Sport Horse Racing

Monday 20 November 2017

Festive failings and other tales

It is possible to read too much into good performances as well as bad ones, writes Ian McClean

Horses are not machines. That's one of the rustiest clichés in racing and when you mix it with another old chestnut, that racing isn't an exact science, then you are somewhere on the path to where trainers discovered themselves as a result of the big freeze.

With limited opportunity to work or school horses, and even more limited chances to run them, Fairyhouse's repositioned Grade One card (at the fourth attempt) on December 15 gifted connections a one-off opportunity to get an outing into their best horses. However, as Henry de Bromhead observed at the time, the persistent postponement of the Fairyhouse fixture began to encroach on the feasibility of running on that gold-encrusted occasion and again at Christmas given its looming proximity. After all, horses aren't machines.

Trainers had judgements to make with limited time to gauge their horses' recovery and limited home evidence on which to base their decisions. In the absence of a catch-all slide rule, trainers faced a dilemma and, to paraphrase Orwell, all horses are made equal, but some are more equal than others . . .

The race that best illustrates the point is the Drinmore Chase where the debate afterwards centred around whether Mikael D'Haguenet would have prevailed over Jessies Dream had he not slipped on landing after the last. Jessies Dream passed up the opportunity to run over Christmas but while Mikael D'Haguenet proved one of the high-profile disappointments of the Leopardstown Festival, two horses who contested the Drinmore -- Realt Dubh and Boston's Angel -- both reappeared to win their respective Grade Ones.

Although based on limited scientific evidence, it appears Mikael D'Haguenet suffered from the dreaded yet unpredictable 'bounce' effect. Perversely, it is something no trainer, however talented, can predict in advance as the technology sector, for all its sophistication, has yet to invent a fail-safe bounce-detector. Willie Mullins was obviously satisfied with the horse at home and the betting market strongly supported the view -- he was backed ante-post in the morning for the Arkle and was hammered into 4/7 on course -- yet his post-race analysis was simply that "the horse just ran flat, maybe the race came too soon after his fall at Fairyhouse". The gelding certainly shouldn't be written off on this evidence alone.

He was reappearing 15 days after going two and a half miles on testing ground on the back of a two-year absence. The explicit object of running him in the two mile Bord na Móna Grade One as opposed to the (perhaps more suitable) three-mile Fort Leney was to teach him to jump at speed. Even the mighty Carvill's Hill got beaten at odds-on in this race when attempting a similar trick back in 1988. There will undoubtedly be other days for the mighty Mikael, but one disconcerting feature from a Cheltenham perspective was his tendency to jump persistently right.

The Mullins camp brought their A-Team to Fairyhouse on December 15 and reaped a rich harvest as a result but it had a mixed overall reception with the same team at Leopardstown.

Mikael D'Haguenet wasn't the only one of the party not to bring his A-Game to Foxrock. Zaidpour again was smashed into in the market as if victory was a formality in the Paddy Power Future Champions race but he never at any point burned with the same flame as he had at Fairyhouse. And where there are burned fingers -- as sure as Dumas' exhortation to "Cherchez la femme!" -- there will be an outcry to blame the jockey. On this occasion the charge is completely unfounded. Zaidpour didn't travel with anything like the same fluency as in his previous two appearances with Mullins revealing afterwards that "maybe Fairyhouse took more out of him than I thought".

He consistently got in tight to his hurdles and had to pop them even when apparently on a long stride and Paul Townend simply never seemed at ease on a horse that ought to have done it easy. In addition, the sectional timings of the race bear out the jockey's innocence. Furthermore, Zaidpour raced three times on the Flat in France -- and disappointed on the last outing. This was his third start over hurdles.

Cooldine was yet another of the Mullins Fairyhouse party to run flat in Foxrock but Golden Silver, although failing to score, ran probably to the pound against Champion Chaser Big Zeb. Hurricane Fly, satisfyingly, not only ran to form -- he was visually supreme in his defeat of arch nemesis Solwhit this time in a farcical race run in a time half a furlong (eight seconds) slower than First Lieutenant's defeat of Zaidpour.

The unfolding of this event was as far away from a Champion Hurdle as Foxrock is from Cleeve Hill and the wholesale discounting of his ante-post price for that race reeks of bookmaker hands in the greasy till. I mean, what more did we expect from a 108-rated Flat horse in a 200-yard sprint getting first run on an injudiciously ridden Solwhit which chose to follow the speed-merchant as a last-attempt means of beating him? Prematurely parachuted into favourite for the Champion in most ante-post lists as a result, Cheltenham will provide an altogether different test if, as we hope, the Hurricane makes it third time lucky and gets there.

Astute decision of the week goes to Barry Geraghty, who forewent a glittering book of rides for Nicky Henderson at Newbury on Wednesday, to stay home primarily for Big Zeb but ended up with a treble.

He didn't miss much at Newbury -- which is more than can be said for racegoers who missed practically everything owing to the dense fog. It is almost unheard of that throngs of people would choose to leave before a Grade One -- but that was precisely the case before the Long Walk Hurdle. The last half-furlong was won in a canter by the amazing Big Buck's, his 10th straight win since his Hennessy aberration in 2008.

His deputy rider AP McCoy paid tribute to the French-bred champion afterwards, saying: "It's not easy to find horses like him." Particularly true on the day that was in it, of a horse which apparently is actually a machine.

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