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Irish dominance shows no sign of slowing and Ladbrokes Trophy could be next

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If the Brits thought last year’s Cheltenham humbling at the hands of the Irish raiders was bad, it may be nothing compared to what is to come in the next couple of months.

Not content with plundering Britain’s major prizes in March and April, messrs Willie Mullins, Henry de Bromhead and Gordon Elliott among others now appear determined to extend their domination out with just their homeland and the spring festivals.

The three-week spell of Betfair Chase-Ladbrokes Trophy-Tingle Creek is one of the most hallowed times of year for British jump racing fans, but with the first box already ticked off after A Plus Tard’s Haydock demolition job, the latter two and more are under threat from the supreme talent housed across the Irish Sea.

Last year, with Covid restrictions in force and less willingness to partake in any sort of travelling, the Irish largely left the British racing scene to itself, which helped make March’s thrashing even more stark as there had been little to compare the two sets of contenders against each other.

This year will not follow the same pattern. There was a grand total of zero Irish entries in last year’s Ladbrokes Trophy, and Total Recall’s win for Mullins in 2017 was the first time an Irish horse had won the Newbury showpiece since 1980, but a quick glance at this year’s field makes it much less likely the wait for another will be as long.

Ante-post favourite Ontheropes leads Mullins’ three-pronged attack while Eklat De Rire has been a buzz horse for this race for some time for De Bromhead, who is seemingly on a one-man mission to seize all of British racing’s crown jewels in as short a timeframe as possible.

Eklat De Rire goes for the Ladbrokes Trophy on Saturday

This weekend’s other Grade 1, the Fighting Fifth Hurdle, is sure to remain on home soil, but are any of the leading protagonists likely to serve it up to Honeysuckle come March?

Epatante would need a return to her 2019 level at the very least to lay down any sort of challenge to Honeysuckle, having been decisively beaten by De Bromhead’s star mare twice in the spring.

Nicholls’ youngster Monmiral boasts the unknown factor and could announce himself as a big player in the division having already seen his juvenile form boosted by Adagio’s excellent effort in the Greatwood. Current odds of 25-1 for the Champion Hurdle could potentially look big for the Champion Hurdle if he continues his progress on Saturday, but Nicholls’ comments in his Racing Post stable tour made it clear he views Monmiral primarily as a staying chase prospect and his main spring target is likely to be the Aintree Hurdle.

If Cheltenham was to introduce a pre-race parade of contenders beforehand like the Olympics, Shishkin would surely have been front and centre waving the Union Jack last season, and Nicky Henderson’s stable starlet duly held up his end of the bargain with an easy victory in the Arkle.

He looks the likeliest at this stage to don the captain’s armband again and is amazingly one of only two British-trained horses – the other being Bravemansgame – to be ante-post favourite for a Cheltenham contest. Yet his odds of 6-4 for the Champion Chase appear extremely short in a hugely competitive division where the quality is leagues above that which he has faced so far over fences.

There is a chance he may not even make it past the Tingle Creek without his lustre being dimmed with Willie Mullins set to send over one of his army of top two-mile chasers, most likely Chacun Pour Soi – officially the highest-rated chaser in training – if the chatter is to be believed.

Chacun Pour Soi could take on Shishkin in the Tingle Creek

The King George was another all-British affair last year as Frodon galloped to a memorable success, but Nicholls’ hopes of landing a 13th success in the race could be hindered by the presence of Gold Cup winner Minella Indo and the much-vaunted Envoi Allen.

Perhaps the prospect of February’s Dublin Racing Festival will allow British trainers some breathing space in their corner after Christmas – they may be in need of it before donning the gloves again in March.

Let's see more of Hughes in big races

Brian Hughes on Monday became the first jump jockey this season to reach a century of winners in what has been a sublime campaign so far for the Northern Irishman, so isn’t it about time we started seeing more of him on racing’s biggest days and best horses?

Hughes deserves great credit for continually going about his business in a quietly effective manner. A repeat of the thrilling title duels we have witnessed this year on the Flat between Oisin Murphy and William Buick, and between Hughes and Harry Skelton at the conclusion of the 2020-21 jumps season, appears unlikely to transpire this time around with a yawning gap to Sam Twiston-Davies in second having already formed.

There is rarely the semblance of a mistake in the 36-year-old’s riding and his tally of winners this campaign, which increased by another three after a successful afternoon at Sedgefield on Tuesday, has been accrued without incurring a single whip or careless riding ban.

His rather obvious qualities make it a shame then that, being based in the north, his opportunities of riding proper Grade 1 performers is substantially lower.

The red-hot form of a resurgent Donald McCain is making the rider’s life much easier, but there doesn’t appear to be a genuine top-notcher emerging to give Hughes a calibre of horse he deserves.

Waiting Patiently is one of Brian Hughes's classiest rides

Another shame was that Britain’s then-reigning champion jockey missed all four days of the Cheltenham Festival last year. Instead, Hughes flitted around Sedgefield, Huntingdon, Doncaster and Fakenham in his relentless pursuit of winners while Rachael Blackmore and her cohorts stole the headlines in the Cotswolds. Any trainer, in the north or south, in need of a jockey for a festival fancy this year should not look any further.

All this made the Betfair Chase effort of Waiting Patiently – the only Grade 1 performer among Hughes’ regular book of rides – even more disappointing.

Hopefully Christian Williams’s ten-year-old is safe to take his chance again in the King George, where he finished second last year, and give Hughes a rare chance to truly steal the limelight.

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Ante-post favourite Ontheropes leads Mullins' three-pronged attack while Eklat De Rire has been a buzz horse for this for some time for De Bromhead
E.W. Terms