Racing: Spirit of adventure let loose as Irish stables pit novice stars against Cheltenham's old guard
Saturday 27 January 2007
Sometimes you can learn more from defeat than victory. And perhaps the defining theme of the weekend is that many trainers, at this critical stage of the season, would prefer honourable failure to hard-won success.
Consider the three Irish trainers giving unbeaten novices a rite of passage against proven masters of their new disciplines.
Today Cailin Alainn, winner of all four starts over fences, goes on reconnaissance at Cheltenham's final meeting before the Festival, where she meets Our Vic and Halcon Genelardais in the Letheby and Christopher Chase.
And tomorrow two young hurdlers, Hide The Evidence and Lounaos, are immersed in deep waters at Leopardstown, where their opponents for the AIG Europe Champion Hurdle include nearly all the names responsible for the Irish hegemony in this sphere over the past three years.
Of course, any kind of prominent showing will represent a new peak for these horses, and enhance their prospects back among novices at the Festival. But the beauty of the situation is that only the most sadistically obtuse punter would expect them to be given unnecessarily hard races by their jockeys.
Had they been kept to novice company, in contrast, they could hardly avoid getting involved in a demanding finish, carrying penalties in heavy ground. So while it may seem bizarre to suggest that Brave Inca or Our Vic promise to give them a less exacting race, that is one of the collateral benefits to their trainers in accelerating their education.
Not that Cailin Alainn can be readily discounted today, being proven in testing ground and in receipt of the mares' weight allowance. But she does need to make another giant leap forward to beat rivals who may take her towards these stiff fences faster than she has ever galloped before.
Given how the race eluded his father, it would be ironic if David Pipe could win the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup at the first attempt, and Our Vic certainly looked eligible when coasting home at Wetherby on his reappearance.
It has been decided that the way to separate the Jekyll and Hyde in Our Vic is to separate his races, and Pipe long ago resolved not to be tempted astray from this target. The only reservation is that the heavy ground may place excessive demands on his stamina.
The same is true of Exotic Dancer, who like Our Vic has excelled round this course over shorter distances before seeming to prove his competence for three miles on a flat, sharp track - in his case, when chasing home Kauto Star at Kempton on Boxing Day.
In contrast, two of their rivals are ravenous stayers. Halcon Genelardais made a modest rating count when outclassing the Welsh National field and it is easy to picture him winning another slog here. But that possibility has plainly occurred to the bookmakers, too, and the value may instead rest in Neptune Collonges.
He was made to look slow by Our Vic at Wetherby but this race should suit him a lot better. He subsequently outstayed the very talented Another Promise at Newcastle, giving him 23lb, and it seems legitimate to ignore his disappointing run back over hurdles last time.
Brave Inca can defy the rules again
It is not just the novices who are seeking calm in the eye of the storm this weekend. The same logic extends to many of the senior runners in the big race at Leopardstown tomorrow, with Hardy Eustace, Macs Joy and Iktitaf all likely to find the testing ground incompatible. Nobody should expect them to be given too severe an examination, with Cheltenham in mind.
Of course, the only reason why so many good horses are being risked in heavy ground this weekend is that they still have another six weeks during which to regroup for the Festival. In the circumstances, however, it seems prudent to keep the faith with Brave Inca.
This slab of granite seems immune to the usual rules, having soaked up so many hard races with no apparent erosion of his commitment. He matched his grim style to similar conditions at the Leopardstown Christmas meeting, and Colm Murphy says that he has made his customary improvement at home following that race.
Triumph for the Festival planners
Progress in racing is seldom recognised quite as enthusiastically as its defects. But those who berated the innovation of a fourth day at the Cheltenham Festival should now acknowledge an unobserved boon.
One of the races devised as "ballast" for the extra day was a handicap for juvenile hurdlers. And since its introduction, the JCB Triumph Hurdle appears to have discovered a new lease of life. The overpopulated juvenile championship was loathed by many trainers, who considered it too shattering an assignment for a young hurdler. Now that the fringe candidates have been siphoned into a more suitable race, the Triumph Hurdle is proving less of a graveyard.
Last year's winner, Detroit City, is unbeaten since and is favourite for the Smurfit Champion Hurdle. Afsoun, fifth home, put himself in the picture for that race when winning at Haydock last Saturday. And the runner-up, Fair Along, has won all three starts over fences and heads the betting on the Irish Independent Arkle Trophy. In fact, you have to make your way down to three of the last four finishers to find horses that have not managed to win since.
Hearthstead Dream is worth the wait
An heir to Detroit City seems likely to be anointed at Cheltenham today, the Wragge and Co Juvenile Hurdle having drawn together so many of the leading Triumph fancies that it is difficult to imagine what Lounaos could possibly do at Leopardstown tomorrow to retain favouritism.
Mountain is a very good class of horse to be sent hurdling - in fact, he was rated 29lb better than Katchit on the Flat - but he would have to be a potential champion to beat these first time out. None has looked more exciting than Predateur, who mocked his field at Taunton in similar conditions.
On a compelling card Mountain's trainer, Jonjo O'Neill, is not contemplating a first defeat for Black Jack Ketchum in the Byrne Bros Cleeve Hurdle, but only the desperate would back him against this tougher field on the worst ground he has encountered.
No Full could be better value, dropped back in distance for the Ladbrokes Handicap Chase, having failed to get home last time. But the best opportunity of the day may not present itself until the final race, where Hearthstead Dream - from a stable with a merciless record with its raiders here - looks capable of building on a career best at Fairyhouse on New Year's Day.
Punters desperate for injection of spirit
The racing community has been endeavouring - not very successfully - to keep a collective straight face over the news that a Nebraska vet has been accused of injecting racehorses with vodka. He is said to have charged $15 (£7.50) a shot and written the dose off as a "pre-race adjustment".
It is thought that alcohol has sometimes been administered in the United States to calm nervous horses. A Californian university is even studying the feasibility of developing a post-race breathalyser.
Needless to say, the vet in question would have been far better off setting up a stall at Cheltenham today, where he would find no shortage of punters seeking "post-race adjustment".
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