Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Real Deal

The Real Deal

By Stephen Dwyer

“He is the real deal, he hardly came off the bridle”. So said trainer Dessie Hughes who was surprisingly generous with some very lavish compliments after Our Conor beat the best four year olds in Ireland last weekend. Dessie, Gold Cup winner on Davy Lad, Champion Hurdle winner aboard Monksfield, father of Richard Hughes. Dessie, trainer of  dual Champion Hurdle winner Hardy Eustace, knows what it takes for a horse to be the real deal, for anything to be real deal for that matter. Our Conor is just that.

Now outright favourite for the Triumph Hurdle, Our Conor is the best horse that Dessie Hughes has trained since Hardy Eustace. Rated 145, he already holds the same mark as Don Cossack and is very close in the ratings to established performers like Tarla and Rule The World. He is the youngest horse in the Ireland’s top twenty-rated hurdlers and he is a better horse on better ground. In other words the best is yet to come, if this happens at Cheltenham, he wins the Triumph Hurdle.

But Our Conor comes from humble beginnings. He was bought for €4,500 at the Tattersalls September Yearling Sale in 2010 and in his first outing on the Curragh, he finished a distant ninth at 33/1 in a very ordinary 10f maiden. Very ordinary as only two out of the first six home would win a race, certainly not brilliant form. But Our Conor won his next start, over 7f at Roscommon. He won the start after that at Naas and finished third in a Handicap at Leopardstown over 1 mile 2f next time out. Dessie Hughes had earmarked a race at Galway for him after the Naas win and he would go very close in that too. Succumbing by a nose to the stoutly-bred Diplomat, trained by the King of Ballybrit, Dermot Weld, Our Conor could not concede 3lbs in the weights to the Weld horse. It was a good run however and he would run one more time on the flat, finishing third in a valuable handicap at Killarney.

With a rating of 84 on the flat, Our Conor was never going to be a superstar. You need to have at least a triple digit rating to realistically contest the bigger races so connections schooled him over hurdles. This was no surprise, the horse was purchased to be a dual-purpose animal and he always schooled well at home. After his first run over hurdles at Navan, Dessie Hughes stated simply “He can jump!”. Hyperbole at its finest, but jump he could. Our Conor finished a good 8 ½ lengths ahead of the second placed horse and was well supported at odds of 8/13 favourite. Taking a step up in class, the horse easily accounted for Stocktons Wing at Fairyhouse in the Grade 3 Bar One Racing Juvenile hurdle. The reports from the Hughes stable following this race were positive again, “He's a good leaper and he has a turn of foot. He has everything you need.”

Our Conor is by Jersey Stakes winner Jeremy, who sired the Group Three Concorde Stakes and Derrinstown Stud 1000 Guineas Trial winner Yellow Rosebud. He has plenty of speed and Flamands, his Dam is by Sadler’s Wells, she won twice over middle distances on the flat at Newmarket and Chester for Luca Cumani. He cemented his place at the head of the Triumph Hurdle market after his latest win at Leopardstown in the Grade 1 Spring Juvenile Hurdle, a race worth almost €70,000. Willie Mullins was double-handed in this race with Diakali and Blood Cotil who were both believed to be the very best juvenile hurdlers in the Mullins yard. Both were expensive French-bred horses, both unbeaten in their two respective starts over hurdles in Ireland.

 After his win in a Grade 2 at Leopardstown over Christmas,  Willie Mullins compared Blood Cotil to Scloardy who won the Triumpy hurdle for the yard in 2002. Both he and Diakali carried serious reputations entering the Spring Juvenile Hurdle. Our Conor always travelled well in the race and although made a two minor hurdling errors  never came off the bridle to win the Grade 1 event comfortably. Back to Dessie Hughes again who noted; “He finished his race well and it is great to see him staying so well, that's what he'll need for his next race (the Triumph Hurdle at Cheltenham).”

But the Triumph Hurdle is not straightforward. You need to travel very well throughout and need lots of luck as it is always run at a furious pace. Some seriously good horses have won this in recent times, Zarkandar, Celestial Halo and Detroit City typify the British stranglehold on the race. Apart from Scolardy, the only other Irish winner in the past twenty years was the Ted Walsh-trained Commanche Court in the 1997 renewal.

