Cooldine has credentials to achieve elusive double
If Mullins' charge can win the Hennessy today, we could be in for a rare treat, writes Ian McClean
Within the last decade or so, two domestic chasers have dominated the Irish staying division. Beef Or Salmon and Florida Pearl had in common a currency that spread beyond just the racing community and were routinely referenced in wider society.
Mention Beef Or Salmon and people knew you weren't necessarily alluding to the menu. The exploits of both chasers on the track made their fame assured and nowhere did their talents radiate more boldly than in Ireland's premier steeplechase, the Hennessy Gold Cup. Between them, the two equine luminaries shared seven of the last 11 iterations of this afternoon's contest, with Florida Pearl signing off an eminent career with a fourth win in the race in 2004.
However, they also shared one other -- less gilded -- distinction. Neither managed to follow up in the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Quite apart from the Hennessy's stand-alone status, it represents an obvious final step in the direction of further laurels at the Cheltenham Festival. But something somehow got lost in translation for two of Ireland's finest representatives of recent times.
In 1999, having graduated as champion staying novice from the previous year, Florida Pearl won the Hennessy at Leopardstown with effortless ease from Escartefigue to earn himself a short-price favourite's ticket to the Cheltenham Gold Cup the following month. Under Richard Dunwoody, Florida travelled with his usual menace throughout the race in the Cotswolds and if Betfair had been invented, would have traded long odds-on in running on the run to the second last. However, once entering the final unchartered two and a half furlongs of the Cheltenham challenge, Florida began to falter and while See More Business and Go Ballistic were tapping into their reserve tank for the final climb, Florida was running on empty.
The following year tactics dictated that Florida was held together for longer and he arrived at the last looking better than any. Again, however, he foundered up the famous hill and finished second to Looks Like Trouble. That was as close as Florida ever came. He trailed in 11th in 2002 and in 2003 was dropped back to two miles for the Champion Chase as the Mullins camp finally conceded defeat to the unique physical demands of Cheltenham's Blue Riband.
I say unique physical demands of the Blue Riband (as opposed to the course) because so many horses simply do not handle its contours and undulations. Not so Florida Pearl, which had won the SunAlliance Chase the previous year and the Champion Bumper the year before that. It was a simple case of stamina that proved his perennial undoing -- as he ably demonstrated by winning the Aintree Bowl over three miles directly after disappointing so badly at Cheltenham in 2002.
It is less likely that stamina was the source of Beef Or Salmon's consistent under-performance at Cheltenham. However, his record at the venue spoke of a serious aversion to the place. In five attempts his Gold Cup record read F, 4, PU, 11, 13. Perhaps it was that the almighty tumble he took the first year (2003) left an indelible mark on his elephantine memory, but he was never as happy a horse at Cheltenham as he was away from it and Leopardstown was his Theatre of Dreams.
Indeed the Cheltenham signs were portentous from the very first since Hennessy began its sponsorship of the Leopardstown race in 1991. Nick The Brief, which won the race after a similar ice-age freeze-up to the one we have just experienced, could manage only sixth of eight finishers the following month at NH HQ, albeit he started at 12/1 on the day. Of more concern was the performance the following year of Carvill's Hill. Having routed his field at 4/9 at Leopardstown in February, he started evens favourite at Cheltenham, only to falter home a forlorn fifth of five -- beaten more than not one, but two distances officially.
However, hope arrived the following year when Jodami won the first of three Hennessys (and had a bar named after him) before heading next to Cheltenham, where he beat Rushing Wild to plant the Hennessy flag in the Cheltenham winners' enclosure. Jodami's Hennessy reign was brought to an end by Imperial Call, which also went on to victory at Cheltenham. However, 1996 was the last time the form translated itself from Foxrock to the Cotswolds.
So what are the prospects for any of today's Hennessy contenders breaking a now 14-year cycle (notwithstanding the fact that Kauto Star and Denman lie in wait when they get there)? If historical trends are anything to go by, Cooldine is by far the most likely to make the right impact at Cheltenham next month.
For starters, 15 of the last 16 Gold Cup winners have been aged seven to nine (Kauto and Denman are both 10) -- that leaves nearly half of today's field too old for the job should they get there. In addition, half of the last 18 winners have been second-season chasers. It is perhaps of further significance that Jodami and Imperial Call went from Hennessy to Cheltenham in their first season out of novice company, but failed to follow up on any subsequent attempt. Two of those second-season Gold Cup winners were previous RSA winners (Looks Like Trouble and Denman) which further promotes Cooldine into the frame.
The final Cheltenham statistic that screams out Cooldine is that 10 of the last 12 Gold Cup winners had placed form at least at a previous Festival (that would possibly have been improved if Kauto Star had not fallen in the Champion Chase and See More Business had not been carried out in the Gold Cup). Only Schindler's Hunt can claim that honour in company with Cooldine.
All in all, it's pretty clear that if we want to cheer a Hennessy/Gold Cup double in 2010 we should be looking for Cooldine to accomplish for the same connections what proved just beyond the fabulous Florida Pearl at the turn of the millennium.