Things We Learned » Spirit Gold

Spirit Gold

It is, of course, ridiculous to be talking about Johns Spirit in the context of the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Here is a horse who ran four times last season in handicap chases off a mark of 133, and once off a mark of 131, and got beaten each time, by an aggregate of 135 lengths. It is understandable that no bookmaker has quoted a price about him for the Gold Cup, despite the fact that most of the ante post lists go up to 50/1 and some to 100/1.

If he is a Cheltenham Festival horse, it may be that he is more a Ryanair horse than a Gold Cup horse. Or it may be that he is just a Byrne Group Plate horse. Betfair’s exchange offers 299/1 about him for the Gold Cup. Nothing in the lay column.

Interestingly, this time seven years ago, it would have been ridiculous to be thinking about Exotic Dancer as a Gold Cup outsider. Quick check: the similarities between Exotic Dancer then and Johns Spirit now are uncanny.

Exotic Dancer was trained by Jonjo O’Neill, as is Johns Spirit. Exotic Dancer liked to be held up in his races, as does Johns Spirit. Check. Difficult for the handicapper to get a handle on that type of performer.

Exotic Dancer won the Paddy Power Gold Cup seven years ago. Johns Spirit won the Paddy Power Gold Cup one month ago. Exotic Dancer was six years old when he won the Paddy Power. Check. So was Johns Spirit. Off a handicap rating of 139. Check. A second-season chaser. Check.

Exotic Dancer won today’s December Gold Cup off a mark of 149. Johns Spirit goes into today’s race on a mark of 148. Of course, Exotic Dancer won today’s race easily, then chased Kauto Star home in the King George, won the Argento Chase, chased Kauto Star home again in the Gold Cup and won the Betfair Bowl at Aintree, ending the season on a mark of 172. Johns Spirit has a long, long way to travel if he is to scale those peaks. He isn’t even entered in the King George.

That said, he appears to be a different horse this year since he has managed to eradicate his trademark at-least-one-blunder-per-race trick from his repertoire. He is still hugely progressive, he obviously goes well at Cheltenham, he is at his best on goodish ground and, although all his good form this season is over two and a half miles, he did appear to stay three miles well when he chased Katenko home at Sandown last January.

Jonjo doesn’t have an obvious Gold Cup contender at this stage this season, and it would be surprising if he was not on the lookout for one. Remember that Jonjo didn’t have an obvious Gold Cup contender either at this stage in 2011, two weeks before Synchronised won the Lexus Chase.

Of course, forget all you have read above if Johns Spirit gets beaten in the December Gold Cup today. But if he does happen to win it, it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that he could morph into a lively Gold Cup outsider in a Kauto Star-less year in which the protagonists continue to fluff their lines.

Champs fine

Speaking of the Gold Cup, the best sight of all last weekend was the sight of Sir Des Champs and Davy Russell getting up and dusting themselves down after the crashing fall that the pair of them took at the third fence in the John Durkan Chase at Punchestown on Sunday.

Whatever about the 7/4 that you would have got about Sir Des Champs winning the race beforehand, you would have got a much more generous price about him landing over the first fence in front of Arvika Ligeonniere and Rubi Light. He appeared to be a little ponderous at that first fence, and a little out to his left, and his fall at the third, with Arvika Ligeonniere upsides, just appeared to be down to a complete lapse in concentration. He had never fallen before, but he did make a significant mistake at the final fence in the Growise Champion Chase at the 2012 Punchestown Festival, before ultimately winning the race by a distance. It’s probably a coincidence that both incidents occurred in the home straight at Punchestown.

The Gigginstown House horse is usually a fluent jumper, and hopefully that will be the end of his mistakes now for the season. If he is going to be Ireland’s (and Gigginstown’s) first Gold Cup winner since War Of Attrition – and this is his year if he is – then he needs to start building up towards it now, ideally with a clear run at the race between now and March.

Know Me note

The Henry de Bromhead-trained You Must Know Me could be the horse to take out of last Saturday’s Grand Sefton Chase at Aintree.

Held up in the early stages of the race – he was second last jumping the water, and he was still only 10th jumping Valentine’s – in a race that was dominated by those who raced handily, he moved up nicely into a challenging position before they rounded the home turn.

He travelled like the most likely winner around the home turn with two to jump, but he had done a lot of running to get into a challenging position, and his exertions appeared to be taking their toll when he came under pressure on the run down to the final fence. An awkward jump there appeared to finally finish off any chance that he still harboured of winning the race.

However, once he got to the Elbow, he seemed to pick up again, and he closed all the way to the line to finish third behind Rebel Rebellion and Your Busy. He closed the gap from about nine or 10 lengths at the Elbow to less than four by the time he reached the winning line.

It is remarkable to think that the Snurge gelding is still a maiden over fences, given that he ran Boston Bob to a half a length in a beginners’ chase on his chasing bow at Navan 12 months ago. He has been highly-tried in the interim, mind you, and he did have Twinlight behind him when he finished second to Dedigout in a Grade 3 chase at Naas last March.

Winner of his only point-to-point and second in both his bumpers, Alan Potts’ horse won a three-mile maiden hurdle on his hurdling debut on soft ground at Tipperary in April 2012, when he beat Shrapnel by 11 lengths with the rest of the field a distance behind, and it may be that a return to three miles or more is what he needs now. He was pulled up in last season’s Irish Grand National, but it might have all been a bit much for him then on just his fourth run over fences.

You Must Know Me is only seven, he has raced just six times over fences, and he remains feasibly handicapped on a mark of 139. There could be a good stayers’ handicap chase in him now, and the Irish Grand National would be a viable target for him again this season. The Aintree Grand National could perhaps wait another year.

Hinterland times

Interesting that Hinterland clocked a time in winning the Henry VIII Chase at Sandown on Saturday that was two and a half seconds faster than the time that Sire De Grugy clocked in winning the Tingle Creek Chase over the same course and distance just over an hour later.

So is Hinterland a two-and-a-half-second faster horse than Sire De Grugy?

The hypothesis was that he was not. The expectation was that the sectional times would reveal that the Tingle Creek was run inefficiently; that there would be a significant part of the race that was run so slowly or so quickly so as to militate against a fast overall time.

Surprisingly, that does not appear to have been the case. Not comparatively anyway. According to this stopwatch, Sire De Grugy was faster at just one of the 13 sections of the track, the section between the second fence, the open ditch in front of the stands, and the third fence, the one down the hill on the side of the track away from the stands, and he was only marginally faster at that. Hinterland was faster than, or as fast as, Sire De Grugy at the other 12 sections.

Conclusion: Hinterland (and runner-up Grandouet, beaten a neck) may be even more talented than many thought, and Sprinter Sacre has nothing to fear.

Mullins game

You can start playing the match-the-Willie-Mullins-novice-hurdler-to-the-Cheltenham-Festival-race game already, and we haven’t even got to the changing of the calendar.

Start with Briar Hill, Arctic Fire, Moyle Park, Vautour and Faugheen, add Rathvinden, Valseur Lido, Union Dues and Renneti if you want, and begin: Supreme Novices’, Neptune or Albert Bartlett. Mark an S, an N or an A beside each horse. Don’t worry if you backed Champagne Fever for the Neptune last year, or Fiveforthree for the Supreme Novices’ in 2008, you can always play the game again. You can play it every year. One point for every one you get correct, a bonus point for every winner.

You can do the novice chasers next week.

© The Irish Field, 14th December 2013