Things We Learned » Champion match

Champion match

The more the days and the trials trickle by, the more the Queen Mother Champion Chase is looking like Maguire & Paterson – an Irish match.

The latest installment in the saga was played out on Ascot Racecourse in Berkshire last weekend, when Somersby got up on the rail in the Victor Chandler Chase to prick the Al Ferof bubble and to gently ease some of the air out of the Finian’s Rainbow one that had been all a-swell.

Natural inclination is to conclude that Big Zeb is too old and too long in the tooth to win a Champion Chase, an 11-year-old who has raced 21 times over fences. After all, the great Moscow Flyer is the only horse aged older than 10 to win the race since Mouse Morris rode Skymas to win the race as a 12-year-old (Skymas, that is, not Mouse) in 1977. That’s 35 years ago.

However, Colm Murphy’s horse isn’t acting like an 11-year-old these days. He gave a race-fit Noble Prince 5lb and a two-length beating in the Fortria Chase on his seasonal debut, then he beat the same rival again in the Paddy Power Dial-A-Bet Chase at Leopardstown over Christmas, displaying a fine turn of foot from the last fence off a fairly sedate early pace on unusually good ground. Next stop Tied Cottage Chase at Punchestown, then Cheltenham. Same as usual then.

The Tied Cottage is also the preferred stepping stone for reigning Champion Chaser Sizing Europe, a sprightly 10-year-old by comparison. If there were any doubts about the Henry de Bromhead-trained gelding trading some of his speed for stamina as he entered his 11th year, after he almost got home over three miles in the Chase at Down Royal in November, those doubts were scuppered by a scintillating performance in the Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown the following month. He has been off enjoying a nice break, and the Tied Cottage should put him spot on for Cheltenham.

Worthy would-be adversaries are thin on the ground now. Finian’s Rainbow remains a contender, but his case was severely weakened by his defeat in the Victor Chandler. Al Ferof will now go for the Arkle, Peddlers Cross will surely do likewise, Somersby should run in the Ryanair, as should Gauvain and Kauto Stone, if they go to Cheltenham, and Wishfull Thinking, for that matter, even if he can recover last season’s form. Hold Fast is a potential contender, he has the propensity to improve, but he has to improve an awful lot from his Sandown win – impressive though it was – if he is to manoeuvre himself into a position from whence he could challenge for the Champion Chase crown.

Irish horses look set to dominate again this year in a race in which Klairon Davis was the only Irish winner in the 17 years that separated Buck House and Moscow Flyer. In a fairly sudden about-turn, Ireland has now won five of the last nine renewals, and were responsible for the first four home last year, and this dominance shows no sign of waning.

Hurricane back

It will be great to see Hurricane Fly back on the racetrack at Leopardstown tomorrow. He may not be at his brilliant best on his seasonal debut habitually, he may have only just got home by a neck from Donnas Palm in the Royal Bond Hurdle on his debut in 2008/09, recording the second-lowest Racing Post Rating of his Irish career (his lowest was on his Irish debut), and he may have finished third behind Solwhit and Muirhead in the Morgiana Hurdle – his only defeat ever on Irish soil – on his 2009/10 debut, but he is a special horse, and it is worthwhile making the effort to go see special horses race.

Oscar where

Since the start of the season, we have been told that Oscar Whisky’s Cheltenham Festival target was definitely the World Hurdle. He will have his final run before Cheltenham in the Welsh Champion Hurdle at Ffos Las over two miles, we were told, but that is only because his owner, Dai Walters, is chairman of that racetrack, and the World Hurdle is definitely the plan. His entry in the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham is purely precautionary, just like you might enter Bobs Worth in the World Hurdle as well as in the RSA Chase.

Then the owner says during the week that his horse is on track for the World Hurdle. Fine. That he is 60-40 to run in that race. Definitely 60-40. So, not so definitely, actually.

About turn

Strange the way the world works. The highly capable Paul Struthers leaves his position as BHA’s head of communications in the middle of November, the apparent sacrificial lamb, wheeled out in the middle of the whip rule debacle, as others cower under the group-decision blanket. Two months later, he shows up as the new chief executive of the Professional Jockeys’ Association, whose primary immediate task will be to help negotiate (nay, reason) with the BHA in order to help mould the whip rules – such as they are – into a form that will be acceptable to members of his new association.

From frying pan to fire before you can say whose-idea-was-it-to-introduce-the-new-rules-five-days-before-Champions-Day-anyway. Had Paul Bittar not been appointed as the BHA’s new chief executive in the interim, they could have sold tickets to Struthers’s first meeting with his old employers.

Thought for the week

It’s not all about winning – it’s just about covering the spread.

© The Irish Field, 28th January 2012