Things We Learned » Jocks’ duel

Jocks’ duel

Once again Pat Smullen and Johnny Murtagh are slugging the championship out all the way to the final seconds of the final round. In 2009, Murtagh beat Smullen by five winners. Last year, Smullen beat Murtagh by nine, with Fran Berry getting up to do Murtagh for the runner-up spot in a photo. This year, Murtagh and Smullen have pulled clear of their field, with just two winners between them before racing at Dundalk last night, with Smullen’s 222/1 treble at Leopardstown on Sunday turning virtually no hope into big hope.

Of course, with two wins in hand, Murtagh was still the warm favourite, but, however this pans out, the duel is a good one, good for racing. The good news is that common sense prevailed this year and the championship ends at Leopardstown tomorrow, when the sun may shine and both riders can be afforded the reception and the attention that they deserve.

It is a much more palatable scene than the one we witnessed last year in the cold and under the artificial December lighting at Dundalk, when Joseph O’Brien, Gary Carroll and Ben Curtis shared the apprentices’ title. It also means that Murtagh and Smullen can enjoy a bit of a break now, if that is their desire, or do some riding abroad, happy that they have given the championship their all, instead of sticking around during the National Hunt season for one Friday night a week from now until Christmas.

Johnson woe

There’s something about Betfred Haldon Gold Cup day at Exeter and Richard Johnson. In 1997, he won the feature race on the David Nicholson-trained 10-year-old Viking Flagship, with Adrian Maguire having chosen to ride The Duke’s better-fancied representative Mulligan. Johnson had to wait eight years before he won it again, but he had won three of the previous six renewals, courtesy of Monkerhostin, Ashley Brook and Planet Of Sound, before Tuesday.

However, it probably should have been four out of six, because in 2006 he was challenging the leader Impek at the fourth last when the riderless Racing Demon came from left-field and all but knocked him over. Later that day, in a bizarre conclusion to the three-mile handicap chase, Johnson was clear on Out The Black when the horse seemed to shy at the entrance to the racecourse and sprawled on the ground literally a couple of yards from the winning line.

Unfortunately, on Tuesday it was more like 2006 than 2008 or 2009 for Johnson. Captain Chris hadn’t jumped that well in the feature race, but it looked like he was coming to win his race at the last fence – he actually picked up first – when he pitched on landing and lost Johnson. In the next race, the novices’ chase over the same course and distance, Menorah jumped superbly for a debutant, and appeared to easily have the measure of his two rivals going to the second last fence, when he too pitched on the landing side and fired Johnson groundwards.

On the cloud side for Johnson, both horses were beaten and the rider went home with a sore neck. On the silver lining side, however, it didn’t seem to be anything worse than a sore neck and a pride-kicking, and both horses probably would have won, so he probably has two very exciting chasers to look forward to for the rest of the season. (And he did ride the winner of the first.)

Somersby’s back

Somersby looked good on his seasonal debut at Kempton on Monday. Aiteen Thirtythree may have been using the race as a sighter for the Hennessy, but Somersby beat him well, and the manner in which he travelled and jumped was impressive.

The fact that Somersby was winning for the first time in almost two years can’t have done his confidence any harm. Three miles at Kempton should be ideal and, now that Henrietta Knight has finally seemed to succumb to the inevitable (that he is not a two-miler), he is a live King George contender. It is mildly surprising that you can still back him for the Christmas Festival showpiece at 20/1.

Euro craze

Hopefully there were one or two European-trained winners on Day 1 of the Breeders’ Cup meeting at Churchill Downs last night, because Europe could be in for its best Breeders’ Cup meeting ever at Churchill Downs.

At best prices, it was 5/4 a European winner of the Filly & Mare Turf and 15/8 a European winner of the Juvenile Fillies’ Turf last night. At current prices, it is about 4/9 a European winner of the Mile, 2/13 a European winner of the Turf, and just over 2/1 a European winner of the Juvenile Turf. That’s about 4/1 the treble, and that’s more than possible, with plenty of chances in the other races, including So You Think in the Classic.

Rare sighting

There are 98 horses quoted for the Grand National at this stage, with prices going up to 549/1, so it is something of a surprise that Rare Bob is not one of them. He is a good jumper, he has a touch of class, he is a prominent racer, he goes well left-handed and on a flat track, he can handle all types of ground, he stays well and he is proven in big-field handicaps (he finished fourth in the Irish National as a seven-year-old novice in 2009).

He will be 10 years old next year, the ideal age for the race, his handicap rating of 150 is perfect, given the shape that the race has been adopting in the last two or three years, and he is trained by Dessie Hughes, who went so close with Black Apalachi in 2010 and, less obviously, in 2009. What’s not to like?

© The Irish Field, 5th November 2011