Sport Horse Racing

Wednesday 17 September 2014

Something's got to give in epic collision

IAN McCLEAN

Published 09/12/2012 | 05:00

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Ever since David took on Goliath, history has been fixated with the head-to-head. The concept of the Olympics is founded on the notion. Sport, in particular, is elevated when a pair of supremely talented individuals face off. It satisfies some deep-seated human curiosity to discover who is the best. Every sport has its iconic rivalries: Borg-McEnroe; Prost-Senna; Ali-Frazier; Coe-Ovett.

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In racing, you could argue that Frankel's unblemished career record is diminished by the absence throughout of a worthy rival. Excelebration was simply the whipping boy, and all season long – or until early September in any case – all everybody in racing longed for was a match between Frankel and Camelot.

This weekend we are spoiled. Not only do we have the classic head-to-head of a Manchester derby, but having had the two best young steeplechasers in Britain go at it at Sandown yesterday, we have the two best young chasers in Ireland coming together at Punchestown in the John Durkan today.

Even Timeform, in compiling its exhaustive Chasers & Hurdlers 2011/'12 annual, declared relative to Sir Des Champs and Flemenstar that "a meeting between the pair is something to look forward to".

Many will remember the match between Dawn Run and Buck House in 1986 for a pot of £25,000 at the Punchestown Festival. I remember skipping school to see Dawn Run meet Buck House in their first ever chase at Navan in 1984. Never had so many gone racing on a Thursday and the atmosphere of anticipation has remained with me since.

This afternoon's clash has all the hallmarks of head-to-head greatness. There is the David v Goliath element of champion trainer and tycoon owner confronted with the freak horse of a lifetime sourced by small-time connections for whom they have rejected countless jaw-dropping offers.

In addition, we have the irresistible ingredient of youth. Aged six and seven respectively, the protagonists' prime is still in the future. The world is still speculating as to what Sir Des Champs and Flemenstar might yet achieve, with the Gold Cup to the forefront of most everybody's mind in both cases.

Finally, there is the aspect of perfection. Both horses have successfully compiled an unbeaten sequence – a sequence that is about to be ruptured for one or other today. Sir Des Champs has won his last eight. He has never been beaten in seven runs over obstacles since joining Willie Mullins from France. For his side, since his debut second, Flemenstar has won six straight and stepped into open company by defeating a former Champion Chase winner in Big Zeb. Perfection will be dismantled for at least one party this afternoon.

What is even more fascinating, as is often the case with the iconic head-to-head, is the contrasting styles of the protagonists. Flemenstar is a giant, brutish to admire, but spectacularly elegant over a fence. He routinely destroys his opposition, winning by frequent double-figure margins. Sir Des Champs by comparison is unextraordinary in appearance and his method is all about efficiency. Just doing enough to get the job done. The mare Knockfierna nearly had him beaten before running out at Limerick last St Stephen's Day. The beauty about Sir Des Champs is that the efficiency is ruthless. To paraphrase Lewis Carroll, we don't know how deep the rabbit-hole goes.

All connected with both horses appreciate that while today is a significant battle, it isn't the war. Arguably circumstances favour Flemenstar more, with ground, distance and, crucially, the fact he has had a run this year tilting his chances into favouritism today. Furthermore, as a dual Cheltenham Festival winner already, Willie Mullins will have only one thing on his mind for his unbeaten six-year-old this year and that takes place in mid-March.

Consequently, while we are being entertained by the notions of a match we have two top-class horses in their own right in supporting roles. Bog Warrior is in fact the only horse to have beaten Flemenstar over fences, while Rubi Light has his optimum conditions today and is defending his Durkan crown from last year. So, all told, let the games unfold.

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