Things We Learned » Top performance by Duke

Top performance by Duke

There were so many different facets to Our Duke’s win on Monday.  There were different aspects of the performance that Jessica Harrington’s horse put up in winning the Irish Grand National at Fairyhouse that make it unusually good.

For starters, there was the weight that he carried.  11st 4lb.  No horse in the previous 10 years had carried more than 10st 13lb, and only one had carried more than 10st 6lb.

Indeed, the last horse before Our Duke who carried more than 10st 13lb to victory in the Irish National was Commanche Court, a Triumph Hurdle winner, who won the Irish National in 2000.  Ted Walsh’s horse went on to land the Grade 1 Punchestown Gold Cup nine days later, and he was good enough to finish second to Best Mate in the Cheltenham Gold Cup two years later. 

Before Commanche Court, it was Bobbyjo, who went on to win the Aintree Grand National.  Before Bobbyjo, it was Flashing Steel.  Before Flashing Steel, it was Desert Orchid.  That’s the ballpark in which Our Duke is playing.

There was also the manner in which he did it: up front and aggressive from the start.  As we saw in the Aintree National, it is difficult to win these fast-run Nationals on goodish ground with aggressive tactics.

Four horses broke clear of the main pack, Rogue Angel, Stellar Notion, Fletchers Flyer and Our Duke.  It was all too much for three of them. Rogue Angel was pulled up before the fifth last fence, while Stellar Notion and Fletchers Flyer were both pulled up before the second last.  The early pace took its toll on the three of them.

Our Duke just got stronger.  When Bless The Wings and Abolitionist loomed up in Robbie Power’s wing-mirrors at the second last, Power just changed gear and Our Duke picked up again.  It was an astonishing display.

There was also his jumping, safe and efficient throughout, there was his pace, his ability to lie up with the front-runners easily, there was his attitude over the last two fences, willing and going forward, and there was the time, 0.11secs/furlong faster than Racing Post par. 

Add that to his age, just seven, and his relative inexperience, just four runs over fences, and the fact that he is trained by the genius who is Jessica Harrington, and you can understand why the hushed talk is of next year’s Cheltenham Gold Cup.


Cooper family patience rewarded 

Easy in hindsight now, but the decision that the Cooper family and Jessica Harrington made to by-pass the Cheltenham Festival with Our Duke was an incredibly astute decision.

It’s one thing if you are an owner with an abundance of Cheltenham-type horses, if you are going to have plenty of runners at the Festival anyway.  It is probably easier in that instance to be patient with one or two of them, to by-pass the Festival with one or two, if it isn’t the thing for them this year.

But to decide to do so with your star horse when you have a relatively small number of horses in training. That’s different.

Our Duke had the ideal profile for the RSA Chase this year, he definitely would have been high in the betting for the race, he probably would have been challenging Might Bite for favouritism.  But connections just thought that it might not be the thing for him this year.  You can be sure that, in that decision, they were thinking Gold Cup 2018, not RSA Chase 2017. 

Billy Cooper said on Monday that he had been thinking that not going to Cheltenham might have been a mistake.  It wasn’t Billy.

They can have some fun now, planning next season’s campaign, keeping Our Duke away from Sizing John unless and until they have to meet, which hopefully they will in March 2018.

You know that horses are fragile animals, but you still have to plan.

Jessica Harrington said that Our Duke could start off next season please God in the Chase at Down Royal, and that Sizing John could go to the John Durkan Chase.  That all makes sense, Our Duke is a stayer all over, he has never raced at a distance shorter than two and a half miles over obstacles.  Sizing John is a pacey horse who gets the Gold Cup trip.  He won a Grade 1 novices’ hurdle over two miles and he finished second in an Arkle, he still has two-and-a-half-mile pace. 

Then you could go Lexus Chase with Our Duke and King George with Sizing John.  Alternatively, if they are still doing the £1 million bonus next season, Sizing John could go for that, go for the Betfair Chase at Haydock in November instead of the John Durkan, before a tilt at the King George.

