Donn's Articles » Big three back for more

Big three back for more

So the big three are back for more.

It’s good news, and it continues the seam that is running unchecked through the season: the top two-mile hurdlers take each other on at every given opportunity.

It doesn’t mean that we are any closer to landing on a definitive pecking order at the end of the season, mind you. Unusually, all three sets of connections had reasons for optimism after the Ryanair Hurdle at Leopardstown last month, despite the fact that two of them were beaten. Hence, they are all back for more in the BHP Insurance Irish Champion Hurdle on Sunday.

Jezki didn’t have the run of the race at Christmas. He was the meat in the triple-decker Our Conor-Captain Cee Bee-Inside rail sandwich on the run to the final flight. AP McCoy foresaw the danger and tried to ease him off the rail long before Captain Cee Bee’s rear became a factor, but Our Conor had enough pace to keep him in. Then he tried to muscle his way out as the wilting leader was suddenly an issue, an obstacle to be circumvented. Danny Mullins kept his racing line on Our Conor, however, kept a firm tug of his left rein, with the result that Jezki had to go around, had to drop back in order to go forward.

Jezki’s passage was in sharp contrast to Hurricane Fly’s seamless, unobstructed path down the outside to victory, so the Jessica Harrington-trained gelding did well to get as close to the winner as he did.

Would JP McManus’ horse have beaten the winner if he had enjoyed a clear run? Unlikely. Would he have beaten him if he had had Hurricane Fly’s run, and if Hurricane Fly had had Jezki’s run through the race? Interesting.

Barry Connell and Dessie Hughes also have just cause for optimism with Our Conor. His run in the Ryanair was his first run over hurdles since his Triumph Hurdle victory march at Cheltenham in, well, March. He had had a run on the flat at Naas, but that was a rough race, he came home with cuts and bruises on his legs and he had to stand in his box for three weeks afterwards. So any benefit that he might have gained in terms of fitness from that run, he lost during the three subsequent weeks as he was sitting on the couch.

He was a little keen in the Leopardstown race, which was understandable for a horse returning to the track after a break, but he picked up nicely with Hurricane Fly on the run to the final flight, and the pair of them jumped that obstacle in unison. It always looked like the reigning champ was travelling better and, sure enough, Our Conor’s challenge petered out on the run-in, but it was a most encouraging return to hurdles.

Then, just when you thought you knew your target, Willie Mullins said that Hurricane Fly would also come on for that run, and the bar was raised again.

In truth, it is difficult to see Hurricane Fly getting beaten on Sunday. He is a superstar. He is the best two-mile hurdler around, the highest-rated by far, one of the very best that this generation of racegoers has seen, and there is no reason to conclude from recent evidence that, even as a 10-year-old, his powers are on the wane.

Furthermore, he loves Leopardstown, and Ruby Walsh said today that he thinks his horse will be well suited by the sharp inside track. Willie Mullins’ horse has won the last three renewals of Sunday’s race, and his record at the track reads 1111111. All Grade 1 races. Flawless.

With an eye on the Champion Hurdle, it will be interesting to see if Our Conor can get closer to Hurricane Fly than he did last month because, as a just-turned-five-year-old who has run just five times over hurdles, he is the one with the greatest scope for progression in theory. Also, a Triumph Hurdle winner with bags of stamina in his pedigree, he may be more stamina-led than speed-led, so he could be better suited by Cheltenham than he will be by Leopardstown’s inside track on Sunday. It’s fascinating.

The other Grade 1 race on Sunday’s card, the Frank Ward Solicitors Arkle Chase, is almost as fascinating, with Defy Logic and Felix Yonger set to go at each other again, and Mozoltov and Trifolium and a few others thrown in for good measure.

