Friday 15 December 2017

Dunguib ready to answer questions

Alan Lee

IS Dunguib too good to be true? The question will be asked many thousands of times before he brings his swagger and style to the first race at Cheltenham, five weeks today. The Festival can seldom have had such a burning issue as its opening act.

The Spinal Research Supreme Novices Hurdle traditionally starts the great meeting with a multi-faceted puzzle, half a dozen horses offered at single-figure prices. This year, it could be 1/2 the favourite, 10/1 bar.

In many eyes, not all of them Irish, Dunguib is unbeatable. Indeed, the belief in this seven-year-old is so potent that he would probably now be favourite for the Champion Hurdle if his connections had not ruled out such an adventurous elevation.

His latest, sauntering victory, at Leopardstown on Sunday, was typical of his career, the horse as effortless as the jockey was motionless. It has been this way in all four hurdle races, just as it was in the championship bumpers at Cheltenham and Punchestown just last spring.

The only horse ever to finish in front of Dunguib, On Raglan Road, which beat him in his debut bumper, was bought for a small fortune by Graham Wylie and has since won nothing bar a minor novice hurdle at Hexham.

Dunguib, by contrast, is now attracting the awe and reverence of Arkle reincarnate. It helps the gathering legend, of course, that he is trained in rural Co Tipperary, by an unassuming former jockey in Philip Fenton, and ridden by the relatively unknown Brian O'Connell. All the romantic ingredients are in place.

His owners, Daniel Harnett and Lily Lawlor, whose previous habit was to buy and sell on horses, have made a firm exception, rebuffing persistent offers, at least one said to be around €1.15m. The rumoured figures will doubtless inflate daily between now and the Festival.

Nicky Henderson trains two of the principal British challengers for the Supreme in Oscar Whisky and Bellvano, both entered at Newbury on Saturday.

"In a normal year, I'd be fancying my chances," Henderson said yesterday. "But I can't say I liked what I saw from Leopardstown. In fact, it looked pretty frightening."


Henderson has been around the block, seen the meteors come and go. He will recall the Irish also had a banker in the corresponding race last March. It was Cousin Vinny, like Dunguib the impressive winner of the previous year's bumper. He finished fifth and has not won a race since.

Dunguib is different in coming to Cheltenham with a long unbeaten run and such a freakish cruising speed that he appears to take nothing out of himself. "There doesn't seem to be a chink in him," Henderson said with a sigh.

Opponents can still hope, though -- he has been guilty of sloppy jumping and the Irish novices have not been good enough to test him as, perhaps, Menorah or Oscar Whisky will do. If not, Cheltenham will have a new superstar while many are still eating their first lunch of the week. (© The Times, London)

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