Rob close to glory
The big meeting of the year at Gowran Park, Kilkenny, on Thursday featured the famous €100k Thyestes Chase, and leading point-to-point rider, Rob James from Killanne, came very close to snatching the glory on a 20/1 outsider, losing out to Ruby Walsh after a thrilling finish.
James had top weight Alpha Des Obeaux, trained by Gordon Elliott for Gigginstown, prominent throughout and went for home quite a way out, but they were joined at the last by Walsh on the Willie Mullins-trained favourite, Invitation Only (4/1f), which asserted close home after a stern duel.
James was not helped by losing his whip just after the last but kept pushing to the end and gained plaudits from the experts for a great ride. The winner was a graduate of the Doyle brothers Monbeg (Ballindaggin) point-to-point academy, and James had actually ridden him to victory between the flags in March, 2015.
There was another brave bid for victory at Gowran by a combination more noted on the point-to-point fields. Gordon Doyle from Knockmullan House, New Ross, sent out Trans Wood (20/1) in the handicap hurdle, with young Tiernan Power-Roche from Tomhaggard in the saddle.
They were in front until near the last before being caught by Philip Enright on Robert Tyner's Spare Brakes (8/1), with less than a length in it at the post.
J.J. Slevin had a good weekend with wins at Cheltenham and Naas. He went to the valuable final meeting before the Festival at Cheltenham on Saturday for a single ride and led home a Joseph O'Brien 1-2 in the €32k Grade 2 JCB Triumph Hurdle trial, winning by 13 lengths on Fakir D'Oudairies (4/1).
'Fakir' will be a serious contender at the Festival and has been made favourite for the Triumph by the bookies. Slevin, from Kiltrea, Caim, will be hoping to retain the ride for the big occasion.
He followed up with a comfortable maiden hurdle win for O'Brien at Naas from a 24-runner field on Konitho (8/1), owned by Joseph's sister, Sarah, also a first cousin of J.J., of course.
There was an all-Wexford finish to the EBF maiden hurdle at Naas, with Seán Flanagan scoring on a well-backed Noel Meade favourite, Dream Conti, 5/4f in a 24-runner field. Second was the Liz Doyle-trained McManus runner, Envoi Pierji (10/1), a good run under Mark Walsh.
There was bad luck in this race for young Taghmon jockey, Seán O'Keeffe, who was brought down on Liz Lalor's outsider, Gracious Gamble, at the third and he has a broken collar bone.
To rub salt in the wound, he missed out on the bumper winner, Paul Nolan's Latest Exhibition (a drifting 8/1), owned by Jim Mernagh, which had been second on debut at Limerick.
It was a first-ever track win for O'Keeffe's substitute, 19-year-old Max Brown, grandson of famous former trainer, Liam Brown. He had Jamie Codd behind in second on Gordon Elliott's favourite, Braeside (6/4).
It was some compensation for Nolan as his Discorama (5/1) was still very much in contention at the last under Bryan Cooper before getting a bump and coming down in the €45k Grade 3 novice chase, won by Ruby Walsh on Ballyward (7/2) for Willie Mullins.
Flanagan came close to a double as he was half a length second on Meade's Free Ranger (9/2) in a handicap hurdle, having to give best to Martin Brassil's Geneva Barracks (9/2) in the familiar purple and gold colours of Wexford owner, John Brennan.
Daryl Jacob had a strong-looking book of rides at Cheltenham and won the €27k Timeform Novices' Handicap Chase, aboard Ben Pauling's Kildisart (9/2).
The Davidstown man was short headed into second in the €75k Grade 3 handicap chase on Janika (5/2f) for Nicky Henderson, being collared on the run-in by Lizzie Kelly on Siruh Du Lac (8/1).
He was third in the €100k Grade 2 Cotswold Chase on Henderson's Terrefort (4/1), behind Tom O'Brien who was a battling second on Colin Tizzard's Elegant Escape (2/1f) - both Wexfordmen were beaten by Byrony Frost on front-running Cheltenham specialist, Frodon (9/4).
Jacob won earlier in the week on his only ride at Leicester on Tuesday on an outsider, The Captains Inn (20/1).
Jonathan Moore switched from the jumps to the flat on the Dundalk all-weather on Friday night and pulled off a shock 16/1 win by more than four lengths on top weight, Alhajjaj, for Castleblayney trainer, Anthony McCann.
P.J. McDonald picked up a couple of wins, on Havana Rocket at Newcastle on Tuesday, and the impressive Jahbath for William Haggas at Southwell on Thursday. He had little luck in some tight finishes.
There is a massive two-day meeting at Leopardstown on Saturday and Sunday, giving a chance for a meaningful run for many of the Irish hopefuls for Cheltenham.
There will be eight Grade 1s and nearly €2m on offer, including the Champion Hurdle and the Gold Cup.