Things We Learned » National Hunt season wrap

National Hunt season wrap

So the National Hunt season is over.  Exhale.

High points of the season?  Lots.  Lots and lots. 

Sizing John provided at least three of them.  Jessica Harrington’s horse started the season as a two-mile chaser, a very-good-but-not-quite-as-good-as-Douvan two-mile chaser.  Then he stepped up in trip and won the Kinloch Brae Chase, the Irish Gold Cup, the Cheltenham Gold Cup and the Punchestown Gold Cup.  And if there was still a Benson and Hedges Gold Cup, he probably would have won that as well.

Buveur D’Air, a top-class novice hurdler last season who shaped with promise on his chasing bow but then shaped as if he could do better than he did on his second run over fences.  And he did. Returned to hurdles, he won at Sandown, jumping like a cat who had never seen a fence before, only hurdles.  Then he went to Cheltenham and won the Champion Hurdle, then he went to Aintree and won the Aintree Hurdle.  On a scale of one to inspired, the decision by Nicky Henderson and JP McManus and his team to re-route the Crillon gelding back over hurdles was high up there.

Our Duke, who shaped like an RSA Chase horse in the early part of the season, then side-stepped Cheltenham and won the Irish National with 11st 4lb on his back, the first horse to carry more than 11st to victory in the race since Commanche Court carried the same weight in 2000.

And there were others, Defi Du Seuil and Special Tiara and Altior and Unowhatimeanharry and Yorkhill and One For Arthur and Fox Norton and Nichols Canyon and Yanworth and Wicklow Brave and Labaik.  Oh Labaik.  You could write a whole book on Labaik.

There were the battles, Nicky Henderson and Paul Nicholls going all the way to the last week; Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott going all the way to the last day; Jamie Codd and Patrick Mullins going all the way to the last race. 

There was the Cheltenham Festival, 19 Irish-trained winners, a post-war record (post the Babylonian War), six for Gordon Elliott, six for Willie Mullins, three for Jessica Harrington.

There were the girls, Jessica Harrington and Rachael Blackmore and Ellmarie Holden and Nina Carberry and Apple’s Jade and Lizzie Kelly and Fayonagh and Lisa O’Neill and Bryony Frost and Gina Andrews.  Three amateur riders’ races at Cheltenham, all three won by female riders. 

And there were the boys, Ruby Walsh’s 12th championship, Michael O’Leary’s fifth, Robbie Power’s spring.  Three winners at Cheltenham including a Gold Cup, four at Aintree and a leading rider’s trophy, six at Punchestown including another Gold Cup, and another leader rider’s trophy, with an Irish Grand National thrown into the middle of it all.  If you wrote Robbie Power’s spring as a piece of fiction, your editor would throw it back at you and say, nah, too far-fetched.

The whole season was a bit like that.

Give it a break

National Hunt racing deserves to have a break after Punchestown.  It has been working hard all season, from the previous summer in one sense, but really from the previous autumn, from the Chase and the Morgiana Hurdle and the Hatton’s Grace Hurdle and the Troytown Chase and the John Durkan Chase, all the way through the Christmas festivals to the Irish Champion Hurdle, the Irish Gold Cup, the Thyestes Chase and the Irish Grand National all the way to the Punchestown Festival. 

It was some season, but the protagonists must have been drained at the end of it all.  And yet, Bryan Cooper went to Down Royal on Monday for two rides, and to Ballinrobe on Tuesday for four rides.  All six horses were beaten.

Davy Russell had five rides at Down Royal on Monday and five more at Ballinrobe on Tuesday.  He rode three winners over the course of the two days, so at least the petrol money was covered.

Robbie Power went to Ballinrobe on Tuesday for two rides in maiden hurdles, an 11/2 shot who finished fourth and a 20/1 shot who finished sixth, both for Jessica Harrington.  Ruby Walsh went to Ballinrobe for rides in the same two maiden hurdles and both were beaten.  Paul Townend had three rides at Ballinrobe, one of them won.  Mark Walsh had two rides at Ballinrobe, both were beaten. 

All of the top trainers, Willie Mullins, Gordon Elliott, Henry de Bromhead, Jessica Harrington, Noel Meade, Joseph O’Brien, had runners at Down Royal or Ballinrobe or both.  Of course, the show must go on, and there is a racing programme in place, but a break of a week in the National Hunt scene, a tweak or two to the programme, would give riders and trainers and staff a chance to take a break after one season has ended and before another one begins.  It would be a natural break, and they deserve a break. 

Familiar look 

There is a familiar look to the Irish flat trainers’ championship already, with Aidan O’Brien on top, having amassed almost a half a million euro in prize money, which is almost €140,000 more than his closest pursuer has amassed.  That’s almost 40% more, and that is significant.

However, strike rates are also interesting.  O’Brien’s strike rate of 21% is impressive, but not the highest.   Ger Lyons and Jessica Harrington both have strike rates of 26% so far this flat season. 

Lyons has had his team in sparkling form since the start of the term, as evidenced by his 1-3 in the Irish Lincoln with Brendan Bracken and Sea Wolf, and his form continued on Monday with Doctor Geoff’s win in the Listed Tetrarch Stakes at Naas.

Not content with moving boundaries over jumps, Harrington also has a strike rate on the flat this season of 26%, 11 winners from 42 runners, including her double at Navan two weeks ago, Khukri in the Listed Coolmore Stud Power Stakes and Torcedor in the Group 3 Vintage Crop Stakes.  That was two days before the start of the Punchestown Festival.

Other trainers who have had more than 10 runners who have a strike rate so far of greater than 20%?  John Oxx is on 23%, Michael Halford is on 21%, and Fozzy Stack is on 23%, going great guns on this, his debut season with his own licence.

Remembering Papillon

Strange the way that life works out.  In the 1998 Irish Grand National, Bobbyjo beat Papillon by a half a length, the pair of them clear.

The following year, Bobbyjo won the Aintree Grand National, representing the father/son Carberry team, trained by Tommy Carberry, ridden by his son Paul, the first Irish-trained Grand National winner since L’Escargot in 1975, who was trained by Dan Moore and ridden by his son-in-law, the same Tommy Carberry.

Then the following year, Papillon won the Aintree Grand National, the second Irish-trained National winner since L’Escargot, representing another father/son team, trained by Ted Walsh and ridden by his son Ruby.  Both horses were well-backed on the day, both sent off at 10/1, backed down from big prices.  Both icons.  We need a race named after Papillon now.

Thought for the week

Strange that Thistlecrack, who is nine rising 10, and who was beaten by Many Clouds in the Cotswold Chase in January the last time we saw him, is a shorter price in some lists for the 2018 Cheltenham Gold Cup (there still hasn’t been a 10-year-old Gold Cup winner since 1998) than Sizing John, who is seven rising eight, and who won the Irish Gold Cup, the Cheltenham Gold Cup and the Punchestown Gold Cup.

© The Irish Field, 6th May 2017