Matt Tombs / Wednesday 7th May 2014 / 17:00
The highlight was the 4th clash between Hurricane Fly and Jezki. Hurricane Fly had won two steadily run races in testing ground over the winter, but Jezki had beaten him easily when taking the Champion Hurdle on fast ground, in a strongly run race.
The ground was slightly slower than Cheltenham but still looked to be in Jezki’s favour. However the presence of only 3 runners, (the other a confirmed hold up horse,) didn’t. It was far from ideal for Jezki to do his own donkey work up front here and he tended to jump left out on his own. However he made all, gradually winding it up and kicking again entering the straight for a decisive 3¼l victory, looking to win with something in hand, (2m).
Whilst a sound surface and the fitting of a hood has clearly helped, he looks to be on a strong upward curve and may now be good enough to win the small field Grade 1s during the season even when conditions don’t suit. Whilst I wouldn’t take post-Cheltenham form too literally, both My Tent Or Yours and The New One have been a bit disappointing in their subsequent run.
Quite how The New One is favourite for the Champion Hurdle (11/2) is a mystery and it’ll surprise nobody to hear I much prefer Jezki (6/1) of the 3 as a betting proposition, (My Tent Or Yours is 8/1). If it wasn’t for the looming threats of one (or maybe more) of the Willie Mullins batallions of Un De Sceaux, Vautour and Faugheen, I’d be putting Jezki up again.
Hurricane Fly has been a true great but it’s clear he no longer has the toe on good ground to go with a vintage crop of 2m hurdlers. It’ll be interesting to see if he’s retired now. One option would be to train him for just the Irish Grade 1s next winter, (Morgiana, Ryanair and Irish Champion). Given the likelihood of testing ground, and with the advantage of being hard trained for those days not Cheltenham like the opposition, he might add to his tally of 19 Grade 1s. Either way, he’s been the best since the mighty Istabraq, and Jezki and co will have their work cut out to match him.
One of Jezki’s potential main rivals, Supreme winner Vautour, was upped to 2m4f here. He’d looked to stay well when winning the Deloitte over 2m2f but was only workmanlike here, beating Apache Stronghold by 3½l. It may have been that the slight hold up earlier in the week affected him, it may just be an ordinary end of season effort. Equally, by far his least impressive win since joining Willie Mullins came here when just edging out Western Boy so the course might not suit, (only occasions he’s raced right handed.) I’d prefer to judge him on his dazzling Supreme run at this stage.
Runner up Apache Stronghold is well regarded by Noel Meade and after getting injured when impressively winning what’s turned out to be a weak Grade 2 in November, this was just his 2nd run back. We don’t know how good he is yet and he looks a contender for the top novice chases next season. He’s not yet quoted for the RSA.
Whether Apache Stronghold will handle winter ground is open to question but it may well bring the best out of 3rd home Lieutenant Colonel (beaten 9½l). He’d been impressive when thumping Le Vent D’Antan on soft ground at Fairyhouse and, whilst it remains to be seen where he’ll fit in Gigginstown’s novice chasing pecking order next season, the 3m Grade 1 at Leopardstown at Christmas looks an ideal target. He’d need to prove his effectiveness on a sound surface to be backable for the RSA, (not quoted.) Lac Fontana had had hard races at Cheltenham and Aintree and looked over the top here. He remains of interest if stepped up to 3m, (not quoted for the World Hurdle).
Willie Mullins might have yet another bullet to fire at the Champion Hurdle in the shape of Arctic Fire. He was unlucky not to win the Royal Bond and his close 2nd in the County Hurdle off 141 looks good now. Ruby rode him for the first time since his maiden win, in the winners of one novice hurdle (2m,) and he predictably outclassed these, showing lots of toe. He does seem very ground dependent but looks the type to keep improving, especially if learning to settle better.
He ought not to go up from 147 for this and it was no surprise to hear the Galway Hurdle mentioned as the target. Overturn and Rebel Fitz have won that off 145 in recent years and Mullins has the firepower to run something off a high mark to compress the weights in Arctic Fire’s favour. He’s not quoted for the Champion Hurdle but if we get fast ground like this year again, he might progress into a real contender.
