Matchbook Ambassador Donn McClean runs the rule over the busy Christmas festivals

12 min

Highlight of the Christmas festivals?  The Grade 1 Matchbook Betting Exchange Novice Chase at Limerick on Wednesday obviously.

(Well, one of them.)

Won in the recent past by Sir Des Champs and Outlander and Bellshill, this is the first year that the race will be run under the Matchbook banner.  Also, it is the first year that the race will be run as a Grade 1 contest, so it is deserving of a high-class line-up.

Getabird sets a high standard.  Willie Mullins’ horse was a high-class bumper horse even though he didn’t get to showcase his talent at the 2017 Cheltenham Festival.  He was also a high-class novice hurdler, two for two in Ireland before he was sent off a warm favourite for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham last season.

It didn’t happen for him at Cheltenham, but he came back to Fairyhouse in April, back going right-handed, and won the Grade 2 Rathbarry and Glenview Studs Novice Hurdle.  And he was unlucky in the Grade 1 Champion Novice Hurdle on his second run at the Punchestown Festival last season, he was travelling well when he was badly hampered at the second last flight.

Susannah Ricci’s horse looked very good on his chasing bow this season at Punchestown too.  His jumping was good and he came clear of his rivals from the second last fence.

The Matchbook race is a good race for the Getaway gelding, two and a half miles on soft ground and going right-handed, and it is not surprising that Ruby Walsh has decided to go to Limerick to ride him.

Jetz and Hardline should present Getabird with a good test.  Jetz was a game winner of his beginners’ chase last month at Navan, and he finished third behind Delta Work and Le Richebourg in the Grade 1 Drinmore Chase at Fairyhouse last time.

Hardline is probably already a better chaser than he was a hurdler.  An easy winner of his beginners’ chase at Fairyhouse in October, the Gordon Elliott-trained gelding finished a good second to Voix Du Reve in the Grade 2 Craddockstown Chase at Punchestown in November, and he stepped up on that last time when he ran out an impressive winner of a Grade 3 contest at Navan.

Interestingly, Getabird and Hardline have met three times, once in a bumper at Gowran Park in January 2017, and twice over hurdles, at Fairyhouse and at Punchestown last spring, and Getabird has come out on top on each occasion.

There is no obvious betting angle to the race, Getabird is deservedly short, the Willie Mullins horse is the most likely winner, but it will still be very interesting to see how it all pans out.

It will also be very interesting to see how the Welsh Grand National pans out on Thursday.  You can understand why Elegant Escape is favourite.  Colin Tizzard’s horse was a high-class staying novice chaser last season, he won a good intermediate chase at Sandown on his debut this term, and he ran well to finish second in the Ladbrokes Trophy next time.

He is rated 155 now, but he gets to race in the Welsh National off his old mark of 151, so he will be 4lb well-in.  He has good form at Chepstow, he won his maiden hurdle there and he finished second to Mia’s Storm in a novice chase in October last year on his only run there over fences.

He stays well, but he is short, and he had a tough race in the Ladbrokes Trophy, just over three weeks ago.

Ramses De Teillee has a similar profile, but he has a better course record and he is a bigger price.  David Pipe’s horse has been beaten just once in four attempts at Chepstow.  He finished second in a handicap hurdle there in October last year.  But he has run three times over fences at the track, and he has won on all three occasions.

The latest of those was last time, when he ran out a game winner of the Welsh National Trial.  Well backed that day, he only beat Prime Venture and Ami Desbois by two and a half lengths and the same, but he travelled like the most likely winner from a long way out, and he probably had more in hand than the bare winning margin.

The handicapper raised him by 7lb for that, but he gets to race under a penalty of just 4lb, so he will be 3lb well-in.  He will race off a mark of 144, which is 4lb lower than his peak.

He was beaten by Elegant Escape at Exeter last season, but he is 7lb better off with Colin Tizzard’s horse for that, and he is an improved horse since then.  He is only six, and he goes into the race on an upward trajectory.

He did well to finish as close as he did in fifth place in the Badger Ales Trophy at Wincanton on his debut this season on good ground.  He was more at home on the heavy ground at Chepstow last time, and conditions should be similar on Thursday.  Back at Chepstow, in a race in which course form has been a key pointer in recent years, he could run well.

The Paddy’s Rewards Club Chase at Leopardstown, just over an hour and a half before the Welsh National, would be one of the races of the entire Festive period if all 11 entries lined up.  It looks like Willie Mullins might circumvent the race with Min, but he could field Footpad and Great Field, and they could be joined in the line-up by the Enda Bolger-trained Ballyoisin and the Pat Fahy-trained Castlegrace Paddy.  That would be a cracking contest.

Footpad fell at the final fence at Naas on his debut this season.  He was a beaten horse at the time, he wouldn’t have caught Saint Calvados, but he did suffer an over-reach during the race, so you can easily put a line through that run.  He was the outstanding two-mile novice chaser last season, he was five for five, the Arkle winner, the Racing Post Novice Chase winner.  He is the correct favourite.

Ballyoisin is now getting his eye in over fences, he has won his last four, and fellow JP McManus horse Great Field is hugely talented, even if it is not ideal that he also fell on his seasonal debut, at the second fence in the Hilly Way Chase.  Both are big players.

That said, Castlegrace Paddy could be the under-rated horse in the race.  Pat Fahy’s horse looked like a really exciting young chasers when he won his first two chases last season.  He was disappointing at Punchestown, and you have to forgive him that, but it just wasn’t his running, and he proved that when he came out and won the Hilly Way Chase at Cork on his debut this season.

Of course, his task was simplified by Great Field’s fall at the second fence, but he travelled and jumped like a classy horse, and he sauntered away from talented rivals Doctor Phoenix and Special Tiara.  He won by 16 lengths.  It was the performance of a classy individual.

He will probably have to step forward again if he is going to beat Footpad and Ballyoisin and Great Field, but he is only seven and that was just his fourth chase.  He has lots of scope for further progression.  Also, his four chases have all been at right-handed tracks, and he does tend to jump to his left, so he could improve again for going to Leopardstown, going to his left.

Can you wait?