Things We Learned » Three chances

Three chances

Once again, all three protagonists can hold their heads up high after the BHP Insurance Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown on Sunday. Some higher than others, admittedly, but all three can still face into the Champion Hurdle countdown with at least a modicum of optimism.

It was disappointing on the face of it that Jezki could finish no better than fourth of four. However, Jessica Harrington’s horse was simply too keen through the early stages of the race off the relatively sedate pace (more of this later) that Captain Cee Bee was allowed to set. He should be much better off the faster pace that he should get in the Champion.

Our Conor put up a huge performance. The only negative aspect of his performance is that he didn’t win. He travelled well through the race, he was not as keen as he was in the Ryanair Hurdle at Christmas, his jumping was sharp and efficient, he moved up easily on the outside of Hurricane Fly on the run to the final flight, and he probably went a neck up on the landing side. If you had stopped the race there, you would have said odds-on Our Conor, odds-against Hurricane Fly. (Betfair punters went as low as 1.51.)

Barry Connell’s horse finished one and a half lengths behind Hurricane Fly in the end, but he is getting closer. He had been over six lengths behind the champ in the Ryanair. He is only five, that was just his sixth run over hurdles and, assuming that he is following the Dessie Hughes template (ref. Hardy Eustace), as it looks like he is, he will progress again between now and 11th March.

The difficulty for Our Conor is that Hurricane Fly is following the Willie Mullins template. Plenty of things conspired against the champ on Sunday, yet he still managed to win. That’s what champions do.

We will never know the magnitude of the effect that his sore foot had on his preparation or on his performance, but we do know that it was not a positive effect. He will probably be better at Cheltenham than he was on Sunday, and he will not have to concede 2lb to his young rival, half his age.

As a stage-setter, Sunday’s race could hardly have worked out better.

Quickpick time

When the winner of a maiden hurdle clocks a faster time than that clocked by the winner of the Irish Champion Hurdle, run over the same course and distance on the same day under the same conditions, then it is time for further investigation.

Official times say that Quickpick Vic and Ruby Walsh covered Leopardstown’s two-mile hurdles course in a time that was 1.7secs faster than the time that Hurricane Fly and Ruby Walsh took to complete the same course. However, hand-timings say that, from the point at which they landed over the first flight, the two times were almost identical. The results say that there was just 0.06secs in the difference, and that is not sufficiently significant when we are dealing with the dubious accuracy of hand-timings when you are equipped with just a stopwatch and a couple of race-recordings.

It is the manner in which the two races were run which is interesting. Again allowing for the less than Longines precision that goes with the time lag between eye and stopwatch finger, it appears that Quickpick Vic was around 1.7secs faster from tape-fly to the first hurdle than Hurricane Fly was, 1.8secs faster from the first flight of hurdles to the second, 0.6secs faster to the third and 0.8secs faster to the fourth. That left Hurricane Fly with almost five seconds to make up on the novice with just over half the race to go, which he duly did.

The most significant gains were made, unsurprisingly, between the second last and the last flights (around 1.5secs) and between the last and the winning line (over 1sec) as Hurricane Fly picked up off the sedate pace that Captain Cee Bee was allowed to set.

This should not detract, however, from the quality of the performance that Quickpick Vic put up in winning the maiden. For a maiden to match Hurricane Fly’s time, even allowing for the varying early speeds (and he was carrying 2lb more than the champ) is a massive performance. It was also a hugely visually pleasing performance, he had the race in the bag from a long way out, and he could be another dark Tony Martin horse for Cheltenham.

Walsh magic again

To be honest, Ruby Walsh could feature on this page every week. It’s not sycophancy, it’s just statement of fact.

You will rarely watch Walsh ride in a race and think, well he shouldn’t have done that. And if you do, at some point you will probably think, actually, he should. As well as possessing all those physical attributes that you need to be a top class jockey – you know the ones, balance, strength, agility, eye for a stride, toughness, judgement of pace – Walsh is a thoughtful rider, a thinking rider, and it may be that thoughtfulness that sets him apart.

