Things We Learned » Entries out

Entries out

And so it begins. Entries for the Cheltenham Gold Cup filtered through late on Wednesday morning, about two hours before John Constable won on his debut over hurdles at Ludlow, and if you had your finger in the dam of the Cheltenham countdown until now, best to take it out and roll with the flood.

Last year’s winner Lord Windermere is in there, as is the 2013 winner Bobs Worth and the Lexus winner Road To Riches and the last two King George winners Silviniaco Conti. No real surprises there then.

There were a few mild ones, mind you. The novices, Kings Palace and Coneygree, were slightly surprising, but you suspect that they are probably going for the RSA Chase, unless one of them laps Many Clouds in the Argento Chase.

Theatre Guide was also slightly surprising, River Choice (who? I know …) was one that had to be looked up, and Spring Heeled was a little surprising, although why not? At worst, didn’t Rough Quest (first) and Hedgehunter (second) warm up for the Grand National by running in the Gold Cup? And in the unlikely event that Jim Culloty and Dr Ronan Lambe needed to guarantee a fast pace for Lord Windermere, wouldn’t Spring Heeled bowl along merrily up there in the vanguard? And didn’t he run a cracker over more or less the Gold Cup course and distance last year to win the Kim Muir?

Notable absentee? Sir Des Champs unquestionably, the 2013 runner-up who hasn’t raced since he finished fourth in the Lexus Chase last season. Willie Mullins has obviously drawn stumps in the race to get the Gigginstown House horse there on time and on song. It is a pity, the Robin Des Champs gelding shaped like a future Gold Cup winner for a long time. On the bright side, his connections can still be optimistic about this year. Willie Mullins still has five entries, Gigginstown still have three.

Constable classy recruit

Speaking of John Constable, the former Aidan O’Brien-trained colt put up a nice performance in winning that juveniles’ maiden hurdle at Ludlow on Thursday.

It was a pity that warm favourite, the John Ferguson-trained Swivel – who achieved a rating of 97 on the flat for Mark Johnston and who had had the benefit of a promising run over hurdles at Kempton’s Christmas Festival – did not appear to run his race. However, there was still a lot to like about the performance that John Constable put up in beating the others.

He travelled well through his race, he jumped well for a debutant, and he picked up nicely on the run-in to get past long-time leader, the well-backed Mighty Missile. The front two had it between them from the second last flight, and the third horse, Golden Spear, is a dual winner on the flat who was really the only other horse in the market.

John Constable shaped like he could morph into a high-class stayer on the flat when he beat fellow hurdling recruit Karezak in a one-mile-five-furlong maiden at Navan in May last year. A full-brother to Leading Light, it was reasonable to assume at that stage that he could have been a Royal Ascot horse, a Queen’s Vase horse, like his brother. While things did not pan out like that, he is a really interesting recruit to hurdles now, for Dai Walters and Evan Williams.

Still an entire and racing without cheekpieces or blinkers on Thursday, he jumped well and he showed a nice willing attitude. He was weak in the market beforehand, so it is reasonable to expect some improvement from this. Rated 94 on the flat, he should also improve for the experience, his first time to jump obstacles in a race, and, given his breeding, he should improve again for a sterner test of stamina than that presented by two miles and a sharp track.

Tough going

It appeared to be really difficult to make ground from the rear on the holding ground at Sandown on Saturday. All seven winners raced handily from early.

Arabian Revolution chased the leader Rathealy from early in the opening juvenile hurdle, and Rathealy kept on to finish second. That set the trend for the afternoon. Aurore D’Estruval was never far off the pace in the mares’ hurdle, Fairy Rath made all in the two-and-a-half-mile handicap chase, Mr Mole was never out of the first two in the two-mile handicap chase, L’Amie Serge sat in third place from early in the four-runner Tolworth Hurdle, Rayvin Black made all in the two-mile handicap hurdle, and Unioniste was always in the front group in the three-mile chase.

As a consequence, it is probable that horses who got into the race from off the pace performed better than the credit or the figures that they will generally receive. These include Tea In Transvaal in the juvenile hurdle, Madness Light in the two-and-a-half-mile handicap chase, Bouvreuil in the two-mile handicap hurdle, and Bertie Boru and Triolo D’Alene in the three-mile handicap chase. That quartet could all be worth keeping in a notebook somewhere for reference the next time they run.

Mission improbable

Speaking of Unioniste (the links are good this week), there is lots of talk about a tilt at the Grand National now with Paul Nicholls’ horse. Sure enough, he did win well on Saturday, but a Grand National mission would be mission highly improbable.

First of all, if you were going to target the Grand National, why would you win the 32Red Casino Handicap Chase a month before the National weights are published and set in stone, and get 11lb more for yourself? Most Grand National winners have been targeted at the race for months before the weights come out, sometimes for years.

Comparisons have been drawn between Unioniste and 2012 Grand National winner Neptune Collonges. They may be similar types of horses, they are both grey, they are both by Dom Alco, they both live or lived at Ditcheat, and they both race in John Hales’ colours, but in terms of profile, Unioniste now v Neptune Collonges in 2012, they could hardly be more dissimilar.

Neptune Collonges was 11 when he won the National, he had won a Hennessy Gold Cup, two Punchestown Gold Cups and an Argento Chase, and he had finished third behind Denman and Kauto Star in a Cheltenham Gold Cup. He was the correct age for the National and he raced off a mark of 157.

Unioniste has won just three of his 11 chases in Britain, last Saturday’s performance, in a Class 2 handicap chase, was his best yet, and he is now rated 159, 2lb higher than Neptune Collonges was. As well as that, he is a seven-year-old, and seven-year-olds just don’t win the Grand National.

You can point to the fact that Tharawaat and Tricky Trickster and Kruzhlinin and The Package ran okay in the Grand National as seven-year-olds in recent years, but 12 have run in the race in the last five years, and none of them have been placed. Actually, no seven-year-old has been placed in the race since Black Secret in 1971.

Unioniste would face a massive task if he were to be aimed at the Grand National, and it does not make sense that he is joint favourite for the race in some lists.

Mullins joy

If you haven’t seen it yet, have a look at Patrick Mullins’ ride on Honeys Joy in the bumper at Thurles on Monday. It may have been that the Kayf Tara mare was the best mare in the race anyway, but Mullins maximised her chance by taking her wide, racing on the better ground.

Easy in hindsight, of course, but it was apparent even from the television pictures that the ground was much better on the outside of the track than it was on the inside. You could work it out, even if you hadn’t walked or run around the track beforehand, as the rider had. Even so, it is always a brave move by a jockey to non-conform, to go against the crowd. Mullins had done his homework and used his head. That’s what good riders do.

© The Irish Field, 10th January 2014