Things We Learned » Fast away

Fast away

It’s becoming a bit of a thing, this train-four-winners-on-the-opening-day-of-the-turf-flat-season business. In 2010, Tommy Stack did it. Last Sunday at The Curragh, Jim Bolger did it.

There was talk about the Bolger team for Sunday before racing all right, but most of it centred on Saburo, the chosen arrow for the opening juvenile race of the season. Dawn Approach won that maiden last year, went the talk, and look how that one turned out. And sure enough, Saburo got his job done. As did three others.

It shouldn’t have been a major surprise. Jim Bolger has been bursting out of the new-season stalls for years now. Specifically, the opening day of the season has been a springboard of sorts. In 2009 he had three winners on the opening day, including Oh Goodness Me, who won the Group 3 Park Express Stakes and went on to finish third in the Irish 1000 Guineas.

In 2010, despite Tommy Stack’s domination of the day, Bolger won the concluding one-mile maiden with Reiteration, who went on to win the Classic Trial at Gowran Park six weeks later, and he sent out Suntan to finish second in the juveniles’ maiden. In 2011 he went one better in the juveniles’ maiden with Whip Rule, and, of course, he followed up in the race last year with the redoubtable Dawn Approach.

Caesaria and Rehn’s Nest and Alpinist are all interesting prospects, and Rehn’s Nest did particularly well to beat the year-older Group 3 winner Yellow Rosebud in this year’s renewal of the Park Express Stakes, but there is no question that Saburo is the most interesting of the quartet.

By Cape Cross, whose best progeny are essentially middle-distance horses, out of a mare who won a Group 2 race in Germany over 11 furlongs and who was only just beaten in the German St Leger, and a half-brother to a horse whose only win to date has been in a two-mile handicap, it was remarkable that Sheikh Mohammed’s horse had the pace to win over five furlongs on his debut.

He did come under pressure early enough, but he responded willingly and gamely to Kevin Manning’s urgings, clocking a good time and leaving the lasting and inevitable impression that he can only improve as he steps up in distance. It would be naïve to think that he could be even nearly as good as last year’s winner of this race, but there is an awful lot to like about him, and his trainer says that he will go down the Dawn Approach path, a path that takes in the Coventry Stakes, the National Stakes and the Dewhurst. That is significant, and remember that we don’t know yet that he isn’t that good.

Melling intrigue

It will be a shame for Irish racegoers if – as now seems likely – Sprinter Sacre runs in the Martell Chase at Aintree next Friday instead of staying fresh for the Punchestown Festival like the rest of us. However, with Cue Card and Flemenstar also now on track for the Aintree contest, it sets up one of the most intriguing races of the season.

You could take the view that Sprinter Sacre is unbeatable on any track on any ground at any time of year and over any distance, and that would be a reasonable view to take. However, when you are talking about a 1/3 shot, you are entitled to prod around in the search for chinks, and there is just a chance that the distance might be one.

There is plenty of stamina in Sprinter Sacre’s breeding. By Network, a Group 2 winner over 11 furlongs, who is responsible for three-and-a-half-mile chase winner Rubi Ball and Sefton Hurdle winner Saint Are, Sprinter Sacre is a half-brother to French three-mile cross-country winner Kashima and three-time point-to-point winner Magniolia. However, such is the ease with which he travels over two miles, and such is the potency of his pace over the minimum trip that, while a step up to two and a half miles may not be a major disadvantage, it is difficult to think that any step up in trip would be an advantage.

He may be invincible, but if you were to choose two horses to put it up to him over two and a half miles, you would choose Cue Card and Flemenstar. Cue Card’s best trip is two and a half miles. Colin Tizzard’s horse was really impressive in landing the Ryanair Chase over that trip at Cheltenham, and remember that he got to within seven lengths of Sprinter Sacre in the Arkle last year over two miles, when Nicky Henderson’s horse may not have had much more than the winning margin in hand. There is a good chance that a step up in trip will be in Cue Card’s favour and against Sprinter Sacre. The extra half-mile may just narrow the gap a little.

