Things We Learned » Staying chasers to serve up Christmas cracker

Staying chasers to serve up Christmas cracker

There are many fascinating races set to be run over the Christmas period, but the two races that stand out – even more so this year than most years – are the King George VI Chase at Kempton and the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown.

It is a real shame that Coneygree will line up in neither.  The question was being asked, which race for Coneygree, the King George or the Lexus?  Now we know the answer.  Neither.  It lessens the enthrallment for sure, but only marginally.  The racing world keeps turning, and we should have a much clearer picture of the pecking order into which the staying chasers fall after those two races are run than we do now.

As things stand, it looks like Don Cossack (the highest-rated chaser in training), Vautour (brilliant JLT winner), Cue Card (back to his best in the Betfair Chase) and Silviniaco Conti (winner of the last two renewals of the King George) will line up at Kempton on St Stephen’s day.  They could be accompanied by Hennessy winner Smad Place, Peterborough Chase winner Al Ferof and Growise Chase winner Valseur Lido, and that would all be intriguing.

At Leopardstown, it looks like, all things being equal, Don Poli and Road To Riches and Sir Des Champs and Carlingford Lough and Gilgamboa will all line up in a Gigginstown House/JP McManus-fest, and there won’t be a white or a blue cap left in the weigh room.  Foxrock could also line up, and there is still an outside chance that Djakadam will line up.  Also intriguing.  (See above.)

It’s like two semi-finals, an Irish one and an English one, with the qualifiers going forward to the live show in March.  (Of course it’s not, but you get the gist.)

Novices on the brink

The Grade 1 two-mile novices’ chase at Leopardstown, the Racing Post Novice Chase, is also shaping up to be a thriller.  It will be worthwhile making the trip to Foxrock just to see Douvan again, just to see him step up in grade from his beginners’ chase into Grade 1 company.

But this is not all about Douvan.  Sizing John was a high-class novice hurdler last season, he wasn’t that far behind Douvan and he was always built to jump fences.  Henry de Bromhead’s horse has been seriously impressive in winning his first two chases, the latter the Grade 2 Craddockstown Chase.

Ttebbob wasn’t as good as those two over hurdles, but he jumps fences with such fluency that he is already a far better chaser than hurdler.  Like Sizing John, Jessica Harrington’s horse has been seriously impressive in landing his first two chases.

Add Kitten Rock (a 160-rated hurdlers, one for one over fences) and Velvet Maker (really impressive in winning his beginners’ chase at Naas) and, in just those five, you have another contest to savour.

Moore excels again

So it’s all about novice chases and handicap hurdles these days, but it was worth turning on Racing UK before mass last Sunday morning to see the international races from Hong Kong.  If you did, you got to see Aidan O’Brien’s first winner in the jurisdiction, and you got to remind yourself of how good Ryan Moore is.

Highland Reel ran out an impressive winner of the Vase for Aidan O’Brien, a first for the champion trainer in Hong Kong, and Moore was brilliant on him.

It looked like the rider was going to be allowed to have it all to himself up front until they swept around into the home straight, but that was before Tommy Berry rushed Harbour Master up the outside (incidentally, Berry was stood down after this ride, his ride on Rich Tapestry in the Sprint going to Pat Smullen), passing most of the field and dropping onto the rail in front of Highland Reel.

Moore had to improvise, and Highland Reel was consequently wider than ideal around the home turn, but the Galileo colt picked up impressively to come clear of the top-class Flintshire inside the final 150 yards.

Highland Reel has been on the go now since early May.  He has raced eight times this year now, twice in May and once in every other month except November.  He has raced in Ireland twice, in France twice, in Britain once, in America once, in Australia once and now in Hong Kong once.  That’s six difference countries, four different continents and two different hemispheres.  They don’t make racehorses’ campaigns any more international than that.  This victory was testament to Highland Reel’s toughness, and to Aidan O’Brien’s ability to have him as fresh as he needed to be on his final run in such an arduous campaign.

The Galileo colt is now morphing into a top class performer himself.  This was a career-best from him, probably by some way.  There is every reason to believe that Flintshire ran his race, under his optimum conditions, and the pair of them came nicely clear of the talented Dolniya.  He will be a very interesting four-year-old.

Moore also excelled on Maurice in the Mile.  It was a similar type of race, in that Able Friend came up on his outside and probably headed him early in the home straight – as Flintshire had done with Highland Reel – before Maurice battled back.

The rider knows Maurice well, having ridden him to win the Mile Championship at Kyoto three weeks earlier for his principal Japanese trainer Noriyuki Hori, and it was interesting to hear him say afterwards that the Screen Hero colt might not have been at his best, that he just didn’t have that zip that he usually has.  These things can often get lost when you try to cross international frontiers, but Maurice is a top class colt.

Ryan Moore’s talent does not get lost when you cross national borders.  Two winners and a second from three rides in Hong Kong’s international races mean that he will continue to be the most sought-after jockey in the world.

Curtis team getting going again

It is not too long ago that the Rebecca Curtis horses were completely out of form.  The Pembrokeshire trainer had just two winners from 30 runners in November, and she didn’t even have a runner in December until she allowed The Romford Pele take his chance in the three-and-a-quarter-mile handicap chase on the Friday of Cheltenham’s December meeting last weekend.

The Romford Pele’s run was a lacking a little in verve, but the trainer had two runners at Bangor on the same day, and they both ran well.

This week, things appear to have turned around.  Curtis had two runners at Ffos Las on Monday, and they finished first and second.  She had two runners at Newbury on Wednesday, and they finished first and second – the winner the apparently back-to-form 2014 RSA Chase winner O’Faolains Boy – and she had two at Ludlow on Wednesday and they finished second and third.

She could be a trainer to watch over the Christmas period.  She could have a handful of under-rated and well-handicapped horses now.

Coneygree a loss

The 2015/16 National Hunt season will be a lesser one without Coneygree, no question.  The reigning Gold Cup champ, it would have been great to have seen him take on this clutch of youngsters in the top staying chases this season, and then bid to defend his crown in March.  Alas, it is probable that none of that will happen now.

Willie Mullins’ reaction to the news was interesting though.  It wasn’t one of jubilation, that one of his main Gold Cup rivals had been removed, it was more one of sympathy for the Bradstocks and Coneygree’s connections, a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-any-of-us-type sentiment.  Hopefully the long-term injury list will remain short, because we are in the thick of a truly unusual season.

 IF 19th Dec