Donn's Articles » Dunguib


It appears that Golden Cygnet is the default point of comparison for the top class novice hurdler these days. The best since Golden Cygnet, it trips off the tongue easily. Even racing fans who weren’t born by the time the 1978 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle was run feel comfortable saying it.

In Hurricane Fly last year, we had a “best since Golden Cygnet”, we had a couple of “reminds me of Golden Cygnet” and even one or two “looks like Golden Cygnet”, and we had the inevitable groundswell that insisted that the right move was to run him in the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham instead of in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. Willie Mullins was unflapped, probably unflappable, insisting that he believed in keeping novices to novice company, before injury sadly intervened and extinguished the whole debate, such as it was.

We are getting quite used to these Best Since horses. Last year on the flat (remember the flat?) we had Sea The Stars, who ranged from Best Ever to Best in a Long Time; this year we have St Nicholas Abbey who seems to have captured the public imagination to the extent that he is being talked about in the same breath as last season’s undisputed champ. This year’s Hurricane Fly is Dunguib, and the Golden Cygnet similes are off again.

I wasn’t old enough to fully appreciate the Edward O’Grady-trained icon in real time, but I do remember the overwhelming reaction to his death. As a tragic hero, a youngster cut down in his prime without realising his true and immense potential, he instantly became a reference point for future novice hurdlers, but one to which, realistically, they could only really ever aspire.

Comparing Dunguib with Golden Cygnet is good bar banter but, no more than comparing Sea The Stars with Sea-Bird, or Kauto Star with Arkle, as a scientific comparison, it is smoke-catching stuff. They were both very different types anyway. Golden Cygnet raced on the flat before he was sent over hurdles, Dunguib is National Hunt through and through. Golden Cygnet didn’t really pour fuel on the fire of public imagination until he started jumping hurdles, Dunguib has made his name as champion of the bumper arena. Also, Golden Cygnet was one of the most impressive Supreme Novices’ Hurdle winners of the modern era, and proved in his ill-fated Scottish Champion Hurdle that he could cut it among the best, giving weight to dual Champion Hurdler Night Nurse; Dunguib still has to win the novices’ championship.

Trainer Philip Fenton has repeatedly stated that, all things being equal, Dunguib’s Cheltenham target is the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, not the Champion Hurdle. Even so, he has given him an entry in the Champion. You can understand the temptation. Dunguib is now seven, he is old by novice hurdling standards, he is even old enough by Champion Hurdle standards. Interestingly, only four of the last 14 Champion Hurdle winners were older than seven. Also, inexperienced novices can win the Champion Hurdle. Alderbrook had raced just twice over hurdles before he won the race in 1995, Royal Gait had had just three runs over hurdles before he won it in 1992.

That said, Dunguib’s Achilles Heel is his jumping, and that is a worry, a major one in the context of a Champion Hurdle entry, a lesser one, but still a worry, in the context of the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. He apparently schooled very well before the Deloitte Hurdle at Leopardstown last Sunday, but his jumping in the race was no better than it had been in his first three runs over hurdles.

In one sense, it speaks volumes for the horse’s raw talent, that he can make mistakes at five of the nine flights of hurdles and still put up such a performance. The runner-up Fionnegas is a horse of some potential, and Dunguib beat him as easily as he liked, with 11 lengths back to the third horse Some Present, probably the second best bumper horse around last season, in a time that was more than seven seconds faster than the time that it took the mares to complete the same course and distance a half an hour earlier. Scarily, Dunguib could almost certainly have gone a fair bit faster. In another, however, it may be the thing that will stand between him and a place among the truly great hurdlers. It is one thing making mistakes out the back of a seven-runner race, run on easy ground at a galloping track like Leopardstown, it is quite another if you are making mistakes in the middle of a throng of horses on faster ground on the helter skelter that is Cheltenham, where you are running up and down hills, all the while turning, all the while bargaining and bullying for position.

Dunguib proved last year that he can deal with unique demands of the Cheltenham Festival. This year, whichever race he contests, with eight flights of hurdles on the bumper track, he will be faced with a wholly different challenge.

The one thing of which you can be certain is that Philip Fenton will make the correct decision by the horse. His management of Dunguib’s career last season, when temptations abounded for a relatively small trainer for whom a high profile horse was liquid gold, was exemplary, including the decision to leave Mr Brian O’Connell on the horse at Cheltenham when the professionals were beating his door down. This season, similar story. Right race, right time and, so far, right result. Let’s hope that he gets another one on 16th March.

© The Irish Field, 13th February 2010