Donn's Articles » Laurina a Champion Hurdle aspirant

Laurina a Champion Hurdle aspirant

It is a pity that Laurina did not take up her entry in the Grade 2 International Hurdle at Cheltenham yesterday.  If she had, her performance would have provided further evidence on the legitimacy of her Champion Hurdle aspirations. 

You can understand connections’ cautiousness.  At declaration time on Friday morning, they were calling the ground at Cheltenham good, and there was no confidence in the prospect or timing of any rain.  Good ground was just not ideal for Laurina’s seasonal debut.  Best to draw stumps for now and revise the plan.

Laurina’s two runs in France were on very soft ground, and her four runs since she joined Willie Mullins last year have been on soft or heavy ground.  There is no need to risk her on faster ground.  Not at this stage of her career, not at this stage of the year.

Sullivan Bloodstock’s mare’s potential runs deep.  She has won all four races that she has contested since she joined Mullins.  She won her maiden at Tramore a year ago last Thursday on her debut for the champion trainer, and she won a Grade 3 race at Fairyhouse last January.  Then she went to the Cheltenham Festival in March and she danced in in the Grade 2 Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle, before coming back to Fairyhouse in April and easily landing the Grade 1 mares’ novices’ hurdle.

With a Willie Mullins-trained mare like Laurina, the Cheltenham Festival talk would often centre on the David Nicholson Mares’ Hurdle, not the Champion Hurdle.  There have been 11 renewals of the Mares’ Hurdle, and Willie Mullins has been responsible for nine of the winners. 

He won it six times with Quevega.  That was unprecedented.  To get a horse to race at the Cheltenham Festival six times is some achievement.  To get that horse to win the same race six times is remarkable.  

Quevega won her first Mares’ Hurdle when she was five, and she won her last when she was 10.  It was an astonishing run of six, ridden by Ruby Walsh on all six occasions.  The downside was that she never contested the Champion Hurdle or the Stayers’ Hurdle.  That was the opportunity cost.  Quevega won the Champion Stayers’ Hurdle at Punchestown four times, and in 2012, she beat Voler La Vedette more easily at Punchestown than Big Buck’s had beaten her in the Stayers’ Hurdle at Cheltenham.  You wouldn’t trade six Mares’ Hurdles, but she could easily have won a Stayers’ Hurdle or two, and a clash between her and Big Buck’s at Cheltenham would have been something to savour.

Annie Power famously crashed out at the final flight in the 2015 Mares’ Hurdle when she had the race in the bag.  The original plan the following season for Willie Mullins’ mare was to go back to Cheltenham and set the record straight in the Mares’ Hurdle, but, re-routed to the Champion Hurdle on the back of stable companion Faugheen’s enforced absence, she duly landed the Champion, the first mare to win the Champion Hurdle since Flakey Dove in 1994, and just the second since Willie’s legendary father Paddy won it with Dawn Run in 1984.

Laurina could be another.  Of course, the Mares’ Hurdle is still a real option as her Cheltenham Festival target this season but, at the moment, according to the ante post market, she is title holder Buveur D’Air’s main Champion Hurdle challenger.  Samcro and Summerville Boy were two of the top novices last season, but those two rivals were readily dispatched by the reigning champion in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle two weeks ago.  Both could improve, they are both relatively inexperienced, both second-season hurdlers but, on the evidence of the Newcastle race, both horses have a fair climb ahead of them if they are to reach Buveur D’Air’s standard. 

Strangely, it appears to be only now that Buveur D’Air is getting the recognition that he has been due.  Dual Champion Hurdle winner he may be, but his comprehensive defeat of Samcro at Newcastle appears to have taken him to a new level in racing’s strange psyche.

JP McManus’ horse sets a sky-high standard.  He hasn’t been beaten since he finished third behind Altior and Min in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle almost three years ago.  In the interim, he has won 11 races, two Champion Hurdles and two novice chases among them.

As things stand, the Nicky Henderson-trained gelding is in a fairly exclusive club of dual Champion Hurdle winners, and he is no better than even money to join the elites in March.  Only five horses have won three Champion Hurdle: Hatton’s Grace, Sir Ken, Persian War, See You Then and Istabraq.

Laurina is a worthy pretender though.  Encouragingly, Willie Mullins reports her in top form, and he mentioned the Relkeel Hurdle at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day as a possible revised starting point into the season.  You can count down the days from now.  Start at 16.  He return to the racetrack is eagerly anticipated.

© The Sunday Times, 16th December 2018