Injury blow for Flemenstar bid
Withdrawal takes gloss off Grade One clash of rivals, says Ian McClean
The unexpected withdrawal through injury yesterday afternoon of Flemenstar from the all-star quartet of this afternoon's Grade One John Durkan Memorial Chase serves as yet another reminder of just how difficult it is – especially with jump racing – to get the best to compete with the best.
Sprinter Sacre's enforced absence from yesterday's Tingle Creek had already turned that Grade One renewal into a lustreless affair. To lose two high-profile steeplechase stars from their intended engagements in the same week verges on Wilde's definition of careless, but more seriously it underlines the relative fragility of nature's finest quadrupeds and how important it is to savour when the best actually manage to get to take on the best.
As a consequence Flemenstar is no longer able to defend his title from last year or host the rematch with old rival Sir Des Champs. His owner Stephen Curran said yesterday afternoon: "He's got a bit of a knock, I'd say he knocked into himself. We don't know how bad it is, we thought he would be OK but he's too good a horse to be taking a chance with.
"There's a bit of swelling there, it might not be too serious but we don't really know at this stage. We'll see how he is and we'll know more in five or six days. We'll mind him and be patient, and he'll get the time he needs.
"He was in the form of his life, in tremendous form. He did a piece of work the other week that was unbelievable. It's just bad luck, we were really looking forward to it."
Mind you, just because we are looking forward to it, and even when they do all turn up there are still no guarantees. Simply roll back the calendar a year to this weekend 2012 and jump racing was preparing itself for a dual clash of the titans – one at Sandown, the other at Punchestown. A quartet of chasing's most exciting sophomores were about to square up. Sprinter Sacre was eyeballing tearaway Sanctuaire in the Tingle Creek while Flemenstar and Sir Des Champs were preparing for battle at home. The imagination ultimately over-sold whilst the reality in both cases under-delivered. At Sandown Sanctuaire became a spent force before the Pond Fence and failed to even cling on for second whilst at Punchestown, Flemenstar sailed from fence to fence and quickened away without Sir Des Champs ever getting close enough to seriously challenge.
For the second year running at Punchestown we are faced again with another three runner affair – Rubi Light seemingly a support act to the two main protagonists. Against that, at least all three runners can boast Grade One-winning form at Punchestown: Sir Des Champs landing the Punchestown Gold Cup on his last appearance in April, Arvika Ligeonniere obliged in the Ryanair Chase, and Rubi Light gave a career best performance to win the 2011 running of today's race.
Rubi Light may be primed to give it all he's got today but that might not be nearly good enough as his rating of 152 (9lbs lower than Arvika Ligeonniere and 21lbs below Sir Des Champs) indicates.
Consequently it all adds up to an unfortunate choice of Mullins A Vs Mullins B – and your choice is probably going to be based on whether you want to side with the Today or the Tomorrow horse.
One of the trickiest conundrums for any trainer is the balancing act for a horse between today and tomorrow. Post race reactions like "Today was his Gold Cup" or "That WAS the Plan" are indicative of a horse primed to the minute for the minute. Anything that transpires beyond "today" is a bonus. If there is one horse in the triumvirate for which today is certainly not his Gold Cup, it is undoubtedly Sir Des Champs. His Gold Cup will be the real thing in March and Willie Mullins would, I suspect, have traded all his five winners at this year's Cheltenham Festival for the one that got away as Bobs Worth surged away from Sir Des Champs in the blue ribband on soggy Friday. The eight-times champion trainer may have everything on his CV, but the one yawning cavity is the one he will most want to fill. In Sir Des Champs he still has the premium candidate and therefore, on his first run of the season, you can be certain he won't be asked to use every club in the bag today. There'll be another day for this seven-year-old to reach for the racecourse equivalent of Big Bertha.
All things considered, it is hardly surprising then the market today is led by stablemate Arvika Ligeonniere. Arvika Ligeonniere really fills the eye as the model chaser and is spectacular when in flow over the obstacles. He is unbeaten over fences racing right-handed and is three-from-three at Punchestown. Sir Des Champs will need to be paying attention to prevail today. Against all odds, it could still be intriguing.