Pragmatic Willie Mullins eyes on the 'Hennessy' prize
Inches, not furlongs, will decide who wins an intriguing domestic battle, writes Ian McClean
It's that time of year. Squeaky bum time Alex Ferguson might call it. Just over four weeks to the Holy of Holies in the Cotswolds and every trainer's round at morning and evening feed up and down the land is loaded with trepidation.
Already last week, Champagne West, Dynaste and Oscar Barton are amongst the high-profilers to have their season abruptly curtailed and Festival dreams dismembered - and as sure as paying for water, before this is all over, there will be plenty more to follow. That said, however, this afternoon at Leopardstown is about those still loose of limb staking their claim for a berth in the horsebox to Holyhead in a month's time.
Hennessy day is both a cherished and critical nucleus of the Irish racing calendar. It is the only fixture to boast four Grade Ones on the same card and while it is strategically index-linked to the Cheltenham Festival, it is nonetheless a riveting squeeze-box of action in its own right. Only two horses (Jodami in 1993 and Imperial Call in 1996) have managed to win the Hennessy and follow up in the Gold Cup since the race's inaugural running, as the Vincent O'Brien Gold Cup, back in 1987. Whether any from among today's field can improve that statistic is open to debate, but what is certain is that we have both the winner and second from Cheltenham last March in today's line-up.
Neither Lord Windermere nor On His Own has managed to land a score since they were divided by the width of a Rizla wrapper last spring, but they will both be approaching ripeness now and should be ready to build on their respective efforts in the Lexus over course and distance six weeks ago.
Remarkably, or maybe not, six of today's runners renew rivalry and it is a hallmark of the inconclusiveness of the Lexus result that you can still bet 7/2 the field at best prices on the high street about today's outcome. Only Road to Riches and Bobs Worth have chosen to skip the prep route and in spite of Shutthefrontdoor not being ready in time to travel from the UK, the race is intriguing in its own all-domestic right.
It is perhaps even more intriguing that Willie Mullins should have won the race an unconscionable nine times already - especially when you consider he has never won the Lexus: which is essentially the same race just six weeks earlier. The dichotomy is very indicative of the natural biorhythms of the yard. Mullins' view on preferring to run On His Own this afternoon as opposed to looking for a hat-trick in the Thyestes is typically pragmatic. "I looked at his run in the Lexus and I thought we have double the prize-money at level weights (in the Hennessy), instead of carrying top-weight in the Thyestes." It certainly hasn't made Ruby Walsh's choice any easier between the Wylie pair of On His Own and Boston Bob this afternoon. Given that there was less than a dozen lengths covering all the protagonists in the Lexus, none of the words - black, white, cut, nor dried - can be applied to a race where inches, not furlongs, are likely to be the ultimate measure.
The Flogas (formerly PJ Moriarty) Novice Chase gives Valseur Lido the chance to confirm the scintillating impression made in the Grade One Drinmore in December when he beat an apparently quality field with effortless ease - jumping with elan into the bargain. Bryan Cooper endorses the view. "He was the most impressive novice this year, if you take out Un De Sceaux, over that trip anyway. He annihilated his rivals over that trip in the Drinmore in Fairyhouse and I suppose the fact he hasn't run since then means he has gone under the radar a bit, which is good in one sense as there can be a lot of pressure coming to the races."
Valseur Lido's cast-iron Grade One form faces off against innumerable unquantifiables from the 'still-could-be-anything' drawer. Any or all of Le Vent d'Antan, Apache Stronghold (back over this trip), Jarry d'Honneur or even a back-to-form The Tullow Tank have the potential to go to the very top and this step up the ladder should be all the more fascinating for that.
The Deloitte Hurdle features last week's Willie Mullins' Neptune plunge horse Alvisio Ville, who made such an impression in the opening race of the Leopardstown Christmas Festival. It won't go unnoticed that the last two winners of the Deloitte, Champagne Fever and Vautour (both trained by Mullins), went on to win the Supreme Novices' Hurdle at Cheltenham. The remarkable aspect is that lining up amongst Alvisio Ville's rivals are two stablemates, McKinley and Nicholas Canyon - both Grade One winners already - and a Festival Bumper winner in Silver Concorde. Yet Alvisio Ville is a strongly-backed 5/4 shot in spite of only ever having won a maiden hurdle to date.
The delicious beauty about racing is that it sometimes makes no sense. No more sense than, say, the fact that McKinley is by a Jersey winner out of a half-sister to a Prix de la Foret winner.
Sunday Indo Sport