Things We Learned » Punchestown pearls

Punchestown pearls

We learned plenty from Punchestown last week, as we usually do. For starters, we learned that a top class horse will bring the masses swarming.

It was an absolute privilege to stand in the parade ring and watch as Sprinter Sacre eased his near-black gleaming frame around it, nodding his head in appreciation of the spontaneous round of applause that broke out, which told him that the six-deep Punchestown crowd, replete with socialites and corporates, appreciate a good horse when they see one.

We learned that Sir Des Champs has a Cheltenham Gold Cup in him. He does have seven lengths to make up on Bobs Worth, but he is only seven, he is a year younger than this year’s Gold Cup winner, and he proved his class once again when he won a high-class renewal of the Punchestown Gold Cup, despite suggesting that he would be more comfortable going left-handed.

We also learned that First Lieutenant is as tough as they make them. Sprinter Sacre was the first horse since Istabraq to win at Cheltenham, Aintree and Punchestown in the same spring, and, on ratings, even Nicky Henderson’s monster was about 10lb below his Cheltenham and Aintree form at Punchestown. First Lieutenant ran a cracker to finish second in the Ryanair Chase at Cheltenham and won the Betfred Bowl at Aintree before Mouse Morris brought him on to Punchestown and sent him out to finish a close-up third behind Sir Des Champs and Long Run in the Gold Cup, putting up one of the best performances of his life in the process. The Gigginstown House horse will be a player in the top staying chases next season, no question.

We learned that, just because Willie Mullins only has two winners on the first two days of the meeting, and has a couple of hot ones beaten, it doesn’t mean that he won’t have five winners the next day, three the next day and three on the last day, bringing his total for the week to 13, thereby beating his own will-never-be-beaten record of 12. Or that he won’t train the winner of the charity race as well, just when you thought that he had probably gone home.

We learned that three Grade 1 novice hurdles in one week is too many, especially seeing as we now have a Grade 1 mares’ hurdle. We learned that Mount Benbulben could be a King George horse. We learned that, give the Punchestown executive a few good horses and a sprinkling of sunshine, and they will get the population of Aruba in through the gates. And we learned that, with a few notable exceptions, Punchestown doesn’t really figure on British trainers’ radar. Either that or they are using the wrong websites to get their information on exchange rates. (It’s 1 to 0.85, not .085.)

King going places

Connor King’s talent as a young flat rider was in evidence again on Benalex Park at Gowran Park on Sunday. Riding John Murphy’s horse in a race for the first time, and drawn 11 of the 15 runners, he was happy to take his time through the early stages of the race, and allow his horse tuck in at least a little from his outside draw.

He didn’t ask his horse for his effort until after they had straightened up for home but, when he did, he was strong. He didn’t look at all out of place riding among top professionals like Seamie Heffernan and Fran Berry and Joseph O’Brien. Whip in his right hand, he switched it quickly deep inside the final 100 yards when his horse started to move to his left, and he got him home by three parts of a length in a driving finish.

Benalex Park just couldn’t follow up under a 5lb penalty at Tipperary on Wednesday evening, but it wasn’t because he lacked for assistance from the saddle.

A graduate of the pony racing circuit, King got off the mark on the flat when he gave the David Wachman-trained Precious Stone a nice ride to come from behind to win an apprentices’ handicap at Leopardstown last October, and he has been busy building momentum his term. He gave Head Waiter a cool ride to win a one-mile-six-furlong handicap at Leoapardstown three weeks ago. After missing the break a little, he didn’t panic, he allowed his horse find his own rhythm down the back straight, he made his ground around the outside around the home turn as the leaders quickened, and he drove his horse home to get up and beat Rawnaq by half a length.

Of course, it is very early days but, all things being equal, the long-term future for the young Corkman looks bright. In the short term, he is big value for his 7lb claim in handicaps.

National bound

It is a bit early to be thinking about next year’s Grand National for sure but, if you are tempted to meander down that road just a little, you should probably take Quentin Collonges with you for at least some of the journey. The performance that Henry Daly’s horse put up in landing the Bet365 Gold Cup at Sandown last Saturday had Grand National stamped all over it.