There have been plenty of well-fancied Irish horses who have run well, but not won the Triumph. Unaccompanied was second to Zarkander, even with a 7lb fillies allowance. Carlito Brigante was a well-beaten fourth (and 7/2 favourite) to Soldatino and Lounaos (also 7/2 favourite) could only finish tenth for Eoin Griffin when Katchit won the race. Lounaos had also won two of the hurdle races that Our Conor has won this term and fits a similar profile but Our Conor is a little more imposing and should take some beating if run handily.

Cut from 12/1 to 5/1 after Leopardstown, Our Conor faces stiff opposition from both Paul Nicholl’s runner Far West and Rolling Star trained by Nicky Henderson. Far West won the Triumph hurdle trials in November and Decembers and he stayed on strongly particularly when the ground was that bit better in November. If Far West keeps progressing for Paul Nicholls, his 8/1 price would be good value. Rolling Star won over hurdles in France and is a previous Cheltenham winner . He beat the well-regarded Irish Saint in the Grade 2 Triumph Trial two weeks ago and Barry Geraghty has reported that the horse will improve again.

On bare form, Our Conor has a great chance in the Triumph, especially on the back of what he has done to the Mullins horses. The dream is alive now for his connections so if you like him, take a price about him now because there is a wall of Irish money and prayers going to be placed on the shoulders of this boy.

The Triumph Hurdle carries prize money of £120,000. If he wins, it will be long way from that ninth at the Curragh.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Cheltenham Festival 2013

 
Cheltenham Festival 2013
 
By Stephen Dwyer
 
 

It is the jewel in the crown of the jumps season. From Tuesday March 12th to Friday March 15th, the most elite horses, trainers and jockeys in the world of equine talent converge upon the Cotswolds for the Cheltenham Festival. Worth over £50 million to the local economy, the Festival attracts almost a quarter of a million visitors each year.  

To the UK and Irish betting industries, the Cheltenham Festival fundamentally affects the annual profits of bookmakers on both sides of the Irish sea. Ten years ago, when favourites won half of the races at the meeting, several major bookmaking firms reported lower than expected profits for the year, attributed in no small part to “unfavourable results” at Cheltenham.
Such is the scale of the betting frenzy that the Festival also accounts for around 10 per cent of the Tote’s annual on-course pool betting turnover. On average at least £1 million changes hands on every race in the betting ring at the racecourse, with over 250 bookmakers in attendance for each day of the four day meeting. Attracting the owners and connections, aside from the prestige of having a Cheltenham winner, is the extraordinary prize money. With a  total prize fund of over £3.8 million, the average race is worth in excess of £141,000.

Four championship races form the centrepiece for each of the days at the Festival and the competition for each of the events is especially strong this year. The Stan James Champion Hurdle includes no less than four previous winners in Rock On Ruby, Hurricane Fly, Binocular and Punjabi. The prize fund for the race this year has never been higher, at £400,000  it has been increased by £30,000 from the 2012 level.
At the head of the market is the 2010 winner Hurricane Fly. Available generally at 3/1 Hurricane Fly recently equalled Istabraq’s record of fourteen Grade 1 wins over hurdles. There is no doubt that Hurricane Fly is the  best hurdler since Istabraq, he boasts a  better winning record, has never fallen and Ruby Walsh is on record as saying the ‘Fly has so much speed he could win a Group 1 on the flat if he wanted to.

No horse has won back the Festival Champion Hurdle since Comedy of Errors in 1975, but if there is one who can defy that statistic, it is Hurricane Fly. He cast aside the “Montjeu” curse in 2011, where no progeny of Montjeu had won at the Festival and he has a very realistic chance of regaining his title this year. Many punters will be a lot happier taking 3/1 for him now than the 4/7 last year when he was not a sound horse, coughing a week before the race and was not right on the day when beaten into third. It is also worth noting that his trainer Willie Mullins has either the favourite or second favourite in 14 of the 27 races at the Cheltenham Festival. This is a true reflection on the strength in depth at Closutton and Hurricane Fly is quite happy to lead the charge, as he does at home on the gallops. Hurricane Fly is nine now and there have only been three winners over the age of eight for the last 58 years, he faces a tough task yes, but not an impossible one.

