In his article yesterday Matt touched on the weekend’s action from Fairyhouse. For today’s piece I wanted to look more specifically at the Irish novice hurdle division as we move into December and ever closer to the major Christmas meetings.
The usual powerhouses have started to show their hand, with many of last season’s leading bumper performers opening their accounts over timber. The usual suspects have assembled formidable looking squads, with Ricci, Gigginstown and the Wylies already claiming the majority of early season pots.
The weekend’s gathering at Fairyhouse saw Willie Mullins send out two promising types in the Grade 1 Royal Bond Novice Hurdle. The clash was a cracker and it was the Ricci owned Long Dog who just prevailed from Edward O’Connell’s Bachasson. Mr O’Connell is of course the owner of Un De Sceaux. The two sprinted clear of third placed Gunnery Sergeant. I’m of the opinion that had only one of them turned up for the event, winning the Grade 1 on the bridle by upward of a dozen lengths, the impact on Festival markets would have been far more dramatic.
The two had been campaigned over the summer, and it is apparent that their progress has surprised Mullins. Nevertheless, their form can be neatly knitted together when taking a look at Henry de Bromhead’s promising novice, Three Stars. He was hammered by Long Dog back in July and then beaten comprehensively by Bachasson in a Grade 3 in October. The son of Westerner then won his own Grade 3 at Navan in November defeating Mullins’ Thomas Hobson and the highly touted Gigginstown inmate Tycoon Prince. I think you’re getting the picture.
The Royal Bond is a significant early season pointer, and has been won by top-class animals in the past, including Istabraq, Moscow Flyer, Hardy Eustace, Hurricane Fly, Jezki and last year by Nichols Canyon. The roll of honour is quite stunning, and it would be unwise to underestimate the performances of Sunday’s two main protagonists.
Andrea and Graham Wylie have enjoyed plenty of success over the years and in recent times have won major pots in partnership with Willie Mullins. Nichols Canyon and Shaneshill were very much flag-bearers as novice hurdlers last season, and they look to have several outstanding candidates again this winter. Bellshill and Yorkhill have the potential to take high rank with the former having already opened his account in stylish fashion at Cork.
Both are bred to need a trip and have the stature to make into smart chasers down the line. It would come as no surprise to see them progress into Albert Bartlett contenders by the time March comes around. The same silks are also carried by Up For Review. His bumper form fell some way short of the previous two, but his seasonal opener over the sticks at Fairyhouse was impressive. Another chasing type in time, he gave Ruby an armchair ride, and is sure to progress during the winter.
Gigginstown will, as ever, provide plenty of ammunition for the staying events. Their policy of buying powerful scopey geldings more suited to fences, leads to Neptune and Albert Bartlett contenders rather than pacey Supreme Novice hopefuls.
At the weekend both Tombstone and Nambour were added to my own watch-list after impressive victories. The former is by Robin Des Champs and cruised to a stylish win. The latter is by Sholokhov, the same sire as Don Cossack, and looked just as good. They look destined to take high order with my preference for Tombstone over the smaller obstacles.
Petit Mouchoir is another Gigginstown-Mullins combination, who looks sure to make the spring festivals. He’s a more compact speedier type, and there’s every chance that he could develop into a Supreme Novices’ contender. He looks capable of running up a sequence of wins, though I would be surprised if he has the ability to cope with either Bachasson or Long Dog.
The final piece of the jigsaw could well be the arrival on course of the Willie Mullins trained Min. Owned by Rich and Susannah Ricci, he is another son of Walk In The Park, as was last season’s sensational novice hurdler Douvan. Fourth and third at Auteuil as a three-year-old last autumn, he has been given plenty of time to settle in at Closutton. That French form is no more than mediocre, so we wait to see if he has the potential to usurp Long Dog as the Ricci’s ‘Top Dog’.
There was much talk yesterday of the ‘non-trier’ scandal at Fairyhouse over the weekend. It would be naïve to think that every runner on a racecourse was giving his best, and that handicap plots were not very much alive and kicking. Nevertheless, the stewards are right to clamp down wherever possible in an attempt to reduce the number of such incidents, and thereby boost the integrity of the sport.
Thankfully the chance of such shenanigans in graded events is likely to be minimal whilst Gigginstown, Ricci and the Wylies are locking horns. Faugheen’s recent defeat to Nichols Canyon was surely proof of that. Their warriors will set the standard when the festivals of Cheltenham and Punchestown come around. It would therefore be folly to ignore the progression during a thrilling winter of top-class Irish racing.