Donn's Articles » The precariousness of planning

The precariousness of planning

As if we needed more evidence of the fragility of racehorses and the precariousness of planning around them.

Yesterday’s Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown had been billed as the race in which the best steeplechaser in training, Sprinter Sacre, would make his seasonal return. The flyers and the posters told you so. Then on Thursday, an unsatisfactory tracheal wash meant that plans had to be revised – in human terms, he had man flu – and he had to stay in his bed as Sire De Grugy went and won the Tingle Creek in his absence.

This afternoon’s John Durkan Memorial Chase at Punchestown was all set to stage Round Four of the Sir Des Champs/Flemenstar duel. It was a big deal. Two of the best staying chasers in Ireland squaring up again, 2-1 to Flemenstar in their private battle, scores to be settled. Then Flemenstar knocked his off-foreleg on Friday morning, it hadn’t come right by yesterday morning, and trainer Tony Martin had no option but to scratch him from the race.

“We don’t know how long he will be out of action until the vets have him checked out fully over the next few days,” said Martin yesterday, “but he won’t be going to Punchestown.”

Flemenstar’s absence is obviously a massive loss. It changes the consistency of the race utterly, from a fascinating re-match between Sir Des Champs and Flemenstar with Arvika Ligeonniere’s presence adding to the intrigue, to a three-horse race in which Willie Mullins fields the top two in the betting.

It is nobody’s fault, it is just one of those things. As owner Stephen Curran rightly said yesterday, Flemenstar is too good a horse to risk if there is even a small chance that he is not fully sound.

“He was in the form of his life,” said the disappointed owner. “He did a piece of work there recently that was unbelievable. It’s just bad luck. We were really looking forward to running him. We’ll mind him and be patient though, he’ll get all the time he needs.”

The Flemensfirth gelding does need to prove himself again though. His campaign tapered off timidly last season, well shy of lofty expectations, after an explosive beginning. It is remarkable to think that, after he beat Sir Des Champs by five lengths in the John Durkan Chase on this day last year, his superiority on the day beyond dispute, he went through the remainder of the season without winning another race.

While Flemenstar won the Fortria Chase at Navan on his debut this term, he wasn’t wholly impressive in so doing. He jumped his fences deliberately and carefully rather than quickly and fluently.

Last season his jumping was his primary asset, his competitive edge. His fences were the springboards that bounced him through his races, stepping stones to be attacked with metronomic relish and at which he could gain lengths on his rivals. Last month they were obstacles that stunted momentum and which had to be negotiated and endured rather than embraced and enjoyed. It is a shame that his injury means that the re-building of his public reputation cannot begin today.

Sir Des Champs’ campaign does begin today, however, and you can be sure that Willie Mullins is training his sights once more on the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Second in the Gold Cup last March as a seven-year-old, as things stand he represents Ireland’s best chance by far of winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup this season and bridging an eight-year gap back to War Of Attrition. As such, you can be sure that every step that he takes this term will be designed to take him one step closer to the realisation of that goal.

In his favour for today’s race is the fact that the ground is likely to be just on the easy side of good, a sharp contrast to the hock-deep ground in which the race was run last year. Against him is the fact that he will be competing over a distance that is short of his best. Sir Des Champs is a stayer, he excels over three miles and beyond. Two and a half miles may not be far enough for him.

Also, the Robin Des Champs gelding hasn’t raced since last April. He would not be racing today if his trainer wasn’t happy that he was fit enough to run his race, and a 99% fit Sir Des Champs would be good enough to win most races, but it would be mildly surprising if today’s run did not bring him on at least a little.

Interestingly, Sir Des Champs is not the new kid on steeplechasing’s block. Not any more. He is seven rising eight, he is not a mere sophomores any more. If there is a new kid on this year’s block, it is his stable companion and rival today, Arvika Ligeonniere.

Arvika Ligeonniere may be a year older than Sir Des Champs, but he is just out of novice grade. He is a year behind his stable companion in terms of education. A relative late-comer to steeplechasing and still learning the subtleties of the art, he is more inexperienced than his stable companion and, consequently, he still has lots of potential to progress as at this game.

The Arvico gelding may never win a Cheltenham Gold Cup. He may never even run in one. He may get three miles in time, but an extended three and a quarter miles may never be within his range, and two and a half miles looks to be his optimum for now. Also, Cheltenham is a left-handed track and, while he has won a Grade 1 race going left-handed, he is probably at his best going right-handed.

In the context of today’s race, his right-handed orientation is fine, given that they race clockwise at Punchestown. He also has a race-fitness edge over his stable companion, having run out an impressive winner of the Grade 2 Clonmel Oil Chase last month on his debut this term. It would be surprising if he hasn’t progressed from that run and, over two and a half miles, that makes him a formidable opponent today.

Experience tells you that planning with racehorses is fraught with uncertainty, which is ironic given that there is at least as much concentration in this sport on the future as there is on the present. Often more.

Sir Des Champs and Arvika Ligeonniere may not meet again this season after today. Sir Des Champs’ season really maps itself out, all going well: Lexus Chase, Hennessy Gold Cup, Cheltenham Gold Cup, Punchestown Gold Cup. Just like last year. Arvika Ligeonniere’s path is not so obvious after today. A lot depends on how he fares today, but he could drop down to two miles later in the season as easily as step up to three.

Of course, plans for Flemenstar have to go on ice. No plans for now.

© The Sunday Times, 8th December 2013