Then you could go to the Irish Gold Cup with Sizing John if you wanted, go for a repeat win, or you could go straight to the Cheltenham Gold Cup with him after Christmas.  And you could go to the Cotswold Chase at Cheltenham at the end of January with Our Duke.  He has never raced in Britain, it might be a good idea to give him a feel for it, give him a spin at Cheltenham.

Exciting times.

Yorkhill must have a serious engine

Yorkhill would frustrate the hell out of you, but he is obviously a seriously talented horse, he must have a serious engine.  To do what he did in the Ryanair Gold Cup at Fairyhouse on Sunday, to jump as far to his left as he did, as often as he did, and still to go as close as he did to winning, that was the performance of a horse who obviously has a psychological or physical quirk, but it was also the performance of a horse who has immense ability.

He probably would have won too, he probably would have beaten Road To Respect, even after doing what he did, even after giving away all that ground, if he hadn’t shied on the run to the final fence and stumbled on landing.  He traded at 1/25 in-running at that point.  And Road To Respect is a high-class horse who could be destined for even better things.

Desert Orchid had to go right-handed, and he still managed to win a Gold Cup, so there is still hope that Yorkhill can straighten himself up, but he may not have to.  Fortunately, a lot of the races that Willie Mullins will want to be targeting with him are run at left-handed tracks.

The notable exceptions are the King George VI Chase, run at right-handed Kempton, and the John Durkan Chase, run at right-handed Punchestown, either or both of which would have been good targets for Yorkhill for next season.  You have to think that those races are unlikely objectives now.

But all the other potential targets are run at left-handed tracks.  Leopardstown is left-handed, Haydock is left-handed and, importantly, Cheltenham is left-handed.  If you had a choice, if you were told that your high-class National Hunt horse had to go one way, left or right, and if you were told that could choose which way, you would choose left every time.

Some achievement by Blackmore 

It has been some season for Rachael Blackmore, some achievement, champion conditional rider elect.  (We can say champion conditional elect now, can’t we?)

Her victory on 25/1 shot Just Call Me for Andrew McNamara in the two-and-a-half-mile handicap hurdle at Tipperary on Thursday evening took her six clear of Donagh Meyler in the conditional riders’ championship, and that is surely an unassailable lead.

It will be a landmark achievement, because she will be the first female rider to claim the title, but apart altogether from that, Blackmore is a top conditional rider, top value for her 3lb claim.  And she has maintained her momentum all the way through the season: five winners in May, three in June, four in October, rising to a high of six in March. 

Her two winners last weekend may have been gained at Cork, away from the main public glare at Fairyhouse, but she was very good on those two winners, Look Closer and Static Jack, both for Ellmarie Holden, and she was also very good on third-placed Lachares in the two-mile-six-furlong handicap hurdle, she gave him every chance.

It was a similar story with Abolitionist, also for Ellmarie Holden, in the Irish Grand National on Monday, right in the heat of the public glare again.  Blackmore got her horse into a nice even rhythm early on, she crept and crept and delivered Abolitionist with every chance at the second last fence.  From there, he had no answer to Our Duke, but it was still a top run under a top ride.

It is Ellmarie Holden and Shark Hanlon and Denise O’Shea who have provided Blackmore with the majority of her winners, but she has ridden for 91 different trainers over the course of the season.  Her star is in the ascendancy.


Martin Wills awards

Congratulations to Molly Hunter, Lara Prior-Palmer, Jonathan Curran, Susie Eddis, Beth Ransome, Grace Tyrrell, Mick McGuinness and Pippa Moore, award winners at the 25th and final Martin Wills Memorial Awards. 

Congratulations too to Catherine Wills and the Wills family for establishing the awards a quarter of a century ago to commemorate Catherine’s brother Martin, and to Brough Scott and Charles Ponsonby and Sean Magee and Andrew Kavanagh, who have been instrumental in making the awards the success that they were.


© The Irish Field, 22nd April 2017