Not So Sleepy (right) and Epatante (left) dead heat in the Grade 1 Fighting Fifth Hurdle at a wintry Newcastle racecourse.

Monday Musings: Of Hughie’s Fighting Fifty-Fourth…

They could have done a better job of it. After all, the two ITV racing presenters, Ed Chamberlin and Francesca Cumani, on Saturday sitting in their studio at Newbury and principally watching the Ladbrokes (morally the Hennessy) Trophy Chase did have some high-grade professional help, writes Tony Stafford.

You would have thought Ruby Walsh, normally the best race reader among television pundits who knows exactly where every rider and horse are throughout every race, jumps or flat, and Sir Anthony McCoy would have known better.

Their preamble to the Betfair Fighting Fifth Hurdle at snowy, windy Newcastle was restricted by its proximity to Newbury’s feature, but A P found plenty of time to laud former Champion Hurdler Epatante and, after the thrilling finish, praise Nicky Henderson for getting her back in top shape.

It was a fan club all round rather than an objective appraisal and they got half their wish, Epatante clinging on for a share of the £88k combined first and second prizes. I’ll come to her co-star in a moment, after saying there was plenty of mention in the short time available beforehand for Paul Nicholls’ second favourite Monmiral, evergreen Sceau Royal, and the striking grey, Silver Streak.

One name missing from their deliberations was that of Not So Sleepy, making his return to jumping following an unplaced effort at Aintree after a much better fifth in last year’s Champion Hurdle, two places and just over three lengths behind Epatante but ahead of Silver Streak.

As such, these were the first three home-trained finishers in Honeysuckle’s first Champion Hurdle and, Buzz apart if he takes the shorter route, there isn’t too much around that will obviously subvert their position come March. Neither, on the evidence of yesterday’s outstanding Hatton’s Grace hat-trick by the Champion, will the now 13-race unbeaten record for the mare be challenged seriously any day soon.

Saturday’s partisan attitude would be understandable if Epatante was still being considered as having a chance to avenge her defeat, but it is routine enough for serious Champion Hurdle contenders to begin their season at Newcastle. Nicky Henderson has achieved more mind-boggling feats of a revivalist nature than this. She really must be the apple of A P’s eye. It certainly sounded it.

Now seven years of age, J P McManus’ mare is the veteran of 14 races and nine victories, the first two coming from three runs as a three-year-old in AQPS Flat races in her native France.

Not So Sleepy has also won nine races, four on the Flat and five over hurdles for owner-breeder Lady Blyth and trainer Hughie Morrison. He is rising double digits in age, a factor that never phases Morrison who can always point to the victory of his ten-year-old gelding Alcazar in the 2005 Group 1 Prix Royal-Oak at Longchamp, a race in which the second and third home were respectively six years and seven his junior.

Not So Sleepy has had an unusual as well as a lengthy career for a high-class dual performer. He won first time out in October of 2014 as a juvenile over a mile and half a furlong at Nottingham. First time out at three, he was the narrow winner of Chester’s Dee Stakes, a Listed race but perhaps one long overdue a re-grading.

Successful before Not So Sleepy were Derby winners Oath (1999) and Kris Kin (2003), while since then, future Irish 2,000 Guineas and Breeders’ Cup winner Magical and the multiple Group 1-winning Circus Maximus (2019) have also won the race.

I was with the Oath team at the time and, forgive the after time, managed to get a nice price about Oath’s following up at Epsom from Simon Clare, Corals’ course rep at the time. If you think Not So Sleepy is long-lasting, then the same Mr Clare was presenting the prizes on behalf of Saturday’s sponsors to connections of Cloudy Glen who won the Ladbroke Trophy in the colours of the late Trevor Hemmings. Simon hardly looks a day older and deserves congratulations for the way he has sailed serenely through all the mergers and takeovers that have been so prevalent in the world’s biggest betting organisations.

The Chester 2015 win for Not So Sleepy understandably brought a reaction from the handicapper and he started life in that sphere on 107. Equally unsurprisingly, wins proved elusive and it was not until his 17th career run, on Oaks Day 2017, more than two years later, that he won a ten-furlong handicap off 98 under Adam Kirby.

Another 18 months were destined to pass with continued struggle meaning that not until January 19th 2019, after he had run 32 times, did Morrison experiment with hurdles. Sleepy ran three times, fourth running free at Kempton, then winning unchallenged at Wincanton before proving much too exuberant on a return to the West Country track where he finished a well beaten fifth of eight.

