Thursday 22 February 2018

More questions than answers

The jumps season's star-studded finale at Punchestown has made John O'Brien pine for the autumn

FOR once, Ruby Walsh had got it wrong. He had figured quite correctly that Friday's Rabobank Champion Hurdle at Punchestown would proceed at a crawl but, instead of making the running as Walsh had suggested, Tony McCoy had settled Colm Murphy's mare, Voler La Vedette, towards the rear of the field. So the Irish champion jockey was fallible after all. There was a certain comfort in the knowledge.

It was a rare lapse on Walsh's part. For whatever lessons the week afforded us on the track, it reminded us -- if we needed reminding at all -- of what it is that sets Walsh apart from his peers. The broken arm he suffered at Aintree may have deprived us of his talent in the saddle but, through his engaging and incisive commentaries, Walsh still managed to enhance an already lofty reputation.

A couple of years ago, Ted Walsh spoke about an often overlooked factor: his son's astute racing brain. Ruby rode for the two best trainers in Britain and Ireland and watched everything they did like a hawk. He engaged in the entire business of preparing horses, not just the steering of them to countless big pots. "If he played rugby, he'd be a fine coach," Ted said, "and he'll make a fine trainer some day too. He's a thinking man's jockey."

More than anything, he reminded us that racing men are well served by an extreme sense of caution. Ruby isn't a fan of young horses avoiding the novice route, and his fears were borne out spectacularly in the performances of Sizing Europe in Tuesday's Champion Chase and Dunguib in Friday's Champion Hurdle. He could not understand why both horses were taking on some of the best two-milers in the business when there were easier options elsewhere.

Sizing Europe's ambitious tilt at the Champion Chase was the more easily explained. Henry de Bromhead's talented gelding had been impressive when winning the Arkle at Cheltenham and there was widespread confidence he could take the step-up in his stride. The ground would suit and he seemed assured of the strong gallop he needs to be at his best. If it was a gamble, it seemed one worth taking.

Yet at Cheltenham, two of his main challengers -- Captain Cee Bee and Riverside Theatre -- had failed to land a serious blow and, if you were of a mind to, you could quibble with the strength of the form. In the end, finishing a seven-lengths third to Golden Silver was no disgrace. Still, you left thinking that a renewal of hostilities with Captain Cee Bee the following day would have been far more interesting and instructive.

Before Cheltenham, Walsh wondered whether the two-mile trip was on the short side for Sizing Europe and, although he won well, it remains an open question. Given his relentless galloping style, you imagine he would be effective over longer trips, yet Sizing Europe has never been asked to go beyond two and a half miles. The fear is that for all his ability he isn't quick enough to match the quickest two-milers nor possess the stamina for the extreme distance of the Gold Cup. For De Bromhead and connections, that is the nightmare scenario.

For Dunguib, the future is even more uncertain. The astonishing thing about the Champion Hurdle wasn't Philip Fenton's brave decision to pitch his talented but brittle gelding in at the deep end, but the blind faith in the ring that ensured Dunguib started favourite against proven contenders like Solwhit and Hurricane Fly, even if doubts surrounded the latter following a lengthy lay-off. Such optimism was as strange as it was misguided.

That Fenton chose the tougher option was surprising given that he had avoided it at Cheltenham when there had been pressure to go for gold in the Champion Hurdle. The trainer's caution seemed wise and admirable. They would hopefully sweep to victory in the Supreme Novices, he explained, and then consider the rise in class at Punchestown. Defeat at Cheltenham should have tempered their ambition, but they abandoned caution and went for glory. Ultimately, it was a bold but foolhardy gamble.

Again Walsh had it virtually spot on. He predicted the early pace would be slow and that Brian O'Connell would struggle to settle his horse. Both scenarios unfolded and Dunguib's race was effectively run with a mile left to go. Hurricane Fly, under a supremely confident Paul Townend, was travelling sweetly in behind while Davy Russell was set to seize the initiative on Solwhit. The two best horses in the race would fight out the finish.

Even if he had made the wrong decision, it would be wrong to be over-critical of Fenton. He has done well to make a racehorse out of an anxious gelding which doesn't possess a natural inclination to jump. And in hindsight a year spent racing an inferior bunch of novices in slowly-run races on bad ground was a poor basis for a top-class spring campaign. A couple of trips abroad might have worked wonders, but that is an easy thing to say now.

Dunguib remains a talented horse and, if Fenton can teach him to settle and brush up his jumping, could still be a contender. The faster pace he would encounter if he makes it to Cheltenham next March would make him no forlorn hope. At the same time, Hurricane Fly travels and jumps better and is a year younger with less mileage on the clock. With the Willie Mullins-trained six-year-old, you have to dig deep to find any flaws.

In the summer of 2008, Mullins had sent Hurricane Fly to tackle the Prix Alain du Breil at Auteuil. Hurricane Fly had won a maiden hurdle at Punchestown a short time previously in impressive fashion, but it was his second behind Grivette in France that took Mullins' breath away. There was no obvious point of comparison, but the trainer suspected the form was superior to anything he had witnessed at home or in England.

Two lengths behind Hurricane Fly in third came Quevega and Mullins' assessment of that race has been thoroughly vindicated. Quevega was hugely impressive in cantering to victory in Wednesday's World Hurdle and it is easy to see the mare emerging as a serious rival to Big Buck's at Cheltenham next year.

It will worry some that Hurricane Fly has twice missed the Festival through injury, but that means he is a fresh horse and still improving. Between them, Hurricane Fly and Quevega have run just 16 times. Just think of how much more there is still to come.

And that, perhaps, is the downside of the Punchestown Festival. It signals the end of the jumping season and, already, you find yourself wishing away the bright summer months until the skies darken in the autumn and the questions raised last week begin the long, winding process of being answered through the winter and beyond.

If you were thinking of the future, you would have been keeping a close eye on the bumpers. You would have seen the authority with which Hidden Universe won on Tuesday and Bishopsfurze a day later and remembered that they had both finished behind Cue Card at Cheltenham. You will remember too that Megastar and Dare Me, fifth and sixth at Cheltenham, subsequently fought out the bumper at Aintree.

In short, the Cheltenham Bumper already looks like outstanding form and a race to follow when the jumping season kicks back into gear later this year. Could Cue Card be a novice champion hurdler or the next Dunguib? Only time will tell.

Sunday Independent

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