Daragh Ó Conchúir: 'Few questions answered'
So jump racing has become all too predictable, has it? Not on the evidence of the past week. Indeed it has been a trend since the commencement of what is known as the 'National Hunt season proper', that the stars, existing and potential, have had their colours lowered at almost every turn.
The majority of quality jumpers would not be risked on quicker going and may have had their seasonal bows delayed as a result. Even making it to the track, the chances are they will not have done much work on grass.
Certainly, at this stage, no balloon has been burst but plenty have incurred deflation of various degrees. And when it comes to solving conundrums, the presence of an extra unknown variable has almost reduced Cheltenham permutations to a guessing game at this juncture.
From an Irish perspective, the Dublin Racing Festival in February takes on added significance. It is an important affair in its own right, with seven Grade Ones, and will serve an extra purpose for connections and punters with regard to shedding some light on Cheltenham.
On either side of the Irish Sea, only Altior maintained metronomic consistency, making it 16 from 16 over obstacles and moving to within two of the record for consecutive wins over jumps, set over a near-four-year period by former staying hurdle sensation Big Buck's.
And right now, only Altior is an obvious pick for one of the four major races at Prestbury Park in March, a certainty in the Champion Chase barring illness, injury or bad luck.
The Gold Cup picture is cloudier than at any time in living memory, the Stayers' Hurdle a puzzle with no apparent solution and the Champion Hurdle posing far more questions than answers. And many of the novices suffered setbacks in the past few days.
Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott suffered plenty of setbacks but enjoyed significant numerical and Grade One success. It was a big week too for Henry de Bromhead, whose eight winners brought him to 75, seven clear of his previous best tally with four months of the season still to go.
The tally of trainers to manage at least one triumph was 30, from 71 individual races. Tom Mullins and Philip Dempsey enjoyed Grade Two wins, and had the added satisfaction of their sons David and Luke doing the steering on Rocky Blue and Derrinross. David illustrated his credentials as a gifted rider again on Kemboy and Good Thyne Tara.
The winner's enclosure was visited by 38 jockeys. Keith Donoghue has had a well-documented battle with the scales so the racing public delighted in his first Grade One success in what was Limerick's first Grade One race, the Matchbook Betting Exchange Novice Chase.
Ruby Walsh was in Patrickswell on St Stephen's Day after a 22-year absence to ride Getabird, but it was Donoghue and Hardline who swooped to deny them after the favourite blundered at the last. Mark Walsh had the most successful week of all the riders, recording five winners, with two of those of the Grade One variety.
In terms of the jockeys' championship, Paul Townend edged three ahead of Rachael Blackmore, having spent most of the week in Limerick. Given Dylan Robinson's three wins for De Bromhead at Down Royal and Limerick, maybe Blackmore wishes she made alternative arrangements too.
Gigginstown House Stud suffered a couple of surprise reverses, but their firepower is such that they enjoyed stellar success, as did JP McManus. The spread thereafter, in both the Grade Ones and in general was very healthy.
In all, 47 different owners had winners over four days of racing, while Supreme Racing Club enjoyed two Grade One victories thanks to the aforementioned Kemboy and Aramon.
As for picking winners, it was a gravy train for the layers. Only 16 of 71 races at Leopardstown, Limerick and Down Royal from Wednesday to yesterday were won by favourites. Four of those were up north on St Stephen's Day, where the fare was the least competitive.
Buveur D'Air (1/4) and Kalashnikov (4/6) were two hotpots overturned in England. In Ireland, Getabird (8/15), Mengli Khan (7/4), Footpad (1/1), Annamix (4/6), Stormy Ireland (4/6) and Mt Leinster (4/6) were just some that failed to live up to expectations.
Apple's Jade did maintain her form, however, following up her stunning Hatton's Grace success by recording a facile victory in the Christmas Hurdle. She is clearly back to herself this term after a couple of sub-par efforts at the end of the last campaign, attributed to being in season.
Unfortunately, Faugheen's exit at the penultimate flight removed a key measuring tool. The former Champion Hurdler was still travelling well, albeit needing to make up some ground on the leader, which Jack Kennedy reported was only setting a steady pace. Had Apple's Jade seen off Faugheen, it would have added to the merit of her success.
