Things We Learned » National talk
It is understandable that most of the Grand National talk this week was about Many Clouds. The 2015 winner, Oliver Sherwood’s horse put up a fine performance to land the three-mile chase at Aintree in which he was beaten by Don Poli last year. He finished well down the field in the National last April, but the magic of the wind op appears to have done the trick and, given that he is owned by Trevor Hemmings, it is not surprising that all anyone could say afterwards was Grand National.
It is not going to be easy for Many Clouds this season though. He is rated 166 now, 6lb higher than the mark off which he won the National in 2015, and the last horse to win two Nationals was Red Rum. And he’s the 14/1 and 16/1 favourite.
In all the Many Clouds furore, the National claim that Vieux Lion Rouge staked in winning the Becher Chase may have gone a little under the radar. A lot of the talk centred around runner-up Highland Lodge. True, you did have to feel for Jimmy Moffatt’s horse, leading or disputing for three miles, one furlong and 178 yards of the three-mile-one-furlong-188-yard trip in his bid to land back-to-back runnings of the Becher. But that didn’t detract from the performance that Vieux Lion Rouge put up in winning the race.
David Pipe’s horse got into a lovely rhythm from early for Tom Scudamore. Kicked off out the back of the field and towards the outside, he moved himself into a nice position just behind the leaders as they set out on their final full circuit, the point in the race at which, the rider informed us afterwards, he starts to ride his race.
Vieux Lion Rouge jumped the big fences really well again, he seemed to relish the test, as he did in the Grand National last April. He travelled well down the side of the track, moved easily into the home straight, and stayed on really well up the run-in to get up and win by a short head.
He is only seven. Seven-year-olds don’t win the Becher Chase. Silver Birch is the only seven-year-old to win the race in the last 20 years, and the average age of the 10 winners that went before last Saturday was 10.2.
Seven-year-olds don’t win the Grand National either. You have to go back to Bogskar in 1940 for the last seven-year-old who prevailed, and 1940 is 76 years ago.
That makes Vieux Lion Rouge’s run in the 2016 Grand National all the more commendable. He travelled well for much of the race and, crucially, as on Saturday, he jumped the fences fluently. He was right there in the leading group in last season’s National and travelling well when they joined the racecourse proper again with two fences to jump, but he just faded from there, as his youth probably told.
The handicapper dropped him 4lb for his National run to a mark of 142, the same amount by which he raised him again for winning the Becher Chase. So, all things being equal, he could run in the National again this season as an eight-year-old off a mark of 146, the same mark as that off which he ran so well last April as a seven-year-old.
In contrast to seven-year-olds, eight-year-olds have a good recent record in the National. Many Clouds won it as an eight-year-old in 2015, the first eight-year-old winner since Bindaree, and eight-year-olds filled two of the four places last season. Vieux Lion Rouge should be better equipped for the race this season with another year’s maturing under his belt.
As well as that, David Pipe can train him now specifically for the National, secure in the knowledge that a mark of 146 should get him safely into the race on a nice racing weight. The Sabiano gelding is at his best when he is fresh, as evidenced by the fact that he has now won four times out of five on his seasonal debut, so it was encouraging to hear his trainer say after Saturday’s race that he would probably go straight to the National.
The 66/1 that was available for the National on Saturday morning is obviously gone, but the 25/1 that is generally available still looks more than fair. You can easily argue that he should be a fair bit shorter than that, that he could be up there with Many Clouds disputing favouritism.
Taaffe among the winners
It is not often that you get two two-mile handicap chases on one card, but that was the case at Fairyhouse on Saturday, with the Irish Racing Yearbook Handicap Chase re-routed from foggy Gowran Park the previous Saturday and re-named the Winter Festival Handicap Chase.
And it is even less often that the same trainer-owner-rider combination can win two two-mile handicap chases on the same card. But that was also the case on Saturday, with Peoples Park winning the first of them, the Easyfix Handicap Chase, and I Knew Well winning the second, the Winter Festival Handicap Chase, both horses representing JP McManus and Tom Taaffe, both ridden by Mark Walsh.
Tom Taaffe hasn’t has things easy in recent years. The trainer who masterminded Kicking King’s Gold Cup and dual King George-winning career has suffered more than most through the recessionary times, but this double was a reminder that he can still train racehorses. Saturday was a good day, these are two nice horses, and his Rogue Trader is another exciting staying chaser.