So how will Mullins shuffle his pack next season?
It’s a shame that Un De Sceaux was again diverted to a race in France, (over the French mini-fence style hurdles), preventing him being tested against the top domestic 2m hurdlers. At Cheltenham, Un De Sceaux’s absence could have been interpreted as easing the path for Hurricane Fly. With Jezki beating Hurricane Fly easily there, if Un De Sceaux were to have beaten both here, Willie Mullins could have been criticised for poor judgment in not running Un De Sceaux at Cheltenham.
Listening to the recent Closutton vibes, it might be that Mullins’ judgment won’t get tested next season either. Mullins said he plans to keep one of his big 4 hurdlers, (ignoring the ageing Hurricane Fly,) for a Champion Hurdle campaign next season. With the other 3, Faugheen, Vautour and Annie Power all owned by the Riccis, it’s highly likely it’ll be one of those.
Running Faugheen over 2m here can only have been to test his Champion Hurdle credentials. Whilst its dangerous to compare form here to Cheltenham form, where virtually every horse is peaking, Faugheen was so impressive here that he might now be the one to go for the Champion. Rich Ricci certainly seemed to be suggesting that he saw Vautour, (11/2 for the Arkle and 7/1 for the Champion Hurdle,) as a chaser for next season, (and interestingly he seemed keen to avoid Un De Sceaux, who he said had been working brilliantly, with all his horses.)
The reality is that Willie Mullins tends to make the decisions and he won’t finalise his view until the horses are back in training at the end of the summer, so I’m just about resisting the temptation to dip my toe in the water now. If I were to guess now I’d go with Faugheen (Champion Hurdle), Un De Sceaux (Arkle) and Vautour (JLT.) Given the strong probability that they’ll be kept apart, accumulators may provide the best value and the Faugheen (Champion Hurdle) / Un De Sceaux (Arkle) double is 76/1 (Bet 365 & Betfred).
If I were going to back any of them in a single now it would be Un De Sceaux in the Arkle, (10/1). He’s run only on testing ground for Mullins but ran in a bumper in France on good to soft and his breeding suggests he might improve for a better surface. 10/1 would be great value if he were confirmed as being aimed at the Arkle. Given his profile of easy wins it’s hard to tell what his best trip is but he looks a 2 miler and his aggressive style would make him a difficult opponent over fences.
The champion hunter chase (3m1f) is usually a predominantly a domestic affair, (2009 winner Baby Run is the only British horse to make the frame in the last decade). However, given the comparative strength of the Irish hunter chasers, (the last 4 Foxhunters at Cheltenham have gone to Irish trained horses,) it's one of the top races in the division, (Salsify followed up his Cheltenham win last year.)
There was no Tammy's Hill but Cheltenham 3rd On The Fringe and Aintree winner Warne dominated the market. Stamina was the key, as Warne is best at intermediate trips, (beating Tammy's Hill twice at an extended 2m5f as well as winning the Aintree Fox Hunters’ at that distance.) He's not looked to see out 3m when tackling the top Irish hunters and the 3m1f trip here was against him. Sam Waley-Cohen tried to repeat the tactics that worked so well at Aintree, making most and getting a breather in before kicking for home. The petrol gauge was on empty in the straight though and he faded to finish a well beaten 3rd. He will continue to take all the beating in hunters at around 2m5f but will be opposable over 3m+.
By contrast On The Fringe was perfectly suited by the 3m1f trip and recorded his 3rd win in the race after victories in 2010 and 2012. He hadn't looked to quite get home at Cheltenham and dropping back 1½f in distance was ideal. Although this race had questionable depth, this was a visually impressive performance and it's should be remembered that this was his first season back after injury.
Whilst the hill looked to find him out at Cheltenham, he's only 9 and Baby Run looked a blatant non-stayer the year before his victory. On The Fringe is a really classy hunter and, if he gets a clear run, should be in the mix at Cheltenham again next season, (no market on the Foxhunters yet.)