Donn's Articles » The Irish View

The Irish View

Determine the correlation and complete the sequence: 5, 6, 4, 9, 10, 5, 7, 9, 7, x.

Prime numbers? Ah now come on, think about it a little, is six a prime number? Is four?

Okay, eh, numbers that are divisible only by themselves or one or two or three? Nope, 10 is divisible by five. Good effort though.

Is it the number of Irish winners at Cheltenham every year since Foot and Mouth came and went, but not before ruining it for everyone? Good man. Up you go to the top of the class.

So it’s five years since we won the Gold Cup. Janey Mac (OMG for non-Southsiders), it seems like a lot more than five years since Conor O’Dwyer and War Of Attrition came bounding up the hill, followed up it by Hedgehunter and Forget The Past (quite appropriately named, given that Dawn Run and Imperial Call were the only stepping stones from Davy Lad to Kicking King, if you don’t count Tied Cottage that is, and we still find it difficult not to count Tied Cottage) to make it a ticker-tape-strewing, eye-gaping Irish 1-2-3 with Kauto Star and Denman nowhere to be seen.

Actually, Denman had been just beaten by Nicanor in the Sun Alliance Hurdle and Kauto had started favourite for the Champion Chase two days earlier, but the nowhere-to-be-seen thing works well when you are talking about an Irish monopoly. They started the following year, the Ditcheat Duo, rat-tat-tat, with their scarves and their supporters clubs, three in a row, with Imperial Commander (he had a scarf too, honestly) mucking in last year just to put the hat on it (to go with the scarf I suppose). The argument that he and Denman were bred in Ireland hardly makes it off the Bloodstock News pages.

Strange thing. In those four barren years, how many Irish-trained runners would you say there have been in the Gold Cup? Five, that’s how many. Three in 2007, then one, none and one, and all five failed to finish in the first four. This year we have a big chance of doing a lot better. At the time of writing, it is less than 24 hours since Kempes won the Hennessy Gold Cup at Leopardstown, and I am not certain that the quality of that performance has been fully appreciated by bookmakers.

A press release from one of the top firms landed directly after the Hennessy (are you allowed to say Victor Chandler?) saying that they had cut Kempes from 50/1 to 40/1 for the Gold Cup, and I thought, Janey Mac (see above), that’s a little big isn’t it? Turns out it was. Before you could say I’ll-have-40-long-ones-to-one he was 25. That was a little more like it, but it was still big enough to make you scratch your chin thoughtfully.

Kempes is a Gold Cup contender, no question. It may be 15 years since Imperial Call last did the Hennessy/Cheltenham Gold Cup double in the same year, and he may be one of just two horses to have ever achieved that feat (for six marks, name the other, and the year for a bonus point), and it may be that seven of the last nine Gold Cup winners hadn’t run that calendar year, between the Christmas festivals and Cheltenham, but there is still a lot to like about Kempes. (Jodami, by the way, 1993.)

Okay, so it wasn’t a fantastic Hennessy, we knew where we stood with Joncol and The Listener and poor Money Trix and their ilk, but Kempes was really one of just two horses who went into the race with the potential to be better than they had shown us previously. He travelled superbly well through the race, his jumping was more than adequate, and he powered up the hill.

I remember watching Imperial Call winning the Hennessy in 1996 and thinking that he could have gone around again. It was the same with Kempes, he seemed to finish the race with a fair tank left, and the way the he put his head down and galloped up the hill was taking. He is only eight, he has raced over fences just nine times in his life, he had the pace to win an Ulster Derby and a Grade 2 novices’ hurdle over two miles, yet he stays well, and he should be even better on the better ground that he will probably get at Cheltenham. JP McManus has never owned a Gold Cup winner, Willie Mullins has never trained one. This fellow could right that wrong.

Cooldine is out for the season, which is a real shame, but it looks like Pandorama is in. The Noel Meade-trained gelding missed the Hennessy with a setback, but that may not be a bad thing in the end in the context of the Gold Cup. Setbacks are rarely good, but if he does make a full recovery in time, this one means that Meade can prepare him from a long way out without the distraction of another race.

Remarkably, Pandorama has never finished out of the first two when he has completed under rules. His Hennessy aberration aside, he has only been beaten once, and that was by Mikael D’Haguenet over hurdles when he was in his pomp and when Pandorama wasn’t. He has never been to Cheltenham, Meade and Paul Carberry between them decided over a coffee at the 2009 Texaco Sports Awards that he was a potential Gold Cup winner in 2011 or 2012, and that they weren’t going to risk ruining that potential by allowing him go to contest the Neptune Hurdle that year.

His performance in winning the Lexus was one of the most impressive performances put up by any staying chaser this season. Okay, so he may need a bit of a dig in the ground to be seen at his best but, despite the official going description of good, it was anything but good for last year’s Gold Cup – they changed it to good to soft before the Foxhunter and to soft after it – so it isn’t beyond the realms that we have an easy ground Gold Cup, even these days, even with all the drains. And didn’t we think that another Noel Meade horse, Harbour Pilot, needed soft ground before he finished third behind Best Mate in the 2003 Gold Cup and again in the 2004 one?

I’m still not certain why Big Zeb is not clear favourite in front of Master Minded for the Champion Chase. So he got beaten by Golden Silver in the Tied Cottage, but Golden Silver is top class, just because he doesn’t seem to handle Cheltenham very well doesn’t mean that he isn’t top class away from it, and Big Zeb was just mugged a bit by him after he had gone clear of Sizing Europe and won his race. Big Zeb is the reigning champ, he beat Master Minded in the race last year, and he would have beaten him at Punchestown the previous year had he not taken a lump out of the final fence on his way through it. The present-day Master Minded is not the Master Minded of old, wind op or no wind op. Whisper it quietly, but Big Zeb is a better horse. (Citation needed.) If I were Colm Murphy, I would be more afraid of Captain Cee Bee than of Master Minded.

