Things We Learned » Champion picture developing

Champion picture developing

The 2014 Champion Hurdle just gets stronger-looking and stronger-looking as the months and the races pass.

At the start of the season, this year’s Champion Hurdle had the potential to be one of the strongest of recent times. There were five strong contenders: the reigning champion, the Neptune Hurdle winner, the Betfair Hurdle winner and Supreme Novices’ Hurdle runner-up, the Punchestown Champion Novice Hurdle winner and Supreme Novices’ Hurdle third, and the Triumph Hurdle winner. Throw in an unbeaten mare whose ability appears to have no limit at present, and you have a fascinating picture that is developing as the season progresses.

That’s the thing about development, mind you: things evolve, things change. But not much has changed in the Champion Hurdle picture. Those horses who have gone for a beat haven’t missed one. The New One beat Rock On Ruby on his seasonal debut by 10 lengths. Jezki won at Down Royal. Hurricane Fly won the Morgiana Hurdle. Okay, he wasn’t as impressive as he might have been, but he still won and you know that there is much more to come.

Annie Power won the Ascot Hurdle two weeks ago. Then last weekend, My Tent Or Yours danced in in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle and Jezki won the Hatton’s Grace Hurdle. Nobody has missed a cue. The record of Champion Hurdle contenders this season to date reads 111111.

The only thing missing from the picture now is Our Conor, and Dessie Hughes reports Barry Connell’s horse fit and well and on track for the Ryanair Hurdle at Leopardstown’s Christmas Festival. There, all things being equal, he will meet Hurricane Fly and Jezki. Something is going to have to give soon. For now, though, we can watch and savour.

Gold Cup picture still blurred

In contrast to the Champion Hurdle picture, the Gold Cup picture is still awaiting an owner.

The reigning champ Bobs Worth obviously set the standard at the start of the season and, in a sense, he still does, but he had his chance in the Betfair Chase to grab the race again by the throat this year and own the preamble. He didn’t take it.

Of course, it was his seasonal debut, it wasn’t his track and it wasn’t really his ground. The combination of flat track and yielding ground did not place the premium on stamina and courage and terrier-tenacity that he possesses in abundance. Even so, all in all it was a lack-lustre performance from the title-holder.

No major Gold Cup contender emerged from the Hennessy. Things did not go right for Lord Windermere and he could still be a Gold Cup horse, and it is interesting that Paul Nicholls is talking in terms of the Gold Cup for runner-up Rocky Creek. However, it looks like this year’s Hennessy will be more of a pointer to the Grand National and other top staying handicap chases than it will be to the Gold Cup, and it is understandable that no horse who ran in the Hennessy is priced up at lower than 33/1 for the blue riband.

Cue Card, of course, has been the big mover in the Gold Cup market, in from 20/1 and 25/1 to 7/1 and 8/1 after his Betfair Chase win, but he still has to prove his stamina for three miles and two and a half furlongs up and down Cheltenham’s energy-sapping hills. Dynaste, Silviniaco Conti, Al Ferof and First Lieutenant also, to greater or lesser degrees, still have to prove their stamina.

Sir Des Champs makes his seasonal debut tomorrow. Now, we wait.

Cossack rules

We learned a lot about Don Cossack on Sunday. We learned that he could be effective over two and a half miles on goodish ground, and we learned that he could battle. We didn’t really know that before.

It was an impressive performance by the Gordon Elliott-trained gelding. He jumped well throughout and, although he came under pressure before they turned for home – at which point he traded at 9/1 in-running – he kept responding for that pressure, and he stayed on strongly up the run-in to surge past Carlingford Lough.

The form is solid too. Carlingford Lough won the Galway Plate, was second in the Kerry National, and is a high-class 150-rated novice with bags of experience. Also, the time of the race was good, the fastest comparative time on a top-class day’s racing by some way, and nine seconds faster than the mares’ chase run over the same course and distance a half an hour later.

Elliott has never tried to hide the regard in which he holds the Gigginstown horse, and this first Grade 1 win was vindication for his judgement. Interestingly, the trainer said before Sunday’s race that his Sholokhov gelding might not want much further than two and a half miles, and he reiterated that sentiment in the winner’s enclosure on Sunday. He may not be the ready-made RSA Chase horse that we all thought he was at the start of the season.

As such, he may not be wholly dissimilar to Elliott’s previous Drinmore Chase winner Jessies Dream, who was ultimately out-stayed by Bostons Angel in the RSA Chase in 2011. Don Cossack is only six, and it may be that a stiff two and a half miles on soft ground or an easy three miles will be his optimum for now.

Fahy firing

Don Cossack’s win was another boost for Morning Assembly. The Pat Fahy-trained gelding beat the Drinmore winner when they raced over two miles and six furlongs at Punchestown last month.

The pair of them had a fair tussle from a long way out, and it actually looked as though Don Cossack was gaining the upper hand from the point at which he moved up on the outside around the home turn until about half way up the run-in, when Morning Assembly rallied. It may be that Morning Assembly’s superior stamina made the difference. Either way, both novices look even better now than they did then.

Sunday was a good day all round for Fahy, as his only runner on the day, Thelobstercatcher, stayed on well to win the Porterstown Chase. It is a long time since Mariah Rollins won the Durkan New Homes Chase for the trainer, and even longer since she won the Future Champions Novice Hurdle, but we know that Fahy can train top class horses when he has them, he has his small team in fine form these days (Thelobstercatcher was his second winner from his last five runners) and there is no telling how high Morning Assembly could go.

Flat back

And just when you thought you were immersed in winter and in all that goes with it, along come the international races at Hong Kong to give you a flashback to the summer.

Remember Sole Power and Slade Power and The Fugue and Galileo Rock and Cirrus Des Aigles and Moonlight Cloud and Sky Lantern and Gordon Lord Byron? Well, get ready to be re-acquainted with them before first mass on Sunday. It should be worthwhile setting the alarm.

© The Irish Field, 7th December 2013