine roll of honour including, Hardy Eustace, Macs Joy, Solwhit and Un De Sceaux, the RED MILLS Trial Hurdle this Saturday also includes another paid of Gordon Elliott-trained residents in Felix Desjy and The Tide Turns, while Irish newcomer Roi Mage represents Pat Griffin.
Joseph O’Brien is plotting a path closer to home with the admirable Darasso who is a six-time winner for O’Brien and owner JP McManus and would almost be as equally comfortable in either of Gowran Park’s flagship races this weekend.
“Darasso is in good nick,” O’Brien confirmed this morning, “He won the race a few years ago – he’s been holding his form well this season. He handles soft ground. He’s a good, solid horse and hopefully he runs his race again. It is a very hot race. I would say that it’s less likely he will go to Cheltenham afterwards and more likely that we will stick to something at home but obviously we will see how we got on here and that decision will be made from there. But he’s been a good horse for us and hopefully he runs up to his form and collects a bit of prize money, at least.”
Another horse likely to be campaigned domestically is Saldier, himself a Grade 1 and Galway Hurdle winner.
Patrick Mullins, assistant trainer to his father, Willie, said of the Rich Ricci-owned gelding:
“On ratings, he should be involved but I just wonder if he would like nicer ground and if the soft ground at Gowran will play to his strengths, so we’d be more hopeful than confident going into the race with him because of that. But if he were to handle it, he should be competitive.”
Speaking earlier this week about Teahupoo, who had half a length to spare ahead of Quilixios at Limerick over Christmas, Gordon Elliott said:
“Teahupoo is in good form and the RED MILLS Hurdle is the natural progression into senior company for him. He did it well at Limerick over Christmas on very testing ground and we couldn’t have been happier with that. I’d hope he’d be better again on better ground and this is a lovely race to target at this stage of the season. This race should give us a good guide as to what direction we take for major spring festivals.”
While the Champion Hurdle crop are on trial early in the afternoon, the RED MILLS Chase at 3.30pm could lead punters to some Aintree Grand National opinions with Melon and Chatham Street Lad pitching up in the Grade 2 feature. The field of five runners is also littered with Cheltenham Festival entries as the Gigginstown House Stud-owned pair of Daly Tiger and Hardline and the Jessica Harrington-trained Sizing Pottsie make up the quintet.
Patrick Mullins is hoping the Closutton team have found an “ideal opportunity” for the enigmatic Melon who has been placed in four Grade 1 races since his beginners chase win in 2019.
“This looks an ideal opportunity for Melon, to be stepping out of Grade 1 class and getting allowances. It’s probably his ideal trip and a local track so everything is in his favour and we’d be expecting him to finally get his head in front. It’s been a while but he’s been dining at the top table and running well for the most part, going agonisingly close on a few occasions, so this looks a nice opportunity for him,” Mullins said of the 10-year-old.
The ever popular Michael Winters will unleash Chatham Street Lad into the mix on Saturday afternoon and Winters gave an upbeat bulletin earlier in the week.
“He’s going down there with plenty of work in him but sometimes it takes a run for him to get fit,” Winters said.
“The horses were quiet for a while too but we won a point-to-point on Sunday so it might be starting to turn for us. He’s a bit of an old hand, he always finds his own form but I’ve a lot done with him going down to the races. He was at the Knockanard point-to-point track on Monday and he’s been in Aghabullogue. He’s had little bits of variety work. We’ll take Saturday first. Willie Mullins is strong as usual but our fella has some good solid work done and it would be disappointing if he ran bad. He’s showing us that the mind is good. He puts his heart into it and he might tire from the last but he mightn’t either. We’ll consider the likes of the Ryanair Chase at Cheltenham, and maybe the Topham at Aintree over the Grand National, but the RED MILLS Chase is a big race and a good race, and we’ll be looking for a good run.”
Gowran Park and local community will once again come together on Saturday to celebrate some fantastic racing but also the race day sponsors RED MILLS and their renowned association with the locality and the sport of horse racing. As well as being the title sponsors on the day, RED MILLS will also be sponsoring the hospitality for the owners and trainers with runners on the day, as well as the canteen for the stable staff.
Patrick Mullins added: “It’s a big local company supporting a big, local meeting. It’s always a day with a great atmosphere, particularly with this being a Saturday meeting and it’s always well supported by the community and racing people in general. It’s a great day to have a winner on, that’s for sure.”