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.

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