Oh dear! The Irish sent out a single scout on Saturday to assess the strength of the UK jumps defence in advance of Cheltenham this week, writes Tony Stafford. What was his report back to HQ? “They are wide open and ripe for picking. Not just in the graded races either – they still haven’t got a clue how to stop our horses improving a stone when they come over for the Festival handicaps!”
Twenty-two horses lined up for the Paddy Power-sponsored Imperial Cup at Sandown Park. All bar one were trained in the UK, the exception was a 12 times-raced with one win gelding called Suprise Package, rated 135, 5lb higher than his Irish mark.
Number four on the list, so conceding weight to all apart from the top three, he is trained by Peter Fahey, in Co Kildare. Fahey has had 18 winners from the 55 individual horses he has run at home this jumps season.
That puts him towards the upper-middle echelon with home earnings of €353,000 in 2021-22, a total boosted by the exploits of his seven-year-old mare, Royal Kahala. A Grade 2 winner last time she is by-passing tomorrow’s Mares’ Hurdle in favour of a shot at the Stayers’ later in the week.
If she is the star, Suprise Package will be pressing up behind her very soon as, under birthday boy James Bowen, he cantered up to the leaders in the straight and sauntered clear to win by nine lengths as his rivals strained in vain up the Sandown hill in rain-softened ground.
If the ability of the appropriately-named winner wasn’t obvious beforehand – there was none of the standard flood of money that we’ve been seeing in recent seasons about Irish-trained Cheltenham handicap winners – his 20/1 starting price was amazing just the same as the only Irish contender.
The win and the 5lb extra it would entail should Fahey be tempted to follow the time-honoured pattern of an Imperial Cup – Cheltenham Festival race double, in his case in Friday’s County Hurdle, he must be a candidate. Nowadays, though, there’s no big insurance-covered bonus to entice Fahey, who anyway has one higher in the weights for that race.
If he wants to run, he’ll be number 22 of the 50-odd entered, one above the one handicap runner of the meeting I wanted to see in this race rather than take up a level-weights engagement. I have been advised by someone in the know with one of his owners that Colonel Mustard goes for the Ballymore on Wednesday but he is unproven at that trip.
I can’t believe the very shrewd and painstaking Lorna Fowler will pass up the chance of running in the handicap. The option is to take a second shot at Sir Gerhard – now sure to be going there on Wednesday after Dysart Dynamo, Bring On The Night and Kilcruit all represent the Mullins stable in the opening Supreme tomorrow.
Colonel Mustard was a well-beaten third to Sir Gerhard at the Dublin Racing Festival having previously chased home Jonbon at Ascot. His 140 mark looks a gift and I’d love to see my occasional Racing Channel co-partner from a generation ago get a Cheltenham winner on her record. As Lorna Bradburne she was a wonderful amateur rider from a top Scottish racing family and she has melded perfectly into the spectacular private facilities of husband Harry’s family estate.
Tomorrow there are two handicaps on the graded-race-dominated opening-day card. Seven of the 24 acceptors for the Ultima Handicap Chase are Irish while there are double that in the 22-runner Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle.
Gordon Elliott, as well as two of the three favourites for Friday’s Triumph Hurdle, has another five four-year-olds, all bar one in the top half dozen and the fifth equal weights with the 11th and 12th in the list.
The inescapable conclusion is that there are many more juvenile races during the autumn and early winter for the Irish stables to test their horses and run them often enough to get a mark. [Alternatively, there is the recalibration of UK hurdles ratings downwards this season – Ed.] Without straying too far into the results from this season my impression is that Gary Moore is one of the few UK trainers to take preparing juvenile hurdlers seriously. He sources them in the manner of Willie Mullins and Elliott and knows how to win with them.
He has decided against tackling the Irish hordes in the Boodles, several of his potential candidates for that race having been skilfully placed to advantage in much calmer opportunities recently. He does have the talented pair of Porticello and Teddy Blue as two serious mid-range contenders for the Triumph and how he would love to make amends for the dreadful luck of his Goshen in that race two years ago with that one’s stumble when well clear at the final flight.
