Chris McGrath: Experience will shine through Halo
Saturday 12 December 2009
I know what I'd do if he were mine. Like a shot. Dunguib, I mean – perhaps the best bumper horse anyone has seen, and so far looking pretty immaculate over hurdles as well.
Everyone is full of advice for his owners, Daniel Harnett and Lily Lawlor. Some urge them to play the long game, and confine Dunguib to the company of novices at Cheltenham in March; others argue that nobody knows what tomorrow may bring, never mind next season, and so to cut to the chase – to take on all comers in the Smurfit Champion Hurdle itself.
They have a point, you know, and that's one of the many reasons why I simply wouldn't hesitate. If he were mine, I'd sell him. On the spot. And that, in turn, is why I wouldn't presume for one moment to tell the owners the proper destiny for their horse.
They have decided that the excitement they get from Dunguib is literally beyond price. Maybe they don't need the dough quite as badly as some of us. But the bottom line remains the same – that is to say, the bottom line doesn't register.
They received some eye-watering bids for Dunguib after his staggering displays in the championship bumpers at both Cheltenham and Punchestown. But it looks as though the last cent in Ireland wouldn't buy him – not that anyone knows where that particular coin might be found just now.
And that's pretty marvellous, really. Likewise, their fidelity to the horse's young jockey, Brian O'Connell, not just when it came to Cheltenham last season, when he was still an amateur, but again when the horse made the switch to hurdles. All in all, they have ensured – come the day he finally discovers a rival who can get him off the bridle – that the freakish natural powers sustaining Dunguib will be compounded by a commensurate tide of goodwill.
Harnett says that Dunguib is 99.99 per cent certain to be aimed at the Supreme Novices' Hurdle, but that won't stop some people from working away at that 0.01 per cent. And there's no harm in that. It's tap-room polemics of this type that give due stature to a big occasion, like Cheltenham, and a big horse, like Dunguib.
One contribution to the debate this week did surprise me, namely that the last winner of the Supreme Novices' Hurdle to graduate to immediate success in the Champion was Bula, in 1971. (Brave Inca needed another year, Hors La Loi an extra two)
The old-timers will make a point of honouring the memory of Bula at Cheltenham today, it being no longer preserved by a race nowadays known as the Boylesports International Hurdle. The sponsors deserve their pound of flesh, however, not least after rescheduling the prize at Ascot last year when Cheltenham had been abandoned.
And perhaps the difference in Celestial Halo, then and now, is pretty pertinent to this caution in the connections of Dunguib. For there is every chance that Celestial Halo has returned a better horse, again, than when beaten so narrowly in the Champion, never mind than when outclassing his peers in the Triumph Hurdle a year previously.
Regardless, he looks rock solid today as he seeks to extend a remorseless sequence of big Saturday wins for his trainer, Paul Nicholls. A year ago, at Ascot, he was making his reappearance and was readily outpaced by Binocular. This time, he already has a striking comeback under his belt, and should also be more at home back over a course that really plays to his strengths.
The boot is on the other foot, in fact, with Punjabi instead expected to improve for this, his delayed return to the fray. It was Punjabi who thwarted Celestial Halo's rather savage, gung-ho bid for glory in the Champion, but their respective graph lines meet at different angles today.
Sadly, the odds offered against the favourite earlier in the week have long dwindled, but Celestial Halo looks pretty certain to confirm himself the one Champion contender really on his game for the first skirmishes of the campaign.
There remains plenty of time, of course, for the likes of Hurricane Fly to renew their momentum before March. And his trainer, Willie Mullins, saddles an interesting contender for the big handicap chase of the day, again sponsored by Boylesports.
Jayo's jumping rather fell apart as his novice campaign wore on, but it seems significant that so powerful a yard is prepared to send him overseas for a race like this, first time out. There were times earlier on when Jayo looked a pretty smart prospect, and he remains unexposed over this distance. For those left cold by the odds available about Celestial Halo, 20-1 against Jayo should be rather more the ticket.
With Hurricane Fly in mind, Mullins will doubtless be an interested observer of the Unicoin Homes Relkeel Hurdle, where Zaynar could well suggest his Champion credentials to be superior to either of his stablemates, Punjabi or Binocular.
An education among novices does not seem to have done either Zaynar or Celestial Halo any harm. In fact, the way Zaynar looked on his reappearance, at Ascot, you can see why even Dunguib might not want to go looking for trouble just yet.
After all, there's always time enough for trouble to find you. Say, is that the bloodstock agent's number? Or was that what he was offering?
Fallon's chance to regain centre of big stage after Kinane's exit
If you have eyebrows like Michael Kinane, and are not perceived as the quizzical type, you had better reconcile yourself to being "inscrutable" instead. That was long the way with the rider of Sea The Stars, who announced his retirement this week.
But it defeats me how anyone could ever find such a man hard to read. It doesn't matter if you are John Magnier himself, or a journalist asking a daft question, he always conducts himself in the same composed, unpretentious way. You always know exactly where you stand with MJK.
His steely demeanour tended to make younger, emerging rivals seem hard to take seriously. With his retirement, everyone moves along a peg, but the overall gravitas of the weighing room will dip perceptibly. As such, his departure is hardly bad news for Kieren Fallon, who will now be even closer to the top of the list in big races than was already the case, following his commendably purposeful return from exile.
While most of us are now fully engrossed in the jumps season, Fallon stands on the brink of another breakthrough in his rehabilitation with two big chances at the Hong Kong International Carnival, early tomorrow morning: Youmzain, in the Vase; and Presvis, in the Cup.
Fallon's career has been full of paradox, and giddy ups and downs. But he knows what a bomb-proof jockey looks like, because he rode against one for so long.
Turf account: Chris McGrath
Sa Suffit (1.15 Cheltenham)
A big day for the progressive flagship of an emerging Scottish stable, and he will adore the stiff finish, judging by the way he rallied to retrieve the lead on his reappearance at Haydock.
Divers (2.45 Doncaster)
Dropping back in distance in a big field could get this strong-travelling type to click, after he has caught the eye more than once, both over too long a trip and off too steady a pace.
*One to watch
Having disappeared after winning a maiden in midsummer, Huygens (D J Coakley) was a close third in a Kempton nursery during the week – and, speedily bred and a strong traveller, might be better again short of a mile.
*Where the money's going
Alaivan is 7-1 favourite with Ladbrokes for the JCB Triumph Hurdle after impressing on his debut for Edward O'Grady at Gowran Park yesterday.
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