Peoples Park was particularly impressive on Saturday. There was a lot to like about the manner in which he travelled through his race behind the fast pace, and the way that he pulled clear of his rivals from the final fence. It was a solid race too, the pace was strong and the winning time was good, the fastest comparative time on the day by some way and 4.7secs faster than the time that I Knew Well clocked a half an hour later.
The handicapper raised JP McManus’ horse by 9lb, to a mark of 132, but he is only seven and Saturday’s race was just his seventh chase, so he has the potential to progress sufficiently to take that type of hike in his stride. He is effective over two miles and over two and a half miles and, by Presenting, he handles good ground and soft ground. He will be of interest wherever he goes next.
Island flies high
You could have made a case for at least six of the seven runners in Sunday’s intriguing Bar One Racing Drinmore Chase, and you could have still made a case for all six as they faced up to the second last fence.
Four Gigginstown House horses and two JP McManus horses, three Gordon Elliott horses against Noel Meade, Mouse Morris, Tony Martin and Eddie Harty. It was a fascinating contest, and it is a race from which the winner usually progresses to be one of the top staying novice chasers in the land.
That could be the case again this year, because Coney Island was an impressive winner. The Eddie Harty-trained gelding jumped well, he travelled well into the home straight on the far side for Mark Walsh – the rider’s third winner of the weekend – and he came away nicely from Anibale Fly, who in turn came away from the rest of the field to complete a 1-2 for JP McManus.
The Flemensfirth gelding was a progressive novice hurdler last season, he won his maiden at Leopardstown’s Christmas Festival and he finished second to Bellshill in the Grade 1 three-mile novices’ hurdle at the Punchestown Festival. He shaped encouragingly on his debut over fences, when he finished second to Haymount in a beginners’ chase at Punchestown’s Morgiana Hurdle meeting last month, but Sunday’s run was obviously a big step up on that.
There is no telling how high he could go now. Sunday’s race lacked an obvious superstar, but it was a high-class race. It had strength in-depth. Harty spoke about stepping up in trip now, and that makes sense. A winner over three miles over hurdles, and out of a half-sister to top stayers Wichita Lineman and Rhinestone Cowboy, he could improve again when he steps up to three miles over fences.
Norton injury may not be a negative
An injury to a horse is rarely a positive thing. You suffer and injury, you are out for a while at best, you recuperate, you work your way back.
There is a chance, however, that the over-reach that Fox Norton suffered when winning the Shloer Chase at Cheltenham last month is not a negative in the context of his Champion Chase ambitions. Colin Tizzard said during the week that they were on top of the injury, and that he would probably have one more run before the Festival. That could be a positive.
If he hadn’t has his setback, the Lando gelding would probably have been targeting the Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton over Christmas, then perhaps the Game Spirit Chase or the Clarence House Chase in the new year.
He has already run twice this season, and the market told you that Neil Mulholland had him hard fit for his debut at Cheltenham in October. A break now could be a good thing, bring him back for one run before Cheltenham (yes, we are getting into the one-run-before-Cheltenham territory already). As long as everything goes well with his recovery, it could be the ideal preparation.
Ar madness of King George
Ar Mad would be an intriguing inclusion in the King George. His fluent, attacking style is as well suited to Kempton as it is to Sandown, and if he could stretch out to three miles, he would be a serious player.
Of course, that is a fairly big if, and the road to the King George is littered with two-and-two-and-a-half-mile horses who didn’t get home. However, Edredon Bleu got home, One Man got home, twice, and wasn’t he a Champion Chaser?
Also, Ar Mad has won twice over two and a half miles, and, despite his fluent attacking style, he races like he needs further that two miles. He was coming back at the leaders on the run-in in the Tingle Creek Chase last Saturday after making that bad mistake at the first of the Railway Fences. Also, he was passed by Vaniteux in the Wayward Lad Chase at Kempton last December before he got back up to beat Nicky Henderson’s horse by a neck.
It is frustrating that he did hold an entry in the King George at one point, and Gary Moore says that they won’t pay the supplementary entry fee to put him back in unless Thistlecrack skips the King George and runs in the Feltham Chase instead. That’s a pity, because it would be some race with the pair of them in it.
© The Irish Field, 10th December 2016