Wednesday 17 January 2018

Privileged to pass judgment on vintage crop of chasers

Noel O'Brien

They say that once you find a job you love doing, you'll never work a day in your life. That's how I feel about my position as the Turf Club's senior National Hunt handicapper.

Racing is all about subjective opinions but, at the end of the day, the handicapper is the one in the privileged position of making a final judgment.

This is a time of year that I especially love. Just lately we've seen a bunch of proper jump horses reappear, so you can't but be excited about what lies ahead.

Last weekend, for example, I was in Galway. There were some good horses out on both Sunday and Monday, but the qualified riders' Flat race was as interesting a race as any.

Go Native treated a field full of smart horses, that are similarly more synonymous with the winter pursuit, with complete contempt under Nina Carberry.

Because it was the only race of its kind on the day, it was one of those rare occasions that I had to evaluate a Flat race, but what a race to get.

I travelled to Galway on Saturday evening to have a meal with a few friends, and you wouldn't believe the crowds and atmosphere in the city. The place was heaving.

I would normally walk a circuit of whichever track I am at before racing. Being in Galway, though, a brisk step down the promenade is hardly purgatory!

Once at the races, I set up alongside the stewards. To a large extent, I would be there to offer an expert opinion on form in relation to the day's events, and then I have to have all my horse evaluations completed and filed by 11.0 the following morning. I speak with my colleague Sandy Shaw before finalising things, and a recurring theme right now is the quality of horses going chasing.

Lyreen Legend's contest in Galway is a case in point, likewise Buckers Bridge's race at Punchestown on Wednesday.

This is a hugely significant development. Last season was as good a year for Irish novice chasers as we've had for some time and to see so many more going down the same route now is going to add real depth to the staying division, in particular.

In recent years, that has been sorely lacking. Now, for whatever reason, there is a switch back to the more traditional route of going chasing after one season hurdling.

When you see Sir Des Champs and Flemenstar so high in the Cheltenham Gold Cup betting, it is something to be welcomed. There is inevitably going to be a changing of the guard now that the generation of Kauto Star, Denman et al have moved on.

Of course, Kauto Star was officially retired on Wednesday. Because of changes in programming, a horse like that doesn't need to concede massive weights in handicaps like Arkle did but, since Arkle, I have never seen a horse run to a 170-plus rating as often as he did. While we'll never see another Arkle, Kauto Star was a special horse.

Sizing Europe is not dissimilar to Kauto Star in that he is so versatile. He is best over two miles, but you couldn't say that he doesn't stay three, and he might well have won last year's Champion Chase had he jumped the second-last cleanly.

His re-match with Quito De La Roque will be a fascinating climax to this year's two-day Down Royal festival tomorrow.

Then on Sunday we have the Cork Grand National, one of the few three-and-a-half-mile handicap chases in this country.

If I had to name one horse that has the potential to give me a bit of a sleepless night, it would probably be Willie Mullins' Bundle Of Fun. He took time to find his form, but has done now and could get in off 10st. He might well be still improving.

For more information on racing in Ireland this weekend check out

Irish Independent

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