Road To Respect: can land a bumper prize of €225,000 in the Unibet Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA
Sunday’s Unibet Irish Gold Cup is the Dublin Racing Festival’s most valuable prize and an opportunity for Road To Respect to fill in a rare big-race gap for Noel Meade.
There aren’t many major prizes in Ireland the former eight-time champion trainer hasn’t won in his 48-year career but Leopardstown’s €225,000 feature is one.
Meade’s Road To Riches finished runner-up to Carlingford Lough in 2016 while 13 years earlier Harbour Pilot was third.
With the current Cheltenham Gold Cup favourite Presenting Percy sitting this out, along with the 2017 Blue Riband hero Sizing John, Road To Respect looks to set the benchmark for Sunday’s big race.
Admittedly he was only third to Kemboy over the course and distance at Christmas but that looked an unsatisfactory contest for many and especially Meade’s runner.
When the pace quickened up, Road To Respect looked to be caught flat-footed too far back, then looked to stumble at an important stage before appearing to slip once again coming out of the back straight.
In the circumstances it was a fine effort to finish third, just behind Monalee who is again part of Sunday’s ten-runner field.
Twenty years after first winning with Florida Pearl, Willie Mullins is looking for a tenth win in the race and has two major contenders in Bellshill and Al Boum Photo.
Both are in contention to try and establish credentials for becoming the first horse to break Mullins’s famous duck in the Gold Cup that matters most at Cheltenham next month.
Whether both will relish ground conditions reported to be “good” on Leopardstown’s steeplechase track is debatable though, a comment that could also apply to last season’s Gold Cup third, Anibale Fly.
The going shouldn’t be an issue for Road To Respect and given a decent pace, and normal luck in running, he can earn a ticket back to Cheltenham.
Ruby Walsh opted for Bellshill in the big race and significantly has chosen Klassical Dream over the Grade One winner Aramon in the Chanelle Novices Hurdle.
Klassical Dream had Vision D’honneur behind him at Christmas when both horses made their Irish debuts.
Visiion D’honneur is highly rated by Gordon Elliott and proved he is progressing by subsequently winning well at Punchestown. But the formbook says he has ground to make up on his Mullins rival and Walsh at least believes Klassical Dream has improved past a proven top-flight winner.
British champion jockey Richard Johnson was on board Florida Pearl for two of his four victories in the big race and is back at Leopardstown to ride the Grade One winning mare La Bague Au Roi in the Flogas Novice Chase.
The 7lbs sex allowance helps make her a prime contender against some of Ireland’s top novices including the double-Grade one winner Delta Work.
Winter Escape can’t boast such a level of achievement yet. But it was notably impressive how JP McManus’s runner defied a significant market drift to give A Plus Tard a stone at Punchestown last time and still ultimately win comfortably.
Very fast conditions may be a worry but Winter Escape boast formlines that give him a good shout.
Joseph O’Brien can boast a formidable string of four year old jumpers and runs three in the Tatts Juvenile Hurdle.
Sir Erec made a successful jumping debut here at Christmas when proving a neck too good for Tiger Tap Tap. It would be no surprise if the pair fought out the finish again and with a slicker round of jumping Sir Erec’s flat quality can again prove decisive.