Saturday 25 November 2017

Duel purpose brings added warmth

All was not lost last week as two massive meetings unveiled some potential greats, writes Ian McClean

Ian McClean

L ife, as we know, is full of paradox. But to be told at the global summit in Cancun that the present resurgence of the Ice Age is in fact a symptom of global warming takes some digesting. Especially if the boiler's banjaxed.

Meteorological extremes are one thing: but whilst we are deprived of all racing for an apparent eternity one minute, we are showered with a Babette's Feast the next, as rescheduled premium graded contests are added to race cards already bulging with premium fare.

So, in the very moment the ice dragon paused to inhale, Cheltenham on Saturday and Fairyhouse on Wednesday each scurried to fill the balmy void by concocting an eight-race programme the equal of any single day at one of the major March or April Festivals.

For any of the chosen 3,126 who braved it to Fairyhouse -- or quite considerably more at Cheltenham -- the rewards were many, both in terms of pulsating star quality on the day itself or, more pertinently still, the clues and questions that presented themselves as a result in the context most inevitably of the Cheltenham Festival in March.

It is only fitting that two of the leading Grade One tracks should provide a depth of Grade One action either side of the Irish Sea that would fuel that historical grade one narrative we call Anglo-Irish rivalry.

Heaven knows, what with the chill of recession and the fact we don't have a three-mile chaser quoted less than 25/1 to win the Gold Cup it is warming (globally or otherwise) to know that now at least we have a few head-to-heads brewing that can raise the blood for the fight next March.

Cue Card v Zaidpour

On the face of it, their latest performances can hardly have been more contrasting -- one won and the other got beaten. But the fact that they both share favouritism for the Supreme Novices suggests the bare facts don't reveal the whole tale. For while Zaidpour was demolishing a field of fellow novices, Cue Card was being thwarted by the new Champion Hurdle favourite (Menorah).

The career trajectory of the two four-year-olds to this point is equally contrasting. Cue Card, which first saw a racecourse in a Fontwell bumper in late January, is a dyed-in-the-wool National Hunt specimen, while Zaidpour -- from more demure Aga Khan stock -- finished fourth to Group One winner Byword in a Listed contest on his final Flat start.

Cue Card became only the third four-year-old to win in the history of the Cheltenham Bumper last March, and he did so with an eight-length routing of 23 rivals.

Zaynar's half-brother Zaidpour was impressive on his first outing for Willie Mullins at Punchestown last month, but he was even more impressive stepped up to Grade One last Wednesday where he simply toyed with the (non-existent) opposition.

Only time will tell what finished behind but in a race with a roll of honour that includes Moscow Flyer, Hardy Eustace and Hurricane Fly, he won with far more ease than any of those.

The Mullins inmate wasn't super-slick at his obstacles at all times and will reappear for further match practice in the Future Champions race at Leopardstown on December 27. Cue Card, by contrast, will have one more run -- probably in February -- before the Festival.

Menorah v Hurricane Fly

It is easy to forget that when Menorah first saw a racecourse for a bumper at Naas in August 2009, he was in the care of Tom Mullins, brother of Willie. Ever since that debut win he has been in the slow-cooked process of coming of age. His Supreme Novices success in March was overshadowed by the eclipse of Dunguib, and even his Greatwood win harboured its doubts. And so it took his third consecutive Cheltenham win last Saturday to propel the strapping King's Theatre gelding to the head of the Champion Hurdle market.

Hurricane Fly's arrival has come by entirely different means. A son of Montjeu, he once won a Listed race at Saint Cloud, beating two subsequent Group One winners (Literato -- which went on to win the Champion Stakes -- and Spirit One, the Arlington Million) which are now retired as stallions.

While Menorah is making Cheltenham his second home, Hurricane Fly is having difficulty getting away from home having to forfeit the opportunity of competing at the Festival for the past two seasons. Interestingly, the last horse to win a Hatton's Grace over two and half miles and step back to win a Champion in the same season was the irrepressible Istabraq.

Time for Rupert v Mikael d'Haguenet

Willie Mullins' monopoly of the Fairyhouse riches was foiled only by Mikael d'Haguenet's unfortunate slip on landing after the last in the Drinmore and such is the Mullins' horse talent and reputation he was first market choice.

I find it hard to recall the last time a horse essentially unraced over fences (bar one unsuccessful attempt in France in 2008) started 6/4 favourite for a Grade One Chase. Reports were that he had schooled brilliantly and those reports were vindicated with his aptitude in the race.

Time For Rupert, contrastingly, was following up his win at the Open meeting when stepping up in trip last Saturday. As anticipated, the three miles this time was even more to his advantage and he was consequently even more impressive. Another advantage was the switch from the Old Course to the New which provides an even greater stamina test and obviously plays to his strengths.

It may be premature, but whilst both horses compete for pole position in the RSA market, both will certainly get an entry in the Gold Cup in a year where the main protagonists are now in double-figure age. It won't be lost on the novices' connections that no 11-year-old (Kauto Star and Denman) has won a Gold Cup since Mandarin in 1962.

Or indeed that more than 50% of those chasing greats that won the Gold Cup more than once -- L'Escargot, Best Mate, Kauto Star and of course Arkle -- did so for the first time at the age of seven.

By March, whatever about anything else, Time For Rupert and Mikael d'Haguenet will both be seven.

Poquelin v Tranquil Sea

Coincidence or not, the horses which finished 1-2 in last year's Paddy Power are now 1-2 in the betting for March's Ryanair Chase.

While Poquelin ran with great credit to finish second in last season's Ryanair, Tranquil Sea ran abysmally. Trainer Edward O'Grady blames himself, asserting that the run at Leopardstown in February did for his chances at the Festival. So with the proximity of Christmas and the options of only a step up to three miles (Lexus) or a step down to two miles one (Dial-a-Bet) it seems likely now that Tranquil Sea will next be seen in mid-March.

Coincidentally again, the same principle applies to Poquelin but on the basis that, unlike Tranquil Sea, he is essentially a good ground horse and will not be seen to best effect through a winter campaign. Both horses arguably posted a career best effort last time.

Poquelin became the first horse ever to post back-to-back wins of the December (former Massey Ferguson) Gold Cup -- and off an 11lb higher rating than the previous year in probably an even more competitive renewal.

Tranquil Sea was a Grade One winner over hurdles, but it took until his sixth attempt last Wednesday to count his first Grade One as a chaser but with the right gameplan there is no reason he cannot go on from here.

Sunday Independent

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