The great Kauto Star set the Down Royal Festival alight last year, producing a sparkling performance to win the big race, the JNwine.com Champion Chase.
And the 2011 Festival, which starts in a fortnight and boasts €413,000 in prize money, has its own sprinkling of stardust, including Sir Alex Ferguson’s What A Friend, trained by Paul Nicholls.
The champion trainer’s charge will face stiff competition in the €140,000 feature race from two Cheltenham Festival champions — Queen Mother Chase winner Sizing Europe and Arkle Trophy victor Boston’s Angel.
Midnight Chase, trained in Devon by Ulsterman Neil Mulholland, must also come into the reckoning.
And the Glenavy native, particularly given his background, would dearly love to win the |JNwine.com Champion Chase.
“Down Royal is close to my heart as I had my first winner there as a jockey,” said Mulholland who, at 31, is one of the sport’s rising stars.
“I grew up just eight miles from Down Royal so I’ve always followed the big race and I am keen to come over for it.
“English owners tend to think we have enough racing as it is in England but I will be doing my best to bring the horse over.
“We’re looking at Down Royal very seriously as it’s a front runners track.
“Midnight Chase would be going there as one of the main contenders,” said Mulholland, who also took the opportunity to enter the on-going debate about the whip, stating that it must remain a part of racing.
“I think the whip is still needed for guidance and safety,” he said, stressing that horses must never be abused through over-use of the whip.
The Down Royal Festival organisers have resisted the temptation to extend their showpiece — which takes place on Friday and Saturday, November 4 and 5 — to a third day.
Other festivals — notably Cheltenham, which has switched from three days to four in recent years — have extended, but to mixed reviews.
JNwine.com Champion Chase sponsor Jim Nicholson, the Down Royal Festival chairman, explained: “We had thought about going to three days but I am more convinced than ever that increasing the quality over the two days is the way to go.
“People are fine with Friday and Saturday racing but the dynamics have changed now and they are not so willing to miss work earlier in the week.”
Down Royal manager Mike Todd expressed his delight that so many quality horses have raced at the Festival in recent years.
“Boston’s Angel won a beginners chase at last year’s Festival before going on to win the Arkle Trophy at the Cheltenham Festival, while Sizing Europe was runner-up to Kauto Star in our feature and then won the Queen Mother Chase at Cheltenham,” he said.
“I’m very excited about the quality of horses we have over the two days. The JNwine.com Champion Chase is regarded as the Gold Cup trial, consistently attracting the highest profile horses.”
And Todd pointed out that the track has managed to thrive despite the economic downturn.
“Down Royal has invested close to £5m on facilities in the last four years, upping the stakes in terms of choice for race goers.
“Building on the success of last year’s event, we are completely sold out of hospitality packages for the Saturday and close to capacity for the Friday, all pointing towards an amazing atmosphere at the Festival,” he said.
Special guests at yesterday’s Down Royal Festival launch at the track included leading Irish National Hunt trainer John ‘Shark’ Hanlon — who revealed that one of his stable stars, Luska Lad, had suffered a heavy fall that morning on the gallops — and double Cheltenham Gold Cup winning trainer Noel Chance.