Things We Learned » Hennessy day pointer

Hennessy day pointer

Once again, Hennessy Gold Cup day at Leopardstown on 9th February was a significant pointer to the Cheltenham Festival.

The Spring Juvenile Hurdle was again a (ahem) spring-board to the Triumph Hurdle, with Spring Hurdle runner-up Tiger Roll winning the Triumph and Spring Hurdle winner Guitar Pete finishing third at Cheltenham. That means that, in the last four years, the Spring Hurdle has produced three Triumph Hurdle winners (Tiger Roll, Our Conor and Countrywide Flame), two Triumph Hurdle runners-up (Hisaabaat and Unaccompanied), one Triumph Hurdle third (Guitar Pete) and one Triumph Hurdle fourth (Diakali) with a Fred Winter Hurdle winner (Flaxen Flare) thrown in for good measure.

For the second time in two years the Deloitte Hurdle winner followed up in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, with Vautour looking at least as impressive at Cheltenham as he had looked at Leopardstown. And for the third time in three years, the Raymond Smith Memorial Hunters Chase winner went and won the Foxhunter at Cheltenham, with Tammys Hill emulating the feat that Salsify had achieved twice, having run in the John McCarthy Hunters Chase at Fairyhouse in the interim.

Finally, Lord Windermere, sixth of seven in the Hennessy, went and landed the Gold Cup. He is the first Irish-trained Gold Cup winner since War Of Attrition in 2006, and the first Gold Cup winner to have run in the Irish Hennessy since Imperial Call in 1996.

Culloty tops

You would have got big odds at the start of the week about Jim Culloty training more winners than Paul Nicholls or Nicky Henderson, or the same number as the pair of them combined.

Nicholls, 97 winners in the bag this season, including a Henry VIII Chase and a King George, was set to have 33 runners at Cheltenham, including the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle favourite, the Triumph Hurdle favourite, the Ryanair Chase second favourite and the Gold Cup second favourite, yet he went home with just one winner, Lac Fontana in the County Hurdle.

Henderson had trained 99 winners this season before Cheltenham, including six Grade 1 winners, and he was set to have 38 runners at the Festival, including four favourites and four second favourites. Henderson went close on several occasions and, if the ball had hopped a little differently, he could have had a handful of winners. However, the fact remains that his only winner of the week was Whisper, who got home by a short head in the Coral Cup.

By contrast, Culloty, who hadn’t trained a winner since last August, had two runners going into the week, a 16/1 shot in the Kim Muir and a 33/1 shot in the Gold Cup. Both won.

The Cork-based trainer, who won the Gold Cup on Best Mate three times as a rider, and who won the Grand National on Bindaree, has now had three runners in two years at the Cheltenham Festival as a trainer, and all three have won. He has a Kim Muir, an RSA Chase and a Gold Cup in the bag from three attempts – that is some strike rate at the most competitive meeting on the calendar.

The doc is in (form)

Dr Ronan Lambe’s strike rate was even better than Jim Culloty’s. There is a contingency there, but the owner had three runners at Cheltenham last week, two trained by Culloty (Spring Heeled and Lord Windermere) and one (Silver Concorde) trained by Dermot Weld. A 12/1 shot, a 16/1 shot and a 20/1 shot. And all three won.

Silver Concorde’s win was also significant for Dermot Weld. At least you won’t be hearing that line about ‘no winner since Rare Holiday’ trotted out again for a while, the line that ignored the minimal Weld representation at Cheltenham in recent years and how well horses like Unaccompanied and Rite Of Passage had run in defeat. They used to also say that Aidan O’Brien hadn’t had a Derby winner since High Chaparral.

Less is more

Every year the question about extra races gets trotted out, and every year people come up with the perennials: a two-and-a-half-mile championship hurdle race is usually the most popular. A Ryanair Hurdle, so to speak.

The reality is, however, that fewer races would probably be the correct way to go, so the wrong questions are being asked. We should be asking which races should be dropped.