Two and a half miles is probably Flemenstar’s optimum trip as well. Over the intermediate trip, Andrew Lynch can allow him roll down the back straight on the Mildmay course, using his electric jumping, fence to fence. He has had a nice break since the Hennessy, and he will go into the race fresher than his two big rivals.

Tactics will be fascinating. Cue Card and Flemenstar both like to get on with things, and that may set it up for Barry Geraghty on Nicky Henderson’s superstar, but it may also mean that the race will be a true test over two and a half miles. If Sprinter Sacre is to win it, he is probably going to have to see out the trip fully. Therein lies the intrigue.

Graham going places

It is interesting that, with Chapter Seven’s intended partner in the originally scheduled Lincoln last week, Jamie Spencer, tied up today in Dubai (marginally warmer than Doncaster), Stuart Williams has snapped Graham Lee up for the ride. This could be a feature of the flat season, especially at the northern tracks.

Lee did remarkably well last season to ride 71 winners on the flat in Britain from a standing start. During the 2012 flat turf season, his first as a flat jockey, Lee had no winners from seven rides in April and 10 winners from 84 rides in May, but he built that up quickly to 19 winners from 115 rides in August as trainers quickly realised his value as a flat race rider. He finished seventh in the jockeys’ championship.

Now that Lee is an established flat rider with momentum up going into the 2013 season, there is a real chance that he can improve on that tally significantly. He has already ridden 14 winners on the all-weather in February and March from 75 rides, and he has established good relationships with some of the top trainers in the north, including Jim Goldie, James Given and Kevin Ryan.

His oft under-estimated talents are certain to be in demand up north all season, and he could do better than odds of 14/1 for the jockeys’ championship suggest. While the competition from Richard Hughes and Ryan Moore and William Buick is certain to be intense, Lee could cut loose up north, and Paul Hanagan proved in 2010 and 2011 – as Kevin Darley had proved before him – that it was possible for a northern-based jockey to be champion.

Equinox knocks

This is a strange time of year on the racing calendar, the equinox (must be to do with horses then) between National Hunt and Flat. Much stranger than the autumn equinox between Flat and National Hunt.

At least in the autumn, the major flat races have really all been run before the jumps scene starts in earnest. In the spring, however, we have the first day of the Flat turf season the week after Cheltenham, the Irish Lincoln meeting, and you know by now that you have to pay attention even to the first day of the flat season in case you miss a superstar.

The postponement of the Doncaster Lincoln (otherwise known as The Lincoln) to today hasn’t helped. It means that, instead of sharing the day with a Saturday afternoon at Gowran Park and the mares’ finale day at Newbury, the first Flat feature in Britain is now being staged on the day before the start of the Irish Grand National meeting.

It gets worse. It’s National Hunt the whole way next week, which is great, as Fairyhouse runs into Aintree, but the Gladness Stakes is on the day after the Aintree Grand National. Then we’re into Classic trials, the Ballysax Stakes and Leopardstown’s Guineas trials, followed by the Nell Gwyn and the Craven at Newmarket, two days before the Scottish National at Ayr, which is on the same day as the Greenham Stakes and the Fred Darling Stakes at Newbury. It’s all a bit of a whirr.

At least the Punchestown Festival ends a week before the 2000 Guineas at Newmarket this year, not the day of it.

National terms

Fair play to some bookmakers for going non-runner-no-bet on next week’s Aintree Grand National, and for offering hugely enticing each-way terms. Among the bookmakers going non-runner-no-bet are Paddy Power, Bet365, Skybet, Stan James, Ladbrokes, William Hill and BetVictor. The first-named trio are betting each-way ¼ the odds the first five, while BetVictor are betting each-way ¼ the odds the first six.

You know that the Grand National odds will generally contract on the day of the race as the on-course bookmakers and the big firms take advantage of a massive captive largely price-insensitive audience, so best advice is to place all or most of your Grand National bets sooner rather than later, availing of the non-runner-no-bet concession.

© The Irish Field, 30th March 2013