All good things must come to an end. And so it was on Boxing Day at Kempton, where Buveur D’Air failed to add a twelfth to his unbeaten run, which stretched back to April 2016.
On a day when no favourite obliged, Nicky Henderson’s seven year old was the shortest price of them all. Starting at 1/4, there was nothing to suppose this would be anything other than a stepping stone to retaining the Champion Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival. It was not only a surprise he got beaten, but ironic he should be chinned on the line by a stable companion in the form of Verdana Blue.
You could put it down to the mistake three from home, conceding 7lb to the winner or any number of factors, but frankly you could do a PhD on the subject and still be done the wiser. The reality is the photograph proves the supreme 2 mile hurdler lost by a short head.
Whilst winning jockey Nico de Boinville is never one to wear his heart on his sleeve, if anything looked thoroughly miserable in victory, perhaps thinking this wasn’t the script his boss had drafted. As one of the owners, Charlie Parker, said: “ I know the Trainer and jockey aren’t very happy as they think the’ve lost their jobs – but we’re very happy”.
One must never begrudge a horse or its connections a win, but Verdana Blue is being aimed at an all weather race at Lingfield on Good Friday, with one eye on the Melbourne Cup. Not a mention of Cheltenham. Also, if the bookies are right Buveur D’Air is a certainty to make it a hat trick of Champion Hurdle titles at March’s Festival. All of which leaves me feeling a bit empty about the defeat: I had in my mind that when the inevitable came it would be against a Prince who was a worthy inheritor of the throne and we could shout “The King is dead, long live the King”. As things stand Buveur D’Air had his Crown tilted a bit at Kempton, but looks unlikely to be deposed.
I know there are those who get a bit sniffy about Stayers’ Hurdles, but I have always been a fan. However, I have to accept it is a division that is currently lacking big names and looks short on talent. Maybe, just maybe, that might be about to change with the emergence of Paisley Park who won the Long Walk at Ascot on Saturday.
It was a race of incidents. Last year’s winner, Sam Spinner, made it clear at the first hurdle that he was in no mood for jumping, which was confirmed with a statement of intent at the second, where Joe Colliver was unseated. 2016 winner, Unowhatimeanharry, fresh from victory in Newbury’s Long Distance Hurdle looked for a while like he could continue to defy the years, but fell at the eighth.
At this stage and much like his impressive run at Haydock last month, Paisley Park hardly looked in the mix, but as in life, timing proved to be everything and when driven out after the last he won by two lengths from West Approach.
For the horse that was last of the thirteen finishers in the Albert Bartlett at Cheltenham in March, it’s now three from three this season. The first two came off top weight in Handicaps and the win at Haydock where he stole victory on the line after a bursting final furlong run, was as thrilling a finish as you could wish to witness.
As well as being an exciting horse to watch, there’s the back story with Saturday’s win providing trainer, Emma Lavelle, and jockey, Aidan Coleman with their first Grade 1 triumphs. I maybe guilty of supporting a horse primarily because I want to see three mile hurdles lit up by a new kid on the block, but 14/1 for the Stayers’ at Cheltenham has got to be tempting.
I once asked a good mate of mine for his view on hurdles vs chases. “Why drink white wine, when you can have red?” he replied; declaring himself firmly in the chasing camp. Well my dear friend, frankly red wine often leaves me with a headache and I don’t think you can beat a good Chardonnay.
Whist recent runnings of the Fighting Fifth might not be considered of the finest vintage, yesterday’s renewal of Newcastle’s Grade 1 showpiece was certainly one to wet the whistle. Last year’s winner and back to back Champion Hurdle victor Buveur D’Air lined up against Samcro, attempting to make it not so much a second as a third or fourth coming. Supreme Novices’ winner Summerville Boy went out to show what he could do in the major league, whilst Vision Des Flos looked to capitalise on a recent promising run at Aintree. Bleu Et Rouge completed the quintet and the fact he started at 100/1 with an official rating of 152, is a reflection on the quality field.
Samcro set the pace. Buveur D’Air didn’t look fluent, but when it came to the business end of the race and despite flattening the final hurdle, won with unnerving ease by 8 lengths. After so much expectation Tom George’s Summerville Boy could only manage a disappointing fourth
Having conquered all, Buveur D’Air hasn’t always received the recognition he deserves and this was evidenced by him starting off odds against with the great pretender, Samcro, favourite. He must surely now be recognised as the outstanding hurdler of his generation, as he heads for a third Champion Hurdle title. It’s hard to see where the competition will come from.
Samcro trainer Gordon Elliott conceded after the race that there were ‘No excuses’, before adding ‘He’s been beaten by a very, very good horse’. The decision not to send the six year old chasing is now looking like an indulgence by owners Gigginstown, in the desire to add a Champion Hurdle to one of the few empty spaces in their trophy cabinet. Despite all the set backs, Elliott confirmed the Champion Hurdle remains the destination.
The sad postscript to the race was the fatal injury to JP McManus’ Bleu Et Rouge, making it a bitter sweet day for the owner whose colours were also worn by Buveur D’Air.
