Pont bridges the class gap at first go
Monday 17 December 2012
There are action replays and action replays and yesterday's at Navan will be watched more in one Irish household than another. Twelve months ago in the Grade One novices' hurdle, the Willie Mullins-trained Boston Bob turned over the odds-on Mount Benbulben, saddled by Gordon Elliott. In yesterday's edition of the two-and-a-half-miler, only the names of the horses changed, with Pont Alexandre the winner and Don Cossack, at 8-15, the loser.
It was a remarkable performance from the four-year-old Pont Alexandre, who made all the running under Ruby Walsh and whose inexorable cruising speed had Don Cossack well beaten when the favourite stumbled a stride after jumping the last and crashed out, leaving Busty Brown to take a distant runner-up spot.
Pont Alexandre's only previous experience had been winning a small hurdle race at a provincial track in his native France back in May and it was the boldest of calls to pitch him in at the top level on his Irish debut. But then you don't get to be champion trainer seven times without knowing a thing or two about equine talent.
"I've not started one off in a Grade One before," said Mullins, "and I thought if Don Cossack beats us, then so be it. But mine did a bit of work this week that showed me he might be good enough. He's a horse I've loved since I saw him in France in the summer and he's a real nice prospect for the future, especially when he goes over fences." In the meantime Rich Ricci's colour-bearer has gone straight in as favourite for the Neptune Novices' Hurdle at Cheltenham, as short as 6-1.
Don Cossack's defeat rounded off a dismal day for Elliott and the rider Davy Russell, whose first two combined runners had also fallen. But for Walsh it was merely the continuation of a hot streak; after a treble at Cheltenham on Saturday, Pont Alexandre was one of four more yesterday. The others included the much-anticipated chasing debut by Boston Bob, though it proved satisfactory rather than spectacular.
It is inevitable now that Mullins' jockey son Patrick will pass a milestone before the end of 2012; his victory on dad's Union Dues in the Navan finale brought his score for the year to 72, equalling the Irish record for an amateur set in 1915 by Billy Parkinson.
But it will be sad if the seven-year-old gelding Seymour Eric finds his own fame in sporting quizzes of the future as the final winner at Hereford after sport that has spanned four centuries. The little urban track, owned by the local council, first staged races in 1771 but yesterday's may have been its last meeting. The place has been deemed surplus to requirements by its management company, Arena Leisure, on the inescapable business grounds that it loses money. The same applies to another unprofitable venue in the same portfolio, Folkestone, which will close down after tomorrow's meeting.
For Hereford, there is a glimmer of hope, but only with a change of hands. The racing surface and buildings are to be maintained and, though the venue has no allocated fixtures for next year, it will have a licence and so, in the event of a harsh winter, could apply to take meetings abandoned elsewhere.
Hereford is no bucolic idyll, with a backdrop that includes a gasworks, a leisure centre and factory chimneys and it perhaps says a lot that the 1,100 paying customers who turned up to watch 77 horses compete in seven low-grade races for a total of £29,500 prize-money was one of the best recent turnouts.
CHRIS McGRATH'S NAP: Hodgson (1.45 Ffos Las)
Reverts to novice company after an excellent effort in a handicap, when he chased home an upwardly-mobile horse who went on to notch a four-timer.
NEXT BEST: Valley Lad (2.15 Ffos Las)
Yet to win over obstacles, but still lightly raced. Knows today's course well, is suited by testing conditions and found only a well-treated, battle-hardened rival too good last time.
ONE TO WATCH: After 19 months away from the track, during which time he won four-point-to-points, Rear Admiral (M W Easterby) won tidily over hurdles and will do better over fences.
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