Matt Tombs / Tuesday 31st December 2013 / 12:20
The highlight of a cracking Christmas Festival at Leopardstown was always going to be the clash between Hurricane Fly, Our Conor and Jezki. Despite putting up Jezki for the Champion Hurdle, I didn’t put him up here as he was taking on Hurricane Fly at the champion’s favourite course, on ground that suited Hurricane Fly much better. Hurricane Fly showed himself as good as ever, his trademark turn of foot in good evidence for what in the end was a decisive 2½l victory over Jezki, (2m, soft.) Hopefully those who’ve sought to crab the record of a true champion will be quiet now. He’s 4/1 for the Champion Hurdle – given he has the best form but will be a 10 year old running on a course that doesn’t ideally suit, that looks about right.
Like Hurricane Fly, AP McCoy is one of the very few who deserve to be termed great, but he can rarely have ridden a worse race in a Grade 1. Having employed a pacemaker, he rode Jezki into the back of him and Our Conor, losing valuable momentum and having to be pulled wide. Whether he’d have won is another matter but it would have been an interesting race. The good news from a Festival ante-post point of view is that Hurricane Fly is much less effective at Cheltenham and the likely decent ground will suit Jezki much better. I’m keeping the faith, (8/1). Our Conor was the unknown quantity in this, having decimated the Triumph field. He was getting 3lb here and was beaten 5¾l having been a bit keen. Connections had considered him pretty straight for this - on which basis the suspicion that he wouldn’t be quick enough was confirmed. 9/1 for the Champion Hurdle doesn’t appeal.
The Gold Cup form had taken a battering, but Bobs Worth put the record straight by winning the Lexus by 1½l from First Lieutenant with Rubi Ball 1l away 3rd, (3m, yielding to soft.) He hadn’t looked a likely winner turning in, but stamina is obviously his forte and he was nicely on top at the finish. He’s 3/1 to retain his crown and with question marks over so many opponents, that looks fair enough. Whether he’ll be quick enough on good ground remains to be seen.
First Lieutenant ran another blinder, but was outstayed again. It’s hard to see him getting up the hill in a truly run Gold Cup and 14/1 doesn’t appeal for all he’s at his best in the spring on better ground. He’s 16/1 for the Ryanair and if Cue Card goes for the Gold Cup then he’d have a first rate chance. Rubi Ball had won 3 Grade 1s in France and whilst he hasn’t won for nearly 2 years, this showed he retains ability. Stamina shouldn’t be an issue for the Gold Cup although he’s only likely to run if there’s cut in the ground. He’s 33/1 but 25/1 NRNB which is tempting as the Mullins horses always improve a lot from their Lexus runs and, as Willie gets to know him, there could be a fair bit more improvement to come. I wouldn’t give up on Sir Des Champs either, who was pushed out to 9/1 despite being beaten only 6¼l in 4th off a poor preparation. He might be a different proposition on a sound surface later in the season.
The 2m chase division is wide open now so whilst the Dial-A-Bet form doesn’t look strong by Grade 1 standards, it could still produce Champion Chase contenders, (2m1f, soft.) Benefficient had looked a big price at 14/1 in the morning and he settled better at this pace to beat Hidden Cyclone ¾l with Arvika Ligeonneire ½l away 3rd. When the winner settles he’s a formidable opponent. 9/1 for the Champion Chase isn’t tempting as he’s more likely to go for the Ryanair (10/1), unless the ground is soft. He’d have a sound chance in the Ryanair if he isn’t too keen.
Arvika Ligeonniere was held up and travelled well but didn’t find much, (a few of the Mullins horses weren’t finishing their races strongly over the festive period.) He jumped straight here which bodes well that he’d handle going left handed at the Festival. He’s 14/1 for the Champion Chase and 16/1 for the Ryanair. It’s hard to know which he’ll go for – though the same connections Marito is entered for a 2m5f chase on Wednesday and appeals as a lively Ryanair outsider. If Marito wins well Arvika Ligeonniere might go the 2m route and, ridden more aggressively, he should improve. In that context Bet 365s NRNB 10/1 for the Champion Chase looks appealing.
Given that the open 3m hurdle division in Ireland was about the only one where another Grade 1 could be justified, it was disappointing that it cut up so badly, with Annie Power bypassing the race and Solwhit a late scratch through lameness. Whilst he likes soft ground, 3m and going left handed hadn’t looked Zaidpour’s ideal conditions but this was a poor Grade 1 and he won well. He’s still only 7 and he’s apparently grown up this season. He’s 25/1 for the World Hurdle.
