Things We Learned » Tough old game

Tough old game

It was fairly gutting, the news about Faugheen.  And bad and all as you feel, robbed of the chance to see one of the most talented hurdlers of recent times – already in the Istabraq/Hurricane Fly mould, but still with the potential to go higher – bid to add another Champion Hurdle, think how bad connections feel.

This is a First World problem, no question.  Borris Becker will tell you that nobody died here.  Even so, it’s still gutting.

And it’s not as bad for connections as it might have been.  The Champion Hurdle picture remains bright. Willie Mullins has Arctic Fire and Nichols Canyon, Susannah and Rich Ricci have Annie Power if they want and, while Ruby Walsh now has a decision to make, and whatever he rides will not be the penalty kick that Faugheen would have been, his decision is between the first two favourites at worst, and maybe between the first three.

Indeed, Willie Mullins put it into perspective after the news broke at Punchestown on Wednesday.  Faugheen had a sore suspensory, he told us, similar to the injury that kept Hurricane Fly out of the 2010 Cheltenham Festival.  And if Faugheen’s PSI (Post Suspensory Injury) career can be anything like Hurricane Fly’s, you would settle for that.

Mullins made the comparison with Gary Moore, who has lost his stable star Ar Mad from this year’s Festival, pointing out that, even without the team captain, there would still be a formidable outfit going to Cheltenham from Closutton.  It is a salient point, of course, but Mullins showed his class in making it on Wednesday morning, while he was still dealing with the disappointment.

You have to feel for Gary Moore.  Not only has he lost Ar Mad from this year’s Festival – just after the right-handed specialist had put himself (right) into the Arkle picture with an easy victory at left-handed Plumpton on Monday – he also lost Violet Dancer, who had beaten hitherto Arkle second favourite L’Ami Serge at Warwickon Saturday.  And that was to go with the loss of real live Champion Chase contender Traffic Fluide the previous week.

First World or not, it can be a tough old game.

Shuffling of the pack

Faugheen’s defection could lead to a shuffling of the Willie Mullins pack.  Annie Power could now run in the Champion Hurdle.  That is not a definite, but it is more than possible.

If Annie Power does run in the Champion Hurdle, that should pave the way for Vroum Vroum Mag to run in the Mares’ Hurdle, so that would mean no Ryanair Chase and no World Hurdle for her.

Would that mean that Vautour would run in the Ryanair?  Hardly.

Would it mean that Nichols Canyon would run in the World Hurdle instead of the Champion Hurdle?  Probably not, but you never know.  We are still three weeks away.  This is why Willie Mullins does not submit the Cheltenham team sheet until late.

Ruby Walsh said on Wednesday that it was like someone whipping out the Ace and giving the rest of the cards back to you.  It is, but you still have the King, Queen and Jack in there.

Bumper form

Ballyandy was promoted to the top of most ante post lists for the Cheltenham Bumper after he landed the finale at Newbury on Saturday, and that was an understandable course of action.

There was a lot to like about his performance.  Visually, it was impressive.  Nigel Twiston-Davies’ horse travelled like the most likely winner from a long way out, he hit the front a half a mile from home and he galloped all the way to the line.  He only beat six rivals, but five of them were previous winners and three of them were unbeaten under Rules (if you count Gayebury’s first-past-the-post at Ffos Las as a win) going intoSaturday’s race.  (Runner-up Positively Dylan also ran a nice race.)  And the winner was conceding 4lb and 10lb and 14lb to his rivals.

This was probably a really strong bumper.  It often is.  Indeed, it is difficult to find another bumper in Britain before Cheltenham that has been as strong historically.  Mad Max won it in 2008.  Al Ferof won it in 2010. Shutthefrontdoor beat Village Vic in it in 2012, Definitly Red beat Tea For Two in it in 2014 and Barters Hill beat Buveur D’Air and Altios in it last year.

Natural inclination is to regard the Cheltenham Bumper as a benefit gig for the Irish, introduced to the meeting in 1992 to ensure that we would have at least one winner at the Festival and that, therefore, we would continue to go, and bring our local-economy-boosting punters with us.  However, three of the last six winners were trained in Britain, and, last year, quite astonishingly and a little bit rudely, British-trained horses filled the first four places.   The British horses have to be taken seriously these days, and Ballyandy is a worthy favourite.

Don’t ignore the obvious

The big notebook horse from Saturday’s Betfair Hurdle was Affaire D’Honneur.  Harry Whittingdon’s horse was left standing at the (standing) start, he had to race in rear from early, and he made eye-catching progress from the third last flight to take fourth place behind Agrapart, Starchitect and Flying Angel.

Incidentally, it was the second time in the last two renewals of the race that a Harry Whittingdon representative looked unlucky.  Arzal was badly hampered when Chieftain’s Choice fell in front of him in last year’s renewal, before keeping on well up the home straight to finish sixth.

Common consensus after Saturday’s race was that Affaire D’Honneur was disadvantaged by racing out the back, that the race was run to suit the prominent racers.  That is a logical conclusion, given that the first two home both raced prominently, and that the third horse was never far away.

However, Timeform’s sectional times suggest that it was actually a disadvantage to race handily.  Finishing speeds were less than 100% of average speeds across the board, which suggests that the front-runners actually went off too hard, which should have been an advantage to those horses who raced off the pace.

This suggests that it is the first two home, Agrapart and Starchitect, who need to be marked up on the bare form of their performances, not the fast-finishing fourth-placed Affaire D’Honneur.

Affaire D’Honneur is obviously a nice, progressive young hurdler, he is a talented individual, but he is fashionable now after this run, and it may be that he will be over-bet next time.  By contrast, it may be that Agrapart (at least as long as the ground remains soft) and Starchitect (fourth in last year’s Fred Winter Hurdle) will be under-bet, and they might be worth noting for the future, even off 13lb and 6lb higher marks respectively.

Quote of the week

“You could have put the hood on me for all the effect it had on her!”

Ruby Walsh


© The Irish Field, 20th February 2016