Like unwanted presents strewn at the bottom of the Christmas tree, a sackful of shocks and surprises rocked the racing programme over the festive holiday.
It was more a case of ‘In The Bleak Midwinter’ rather than ‘Ding Dong Merrily On High’ for a host of strongly fancied, short-priced stars.
A casualty list, topped by Cheltenham Gold Cup hero SIZING JOHN and 2015 Champion Hurdle hero FAUGHEEN, also included Yorkhill, Special Tiara, Min, Unowhatimeanharry, Finian’s Oscar, Monalee, Mengli Khan, Djakadam, Bristol De Mai and Willoughby Court. Saddest of all was the death of last season’s Stayers’ Hurdle winner and collector of eight Grade One hurdle races, NICHOLS CANYON.
The demise of Nichols Canyon and the eclipse of Sizing John, Special Tiara, Yorkhill and Willoughby Court extended the curious curse that has afflicted many of the Cheltenham Festival heroes of 2017. Also no longer with us is Bumper winner FAYONAGH, while Arkle victor ALTIOR has yet to be seen, Triumph Hurdle winner DEFI DU SEUIL bombed on his seasonal reappearance and LABAIK, first past the post in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, is sidelined. There’s also been no sign of the likes of PENHILL, UN TEMPS POR TOUT or CAUSE OF CAUSES.
In stark contrast, a horse forced to miss the Festival when found to be lame on the morning of the race, MICK JAZZ, was the one to profit from Faugheen’s much-publicised flop when a 2/11 favourite for the Ryanair Hurdle at Leopardstown. Those of us who backed Gordon Elliott’s 6yo that day off a mark of just 143 for the County Hurdle were reluctant to afford themselves a wry smile. But smiling was the last thing on the minds of trainer Willie Mullins and owner Rich Ricci after Faugheen’s listless and laboured display, which resulted in him being pulled up and dismounted, capped a week to forget.
The fact that, like Sizing John in the Christmas Chase the previous day, the display followed a sparkling victory on his first start of the campaign and that nothing untoward with the horse was discovered afterwards, merely added to the bewilderment. Maybe the mysterious ‘bounce factor’ was at play as never before, but both Ricci and the Gold Cup winner’s trainer, Jessica Harrington, have since vowed to plough on regardless with their Festival targets in March.
The reaction to the two shocks in the markets for the Unibet Champion Hurdle and Timico Gold Cup could not have been more different, however. For the former, reigning champion BUVEUR D’AIR hardened into 4/6 and is already being talked about as the banker of the Festival, given the paucity of viable opponents, but the Gold Cup market was thrown into chaos and is being talked about as the most wide-open renewal for many years.
Buveur D’Air’s crown was reinforced by another classy display in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton. Briefly in the home straight, it looked as if old warrior, THE NEW ONE, had stolen a march in front, but Nicky Henderson’s 7yo boasts a deceptively electric turn of foot, to support his slick jumping, and was soon on top.
Another Henderson charge, MIGHT BITE, is the new clear favourite for the Gold Cup after his victory in the 32Red King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day. His performance was not greeted with universal acclaim, mainly because of the close proximity at the line of outsiders DOUBLE SHUFFLE and TEA FOR TWO. But this was the 9yo’s first serious test outside novice company and given that he was at the front end of the pace throughout the race and had the considerable task of preventing BRISTOL DE MAI get his own way in front, I felt there was a lot to like about it. Also, both the runner-up and third have a marked preference for a track that does favour specialists and did not surprise some shrewdies with their efforts, especially as Double Shuffle had shown definite improvement when trying 3m last term and Tea For Two was not far behind THISTLECRACK in his pomp in the 2016 King George. Indeed Nick Williams’s 8yo went into the race with a superior official rating to Might Bite.
All that said, I can still understand why so many other contenders are now being considered for Cheltenham’s Blue Riband event. Not least ROAD TO RESPECT, who took advantage of Sizing John’s flat performance in Ireland. The Gigginstown-owned 6yo has been a hugely progressive sort since his career kicked into gear when bolting up in the 2m4f handicap chase at last year’s Festival. And if he is not to be under-estimated, then neither should be stablemate DISKO, who was not seen over Christmas but who remains a most exciting prospect, especially as he is unexposed over 3m-plus. Trainer Noel Meade was keen to stress he considers there’s little between the grey and Road To Respect at home. The presence of BALKO DES FLOS in second at Leopardstown also helps to stack up the form. A 66/1 outsider he might have been, but he was a close third behind Disko and Our Duke in the hottest of novice chases last February. A stablemate of Sizing John, Our Duke went on to land the Irish Grand National off a hefty mark of 153 in the spring and returns to the Gold Cup trail next month after an operation on his back.