It looks like we are committed to a minimum of four days now, it is improbable that we will be able to return to the intensity quality-fest that the three-day Festival begot in the foreseeable future. (At least, thankfully, it looks like the five-day option has been shelved, at least for now.) However, there is no reason why the meeting could not be pruned back to 24 races from 27, have six races each day.

Jockeys and trainers and owners probably would not vote for fewer races. Fewer races equals fewer opportunities to ride or train or own a Cheltenham Festival winner. But an rud is annamh is iontach. There is a rarity value in a Cheltenham winner – that’s why it is so cherished – that is eroded with every extra race that you add.

So how do you get from 27 to 24? There was a suggestion during the week that the Kim Muir should be dropped, but to do so would be to drop all the history and tradition that goes with the Kim Muir all the way back to 1946, with winners from Nicolaus Silver through Greasepaint and Cool Ground and Omerta, to Ballabriggs in 2010 and Sunnyhillboy two years ago.

No, it is the ‘new’ races that should be examined to see if they really do add to the Cheltenham Festival. There are reasons for keeping the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle (Martin Pipe and Sir Des Champs for starters), and the Fred Winter Hurdle (takes the dross away from the Triumph Hurdle, they say), but there are not many reasons for keeping the Rewards4Racing Novices’ Handicap Chase, a 0-140 handicap chase for novices, as part of the Festival programme.

Also, the Mares’ Hurdle would have been a poor race without Quevega for the majority of the last six years (and the Champion Hurdle or the World Hurdle would have been enhanced in any of those years by Quevega’s presence), and there are many people (I am not one of them, incidentally – see below) who would happily wave goodbye to the Cross-Country Chase. You could easily lose three of those five races and tighten up the Festival significantly.

National pointers

There is a real temptation to go looking for Grand National clues from Cheltenham while, in reality, the percentage call is to avoid Cheltenham horses in the Aintree extravaganza. That said, Bindaree, Silver Birch and, most recently, Don’t Push It have proven that you can run at Cheltenham and win the Grand National, so it is worthwhile having a look.

Teaforthree ran well for a long way in the Gold Cup, and he is the horse that most people took out of the meeting for the Grand National. That makes sense on one level, he was third in the race last year, and he was allowed into the race this year on a mark that is 2lb lower than last year’s mark. He is now rated 4lb higher than the mark off which he will race, and he is the right age for the race.

However, he is only a 10/1 shot, and he did have a hard race in the Gold Cup. He was right up in the firing line for a long way, and it wasn’t as though Nick Scholfield was easy on him in the home straight. He was right there with a chance at the second last fence, he actually jumped that obstacle beside the winner. However, he began to fade on the run to the last, and he jumped that fence like a tired horse. It may be that Rebecca Curtis will be able to freshen him up again in time for Aintree, but his chance of winning the Grand National has probably decreased as a result of running at Cheltenham, and his odds have shortened.

Pineau De Re, The Package, Same Difference and Hunt Ball all performed creditably enough to suggest that the National is not an unrealistic target now, but it may be that the Cross-Country Chase is the race that provides the most significant clues. Balthazar King and Big Shu both ran big races to finish first and third respectively in that race, and it may be that the Cross-Country race does not take as much out of horses as the Gold Cup or the Pertemps Final does.

Both Balthazar King and Big Shu are lightly-raced this season, both should be well-suited by the Aintree challenge, and both are now well-handicapped for the National. Balthazar King ran well for a long way in the National last year off a 4lb lower mark than the mark off which he will race this year, but he will also be 9lb well-in in this year (he was raised 9lb for his Cheltenham win), and he is a better age for the race now as a 10-year-old.

Big Shu is only nine, but he won the La Touche Cup over four miles and a furlong at Punchestown last year on heavy ground. He should not lack for strength or stamina. And remember that Silver Birch finished second to Heads Onthe Ground in the Cross-Country Chase in 2007 before he went and sprang a 33/1 shock in the National a month later.

© The Irish Field, 22nd March 2014