Things We Learned » Cue Card v Thistlecrack

Cue Card v Thistlecrack

It is good news that it is happening, that the King George duel is on.  It is good news that Thistlecrack has stepped into the space that was vacated by Coneygree because, if he hadn’t, we would probably have been looking at a lap and a half of honour as opposed to a fascinating encounter: the established champion against the up and coming potential superstar.

Kauto Star v Denman they are saying, and you can see the similarities.  Both high-class staying chasers, both hailing from the same yard, Colin Tizzard’s this time as opposed to Paul Nicholls’.  But there the similarities end really.

Cue Card is two years older than Thistlecrack, whereas Kauto Star and Denman were of the same vintage, even though Kauto was jumping fences two years before Denman was.  And the Kauto/Denman encounters were in the Gold Cup, not in the King George.  Actually, Denman never ran in the King George, whereas Kauto Star made it his own.

More importantly, however, when Kauto and Denman met first, in the 2008 Gold Cup, Kauto Star was the reigning Gold Cup title-holder while Denman was unbeaten in eight runs over fences, numbering a Hennessy Gold Cup and a Lexus Chase and an RSA Chase among his victories.  Both horses were eight years old, both were in their pomp, both rising forces.  By contrast, Cue Card is last year’s King George hero, but he is 10 years old.  It is unlikely that he will still be winning King Georges in three years’ time.  Thistlecrack is at the other end of the experience spectrum, he has won just three races over fences, a Grade 2 five-horse race the best of them.

Kauto Star was already a superstar and Denman was already a monster when the Ditcheat Duo first met.  Irresistible force and immovable object, something had to give. Cue Card v Thistlecrack is fascinating, but it is not there.  Not yet anyway. 

Champion Hurdle picture

The Champion Hurdle picture is a little up in the air at present, simply because we have not seen the stars of the division Annie Power or Faugheen yet this season. 

All is reportedly well with both horses, but you would just love to see both of them back.  We haven’t seen Annie Power since she won the Aintree Hurdle last April, we haven’t seen Faugheen since he won the Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown last January.

Because outside of the two Willie Mullins horses, the Champion Hurdle picture looks unclear.  Yanworth is third favourite, and it appeared that Yanworth needed every yard of the near two and a half miles of the Ascot Hurdle to beat Lil Rockerfeller last time.  He improved when he stepped up to two and a half miles last season, and, even though he is unbeaten over hurdles over two miles, he has to prove now that he is as effective over two miles as he is over two and a half.  He may do that in the Christmas Hurdle on Monday, but he has to.

Vroum Vroum Mag and The New One are fourth and fifth in the Champion Hurdle betting.  The New One looked like an improved horse in the International Hurdle at Cheltenham last time, allowed stride on in front, but his record in the Champion Hurdle reads 354.  Vroum Vroum Mag is a top class performer, as talented as she is versatile but, given her versatility, she could just as easily run in the Stayers’ Hurdle or the Ryanair Chase as in the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham.

Yorkhill is high in the Champion Hurdle betting, but he is surely going to run in the Arkle, or at least in one of the novice chases, barring something unforeseen.  Apple’s Jade is high in the betting, and she is talented and progressive, but she could run in the Mares’ Hurdle instead.  Nichols Canyon could run in the Stayers’ Hurdle instead.  Certainly, you know that you won’t see Annie Power, Faugheen, Vroum Vroum Mag, Yorkhill and Nichols Canyon all line up, and those five are among the top seven or eight in the market.

All of this makes a couple of horses interesting at big prices.  Brain Power is interesting, he was impressive (from what we could see) in the Wessex Youth Trust Handicap Hurdle (go on, you know it will grow on you) at Ascot on Saturday, and he doesn’t have to improve a whole lot to put himself into a Champion Hurdle picture.

Petit Mouchoir is interesting, he probably would have beaten Apple’s Jade and Irving in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle had he not come down at the third last flight, and Superb Story could be a dark one, last year’s County Hurdle winner, the Rooster Booster route.  It’s all very interesting.

