Flemenstar has class to make race of it with Sprinter
If anyone needed reminding of the premium that will be on stamina come Cheltenham Gold Cup day, the gruelling climax to Saturday's Argento Chase ought to have done the trick.
Imperial Commander nearly brought the house down on his first start for 680 days, but Denis O'Regan conjured a timely late surge out of Cape Tribulation to foil the romantic comeback victory for the 2010 Gold Cup hero.
When it came down to it, that lack of a run did for Imperial Commander, and the ground will hardly be as testing at Prestbury Park in March.
Still, the point to note is that there will be no hiding place in the showpiece event – there never is. Apart from Saturday's two chief protagonists, Bobs Worth, Long Run, Tidal Bay, Sir Des Champs and First Lieutenant are all hardwired for such a dour examination.
The more you think about it, the more you have to conclude that Flemenstar isn't.
This correspondent was as keen as the next man to see Peter Casey's stable star keep the Gold Cup dream alive in the Lexus Chase at Christmas. In the final analysis, though, he had the whole field stone-cold at the last fence, yet was passed by two horses before the line came and would have been passed by a third in another half a stride.
In mitigation, his defenders point to his having been too keen under Andrew Lynch early on, but he pulled little enough to be able to cruise to the front around the last bend.
The Hennessy Gold Cup back at Leopardstown on February 9 was promptly nominated as his next target. In one sense, you have to admire his connections' willingness to persevere on the trail that has the elusive Holy Grail as its final reward.
However, the theory that he will be better suited by being allowed to bowl along in front in the Hennessy doesn't stack up; he will simply be a sitting duck to stayers like Tidal Bay and Sir Des Champs at the Foxrock venue.
And, even if things fall his way there, the extra two and a half furlongs up the hill at Cheltenham will thwart him in the end. Flemenstar's bold jumping and high cruising speed are his most potent attributes, so he should be placed to best effect with that in mind.
The race for him is the Queen Mother Champion Chase. Sprinter Sacre is a fine specimen, but he has yet to meet anything this term that could eyeball him in the latter part of a race.
He hasn't beaten a horse that could be remotely described as Grade One material since the Arkle Trophy, yet there was a bunch of them still close enough to him at the second-last in the Victor Chandler Chase on Saturday. Flemenstar wouldn't be swatted away so easily.
Sprinter Sacre is long odds-on for the Champion, but Saturday's Arkle at Leopardstown provided a timely lesson.
The supposedly bombproof Arvika Ligeonniere, which fenced to his right when winning there over Christmas, wasn't given nearly as much leeway this time.
It's impossible to say conclusively whether he was unnerved into falling down the back straight, but the fact that Oscars Well was on his tail this time won't have been helping Paul Townend's cause any.
Either way, it was a reminder of what can happen when a little pressure is applied, or simply that anything can happen in a jumps race.
The latter conclusion is more benign, but Arvika Ligeonniere would less likely have fallen on Saturday if he got the complete freebie that he did on St Stephen's Day.
Only Flemenstar and Sizing Europe have the class to put it up to Sprinter Sacre, although, at 11 years of age, Sizing Europe's best days are admittedly behind him. Still, he sets a fair benchmark, and Flemenstar might be better served by tackling him in the Tied Cottage Chase over two miles at Punchestown next Sunday than prolonging the inevitable in the Hennessy.
The entries for the Tied Cottage close tomorrow. It would make sense to put him in it.
Abbey Lane sets up tilt
at €100,000 bonus prize
Willie Mullins bagged a third Boylesports.com Hurdle triumph at Leopardstown when his nephew Emmet brought 16/1 shot Abbey Lane through to lead after the final flight to claim the €60,000 winner's pot.
The two-miler was run at a ferocious pace in heavy rain, and the eight-year-old, having just his second start for Mullins, emerged best of a bunch of tired horses that clambered over the last flight.
A stab at the County Hurdle at Cheltenham is now on the cards for Abbey Lane, with the sponsors having pledged a €100,000 bonus if he can follow up in any race at the Festival in March.
Gordon Elliott was responsible for the runner-up Rocky Wednesday and Tony Martin saddled the third home Ted Veale, which had been heavily backed into 9/2 favouritism.
Elliott won the following maiden hurdle with the Davy Condon-ridden Mala Beach (11/2), while Martin secured the Grade One Arkle Novice Chase when Benefficient (10/1) took advantage of the fencing deficiencies of both Arvika Ligeonniere and Oscars Well under Bryan Cooper.
In the Leopardstown Chase, Farrells Fancy (9/1) was helped by the last-fence spill of Sweet My Lord as he scored a valuable coup for Mark Enright and Carrigtwohill-based handler Terence O'Brien.
The winner that had the most impact in terms of Cheltenham ante-post activity was Le Vent D'Antan, which hosed up on its debut for Liz Doyle and Mikey Fogarty.
The 7/4 favourite is now as low as 8/1 for the Champion Bumper, with Doyle comparing him favourably to Cheltenian, the 2011 winner of the Festival Grade One that she moved on to Philip Hobbs after saddling it to be second in a Punchestown bumper.
Industry figures continue
to make difficult reading
Horse Racing Ireland has released its industry statistics for 2012, and there was little evidence that there is any end in sight to the contractions of the last five years.
Despite 14 more fixtures taking place than in 2011, on-course bookmakers' turnover plummeted another 21pc, down €129.4m from its 2007 peak, with year-on-year on-course Tote takings down 17pc.
Attendance figures, the number of owners and horses in training fell by between three and 12pc, with sales figures, driven by international investment, again the only tallies with a positive slant, up 15pc.
HRI chief executive Brian Kavanagh, who reiterated his call for reform of the betting taxation system, expressed his fears for the future of the on-course bookmaking industry, while the governing body's director of racing Jason Morris stated that "for the first time we're starting to have concerns about the quality of our better races".
Trainers reverse planned
cut to Dundalk allowance
The 55pc cut to the €110 allowance paid to stable staff who travel more than 80km to evening fixtures at Dundalk that was announced last week has been reversed with immediate effect by the Irish Racehorse Trainers' Association after objections from staff representatives.
250,000 Sterling figure that Moyle Park, which beat yesterday's impressive bumper winner Blackmail on its debut for Fethard-based Harry Kelly at Leopardstown on St Stephen's Day, made at Brightwells Sale in Cheltenham on Saturday night. The Flemensfirth five-year-old will now be trained by Willie Mullins, while Kelly's Cork summer bumper winner Hilltop Tommy realised £100,000 to complete a good day's trading for him.
@mattoconnor100 – Mighty crack here in Hunters Lodge with Mick Winters, Tom Barry and Rebel Fitz. #oldstories #budwieser
– Amateur rider Matt O'Connor enjoys the company of the always-entertaining Mick Winters and his right-hand man in the grooms' station at Cheltenham. Winters brought his frisky Galway Hurdle hero to the track for the weekend to prepare him for the razzmatazz of a possible Champion Hurdle tilt, and the Kanturk handler reported that he might first take in the Red Mills Hurdle in February.