We will not be seeing Goshen in this year’s Champion Hurdle, connections wisely opting to keep him to nice races on right-handed tracks as with his two latest wins, impressively by a wide margin at Sandown and then in a battling effort in Wincanton’s Kingwell Hurdle last month.
Both Porticello and Teddy Blue came from France and there was plenty of money for the latter son of Sea The Moon when he made his jumps debut at Lingfield after good form on the level in his native land. He was comfortably brushed aside that day but there was quite a transformation when upped in class for the Adonis Hurdle at Kempton. There he might have given unbeaten Knight Salute a closer battle if he had been slightly more accurate over either or preferably both of the last two flights.
Porticello won another of the requisite UK Triumph trials with a spread-eagling display in Haydock’s Victor Ludorum run in very testing ground. Accurate jumping, as with Knight Salute, is his forte too but the home trio will have it all to do against Vauban, Fil Dor and the one graduate from the UK, the ex-Her Majesty-owned and Gosden-trained Pied Piper.
Strangely, all three have a defeat on their cards and I favour Pied Piper, one half of the Elliott squad, against Mullins’ singleton Vauban. It will be a race to savour and one in which the English trio will probably on the day be value each-way bets as the invaders play up their meeting winnings.
That said, it isn’t always easily to identify the right one, for all last year’s succession of heavily-backed winners in the handicaps often from smaller stables. There will be double-figure Irish representation in most of the handicaps and therefore it will be correspondingly difficult to find the right one. Follow the money. That usually works.
The opening day reflects the almost obscene power of the two main stables with Mullins supplying 15 and Elliott 14 of Tuesday’s total of 93 final declarations. Half of Elliott’s team are involved in the two handicaps but 13 of the Mullins contingent go for the Graded races with just two “throw-aways” in the Boodles and none in the Ultima.
That he can go in the opener with two unbeaten runners bolstered by Kilcruit, odds-on when beaten by stablemate Sir Gerhard in last year’s Champion Bumper, indicates the depth of strength. Dysart Dynamo had two easy bumper victories last term and two 19-length hurdle romps this as the faultless marks on his card. Bring On The Night was an eight-length winner of his sole Mullins hurdles run following two nice flat wins in France for Andre Fabre. This Gleneagles gelding has great potential yet is tomorrow’s third string.
Nicky Henderson is sending out two of his absolutely top novices, Constitution Hill and Jonbon, to face the invaders and a sense of where the power is these days can be seen that Nicky has only two more runners on that opening day card. So much depends for him on Shishkin.
He did have some joy at Sandown on Saturday when his previously once-raced four-year-old Luccia rolled over the Mullins-trained Eabha Grace in the Listed fillies’ and mares’ bumper. She didn’t just beat the older Irish mare, she annihilated her, going 17 lengths clear. She looks a dish for the Aintree mares’ bumper but it will be interesting to see first how Poetic Music fares against the older boys in the Weatherbys Champion Bumper on Wednesday.
She and fellow four-year-old filly Rosy Redrum are intriguing elements to a race with 16 Irish entries, seven for the voracious Mullins who has won the race 11 times starting from Wither Or Which in 1996. He has won the last two, while he and Elliott have monopolised the last five renewals.
Milton Harris, who has been a revelation this winter after a chequered career, is adopting a fighting policy with Rosy Redrum, just as he has Knight Salute in a busy juvenile hurdle season. But I think there are far more concrete reasons why the 16.3hh Poetic Music might give Mullins and co a run for their money.
A course winner when she powered up the hill on New Year’s Day to pull back a large deficit on her front-running market rival, she too defends an unbeaten record like many of the challengers. I’ve not really been convinced that Paddy Brennan got it right in either of their runs together, the filly getting him out of trouble both at Newbury and Cheltenham.
If Paddy does put in one of his vintage Cheltenham rides, of which there have been plenty over the years, and the filly wins it will be one of the achievements of the meeting for the Fergal O’Brien team and especially Sally Randell. It was Fergal’s partner and assistant who was so keen to buy her when she came up for sale last November after winning her junior bumper at Market Rasen.