Thursday 14 December 2017

A time to assess Ireland's Cheltenham Festival protagonists

Yorkhill, ridden by Ruby Walsh, pulls away from the last flight before going on to win the 32Red Tolworth Novices’ Hurdle yesterday. Picture: Julian Herbert/PA Wire
Yorkhill, ridden by Ruby Walsh, pulls away from the last flight before going on to win the 32Red Tolworth Novices’ Hurdle yesterday. Picture: Julian Herbert/PA Wire

Ian McClean

If a week is a long time in politics, it seems like an eternity since Cue Card dramatically nutted Vautour in the last stride of the King George. Since then, Cue Card's owner, Bob Bishop, has sadly and unexpectedly passed away; AP McCoy has been honoured as a knight of the realm; ITV has wrestled the terrestrial TV rights to broadcast horseracing from Channel 4 for 2017; and Lizzie Kelly became the first lady rider to capture a Grade One.

One of my favourite racing remarks is the quote accompanying the clock overlooking the parade ring at the Curragh, 'Time Discloses All'. The pithy truth of the remark, however catchy, has one limitation - the level of disclosure is directly related to the length of time in question. Sometimes, as in the context of the week's events past, Time Confuses All.

Consequently, it seems unjust that Vautour and Cue Card should almost expire at the effort of serving up the most compelling finish to a King George, only to see their Gold Cup odds extended for their pains. Meanwhile, Djakadam could remain safely tucked up in the warmth of his box next door to Vautour in Closutton and see his price for the same race contract from 6/1 to 4/1. Life, however, was never meant to be fair.

The apparent injustice, however, does reinforce a popularly recurrent trend: so unseasonably wet has it been in the last several months that traditional 'prep' races for the Cheltenham Festival might be sensibly eschewed by trainers between now and mid-March for fear of bottoming their horses prematurely.

So consequently, the Christmas period, traditionally the mid-term report for horses en route to the Festival, may be even more critical in our visual assessment of the protagonists than ever, given that we may see less of them in the next 12 weeks than we are wont to. So what, therefore, can we meaningfully read into the Christmas Festival tea leaves?

Returning to the Gold Cup, given that the only horse amongst the market principles whose odds have contracted on the back of the festive season's endeavours is Djakadam, the most remarkable market reaction over the period was the response to Don Cossack's second-last-fence fall in the King George. Immediately afterwards, Paddy Power chose to extend the Gigginstown horse to 12/1 for the Gold Cup. Those odds were soon clipped into 9/1 by the end of trading on the 26th. This morning, Don Cossack is just 4/1 for March's feature.

The same firm, significantly, are longest about both Cue Card (7/1) and Vautour (12/1) for the Gold Cup at this stage, making a very clear statement about its interpretation of events at Sunbury in relation to Prestbury Park's holiest of holies.

The common consensus following events at Kempton was that three miles plainly stretched the stamina of Vautour on his first attempt at the distance and that a drop back to the Ryanair distance over which he won the Grade One Golden Miller last March is the obvious choice now for Cheltenham. Consequently, Vautour is as short as 11/10 for the Ryanair and as long as 12/1 for the Gold Cup.

However, Willie Mullins made a significant assertion in his Racing Post column yesterday: "The (King George) result might not be as defining as it looked and it's worth stressing Vautour has a tremendous record at Cheltenham . . . I haven't changed my mind about the Gold Cup being the race for him."

Another Mullins standard-bearer, Don Poli, continues to be a marmite horse and that horse's slow-motion victory in the Lexus only served to polarise already divided opinion even further.

Don Poli's 'Yes' voters accentuate the fact that the French bred seven-year-old has won five of his six chase starts, four of them Grade Ones. He is unbeaten at Cheltenham and is idle enough as to only just do enough every time, so will never look impressive.

Don Poli's naysayers will point to the fact that he's won a moderate RSA, beaten a Grand National winner in receipt of 5lbs and been flat-to-the-mat to beat a 147-rated rival, First Lieutenant, which hasn't won for nearly three years in a Lexus.

While Gordon Elliott is keen to get another run into Don Cossack (in the Kinloch Brae) to avoid going to a Gold Cup on the back of a fall presumably, there is the distinct possibility we may not have the opportunity to see either Don Poli or Vautour in action again publicly before March, a sentiment that already applies to Cue Card, which is being kept fresh for the race in anticipation of running for the Betfair £1m bonus.

On the Champion Chase front, Sprinter Sacre is another we are unlikely to see again until March following his gutsy display to outgrit Sire De Grugy on the Kempton run-in in the Desert Orchid. Sire De Grugy's appetite for soft ground, by contrast, means he is primed to reappear at Ascot for the Clarence House (former Victor Chandler).

Meanwhile, Willie Mullins is obliged to find an opportunity for Un De Sceaux following his spill at Leopardstown. In the meantime, there are some upbeat bulletins beginning to emanate from Ditcheat about reigning Champion Chaser Dodging Bullets, which not only sat out the Christmas, but has been sitting out the season so far due to injury. He is pencilled in for the Game Spirit.

Finally, the one horse to firmly consolidate a position by actually appearing on a racecourse during the festive spell is unequivocally Faugheen. The Machine repeated the dose in Kempton's Christmas Hurdle by dispatching some second division opposition.

Nichols Canyon's rather workmanlike win in the Ryanair Hurdle only helped further cement Faugheen's position for the Champion Hurdle. Nichols Canyon's titanic scrap with Identity Thief, where they duelled gladiatorially for much of the race, will not be forgotten any time soon by either horse. Neither by any of us fortunate enough to witness it.

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