Things We Learned » Cue question

Cue question

Silviniaco Conti was a worthy winner of Thursday’s King George VI Chase at Kempton, and it was not surprising that bookmakers promoted him to the head of the Cheltenham Gold Cup market on the back of his win.

However, Cue Card’s run was a strange one. Colin Tizzard’s horse bounded away in front, jumped from fence to fence, had all his rivals – including the winner – on the stretch from early, and had the race in the bag from the point at which he landed over the third last fence, apparently full of running, at which point he traded at 1/10 in-running. Then, everything changed.

It is too easy to say that he simply didn’t stay. You could argue that, while he stayed three miles and a furlong at Haydock, that was on better ground with an easy lead. The ground was energy-sapping at Kempton on Thursday, and at no point was he allowed an easy time of it on the front end by the ever-astute Noel Fehily on the winner. Joe Tizzard said afterwards that he could never ‘fill him up’.

But to file this away in the lack-of-stamina drawer is to ignore the fact that he kept on again from the final fence, that he arrested the deficit. He finished out his race a lot more strongly than it looked like he would when the winner went past.

Something strange seemed to happen between the last two fences. It may be that it was, in fact, down to a lack of stamina, it may be that he ran out of energy and then burst through the pain barrier to get out after Silviniaco Conti after he had passed him. It may also be that Paul Nicholls’ horse idled a little once he hit the front, and that merely gave the impression that Cue Card was running on again.

Or it may be that Cue Card simply lost concentration after he had jumped the second last. He had been in front from flagfall, and he may have thought that he had done enough once he had come clear of the ultimate winner.

Trainer Colin Tizzard seemed to be at a loss afterwards to explain what happened, but the fact that he still seemed to be leaning towards the Gold Cup plan suggests that he isn’t convinced that it was a lack of stamina that beat his horse either. Certainly, the manner in which Cue Card kept on from the final fence was not the action of a horse who had nothing left to give.

Stamina question

It was a little surprising that Paul Nicholls seemed to be leaning towards the Ryanair Chase for King George third Al Ferof. The worry about Al Ferof going into the race concerned his stamina but, like Cue Card, while he was beaten, it didn’t appear to be a lack of stamina that beat him.

His jumping through the early stages of the race was not foot-perfect, and he seemed to get out-paced at the end of the back straight as the front two kicked clear. Indeed, when Mount Benbulben and Long Run came past him on the crown of the home turn, he looked more likely to finish fifth than third. It was to the Dom Alco gelding’s credit, therefore, that he stayed on as well as he did over the last three fences to re-claim third place.

Like Cue Card, Al Ferof has a fantastic record at Cheltenham, and is a Cheltenham Festival winner. If you were to watch the King George without knowing who the horses were, without knowing that Al Ferof was a Supreme Novices’ Hurdle winner and a Paddy Power Gold Cup winner, you could legitimately conclude that the horse in the yellow silks who was staying on into third place needed further than three miles, not shorter.

Also, the Gordon Elliott-trained Mount Benbulben ran a cracker to finish fourth under a superb ride from Danny Mullins. The weather dictated that he had to go to Kempton via Scotland, which was not ideal, and he was desperately weak in the market beforehand, perhaps as a result. Even so, Mullins kidded him along out the back along the right-hand rail in the early stages, trying to allow him find his rhythm. He lost ground at several of his fences – his jumping was always the concern – but if he had jumped the last fence in the back straight well, he could have moved easily into third place behind the front two on the run around the home turn.

As it was, he had to fight his way between horses and into third place around the home turn, but his exertions took their toll thereafter, and he ultimately conceded third place to Al Ferof over the last two fences. He did prove here, however, that he belongs in this grade and, if he could just introduce some fluency to his jumping, he could be top class.

Meade moves

It was good to see Noel Meade back in the headlines at Navan last Saturday. Three winners, a third and a 33/1 also-ran in a race that you won anyway will do that for you.

With Willie Mullins’ domination these days, it is easy to look beyond the exploits of other trainers, but Meade has his team in cracking form. Before racing got under way on St Stephen’s Day, he had had four winners, two seconds, a third and a fourth from his previous nine runners, and he led the pack that is chasing Mullins in the trainers’ championship.

Meade has not had the rub of the green either this term. Monksland injury was unfortunate, and he would have had two of the four runners in the Grade 1 Navan Hurdle two weeks ago had setbacks not ruled them out.

That said, the Meathman still has plenty of young horses to look forward to this season. Over hurdles, Apache Stronghold looked really good in beating Azorian in the Monksfield Hurdle last month and, using Eoin Griffin’s horse as a guide, that run would have got him mighty close to Briar Hill in that Navan Hurdle.

Ned Buntline was really impressive in landing his beginners’ chase on Saturday, and he is a really exciting novice chaser now. Very Wood should improve when he steps up in trip now, while you still feel that there is a big prize in Texas Jack.

More exciting

JP McManus and AP McCoy had to have been disappointed by the performance of At Fisher’s Cross in the Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot on Saturday but, as one green-and-gold-hooped World Hurdle light may be fading (trainer Rebecca Curtis said that it was back to square one), another, in the form of More Of That, may be getting brighter.

More Of That’s form continues to get stronger as time goes by. The two-and-a-half-mile handicap hurdle that he won at Haydock on Betfair Chase day looked like a strong race at the time, and so it is proving to be. Runner-up Blue Fashion has not run again yet, but third-placed Special Catch was impressive in winning a handicap hurdle at Haydock on Saturday off a 4lb higher mark. Also, fourth-placed Home Run finished second in a good handicap hurdle at Sandown on Tingle Creek day off an 8lb higher mark, while even the horses who finished seventh, eighth, ninth and 10th have all run well in defeat since.

More Of That stepped forward from that run himself by winning the Grade 2 Relkeel Hurdle at Cheltenham’s December meeting, beating Salubrious by two and a half lengths, and the form of that race was also strengthened by the performance that Salubrious put up in the Long Walk Hurdle on Saturday. He probably would have beaten At Fisher’s Cross for second place even if the favourite had not departed at the final flight, and he might well have gone very close to winning the race had he not made a significant error at the second last when he appeared to be travelling well.

More Of That is not six yet, and he has raced just four times over hurdles in his life. He has never been beaten, and there is no telling how good he could be.

AP honoured again

Speaking of AP McCoy, the undisputed champion achieved another milestone when he was voted RTE Sports Person of the Year last Saturday night.

This was an important result on a number of different levels. For starters, it was further confirmation of the place that racing holds in the eyes of Irish sports fans. With Barry Geraghty having won the award in 2003, it was the second time in 11 years that a racing person was so honoured.

Secondly, the fact that AP came out on top in the face of strong competition from other would-be worthy winners was affirmation that Irish sports fans truly appreciate the magnitude of AP’s achievement, not only in riding his 4000th winner this year, but also in what he goes through every day, away from the public glare, and in his talent and dedication as a sports person.

The humility and the graciousness with which AP accepted the trophy was just further evidence of his worthiness of the award. Racing has rarely had a better ambassador.

© The Irish Field, 28th December 2013