Donn's Articles » Hennessy day high

Hennessy day high

First things first: yesterday at Leopardstown was a fairytale. You could have written it as a piece of fiction but, if you had, your editor would have handed it back to you and said, make it realistic.

AP McCoy rode his first Hennessy winner yesterday on his last Hennessy ride, and the superlatives came tumbling forward. Dig deep into the bottom of the superlatives barrel, but you still won’t find any left in there. They have all been used up on AP. But the reality is that you don’t need superlatives, you don’t need words at all, because his achievements are all there in the figures: the best there has ever been, the best there is ever likely to be.

We saw his horsemanship skills on Mr Mole at Newbury on Saturday, we saw his balance on Carlingford Lough at Leopardstown yesterday, his judgement of pace, his strength in a finish. His ability to get in behind his horse and encourage him to dig deep, to convince his horse that he wants to go forward, balanced and streamlined, almost a part of the horse, as if the horse would be incomplete without the rider on its back.

And the humility and the graciousness with which he accepted the accolades afterwards, the generosity with which he gave his time, was the outward reflection of the gentleman that he is. Universally popular. That’s the part of him that the figures do not convey. Jamie Osborne said that he tried to dislike him, but failed.

And Carlingford Lough is a Gold Cup player now, no question. He is nine years old and he has run 17 times over fences, but he was one of last season’s leading staying novice chasers (a second-season one admittedly), and yesterday’s run was just his second of the season. He could progress again for it.

Of course, he had AP for assistance, and he had John Kiely’s astuteness and patience in his corner, but he had to dig deep to win yesterday. The mistake that he made at the second last fence would have meant curtains for a lesser horse, but he responded willingly to his rider’s urgings and, despite jumping the last fence two lengths down, he stayed on gallantly up the final punishing incline to get the better of Foxrock.

Foxrock is a high-class steeplechaser. It isn’t that long ago that the Ted Walsh-trained gelding was really just a handicapper – just one run ago, to be precise – and you have to remember that he was beaten in the Paddy Power Chase at Christmas off a mark of 142. However, he put up a fine performance to win the BoyleSports Chase at the end of last month off a mark of 149 over two miles and five furlongs, a distance that is probably a fair way short of his best. Remember that he was sent off the 3/1 favourite for the National Hunt Chase over four miles at last year’s Festival.

The handicapper raised him to a mark of 158 after that, and that put him on the coat-tails of the top staying chasers. He deserved his chance in yesterday’s race and, backed from 7/1 to 7/2, he almost won it.

He lost no caste in not winning it. In getting to within three parts of a length of Carlingford Lough, he pulled eight lengths clear of Lord Windermere. He is only seven, he is still improving and, should owner Barry Connell decide to pay the supplementary fee to put him in the Gold Cup, it would be difficult to argue that it wouldn’t be worth the punt.

This was much more like it from Lord Windermere too. He travelled really well through his race for Davy Russell and, when he went on at the second last fence, he looked a likely winner. He didn’t finish as strongly as he did in last year’s Gold Cup, or in the 2013 RSA Chase, but this was a massive step back towards the correct trajectory.

Dr Ronan Lambe’s horse has won just one of his eight races at Leopardstown, but he has won both of his races at Cheltenham: just a Gold Cup and an RSA Chase. He seems to thrive on the fast pace at Cheltenham and the good ground and the stamina test and the uphill/downhill challenge. He should get the fast pace in the Gold Cup that seems to suit him so well, especially if Coneygree shirks the novice option and shoots for the stars. The Jim Culloty-trained horse could become the first since the Jim Culloty-ridden Best Mate to go back to Cheltenham and retain his Gold Cup.

Willie Mullins won both novice hurdles, but neither with the market’s choice. Petite Parisienne surprised a few people when she landed the curtain-raiser, the Gala Retail Spring Juvenile Hurdle, but not everyone. Strong in the market beforehand, she was a little out to her right at a couple of her obstacles, but she picked up nicely in the home straight, and she stayed on really well to get the better of her better-fancied stable companion Kalkir on the run-in.

