Wednesday 21 March 2018

Glorious uncertainty back with a vengeance

Christmas jumping fare brought some surprises and the shattering of auras, writes Ian McClean

Silviniaco Conti ridden by Noel Fehily wins the William Hill King George VI Steeple Chase during Day One of the William Hill Winter Festival at Kempton Park Racecourse.
Silviniaco Conti ridden by Noel Fehily wins the William Hill King George VI Steeple Chase during Day One of the William Hill Winter Festival at Kempton Park Racecourse.
Rockyaboya ridden by Ruby Walsh (second right) races clear of the last on the way to win the Paddy Power Chase during day two of the Leopardstown Christmas Festival at Leopardstown Racecourse.

Ian McClean

And so the 'speed test' of Kempton's King George once more is won by a stayer. Must note that down for next year when the new batch of two-and-a-half-milers attempt the distance for the first time convincing many once again no doubt that the Sunbury venue's 'easy three' will be within their compass.

If there is one theme that was reinforced time and again over the first two days of the Christmas racing festival, it was that perennial echo of uncertainty. No surprise there you might say, as it's horse racing. Moreover, if life itself is 6/4 against, then it shouldn't be any sort of mind-tremor that mute, four-legged animals fail to follow popular prediction.

At its core this Christmas, uncertainty was reflected in the crudest available measure -- that of bookmaker profits -- with Kate Miller of William Hill describing St Stephen's Day (one of the busiest trading days on the calendar) as a "screamer of a day for us". And so, back to the King George . . . Just when you thought you had cracked the conundrum of whether Cue Card really stayed three miles, Colin Tizzard's Betfair Chase winner goes and does that.

Many would have safely concluded after Haydock, when Cue Card sprinted away from his rivals on the run-in after leading for three miles, that he actually stayed the distance -- at least on a flat, park course. No doubt that was the belief underpinning those that forced his in-running odds down to 1.01 after the second last at Kempton on Thursday.

Colin Tizzard himself was visibly flummoxed in the aftermath and you had to have sympathy for him as he'd obviously ticked his own internal 'stays three miles' box for his stable star after Haydock, and here he was suddenly confronted by contradictory evidence and a microphone stuck in his face for a response. Connections are still favouring the Gold Cup over the Ryanair in spite of Thursday's flaccid finish, but based purely on the data presented at Kempton, Cue Card will need a conveyor belt to see out the trip in a Gold Cup.

Whilst there was some comforting reassurance in witnessing Paul Nicholls register his eighth win in the King George, it was a little unsettling that the winner didn't have a Kauto or Star in his title so accustomed have we become to that monolith's Christmas presence. At least his name now appears as a permanent fixture, insofar as these things can withstand the greasy till of commercial interest, on the Grade One novice chase (formerly the Feltham) from here on. However, another certainty was challenged by Silviniaco Conti's win -- when is a stable jockey not a stable jockey?

So Daryl Jacob rode Al Ferof to finish third. Must have been a tough call either way choosing the Ditcheat selected before the race, insofar as Jacob actually had the choice. With Jacob going off afterwards to talk to owner John Hales about Al Ferof and the Ryanair, it must be a bit dispiriting for the stable number one to hear that Noel Fehily is going to keep the ride on Silviniaco Conti come what may.

That, on the back of the assertion by Andy Stewart that the ride on Big Buck's is still up for grabs when he returns in the Cleeve in January. So, in summary Daryl, you are stable jockey for the yard housing favourites for the Gold Cup and the World Hurdle but it's likely you won't be riding either. Dodging bullets?

Obviously the greatest disappointment of the first two days came when Sprinter Sacre was pulled up in the Desert Orchid Chase on Friday. It was quickly apparent after the first down the back straight that the black airplane was somehow having his wings clipped, and the manner in which he clambered over the seventh fence in instalments was plainly not the way of the horse which has wowed us with 10 straight scintillating wins. As Barry Geraghty put it, "the 'whoa' was gone".

The trouble -- quickly traced to the "cardiac area" (as Nicky Henderson described it) -- is not uncommon with horses and is eminently treatable. Fitness and form too is infinitely restorable, as demonstrated by Denman, whose heart condition didn't prevent him winning a second Hennessy or placing in three Gold Cups afterwards.

The aura is gone for all time, however. That pure essence of invincibility accompanying a horse unbeaten in his discipline has forever been removed in one cruel stroke. The sanctity of the perfect record has

forever been defiled and however you look at it, the race stats of 11111/11111 look far less wholesome when you stick a 'P' on the end. There is something about the human condition that strives endlessly for perfection and something small in us dies when the immortal is rendered mortal -- when that which is pure, untainted and impervious is unexpectedly breached.

Donald Kennedy said, "A lot of disappointed people have been left standing on the street corner waiting for the bus marked 'Perfection'." After Friday, we'll all just have to wait for the next one to come along.

The only thing that helps National Hunt trainers remain sane, I am sure, is the constant turnover of stock and the hope at any moment that the next champion might be about to come through the gate. Whatever about the Black Friday experience at Seven Barrows at least they bring home a horse in the box -- which is more than occurred after the tragic fall of Darlan earlier this year at Doncaster. The recent retirement of Binocular and the fatal loss of Chatterbox after the Ladbroke at Ascot last week has sorely depleted the two-mile hurdle division, so it must have come as some relief that My Tent Or Yours managed to maintain his upward ascent by adding the Christmas Hurdle to the Fighting Fifth already garnered this season.

More reassuring still was the manner in which he toughed it out against steely The New One, for a horse whose own heart has been called into question on occasion.

The Mullins Monopolies Commission was getting a little nervous on St Stephen's Day when three odds-on shots from the yard were reversed in quick succession -- Analifet, Champagne Fever and Felix Yonger all got chinned for a variety of reasons after Clondaw Court had only just scraped home in the first. A semblance of order was restored when it was discovered it was stablemate The Paparrazi Kid that was culpable of Felix Yonger's eclipse down at Limerick.

That order was returned to a more habitual state of contentment when Rockyaboya pulled off superb race-placement to triumph in the following day's Paddy Power Chase off just 10-3 under a pudding-free Ruby Walsh. It was some foresight for a horse that had only ever won a beginners' chase back in 2011. Even in Closutton they love it when a plan comes together.

Irish Independent

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