Things We Learned » Wot? No British?

Wot? No British?

Not only are there no British-trained horses set to race on Hennessy Gold Cup day at Leopardstown tomorrow, but there were no British-trained horses even among the five-day entries. Four Grade 1 races, €480,000 in prize money, 131 Irish entries and no raiders.

You have to wonder why that is. Sam Winner and Bobs Worth ran in the Lexus Chase at Christmas, so it isn’t that British trainers do not know where Leopardstown is. Perhaps it is too close to Cheltenham for the British horses to travel. Those two horses, for example, are going straight to the Gold Cup now.

But British horses have competed successfully on this day in the past. Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the British made the Hennessy their own, winning seven of the first eight renewals. Even in recent times, they have done well in the race. The Listener was a perennial in the Hennessy for four years and Neptune Collonges won it in 2009, while John Quinn sent Countrywide Flame to Leopardstown to finish third in the Spring Juvenile Hurdle in 2012 before he went and won the Triumph Hurdle.

It is probably more a cultural thing than anything else. British National Hunt trainers probably have their set routes to Cheltenham, their tried and trusted stepping stones through from Christmas to March, and those steps do not generally include a large one that would take them across the Irish Sea in early February.

But there are lots of British-trained horses who would have big chances of winning good prize money in today’s four Grade 1 races, for whom a race tomorrow would fit in with their preparatory programme for Cheltenham, and whose presence would further enhance a top class day’s racing.

Why another day?

There are a hundred reasons why they should not add another day to the Cheltenham Festival. Here are three of them.

First, another day means more races, and that dilutes the thing even more than it has been diluted already. It is easy to point to the races at the Cheltenham Festival as it stands currently that are simply not archetypal Cheltenham Festival races. It would be like adding another pint of water to an already diluted jug of Ribena – the whole thing would just lose its potency.

Secondly, more races also means more opportunities for the top class horses to avoid each other. Put on a two-and-a-half-mile championship hurdle, for example, and you could lose Hurricane Fly and possibly one or two others from the Champion Hurdle field, and Rock On Ruby from the World Hurdle field.

Thirdly, more races means more opportunities for owners and trainers and riders to have a Cheltenham Festival winner, and that will be viewed as a good thing by many. But the whole reason why a Cheltenham Festival winner is so cherished is because it is so rare. There are now 27 Cheltenham Festival winners every year. It is not so long ago that there were just 18.

Add another day, make it a five-day Festival with six races each day, and there will be a minimum of 30 Cheltenham Festival winners every year. And it creeps up again as more new races are added. 31, 32, 33. At some point, you push it through the barrier, you shatter the glass and you lose the magic.

You cannot be sure of the point at which the magic will be lost, but you can be absolutely certain of this: once it is lost, it will not be re-captured.

You can see the attraction for Cheltenham. Five days means another day for people to spend money. So here’s an idea: make it a five-day Festival, if you must. But have the first two days on Monday and Tuesday on the Old Course, then take a break on Wednesday and have the final two days on the New Course on Thursday and Friday.

Radical, maybe, but we may have uncovered something in 2008 when the high winds meant that racing was abandoned on Wednesday, and Wednesday’s races were added to Thursday and Friday. It was not planned, but there was something positive about taking a day away and returning.

Let people take a break on Wednesday, go shopping or play cards or write copy or go to the pub or go to the bookies and watch Huntingdon. Or let people go home on Tuesday night, have the new people arrive on Thursday morning. Then open the gates again on Thursday morning, let the people in again, refreshed, the first two days assimilated, bursting for the top class racing to begin again.

Dysaste defection

So Dynaste is out of the Ryanair Chase, and Champagne West is out of the RSA Chase or the JLT Chase, and Present View is out of the Ryanair Chase or the Byrne Group Plate (or whatever they call it these days) or the Festival Chase or whatever race he might have contested. And that’s just the start of it.

You have to feel for connections. Dynaste probably would have been favourite for the Ryanair Chase, and Champagne West would have been interesting, stepped up to three miles for the first time over fences, and Present View’s record at Cheltenham would have had him high in the list for either of the handicap chases. However, that is the nature of these things. They are fragile animals.

We are still 31 days away from the first day of the Festival and you can be sure that, as sure as eggs is eggs, there will be other high-profile defections between now and then. So even if you do know the intended Festival target of the horse you intend to back, be sure to back him non-runner-no-bet, if you can.

Gold Cup/National double

It is remarkable that Golden Miller and L’Escargot are still the only two horses in history to win both the Cheltenham Gold Cup and the Aintree Grand National. Golden Miller won the Grand National as a seven-year-old in 1934, the year he won the third of his five Gold Cups, while L’Escargot won the National in 1975, four years after he had won his second Gold Cup.

Others have gone close. Rough Quest won the Grand National in 1996, a well-handicapped horse after he had finished second to Imperial Call in the Gold Cup. Unusually, Hedgehunter almost did it the other way around. Willie Mullins’ horse won the Grand National in 2005, then finished second behind War Of Attrition in the Gold Cup in 2006.

Garrison Savannah probably came closest of all in recent years, winning the Gold Cup in 1991 and then going clear over the final fence in the National three weeks later before getting run down by Seagram inside the final 100 yards.

Lord Windermere is the only Gold Cup winner who is among this year’s National entries. He couldn’t, could he?

Vercingetorix watch

It was interesting that the odds on Vercingetorix winning the Triumph Hurdle were shaved a little in a place or two after Vercingetorix was impressive in beating True Story in the Group 2 Al Rashidiya at Meydan last Thursday. If this fellow can jump at all, went the theory …

Except that the Vercingetorix who beat True Story is the SAF-suffixed six-year-old, Mike de Kock-trained, horse who finished second to Just A Way in the Dubai Duty Free last year. The Vercingetorix who is high in the betting for the Triumph Hurdle is the Irish-bred Dylan Thomas gelding who won a seller at Compiegne last year for Andre Fabre and who looked mighty impressive in winning his maiden hurdle at Limerick over Christmas on his debut for Gordon Elliott. Now, if he wins the Spring Juvenile Hurdle at Leopardstown tomorrow, you can cut his Triumph Hurdle odds away, no problem.

He was a Gaul, by the way. Vercingetorix. In case you are asked in a table quiz. He was a chieftain of the Arverni tribe a couple of decades Before Christ, who led the Great Revolt against Rome. You might have seen him surrender to Caesar in the first episode of the BBC’s Rome. He featured in Asterix the Gaul as well. (Didn’t all the –ixes?)

© The Irish Field, 7th February 2015