Things We Learned » First chance

First chance

First Lieutenant ran a huge race to finish third in the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury last Saturday. Always up in the van, the Gigginstown House horse got into a lovely rhythm from early on for Bryan Cooper. Jumping well in the main, with just one or two ‘fiddles’ when he got in tight, he looked a more-than-possible winner until Bobs Worth joined him at the second last fence.

All the talk regarding the Mouse Morris-trained gelding before last Saturday was about his stamina, about how the extended three-and-a-quarter-mile trip would bring his undoubted stamina into play, but there is an ever-increasing body of evidence that suggests that he is worth another try now back down in trip.

Remarkably, the son of Presenting has never won over three miles or more under Rules. Winner of his only point-to-point, his six wins on the track have been over two miles (once), two and a quarter miles (once) and two and a half miles (four times). True, he has run some mighty races in defeat over three miles, like last Saturday’s run, and his run in last month’s Chase at Down Royal, and in last season’s RSA Chase. But he was doing plenty when racing handily in the RSA Chase, as he was in Saturday’s Hennessy, and on both occasions he was out-stayed by Bobs Worth. Over a slightly shorter trip, his rider could be as aggressive on him as he liked.

Remember that First Lieutenant had the pace to win a Neptune Hurdle as a novice hurdler, when he beat subsequent Champion Hurdle winner Rock On Ruby by a nose, and his only other Grade 1 win was in the novices’ hurdle at Leopardstown’s Christmas Festival two years ago over two miles.

With his owner’s Sir Des Champs on track for the Gold Cup, it may be that his owner’s Ryanair Chase will be the race for First Lieutenant at Cheltenham.

New job

It wasn’t that great a surprise in the end when the announcement came that Declan McDonogh would ride as HH The Aga Khan’s new retained rider in Ireland next year. The instances of McDonogh donning the famous green silks (red epaulettes) had become intriguingly abundant in the dying weeks of the turf flat season, and if there had been betting on Johnny Murtagh’s successor on the last day of the season, they would surely have bet long odds-on McDonogh.

McDonogh’s association with Kevin Prendergast has been a long-standing feature of the Irish flat racing scene, at its zenith in 2006 when the rider was crowned champion jockey with 88 wins, 43 of them – including Miss Beatrix’s win in the Goffs Million – for Prendergast; a year in which Prendergast won more prize money than every other trainer in Ireland except Aidan O’Brien.

The Prendergast stable is not as all-conquering these days as it was then, and the numbers of winners that McDonogh has ridden per season have consequently diminished since – just 39 last season, only 13 for Prendergast – but neither his talent nor his hunger has (ref. Vastonea and Pintura at Galway, Shadow Gate and Empress Of Tara at Dundalk, Azamata at Leopardstown, Winning Impact at The Curragh, etc.). This is a huge opportunity for McDonogh, one which he deserves and one which he is certain to grab with both hands.

Arvika exciting

On a top class day at Fairyhouse last Sunday, the performance that the Willie Mullins-trained Arvika Ligeonniere put up in winning the Bar One Racing Drinmore Chase stood out. There was nothing not to like about this performance. He and Ruby Walsh easily set up a significant lead before they had jumped two fences, he travelled easily and effortlessly, his jumping was fast and accurate, and victory looked assured from a long way out. He eventually came home 11 lengths clear of the potentially top class staying chaser Dedigout, recording a really good time in the conditions, the fastest comparative time on the day, despite being eased down well before the winning line.

His next run, all going well, will be over two miles in the Grade 1 Racing Post Chase at Leopardstown’s Christmas Festival, and that is a legitimate target. He showed two-mile pace here.

In time, he could be a two-mile chaser, or a two-and-a-half-mile chaser, or a three-mile chaser. He is a super jumper of fences who has pace and who stays well. He has had his problems, he was off the track for over two years before he returned to win his beginners’ chase at Punchestown last May, but he is still only seven and, as long as he remains sound, there is no telling how high he could go.

Enright all right

Mentioned here a couple of weeks ago after he finished fourth on 66/1 shot Casey Top in the Paddy Power Gold Cup at Cheltenham’s Open Meeting, Mark Enright had a day of days at Fairyhouse on Sunday.

In completing at 142/1 double, Enright got Avondhu Lady home by half a length in the mares’ chase, and he got Murchu home by a nose and a neck in the three-and-a-half-mile handicap chase. He can see a stride, he can get a horse jumping, and he can ride a finish. Third on Maarek in the Ayr Gold Cup in September, Enright only rode his first winner over jumps last June, but he is huge value for his 5lb claim.

Sweeney sadly missed

I grew up reading Tony Sweeney in the Daily Mirror and the Evening Press, watching him on television and hanging on his every word.

When they said that you should never meet your heroes, they didn’t have Tony Sweeney in mind. It was even more enjoyable being in his company in real life than it was in print: always helpful, always insightful, nothing ever too much trouble. If a sentence was stuck for want of a piece of information, a phone call to Tony would always, without exception, set it free.

On my now wife’s first ever visit to a racecourse, on Irish St Leger day 2000, she happened to be seated beside Tony for lunch. The contrast couldn’t have been more stark – a debutante seated beside the most knowledgeable person in the Irish racing industry – but Tony was patience and charm personified with a racing rookie. Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t the Leger winner whom the new racing convert raved about all evening.

Tony Sweeney’s legacy to racing runs even deeper than his remarkable Sweeney Guide to the Irish Turf (1501 to 2001). He was a re-assuring presence, a gentleman, a rock of knowledge, a wise counsel, one of the very good guys, and he will be really sadly missed.

© The Irish Field, 8th December 2012