Harcon yesterday joined a growing list of top-class Irish jumpers who will be idle during the coming season, when Jim Dreaper, his trainer, revealed that the finest staying novice chaser in Ireland last season has suffered a serious tendon injury. The damage may be so severe that Harcon will not re-enter training until the spring of 1997, if at all.
For Irish punters who endured the lean years of the late 1980s, the news is particularly bitter. For several seasons, young jumpers showing even the vaguest promise were swiftly exported to Britain and until the recession began to bite on this side of the water, Ireland could not hang on to its home-bred talent. Since National Hunt racing is a long-term business, it is only in the last two seasons that the growing Irish strength has permeated through the divisions to the top-class chasers. Harcon, a huge seven-year-old chestnut who won his first races over fences last year and then finished second to Brief Gale in the Sun Alliance Chase last March, was seen by many as Ireland's next Gold Cup winner.
"Harcon will be out of training until at least December 1996 when a further assessment of his legs will be made," Dreaper said yesterday. "This latest injury is unconnected to the hind-leg damage he suffered at Punchestown last year and from which he has recovered."
It is hard to imagine that Harcon will possibly be fit for the 1997 Gold Cup, while by 1998, at the age of 10, his best days might well be behind him. The chance that he will ever run in a Gold Cup, far less win it, now appears very slight.
A significant success for an Irish chaser last year was Nuaffe's victory in the Greenalls Gold Cup at Haydock, a race which will be second only to the Grand National among valuable handicap chases following a 100 per cent increase in prize-money announced yesterday.
Added prize-money for the three-and-a-half mile race will rise from pounds 40,000 to pounds 80,000, while it will be renamed the Greenalls Grand National Trial to emphasise its pivotal position in the jumping calendar, five weeks before Aintree's main event. A bonus scheme, which will pay pounds 58,000 if any horse can finish in the first three at Haydock and then win the National, means that success in both races would earn the horse's connections almost pounds 250,000. A place at Haydock and victory at Aintree would net more than pounds 200,000.
Haydock's stiff "drop" fences - lower on landing than on take-off - may deter some owners and trainers, but as a preparation for Liverpool, there is nothing to match them. Red Rum prepared for two of his Grand National victories in the race, as did Red Alligator (1968) and Party Politics (1992). Previous winners also include Cool Ground and Master Oats, both of whom later won the Gold Cup at Cheltenham. "The road to Aintree now goes through Haydock and nowhere else," Peter Greenall, the sponsor's managing director, said.
Kim Bailey, Master Oats's trainer, said yesterday that the Haydock event may now prove too tempting to miss, even though it is scheduled for 24 February, less than three weeks before the Festival. "It's slightly close to Cheltenham but he's a stronger horse this year," Bailey said. "I'd be keen to go for it." Master Oats shortened in the Gold Cup betting with William Hill yesterday, and is now 4-1 favourite (from 9-2).
The big fences at Aintree will see their first action of the season on Saturday, when the Becher Chase will be the centrepiece of the November meeting. Into The Red, last year's winner, returns once more to tackle the obstacles to which, despite a heavy fall on his first attempt, he has now developed a considerable liking. "He loves the course and he is in good shape," John White, his trainer, said yesterday. "He must take all the beating on Saturday."Reuse content