Wednesday 11 December 2019

O'Connell's critics ignore Dunguib's jumping flaw

THE sport of racing trades on uncertainty and even the near-four minutes it took to complete the Supreme Novices Hurdle at Cheltenham on Tuesday left a fog of doubt. Punch drunk racegoers retreated to the bar wondering if their hopes of a bumper pay-out on Dunguib had been sabotaged.

Why hadn't his trainer given different instructions? Why hadn't his young jockey gone for home sooner? Why wasn't a more experienced pilot on board? Why, why, why.

And yet for all the question marks that hovered over the race, one fact seemed indisputable. With a different ride and, perhaps, a different jockey, Dunguib might have finished closer. He might even have raised the roof off the stand and confirmed his status as a champion novice and a horse of limitless potential. He could have done all this and more, perhaps, but he would still have been a flawed champion.

Not all, but too much, of the post-race analysis centred around the performance of Brian O'Connell to the exclusion of Dunguib's obvious frailties. Of the eight hurdles they jumped, Dunguib was fluent over one, merely okay at four, patchy at one and noticeably slow over two -- a rather poor launch pad for winning a hot Cheltenham novice on ground riding quicker than he'd previously experienced over jumps.

Had we forgotten his poor display of jumping at Leopardstown last month when he had only six rivals to beat? Or the fact that, less than 12 months ago, the horse could barely jump a hurdle at all and was so clumsy and unprofessional that his trainer, Philip Fenton, wondered if he had a racehorse left at all? Whatever else he is supposed to have done, O'Connell did not make the horse a suspect jumper.

It is because he is flawed that Dunguib was ridden in the manner he was. And there was a reason, too, why O'Connell kept the ride. He is Fenton's stable jockey, lives near the yard and rides out every morning. Dunguib is a tricky horse who takes knowing and no one knows the horse better than O'Connell. Fenton regards him as a potentially top rider who had yet to put a foot wrong. What signal would it have sent to have jocked off a rider he has so much faith in?

As for the race, Dunguib's connections would have seen no reason for blind panic as the field jumped the second last. The problems began when Spring Jim, which raced in front of Dunguib throughout, jinked right on landing and took O'Connell wider than he wanted, an unfortunate manoeuvre that cost them anything up to three lengths.

It is easy to argue, of course, that O'Connell left himself exposed to such a risk. But what if he had hugged the inside instead? When Dan Breen stumbled before the second last and interfered with Menorah and Get Me Out Of Here, the first two home, what might have happened had O'Connell been cruising in their slipstream? If something bad had happened, you can be certain he would have been slaughtered for not taking the safe route on the outside.

It's not even certain the wide course was ultimately responsible for defeat. By the last, O'Connell had him within three lengths of Menorah's haunches and, when he needed his best jump, Dunguib produced his worst. Losing a length at the last was arguably more critical than losing three around the bend. Again how much of that should we lay at the jockey's feet?

Not that O'Connell is above criticism. Punters who pour millions into the sport are entitled to an opinion at least. Racing is a tough sport and jockeys can take it, even from a clownish oaf like John McCririck who ought to have been put out to pasture years ago. Davy Russell's defence of O'Connell after winning the RSA Chase the following day offered a window into how the weigh-room works: close-knit and defensive.

McCririck's hysterical ranting was welcomed by some as much-needed frankness in an industry where the media is often perceived to be soft and pliant. Yet it is one thing to thrash a young jockey for a bad ride, quite another to remain silent and docile when worse things happen in the sport on a daily basis. McCririck was entitled to share his view on O'Connell's ride, but when it comes to the really big targets he is usually found wanting.

At Folkestone four years ago, he had a chance to square up to the legendary gambler, Barney Curley, but faced with the angry, irascible Irishman, McCririck backed down like a whimpering child, an abject humiliation available for view on YouTube. And that's the thing. If McCririck is truly the voice of the punter, is it any wonder jockeys are so quick to close ranks?


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