The 2m1f Grade 1 novice chase, (soft,) looked a cracker and Defy Logic and Champagne Fever provided a great sight bowling along together until Champagne Fever, (who’d jumped the better of the two,) took off too soon 2 out and didn’t have the scope to get to the other side, dragging his hind legs through it. He folded tamely to be beaten 14½l. Defy Logic looks a 2 miler and in beating the useful Trifolium a comfortable 3½l, he’s in the Arkle picture, (10/1).
There are two concerns. Firstly, he seems much better on soft ground and secondly he’s a really buzzy type, (full of himself at the start here), and you’d want to see how he took the preliminaries before backing him for the Arkle. Champagne Fever’s mistake was quite serious but it was still alarming the way he capitulated. As mentioned, a few of the Mullins horses weren’t finishing their races strongly so it might be best to forgive him this. That said, nothing I saw changed my view that he’d benefit from a step up in trip. 6/1 for the Arkle doesn’t appeal, but 8/1 for the Jewson does.
I can’t remember ever backing a horse ante-post for a Festival novice chase and thinking he’d improved his chances by getting beaten at long odds on. That was the emotion when Felix Yonger just failed to give 6lb to The Paparrazi Kid in a Grade 2 at Limerick, (extended 2m3f, soft.) He’d beaten him 23l when giving 4lb over 2m1f at Navan, (good to yielding), the previous time and it looked a classic case of not getting home in the ground. He’s beaten Defy Logic and Trifolium easily at around 2m on decent ground, and in my book should be favourite for the Arkle. He was a massive 16/1 post-race, but the current 10/1 is still worth getting involved with. My problem is that my first thought on waking every morning is how much more to have on him.
The 3m Grade 1 novice chase at Leopardstown had looked a good opportunity for Morning Assembly to stamp his authority on the division in Ireland, (yielding to soft.) The steady pace probably didn’t help but it was disappointing that he couldn’t beat Carlingford Lough, who’d managed only a single win (off 133 in the Galway Plate) from 11 chases. I’d considered backing Morning Assembly for the RSA before the race and am glad I didn’t – he’s out to 16/1. The winner is 14/1 but I doubt either will be good enough.
In the Grade 1 novice hurdle at Leopardstown, (2m soft,) The Tullow Tank joined illustrious company in Istabraq, Hurricane Fly and Jezki when following up his Royal Bond win by taking this. He’d been wild earlier in his career and having lugged right more than once it was good to see him handle the left handed track here. He stays well at this trip and appeals more as a Neptune type where he can put his turn of foot to good use. 12/1 looks tempting, although he could switch to the Supreme (16/1) if the ground is soft.
Faugheen has long had a huge reputation and had looked to have a big engine to match when winning 2 small hurdle races this autumn. He had looked to have pace so it was surprising to see him stepping up to 3m on soft ground at Limerick for a Grade 3. He didn’t jump the easy-fix hurdles well but still won on the bridle. He’s 8/1 for the Neptune and Albert Bartlett. He’ll need to jump better to win whichever race he contests at Cheltenham and having proved his stamina, the Albert Bartlett looks the obvious race to give him more time at his hurdles, though that could mean taking on stablemate Briar Hill.
There are some interesting types at the front of the Foxhunters market this season, including On The Fringe who won what’s usually a strong contest at Down Royal, beating Tammy’s Hill, (who was getting 2lb) 3l, with dual Foxhunter hero Salsify, (who was giving the winner 1lb,) 4¼l away 3rd, (2m7f, soft). He’d looked a really good young prospect 2 seasons ago when just failing to give Oscar Delta 12lb at Fairyhouse and then winning the big hunter at Punchestown. Returning from 18 months off, he was a convincing winner here. He’s hinted at stamina limitations in the past but, rising 9, deserves a chance to prove he’ll get the 3m2½f Foxhunter (10/1) trip. Salsify always comes on a ton for racing and doesn’t like this ground – he’s 7/1 to complete the hat-trick but I’d want to see how the likes of Mossey Joe, Rival D’Estruval and Harbour Court perform before betting in the race. Tammy’s Hill (12/1) hasn’t got to Cheltenham for the last 2 years but is right in the mix if lining up this time.
Finally, there was a warm welcome when I went to Kempton on Boxing Day, certainly compared with Newbury on Hennessy day. Staff were conspicuously cheerful, the bars were well staffed and there wasn’t a draconian dress code. The only downside was that, with dozens of television screens - none showed the Irish action, and I watched Defy Logic win the Grade 1 at Leopardstown peering through the Betfred shop window. I was told that Betfred headquarters decided which races were shown - did punters really want to watch the 0-135 handicap chase at Wetherby instead? It’s a shame that, as we enter 2014, some in racing are still so insular. For those who haven’t yet embraced Irish racing, make it your new year’s resolution – that includes you Fred.