The Champion Hurdle responsibility really rests squarely on Hurricane Fly’s shoulders. We won the Champion Hurdle seven times in nine glorious years between 1998 (the beginning of the Istabraq Era) and 2007 (the end of the Golden Era) and he haven’t won it since, but Hurricane Fly gives us a real chance.

We know four things about Willie Mullins’s horse. Firstly, he’s better than Solwhit. Secondly he’s better than Solwhit. Thirdly, he really is better than Solwhit. And finally, we know for sure that he is better than Solwhit. So where does that leave him? Pretty good I’d say.

Okay, so he has never been to Cheltenham, and Binocular, Peddlers Cross and Menorah are all winners under Cheltenham Festival conditions. So we don’t know that he will handle conditions, and that is a bit of an imponderable, but we don’t know that he won’t. I wouldn’t worry too much about the fact that his sire Montjeu hasn’t had a Cheltenham Festival winner in 44 attempts. (Ref. Sadler’s Wells: Derby; Frankie Dettori: Derby; AP McCoy: Grand National.) Some of his progeny – Noble Prince and Alexander Severus among them – have run well in defeat, and Hurricane Fly has all the attributes that you look for in a Champion Hurdle winner: he has pace, he can travel, he has class, and he had the stamina to win a Hatton’s Grace Hurdle on soft ground.

And don’t rule out a big run from Thousand Stars. He isn’t far behind Hurricane Fly on the book and, as last year’s County Hurdle winner, he is proven under Cheltenham Festival conditions. He will love sitting in behind off a fast pace on fast ground and passing horses, and there will be worse 66/1 shots lining up under Bishop’s Cleeve during the week.

The Irish staying novice chasers look strong. I wouldn’t be too worried about Jessies Dream’s defeat to Magnanimity at Leopardstown in January. For starters, Magnanimity is a very good horse, as we saw when he ran Bostons Angel to a head in the Grade 1 Dr PJ Moriarty Chase next time, and that was a messy race, as a lot of three-horse races are, with a messy pace. Even at that, if Jessies Dream had jumped the last a little better or a little straighter, he probably would have won.

He is a second-season novice, he is all class and he is a stayer with pace. Winner of the Drinmore Chase on merit, he should improve for stepping up in trip to three miles, for the faster pace that he will surely get at Cheltenham and for the better ground. He has a huge chance in the RSA Chase.

Bostons Angel may not quite have his class, but he is a resolute galloper, which is really what you want for the RSA Chase. He should relish the step back up in trip to three miles. Chicago Grey will probably go for the National Hunt Chase, he could be joined there by Quito De La Roque, and both have obvious chances.

Another with a big chance, but not such an obvious one if the betting is to be believed, is Some Target. The Willie Mullins-trained gelding stayed on really well to win the Punchestown Grand National Trial on his latest start off a mark of 125. The winner of a bumper and a hurdle race, that was just his fourth chase, he is only seven and he is most progressive. Interestingly, the last time Mullins won that Grand National Trial was in 2003 with a horse called (can you guess?) Hedgehunter, who was travelling like a winner in (can you guess?) the National Hunt Chase when he made a race-ending mistake at the second last. Some Target will have lots of options, he is already in the RSA Chase as well as, a little surprisingly perhaps, the Jewson, and he will surely get an entry in a handicap or two, but I’d love to see him in the four-miler. If he did go for it, the 20/1 at which you can currently back him would be far too big.

The Zaidpour and Hidden Universe bubbles weren’t quite burst in the Deloitte Hurdle at Leopardstown in February, but they were definitely deflated a little. However, I wouldn’t go writing them off, they are both high-class novices, and it may be that Oscars Well is much much better than anyone thought he was. Jessica Harrington maintains that a lot of her horses are under-rated, which is a fair observation, because we don’t need any more evidence about her ability to train horses, it doesn’t matter if they are Champion Chasers or eventers or Guineas contenders.

If there was a feeling that the Grade 1 contest that Oscars Well won at Navan fell a little short of what you would expect from a Grade 1 contest – and there was – that was put right when the son of Oscar careered away from his rivals, top class ones, up the run-in in the Deloitte. And with the Willie Mullins-trained So Young also on track for the Neptune, we have a strong hand in a race in which we have historically done well. (Four of the last eight.)

Any other live prospects? Loads. Noble Prince or Loosen My Load in the Jewson, Sivota in the Pertemps Final, On The Fringe in the Foxhunter, Unaccompanied in the Triumph. The Moyglare Stud’s filly looked really good in quickening away from the best juvenile hurdlers in Ireland in the Spring Juvenile Hurdle, and she will get 7lb from the geldings in a race in which fillies have done well.

Realt Dubh in the Arkle, Quevega, obviously, in the Mares’ Hurdle, Tranquil Sea in the Ryanair, maybe J’y Vole, Mourad in the World Hurdle. No joke. Of course, there is Big Buck’s, and it wasn’t great for Mourad’s confidence that Grands Crus skated in as he did in the Cleeve Hurdle, but the son of Sinndar, dual winner over a mile and a half on the flat, looks like an improved horse this year as a six-year-old. He seems to have strengthened up, he gets three miles well, he has a touch of class, he goes on good ground, and he ran really well to finish third behind Zaynar and Walkon, and in front of Starluck, in the 2009 Triumph Hurdle on his only previous visit to Cheltenham.

We’ll surely win the Cross-Country and the Bumper as well. That’s two for starters. Also a prime number.

© Cheltenham Festival Racing Guide 2011