Things We Learned » Our Duke is back

Our Duke is back

It was great to see Our Duke bounce back at Gowran Park on Saturday.

The distance of the Grade 2 Red Mills Chase was obviously sharper than ideal and the ground was probably softer than ideal, and he made a significant mistake at the fourth last fence, but Jessica Harrington’s horse jumped the last three fences well, and he battled on gallantly to beat Presenting Percy by a length.

This was a really good performance on the face of it.  Presenting Percy may have been competing over a distance that was short of his best too, but he is a hugely talented and progressive novice, and Our Duke was giving him 7lb. 

The runner-up lost very little in defeat.  Pat Kelly’s horse ran the Irish National winner to a length, and he finished well clear of good horses, mid-150s-rated horses, Ballycasey and A Toi Phil. 

He is still a novice and, winner of the Porterstown Chase over three miles and five furlongs at Fairyhouse in December, he too will be better over further and on better ground.  He is only seven and this was just his fourth chase, so he still has lots of scope for progression.  Winner of the Pertemps Final on good ground at Cheltenham last March, he remains a big player in the RSA Chase picture.

You got the feeling that Our Duke needed to do something like this if he was to confirm his place on the Cheltenham Gold Cup ticket.  Disappointing on his debut this season at Down Royal, he could only finish fourth in the Irish Gold Cup on his previous run, after he made that bad mistake at the second last fence. 

There were excuses for both runs, of course, but it still wouldn’t have been ideal to be going to Cheltenham on the back of that Irish Gold Cup run, and it wouldn’t have been ideal either to be going there on the back of a defeat on Saturday.  And we know from last year that Cheltenham isn’t the biggest deal of all for the Cooper family.  You know that they could have side-stepped it again and gone straight back to Fairyhouse for another Irish National. 

All is right in the world now though, because Jessica Harrington can now take the Oscar gelding to Cheltenham on the back of a really good performance, probably not that far off the performance that he put up in winning the Irish National last April.  And he is only eight and has run just seven times over fences in his life.  We may not have seen the best of him yet. 

Some Neck may not have been flattered 

Still on Gowran Park on Saturday, Some Neck may not have been flattered that much by his victory in the two-and-a-half-mile beginners’ chase.  True, Up For Review and Burgas took each other on from early, and there was a sense that they set it up for Some Neck, who stalked them through the race under David Mullins.  But it was still a fine performance by the winner, and there is a chance that he will not get due recognition.

It looked like Some Neck was struggling as his rider nudged him along in third place after they had jumped the fourth last fence, but the Willie Mullins-trained gelding stayed on well up the home straight, and he had caught his stable companion Up For Review by the time they got to the final fence.  He kept on well up the run-in, and he clocked a fast time, faster than the time that Our Duke clocked over the same course and distance in the Red Mills Chase, carrying 2lb less.

Up For Review was making his chasing debut and was racing for the first time since April 2016, but Some Neck was also racing for the first time over fences, and he was racing for the first time in 13 months.  He should improve for this experience, he was a little careful over his fences early on, and, winner of his maiden hurdle at Limerick in December 2016 on heavy ground over two miles and six furlongs, he should improve for a step up from this two and a half miles.

Tough decision for Power

The Cheltenham Gold Cup decision can’t have been an easy one for Robbie Power, choosing between Sizing John and Our Duke.  As decisions to have to make go, this one is up there with the very nice ones.  However, just because you are in the position to have to make them, it doesn’t mean that they become any easier.

You could be negative about it if you wanted: how would you feel watching your Gold Cup winner Sizing John win the Gold Cup again if you were sitting on Our Duke’s back?  Or you could be pragmatic: not much worse than if you were sitting on Sizing John’s back, watching Our Duke win it

In the end, you probably weigh it all up and go with your gut.  Sizing John is proven, he won the Gold Cup last year probably with more in hand than the bare winning margin, he is proven at the track and under Cheltenham Festival conditions. 

Fundamentally, it is a fillip for Sizing John and his supporters.  Not only will the Midnight Legend gelding have Power’s assistance again at Cheltenham, the winning team kept together, but the fact that Power has chosen him is a vote of confidence from the jockey in the fact that the horse is healthy and well and bang on track.  

Worrying trend

The decline in the number of trainers’ licences issued in 2017, as published on Tuesday by the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board, is worrying, and it is worrying because it looks like a trend, not a blip.

Ten years ago, there were 805 trainers’ licences in Ireland.  Last year there were just 578.  That’s a decrease of over 28% in a decade.

More worryingly, the rate of decrease appears to have been accelerated last year.  In 2013, there were 673 trainers’ licences issued, 382 full licences and 291 restricted licences.  In 2014, there were a total of 640 licences issued, which represented a drop of almost 5%.  In 2015, there were 621, a drop of almost 3%.  In 2016 there were 620, which was a respite, a drop of less than 1%, but the 2017 total of 578 represented a drop of over 6.7% on the 2016 figure.

The decrease from 2016 to 2017 was at its most severe in total restricted licences (decrease of 11.7%) and in restricted and full National Hunt only licences (11.9%).  The quality of National Hunt racing in Ireland at the top level has never been higher, and that is to be celebrated, but it is from the grass roots that today’s top trainers have grown.  The ground at grass roots level in any discipline needs to be fertile in order for that discipline to thrive and flourish, and serious efforts really should be made to arrest this decline. 

Ascot Chase superb

Plenty has been said and written about last Saturday’s Ascot Chase by now.  It was some race.  It had all the ingredients.

It was run at an unforgiving pace from flagfall, it was won by a progressive and top-class young steeplechaser who could be anything, and who beat a much-loved stalwart, who ran one of the races of his life, into second place, and the winning time was very fast.  And there was the emotion of it all, Cue Card’s gallantry and Malcolm Jefferson fondly remembered.

We don’t know yet if Waiting Patiently will go to Cheltenham, it looks like he will only go if the ground is soft, which is an odds-against shot if recent history is any guide.  Ruth Jefferson didn’t pick the patient approach off the trees.

In a sense, you hope that the Flemensfirth gelding does not go to Cheltenham, even if you don’t own Un De Sceaux and even if you haven’t backed something else ante post in the Ryanair Chase.  Up and down hills on goodish ground may not be the thing for him now.  You would love to see him in the King George next December though, maybe in the Betfair Chase before that, maybe in the Irish Gold Cup after it.  More nice decisions. 

© The Irish Field, 24th February 2018