Tombstone tempter: is Phil Smith now back in O'Leary's good books?
On the day Michael O'Leary withdrew a host of stars from the Randox Health Grand National the airline magnate's racing operation revealed Stan James Champion Hurdle candidate Tombstone could be flown on a different Cheltenham Festival mission due to unexpectedly lenient treatment by the BHA's British handicapping team.
O'Leary blasted head of handicapping Phil Smith for talking "drivel" when explaining his official Aintree assessment of chasers Outlander, Don Poli and Empire Of Dirt, but the Gigginstown House Stud owner seemingly feels recent Gowran winner Tombstone has been given a greater chance of beating British opposition in handicaps, in which Irish trainers made record entries over the four days.
For that reason Tombstone, a best-priced 14-1 for the Champion, for which he would have to be supplemented for £20,000, is now under consideration for the Randox Health County Hurdle and Coral Cup, with Gordon Elliott on Wednesday evening revealing he was leaning towards a tilt at the former race at Betfair's Cheltenham preview evening.
BHA handicapper David Dickinson gave the Gordon Elliott-trained seven-year-old a rating of 149 for those handicap prizes, a figure just 1lb above his Irish mark.
Gigginstown racing manager Eddie O'Leary said: "Tombstone is only 1lb higher than his new Irish mark and that opens up the possibility of him running in either the Coral Cup or the County Hurdle instead of being supplemented to the Champion. We will think about it for a bit longer before making a call."
Intriguingly Tombstone is a bigger price for the County (16-1 with Ladbrokes) and Coral Cup (16-1 with Ladbrokes and Coral) than the Champion Hurdle, for which Gigginstown have the general 5-1 third favourite Petit Mouchoir already in their corner.
While Tombstone's treatment went down well with connections, and Smith was regaling British trainers at Wednesday's media event at Cheltenham with tales of how their Irish counterparts had actually fared best in recent festivals, County Galway trainer Pat Kelly was combusting over the 146 rating given to his Pertemps Final aspirant Presenting Percy.
Kelly, who won the race 12 months ago with Mall Dini, sent out 6-1 Pertemps joint-favourite Presenting Percy to easily win a Fairyhouse handicap on Saturday off 130. Senior Irish handicapper Noel O'Brien subsequently upped him to 140 – 6lb shy of his British figure.
Kelly described himself as "a raging bull", and said: "Going up 10lb for Saturday's win was bad enough, but the English handicapper has gone and given him another 6lb for the Pertemps. I'm disgusted with that. Whether Presenting Percy runs in the race won't be decided until I discuss things with his owner."
Mouse Morris, meanwhile, voiced a view held by many Irish trainers, as well as O'Leary, after his Baily Cloud was one of seven Irish-trained horses expunged from the Close Brothers Novices' Handicap Chase due to having a British mark above the race limit of 140.
Morris said: "We entered Baily Cloud because he has a rating of 140 in Ireland. We found out only a couple of days ago that the British handicapper gave him a 3lb higher rating. As a result he can't run.
"We're told the British handicappers keep their own ratings for Irish horses. If that's the case, why don't they publish their figures before we enter a horse for a race?
"Baily Cloud's owner is a very busy man. We discover two weeks before the race his horse can't run. I think that's unfair. What's the problem with issuing the ratings for Irish horses before we enter?"
Giving a rather different view to leading British trainers was Smith, who discussed the Cheltenham handicaps after it became apparent Irish trainers had made a record entry of 715 over the four days and 28 races of the festival. That beat the previous best of 647 in 2015, after 601 last year.
Smith said: "Just at the Cheltenham Festival in the last 11 years, British success has been four per cent and Irish 6.2 per cent, so if anybody has complaint it's you guys here rather than anyone across the Irish Sea.
"There are 68 more entries from Ireland than the previous record number. They're not staying at home, which you would if you are badly treated."
Smith added that statistics for the Aintree and Punchestown festivals, plus Cheltenham's Open meeting, painted a similar picture, with more Irish success at 5.2 per cent compared to British runners striking at 4.8 per cent.
Dickinson revealed he had faced his hardest task in giving the Willie Mullins-trained Arctic Fire, runner-up in the 2015 Champion Hurdle, a rating for the County. He settled on 158 and top weight of 11st 12lb.
Second hardest, he said, was weighing up the merits of 2015 JCB Triumph Hurdle victor Peace And Co, whose trainer Nicky Henderson said will be aimed at the Matchbook.com Imperial Cup on Saturday week, "and then very possibly the County Hurdle". He has a mark of 144.
The Fred Winter Handicap Hurdle weights drew much attention given the likelihood of the top three all going for the Triumph, which would trigger an 11lb rise in the weights.
Alan King confirmed the exciting Master Blueyes is Triumph-bound, along with Coeur De Lion, but he still expects to have three runners in the Grade 3 handicap in Fidux, Rainbow Dreamer and Dino Velvet.
Irish-trained entries at the festival