Of course, had Faugheen reeled in the deficit, he would now be a short-priced favourite for the Stayers' Hurdle. This is a very weak division at the moment, with Faugheen's stablemate Penhill victorious last year on his first run of the season and retaining favouritism, despite not yet being unveiled by Willie Mullins.
Apple's Jade would certainly be a leading contender but the likelihood is that she will pursue the Mares' Hurdle, though there are many who want her take her chance in the Champion Hurdle.
The difficulty here is that Samcro had his long-intended chasing career postponed to bid for Cheltenham's Tuesday highlight. The decision has been an unmitigated disaster, with yesterday's fifth in the Ryanair Hurdle despite jumping so well pointing to either something being amiss, or exposing once and for all his lack of speed on quicker ground.
Connections will surely consider the Stayers' route and he would have a chance there. However, a factor relating to the son of Germany that has been largely ignored is that most of his best runs have been on easy going. When he defeated Thursday's Welsh National victor Elegant Escape in his Monksgrange maiden two-and-a-half years ago, it was heavy. At Cheltenham last March, it was soft as he took the spoils in the Ballymore Novices' Hurdle over two-and-a-half miles. But on all we have seen, he cannot give Elliott and Michael O'Leary a first Champion Hurdle.
Ironically, when he was slammed by Buveur D'Air in the Fighting Fifth, the dual Champion Hurdle champ finally earned some credit. The only problem now is that the Nicky Henderson-trained Crillon gelding was touched off by stablemate Verdana Blue, rated 20 lengths inferior, at Kempton on St Stephen's Day.
Sharjah was given a peach of a ride by Paddy Mullins in the Ryanair Hurdle. The way he brought his charge around Melon and Supasundae, and crucially kept the latter pinned in a pocket, was masterful.
The pair combined to win the Galway Hurdle and that has never been a Champion Hurdle trial. While he loves to hear his hooves rattle off the turf, and this success puts him in the frame, he had race fitness over the likes of stablemate Melon for starters. There must be others with stronger claims.
The King George VI Chase and Savills Chase left us scratching our heads once more when looking further down the line, but there were clues at Kempton and Leopardstown for the Gold Cup at least. The champion, Native River, looked beaten a long way out, never travelling or jumping with his normal fluency. He is better over further and going left-handed and yet, such is his staying power that he battled back to be third to Clan Des Obeaux, which has catapulted into the picture, and Thistlecrack, returning to form after a long injury lay-off.
Kemboy was a brilliant winner of the Savills Chase, David Mullins making the executive decision to dispense with Plan A due to the prevailing crawl and bounding to the front with a circuit to go. He never saw another rival and you have to wonder how much he would have won the Ladbroke Trophy by had the weather not prevented him making the cross-channel trip.
The takeaway performance was surely that of JN Wine.com Chase victor and last year's Gold Cup fourth, Road To Respect. Twice, Noel Meade's stable star lost his footing, costing him distance and momentum at a time when the taps were being turned. The way he galloped to the line to bag third was eye-catching and I could see him finding eight lengths on the victor.
Bizarrely, horses that have yet to be seen this season almost had their reputations enhanced by staying at home. Presenting Percy is favourite for the Gold Cup, Penhill for the Stayers' Hurdle and Laurina is second favourite for the Champion Hurdle.
The challenge facing the former to claim the Gold Cup in these circumstances is the most severe. Pat Kelly doesn't do conventional, as Presenting Percy's preparation for his stunning RSA Chase success indicates but Philip Reynolds' gelding was given hard races. Supremely talented as he is, he surely cannot win a Gold Cup without at least a couple of significant runs under his belt.
To that end, the Unibet Irish Gold Cup must be a target, having had a run before that. The BHP Insurance Irish Champion Hurdle will tell a lot too, where we should see an improved Melon. Will we see Samcro? And if Sharjah prevails, then he most definitely is a Cheltenham contender.
Daragh's Cheltenham call
Champion Chase: Altior
Champion Hurdle: Buveur D'Air
Stayers' Hurdle: Faugheen, Supasundae
Gold Cup: Native River, Road To Respect
Sunday Indo Sport