Back on the Flat and still with a mark in the 90’s, that summer he had a programme of six runs culminating with an excellent fourth of 30 to Stratum in the Cesarewitch. Here is where the Morrison imagination stepped in. Clearly believing a hurdles mark of 122 would be manageable given the jumping and the tearaway tendencies could be overcome, Morrison lined up an Ascot handicap that November. He bolted in and, a month later and raised just 5lb, he ran away with the £85k to the winner Ladbroke Hurdle back at Ascot on only his fifth jumping appearance.

Not So Sleepy was as a result one of the favourites for that season’s Betfair Hurdle at Newbury but after a couple of false starts he found himself on the wide outside of the massive field and was hampered at the start, losing all chance. His 15th of 24 was disappointing but not enough to dissuade connections of a Champion Hurdle challenge. This soon fizzled out as Epatante strode home up the hill to a popular success.

Back on the Flat he polished off a little race over a mile and a half in late summer at Pontefract under Graham Lee, the prelude to another fourth place in the Cesarewitch, as Willie Mullins completed a hat-trick in the great Autumn staying race.

That was the ideal preparation for another jumps campaign. Unfortunately in the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle he set off in front but unseated Johnny Burke at the first hurdle. Chastened, Hughie and Lady Blyth sent him to more familiar surroundings of Ascot where he delivered win number two in the Ladbroke.

This time, it was doubly satisfying as Buzz, a horse Hughie had nurtured (I used that word about their relationship last week and I still like the sound of it!) through his early career but had been whisked off by connections to Nicky Henderson for jumping, could get no nearer than second.

Buzz, two years his junior, was well ahead of Not So Sleepy later on when second at Aintree and he has since won the Cesarewitch, denying Mullins a fourth consecutive win in the race by beating Burning Victory and then the Coral Hurdle this month.

Although only fifth in the Champion Hurdle of 2021, Not So Sleepy far exceeded his handicap mark. At the time he was 7lb clear lowest in the entire field on 149, raised briefly to 155 before Aintree but again down to 152 for Saturday.

Again in a big race, he improved on anything he had done before. Epatante had been dropped to 154 after last season’s Champion Hurdle, but she received 7lb from the geldings on Saturday. Sceau Royal, another length and a half back in third and fourth-placed Silver Streak were both on 158 while the disappointing Monmiral is rated 153.

After Sceau Royal the gaps were six and a half and then eight and a half lengths. It seems inevitable that Not So Sleepy should be raised to at least 158, so his highest-ever figure will have been achieved as a rising ten-year-old. Not many trainers could manage that!

As to the way the race evolved, the complete outsider Voix Du Reve, Not So Sleepy and the grey Silver Streak formed the leading trio all the way round with the others grouping behind them.

One acknowledgement of Not So Sleepy’s performance was forthcoming afterwards, one of the experts saying he had been in the lead group but still rallied at the end.

My contention is that had he bothered to jump either of the last two flights properly, he would probably have won outright, and the verve with which he battled back, running in between the other pair up the run-in after the second mistake, spoke volumes.

Tough doesn’t cover it and when you consider how most of the way round with his unusual head motion out to the right between the jumps, you got the feeling he was playing rather than racing in a championship race, that is doubly valid.

I don’t suppose as a ten-year-old he will end the trainer’s Champion Hurdle blank – and something would need to cause Honeysuckle to miss the race on yesterday’s showing. Yet as long ago as 2002, Marble Arch, another of his Ladbroke Hurdle winners the previous December, finished second to Hors La Loi in the Champion Hurdle with a very youthful Ruby Walsh in the saddle.

Hughie is on target for his usual tally of around 50 Flat wins but at a markedly highest-ever strike rate of 18%. It is widely accepted he can train anything - juveniles, champion sprinters, middle-distance stars or top stayers. Indeed if he hadn’t come up against a future Irish St Leger winner, Sonnyboyliston, running off a gift mark in the Ebor, he would have easily beaten his best prizemoney tally too.

And what of Not So Sleepy, a veteran of 54 races, yet sound as a pound and honest – if quirky – as the day is long? He no doubt will continue to thrill and entertain us hopefully for a year or two to come. Maybe after Newcastle A P and Ruby will give him a little more pre-race respect next time he turns up when they are on the telly!

- TS

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