Matt Tombs / Monday 29th April 2013 / 17:00
There’s nothing like the spring joy at the Punchestown Festival but equally there’s nothing like interpreting what the form means. At this stage of the season it’s something of a lottery working out which horses have got another run in them and which are over the top.
The biggest surprise of the week to me was how well the Gold Cup principles ran – Sir Des Champs beating Long Run by ¾l, (the pair ending 2l closer than in the Gold Cup,) with First Lieutenant another ½l away 3rd, (3m1f, soft). You never can tell which horses will bounce back from a hard race and with this year’s Gold Cup looking to be the hardest of races, it was fantastic that the placed horses showed no ill effects here. Both should have good claims in the big staying chases next season, but my gut feeling remains that a horse that hasn’t yet run in a Gold Cup will win next year. Sir Des Champs is 8/1 and Long Run & First Lieutenant are both 16/1 – which looks about right.
The brilliant Sprinter Sacre became the first horse since Istabraq in 1999 to follow up Cheltenham & Aintree wins here, (2m, soft). In an era where many horses are campaigned so conservatively, the boldness of Sprinter Sacre’s connections in taking in all three Festivals, should be hugely applauded. It’s hard to overstate how much our sport thrives from the likes of Sprinter Sacre being seen regularly on both sides of the Irish Sea. He had to battle a bit here and that’s probably no bad thing as horses that win every race on the bridle can forget how to race off it.
2011 Champion Chaser Sizing Europe ran another cracking race, beaten 5½l rather than the 19l in the Champion, and has been a fantastic horse for connections. With Sprinter Sacre looking so exceptional, many will not bother to consider next year's Champion Chase market. If he stays fit then he wins, but any horse can get injured and Sizing Europe will be 12 next season. Simonsig’s Arkle form has taken plenty of knocks, (the 5 who finished behind him are 0/8 in Britain & Ireland since), and whilst Simonsig (7/1) is the most likely winner of the others he could step up in trip.
If I wanted to have a Champion Chase bet now it’d be on Arvika Ligeonniere (33/1) who bolted up in the Grade 1 2m novice chase, (heavy). This was arguably a stronger field than the Arkle, where he’d seemingly gone amiss - and if you could take this literally he’s the best of this season’s 2m novices. He likes good ground and whilst he needs to prove himself on the left-handed track, he looks hugely overpriced as there’s every chance he’ll learn to go anti-clockwise with more experience.
Another 2m novice from the Mullins team who might be underestimated is Twinlight, who won the 2m handicap chase off 146, (heavy). I’d fancied him in the Grade 1 event so he was obviously well handicapped. He’s the type to be dismissed as falling between handicaps and the top graded events in his second season - but he’s barely got 2m this season and as this 6 year old strengthens up he could improve significantly.
I’d suggested that Mount Benbulben was a danger at a long price if getting his jumping together in the Grade 1 novice chase over 3m1f, (soft). Sadly, I didn’t back him and he ran right away from his rivals to win by 22l. With my fancy Harry Topper taken out by Dedigout’s early fall and some of these clearly over the top, the form is questionable. He may be better going right handed and needs to show this improved jumping performance wasn’t a one-off, so makes no appeal at 33/1 for the Gold Cup.
You always need some luck to be a winning punter. I’d backed my main bet of the week Quevega ante-post, (3m, heavy) – and main rival Solwhit got withdrawn at the start. At the risk of repeating myself, its hard to know at this stage of the season whether horses have run to their best, so it’s dangerous to use Long Walk winner Reve De Sivola as too much of a yardstick. My impression is that she’s a 3 miler now, with soft ground ideal, (for all connections don’t think so). Her only two performances that have looked outstanding are in this race the last 2 years when she’s beaten the 2nd and 4th in the World Hurdle easily.
Unless we see Big Buck’s or Bog Warrior again, I think she’d be the most likely winner of the 2014 World Hurdle (8/1) if the rest all line up. She’s unlikely to run though and the 5/4 for the Mares’ Hurdle is easy to resist as the suspicion is that 2m4f no longer suits - if the likes of Unaccompanied or stablemate Annie Power take her on at Cheltenham I suspect I will too.
