FIGHTING IT OUT
While the Hennessy is discussed in Phil Smith’s Head of Handicapping blog, the best of the rest from the weekend is discussed here, with David Dickinson leading off his 2m hurdles round-up with his thoughts on the first Grade 1 of the British season in the division.
THIEF ALMOST MUGGED
Just one year after making a successful racecourse debut in a Fairyhouse bumper the Henry de Bromhead-trained Identity Thief made the step up to Grade 1 success in the stanjames.com Fighting Fifth, but not before a final flight error could have cost him victory, writes David Dickinson.
Last winter didn’t go smoothly for the Gigginstown-owned gelding after he followed his bumper win with a maiden hurdle success, but with a summer to mature and more forcing tactics employed he’s looked a different horse in two runs this season. Saturday taught us that he’s just as happy to take a lead as make the running, with Top Notch going on and stretching the field going down the back straight. Identity Thief’s last flight error looked to have tipped the scales in the direction of Top Notch for a while but it would have been rough justice had the Irish raider been beaten and he rallied well to score.
I have used Top Notch’s pre-race 158 as a guide to the form for now, rating Identity Thief 2lb above that – 1lb for the neck margin and another because Bryan Cooper weighed in 1lb heavy. Clearly with a better jump at the last, he would have been a shade higher still.
As a first test of the form of the Morgiana Hurdle in which Nichols Canyon beat reigning Champion Faugheen, Wicklow Brave’s running at Newcastle posed a few questions. I rated that Irish race at the time through Plinth, who although well beaten that day, is relatively consistent and was competing for fourth place right to the line – my rating of 166 for Wicklow Brave appeared in the Newcastle racecard. The implication of Saturday’s result is that if you take Wicklow Brave’s running literally, then neither Nichols Canyon nor Faugheen would have got anywhere near the first two had they instead represented the Mullins yard on Saturday. I have not changed my assessment of the Morgiana race on the one below par effort but it would be fair to say that there have to be doubts as to the value of the form.
Hennessy weekend is always pivotal with regard to the novices and there were a couple of eyecatching performances on the Newbury undercard on Friday. The Q Associates Juvenile hurdle has been won by Calipto and Old Guard in the last two years but it is hard to imagine that there has ever been a more visually impressive winner of the race than the Dan Skelton-trained French import Kasakh Noir.
Watching it was the easy bit, as assessing the race gives an enormous headache. Of the two with proven hurdle form Darebin boiled over pre-race, failing to perform, and the Alan King-trained French import Ardamir, failed to get home. This wasn’t entirely a surprise as there was a strong suspicion that the pace in the first two thirds of the race was too strong, given the ground. The way the event watched it wasn’t exactly a shock that the last two in the early stages were first and second at the line. Nonetheless, this shouldn’t distract from the fact that Kazakh Noir must now be near the top of the British juveniles seen so far.
The Friday card closed with the bet365 National Hunt Maiden Hurdle, so often a decent race. Promising bumper horses Bun Doran and West Approach failed to fire fully on their hurdle bows and it was left to the heavily-backed Wait For Me to follow home the impressive winner, Buveur D’Air. The value of the form isn’t easy to quantify given that the runner-up’s hurdling (to plagiarise the late, great Douglas Adams) saw him hang in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t. I am sure Wait For Me will learn much from the experience and he clearly has plenty of ability – to have run so well having jumped so poorly was an achievement in itself.
Buveur D’Air was a decent bumper horse, twice coming up short against Barters Hill in that sphere, but he looked every inch a top prospect over hurdles here. Friday’s fifth home After Hours, appeared to have established himself at around 110 judged on previous runs in lesser races. He was beaten 40 lengths on Friday. Whether that flatters the winner only time will tell.
Sunday’s Fairyhouse card saw top weight Rashaan win the Grade 3 Bar One Juvenile Hurdle with some authority and the finish of the following Grade 1 Royal Bond fought out by the Willie Mullins-trained pair Long Dog and Bachasson. Both created a positive impression, with a wide margin back to three perfectly decent opponents. Given a fair wind, all three will be worthy of serious consideration in their chosen races come March. The novice season is indeed bubbling along nicely.
THISTLE PRICKS REPUTATIONS
Two high-class staying hurdlers had their statuses temporarily dented in the Bet365 Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury, writes Martin Greenwood.
Cole Harden and Whisper both won top races in their division last season and were well clear on pre-race ratings, even allowing for the pair giving weight away, but both were below par, the former shaping OK and plugging on again, the latter never looking particularly happy and losing his action.
With Aqalim again looking far from keen, this left disappointing chaser Deputy Dan and the unexposed Thistlecrack to fight out the finish. The latter has improved tremendously since upped in trip and won at the Aintree Festival before finishing second at the Punchestown equivalent later in April. Though rated only 150 going into the race on Saturday he was the one with potential for serious improvement and so it proved, galloping on after the others cried enough to score by six lengths.
Similar to the West Yorkshire Hurdle at Wetherby last month, it’s hard to be exactly sure what was achieved here, and the staying hurdle division seems to provide more questions than answers at the minute. An average winner of the Newbury race over the last few years suggests a figure in the low to mid 160s, and with the proximity of Deputy Dan and Aqalim it is hard to get carried away with the form. Thistlecrack’s new fig is now 161, still behind the top of the tree, but obviously with scope for further progression, while Deputy Dan appears to have posted a career-best 151, though he was unexposed when he was last seen over hurdles and maybe isn’t cut out for the larger obstacles.