So the experts had rather forgotten Bristol De Mai when providing us with the benefit of their wisdom before Saturday’s Betfair Chase at Haydock. This was meant to be a duel between Might Bite’s speed and Native River’s stamina, in which the former would triumph. Last year’s distance winner and course specialist hardly got a mention, on account that he could only win in the mud.
Bristol De Mai proved them wrong and retained his title in the season’s first Grade 1 this side of the Irish Sea. What the race lacked in numbers was compensated by quality. In an intriguing renewal, Thistlecrack made a promising return running third, but evens favourite Might Bite finished last of the five.
Perhaps one of the most surprising features given the number of fallers on the rest of the card, was that all runners made it home. Much was being made during the meeting of the size of the new fences, forcing clerk to the course Kirkland Tellwright to take to the camera and explain that they would be sorted out before the next meeting and a bit shaved off the top.
The view of the jockeys was that the fences were large, but the issue lay elsewhere. Clan Des Obeaux rider Harry Cobden said: “The fences were very big but that was not an issue; it was just the fact the top of the fences were tightly packed and horses flicking over them were turning over”. Tom Scudamore who won the Graduation Chase and rode Thistlecrack in the Betfair, put it another way: “They were big and stiff …The presentation of the fences was fine but the stiffness was catching them out”.
So maybe it is a case of size doesn’t matter, it’s the stiffness that counts.
On a day when the focus was on a thrilling Betfair Chase at Haydock, where Bristol De Mai proved he was more than a heavy ground specialist, there was little attention on the 12.20 at Ascot. A 2m5f Novices’ Hurdle, the race was perhaps most notable for marking Trevelyn’s Corn first run under rules.
The five year old was purchased at Ireland’s Cheltenham Sale last December, on the back of one Point to Point run, for an eye watering £400,000. Sold by Colin Bowe, who had originally acquired the horse for 45,000 Euros, the Irish trainer had a good day at the Sale walking away with £800,000 in his pocket.
Bought by blood stock agent Tom Malone for owner Chris Giles, Trevelyn’s Corn who is trained by Paul Nicholls, was the top price paid on the day.
As for the gelding’s debut, the markets are clearly no respecter of price tags as he started at 7/2 in a field of 7, where the favourite went off at 15/8. He finished 4th and the Racing Post’s comments on the run conclude with the words “faded flat”. Even had he won, the £13,000 prize money would hardly have marked a significant initial return on the investment.
But hey, it’s early days and the one previous competitive outing was a victory on heavy ground. And also, we all know from the song what happened to those who stole Trevelyan’s corn.
There was wind, rain and four meetings yesterday to choose from. At Wincanton Bryony Frost made it back to back victories for Present Man in the Badger Ales Listed Handicap Chase, while at Aintree there was as an intriguing two and half mile Hurdle as you could wish for, won by Sam Twiston Davies on Wholestone. In Scotland they raced at Kelso and in Ireland Naas opened its jumps calendar. It felt as if the National Hunt season was getting into full stride.
However, the same can’t be said for Footpad who began his campaign at Nass in the Grade 3 Poplar Square 2 mile Chase. Last season’s Arkle winner was unbeaten over fences and looked difficult to oppose, but was far from foot perfect. With mistakes at the third and sixth he continued to push the leader, but fell at the final fence, with victory going to the Harry Whittington trained, Saint Calvados. The front running five year old, who finished fourth behind Footpad in the Arkle, had been aimed at the Haldon Gold Cup last Tuesday, but like many others wasn’t declared due to the hard ground.
To take the stable star over the Irish Sea was a decision that may have been questioned by many, as there must have been suitable races closer to home, and Harry Whittington spoke of his prospects more in hope than expectation. It was a gamble that paid off and one that should be applauded.
There had been talk recently of having to abandon Devon’s top racing day due to lack of rain. It is a credit to those involved that Exeter’s Gold Cup meeting went ahead, after what must have been a few sleepless nights. Inevitably horses that had been primed for the Haldon Gold Cup for months were not declared, leaving only five to battle it out in the Grade 2 limited Handicap Chase. The rest of the card also clearly suffered, which included an uninspiring Novice Chase with only three contestants.
The net result was five winning favourites in a card of seven, three of which were odds on. The day was also made none the easier by a biting wind and the rain which eventually came; just in time for the 3.15 Handicap Chase.
However, none of this should distract from what was a great Gold Cup. This is a race with a fine tradition which has been won by some of the great chasers, including Cue Card and Best Mate, who died running the 2005 contest. Today’s contest may have lacked the biggest names, but it was a line up where a case could be made for any of the starters. Of the five, it was perhaps God’s Own who was hardest to argue for. At 10 years old and with no recent form, his best looked to be behind him. But the 2014 winner defied the year’s and got the better of Ozzie The Oscar, who had made all the running. The Philip Hobbs trained favourite looked like he could hang on, but God’s Own found the burst of speed when it was needed and won by half a length.
Overcome by the victory, trainer Tom George said: “I think I’m more emotional about this horse winning than I have been about any other winner in my training career”. And was also quick to praise the work put in by those in his yard.
