As far as the Champion Hurdle is concerned, there is a fairly neat nationalistic division among the market leaders. In the red, white and blue corner are Arcalis, Lingo and Faasel. In the green, white and gold camp are Hardy Eustace, Brave Inca and Feathard Lady. What the Brits have in common is that they are recruits from the Flat, whereas the Irish were designated as jumpers from day one.
It would seem that nature, not nurture, is having the better of the debate at present. But historically, it can be argued that the ability to jump is an acquired skill, rather than an inherited one. The best hurdler of them all, Night Nurse, was by a sprinter out of a mare who raced three times (badly) as a juvenile; the best of recent times, Istabraq, is by the supreme modern Flat sire Sadler's Wells, out of a mare who also produced a Derby winner.
Horses and jumping can be equated to children and swimming. Some take to it naturally, some eventually learn, others are always incompetent. But all have to be taught, whether their genetic inheritance says Epsom or Aintree.
Faasel's family background was definitely one with a Classic pencilled in. Bred by Sheikh Hamdan, his sire was Unfuwain, his dam a half-sister to the 1,000 Guineas winner Harayir. But hopes failed to materialise; though five times a winner from 13 outings he was merely a very good handicapper.
But although he did not inherit that ephemeral quality of class (in Flat terms) from his forbears, they did bequeath him a splendid physique and a sensible mind, qualities that have made jumping easy for him. "He's a grand-looking horse," said Nicky Richards, his trainer, yesterday, "He must be nearly 16.2 hands and he's still got growing to do."
Richards has an open mind about where his team at Greystoke, Cumbria, come from. "Whether they are off the Flat, or a conventional jumping background, they are all have to learn the job," he said. "The jump-bred ones that we get as youngsters and break ourselves, they're introduced to going over poles and tiny jumps right from when they're on long reins, and regard it as a matter of course.
"When we get them off the Flat we push on with them a bit quicker. But the key thing with them all is you teach them to enjoy it from the start. I can remember my father [the late Gordon] would take them down to the lunge ring and let them play around over poles, and he'd tell you straight away which ones would make it.
"They are all different in their attitudes to jumping, no matter how they're bred. You like to see them have a buck and a kick after a jump, because if they're having fun you're half-way there. Some will take longer than others, but the day you get too aggressive with them is the day you'll lose them."
Faasel was one who took to his new job straight away, which was just as well, as he had cost Jim Ennis, his owner, top price of 230,000 guineas at Newmarket sales when he was culled by Sheikh Hamdan as a three-year-old.
The five-year-old was just about the best of last year's juveniles and performed with credit when he took on seniors for the first time, finishing third to Harchibald in the Bula Hurdle at Cheltenham. He will take his next step on the Festival road on Saturday, in the Champion Hurdle Trial at Haydock.
"He was still a boy against men last time, but he ran a solid race," said Richards. "It's difficult for five-year-olds in their second season, and this one will be a better horse next year; he still has a lot of strengthening to do.
"It will be testing ground on Saturday and he'll be a better horse in the spring on better ground. We were never going to over-cook him before then. But he needs a run and he should cope."
NB: Day Of Claies
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