It is easy to point to a winning ride and say, great ride, and Ruby had four of them (and one second from five rides) on Sunday, so he was bound to dominate the sub-text under Hurricane Fly in the aftermath. And his entire gamut of talent was in evidence on those four winners: guile on Hurricane Fly, strength on Wrong Turn, patience on Sure Reef, judgement of pace on Quickpick Vic. He may have been on the best horse in each of those four races anyway, but he may not have been. We will never know for sure.

It was really interesting to gain an insight into the rider’s thought process in his post-racing interview with Gary O’Brien, mind you, most notably on his ride on Sure Reef. He said: “He had been too keen, but when Steven Crawford jumped by me down the back I got him settled. I was going to have to get into a barging match then with Bryan Cooper in order to hold my position, so I gave it away and took a chance. He quickened up really well in the straight.”

Most riders probably would have fought to hold their position as they turned towards the second last flight and, who knows, Sure Reef may have won anyway. He may have won by further had he held his position then. Or he may have been beaten. As above, we will never know for sure.

The crucial point is that, in a fraction of a second, Walsh weighed up the situation, made a decision, and acted on that decision. It was a brave decision, and there is no doubt that he would have been criticised had the horse been a fast-finishing loser. Interestingly, a losing rider rarely gets criticised for kicking on too soon, as opposed to the losing rider who gets there too late, who is an easy target. The brave thing to do is to wait. That is the hiding-to-nothing strategy but, oftentimes, it is the one that maximises your chance of winning.

Still it is difficult to fathom why Walsh is not in huge demand when he goes to Britain these Saturdays. Perhaps it is by choice, perhaps he doesn’t seek rides. Perhaps spare rides are difficult to come by in Britain, perhaps it is a closed shop. Perhaps it is late enough in the week when he is confirmed for Britain, and trainers have their riders booked by that stage.

But you have to think that, if you were a British trainer with a horse with half a chance, and you knew that Ruby Walsh was at the meeting and without a booked ride in your race, you would at least be checking on his availability.

National future

It is probable that you do not have a file entitled 2017 Grand National but, if you don’t, you should probably create one now and put Unioniste at the top of it.

Paul Nicholls’ horse ran a strange race in the Sky Bet Chase at Doncaster on Saturday. He appeared to get out-paced when they quickened before the home turn, yet he stayed on well over the last three fences to get up for third place, getting stronger the further he went.

Unioniste has never been beyond an extended three miles before in his life, but his run on Saturday suggests that he will improve for stepping up in trip. This is backed up by his breeding, by stamina influence Dom Alco and a half-brother to My Will, who was third in two Betfred Gold Cups and in one Grand National.

Unioniste is two for two on the Mildmay course at Aintree and there is no doubting that he is a Grand National horse in the making. Like 2012 National hero Neptune Collonges, he is a Dom Alco grey trained by Paul Nicholls who races in John Hales’ yellow and red silks. He is only six, however, so you may have to wait until 2017 when he is nine before you can cash in your chips. 2016 at the earliest.

Wisdom of crowds

The wisdom of crowds was at play again in the ante post markets on Saturday.

Bookmakers were not certain how to react in the immediate aftermath of Big Buck’s’ defeat in the Cleeve Hurdle. Stan James went 7/2 about Paul Nicholls’ horse for the World Hurdle, while Ladbrokes went 5/4, and every other bookmaker went every other price in between.

In fairness to race-sponsors Ladbrokes, they have stuck to their initial conviction, they are still 5/4, a price which incorporates their non-runner-no-bet concession. Stan James, however, are now 9/4 from 7/2 (all in, run or not), while the best offer in the village is Paddy Power’s 9/4, non-runner-no-bet, as the homogeneity of odds takes grip.

It is just further proof that it is punters who actually set the odds, not bookmakers.

© The Irish Field, 1st February 2014