I’m undoubtedly biased about the Gold Cup: it’s the premier event at my local track. Whilst Exeter’s facilities are by no means the best and whoever thought of building a racetrack at the top of Haldon Hill, with its exposure to the elements, might have some serious questions to answer, it is one of the finest two mile Chases in the calendar. And today was no exception.
If last year’s WKD Hurdle at Down Royal offered some redemption for Melon, there was to be no second coming for Samcro in yesterday’s renewal. After suffering his only defeat in a fall at Punchestown in April, this was the chance to show that was a one off and vindicate the decision to keep the six year old over hurdles.
I wrote on this blog that I thought he would be sent chasing, but Gigginstown’s desire to win a Champion Hurdle and thus fill one of the few empty spaces in their trophy cabinet, might prove too great. Having given in to that temptation could now look like an ill-judged indulgence.
Make no mistake Samcro was impressive last season and what was particularly pleasing to the eye was his ability to find an extra gear at the business end of a race. And that was precisely what he lacked yesterday. In what looked to be turning into a duel with the Willie Mullins trained Sharjah, Jack Kennedy could find nothing when he asked Samcro the question and the 12/1 Bedrock kept on well, winning with relative ease.
It could be argued the ground was too fast and he was just starting his season, whereas Bedrock was racing fit, having run all summer. Taking nothing away from Rachael Blackmore’s ride on Bedrock, the reality is if Samcro is as great as he has been hailed, he should have won this race on the bridle. There were only three other horses to beat, none of which appeared to be in the same class and Schmidt was a 100/1 outsider. Interestingly, the markets were decidedly twitchy about Samcro, who had slipped from 4/1 on to start at 9/4 on.
Gordon Elliott remained positive after the race and all the talk is of the route continuing to the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham. But those who will be feeling particularly up beat are the ones who put money on Buveur d’Air to win his third Champion Hurdle in that window between Gigginstown declaring Samcro’s destination for the season and yesterday’s defeat.
Having spent much of the summer sidelined with a fractured and cracked neck, one might forgive Leighton Aspinall for not choosing this season to make his debut in the Velka Pardubicka. But the jockey is clearly made of sterner stuff and lined up today with 19 others at Pardubice in the Czech Republic for the 128th running of this unique Chase.
Over its 4 miles 2 furlongs and 110 yards, horses have to run on various types of surface, including some ploughed fields, while jockeys negotiate the most eccentrically creative and challenging of obstacles. These include the Irish Bank, which horses have to shimmy up and down, two fences known as Small Gardens, which have to be jumped in frighteningly quick succession and most famous of all the Taxis Ditch. This consists of a 1.5 metre high fence followed by a 4 metre long ditch. It’s not for the faint hearted.
This year’s renewal was won by Tzigane Du Berlais, ridden by Jan Faltejsek, making it his 5th victory in the race – I guess as there’s no other course to compare it to, experience counts for a lot. Although a Czech, Faltejsek is much travelled and will be well known to the British, having been based for a number of years with George Charlton in Northumberland. No British jockey has won the race since Charlie Mann on It’s A Snip in 1995. But coming into the home straight Thomas Garner took the lead and looked like he might triumph on Stretton. He finished third. As for Leighton Aspinall, he fell on the first circuit. I’m sure it will take more than that to put him off returning next year.
For a man who shares his first name with a Scottish Earldom and a surname with the kindly King who met a sticky end at the hands of Macbeth, you might have expected the new BHA Chair to have been unveiled with slightly greater fanfare. However, the announcement warranted no more than a few bland paragraphs on the BHA website and just to ensure we didn’t get too excited, the headline made it clear that the appointment was only on an interim basis.
The need for a new Chair of racing’s governing body goes back to May, when it was announced Steve Harman would be stepping down in November. This followed a suggested conflict of interest that Harman had. At the time the BHA assured us that they were not at war, but presumably in an attempt to avoid the fight, it was decided Harman would step down, but not yet. Oh, and there would still be a job for him in racing.
Whilst such a compromise might look like a lesson in the art of diplomacy, the time it has taken to elect a new Chair and then to only do so on an interim basis, has more than a hint of an organisation unsure of its next move. There has been no explanation for the delay and I can’t help thinking that Macbeth hit the nail on the head when he said “‘twere well it were done quickly”. In regard to the appointment being without a fixed term, this is justified by the BHA on the grounds that there is an ongoing ‘constructive discussion’ about the constitution of the Board and role of the Chair.
I am sure such a debate is very worthy, but the problem is that now is precisely the moment the BHA should be seen to give its leader a strong and unambiguous mandate. As well as the Tote – the downfall of Duncan’s predecessor- there’s the new limit on FOTB’s in betting shops, the proposal to limit advertising on betting products until after the watershed, racecourses on the verge of bankruptcy and, of course, let’s not forget Brexit. There are dark forces gathering.
Mr Duncan appears well qualified for his new position, but is being asked to head his troops into battles which will have to be fought on many fronts, without clarity of his authority or knowing for how long he will be in the post.