The Irish Road to Cheltenham – December 17th, 2013, by Tony Keenan
After wins for Briar Hill and Sizing Tennessee at Navan on Sunday, Willie Mullins said he has his best team of novice hurdlers yet.
That’s a bold statement given some of the luminaries of the past in that division, notably Mikael D’Haguenet and Hurricane Fly, but having reached a century of winners for the season in record time it’s hard to argue with.
Such is his dominance that one layer has even priced up the number of favourites he will have in Grade 1 novice events at the Festival with five and six such horses fighting it out at the front of the market; for the record, there are six such races due to be run at Cheltenham, the Triumph being a four-year-old race not confined to novices.
Punters would probably have more chance picking a winner in that market than predicting what races the likes of Faugheen, Moyle Park and company will go for and indeed guessing ante-post targets for the Mullins horses is one of the great conundrums of the national hunt season; late switches haven’t been uncommon with Champagne Fever changing from the Neptune to the Supreme in 2013 and Fiveforthree going the other way in 2008.
With Briar Hill, he raced very lazily in the Grade 1 Navan Novice Hurdle, and a bare read of his defeat of Azorian would suggest Apache Stronghold would at worst have made a race of it; that said, the pair have contrasting run styles, Briar Hill inclined to only do what’s necessary, Apache Stronghold a strong traveller, so collateral form may not be the way to go. Sizing Tennessee, whose Punchestown bumper form is proving very hot, won a deep maiden hurdle well enough and may improve more than normal; he was weak in the betting beforehand and Mullins was at pains to point out how hard he was to get fit.
Mullins has a strong hand in the novice chasers too, indeed holding the favourite for all three of the Cheltenham Grade 1 races already, but there is a greater spread of talent among other trainers in this division. The Irish novices look a stronger crop than their English equivalents at this point and one doubts Irish trainers will have been overly worried by what they saw over the past couple of weekends in the Henry VIII at Sandown or the race won by Sam Winner at Cheltenham.
The likes of Morning Assembly and Don Cossack are already Grade 1 performers and further depth was added by the likes of Bright New Dawn and Sizing Gold in the past fortnight. Bright New Dawn has long had the physique of a chaser and is probably better than the bare margin of his defeat of Dogora while Sizing Gold put up an exhibition of jumping at Navan albeit that he beat very little.
Mozoltov added another string to the Mullins novice chasing bow by winning a two-mile maiden at Fairyhouse on Saturday and that form looks strong with the second a graded novice hurdle winner and the third already having shown good form over fences. The most interesting thing about Mozoltov is he is now owned by Gigginstown, the move to buy one already having run under rules unusual for connections, in fact unprecedented in my memory, and Mullins would hardly have put them onto a bad one for their first such investment.
For my money however, the pick of Mullins’ novice chasers remains Felix Yonger (pictured above) after he destroyed the classy Trifolium at Navan by 15 lengths giving away 4lbs, the most impressive feature of his win being how he left his rival for dead between the last two. He’s one whose target remains up in the air having shown his best chase form over two miles and his best hurdles form over further but there was no doubt what race Ruby Walsh was angling for in his post-race comments.
He remarked repeatedly that the horse was one for up in trip and while this is almost certainly a case of Ruby feathering his own nest with a view to keeping Felix Yonger and Champagne Fever apart (much as he had done with Big Buck’s and Quevega in the past), he looked to have a point here; Felix Yonger may not have the toe for the Arkle trip but looks tailor-made for the Jewson.
The big race of the past fortnight, though I use that description advisedly, was the John Durkan at Punchestown but it told us nothing, Arvika Ligeonniere winning what became a match when Sir Des Champs fell early. Flemenstar missing the race has to put him in the bracket of problem horse; he took a bang in the run-up to this race, had an infection last season and has also had a wind operation so at this point he’s probably one to leave alone.
The choice of Arvika Ligeonierre’s next race will be interesting though as ever Mullins was not forthcoming on the subject; for a trainer that has such a public presence, and takes the Racing Post’s shilling as a weekly columnist, the level of information on plans he offers is risible.
Leopardstown’s Dial-A-Bet Chase could be the race for Arvika and I would be keen to take on Sizing Europe in that event as he finally looks on the downgrade though the conditions of the race may not be ideal for the John Durkan winner; he seems best going right-handed and may be more effective over two and a half miles.
The one I really like for the race is Twinlight who was impressive in landing the Hilly Way at Cork, jumping brilliantly down the back in a duel with Foildubh, and he is one that is very effective at the minimum trip over fences, his only defeats coming when falling or needing the run. The concern is he may be kept to calmer waters as the ownership concerns of Riccis who own Arvika Ligeonniere are far greater than ML Bloodstock Limited and they would have to get preference; either way, I suspect Twinlight is a Grade 1 two-mile chaser. In a stable where few, if any, can be described as under the radar, he may be slightly underrated.
Away from the big races, a few others caught the eye. Rathvinden remains unbeaten and positively bolted in at Cork in a maiden hurdle. Three Gigginstown horses are worth nothing too. The Game Changer improved plenty on his Gowran run for a more patient ride at Punchestown and looks a horse that would be suited by the cover and fast pace of a big field handicap.
Empire Of Dirt chased up Faugheen at Navan but ran well in his own right, his jumping particularly good, and might pick up a lesser graded novice while Ally Cascade, whose mark looked high beforehand, ran a screamer at the same track on Sunday, a blatant non-stayer in a strong two and a half mile handicap. Compensation awaits back at the minimum trip.