Things We Learned » Fly fav

Fly fav

Time to re-visit the Champion Hurdle picture again, and the fact that Hurricane Fly is not clear favourite now, out on his own, is surprising.

He did improve dramatically from his Morgiana win, as Willie Mullins told us he would, and he beat two of his four big rivals for the crown in March comprehensively. Okay, so Jezki did not have the run of the race, but it is difficult to argue that he would have beaten the winner even with a clear passage.

It was Our Conor’s first run over hurdles since he won the Triumph Hurdle in March, and it might all have been a bit much for him. Barry Connell’s horse did quicken up off the home turn, and he and Hurricane Fly jumped the final flight in unison, but he just couldn’t sustain the run up the run-in. Hurricane was just too strong.

You can be sure that the Dessie Hughes-trained gelding will progress for this run, more for the experience of racing against truly top class opponents than in terms of fitness. He may get closer to Hurricane Fly in the Irish Champion Hurdle, and he may get closer again at Cheltenham (he obviously goes well at the track), but he does have to improve again now. Remember that he was receiving 3lb as a four-year-old last week, a concession of which he will not be able to avail in March.

The picture in Britain became no clearer. My Tent Or Yours picked up impressively to beat The New One, but the Twiston-Davies horse made a significant error at the final flight, and Sam Twiston-Davies rode him up the run-in with just one iron. Also, The New One’s record over hurdles at Cheltenham reads 1211. My Tent Or Yours’ reads 2.

The most logical conclusion from Kempton’s Christmas Hurdle is that there is not much between the two protagonists. They are obviously both high-class, but both still have to improve to get to Hurricane Fly’s level. If one of them had beaten the other comprehensively last week, you would have understood it if that horse had been put is as Champion Hurdle favourite, and Hurricane Fly as second favourite behind him. But that wasn’t the case.

Hurricane Fly has probably never got the recognition that he has deserved in Britain, and that is probably holding him back in the Champion Hurdle market. There is also a notion that he is not at his best at Cheltenham, but that is not a notion that is backed up by the ratings. He has recorded a Timeform rating of 170 or more three times in his life, once at Punchestown (170+) and twice at Cheltenham (170 and 171+).

His age is also probably holding him back in the market. He is 10 now, and no 10-year-old has won the Champion Hurdle since Sea Pigeon in 1980. However, Hurricane Fly is an exceptional hurdler, just as Sea Pigeon was an exceptional hurdler, and age stats tend to go out the window with exceptional hurdlers. That’s why they are called exceptional.

Remember that Sea Pigeon won the Champion Hurdle again as an 11-year-old in 1981.

Two of the best

It was a privilege to witness two of the best National Hunt riders that we have ever seen go toe-to-toe at Leopardstown, remarkable how often the pair of them fought out a finish. Plinth v Ivan Grozny, Rockyaboya v Cause Of Causes, Hurricane Fly v Jezki, Carlingford Lough v Morning Assembly. Walsh v McCoy. Magic.

Time to tread warily

Race times suggest that there was something going on with the shorter-distance steeplechases all week at Leopardstown’s Christmas Festival.

On Thursday, there were two chases run over two miles and one furlong. King Vuvuzela went 2.4 seconds faster than Racing Post standard in the handicap on ground that was officially described as soft, yielding in places. Defy Logic went even faster (incredibly fast), 5.1 seconds faster than standard.

Defy Logic is a top class novice chaser, and he and Champagne Fever went hard at it from a long way out, so it should not be a surprise that they would clock a fast time. However, 5.1 seconds (0.3secs/furlong) faster than standard on soft ground stretches the boundaries of credibility. The fastest hurdle race on the day was run in a time that was 8.9 seconds (0.56secs/furlong) slower than standard.

One theory after the first day was that the chase course was simply riding significantly faster than the hurdles course, as it often does at Leopardstown. However, those chase times suggest ground on the fast side of good, which was highly unlikely. That said, it was difficult to be definitive as the two two-mile-one-furlong contests were the only two chases on Thursday’s card.

That fast-ground theory was knocked on its head on Friday, however, when there were two chases, the Paddy Power Dial-A-Bet Chase, again run over two miles and a furlong, and the Paddy Power Chase, run over three miles and half a furlong. On ground that was officially described as soft, yielding to soft in places on the chase course, Benefficient won the Dial-A-Bet Chase in a time that was just 0.15secs/furlong slower than standard, the fastest time by far on the day.

Rockyaboya clocked a time that was 1.39secs/furlong slower than standard in the three-mile chase, a time that was much more in keeping with the official going description and with times on the hurdles track on the day, on which the fastest time was The Tullow Tank’s 1.3secs/furlong slower than standard.

The trend continued on Saturday. The fastest time by far on the day was the time that Djakadam clocked in winning the two-mile-three-furlong beginners’ chase on his chasing bow, just 0.58secs/furlong slower than standard. Very fast on soft ground for a chasing debutant.

Gold Cup winner Bobs Worth, in a highly competitive Lexus Chase (in which they admittedly went slowly enough through the early stages) clocked a time that was 1.46secs/furlong slower than standard. Again, the time of the longer chase was consistent with the times on the hurdles track, on which the fastest time was Courage’s in the Pertemps Qualifier, 1.14secs/furlong slower than standard.

The two chases on the final day were run over two miles and five furlongs and three miles respectively, both of which started on the back straight. The winning times for both races were consistent with the going description of yielding to soft, and with the times on the hurdles track. It may be that whatever anomaly was at play was only at play for the chases run over two miles and three furlongs or shorter.

Djakadam, Benefficient, King Vuvuzela and Defy Logic are all obviously highly talented horses, but if you are using merely race times to assess the strength of their respective performances last week, you need to tread warily. Defy logic indeed.

Buck’s rider

Strange all the talk about who will ride Big Buck’s in the World Hurdle. Surely, Daryl Jacob is Paul Nicholls’ stable jockey, ergo, Daryl Jacob rides Paul Nicholls’ selected. Or so you would think.

Owner Andy Stewart suggested on Thursday that, because Jacob rode his other potential World Hurdle contender Celestial Halo to win five times, he might like to ride Celestial Halo again. That’s a strange one. From Jacob’s point of view, not when Celestial Halo is a 16/1 shot and Big Buck’s is, well, Big Buck’s.

Of course, from Paul Nicholls’ and Andy Stewart’s point of view, you would love to get Ruby Walsh back to ride, but that has to be highly unlikely with Boston Bob now a strong contender in the race, and Annie Power at least a possible.

Noel Fehily has not been mentioned much in dispatches, but Fehily is a top rider, a largely under-rated rider, and the fact that Nicholls said that he would retain the ride on Silviniaco Conti in the Gold Cup after his King George win told you how highly the trainer rates the Corkman. Remember, Fehily was the man to whom Nicholls turned when Ruby broke his leg at Down Royal in November 2010.

Power targets

It is an enjoyable distraction to kick around the permutations under the title, Annie Power – Cheltenham target.

She could join Hurricane Fly in the Champion Hurdle, she could join Quevega in the Mares’ Hurdle, or she could join Boston Bob in the World Hurdle. Of course, in the unfortunate eventuality of any misfortune befalling any of those stable companions, her Cheltenham target could choose itself. She is as versatile as she is talented.

Or she could just skip Cheltenham and run in the Aintree Hurdle. Or wait for Punchestown. Or the Ascot Gold Cup.

© The Irish Field, 4th January 2014