Quentin Collonges proved on Saturday that he is versatile, that he doesn’t have to go left-handed and that he can operate away from Doncaster. Also, usually a confirmed front-runner, he was settled in just behind the leaders by Andrew Tinkler on Saturday, thereby proving that he doesn’t have to lead. But he does enjoy racing handily, and that is a positive for Aintree.

His jumping was good, if a little to the left at times, which is no negative for Aintree, and he stayed on really well all the way to the line. Significantly, he found plenty more than it looked like he had left, if that makes sense, when Same Difference challenged him. It was a similar story when Mr Moss challenged him in the Grimthorpe Chase on his previous run. He is shaping up like a horse who only does enough, and that makes it difficult for the handicapper to assess him.

He has been raised 8lb for his win, but that is not harsh, and it leaves him on a mark of 143, which, as long as his mark is protected until February next year, should see him get into a normal National in the mid-to-low-10sts, and that is ideal. He is not overly big, but it may be that you don’t have to be overly big to jump around well in a modern-day Grand National, with the easing of the fences. He will be 10 next year, which is the ideal age for the National, and best odds of 33/1 at present are interesting.

Runner-up Same Difference is also interesting, he looked the most likely winner on the run to the second last fence, and the front two pulled clear. He probably didn’t get due recognition for winning the Kim Muir, he remains progressive, a 4lb hike is not harsh, and he could be a Hennessy horse next season.

Hot streaky

Hot Snap may well win tomorrow’s Qipco 1000 Guineas, she looked mighty impressive in landing the Nell Gwyn, but it is difficult to get away from the sense that she was flattered by the way that race panned out.

Held up out the back behind a strong pace and a strong wind in a race that suited the hold-up fillies, she made her ground from the rear of the field closest to the stands rail, on what was almost certainly the fastest part of the track for the Craven meeting. She had her momentum up when she passed Sky Lantern, who was conceding 3lb.

The time was good, a half a second faster than Garswood was in the Free Handicap, and, a half-sister to Midday, she should improve for the step back up to a mile. Also, Henry Cecil’s filly was fairly weak in the market beforehand, it was her seasonal debut, just her second ever run, so it is reasonable to expect considerable improvement.

However, she is priced up on her Nell Gwyn run, she has been all the rage since and, a daughter of Pivotal, she may not appreciate lightning quick ground. 5/2 is short enough.

Henry and sons

Interesting that, on this day in 2008, Henrythenavigator and New Approach dominated the finish of the 2000 Guineas. Five years on, their sons will bid to emulate their feat today.

Henrythenavigator has two representatives in this afternoon’s Qipco 2000 Guineas whereas New Approach has just one, but the parallels don’t end with the race.

Henry’s two sons, Cristoforo Colombo and George Vancouver, are both, like their sire, trained by Aidan O’Brien, while Dawn Approach, like New Approach, is trained by Jim Bolger. Henrythenavigator, like Cristoforo Colombo and George Vancouver, raced in Sue Magnier’s navy colours, while New Approach, like his son, began life racing in Jackie Bolger’s white and purple colours before trading them for Princess Haya’s. Dawn Approach traded his for Princess Haya’s husband’s Godolphin blue.

Also, on the only occasion on which Cristoforo Colombo met Dawn Approach, he finished third behind him in the Coventry Stakes. On the only occasion on which George Vancouver met Jim Bolger’s colt, he also finished third behind him in the Dewhurst. Ironic that, on the only occasion on which Henrythenavigator met New Approach before the 2000 Guineas, he finished third behind him in the Futurity Stakes at The Curragh.

This day five years ago, Henrythenavigator and New Approach lit up Newmarket, the pair of them fighting out an Irish fight on British soil and coming clear of their rivals, the photograph at the end of the race showing that Henry had prevailed by a pixel. It would not be the greatest shock in the world if a similar picture developed at Newmarket this afternoon.

© The Irish Field, 4th May 2013