On Ladies Day, the feature race is the Sportingbet Queen Mother Champion Chase. With £350,000 on offer, is seems a penalty kick for Sprinter Sacre. Beaten only twice in his thirteen races, Sprinter Sacre is an astonishing horse. He remains unbeaten over fences and has been supported from 11/10 into 2/5 for the race. He was a seven length winner of the Arkle Chase at last year’s festival where his performance was simply described by Sporting Life as “awesome”. Progressing greatly in his career as a second-season chaser, Sprinter Sacre has subsequently won three Grade 1 races since last year’s Festival by a combined distance of 42 lengths. It is very difficult to identify chinks in his armour, his jumping is impeccable and he has a devastating turn of foot. The only conceivable cause for concern is that the horse has yet to make a serious mistake over fences and does he have the ability to recover from a jumping error. In truth he probably does and Sprinter Sacre should become the fifth winning favourite in the Champion Chase in the last ten years.

When Paul Nicholls broke the news last December that Big Buck’s sustained a leg injury and would be out for the season, it was greeted with dismay by the racing public. The only horse to win four successive Ladbrokes World hurdle titles at Cheltenham, Big Buck’s had won eighteen races in a row before his injury. Connections are hopeful that the horse will return to training and his defection from this year’s World Hurdle means that it is the most open renewal of the race in some years. Nicky Henderson’s Oscar Whiskey finished fifth to Big Buck’s last year and recently ran Reve De Sivola to a neck in the Cleeve Hurdle over three miles. Oscar Whiskey does have plenty of class, he was third in a Champion Hurdle, won the Welsh Champion Hurdle and has won around Cheltenham four times. After the Cleeve Hurdle, Rory Jiwani of Stan James said, "Nick Williams' charge is definitely on an upward curve and he just saw off Oscar Whisky with the pair well clear. We've cut Reve de Sivola from 6/1 to 4/1 favourite for the World Hurdle”. Where Reve de Sivola is a proven stayer, with just 6 wins from 23 starts, he does not have the class of Oscar Whisky. Should Nicky Henderson’s 8yo stay the trip and get his ground, he would be a popular winner.

On the last day of the Festival, the Blue Riband of jump racing takes centre stage. With £550,000 on offer, the most valuable prize of the Festival is the Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup. There was over £50 million staked on the 2012 renewal of the Gold Cup alone which took the turnover for the week above £300 million. Hennessy Gold Cup winner Bobs Worth is the outright 3/1 favourite, he won the 2012 RSA chase and has never been beaten at Cheltenham from his four starts. His trainer Nicky Henderson is the most successful trainer of all time at The Festival with 46 victories and is very keen on the chances of Bobs Worth. The 2011 winner and last year’s third, Long Run is 7/1 for the race and Willie Mullins saddles Sir Des Champs who is 9/2 and has won both the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys' Handicap Hurdle and the Jewson Novices' Chase at Cheltenham. The race appears to be between the main market protagonists although Silviniaco Conti for Paul Nicholls has an each way chance if handling the extended trip. Interestingly a new Cheltenham Gold Cup is minted each year. There is 10 ounces of gold in the trophy, which makes it worth around £11,000 and it will find a new home in 2013.

In wrapping it all up I recall attending the Festival some years ago I met an elderly gentleman who said  something very fitting; “there are four days in a year, the rest aren’t Cheltenham.”

Never a truer word was spoken.

 

Ireland’s RSA Hopes

Ireland’s RSA Hopes
 
By Stephen Dwyer
 
 


They say it’s a hard race, and they are right. It’s a big ask for a novice to jump nineteen fences over three miles and 110 yards, harder still when it’s at Cheltenham and to be expected to win there. The RSA is run over the Old course at Prestbury Park, like the New course, it is testing and undulating. Stiff fences and sheer left-hand turns sap the life out of all but the toughest horses and the 350-yard uphill finish has put a firm stop to many plans of victory.

That said, you don’t need to be a world beater to win an RSA. Guts will do, plenty of them though, and  the ability to jump downhill and travel well within yourself. Seven seems to be the magic number too, as eleven of the last thirteen winners of the RSA were seven year olds, the younger horses often bypass the race for an easier challenge. Case in point, Timmy Murphy noted that horses are going three strides quicker in the RSA than any other novice race and for that reason preferred to see the progressive Our Father take his chances in the National Hunt Chase over four miles.

