Donn's Articles » Not easy to do all three

Not easy to do all three

Yorkhill was sent off as favourite for the Grade 1 Herald Champion Novice Hurdle at Punchestown on Tuesday.

Impressive winner of the Neptune Hurdle at Cheltenham in March, Willie Mullins’ horse had followed up by landing the Mersey Novices’ Hurdle at Aintree’s Grand National meeting.  He had been free and keen through the early stages of that race, but he had had enough in reserve to get home by two lengths from Le Prezien.

Yorkhill had the best form going into Tuesday’s race, so it was understandable that they put him in as a long odds-on favourite.  The drop back to two miles appeared to be in his favour, he wouldn’t be as keen behind the faster pace that they would go over two, went the theory, and, by Presenting, the goodish ground at Punchestown was a positive.

But after travelling well through the early part of the race, Yorkhill came under pressure as they ran to the second last flight, and he was a beaten horse before the run to the last.

It was a race too far, said Willie Mullins afterwards.  Hard races at Cheltenham and at Aintree had taken it out of him.

Cue Card was put in as the odds-on favourite for the Bibby Financial Services Ireland Punchestown Gold Cup on Wednesday.  Like Yorkhill on Tuesday, he had better form than any of his rivals.  On official ratings, he was 6lb superior to his closest rival, and he was 13lb and more superior to everything else.

But, like Yorkhill, Cue Card had raced at the Cheltenham and Aintree festivals.  Colin Tizzard’s horse had fallen at the third last fence in the Cheltenham Gold Cup when he appeared to be travelling as well as the rivals who flanked him at the time, Don Cossack and Djakadam, who ultimately finished first and second.  Then at Aintree, he had cut loose in the Aintree Bowl, beating Don Poli and Djakadam at least as easily as Don Cossack had beaten them at Cheltenham.

But Cue Card was keen through the early stages of Wednesday’s race.  He wanted to go faster than rider Paddy Brennan wanted him to go.  By the time they rounded the home turn, it was apparent that he wasn’t travelling as well as three or four of his rivals, and he was a beaten horse when he jumped the last.

That sort of thing can happen at the end of a season, said Colin Tizzard afterwards.  Cue Card has had a fantastic year.

History tells us that it is fiendishly difficult to win at Cheltenham and at Aintree, then come on to Punchestown and win again.  This year, there was a three-week gap between Cheltenham and Aintree, and another three-week gap between Aintree and Punchestown.  It takes a supreme effort to win any race at Cheltenham, and it takes another massive effort to win at Aintree.  Then, to go on again, to win at Punchestown, to peak again, that requires an extraordinary effort.

After Carlingford Lough had finished fourth in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, trainer John Kiely suggested to owner JP McManus that they might leave him off now, skip Aintree and go straight to Punchestown for the Punchestown Gold Cup.  It was a strategy that reaped the ultimate dividend on Wednesday.

Zabana, winner of the Grade 1 Growise Chase at Punchestown on Tuesday, after that wholly forgettable incident at the start at Cheltenham, had skipped Fairyhouse, skipped Aintree, and had arrived at Punchestown a fresh horse and ready to run for his life.

One Track Mind, winner of the Grade 1 Ladbrokes Champion Stayers Hurdle on Thursday, had skipped both Cheltenham and Aintree.  Actually, he hadn’t raced since he had finished second to Reve De Sivola in the Rendlesham Hurdle at Haydock in February before he arrived at Punchestown on Thursday.  Punchestown had been his primary focus since February.

Vroum Vroum Mag, winner of the Mares’ Hurdle at Cheltenham, had skipped Aintree, skipped Sandown, the plan to run her in the Select Hurdle there aborted during the 12th hour, and she put up the best performance of her career in winning the Betdaq Punchestown Champion Hurdle on Friday.

By contrast, Vautour, brilliant winner of the Ryanair Chase at Cheltenham and a faller at Aintree, was beaten in the BoyleSports Champion Chase at Punchestown on Tuesday, but that may have been more down to the drop in trip to two miles than to an arduous campaign.  He seemed to see his race out well, he seemed to stay on well after getting out-paced on the run to the second last.

His stable companion Annie Power, Champion Hurdle heroine, Aintree Hurdle heroine, was a fairly late scratching from the Punchestown Champion Hurdle on Friday.  Willie Mullins just wasn’t fully happy with her and, anyway, they had Vroum Vroum Mag.

It can be done, however.  One horse can take in all three festivals.  The right horse.  God’s Own finished fourth in the Champion Chase at Cheltenham, then won the Melling Chase at Aintree after Vautour’s departure, before coming on to Punchestown on Tuesday and running out an impressive winner of the Punchestown Champion Chase.

Bellshill did it last year, finished down the field in the Cheltenham Bumper, finished second in the Aintree bumper, then came on to Punchestown and won the Champion Bumper.  And he did something similar this year.  Down the field in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham, second in the Sefton Novices’ Hurdle at Aintree, victorious in the Grade 1 Irish Daily Mirror Novices’ Hurdle at Punchestown on Wednesday.

But to win at all three festivals, that takes something special.  You need an extraordinary horse for that.

On The Fringe is extraordinary.  He did it last year, as a 10-year-old, won the Foxhunter at Cheltenham, won the Fox Hunters’ at Aintree, won the Champion Hunters Chase at Punchestown.

This year as an 11-year-old, he wasn’t as impressive at Cheltenham, he only got home by a neck this year, compared with 17 lengths last year.  But, remarkably, Enda Bolger’s horse seemed to improve this year between Cheltenham and Aintree, he won the Fox Hunters’ there again, and he was imperious again in the Racing Post Champion Hunters Chase at Punchestown on Friday.

And Douvan was at it again.  Douvan didn’t go to Aintree last year, he just won the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham in 2015, then came on to Punchestown and danced in in the Champion Novice Hurdle.  This year, he went to Aintree in the interim.

Arkle at Cheltenham, Maghull Chase at Aintree, Ryanair Novice Chase at Punchestown on Thursday, that was his spring calendar.  Victories by, respectively, seven lengths, 14 lengths and 11 lenghts.  Three more wins in the bag, three more Grade 1 wins.  He’s extraordinary too.


© The Sunday Times, 1st May 2016