Dunwoody closing gap
THE omens are good for the in-form Richard Dunwoody to carry off the weekend's major prize in Europe, the Hennessy Cognac Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown tomorrow aboard the Martin Pipe-trained Chatam.
Dunwoody has slipped into top gear in his quest to overhaul Adrian Maguire in the jump jockeys' title race, landing a timely double at Leicester on Wednesday, which took him past the 100-winner mark for the fifth consecutive season.
Dunwoody, with 10 winners since last Saturday, has now cut down Maguire's lead to only 14, and while in his present sparkling form seems certain to whittle down that advantage even further.
But apart from the battle for the championship, the Ulsterman also has an excellent chance to snatch the Irish Hennessy, in which Chatam, runner-up last year when partnered by Peter Scudamore is a 9-4 second favourite.
Irish winners do not count in the battle for the British title.
A total of seven have been declared for the race, with Jodami a best-priced 7-4 favourite to carry off the prize for the second year running.
Jodami pleased Peter Beaumont, his trainer, on his home gallops in Yorkshire during the week and stable confidence is growing on the eve of his final outing before Cheltenham.
But back to Dunwoody, who cruised on to the century mark, only days after chalking up his milestone 1,000th victory on British tracks at the weekend. He is unquestionably the most stylish exponent of his art to have emerged in the past decade and one of the strongest.
At present, he is on a 'high' and there is no stopping him. ''Obviously, I'm pleased to have reached the century - and now I'm out to retain the title. That is my aim,'' Dunwoody stressed.
Dunwoody moved on to the 100-winner mark on the corresponding day last season, and was then able to carry on to accumulate a final total of 173, his best effort to date.
Maguire, who led his rival by an incredible 40 winners at one stage but is now sitting on the sidelines under suspension, moved into triple figures before the New Year. ''It just shows what a phenomenal time Adrian had, that he was able to achieve it around Christmas,'' Dunwoody said.
Honest Word, owned by Uttoxeter chairman Stan Clarke, was the horse to give Dunwoody the century, making all in the Silver Bell Novices' Chase and earning himself a crack at the Sun Alliance Novices Chase at Cheltenham next month.
In the Irish Hennessy, Dunwoody, under his retainer with Pipe, must ride Chatam, who has given every indication that he is on the way back to his brilliant form of past years following an encouraging comeback run at Warwick.
But it would be no surprise to find that the jockey has mixed feelings, as Flashing Steel, another of his regular rides, is a 5-1 third favourite and expected to run well.
Although John Mulhern will wait as long as possible just in case Dunwoody becomes available, Kevin O'Brien is the substitute. Other major chances are Cahervillahow, still capable of running a good race on his day, and Deep Bramble, a winner at Leopardstown over Christmas.
On the Smurfit Champion Hurdle front, bookmakers Hills have shortened the Dermot Weld-trained favourite Fortune And Fame to 9-4 from 5-2, with Granville Again, the defending champion, an 8-1 second favourite.
''Fortune And Fame won't run again between now and Cheltenham,'' Weld said on his return from a fleeting visit to Dubai. ''We had provisionally been considering a race at Gowran Park on February 19 but I don't think he will need to run there. He is pleasing me enough at home,'' Weld said.
Fortune And Fame lost around 16lb in bodyweight in his latest success, the AIG (Europe) Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown late last month but has reportedly picked up well in the meantime. ''There should be no need to produce Vintage Crop for Cheltenham, which will leave him the chance to concentrate on a Flat campaign this season, culminating in another crack at the Melbourne Cup in November,'' Weld pointed out.
''But nevertheless, he is still waiting in the wings, ticking over, at this stage,'' the trainer added. Dr Smurfit, who owns both Fortune And Fame and Vintage Crop, desperately wants a representative in the Champion Hurdle, the race he sponsors at the Cheltenham Festival.
Meanwhile, David Elsworth is keen to run Oh So Risky (11-1 for the Champion) in the Tote Gold Trophy at Newbury a week on Saturday but admits he will bypass the race if the ground is too testing. ''But I really want to run him, and Absalom's Lady, as well,'' said Elsworth.
In a year in which Champion Hurdle contenders look very thin on the ground, Oh So Risky could be a real danger horse, particularly if he can reproduce the form which enabled him to win the Triumph Hurdle in runaway style several seasons back.
''I reckon he's back to his best and they'll all have to worry about him,'' said the optimistic Elsworth.
Incidentally, Elsworth was a happy man at Windsor during the week when Ghofar, who had not won since his Hennessy Gold Cup triumph at Newbury in November 1989, finally returned to the winner's enclosure, thus repaying the tremendous patience of Sir Hugh Dundas, his owner.
''This year, he's been given a chance by the handicapper,'' said Elsworth of his 11-year-old warrior, who has run in just about everything, including the Grand National when ridden by the since-retired Hywell Davies.
Ghofar, who won his Hennessy off a mark of 135 just over four years ago, was racing off 115 at Windsor, scoring by five lengths after jumping clumsily at the last two fences.
''I reckon he could win a couple more in this company before the season is out,'' the trainer added.