Powerful form

Speaking of Brain Power, the handicap hurdle that Nicky Henderson’s horse won at Sandown on Tingle Creek Chase day looked like a good race at the time, but it looks even better now.  Not only has the winner followed up in the Wessex Youth Trust Handicap Hurdle, but the runner-up in the Sandown race, the winner’s stable companion Consul De Thaix, also filled the runner-up spot in the Ascot race. 

It is probable that the winner and the runner-up improved again from Sandown to Ascot, as evidenced by ratings hikes of, respectively, 13lb and 5lb after Ascot (and that was after hikes of 7lb and 3lb after Sandown).  Both Nicky Henderson horses are progressive and both should be worth following, even if Brain Power may now have to step up in grade, a mark of 162 may well see him handicapped out of handicaps.  Consul De Thaix is only four and he has raced just five times in his life, so he still has bundles of scope for progression.

Also of interest from the Sandown race is Kayf Blanco, who ran on nicely past Wishfull Dreaming to take third place.  Graeme McPherson’s horse has had plenty of runs over hurdles, but he is still only seven, and that was probably the best run of his life.  Also, he could be interesting now back over fences. 

He shaped nicely on his debut this season in that hot beginners’ chase at Uttoxeter that was won by Charbel, in which Le Prezien and Top Notch finished second and third.  (The first three home between them have won five times and finished second once – behind Altior in a Grade 1 contest – in six runs collectively since.)  That was Kayf Blanco’s first and only run over fences to date, and he will be of interest returned to the larger obstacles now.

Cheltenham permutations

Already the Willie Mullins and Nicky Henderson Cheltenham Festival permutations are beginning to take shape, as in, we are getting to know what the possible permutations are, as opposed to what the make-up of the teams will be.  So, if Min goes for the Arkle, does that mean that Yorkhill would run in the JLT?   You could run both in the Arkle, it being the more prestigious race and all, with its roots embedded deep in Cheltenham Festival history. 

Or you could run Yorkhill in the Arkle and Min in the JLT, but Min’s owner Susannah Ricci also owns American Tom, who could be more a JLT horse than an Arkle horse, and Min looks like an Arkle horse all over.  

If Nicky Henderson runs Altior in the Arkle, does that mean that Buveur D’Air would run in the JLT?  Certainly, after Buveur D’Air won impressively on his chasing bow at Haydock on Saturday, the talk was of keeping both horses away from each other.  But it may be keeping both horses away from each other until Cheltenham, not up to and including Cheltenham. 

Buveur D’Air’s owner JP McManus is synonymous with the Cheltenham Festival (ref. “roots embedded” above) and the Crillon gelding looks like an Arkle horse, so the chances are that his owner will want him to run in the Arkle.  And he could have Anibale Fly or even Coney Island for the JLT anyway.    

Meyler and Mullins shone

Donagh Meyler and David Mullins, drafted from Ireland into a murky Ascot last Saturday, both shone through the gloom.

The rides that each rider gave Poker School and Brain Power respectively were remarkably similar, patient, waiting for the race to develop in front of them, timing their challenges.  

Poker School was no better than ninth, around nine lengths behind the leaders as they turned for home in the two-mile-three-furlong handicap chase, yet Meyler wasn’t panicking.  Even when Ian Williams’ horse jumped the second last fence in sixth place, his rider was only cajoling, squeezing rather than driving.  Then, when they emerged from the gloom, he was jumping to the front over the last and powering his way to victory.

Mullins was similarly patient on Brain Power in the big two-mile handicap hurdle, he bided his time, jumped the second last flight in second place behind Fergall, took it up at the last and came clear.

And with Barry Geraghty riding two of the other four winners on the card, it was further evidence that the quality of National Hunt jockeys and the standard of National Hunt riding in Ireland remains top notch.

© The Irish Field, 24th December 2016