And onto the theory that the RSA is a hard race, out of the last ten winners of the RSA four horses did not complete their next race. Weapon’s Amnesty pulled up, One Knight fell and both Rule Supreme and Bostons Angel were unseated. The argument may be made that some of these results were simply jumping errors in a jumping theatre or it could equally be made that the RSA took its toll. But a forty per cent failure to finish ratio cannot be lightly dismissed. By comparison, out of the last ten running’s of the Arkle Chase, comparable in that it is for for novices, the only horse not to finish his race next time out was Azertyuiop when unseating at the first in the Haldon Gold Cup. Starting with Sprinter Sacre the next-race record for Arkle winners was 113215271U compared to 1UP43111UF for the RSA, a comparable win percentage but much higher for non-finishers.

And then to the Irish hopes, it would seem Boston Bob leads the way. He had an unhappy time of it last year at the Festival when unable to make up lost ground to Brindisi Breeze in the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle over 3m. He was strongly fancied for that race and backed into 6/5 favourite but left his followers disappointed. We were left with the feeling that he never really got into the race as Brindisi Breeze found plenty up the hill and ran away a deserved winner. But Boston Bob was always made to be a chaser. His debut over 2m4f at Navan did not elicit a lot of praise, he was niggled two fences from home but evidently found enough to win by half a length. Not the performance you would expect for a horse which was 1/5 on the day. Going on bare form, the second that day, You Must Know Me was beaten 22 lengths next time out when 9/10 favourite so it seems that Boston Bob should be bigger than his current odds of 6/1 for the RSA. He will need a run before the Festival and this is likely to come in the Dr PJ Moriarty Novice Chase over 2m 5f at Leopardstown this Saturday. This race is always an interesting trial for the RSA and Willie Mullins has won both this and the RSA twice before, with Florida Pearl (1998) and Cooldine (2009). It was also achieved by Bostons Angel (2011 so it will be an interesting challenge for Boston Bob.

Two other Willie Mullin’s runners, Aupcharlie and Back In Focus are close in the betting, at about 12/1 and 16/1 respective. All of Aupcharlie’s three wins have come on ground with some cut in it but he was third in the Cheltenham Champion Bumper in 2011 so he does hold respectable course form. He has been second twice over three miles, beaten only a head and half a length on these starts. Aupcharlie travels well within himself during races but his jumping needs to improve slightly if he is to play a part in the RSA. Back In Focus, an ex-Howard Johnson gelding fits the profile a shade more positively. He has progressed nicely over fences and is three from three, winning a beginners chase, Grade 2 and Grade 1 within 11 weeks. He rallied well under pressure to beat Aupcharlie in the Topaz Novice Chase at Leopardstown last time out and he too holds an entry in the Dr PJ Moriarty Novice Chase. He has been compared in his ways to Tidal Bay in his early days but he seems more straightforward. A negative is his form on good ground, he was beaten almost a distance on his only run on good ground at Aintree but he could well be a grinder and that sort does well in the RSA.

The Gigginstown army are represented by Tofino Bay trained by Dessie Hughes. A general 16/1 chance, he is a ten year old and this in itself is a huge negative. No ten year old has won the RSA, (Birthlaw won it aged 11 in 1946 and Minnehoma in 1992 was the oldest at 9 to win the race.) He has won the Troytown and Woodlands Park Grade 2 Chase but his age is enough of a detractor.

The useful Lord Windermere trained by Jim Culloty may have more of a chance than Tofino Bay. At 7 he fits the age profile and has been running well over fences. He finished ahead of the well-touted Marito over 2m 5f in a Grade 2 at Leopardstown so he should get the trip at Cheltenham. He ran well enough on goodish ground in the Deloitte Novice Hurdle, finishing ahead of Captain Conan and Cash And Go so if he steps up in trip it will be interesting.

In a race where favourites have a poor enough record, even for the festival, Dynaste is short but the Irish have a decent recent record and it may prove so in a couple of weeks time.

