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Our Duke

When Our Duke won the Grade 1 Neville Hotels Novice Chase at Leopardstown’s Christmas Festival over a year ago, the talk was inevitably of Cheltenham.  An ideal horse for the RSA Chase, they said.

He had all the attributes: a young progressive chaser who had pace and class and stamina, and who had just beaten high-class fellow novices Coney Island and Disko in a Grade 1 contest over three miles.  He was as short as 8/1 in the ante post markets for the RSA Chase at Cheltenham when the entries for the race were published at the end of January.  Surprisingly, Our Duke’s name was not among the entries.

“The owners feel that he just doesn’t have enough experience at the moment,” said Our Duke’s trainer Jessica Harrington at the time.  “And I can see where they are coming from.  The RSA Chase can be quite a gruelling race.”

It was some decision for the trainer and for owners the Cooper Family Syndicate to make.  To keep their horse at home during Cheltenham because they thought that it might be too much for him too early.  To by-pass the Cheltenham Festival with a top class horse who was fit and healthy and well and who would have been among the favourites for a Grade 1 race there. 

Perhaps the decision is easy enough if you are a behemoth owner who is going to have bucketfuls of runners at Cheltenham anyway, and who thinks that it might not be the thing for one or two of the young horses.  Perhaps the decision to skip Cheltenham with those horses is easily made in that instance.  Different, though, if you are a small owner who has a handful of horses in training. 

Trainer and owners decided on a course of action which they felt would be best for the horse in the long term.  Perhaps it’s not all about Cheltenham after all. 

Our Duke did not arrive at Jessica Harrington’s until he was five. 

“I didn’t know Billy Cooper at all before that,” recalls Harrington now.  “I just got a call out of the blue to ask me if I could take two horses, Our Duke and his full-brother Oscar Sam.  I was delighted to get them.”

Oscar Sam won his first three races for his new trainer, three handicap hurdles, and Our Duke settled in nicely.  Jessica liked him from the very start, a lovely scopey horse who would make a real chaser in time.  She started him off in a bumper at Punchestown in November 2015, and he caused a mild shock in winning it by 20 lengths.

“I thought there was no way that he would win that bumper,” says the trainer.  “I thought that there would be sharper horses in it.  People were saying to me afterwards, you never told us he was that good.  I said, I didn’t know!”

Last season, with Cheltenham off the agenda, it was all about the Irish Grand National for Our Duke.  He went into the race a novice, just three runs over fences under his belt, taking on experienced handicappers, with 11st 4lb on his back, giving weight to 26 of his 27 rivals.  And he came out of it a hero.

“That was unbelievable,” recalls Harrington now.  “To win an Irish Grand National, and to win it like he won it, as easily as he won it.  It was some day.”

It was the culmination of some season for Harrington and for rider Robbie Power.  By then, they had already teamed up to win the Irish Gold Cup and the Cheltenham Gold Cup with Sizing John, and they would go on to land the Punchestown Gold Cup with him the week after the Irish National.  Together they had also won the Coral Cup with Supasundae and the Grand Annual Chase with Rock The World at the Cheltenham Festival. 

This game has a habit of bringing you back down to earth, however, and the performance that Our Duke put up on his debut this season in the Champion Chase at Down Royal in November filled that role.  He never looked happy during the race, he didn’t travel with his usual alacrity.  Harrington knew that he was beaten after he had jumped the first fence.

Our Duke scoped abnormally after the race, so at least there was a reason for his abject performance.  They knew that it wasn’t the real Our Duke anyway.  Further tests revealed that he had injured his back, which probably explains why he didn’t jump as well as he can.  That was back in early November.  It has been a long road back, but Our Duke has travelled it.  The Unibet Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown today has been his target since November.

“He had to have an operation on his back,” says his trainer, “and he had to have about 10 days standing in his box afterwards, but he is back and I am happy with him.  He worked last Sunday and he worked well, and his schooling has been good.”

Jessica Harrington had never had a runner in the Irish Gold Cup until last year, when she sent out Sizing John, and he and Robbie Power stayed on more strongly than any of his rivals up Leopardstown’s hill.  Today, Our Duke will be her second ever runner in the race. 

And she has not looked beyond today’s race for the Oscar gelding.  Not really.  See how he goes today and plan from there.  For Our Duke now, it’s all about today.

© The Sunday Times, 4th February 2018