‘Tent’ can find perfect pitch to thwart Fly fairytale
Ground conditions just right for Henderson’s maturing star to be crowned new Champion
WILLIE MULLINS’ brilliant hurdler Hurricane Fly will need to be at the peak of his powers if he is to stretch his incredible record of Grade One triumphs to 20 in what has all the makings of a vintage Stan James Champion Hurdle on the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival.
No horse aged 10 or more has won the stellar £400,000 two-miler since Sea Pigeon in 1981, and none has ever completed an interrupted hat-trick in the race.
That is the task that faces the dual champion today under Ruby Walsh, whose sublime composure played such a vital role in getting Hurricane Fly the other side of a worrying and uncharacteristic flat spot a year ago.
Although ‘The Fly’ has already put the best of his fellow raiders to the sword at home this season, Dessie Hughes’ barnstorming 2013 Triumph Hurdle victor Our Conor remains a work in progress under Danny Mullins, while the potent old firm of Jessica Harrington and Barry Geraghty are reunited with the JP McManus-owned Jezki.
Since before the turn of the century, Moscow Flyer’s riveting 2005 Champion Chase triumph for Harrington and Geraghty constitutes the only time that any horse of double-figure age has won one of the four traditional championship races.
Istabraq and Kauto Star are among the iconic names to fail in the quest in that time, though there is little doubt that Hurricane Fly comes here in far better health than either of those two did in the veteran stage.
Still, when you throw in McManus’ electric Nicky Henderson-trained My Tent Or Yours and Nigel Twiston-Davies' devastating 2013 Neptune Novices’ Hurdle winner The New One, the monumental size of the assignment facing the reigning champion becomes clear.
In short, the cream of last year’s novices have emerged as a serious collective, so it could well represent the greatest feat of Hurricane Fly’s stellar career if he were to prevail again.
A year on from the unprecedented haul of 14 Irish-trained winners, Mullins again has the ammunition to dominate the opening day of this enthralling Cotswolds gathering.
Similar to Hurricane Fly, Quevega made unusually hard work of equalling Golden Miller’s incomparable five Gold Cup triumphs in the mares’ race 12 months ago.
She is of the same vintage as her esteemed stablemate, so it will be fascinating to see if she can claim sole ownership of the record on her seasonal bow.
The ageing process might normally make that more difficult against some smart rivals, but Quevega is hardly normal.
Lest we forget, nine Irish handlers were responsible for last year’s mammoth tally, and there are plenty others with formidable prospects once more.
Among others, Western Boy represents Pat Fahy’s modest Carlow stable in the opening Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, Charles Byrnes sends Trifolium into battle in the Arkle Trophy, and Ted and Katie Walsh vie for a first Festival win together with Barry Connell’s Foxrock in the four-miler.
Safe to say there will hardly be a dry eye in the house if that one collects.
1.30 Grade One Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle 2m 1f
Vautour has been the flag-bearer in this grade for Willie Mullins. At Leopardstown, he made all in deep ground to topple dual Grade One winner The Tullow Tank quite decisively.
He is clearly very smart, though this will be a different test on different ground. Wicklow Brave, which has made giant strides, will love the drier surface, and his form received a boost when Real Steel, third behind him at Punchestown, landed a graded race at Naas next time.
Valseur Lido is, undoubtedly, the Mullins dark horse. The lightly-raced gelding destroyed three subsequent winners on his Cork bow, and ran out a bloodless winner of a middling novice at Naas. Carrying the colours of Gigginstown House Stud, the five-year-old’s potential is enormous.
Western Boy is another decent raider that may enjoy the ground, though a place might be the best he can hope for, while the progressive Gilgamboa won a valuable handicap last time.
Nicky Henderson’s Vaniteux and Josses Hill are clearly talented with Barry Geraghty opting for the former, but Irving appeals as the pick of the home team on this ground after stretching his unbeaten record to four at Kempton. He gave the Betfair Hurdle victor Splash Of Ginge three pounds and a good beating at Ascot.
Verdict: Valseur Lido warrants a speculative venture to shade it from Irving.
2.05 Grade One Racing Post Arkle Challenge Trophy Chase 2m
Champagne Fever always seems to bloom at this time of the year. The flying grey has toughed out two Grade One victories at this meeting already, seeing off My Tent Or Yours in game style 12 months ago.
Sublime on his fencing debut at Punchestown, the seven-year-old son of Stowaway was undone by a blunder at Leopardstown over Christmas and quickly faded behind Defy Logic which has since been laid low for the season.
Runner-up Trifolium at least franked the form in the Irish Arkle, but the worry with Champagne Fever now would be a lack of experience.
Trifolium was placed over hurdles in the Supreme in 2012. Charles Byrnes’ inmate has progressed steadily over fences and might be suited by the drying ground.
It’s hard to make a case for the maiden Ted Veale, with Rock On Ruby, Dodging Bullets and Valdez the pick of the locals. Rock On Ruby, second to Hurricane Fly last year and his conqueror the year before, excels on good ground here, but his jumping hasn’t been tested.
Dodging Bullets’ fencing is solid but he may not be quite good enough, while Grandouet has the class but has something to prove over the bigger obstacles. Valdez is on the up, but he might just find one or two too good here.
Verdict: Champagne Fever has the quality if his usually sound jumping holds up.
2.40 Grade Three Baylis & Harding Affordable Luxury Handicap Chase 3m 1f
Hadrian’s Approach found plenty for pressure to score over this trip at Newbury last time. Third in the RSA last year, Barry Geraghty’s mount is potentially well handicapped and should go very close now that his jumping appears to have improved.