Almost sure not to be lining up in the Gold Cup is YORKHILL after his stamina gave away in his first try at 3m in the Christmas Chase. But Bristol De Mai should be there after he was found to be suffering from stomach ulcers in the wake of his defeat at Kempton. Quite whether DJAKADAM will aim to make it fourth time lucky after two runners-up spots and a fourth in the race is open to conjecture. He was disappointing for the second time this term in Road To Respect’s heat.
Not as disappointing, but nevertheless far from spectacular, was MIN, the great Mullins/Ricci hope for the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase. He was disqualified for interference after making very hard work of seeing off veteran SIMPLY NED, a solid yardstick at the top level but hardly a champion. Altior remains favourite, ahead of Paul Nicholls’s grey, POLITOLOGUE, who continued his fine campaign by landing the Grade Two Unibet Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton after a rare fall for reigning Queen Mother champion SPECIAL TIARA.
Sadly, Politologue faced only three rivals. There were also only four runners for the Grade Two Wayward Lad Novices’ Chase earlier on the same day, while the Grade One supporting events for the King George lacked pizzazz too. It was a low-key affair all-round at Kempton, a track on death row if its owners, Jockey Club Racecourses, are to be believed. Sadly, despite what you might have read elsewhere, plans to close the track and sell the land for housing development have not been met with widespread outrage. Not a single petition or campaign to save Kempton has surfaced within the sport.
The apathy surrounding Kempton, coupled with the abandonment of the Welsh National card at Chepstow, left racegoers and punters this side of the Irish Sea with a decidedly bland choice of racing over the holiday, at a time when many are not at work. Indeed, notwithstanding good meetings either side of Christmas at Ascot and Newbury and on New Year’s Day at Cheltenham, the schedule was dominated by some woeful, low-grade fare, not a patch on the entertainment dished up by the four-day feast at Leopardstown.
The best Jumps racing is, unquestionably, found in Ireland these days, and I suspect the upcoming Cheltenham Festival will again be bossed by raiders from the Emerald Isle. Given the number of surprise results and unfortunate injuries flying around at present, second-guessing which of those raiders might prevail is ante-post folly. But with just ten weeks until the magical meeting, some bookmakers have launched their non-runner, no-bet concession on the five main championship contests. The concession is obviously built into their prices, but one that struck me as good value even so was 7/1 about SUPASUNDAE for the Sunbets Stayers’ Hurdle. Jessica Harrington’s 8yo ran an excellent race to scare the mighty APPLE’S JADE at Leopardstown over Christmas, just as he had behind YANWORTH at Punchestown in April, confirming he relishes 3m, even if he has yet to win over the trip. He also relishes decent ground and handles Cheltenham, as he proved when bagging the Coral Cup last March. The son of Galileo will do for me as the countdown to the greatest show on Turf begins.
HORSES TO FOLLOW FROM CHRISTMAS AND NEW YEAR RACING
AIGUILLE ROUGE (Gary Moore, 2m juvenile handicap hurdles), BULLIONAIRE (Harry Fry, 2m Bumpers or novice hurdles), BURNING AMBITION (Pierce Michael Power, 2m6f-plus hunter chases), CAREFULLY SELECTED (Willie Mullins, 2m Bumpers or novice hurdles), CRACKERDANCER (Ray Hackett, 2m/2m4f mares’ novice hurdles, DIDTHEYLEAVEUOUTTO (Nick Gifford, 2m Bumpers), FIRST FLOW (Kim Bailey, 2m/2m4f novice hurdles), KAYF GRACE (Nicky Henderson, 2m/2m4f hurdles), MARIA’S BENEFIT (Stuart Edmunds, 2m/2m4f hurdles), MR ADJUDICATOR (Willie Mullins, 2m juvenile hurdles), NAYATI (Alan King, 2m juvenile hurdles), REDICEAN (2m juvenile hurdles), SAINT CALVADOS (Harry Whittington, 2m/2m4f novice chases), SHATTERED LOVE (Gordon Elliott, 3m-plus novice chases).