Bobs Worth can underline class in contest to savour
No question, Christmas is a wonderful time to be young. A jolly old man with a white beard makes it so. For the not-so-young, the delights of the festive period are a little different. We must look elsewhere.
A personal highlight has long been the racing at Kempton and Leopardstown's Christmas Festival. A time of great races won by great champions. Desert Orchid, Imperial Call, Beef Or Salmon, One Man, Best Mate, Florida Pearl, Kicking King, Denman and of course Kauto Star are but a glimpse of the quality needed for success over the festive period.
At Kempton on Thursday we watched Silviniaco Conti deliver an eighth King George victory for Paul Nicholls. He ran an incredible race.
Before the King George, I was in the camp that believed that even if Silviniaco Conti had stood up at the third-last fence in this year's Cheltenham Gold Cup, Bobs Worth would still have been victorious. Now I'm not so convinced. Perhaps this is a horse still improving or perhaps I underestimated his victories in the Charlie Hall and Betfair chases last year but this week he showed something different.
Long Run aside, being the one horse really proven over three miles in championship races, you could argue Silviniaco Conti achieved no more that he was entitled to with victory in the King George. However, in light of the way the race developed I don't agree.
When Cue Card jumped off in front he got into a very fluent rhythm, setting a pace that took almost the entire field beyond their comfort zone.
In theory, being a horse that stays so well Silviniaco Conti should have been in such a distressed group. He wasn't. He had the gears to lie up and ensure Cue Card didn't receive the easy lead he did at Haydock in the Betfair chase and managed to remain within striking distance to the point when stamina was the final and most important requirement.
Looking ahead to March, he now carries the mantle of ante-post favourite for the 2014 Gold Cup. A new day on a different course with different variables. But I believe the questions over Silviniaco are diminishing fast. The doubts harder to quantify.
It will take a considerable performance to deny him victory. And if he is to be beaten in March then it's almost certain we will see his conqueror in action this afternoon in the Lexus chase at Leopardstown. This is a race to savour.
Much of the Irish season to date has been largely uncompetitive fare, dominated by team Willie Mullins. The action over Christmas has bucked that trend. To everyone's relief, the opposition have been prepared to challenge Mullins and provide the paying customers with a spectacle we all associate with Christmas racing at Leopardstown.
The Lexus promises to be as good a renewal as we have enjoyed for a long time. With the first two home in this years Gold Cup being joined by Aintree Grade One winner First Lieutenant and three of the first four home in this year's RSA Novice Chase there is no shortage of quality animals on display.
However predictable it may be, I feel it is folly to look beyond Bobs Worth and Sir Des Champs. While First Lieutenant is admirably consistent and will most likely be in the money again today, too often he has a tendency to find one too good. He is high-class but just appears a notch short of being top-drawer.
Last season's novices are headed in the betting by English raider Unioniste. Considering he finished behind both Lyreen Legend and RSA winner Lord Windermere at Cheltenham, it is difficult to understand the disparity in the trio's prices today. Being a five-year-old, Unioniste arguably has the greater scope for improvement, but while his latest run at Aintree indicated he is a young horse headed in the right direction, that victory came off a handicap mark of 152 -- leaving him some way shy of the leading two contenders in today's contest.
While Nicholls doesn't travel horses without good reason, and the softer the ground the better for Unioniste's prospects, I feel at this stage of his career, victory against real Gold Cup horses is a step too far.
Lyreen Legend, Texas Jack and Lord Windermere were among last season's leading Irish novices but it's difficult to make a credible case for their prospects of victory today.
Lord Windermere was well beaten off a mark of 154 in the Hennessy at Newbury and, as a barometer of the merits of last season's novices, his reappearance gives an indication of the improvement they need to find.
And so there were two, Bobs Worth and Sir Des Champs. They played a considerable part in an enthralling Gold Cup last March, with Bobs Worth victorious on home soil. Will he repeat the feat now he is the one crossing the Irish Sea? I expect he will. His reappearance was a non-event, as he couldn't cope with the pace set by Cue Card in the Betfair Chase.
Even allowing for it being his first run of the season on what is essentially a speed track, it was disappointing that he could not get competitive in anyway. At no stage of the race did he look comfortable; his jumping was under pressure as he tried to travel in too high a gear.
But this is as genuine a horse as you could ever hope to see race and I am prepared to forgive him a lacklustre run on his seasonal reappearance, especially considering the patchy form of trainer Nicky Henderson's stable.
With far less emphasis on speed, three miles around Leopardstown will be more to his liking and, providing his exertions last March haven't left a mark on him, I expect he will outstay Sir Des Champs -- as he did at Cheltenham.
Last season, the Gigginstown horse appeared to improve as the season progressed and after his fall at Punchestown, today's race is essentially his seasonal reappearance. Mullins will have him ready but if he is to beat Bobs Worth this season I don't believe it will happen today.
Tomorrow, we have the privilege of seeing the king of hurdle horses Hurricane Fly attempt to see off another pretender to his crown in the form of Our Conor. The old champion clashing with a young upcoming talent. Even after success in 17 Grade Ones, Hurricane Fly is doubted in some quarters. His victories in Cheltenham haven't always been easy on the eye and for some this is a reason to find fault.
Our Conor is a special talent which one day will probably be champion of the hurdle division. That's in the future. Hurricane Fly is the present.
Come tomorrow night I expect his achievements will read 18 Grade Ones and counting.