Friday 20 October 2017

Geraghty savours hat-trick in sweet reversal of fortune

Nicky Henderson and his stable were the big winners in a game of two halves at Cheltenham, writes Ian McClean

It is a cliché we are all too familiar with in racing -- perhaps even the one that most characterises the sport. You can never count your blessings too soon, or curse your luck too early.

I am sure birthday boy Nicky Henderson would have been forgiven the strain of a curse under his breath after his two runners in the two-mile handicap chase both fell independently four out when occupying first and second places. His two jockeys were badly shaken by the falls -- one (Jeremy McGrath) required serious medical attention, whilst the other (Barry Geraghty) needed the assistance of the rail to stand upright such was the pain in his left leg.

And this after his promising novice Mossley had needed veterinary intervention following his runner-up finish in the preceding novice chase, Henderson might have been justified at that point in believing it was going to be one of those days. But yesterday proved to be the ultimate game of two halves for the Seven Barrows team which went on to win all three main prizes on the prestigious Cheltenham International card with Quantitativeeasing, Grandouet and Oscar Whisky.

Not for the first occasion during the recent economic turbulence, the market called it wrong. When the market first opened for the featured Spinal Research-sponsored December Gold Cup, the JP McManus owned Sunnyhillboy figured as a 14/1 chance. Come post time yesterday he had been supported down to as low as 7/2 in the fiercely competitive 17-runner handicap.

The popular wisdom had been that AP McCoy would choose to ride Quantitativeeasing -- runner-up at both the Festival here and the Paddy Power meeting. However, as soon as McCoy declared he would ride the Jonjo O'Neill-trained Sunnyhillboy instead, a wholesale gamble was afoot.

As it transpired, Jonjo's confidence in his seasonal debutant was misplaced and the horse was never seen with a chance as he struggled at the back throughout.

Meanwhile, in a race littered with jumping errors, it didn't seem for most of the journey that the Barry Geraghty-ridden Quantitativeeasing held much of a chance either -- as he only had three or four behind him at the top of the hill, traded as high as 40/1 in running, and still had seven to pass on the home turn. Still only third jumping the last, he found the extra reserves up the famous Prestbury hill while long-time leader Roudoudou Ville and the chasing Medermit began to empty.

Geraghty said afterwards: "We knew he had a chance, but I didn't think we had much of a chance four or five out. I struggled a bit through the race but I knew turning in if I wasn't far off I'd have a chance. I pinged the last few but I was struggling a bit before then, it was a rough race if you weren't travelling. And I wasn't travelling."

Grandouet seemed like a horse on an upward curve prior to yesterday's Stan James International Hurdle (formerly the Bula). But with impressive performances at the likes of Wincanton and Haydock already this season the question Nicky Henderson still had to answer remained -- "Is he a Cheltenham horse?" The answer came as an emphatic "Yes" with the progressive four-year-old simply toying with the teak-tough Overturn over the last flight to win impressively and lead connections to the inevitable conclusion that they now have a serious Champion Hurdle contender.

Geraghty, partnering his second winner, confirmed the impression. "He improved all through last year and he's better than your average four-year-old going five-year-old I'd say.

"He's improved an awful lot since last year. He travelled brilliantly, you don't see horses travelling much easier than that going to the last. He's very good. I never had any doubts (about going up the hill)."

Henderson faces the satisfying challenge of keeping his star hurdlers apart, and is inclined to aim Binocular at the Christmas Hurdle (instead of Grandouet) and keep Supreme Novice winner Spirit Son fresh for the New Year.

Menorah, meanwhile, ran an indifferent type of race in an effort to record back-to-back victories and could only manage fourth. Trainer Philip Hobbs reported that he will revert to fences next time.

With such hurdling strength over two miles, Nicky Henderson will be hoping Oscar Whisky has the stamina for three. He stayed the two-and-a-half-mile trip well enough to take the concluding Relkeel Hurdle with minimum effort to leave the trainer with the mental dilemma of whether or not to go down the Big Buck's route. But that's for another day.

Reflecting on his 34/1 hat-trick in the big races at jumping's headquarters, Henderson laughed aloud, "That's pure luck I can tell you". In racing, there'll be days like that.

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