Things We Learned » Beautiful affair

Beautiful affair

There was a lot to like about the performance that Stocktons Wing put up in landing the opening Grade 2 juvenile hurdle at Fairyhouse last Saturday.

Settled in third place early on behind the leading pair Dogora and South South West, he made nice progress on the inside around the home turn for Mark Walsh, moved up to join marginal favourite Dogora between the last two flights, jumped the final obstacle well and picked up nicely to win by a comfortable enough two and a quarter lengths, clocking a decent time, the fastest comparative time of the day by a fair way.

Beaten just two and a half lengths by Triumph Hurdle favourite Our Conor at Fairyhouse on Hatton’s Grace Hurdle day last December, this was probably a career-best from JP McManus’ horse. By Jeremy – who is also, interestingly, responsible for Our Conor – out of an El Gran Senor mare and a half-brother to County Hurdle winner Desert Quest, whose 12 wins were all gained on ground ranging from good to soft to firm, he should be even better on the better ground that he will surely encounter if he makes the trip to Cheltenham.

A British rating of 140 looks harsh enough, and means that he would have at least 11st 6lb to carry if he were to run in the Fred Winter Hurdle. He would still be a player in the race, mind you, despite the damning fact that only once in the Fred Winter’s eight-year history has the winner carried more than 11st 4lb. Turn the looking glass around the other way and you find that four of the eight winners have carried 11st 2lb or more.

Stocktons Wing’s rating may be irrelevant for now anyway, as trainer Charles O’Brien seemed to be favouring a tilt at the Triumph Hurdle over the Fred Winter Hurdle after Saturday’s race. He said that he actually wasn’t that happy with his horse in the lead up to his race at Fairyhouse last December, so there could be improvement in him from the bare form of that performance. If he does take his chance in the Triumph, he could be a lively outsider in the race.

Top trainer

With just a cursory glance, it makes sense that Nicky Henderson is odds-on to be crowned top trainer at Cheltenham again this year. In Sprinter Sacre and Simonsig, he has two odds-on shots for two of the marquee races. In Bobs Worth, My Tent Or Yours, Captain Conan and Oscar Whisky, he has the favourite for four of the other top class races. That’s six of the top class races in which Henderson is set to field the favourite. In fact, of the five races at the Festival in which the favourite is currently priced up at no better than 2/1, Henderson is responsible for three of those favourites.

Add to those horses Long Run, Grandouet, Rolling Star, Binocular, Utopie Des Bordes, Une Artiste, Hadrian’s Approach, Finian’s Rainbow, Riverside Theatre, Anquetta, Kid Cassidy, and the rest, and it is difficult to imagine a stronger team.

That is until you look at the team that Willie Mullins is assembling. Back to those five races in which the favourite is priced up at no better than 2/1, with Henderson responsible for three of them – Mullins is responsible for the other two.

The Irishman has other ante post favourites to go with those two. To Hurricane Fly and Quevega, add other favourites Boston Bob, Pont Alexandre and Ballycasey. Then add Un Atout, Arvika Ligeonniere, Aupcharlie, Back In Focus, Tennis Cap, Abbey Lane, Fatcatinthehat, Diakali, Clondaw Court, Union Dues, Mozoltov, Vesper Bell, Uncle Junior, Champagne Fever and, of course, Sir Des Champs, and you have potentially just about the strongest team that ever travelled from one yard from Ireland for the Cheltenham Festival.

Paul Nicholls isn’t that far off the top two in terms of quality in-depth, but he is only third best at this juncture. Also, there may not be as much between the Henderson and Mullins teams as the Top Trainer betting suggests. Even money each of two would probably be a fairer reflection of their relative strengths.

No Power

Speaking of strength in-depth, how strong does your Cheltenham team have to be to allow you leave Annie Power on the bench? The daughter of Shirocco was hugely impressive in beating the exciting pair Defy Logic and Don Cossack in the Grade 2 Paddy Power Hurdle at Naas last Sunday, and there is no knowing how good Willie Mullins’ mare could be.

If she were in the Surpeme Novices’ Hurdle or the Neptune, getting 7lb from the geldings, she would surely be a huge player.

Benbulben strikes

Barry Connell and Danny Mullins probably heaved a collective and metaphorical sigh of relief when Mount Benbulben won the two-and-a-quarter-mile chase at Thurles on Thursday. Not that Danny Mullins hadn’t ridden winners for Barry Connell before, he had, and plenty of them, but he hadn’t ridden one for him since he was confirmed as the owner’s new retained rider four weeks ago.

There probably wasn’t any pressure involved at all, but at the same time it must have been nice for the youngster to ride that winner for his new boss. You could probably liken it to a striker scoring plenty of goals while on loan at a club, but then wanting to prove himself after he has been signed as an employee. Even AP McCoy, with his untouchable cv, took particular pride in riding winners for his new boss JP McManus in 2004.

Mullins was cool as you like on the Gordon Elliott-trained Mount Benbulben, around the inside, making his ground gradually before allowing his horse stride on from the third last. It was a lovely performance from the horse as well. Although he wasn’t foot-perfect at his obstacles in the early stages, he did warm up nicely as the race developed, and he was obviously a lot happier going clockwise than anti-clockwise, given that he jumps that way.

The Powers Gold Cup is his next intended target, and that makes a lot of sense, going right-handed again. He should be a leading player in that race, with any Cheltenham horse who lines up against him at Fairyhouse having had just over two weeks to recover from his exertions across the water.

Ante post value

In the ante post betting for the Pulteney Land Investments novices’ handicap chase, taking best prices from the 14 leading bookmakers, there are 20 horses about whom you will not find any better than 20/1. You don’t need a PhD in Applied Maths to figure out that the value is going to be mighty difficult to find in that one.

© The Irish Field, 2nd March 2013