Jumping to the wrong conclusion

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The Independent Online
While Alderbrook vaulted to short-price favouritism for the Champion Hurdle at Kempton on Saturday it was a chance, once again, for some commentators to jump to the wrong conclusion. This was a triumph, it was said, for Flat breeding over its National Hunt counterpart.

It cannot be stressed enough how much rot this theory brings with it. There is no difference between Flat and winter-bred horses other than that which the specialists try to foist on their clients. The horse is not a natural jumping animal, so to believe that one sire can pass on leaping ability is akin to considering a man can transfer underwater breathing qualities to his children.

A typical National Hunt stallion is a brute of a thing that has displayed staying qualities on the Flat. This is meant to produce something in its own image to cope with big fences in the mud. It seldom happens. In a business of great artifice, just about the nearest we get to a truism in breeding is that coupling a slow horse with another slow horse produces an animal which leaves a glistening trail behind it.

The only three jumping horses that the man in the street has heard of are Arkle, Red Rum and Desert Orchid, and none of them is from a patrician background. They are flukes, particularly Red Rum, who was bred to be a sprinter, but instead excelled in a race at Liverpool that takes a good part of a spring afternoon to complete.

Some good Flat horses fall by the wayside over obstacles, but then do many more supposedly bred for the job. It should be of little surprise that Alderbrook is such a potent weapon over timber as last May, in a Group Two race, he was able to divide Freedom Cry, the subsequent runner- up in both the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe and the Breeders' Cup Turf, and Lando, who went on to win the Japan Cup. If he stays sound, Kim Bailey's horse, who was reported fine and dandy yesterday, will be hugely difficult to beat at the Festival.

It could be his most dangerous rival in 1997 will be another horse who has shown his mettle on the level. Dato Star was runner-up under a spine- troubling weight in the November Handicap and looked the business on his hurdling debut at Wetherby earlier this month.

The gelding slid to a halt at Haydock on Friday, however, and slightly injured a hock. Injury or owner trepidation may prevent an assault at the Festival this year, but Malcolm Jefferson, Dato Star's trainer, remains convinced his horse will be a serious contestant in the years to come under both codes.

"A good horse is a good horse wherever he comes from," the Malton trainer said yesterday. "I bought Dato Star from a jumping stores sale, but he has a little bit of traditional Flat in him, and if you go through all the sires for jumping horses they're from the Flat. All National Hunt stallions are stayers from the Flat.

"A top class jumping horse would win races on the Flat because if you've got ability that's all that counts, wherever you race. A bloody good chaser, such as Desert Orchid, could easily cope with that.

"A good horse is a good horse regardless and just about all horses can jump, even though some are slower than others. I've another good horse called Go-Informal, who, when he started jumping, was a real headbanger. He went into everything at 100mph and just took off, so we popped him over fences because he didn't take any notice of hurdles. He's all right now.''

Regardless of his Flat record, Alderbrook will take some overhauling at Prestbury Park by dint of Kempton's record for Festival starmakers. Three Cheltenham winners emerged from last year's meeting and the year before the total was eight.

The participants knew they had been in races on Saturday when torrential rain turned the going to soft on the track and quagmire on the infield car-park, where the foolish lost their cars in the mud. Thank you groundsman Freddie and your Land Rover.