Things We Learned » Champion Hurdle picture

Champion Hurdle picture

When three of the protagonists for the 2013 Champion Hurdle lined up against each other for the International Hurdle (still under review by the Dubious Races Names Commission) at Cheltenham last Saturday, you were within your rights to expect that the Champion Hurdle picture would be at least a little clearer after the race. But if you did, you were probably disappointed.

Zarkandar won the race, but he was receiving 4lb from both Grandouet and Rock On Ruby, he had had the benefit of a run this term and the stands rail on the run-in, and the 17 furlongs on the new course probably played to his strengths more than the 16 and a half furlongs on the old course.

Grandouet travelled really well to the final flight, Barry Geraghty was the least animated of the three riders on the run to the last, and he did pick up on the run-in. However, it never really looked like he was going to get past Zarkandar.

Rock On Ruby finished third of the three but, according to paddock watchers, he was the least-tuned of the trio. He is the reigning champ and there is every chance that he will show the greatest improvement from the race, but he will need to.

Deep down, Zarkandar is the one to take out of the race for me. True, he was receiving weight and he had race-fitness on his side, but he wouldn’t have been suited by having to set and force the pace, he will be better when he can be ridden in behind horses off a strong pace, he stays the trip really well and, like Grandouet, he is only five and still has scope for progression.

Still not that much the wiser, but still intrigued.

Goodenough for Gowran

Mr Goodenough put up a noteworthy performance in finishing third behind Sole Witness and Ballinahow Lady in the two-and-a-half-mile handicap chase at Navan on Sunday.

Held up last of the 15 runners until they had jumped the first fence in the back straight final time, John Robinson’s horse made good headway on the inside down the far side to get up in behind the leaders. A poorly-timed momentum-halting mistake at the final fence in the back straight – his only real mistake of the race – which coincided with an increase in pace from the leaders, meant that he was in a fairly hopeless position, 10th or 11th and at least 12 lengths behind the leaders, as they levelled up for the three fences in the home straight.

From there, however, the son of Witness Box stayed on best of all and, while he was never going to get to Sole Witness, he just failed to catch Ballinahow Lady for the runner-up spot, just four lengths behind the winner.

There was a lot to like about this performance from Mr Goodenough. Firstly, he did remarkably well to make ground from the rear in a race in which it paid to race handily. Actually, the three horses who filled the other three places in the first four virtually occupied the first three places in the race from flagfall. Mr Goodenough was the only horse who got into the race from the rear.

Secondly, he shaped like a horse who would benefit greatly for stepping up to three miles, or even beyond. He has won three point-to-points and a hunters’ chase over three miles on heavy ground and, while he won over two and a half miles at Punchestown in October, stamina is surely his forte.

On top of that, while he has run in seven point-to-points, this was just his seventh run in a steeplechase, and just his second in a handicap chase. The handicapper has raised him just 1lb to a mark of 121, but it is possible that that mark under-estimates his potential over three miles quite significantly.

The race for him now is surely the Thyestes Chase at Gowran Park at the end of January. He should get into the race on a nice racing weight off his current mark, and the step up to three miles, and the soft or heavy ground that usually prevails for that race, should suit him well. Also, all of his six wins under Rules and between the flags have been at right-handed tracks and, on his only run at Gowran Park, in a hunters’ chase run over the Thyestes course and distance, he beat recent Cheltenham cross-country chase winner Outlaw Pete by four lengths.

He will be of interest wherever he goes next, but he will be of particular interest if he lines up in the Thyestes.

Derham claim

It always strikes me as strange when people say that a rider’s claim will negate the impact of a sharp hike in a horse’s handicap mark, or of the fact that they have to race from out of the handicap. Because it won’t.

Take Unioniste, for example, winner of last Saturday’s Paul Stewart Gold Cup at Cheltenham. The horse was 6lb ‘wrong’ in the handicap, he was set to carry the minimum weight of 10st whereas, had there been no minimum weight, he would have been set to carry 9st 8lb. In the preamble to the race, the fact that Harry Derham’s 5lb claim would almost completely off-set the amount by which he was out of the handicap was well-cited, and that is just plain misleading.

An inexperienced rider’s claim should, in theory, counteract his or her inexperience, not the fact that the horse that he or she is riding is ‘wrong’ at the weights. And the fact that Harry Derham is good value for his 5lb claim is neither here not there.

If there had been no minimum weight rule, Derham would have claimed off 9st 8lb, which means that, under those circumstances, and assuming that the rider would have been able to do the weight, Unioniste would have carried 9st 3lb. So, even though Paul Nicholls’s horse won the race carrying just 9st 9lb, he was still 6lb ‘wrong’, not 1lb ‘wrong’.

Poet laurels

High-class flat horses don’t always go on to become high-class hurdlers when switching codes – it is remarkable the difference that eight flights of hurdles and two extra stone can make – but early signs are that Poet will make the transition successfully.

Clive Cox’s horse – who won the Group 3 Kilternan Stakes at Leopardstown in September 2009 when he was trained by Aidan O’Brien – was impressive on his hurdling debut at Newbury on Wednesday. Settled just behind the leaders in the early stages by Dominic Elsworth, his hurdling was slick and fluent. He travelled well to the top of the home straight, and he picked up impressively when his rider gave him a squeeze at the second last to come away and win nicely.

The two elements of the performance that most impressed were his jumping, and the strength with which he kept on up the run-in. For a horse who could idle in front on the flat in the latter stages of that chapter of his career, this was a very welcome development. Obviously his gelding operation agrees with him.

He relished soft ground on the flat – hardly surprising for a son of Pivotal – and the heavy ground at Newbury on Wednesday played to his strengths. In beating two fellow good recruits from the flat in Veloce and Fair Trade, Poet posted a good time, six seconds faster than the time that another useful flat recruit Swnymor clocked in winning the juvenile hurdle earlier in the day.

Significantly, the last four renewals of this race have been won by (in chronological order) Aintree Hurdle third Salden Licht, dual Aintree Hurdle winner Oscar Whisky, Tolworth Hurdle winner Minella Class and last season’s Tolworth Hurdle narrow runner-up Colour Squadron. It can be a very good race.

Poet has been put in at around 25/1 for both the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and the Neptune Hurdle, but of more immediate and greater interest is the afore-mentioned Tolworth Hurdle. He should get the soft ground there that he likes, and we know that he goes well at Sandown, given that he finished second in the Gordon Richards Stakes there last April, and that he was only beaten a length by Workforce in the Brigadier Gerard Stakes there in May 2011.

Person of the year

Good luck to Joseph O’Brien in the vote for the RTE 2012 Irish Sports Person of the Year award tomorrow night. It is a huge achievement by the youngster to make the shortlist, but it is probably stretching the boundaries of optimism to hope for another winner from the world of racing to follow in the footsteps of Barry Geraghty (RTE) and AP McCoy (BBC) in recent years.

With the likes of Katie Taylor, Karl Lacey, Rory McIlroy and Henry Shefflin in opposition, this is the toughest competition that the new champion jockey has faced since he lined up against Olivier Peslier, Ryan Moore, Richard Hughes, Johnny Murtagh, Frankie Dettori and Christophe Soumillon in the 2000 Guineas. (And remember how that one turned out.)

© The Irish Field,  22nd December 2012