The psychology of the New Year's resolution will be wearily familiar to anyone who makes a habit of betting on thoroughbreds. Both enterprises measure the spectrum between credulity and self-knowledge, weakness and courage, hope and experience. On the face of it, both represent gestures of optimism. But you only ever seek salvation out of a heightened sense of doom.
As a class, therefore, punters are somewhat hardened against the naïve temptations of reformation. And certainly most will greet the following submission with derision. To those prepared to make a fresh start, however, the holiday racing programme has yielded no better wager for 2009 than Harchibald.
Yes, Harchibald. The horse everyone loves to hate, the "quitter" par excellence. Poor thing, his success in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton will not have won over a single convert. In fact, some were instead goaded to new depths of revulsion, having opposed him on the assumption that he would not find anything off the bridle. They had not reckoned on him retaining enough ability to win without trying.
But that is exactly where Harchibald has always been so grievously misunderstood. The only reason why he has sometimes seemed to find little under pressure is because he tries much harder than most horses on the bridle. The truly reluctant heroes are sometimes the very ones who seem most generous under the whip.
Funnily enough, similar merits can perhaps be discerned in Binocular, whose emergence has wholly distorted the betting on the Smurfit Champion Hurdle. Binocular keeps winning on the bridle – "easily", as many misconstrue it. The bookmakers now have him as short as even money for Cheltenham, despite the fact that his first visit to the Festival strongly implied that his energetic style makes him vulnerable on the hill. Binocular was coasting two out last March, but could not match Captain Cee Bee after the last.
Back in third that day was Snap Tie, passed by Harchibald at his leisure on Boxing Day. Moreover, Harchibald has always been ideally suited by a much stronger pace as he undeniably likes to run down a target and will idle in front.
Even his critics must accept that Harchibald retains remarkable ability. It is nearly four years since he cruised up the run-in in the Champion, only to be run out of it close home by Hardy Eustace. But much of the time since has been wasted by heavy ground and injury.
And here's the rub. One Irish bookmaker, Cashman, has the effrontery to offer 33-1 against Harchibald for the Champion. One of the reasons Binocular is so short is the lack of depth in the field. Good grief, Snap Tie himself is trading at 16-1. Look up and down the list, and how hard is it to see Harchibald – granted good ground and a hectic gallop – picking them off one by one? Some genius out there may propose that Binocular, a stonking 11-8 in one place, will prove harder to pass. But surely 33-1 makes each-way insurance imperative.
The one certainty is that Binocular's owner, JP McManus, must be glad his roster of trainers now includes Nicky Henderson and today at Sandown their Clay Hollister has the chance to confirm himself another rising star in the Blue Square Tolworth Hurdle.
An odds-on bumper winner last February, Clay Hollister made a fine start over hurdles last month, over this course and distance. He faces more businesslike rivals here, however. Henrietta Knight is back in form after a barren run from May to November, and picked this race last year for Calgary Bay – whose win at Cheltenham on New Year's Day identifies him as one of the season's best novice chasers. Somersby's sire was a miler, however, and he has been kept to sharp tracks. Again, then, Knight may have to make do with a place on the podium below Paul Nicholls. Last year Breedsbreeze was his fourth winner in six runnings, and the champion has another well qualified candidate in Mahonia (2.40).
He made a brilliant start over timber in thrashing Medermit at Exeter, and that horse subsequently beat the form choice today – Dee Ee Williams – at Ascot. Others down the field at Exeter have corroborated the form, and it is worth giving Mahonia another chance after his run at Cheltenham proved a non-event. Ruby Walsh's first ride back after injury, he was not given a hard race once outpaced in a sprint. The only caveat is that he must prove himself on drier ground than usual for this fixture.
Channel 4 takes in two races from Wincanton, where I Hear Thunder (3.30) might be suited by a shorter trip and Inchidaly Rock (next best 2.55) by a stronger pace than they respectively tackled last time.
At Sandown, Lorient Express (3.15) and King Barry (2.10) are in so much better form than their rivals that they could still be ahead of the handicapper, while the conditions will suit NIGHT CRU (nap 3.50), as a Flat horse who shaped nicely when learning his trade before an excellent handicap debut at Hereford.
He carries the silks of McManus, who may yet prove to have found another Istabraq in Binocular. But for some of us there remains enough doubt to show Harchibald some overdue clemency. It is the season of goodwill, after all. Go on, get on to Cashman. Make Harchibald the horse you hate to love.
Mullins warns of vertigo for Mikael
They say that if you have more than one Derby colt in the yard, the chances are that you have none. Aidan O'Brien has disproved that theory pretty conclusively, however, and now his compatriot, Willie Mullins, appears to be housing three of the very best novice hurdlers in these islands under the same roof.
Hurricane Fly and Cousin Vinny were dazzling winners at the Leopardstown Christmas meeting, while last month Mikael D'Haguenet cut Pandorama down to size at Navan. Pandorama, of course, had previously been lapping all comers, but the boot will be on the other foot for Mikael D'Haguenet tomorrow when he, in turn, will be hot favourite against four rivals for the Goffs Slaney Hurdle at Naas.
Interestingly, Mullins himself acknowledged that his present hegemony might yet prove too good to be true, as he suspects that Mikael D'Haguenet might have caught Pandorama on an off-day. "When they win by 20 lengths in that ground, they are never winning easily, no matter what it looks like," he said.
Generally speaking, his horses at Leopardstown seemed a good six weeks ahead of their usual schedule. It must be quite unnerving. At least Snowy Morning is not getting ahead of himself – not until the John Smith's Grand National weights come out, anyway.
Peter Chapple-Hyam: 3 Questions
The trainer who won the 2007 Derby with Authorized is a regular at Histon, the FA Cup giantkillers who play Swansea in today's third round.
1. You are known as a passionate West Bromwich Albion man – how did you end up following Histon as well?
It was through a couple of West Brom guys I know who are involved in the club. Obviously it's easier to go to Histon than West Brom from Newmarket, you can work all morning and still get to a game. It's great what they're doing, because they're only a village team. It was only a couple of years ago the supporters would change ends at half-time, shaking hands as they passed. Now we've got a long shed, but it's still bloody freezing.
2. Do you give them any chance at all against Swansea?
They would have a squeak. But they haven't been playing quite as well since they beat Leeds. Maybe it's been preying on their minds. Burton have gone well clear at the top, but they're still second. Anyhow, I'm happy watching a bit of non-league football, so I'd settle for winning this game instead.
3. And how about a horse to follow from the stable for 2009?
Catskill Mountain who won at Newmarket at the backend. He's a son of One Cool Cat. He had them well strung out, but three of them have already come out to win next time.
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