Tuesday, March 8, 2011
By Stephen Dwyer
When the Champion Bumper was first run at Cheltenham, many traditionalists heralded it as the “beginning of the end of the festival”. What they meant by this was of course the inclusion of an all-flat race into jump racing’s annual Olympiad would somehow dilute it. As is often the case with the old guard when faced with new ideas, they were merely fearful of the unknown. Such is the popularity of the Champion Bumper nowadays that winning it is seen as a major stepping stone in the career of a young horse.
Indeed since its first running in 1992, three Champion Bumper winners have returned to the Cheltenham the next year to win their Festival race (Montelado won the Supreme Novice Hurdle, Florida Pearl won the RSA Chase and Monsignor won what is now the Neptune Investment Novices' Hurdle). There have been of course major upsets, Dunguib last year and Cousin Vinny in 2009 both lost the Supreme Novices Hurdle when favourite. Cue Card bids to set the record straight this year.
The Champion Bumper is the race in which the Irish boast the highest strike rate of winners at Cheltenham. 14 out of 18 runnings have been won by Irish-trained horses. From his base on the Kilkenny-Carlow border, John “Shark” Hanlon is dearly hoping to continue the Irish stranglehold on the race this year with Star Neuville.
A former cattle dealer, it was only a few short years ago that Hanlon took out a trainer’s license; he was kicked by a bullock in 2001, an incident which kept him low for a year. Along with that year’s foot and mouth crisis, he eventually changed profession in 2006 when taking the plunge into horse racing on a full-time basis. A trickle of horses flowed into his yard, many from contacts he had made in the cattle business but one owner in particular; Barry Connell has brought many fine horses to Shark’s stables including Luska Lad and Star Neuville.
Star Neuville has raced five times, second in his first point to point; he duly obliged next time out when winning by ten lengths at odds of 4/6. He was an £80,000 purchase at the Cheltenham sales last April and has since progressed to become one of Ireland’s leading hopes in the Champion Bumper.
He boasted a very good time at a Galway bumper in August when unsuited by the fast going and his latest run was when beating a Willie Mullins trained hotpot, Champagne Agent at Leopardstown over Christmas.
It is worth noting that the Leopardstown bumpers over Christmas are a significant signpost for Cheltenham hopefuls. Wither or Which, Florida Pearl and Total Enjoyment all won bumpers at Leopardstown before taking their respective Champion Bumpers in Cheltenham.
Shark has admitted "I think the world of this horse and he's improved loads since he won at Leopardstown". Looking closely at his last run in Leopardstown, he put the race to bed in a matter of strides. He did idle slightly when the front but perhaps this was boredom as the race was wrapped up at this stage, It was 4 lengths back to Champagne Agent and 22 lengths back to the third horse.
Star Neuville is currently fourth in the betting for the Champion Bumper, hovering around the 12/1 mark (from 25/1) he represents solid each-way value in the race. Did I mention that Champion jockey Tony McCoy also looks set to take the ride? McCoy will be bidding for his second Champion Bumper victory, following on from Liberman in 2003. His authoritarian style of riding will suit the five year old gelding. Star Neuville is also Shark Hanlon’s only Cheltenham runner.
Hanlon had intended on running the five year old gelding in a Grade 2 bumper in Newbury last month but instead his connections opted to complete his festival preparations with a racecourse gallop at Leopardstown on Sunday last. This may have been a boost to the chances of Star Neuville as horses that do not run in the same calendar year as the Champion Bumper have an excellent record in the race. Many trainers put their best bumper horses away for the race and five of the last eight winners had not run after New Year’s Day.
Ever honest, Hanlon has stated that Star Neuville would probably start favourite if trained by bumper king Willie Mullins. In less than two weeks we will see just how good he is, but as a progressive, experienced horse, he goes to Cheltenham with every chance.
In the end, stars always shine, we will hope that this one lights up the sky for the Shark.