Day of reckoning for young bloods
I wish they would hurry up and invent time travel. If we had the facility, how fascinating would it be to fast-forward through this jumps season and discover which of the 16 horses on show this afternoon at Fairyhouse's Winter Festival, with its three Grade One contests, would have accomplished the most by its conclusion?
The fields may be small (with a six-five-five formation), but within the bouquet of talent assembled for our delectation we have some that have already blossomed, mixed with more that are still budding and yet to bloom – but the collective display is the most vibrant we have seen on any Irish racecourse so far this season.
Of the five lining up for the Drinmore Chase, for example, four have won their solitary chase so far while the outsider of the party has won his last four in a row. It speaks tomes for the regard in which Dedigout (have fun asking anybody non-Irish to pronounce it) is held that he should be quoted close to even money in the light of the potential of his rivals.
That said, you don't need an elephant memory to recall the demolition job (won by 31 lengths) done by Bog Warrior in last year's renewal for the same connections. Things didn't go on so smoothly from there for Bog Warrior – no one would have believed back then that he would have either fallen or finished last in all but one of his races in the next 12 months.
Described by Tony Martin then as "probably the best horse I've had my hands on", Bog Warrior's trainer (once bitten) has been a lot more circumspect this time about Dedigout. Nonetheless, Dedigout is no less exciting as his career record of five from seven testifies and, more than anything, he has the deep-girthed absolute stamp of a chaser about him – and one that relishes deep ground. His 34-length introductory saunter around Punchestown in his beginners' chase has set him up for today, so what's not to like? The opposition, for one thing.
And that opposition is spear-headed by the no-less-exciting Arvika Ligeonniere. He won the same novice hurdle at Punchestown in 2010 as both Copper Bleu and Sizing Europe en route to their Festival success the following season. Unfortunately, we had to wait over two years for Arvika Ligeonniere's next public appearance (at Punchestown last May). It didn't disappoint. Even the discriminating Willie Mullins admitted his jumping was "electric". At over 17 hands, he also fits the bill of steeplechaser incarnate. Both market leaders possess any amount of potential at this stage – which is the better is anyone's guess. Which is what today is about.
It would be indolent to leave the "potential" discussion without alluding to the fact that Buckers Bridge is unbeaten in all four competitive heats in his life so far – a point-to-point, two bumpers and a chase. He may have been slightly fortuitous last time in beating Sword Of Destiny, but that other Gigginstown novice chaser might be the best of all of them in any case.
Neither the ultra-tough and consistent Pride Of The Artic (rated 24lbs higher than over hurdles after winning four chases on the bounce) nor Texas Jack (winner of only chase where the second – yet another Gigginstown chaser-in-progress – has won since) can be ruled out in a race that will hopefully begin to sort out the chase division's pecking order.
The same can be said for the novice hurdle division in the context of the Royal Bond which features the compelling clash of codes as the Cheltenham Festival Bumper winner goes head to head with a Cesarewitch winner, with both having annihilated their opponents on their only start this season.
United with Ruby Walsh for the first time in public, it is mildly surprising that Champagne Fever is turning out over the smaller obstacles at all, as it appeared more likely the giant grey would emulate former Mullins inmates Florida Pearl and Missed That by skipping the hurdles discipline altogether and going straight to fences after his Festival Bumper victory.
Main rival today Minsk has approached the discipline from a totally opposite angle as a Flat-bred son of Arc winner Dalakhani with a Flat rating of 103. Nonetheless, the way he routed his field (trouncing a talented and unbeaten Mullins mare) at Punchestown two weeks ago, coupled with the fluency of his jumping, make him a fascinating contender today. Jockey Bryan Cooper said afterwards: "That was very impressive. I had to go on and ride my own race from a long way out, but he jumped from hurdle to hurdle, he went on the ground and quickened again going to the last."
Improving pair Jezki and Clonbannon Lad will ensure it isn't simply a head-to-head.
It says everything about the intrigue of the novice Grade Ones that the Hattons Grace hurdle gets relegated to last.
Evergreen mare Voler La Vedette returns to defend her crown after defeating the Willie Mullins-trained Mourad in this last year. This year she is faced with Zaidpour and So Young from the same yard, together with an upwardly mobile Monksland from Noel Meade.
Winner of more than 50 per cent of her 25 career starts, she gave the awesome Big Buck's a big fright in Cheltenham's World Hurdle in March. Yet she conspired to get beaten at odds of 1/7 on her seasonal bow at Navan three weeks ago. Zaidpour has a win over Colm Murphy's mare to his credit when given a tactically astute ride at Gowran on Thyestes day in January. I could see it being similarly tactical today.
If only we had time travel.
Sunday Indo Sport