This race has been a really good pointer to the Triumph Hurdle in recent years. Unaccompanied won the race in 2011 before going on to finish second to Zarkandar in the Triumph. Countrywide Flame finished third in the Spring Hurdle in 2012 before going on to win the Triumph Hurdle at Cheltenham, where he was chased home by Spring Hurdle winner Hisaabaat.

In 2013, Our Conor completed the double, winning both the Spring Hurdle and running out the most impressive winner of the Triumph that you had seen in your life, with Diakali, runner-up in the Spring Hurdle, finishing fourth. Then last year, Tiger Roll, second in the Spring Hurdle, won the Triumph while Guitar Pete, winner of the Spring Hurdle, finished third in the Triumph.

There is a sense that this year’s Spring Hurdle form is held back a little by Prussian Eagle, who was beaten a total of just about four lengths into fourth place. Admittedly, Prussian Eagle looked a little exposed going into the race, a 66-rated horse on the flat on turf who had run five times over hurdles and had won just once. However, he has progressed with each of his runs over hurdles, and yesterday’s run was a career-best.

The time was really good, the fastest comparative time on the day, and Kalkir was really highly regarded going into yesterday’s race. Add that to the fact that this was just the Montmartre filly’s second run over hurdles, that she will probably progress for it, and she deserves her new-found position now towards the head of the Triumph Hurdle market.

There was a lot to like about the performance that Nichols Canyon put up in landing the Deloitte Hurdle. Ruby Walsh bounced the Willie Mullins-trained gelding out of the gate, and he never saw another rival. It was obvious from well before the home turn that he wasn’t for catching and, while Windsor Park put up a valiant effort, it never looked likely that Dermot Weld’s horse would bridge the gap.

The last two winners of this race, Champagne Fever and Vautour, both Willie Mullins horses, went to Cheltenham and won the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, and Nichols Canyon is exciting again now. A dual listed winner for John Gosden on the flat, and rated 111 in that sphere, he was impressive in landing the Grade 1 Royal Bond Hurdle on his second run for Mullins, and yesterday’s display consigned his mishap in the Future Champions Novice Hurdle over Christmas to the annals.

It was interesting that Ruby said afterwards that he was shaping more like a staying horse than a two-miler. That makes sense, because he won a listed race over almost two miles on heavy ground on the flat, and Graham Wylie said that, when he bought him, he was thinking Inglis Drever.

It does present connections with a little bit of a Cheltenham conundrum, however, because Andrea and Graham Wylie also have Shaneshill, who was a top class bumper horse last year, but whose two races over hurdles thus far have been over two and a half miles. Like Nichols Canyon now, he was shaping more like a Neptune Hurdle horse than a Supreme Novices’ Hurdle horse. He could be the one to step back to two miles for the Supreme, however. Like his stable companion, he does not lack pace.

The Wylie/Mullins axis also have Black Hercules, another top class bumper horse last season, but a point-to-point winner who won a Grade 3 novices’ hurdle on heavy ground at Limerick over Christmas over three miles. He is surely their Albert Bartlett horse. These are good conundrums.

In the other Grade 1 race on a top class day’s racing yesterday, the Flogas Chase, Apache Stronghold was dynamite. His jumping was less than fluent on occasion, but he was strong from the home turn to the final fence, and he stayed on relentlessly up the hill to get the better of the highly talented Valseur Lido, who appeared to be travelling best of all on the crown of the home turn.

The pair of them came clear from some talented rivals, and both are obviously live prospects for Cheltenham. Apache Stronghold appeared to be out-stayed by Don Poli over three miles in the Topaz Chase over Christmas, and he saw this two-mile-five-furlong trip out well, so the JLT Chase is the obvious race for Noel Meade’s horse at Cheltenham.

Valseur Lido also has the JLT as an option, but he could easily step up to three miles. He travelled really well into yesterday’s race, but you can argue on breeding that he will be at least as good, possibly even better, over a longer trip. Of course, like Valseur Lido, Don Poli represents the Gigginstown/Mullins team, and you get the feeling that, wherever Valseur Lido goes, Don Poli will go further, that it’s JLT Chase/RSA Chase, or RSA Chase/National Hunt Chase.

Then AP punched the air, the crowd roared and a tingle went up your spine.

© 9th February, 2015