Things We Learned » Things we learned (from Cheltenham)

National interest

There were several good Grand National trials run at Cheltenham last week.

Synchronised, of course, ran the most obvious trial, if, indeed, you can run a Grand National trial when you win the Gold Cup. The handicapper raised JP McManus’s Gold Cup hero just 1lb to a mark of 168, which, you would have thought, is a little on the lenient side given that he has won steeplechasing’s blue riband, beating a 182-rated rival into third place. But he was already 6lb well-in in the National – that’s the compression of the weights at the top end for you – so now he will now be 7lb well-in if he takes his chance at Aintree.

Burton Port is also well-in in the National. He wasn’t raised for finishing fourth in the Gold Cup, but he had already been raised 6lb to a mark of 166 for finishing second behind Long Run in the Denman Chase at Newbury last month, after the National weights had been published. He had been allotted a mark of 158 for the National, he was allowed 2lb initially – compression of weights, see above – so now he is effectively 8lb well-in.

But Sunnyhillboy is the most interesting. He was raised 10lb for winning the Kim Muir, he is now rated 152, but he will get to compete off a mark of 142, just 3lb higher than the mark off which he finished third in last year’s Irish National, and that looks even more attractive now than it did 10 days ago. Cheltenham winners have a poor record in the National, but there will be 30 days between the Kim Muir and the Grand National this year, an unusually long time, and that may be sufficient to enable Sunnyhillboy run up to his best at Aintree.

Hotpots scotched

Perhaps it is the same every year, but, going into the week, it seemed to be more difficult than ever to pick holes in the majority of the Cheltenham hotpots.  Yet, once again, the punters paid.  Of the eight horses that were sent off at an SP of 7/4 or lower (five at odds-on, seven at 6/5 or lower) – Sprinter Sacre, Hurricane Fly, Quevega, Grands Crus, Sizing Europe, Big Buck’s, Boston Bob and Long Run – only three won.  Lesson learned. Again.

Gentleman Henry

If you were in any doubt about Henry de Bromhead’s class, his performance after the Champion Chase on Wednesday removed that doubt.  Literally minutes after he had seen his horse beaten a length in the most bizarre Champion Chase in living memory, a microphone and a camera thrust in his direction, his reaction sought, he remained pragmatic about the entire incident at the last fence, magnanimous in defeat.

The omission of the final obstacle, and the manner in which it was signalled, may not have made the difference between victory and defeat for Sizing Europe, but it may have.  De Bromhead’s horse was in front, another obstacle would have focussed his attention again, his jumping up to that point had been exemplary, and his momentum-check to get around the wing of the final fence was more severe than his pursuer’s.  On the balance of probability, the incident was more of a disadvantage to Sizing Europe than it was to Finian’s Rainbow.  To listen to de Bromhead’s post-race reaction, you would never have known that there had been an incident.

Champion shambles

De Bromhead wouldn’t, but we can.  The most frustrating aspect of Champion Chasegate was not the fact that they had initially placed the three boards all the way across the fence, thus making it fairly unambiguous about the need to by-pass the fence, before moving all three boards to the inside of the fence (why did they only have three boards?), thus introducing the ambiguity.  (We understand the need for safety at all costs, the need to protect the stricken rider and photographer in the unlikely event that a loose horse decided to jump the inside of the fence, but couldn’t they have put a flagman on the inside of the fence, and left the boards stretched across the fence?  Even a loose horse would avoid a flagman.  Or if they insisted on having the three boards on the inside of the fence, couldn’t they have placed a flagman or something else on the rest of the gaping, inviting fence, thereby removing all doubt about the need to by-pass it?)

It wasn’t that the flagman moved from a starting position of on-the-track between the second last fence and the last fence – a short distance now since the re-siting of the second last fence on the Old Course after the home turn as opposed to before it – to off-the-track, inside the inside rail, as the horses approached.  (You could hardly blame a casual labourer for responding to the most basic human need for safety.)

It wasn’t that so much more could have been done. Okay, so these things are easy in hindsight, and you only had the time that it took the Champion Chase horses to complete a circuit to figure it out, but a man or men at the last fence would have done it, with or without flags, or a tape tied to the outside wing and held by a man (they have a tape in situ as well, the tape that elongates the inside rail on the hurdles track), of a couple of extra boards, or a little bit of common sense. The authorities had to have been looking on – as we all were – more in hope than in confidence that the riders would do the right thing.

It wasn’t that the Queen Mother Champion Chase, one of the most prestigious races on the National Hunt racing calendar, came within a hair’s breadth of being reduced to a shambles, that Barry Geraghty said afterwards that he may have jumped the jumpable part of the final fence if Andrew Lynch had not been on his inside trying to get out, forcing him around the fence, and that, had Finian’s Rainbow been a half a length in front of Sizing Europe instead of a half a length behind, both horses may have ended up jumping the final fence.  Had that happened, both horses would surely have been disqualified for taking the wrong course, and who knows what Robbie Power on Big Zeb or Noel Fehily on Gauvain would have done then?  I’m So Lucky could have won the Champion Chase.  Finished alone.  He would have been well-named.

Nope, the most frustrating thing about Champion Chasegate was the reaction of the authorities afterwards.  No sense that we got away with that one (and there was ample opportunity to admit it), no feeling of the need to act urgently in order to ensure that something like this can’t happen again, no sense that the procedures were far from perfect. Nothing to learn.

Cheltenham 2013 Lucky 15

World Hurdle – Zarkandar (14/1)

Gold Cup – Flemenstar (25/1)

Champion Hurdle – Peddlers Cross (25/1)

RSA Chase – Boston Bob (12/1)

And what price Minsk for the Neptune Hurdle?  (No harm starting the hype early.)

© The Irish Field, 25th March 2012