Ireland’s All-Weather track Dundalk stages two Fast-Track Qualifiers tomorrow night, Friday, March 24, headed by the Visit attheraces.com Race (8.30pm, seven runners) over an extended 10 furlongs.
The winner of the Polytrack contest is guaranteed a free start in the feature £200,000 Betway Easter Classic over 10 furlongs on the same surface at Lingfield Park on All-Weather Championships Finals Day, Good Friday, April 14.
Top-rated Fire Fighting (Mark Johnston/Pat Smullen), runner-up in last year’s Easter Classic, has been off the course since finishing fifth in a Listed race at Windsor in August – an absence of 209 days.
The six-year-old is a two-time winner at Listed level, including an impressive five-length success in the Carlingford Stakes over the course and distance in October, 2015.
Charlie Johnston, assistant to father Mark, said today: “It is something new to Fire Fighting having a break, that’s for sure! The iron horse who ran every fortnight for two years finally had a little problem at the back end of last summer, which meant he had an enforced break.
“He has come back well from that and seems in great form. It is a long way to go for your first start of the year, but the race looked a good option for him because he comes out top on ratings and has obviously gone well around there before.
“We haven’t been waiting all winter to aim for the All-Weather Championships. It is just the horse is ready now and this race presented itself as potential opportunity to qualify for Good Friday in one clean hit.
“We are pleased with where he is, although it is hard to know exactly with a horse who is used to running so regularly. This is probably the longest break he has had since he was a two-year-old, so there is a danger he might be a little bit ring-rusty, but he is showing all the right signs at home.”
Fire Fighting’s six rivals include fellow British raider Elbereth (Andrew Balding/Colin Keane), who was third in Italy’s Group One Premio Jockey Club in October, while the home team features G3 scorer Sanus Per Aquam (Jim Bolger/Kevin Manning), Elleval (David Marnane/Oisin Orr) and Royal Ascot victor Pique Sous (Willie Mullins/Declan McDonogh).
Popular sprinter and three-time G1 winner Gordon Lord Byron (Tom Hogan/Wayne Lordan) goes for a fourth course success in the Download The Award-Winning At The Races App Race (7.30pm) over six furlongs.
The nine runners are chasing a guaranteed free start in the £150,000 Betway All-Weather Sprint over the same distance and surface at Lingfield Park on Good Friday.
Course specialist Togoville (Georgios Pakidis/Declan McDonogh), Grey Danube (Darren Bunyan/Leigh Roche) and British challenger Sign Of The Kodiac (James Given/Pat Smullen) also run.
Five runners have been declared for the two-mile Betway Conditions Race (3.10pm) at Lingfield Park on Saturday, March 25, a Fast-Track Qualifier for the £150,000 Betway All-Weather Marathon over the same distance on Good Friday.
The line-up includes Winterlude (pictured) (Jennie Candlish/Paul Hanagan), Vettori Rules (Gay Kelleway/Luke Morris) and First Mohican (Alan King/Hollie Doyle) who filled the first three places in a Fast-Track Qualifier at Kempton Park on February 22.
Course scorer John Reel (David Evans/John Egan) and progressive four-year-old Isharah (Mark Johnston/Joe Fanning) also run.
Isharah reeled off a hat-trick of wins in handicaps at Newcastle and Southwell in December and January, before finishing third behind Haines in a class 2 two-mile handicap at Wolverhampton on February 15.
Johnston added: “Isharah has had a really good winter. He has got quite a bit to find on the figures with Winterlude and Vettori Rules, but the race reopened at 10 o’clock with only four in and it looked worth having a go at.
“Obviously, the idea would be to win at get the guaranteed place in the final but, even if he runs well and boosts his rating towards the high 90s, then he should hopefully qualify through that route.”
These three Fast-Track Qualifiers are the last ones staged during the 2016/17 All-Weather Championships, with the £1-million Finals Day at Lingfield Park on Good Friday approaching.