Things We Learned » Zabana’s win was no more than he deserved

Zabana’s win was no more than he deserved

The universe corrected itself when Zabana won the Grade 1 Growise Chase at Punchestown on Tuesday.

Cheltenham was a write-off.  The JLT start was a disaster.  Very few people like those standing starts anyway, at best they are a lottery, who gets off and who doesn’t.  For how long can they persevere with them?  Races have been lost by prominent racers at those standing starts.

Zabana’s race was lost at the start at Cheltenham, that’s unequivocal.  Davy Russell said afterwards that it was the connections who suffered, Andy Lynch and Chris Jones and their team, that Zabana was their big chance at Cheltenham, that he himself could go back into the weigh room, change his silks and get up on the next horse.  (And he did, Mall Dini, and won the Pertemps Final.)

The owner and trainer had to have been gutted.  Everything was right with the horse, Andy Lynch had him bouncing, and he was back at Cheltenham, where he had run the best race of his life over hurdles in the 2015 Coral Cup, back on his favoured good ground, a real shot at a Cheltenham Festival prize.

Worse than that, Zabana ran the race, he chased the other horses, riderless, until he caught up with them, then he raced among them, he led them, he jumped some of the fences, he went out on the second circuit with them, he completed the course, he actually won the race, he came home clear but riderless.

So he took a lot out of himself, he gave himself a hard race without having a race.  He came home feeling sorry for himself, and in no way ready to get up for the Ryanair Gold Cup at Fairyhouse.

A couple of days after Cheltenham, Davy Russell was circumspect.  It could all be for luck, he said.  And it was.

Lynch had Zabana zinging again on Tuesday.  A slight stumble at the first fence must have had hearts in mouths again but, after that, Zabana was smooth as silk.  He was quickly back in front and into a lovely rhythm for Russell, he jumped every jump and he stayed on well to repel the high-class Outlander.

It’s a Grade 1 prize in the bag and it means that the sky is the limit.  Zabana is only seven, that was just his fourth chase and we know now that he stays three miles well.  All things being equal, you never know how high he could go next season.

Championship crescendo was pure theatre

Ultimately, Willie Mullins came up short in his effort to land the British trainers’ championship, to become the first Irish-based trainer since Vincent O’Brien 62 years ago to achieve that feat.  Even so, it was a valiant effort.

In the end, Paul Nicholls won by £97,825: £2.439 million to £2.341 million.  In percentage terms, the British champion won by 4% of his total.  You have to admire the effort that Nicholls put up to win it, you could see how much it meant to him, his 10th title.  It was great theatre, it was great for racing, a crescendo on the final day of the season.

Afterwards, people said that Willie Mullins went all out to win it but, in reality, he didn’t.  Not all out.  If he had gone all out, if he hadn’t had Punchestown to the forefront of his mind, it is possible that he could have won it.  The figures tell you so.

This is all hypothetical, of course, but it is interesting to kick the figures around a bit.

Willie could have run Vautour as well as Valseur Lido in the Oaksey Chase over two miles and six and a half furlongs, probably his optimum trip.  Vautour would have carried a 5lb penalty, but so did the winner Menorah.  Vautour would have been long odds-on to win it.

So if Vautour had won that, then Willie would have picked up a total of £33,825 in prize money (assuming Valseur Lido still finished behind Menorah) for the race instead of the £11,355 that he accumulated for Valseur Lido’s second-place finish and Ballycasey’s sixth-place finish.

In that instance, Paul Nicholls would have won £3,335 (Rocky Creek fourth and Saphir Du Rheu sixth) instead of £6,690 (Rocky Creek third and Saphir Du Rheu fifth).  So that would have been a swing of £25,825 right there.

Willie could have run Douvan in the Celebration Chase.  Again, Douvan would probably have been a short-priced favourite to win it, Sprinter Sacre or no Sprinter Sacre, and wouldn’t that have been some spectacle, Douvan v Sprinter Sacre over two miles at Sandown on the last day of the season?

And if Douvan had won the Celebration Chase, Willie would have picked up a total of £84,562 (Douvan first, Un De Sceaux third) instead of the £26,712 that he picked up for Un De Sceaux finishing second, and Paul Nicholls would have picked up £8,337 (Dodging Bullets fourth, Solar Impulse sixth) instead of the £18,400 that he did pick up (Dodging Bullets third, Solar Impulse fifth, Ulck Du Lin sixth).  So there’s another swing of £67,913 right there.

Add those two swings together, and you get £93,738.  That’s just £4,087 short of the winning margin.

Then Vroum Vroum Mag would have run in the Select Hurdle, and she would have been odds-on to win the £28,475 first prize.  Even third place would have been enough to more than cover the £4,087 deficit.  Although if Mullins had been ahead by then, Nicholls probably would have allowed Alcala and Chartbreaker run in the last, the £18,768 handicap hurdle.  The drama could have gone all the way to the 92nd minute.

Tough to do all three

We saw again this week how difficult it is to run big races at Cheltenham and at Aintree, then come on to Punchestown and win.

Sprinter Sacre won at all three festivals in 2013, but Sprinter Sacre was a monster then, vastly superior to his contemporaries, and even he wasn’t as impressive at Punchestown as he had been at Cheltenham and Aintree.

On The Fringe won at all three festivals last year.  Douvan won at all three festivals this year.  But we are talking about special horses here.

This year, Bellshill did exactly what he did last year: finished down the field at Cheltenham, finished a close second at Aintree, won at Punchestown.  God’s Own also took in all three festivals this year, finishing fourth in the Champion Chase at Cheltenham before winning the Melling Chase at Aintree, then ending his season by winning the Champion Chase at Punchestown.  So it can be done.

But Yorkhill came up short, beaten at odds-on at Punchestown after impressive wins at Cheltenham and Aintree.  Cue Card ran keen and flat at Punchestown after falling at Cheltenham and winning impressively at Aintree.  Annie Power was scratched from Punchestown after hugely impressive performances at Cheltenham and Aintree.

Vautour also came up short, beaten at Punchestown after winning easily at Cheltenham and falling at Aintree, although his defeat on Tuesday may have had as much to do with the distance as it had to do with anything else.

Ultimately, it is down to the individual horse, his or her specific make-up: talent, comparative ability with rivals, constitution.  You can win at all three festivals, but it takes a special horse to do it.

Jockeys’ championship

At the close of play on Thursday, Brian Hughes was leading the British National Hunt jockeys’ championship and Richard Johnson was only 61st.  That’s a lot of ground that Johnson has to make up if he is to retain his title.

Stats attack

Most surprising stat of the week: when Katie Walsh rode Blow By Blow to victory in the Champion Bumper on Wednesday, she was riding her first Grade 1 winner.

Thousand Stars in the County Hurdle, Thousand Stars in the Prix La Barka, Seabass in the Leopardstown Chase, Your Busy in the Kerry National, Poker De Sivola in the National Hunt Chase.  Yep, all big wins, all fine performances, but none of them Grade 1 races.

Even Thunder And Roses’ win in the Irish Grand National was a Grade A win, not a Grade 1 win.

That’s another box ticked so.


© The Irish Field, 30th April 2016