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In-form O’Connor back on home turf

ALL roads lead to Belharbour next Sunday where the annual County Clare Hunt point-to-point is taking place on the lands of Jennifer and Dermot Linnane.
This fixture has now firmly established itself as one of the top meetings on the pointing circuit and a quick glance at past results reveals that many top-quality horses have competed at this popular left-handed venue in the recent past.
This year’s meeting kicks off at 1pm with a four-year-old maiden, which will be run over two and a half miles. This will be followed by a maiden confined to horses that are owned by paid-up members of the Clare Hunt. A five-year-old geldings’ maiden is next on the card, with a similar event for six-year-olds going off half an hour later. A winners of one is the penultimate contest, with a five-year-old and upwards mares’ maiden bringing proceedings to a close.
Clare is a leading county for horse racing and local trainers are well represented among the strong entry received for Sunday’s six-race programme.
Brian Hassett, John Brassil, Garrett Hassett, Jason Titley, the Costello clan and John O’Neill are just some with horses engaged, while top yards like Pat Doyle, Enda Bolger, Michael Hourigan, Robert Tyner and Eric McNamara will be among those making life difficult for the home team.
On the jockey front, punters will be delighted to hear that six-time champion Derek O’Connor will be competing at what is, essentially, his home fixture on Sunday. Last year, O’Connor took the meeting by storm when riding five winners and it would come as no surprise if the bang-in-form Tubber pilot, who rode four winners last weekend, repeated that feat this year.
Other local jockeys like Colm Murray, Paul O’Neill and Tommy Considine will be hoping to impress, while household names such John Thomas McNamara, James ‘Corky’ Carroll and Gerry Mangan are also set to compete.
Speaking to The Clare Champion earlier this week, current Clare Hunt chairman, Kieran O’Connor revealed he is looking forward to a great day’s racing at the weekend.
He said, “Belharbour is always a great date on the calendar and everything is set for a superb day. Everybody agrees that this is one of the best tracks in the country and having a winner at this meeting is very prestigious. It is also a wonderful place for punters with its scenic views and it makes for a special day out.”
Punters heading to Sunday’s meeting are advised to get there early to avail of the ample car parking that is available on the course itself. Stewards will be on duty on the approach roads to the track to speed up entry and those attending are asked to co-operate fully to ensure a smooth passage for everybody.
Racing fans wishing to keep tabs on what is happening at the big Leopardstown meeting, where the Hennessy Gold Cup is among four Grade One races taking place, need have no worries on that score as there will be television coverage of action at the Foxrock track available on-site.
All in all, it promises to be yet another exciting day’s racing and a trip to the world-famous Burren landscape to witness the thrills and spills of point-to-point racing at its best is highly recommended.

Star-studded card at Leopardstown

The Grade One Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup is the highlight of a hugely-important card at Leopardstown on Sunday, where hurdling giant Dunguib is set to put the finishing touches to his Cheltenham Festival preparations in the Grade 1 Deloitte Novice Hurdle.
It was thought at one stage that 2008 Gold Cup winner Denman would come over from Paul Nicholls’ Ditcheat yard to contest the Hennessy, but the champion trainer, who won this race last year with Neptune Collenges, has opted to hold Denman in reserve for the Aon Chase at Newbury on Saturday week, which means he will not now have a runner in the race.
The horse likely to head the market in this three-mile contest is Paul Nolan’s Joncol. He has improved in leaps and bounds this season and ran a fine race when third to What A Friend in the Lexus over this course at Christmas.
On that occasion, Joncol looked set for victory when surging clear two out, but, in hindsight, his rider Alain Cawley may have hit the front too soon as he faded close to home when passed by the winner and also Money Trix for the runner-up berth.
Joncol is likely to be ridden with more restraint on Sunday and he may well be able to turn the tables on English raider Money Trix, who is again an intended runner. Nicky Richards’ grey has done little wrong in recent outings and has been knocking on the door in good contests, leaving him with a solid chance.
Another to consider is Jim Dreaper’s 2009 Welsh National winner Notre Pere. He took a crashing fall in the JN Wine Chase at Down Royal in November and that seems to have knocked his confidence a bit. A confirmed mud-lark, he failed to sparkle behind Kauto Star in the Betfair at Haydock in November and didn’t set the world on fire either when fourth in the Lexus on his latest start. If back to his best, however, Notre Pere could give them all a run for their money.
Willie Mullins has a terrific record in this race, having won five of the last 10 runnings, and he is responsible for two of the eight that stood their ground at the forfeit stage on Tuesday.
Last season’s RSA Chase winner Cooldine looks the pick of his duo. He turned in a below-par effort when pulled-up in the Lexus (he was well-backed that day) and if back to his best, he will be in the mix for this €180,000 three-mile test.
All eyes will be on Dunguib in his two-mile, two-furlong Deloitte Novice Hurdle. Philip Fenton’s seven-year-old has been sensational since going over hurdles and last year’s Champion Bumper hero will be confidently expected to maintain his unbeaten status.
His first effort over hurdles was at Galway in October where he coasted to victory, while his subsequent wins at Punchestown and Fairyhouse, where he hacked-up in the Royal Bond Novice Hurdle, didn’t even see the son of Presenting come off the bridle.
Having gotten that much-needed jumping experience under Dunguib’s belt, Fenton opted to swerve a few suitable options over Christmas with his stable star and if, as expected, he wins on Sunday, he will go off a warm order to give punters a perfect start to the Cheltenham Festival in the opening Supreme Novices’ Hurdle on March 16.

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