Wrong Turn has been in great heart at home. Tony Martin’s eight-year-old has won all of his last three completed starts, though the two spills in between are a slight concern over these stiff fences, and he is 16lb higher than when winning at Leopardstown in February, albeit he gets in off a low weight for Danny Mullins.
The Nigel Twiston-Davies-trained Tour Des Champs is another contender with a light burden, while last year’s Pertemps hero Holywell has a chance – for all that AP McCoy prefers the 2012 winner Alfie Sherrin which would suggest that the latter may be a safer conveyance.
Verdict: Hadrian’s Approach might prove to be in a different league on a dry sod.
3.20 Grade One Stan James Champion Hurdle Challenge Trophy 2m 1f
Captain Cee Bee’s proximity to Hurricane Fly at Leopardstown might not be the strongest recommendation, but that ignores the inestimable manner in which Ruby Walsh’s mount always does just enough to win.
He has shown plenty of his old sparkle to put each of his races to bed in a heartbeat this term, and is the one everything else must improve to beat. On the negative side, it’s worth noting that he hasn’t run on any variation of good ground since he was beaten here in 2012.
A hood might help Jezki, and Barry Geraghty has a flawless record (4-4) on him, but he looks shy of the very best just now.
Our Conor has less to find, though last season’s impressive Triumph hero is two pounds worse off with Hurricane Fly than when held at Leopardstown. He came alive here in 2013 and may have more scope to improve.
Still, the best juveniles often don’t progress as you might expect.
The ground should be fine for him either way, something that probably doesn’t apply to the mud-loving Melodic Rendezvous.
The New One was an impressive Neptune winner last year. He again looked the part on his Cheltenham comeback in December, but then fluffed his lines when My Tent Or Yours quickened by at Kempton.
A mistake at the last didn’t help his cause, but that might also have been a convenient excuse, as the race was still there to be won on the run-in.
Both horses will be suited by an honest gallop here, and there is no denying that My Tent Or Yours has looked a more mature animal this year. He lost little in defeat to Champagne Fever in the 2013 Supreme, but he couldn’t have been any more impressive in four subsequent runs.
Given his high cruising speed and turn of foot, good ground might suit him more than most.
Verdict: My Tent Or Yours (Nap) has the class to thwart Hurricane Fly on this ground.
4.00 Grade Two OLBG David Nicholson Mares’ Hurdle 2m 4f
We said last year that this was the best edition of this race so far, and the same applies again.
Quevega has been an incredible servant, and the manner in which she dug out victory from a seemingly hopeless position in 2013 was surely proof that her appetite remains intact.
She then hacked up at Punchestown, so she sets a tall standard.
That all said, she is now approaching the veteran stage of her career and the likes of her progressive stablemate Glen’s Melody, Jessica Harrington's Cailin Annamh, Harry Fry’s Highland Retreat and Fergal O’Brien’s Down Ace are all prolific sorts.
Sirene D’Ainay also rattled Quevega last year, so coming here first time up at 10 years of age must be a slight concern for Mullins' exquisite mare.
Of the aforementioned quartet, Highland Retreat is maybe the most potent threat, as she certainly isn’t averse to a battle.
Verdict: Highland Retreat is feared but Quevega should prevail.
4.40 Terry Biddlecombe National Hunt Challenge Chase (Amateur riders) 4m
In a marthon event which is notoriously difficult to predict, Foxrock, Shotgun Paddy and Shutthefrontdoor could be the trio to concentrate on here.
Foxrock looks the pick of the raiding party, having mixed it in quality company this term. The Barry Connell-owned six-year-old might want a bit more cut ideally, but over this trip he should have sufficient toe and he also has the assitance of Katie Walsh who won this contest in 2010 on the Ferdy Murphy-trained Poker De Sivola.
Shutthefrontdoor has been a bit in and out, and the JP McManus-owned seven-year-old might also prefer deeper ground.
On the plus side, he has the inimitable Nina Carberry doing the steering, while Shotgun Paddy has point-to-point legend Derek O’Connor in the saddle.
Emma Lavelle’s seven-year-old showed stamina in abundance when winning a valuable handicap over an extended three-and-a-half miles at Warwick last time, so he must enter calculations now.
Sue Smith’s Herdsman also has a top rider on his side in Robbie McNamara and is a dour sort. Suntiep’s win record is impressive but Patrick Mullins’ mount has plenty to prove after a fortunate success at Fairyhouse last time out.
Verdict: Katie Walsh is trusted to get Foxrock home in front.
5.15 Rewards4Racing Novices’ Handicap Chase 2m 5f
Pendra is going to be interesting here on better ground and it will be fascinating to see if the McManus-owned novice attracts support in the ring. He tired badly in the mud off a two-pound higher mark over two miles at Ascot, but conditions here may well suit better and it’s worth nothing that trainer Charlie Longsdon has not run him since then.
Any amount of these have claims, with the Warren Greatex-trained Baby Mix another that will be happier in the prevailing conditions. He has been running consistently well, and the booking of Davy Russell is a plus. Buywise has already reeled off a hat-trick this season and Paul Moloney’s mount looks as if he’s still on an upward curve.
Dessie Hughes’ Art Of Logistics will be happier back on a decent surface in a first-time visor, though Henderson’s Ericht is one that the handicapper looks to have in his grasp.
Verdict: Baby Mix is a decent horse that appears well treated on his hurdles form and will lack nothing from the saddle.