Felix Yonger obviously has the measure of the Paul Nolan-trained Defy Logic on their running in the Craddockstown Chase at Punchestown in November, but things have developed a little since then. Defy Logic put up a career-best effort to beat Trifolium and Champagne Fever in the Racing Post Chase over Sunday’s course and distance at Leopardstown’s Christmas Festival, while Felix Yonger got beaten by his stable companion The Paparazzi Kid at Limerick.

You can blame the soft ground for Felix Yonger’s defeat at Limerick, his jumping wasn’t as fluent as it had been on his previous run, but it was still a disappointing performance. Perhaps you can just put it down to an off day.

Defy Logic’s performance last month was massive. He traded blows with Champagne Fever in toe-to-toe combat down the back straight, and only looked a likely winner when his rival made a significant error at the second last fence. Even after that, there was a chance that his early exertions would have softened him up for the stalking Trifolium, who moved with menace in behind on the run to the final fence under Davy Russell. However, Defy Logic found plenty for Mark Walsh on the run-in to move away and win well.

JP McManus’ horse was a good hurdler last season, but he appears to have improved again this year over fences as he has learned to settle well in front in his hood. He is getting home in his races this season, whereas he didn’t on occasion last season, although there is no disgrace in finishing second to Annie Power or Mala Beach. There is also a chance that he is better going left-handed than he is going right. There is a chance that you can attribute his defeat to Felix Yonger at Punchestown to that.

A lot depends on Sunday’s ground. There is rain forecast for Sunday, but Leopardstown is a quick-draining track, so a lot depends on how much rain they get. There is nothing between them in the betting, you should be able to get 5/2 your pick. On genuinely soft ground, it might be wise to side with Defy Logic. On yielding ground, perhaps Felix Yonger.

Tomorrow, from a handicapping point of view, it is difficult to get away from Quick Jack in the Hurdle, racing, as he is, off a mark of 119. Remarkably, if Tony Martin’s horse were to take his chance in the Betfair Hurdle at Newbury next month, he would have to race off a mark of 136, without taking into account any penalty he might pick up tomorrow.

To put that into context, he is receiving 23lb from top weight Flaxen Flare in tomorrow’s race, but if they were both to take their chances in the Betfair Hurdle next month, he would receive just 6lb. Such are the vagaries of the different handicaps in the different jurisdictions. All the fancy prices are gone (in this instance, 8/1 was a fancy price) but, by the time they line up at 3.25 tomorrow, the currently available 7/2 could look like a fancy price.

The Leopardstown Chase presents a better betting opportunity and, as long as the ground is not too soft, Daring Article could be the answer.

A progressive novice hurdler two seasons ago, Robert Tyner’s horse was disappointing as a novice chaser last season when he raced mainly on soft or heavy ground, never getting to within 28 lengths or less of the winner in any of the six chases that he contested before April last year.

He was a different proposition when he encountered better ground at Punchestown in May, however. Fitted with a tongue-tie for the first time, he stayed on well to beat the useful Dessie Hughes-trained horse Stonemaster, the pair of them clear.

Robert Tyner’s horse won on his debut this term last month, back at Punchestown over two miles and six furlongs, off a mark of 117, coming from what appeared to be an impossible position under an inspired Ruby Walsh to get up and beat another horse of Dessie Hughes’ in Canaly. The handicapper raised him a further 8lb for that performance, but that leaves him on a mark of 125, the same as his mark over hurdles, and that still leaves him with scope to progress.

Quietly backed for the Paddy Power Chase at Leopardstown over Christmas, he was travelling well in mid-division when he fell at the fence opposite the stands. Of course, it was too early to say how he might have fared, the race was only starting to develop, but he had travelled and jumped well to that point.

The chase course at Leopardstown is currently soft, yielding in places, and there is reportedly a chance of some passing showers on Saturday. If they stay away, it could be yielding by 2.50, and that would give Daring Article a real chance. He wears cheekpieces and a tongue-tie, as he did in the Paddy Power, he has a nice racing weight of 9st 13lb, and a strongly-run two-mile-five-furlong contest should suit him well.

©, 24th January 2014