Wednesday 13 December 2017

Cold winter looks on the cards for star followers


The jumps racing programme is a carefully crafted narrative -- particularly in Britain, where one big race follows another at regular intervals. It's inevitable that what you take with one hand, you have to give back with the other.

The fantastic meeting at Fairyhouse on Wednesday was a classic case in point. Full marks to those who saved the best of the card from its scheduled date on November 28, but the consequence is that very few headline horses will now be seen at Leopardstown over Christmas.

That is largely irrelevant from a trainer's perspective. With the Cheltenham Festival less than three months away, they were grateful for the opportunity to loose some of their most promising young horses.

Yet the four-day Leopardstown fest will be the poorer for their absence. Mind you, the way the weather's going, there may be no Leopardstown at all.

The British experience is not so acute. Any big race lost to the weather to date has been rescheduled within a week. In consequence, the knock-on effect has not been so profound.

There should still be a host of well-known stars in action over the Christmas period. Or will there?

British trainers are increasingly inclined to wrap their best horses up in cotton wool.

It seems the extreme fitness levels now required to win any significant prize in the build-up to Cheltenham serves to compromise the prospects of a horse peaking for the Festival itself.

Imperial Commander, Denman and Hennessy Gold Cup winner Diamond Harry will not be sighted before the Gold Cup, while Kauto Star will head straight to Prestbury Park after he bids for a record fifth King George VI Chase on St Stephen's Day.

This has grave implications for any valuable three-mile chase run between now and March.

Fair enough, I suppose. Cheltenham and the subsequent Aintree and Punchestown festivals are where it really counts.

But in these austere times, you have to wonder whether the interim programme of valuable races represents money well spent.

As noted here before, this softly-softly approach is most unwise in respect of novices. Time and again we see horses betrayed by inexperience when confronted by the combination of a strong pace and the stiff Cheltenham fences. Hopefully, we will see more of them in the build-up.

The landscape would otherwise be pretty barren. It seems the days when jump racing's marquee names would keep us warm through the winter are on the way out. More's the pity.

mikael may be worth a punt for gold cup

This column takes a hiatus for the next two weeks when a couple of ante-post positions are up for the reckoning.

Nothing much has changed since Sizing Europe was recommended each-way for the King George on St Stephen's Day at 16/1 -- except that he is now a best-priced 14/1.

The same is true of Maktu, nominated each-way at 16/1 for the Welsh National at Chepstow on December 27.

Maktu is now a best-priced 12/1, but it should be noted that the favourite, Synchronised, ran an eye-catching race to finish fourth over hurdles at Cheltenham last week.

Meanwhile, two separate developments have underlined why Cue Card was poor value for the Supreme Novices' Hurdle at 5/2.

The first saw Cue Card put firmly in his place by Menorah last week, while the second saw the Willie Mullins-trained Zaidpour hack up at Fairyhouse on Wednesday.

Shame on those bookmakers who offered Cue Card at just 7/4 after he won an egg-and-spoon race at Cheltenham last month.


They know who they are. Zaidpour is much the more likely winner over two miles at Cheltenham, yet no position can be taken until his Festival target is actually established.

Talking of Fairyhouse three days ago, this eye was particularly struck by Hurricane Fly's defeat of Solwhit.

Hurricane Fly has opposed Solwhit on his last three starts, and after a heavy-ground defeat in the first of them, the Champion Hurdle hope just nailed Solwhit at Punchestown in April, before extending his superiority on the Meath track on Wednesday.

This underlines that Hurricane Fly is plainly on the upgrade and he appeals as the Champion-designate at this stage.

However, he makes little appeal in ante-post markets on account of his physical frailty. Wednesday's outing was just his second in 13 months.

Conversely, Mikael D'Haguenet's last-fence fall in the novices' chase did nothing to temper enthusiasm that the Mullins-trained gelding is definitely a force waiting to happen over the big obstacles.

For that reason, I recommend taking some of William Hill's 25/1 for the Cheltenham Gold Cup with the non-runner, no-bet concession.

The chances are that Mikael D'Haguenet won't be lining up for Gold Cup glory -- in which case, there's no harm done.

Yet should he blitz the opposition in the meantime, connections may well be tempted -- in which case, he will start at much shorter odds. This represents minimal risk for potentially significant gain.

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