BAU at Leopardstown

BAU at Leopardstown
 
By Stephen Dwyer
 
 

There is a colloquial term within large corporations which refers to everything running within normal parameters. BAU, or Business As Usual might be one of those “Americanisms”  that has slipped into our vocabulary but it perfectly describes events in the Irish Champion Hurdle last Sunday. It was BAU for Hurricane Fly as he captured his third successive win in the Grade 1 event, barely breaking sweat.

Conditions were outrageous, driving sleet and snow paid havoc with the going and jockeys reported the ground to be as testing as it had ever been at the Foxrock venue. No matter for the ‘ Fly, three flights from home he cruised into second position and from there coasted to the line, eased down by five lengths. Around Leopardstown that is his aggregate winning distance, unbeaten in six starts at the track it was a fitting setting to capture his fourteenth win at the highest level.

Much was made of the opposition on Sunday and just five went to post but in truth Binocular and Thousand Stars were always playing for second place. And so it came to pass. Barely a nose separated the two as Tony McCoy was held by Paul Townend for the runner-up spot. Though rated four pounds higher than Thousand Stars, Binocular had not run for 320 days and carried condition, in abundance. In truth it was a good effort from the former Champion Hurdler and improvement is assured.

Binocular’s performance attracted the attention of the stewards who accepted the reason for the placing was essentially a lack of match fitness. Many of those in attendance felt that more use should have been made of Binocular but the reality is that he is a hold up horse. When winning  the Kingwell and Christmas Hurdles, he did so from off the pace, he is a horse that needs to be nursed into a race. Overturn beat him the Fighting Fifth in no small part due to Binocular racing far too keenly early on and it was the same in the Irish Champion Hurdle when he ran at Punchestown, he kicked off and led early and could not stay on at the business end.

To run Thousand Stars to a nose was a good effort, Thousand Stars is a dual French Champion Hurdle winner who has already ran twice this season and it is hard to understand what was expected  from Binocular. In the end he finished 29 lengths ahead of Captain Cee Bee who has already won a Group 2 hurdle this season so he is no slouch.

But the day belonged to Hurricane Fly. He finished up the 1/6 favourite, 1/10 on the Tote, the shortest priced winner of the race in living memory, even Istabraq finished at a bigger but equally unbackable price of 2/9 when winning the third of his Irish Champion Hurdles in 2000 in a similarly small contest. There is no doubt that Hurricane is the best hurdler since Istabraq. He boasts a better winning record,  has never fallen and has amassed more prize money despite running less races than Istabraq.  For the record Istabraq raced over hurdles 29 times, winning 23 races and £1,007,957. Hurricane Fly has raced 19 times over hurdles, winning 16 of these and accumulating £1,020,574 in prize money.

But it is a moot point comparing the two. Success in the present is only shattered by comparison with the past. Right now Hurricane Fly is top of the heap. Ruby Walsh is on record as saying that the horse has so much speed he could win a Group 1 on the flat if he wanted to. He won’t get off the ‘Fly in March, nothing in Paul Nicholls yard has a better chance and at present Ruby is being diplomatic, an understandable position.

In just over eight weeks’ time, Hurricane Fly attempts to win back the Champion Hurdle crown that is lost to Rock On Ruby in 2011. He has a tough task in front of him. No horse has won back the Festival Champion Hurdle since Comedy of Errors in 1975, but if there is one who can defy that statistic, it is Hurricane Fly. He cast aside the “Montjeu” curse in 2011 and can do so again in March. I would be a lot happier taking 3/1 for him now than the 4/7 last year when he was not a sound horse, coughing a week before the race, gifting eleven lengths to Rock On Ruby at Cheltenham and had an off day, it happens.

That his trainer Willie Mullins has either the favourite or second favourite in 14 of the 27 races at the Cheltenham Festival is just a reflection on the strength in depth at Closutton and Hurricane Fly is quite happy to lead the charge, as he does at home on the gallops.

Out of interest, we must correct Willie Mullins who recently said that the very useful Pont Alexandre was the first horse he put into Grade 1 for his first run over hurdles,  but he was wrong. This honour fell to Hurricane Fly who won the Royal Bond at Fairyhouse as a 4 year old That will tell you the regard that he has for Pont Alexandre.

Pont Alexandre has a long way to go before being compared with Hurricane Fly but a good start is half the battle.

I hope Ruby remembers that when he lines up at the start of the Champion Hurdle on March 12th.