Things We Learned » John does it again

John does it again

Sizing John was brilliant again in the Punchestown Gold Cup on Wednesday.  This was very different to Cheltenham.  At Cheltenham he flowed, he cruised, he was silky smooth.  At Punchestown, he struggled, but he still got home.  That’s what class performers can do.

They talk about winning ugly, about not playing well but still winning.  That’s what Sizing John did on Wednesday.  Robbie Power said afterwards that he was never happy, that his horse felt a bit flat, the he didn’t travel with the verve with which he had travelled at Cheltenham.  Then he rolled his sleeves up over the final two fences, and got home by a short head.

Jessica Harrington’s horse may have been helped by the fact that Coneygree made a mistake at the second last fence, and that Djakadam made a mistake at the last, but that’s part of it.  A staying chase is as much a test of jumping as it is a test of speed and stamina.

It is some feat, to win a Punchestown Gold Cup six weeks after winning a Cheltenham Gold Cup.  It is not easily done.  To get back to peak fitness at the end of the season, six weeks after you have run your legs off to win the race for which you have been primed.  Kicking King and War Of Attrition were the only horses to do it before Wednesday.  Now Sizing John joins them.

It is going to be some Cheltenham Gold Cup next year please God.  Sizing John will still only be eight then, so he obviously sets the bar at a high level.  The 2017 second and third, Minella Rocco and Native River, will also be just eight, so they have to enter the picture.  Then you have the RSA Chase winner Might Bite and the Irish National winner Our Duke, both young horses, this season’s novices endeavouring to step up. 

Add Thistlecrack, who will hopefully return to be as good as ever, and Coneygree, the fragile but hugely talented Coneygree, the 2015 winner.  Also, there is the possibility that the Willie Mullins pair Yorkhill or Douvan could step up in trip, and that the Noel Meade pair Road To Respect or Disko could step up in class.  And there are wild cards like Coney Island and Fox Norton and Killultagh Vic and One For Arthur and American.  If most of them get there, it will be a contest to savour.

Trainers’ championship

The battle between Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott for the 2016/17 National Hunt trainers’ championship has been a fascinating sub-plot not only to the Punchestown Festival, but to the entire season.

Even when Elliott was winning all those big staying handicap chases, the Galway Plate and the Munster National and the Kerry National and the Troytown Chase, there was always the feeling that Mullins would catch him.  The bookmakers still had Mullins as favourite, and every time Elliott was asked if he could win it, he replied with his stock answer: no chance.

It wasn’t until the end of January that the bookmakers lined the two trainers up, 5/6 each of two.

By then, Elliott had added the Paddy Power Chase and the Dan Moore Chase and the Leopardstown Handicap Chase to his haul.  His prowess in the big handicap chases this season has been unrivalled, but he also manoeuvred into Grade 1 territory with Apple’s Jade and Outlander and Death Duty and Mega Fortune. 

Mullins couldn’t match Elliott in the big handicap chases, but he continued his Grade 1 march with Nichols Canyon and Airlie Beach and Djakadam and Min and Douvan and Saturnas and Vroum Vroum Mag and Bacardys.  And Un De Sceaux landed a brace of Grade 1 chases before Cheltenham, but they were both in Britain, neither counted towards the Irish trainers’ championship. 

Speaking of which, both trainers excelled at Cheltenham.  Six winners for Elliott, six winners for Mullins.  Elliott had a treble on the Tuesday, Mullins had a four-timer on the Thursday, with Elliott claiming the Cheltenham title on countback.  It had no bearing on the Irish trainers’ championship, but it was fantastic to see their duel played out in full Technicolor at Cheltenham during a phenomenal week for Irish trainers.

At the start of this week, the bookmakers said 1/5 Elliott, 7/2 Mullins.  Mullins had the 1-2 in the Herald Champion Novice Hurdle on Tuesday, but Djakadam was beaten a short head in the Gold Cup on Wednesday, a day on which Elliott had a brace of Grade 1 wins with Champagne Classic and Fayonagh.

Nichols Canyon was also narrowly beaten in the Stayers’ Hurdle on Thursday, but Mullins still had two winners on the day, Great Field in the Grade 1 Ryanair Novice Chase and Asthuria in the Mares’ Novice Hurdle. 

By the time Friday morning rolled around, it was all very tight.  The bookmakers said 4/6 Elliott, 11/10 Mullins, and it’s still fascinating.

Visitors make hay

It is great that the British horses came to Punchestown.  It may not be quite of Cheltenham-and-the-Irish proportions, but the presence of the visitors adds an extra dimension to Punchestown that is unquestionably an enhancement.  It’s peerless Punchestown, not parochial Punchestown.

And they didn’t fare too badly either.

At the time of writing, Colin Tizzard had won the BoyleSports Champion Chase with Fox Norton, Harry Fry had won the Ladbrokes Champion Stayers Hurdle with Unowhatimeanharry, and Neil Mulholland had won the Kildare Post Bumper with Dead Right.  And they may not be finished yet.

The handicappers haven’t done too badly either so far.  The raiders had the 1-2-3 in the Guinness Handicap Chase on Wednesday with the Colin Tizzard pair Sizing Granite and Viconte Du Noyer finishing first and second, and the Rebecca Curtis-trained Irish Cavalier chasing them home.  And they had the 1-2 in the Shamrock Enterprises Handicap Hurdle on Thursday, with the Harry Fry-trained Minella Awards beating the Philip Hobbs-trained No Comment.  British horses plunder Irish handicaps shocker. 

Power surge continues

Three winners at Cheltenham, four winners and the leading rider’s armband at Aintree, and an Irish Grand National thrown in for good measure.  If you thought that things could not get any better for Robbie Power, you were wrong.

Punchestown has continued in the same vein: riding out of his skin.  He was very good on Fox Norton in the Champion Chase on Tuesday, he always had his horse in the right place, he always had God’s Own in a pocket on his inside, and he delivered his horse with his run from the second last fence that saw him get up to beat Un De Sceaux.

Power gave Sizing John every ounce of help that he needed in order to get home in the Gold Cup on Wednesday, and he kept everything simple on Sizing Granite in the Guinness Handicap Chase later on the day.

Then on Thursday, when he was almost brought to a standstill on Bobabout in the JLT Handicap Hurdle, he didn’t panic, he allowed his horse recover his equilibrium, kept him along the inside.  Then he started passing horses, and gradually worked his way back into the race, before he got his gap on the run to the final flight and drove his horse home to get up by a nose. 

Quote of the week

“He’ll be some horse for the Ryanair Chase next year!” 

Robbie Power on Fox Norton, on pulling up after winning the Champion Chase. (There may be plenty of King George talk about Fox Norton, but there’s no point in having three Gold Cup horses when you can have two Gold Cup horses and a Ryanair Chase horse.)


© The Irish Field, 29th April 2017