Matt Tombs / Monday 18th March 2013 / 15:10
After all the debate about the ground, the Festival kicked off on officially soft going. The perception was that it would dry out as the week went on but the fastest times were on the first day, with the Supreme quickest of all, (nearly 4 seconds quicker than the Champion Hurdle.)
The Supreme was undoubtedly the novice race of the week, with a host of horses lining up that looked capable of winning an average renewal. The way the front 3 pulled clear marks them down as top class novices. Ruby Walsh was at his brilliant best on Champagne Fever, who made virtually all and stayed on better than My Tent Or Yours. The time was nearly 4 seconds quicker than the Champion Hurdle suggesting Ruby timed the fractions perfectly, making it harder for those chasing to pick him up.
The winner will be an exciting novice chaser next season, with longer trips looking to suit. 6/1 for the Arkle doesn’t appeal at all as he could easily end up in the Jewson or RSA. It’s worth noting that Champagne Fever was 1 of 3 horses to make all or virtually all to win, (Cue Card and Carrickboy were the others,) which is often deemed so hard to do at the Festival.
My Tent Or Yours set a mighty standard on form, but as many feared didn’t get up the hill after pulling hard. He’s got a big engine but he hasn’t found much off the bridle yet so the 10/1 about the Champion Hurdle looks about right. He has to prove himself at the course and hopefully connections will give him more Cheltenham experience in the Bula rather than keep him to flat tracks.
There won’t be many punters who backed more horses than me at the Festival that might have won but for bad mistakes. This is a sport about jumping at speed and the best horses aren’t those that can run fastest, they’re those that can run fastest whilst jumping obstacles – so you can’t complain too much if your horse blunders its chance away. I started with Jezki who wasn’t fluent at the 2nd last and made a mess of the last to be beaten 2¾l, having raced keenly. He’d really benefit from better ground and, as a 5 year old, appeals as the most likely Champion Hurdle winner from the field. His jumping left handed had been good previously and 16/1 makes plenty of appeal.
Un Atout had just had a couple of canters round at long odds-on over hurdles and didn’t looked the type to be streetwise enough at the business end here. He travelled really well and shouldn’t be underestimated as a top prospect for novice chases next season – probably over further. He hasn’t yet proved himself on good ground. Puffin Billy came into this off a bad preparation having had a foot infection when beaten at Exeter. He was another who was too keen and lost any chance when getting the 2nd last all wrong. It’ll be interesting to see which route connections choose next season but he remains a fine prospect.
The Arkle was desperately short of depth and with Arvika Ligeonniere looking to go wrong and Overturn flopping, (unsuited by the ground and made a bad mistake 3 out,) this looked an open goal for the exciting Simonsig. He took a fierce hold though and didn’t jump that well - in the end he was all out to beat a horse who was really a good summer jumper, by 2¼l. He’d been off the track since Christmas and he looks the type who needs regular racing to stop him being too fresh, so it’ll be interesting to see how Nicky Henderson campaigns him next season.
Nicky said Simonsig’s a 2 miler but it’s hard to imagine him giving Sprinter Sacre a race. It may therefore be worth stepping the former Neptune winner back up in trip, for all that may make him even harder to settle. He’s hopefully a fair bit better than the bare form, (apparently didn’t scope perfectly post race so might not have been at his best here,) and this workmanlike performance doesn’t stop him being a major contender for Grade 1 honours in open company next season.
Baily Green was having his 16th start over fences and is a huge credit to Mouse Morris. He won 7 in a row over the summer but had looked exposed when a decent 3rd to Arvika Ligeonniere in a Grade 1 at Leopardstown at Christmas. He wasn’t beaten as far here which makes you wonder how Arvika Ligeonniere would have fared had he stayed sound. There’s a dearth of 2m chasers in Ireland at the moment so whilst neither look obvious types for open Grade 1 honours, they may prove good enough in Ireland next season. This may well have been a last Festival hurrah for Overturn but he’s been a wonderful servant and owes nobody anything.
It was an intriguing renewal of the Champion Hurdle and the key to the race was how well Hurricane Fly took the preliminaries, having looked to boil over when losing his crown last season. He looked much more relaxed this time round but didn’t travel as well as usual, (they looked to go very quickly in the middle of the race,) and briefly appeared in trouble at the top of the hill. However, his class came through as he made it 12 wins from his last 13 runs, (all in open Grade 1 company.) This cemented his place as the best 2m hurdler since Istabraq. It’s a big ask to win this as a 10 year old, especially with some strong looking contenders emerging from the novice ranks, but Hurricane Fly is a true champion and 11/2 is probably about right.
I couldn’t work out why blinkers were put on Rock On Ruby. The potential lack of pace in the race was a particular concern to him but he was much keener in the headgear and always looked a sitting duck out front. He still ran a good race but overall he’s been slightly disappointing this season and it’ll be interesting to see whether connections give him a try over fences. Countrywide Flame and Zarkandar both ran decent races but look as if a step up in trip would suit. Neither looks quite top class over hurdles and Zarkandar would be worth trying over fences.
My fancy Grandouet had had an interrupted preparation but was travelling powerfully at the top of the hill when stepping at the 4th last and coming down. He’d been keen early on and it’s impossible to know how he’d have fared. Connections sensibly want to take on Hurricane Fly at Punchestown to see how good he is. It wouldn’t be a total surprise if he were to turn the champion over there, but if he’s put in his place he’ll be a cracking Arkle prospect for next season.
In the handicaps, the star was Golden Chieftain who finally delivered on his promise over fences to run away with the open 3m handicap chase, off 132. He’d looked far from a natural jumper in the past but really got it together here and whilst he’ll get a big hike for this, he could well be a player in races like the Hennessy next season if his jumping problems are behind him.
Our Mick had looked well handicapped going into this off just 1lb higher than when a good 3rd as a novice last season. The ground was against him though and having been beaten 10l in 2nd he shouldn’t go up much for this. Having had a light campaign he’ll have an obvious chance in a similar event on good ground this spring and could still make up into a contender for graded races next season.
Quevega duly converted her penalty kick in the Mares race, although she had a scare when hampered at the top of the hill and only got up close home to beat a horse rated 37lb her inferior. It’s an amazing training performance by Willie Mullins to get such a fragile mare here to win 5 times, even if it is a poor race by Festival standards. That record will be a great racing trivia question in 20 years time.