The Grade 1 juvenile hurdle, (2m, heavy,) also suffered a key defection - with runaway Triumph winner Our Conor not declared because of the ground. There didn’t look any stars in his absence and Triumph 4th Diakali made hard work of beating Blood Cotil, who’d been beaten 15l in 6th in the Fred Winter off 144. A first time hood looked to help but it’d be a surprise if he were good enough for Grade 1s in open company next season.
Hurricane Fly demolished Rock On Ruby in the open 2m Grade 1 hurdle, (heavy), establishing a jumps record of 16 Grade 1 wins, though only 13 of them have come in open events. Whilst 11 of Istabraq’s 14 Grade 1s came in open company, he won 4 other open contests that are now Grade 1s so straightforward numerical comparisons are pretty pointless. Regardless of the numbers, Hurricane Fly deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Istabraq and Big Buck’s as the finest hurdlers of the modern era.
It’s a long time since a 10 year old won the Champion Hurdle and with the novices looking really strong this year 5/1 is easy to resist. The ground was against Rock On Ruby here but having been treated with kid gloves all winter he had to take his chance. Despite his fine 2nd in the Champion it’s been a slightly disappointing campaign. He’ll be 9 next season and would be worth trying over fences, (10/1 for the Arkle). The other one to take out of the race is Rebel Fitz who hates this sort of ground but could be a top novice chaser on a sound surface. He’s not yet quoted for the Arkle and whilst, like Rock On Ruby, age would be a concern, lack of class wouldn’t be.
Only those with the hardest of hearts wouldn’t have felt sorry for Jane Mangan at Cheltenham and the heavy ground looked to give Oscar Delta the chance to gain revenge on Salsify in the champion hunters’ chase (3m1f). It turned into a mismatch though with Salsify ridden much closer to the pace and breezing past his old rival. It may be that Salsify is settling better now and the exaggerated waiting tactics won’t be needed, in which case he could improve again next season as he’s only 8. Equally, Oscar Delta has looked a bit of a Cheltenham specialist and may simply have been way below his best here.
A Salsify who settles and gets his favoured good ground would be extremely hard to beat in the Foxhunters. I’ll be watching the ante-post prices closely in the autumn as he could continue to be underestimated after Oscar Delta’s unfortunate exit this year.
The Grade 1 3m novice hurdle, (soft) has only recently gained graded status but hasn’t thrown up any stars and Morning Assembly is unlikely to break that trend. He’s 25/1 for the World Hurdle and whilst that’s of no appeal, he’s a good prospect for novice chases next season.
Punchestown has wisely resisted introducing a 2½m level weights novice chase, but they do have an equivalent over hurdles, which cut up ludicrously to just 3 runners, (heavy). It did at least produce a good finish with Supreme 4th Un Atout edging out Aintree winner Ubak. Willie Mullins has taken a softly, softly approach with the winner this season and he’ll be going novice chasing in the autumn. The way he fought back when headed on the run in suggests he may get 3m - but he could as easily end up in the Jewson as the RSA (16/1 for both) so he’s not an ante-post proposition at this stage.
There were two 2m novice hurdles at the meeting and the non-graded event, (heavy,) looked a stronger heat than the 2½m Grade 1. Un De Sceaux had won a couple of bumpers in France and bolted up on his Irish debut here in February. He hosed up by 13l here from 3 decent types in Moscow Mannon, Cops And Robbers & Waaheb. He apparently will go the 2m hurdles route in open company next season and will be a fascinating addition. He’s not quoted for the Champion Hurdle yet but could be anything (RPR of 152 here.)
The other was a Grade 1, which featured a demolition job from Supreme 3rd Jezki who easily turned round the form with Champagne Fever, (soft). Jezki’s jumping was much better at the business end here and if taken at face value this was impressive on ground he wouldn’t have liked. You have to imagine Champagne Fever wasn’t at his best though (didn’t jump fluently) so it’s not clear-cut that Jezki is the best of a vintage bunch of 2m novices. That said, 12/1 for the Champion Hurdle looks huge. County winner Ted Veale ran a sound race for a 16l 2nd and both he and Champagne Fever look fine prospects for chasing next season. It’s hard to know what Champagne Fever’s trip will be but Ted Veale looks a pure 2 miler and he could easily make up into an Arkle candidate, (not quoted at the moment.)