In Ireland hype springs eternal at Cheltenham Festival time but the plaintive longing for an Irish-trained Gold Cup winner may crumble when confronted with the reality of hard science. That's the assertion made by Jack Murphy, one of Ireland's leading equine scientists based at the University of Limerick.
Appraising the main Irish contender, Beef Or Salmon, Murphy says that Michael Hourigan's stable star is "just not anatomically and conformationally perfect". With a surgeon's eye and a proselytiser's passion, the Wexford-born scientist relates how "the horse has an uneven pair of hind legs with a curb or a weakness of his plantar ligament on one hock, similar to flat-footedness in a human. Under maximum pressure in the Gold Cup it is possible this defect will be magnified."
A sceptic might retort that Beef Or Salmon has won six Grade One contests since his appearance on the chasing radar in 2002. "Correct", states Murphy, "but those were lesser races and his conformational imperfection wasn't a factor. In the Gold Cup, with huge expectation and a large number of horses around him, Beef Or Salmon will have to jump quickly under colossal pressure and the physical and psychological exertion will test him ruthlessly. At this level a horse's mental strength is paramount."
The mental fortitude of the Irish punting fraternity will be deflated should a much-anticipated "greenwash" fail to materialise in today's Champion Hurdle. Murphy, however, is sanguine about Irish prospects.
Nevertheless he contends that former Flat racer Essex could well be a Champion Hurdle winner-in-waiting. The scientist noted that the classically-bred five-year-old was "a weaver and a wind-sucker, both of which are undesirable repetitive behaviours and often exacerbated by stress. These stereotypic behaviours could have been caused by social isolation from other horses when the potentially ultra-valuable colt was stabled at Newmarket."
Essex's racing ability has been transformed since he was gelded, but Murphy also attributes the improvement to current trainer Michael O'Brien's policy of keeping company boxes. "He's a much happier horse now and if Cheltenham doesn't overwhelm him psychologically then physically he'll win the Champion."
Murphy's assertion that Moscow Flyer has a quirk that must be eradicated if he is to reclaim his Two-Mile Champion Chase crown will send a tremor throughout Ireland. "In the last two years Moscow Flyer has either made a mistake when confronted with the last ditch at the top of the hill or unseated Barry Geraghty at the fence. The memory of these less-than-perfect leaps will be certainly embedded in the horse's neural archives." Nevertheless, Murphy believes that if this mental idiosyncrasy is eliminated then Moscow Flyer is unbeatable. And a nation can breathe again.