The Irish Road to Cheltenham – November 3rd 2013
In the first of a new series, Irish racing expert Tony Keenan brings us his interpretation of the major action from the Emerald Isle, marking your card with a view to the Cheltenham Festival 2014.
One area where the jumps season succeeds ahead of the flat is in starting out with a bang; in the winter game the better horses have appeared early – already the likes of Sizing Europe, First Lieutenant, Long Run, Jezki and Rule The World have run – whereas on the level it takes time for the classy ones to surface, punters faced with the Lincoln and other lesser races to begin with. Beating the jumping drum as I am, we’ll just conveniently ignore that all too many of the top National Hunt horses run rarely before March!
Much like the Charlie Hallin Britain, the first Grade 1 of the Irish season, the JNWine.com Champion Chase at Down Royal, wasn’t as informative as one would like. Roi Du Mee fell into this top level race and likely had to run no better than his official mark of 154 as the more vaunted names of staying chasing disappointed. Sizing Europe ran his typical honest race while First Lieutenant flopped; Russell never looked happy on him and this might not be his track but the ground swung against him and he’s probably more of a spring horse, peaking for Cheltenham the last three seasons. Kauto Stone ran no sort of race and considering he has been excellent fresh previously he is hard to like now while Mount Benbulben was going quite well when unseating; that said, a failure to complete is not the best way to start a season and his official rating of 160 overvalues him, coming as it did in a race that went to pieces at Punchestown.
Of more immediate interest for the Festival was the run of Jezki on Down Royal’s Friday card. A starting price of 2/9 suggests he was never going to be troubled but it was still a good reappearance when hardly suited by making the running. His jumping was better than it has been and he found whenever his jockey asked him, winning easily. He’s one that looks value for the Champion Hurdle at around 8/1, his Supreme third last year unlikely to have shown the full depth of his talent (made a vital mistake and didn’t have a prep run), though he’ll be of more immediate interest when running in the Morgiana. Judging by the Champion Hurdle betting, he’ll likely be third favourite for that race behind Hurricane Fly and Our Conor and should be worth supporting; the former is sure to be ring-rusty for the race (looked in trouble before Go Native fell at the last in same race in 2013) while Our Conor has his share of hype attached for a horse coming out of the juvenile division.
The last fortnight saw a pair of interesting races for second season chasers, firstly at Naas and then Down Royal. Twinlight won the former easily and is unlikely to want any further than two miles at this point as he has plenty of toe and could be a player in open graded events this season. Oscars Wells was a disappointing favourite for that race and just doesn’t jump well enough; he’s now been beaten in his last six chase starts and was strongly supported in all and is a market maker as things stand. He also ran in the Down Royal race won by Rolling Aces, who was providing Paul Nicholls with his sixth straight win in the race; none of those winners have made up into a top-notcher though and it looks more a victory for good placing and readiness than anything. The one to take from the race was the unconsidered rag Argocat; he was giving the winner plenty to think about before falling at the last.
Among the novice chasers, both Don Cossack and Defy Logic landed facile debut wins over the bank holiday weekend. It’s not time to get carried away with either yet; Don Cossack had no meaningful opposition with Dressedtothenines not performing (may be better in spring or perhaps not a chaser) and Dushybeag falling while Defy Logic faced an even worse field, displayed a high head carriage and was notably low at this fences, looking like an accident waiting to happen. More interesting were Morning Assembly who won a very competitive maiden at Punchestown over a trip short of his best; Gold Bullet who jumped really well at Down Royal last Friday; and, Sizing Rio who is another excellent jumper and landed a graded race at Cork on Sunday.
Of the darker ones, Racing Pulse was a horse that really impressed in his bumper win at Naas. The taking feature of the win was the way he took up the running seven furlongs out and galloping on relentlessly to the line. While it is impossible to know what he beat the visual impression was there and he is in excellent hands with Mick Winters. Goonyella, trained by Jim Dreaper, looked a handicapper to keep onside at Galway on Bank Holiday Monday; he got quite a negative ride for one whose stamina was assured and shaped really well in coming second to an in-form and fit rival. The form of that race has already worked out with the third Unoccupied running second in the Cork National since and the Troytown or, longer term, the Welsh National look good targets.
The one to follow from the past two weeks however comes from a maiden hurdle at Down Royal. Gilt Shadow was one of Ireland’s best bumper horses last season, second in the Champion Bumper at Punchestown (strong form), and looks a prime example of the good horse with a small trainer. He won easily on Saturday but was better than the form too, trapped wide for much of the race on a track where horses are always on the turn and racing keenly; and was also overcoming his trainer’s poor record with hurdling debutantes. I love that he was out for this meeting as it suggests everything has gone smoothly for him over the summer; Down Royal is the trainer’s local meeting and he won at the fixture last year so it was sure to have been an aim. Whether he continues to run in his current owner’s colours remains to be seen – the likes of JP McManus and Barry Connell will surely have had their interest piqued by this win – but he is an exciting prospect regardless.
Horses to follow: