WITH the first big two-day meeting of the jumps season and its clutch of Grade 1 races completed, there is a bit more than usual to talk about this week.
The balance of power in the National Hunt ranks has been in Ireland for the last few years so Fairyhouse takes centre stage for review.
But as all the stars emerge, we are all stuck in our homes with no Monday morning office desks over which to discuss the performances of the weekend, no sitting over a pint in the pub of a Sunday evening to dissect a sporting weekend and the merits of any ante-post investments.
The outcome is that every Tom, Dick (but very few Harriets) have taken to the podcast to offer us 90 minutes of their opinions.
We’d fill a virtual 40-runner Grand National with the number of podcasts by now with 10 times the length of time to run the Grand National needed to consume them.
It’s debatable who has 90 minutes to spare to hear another batch of unedited opinions when there are only about nine or 10 racing ‘pundits’ or analysts out there, who are really offering anything original or worth hearing and they have a well established audience with the new At The Races, Off The Fence, a decent addition and one which moves along at a decent pace.
When you see a new ‘pod’ offering a preview of the Tingle Creak [sic] you have to think twice…
The Festival is three and a half months away – go steady lads, there’ll be nothing left to talk about come January.
So enough talk – let’s gallop through the weekend. The first thing to remember from last year’s Festival is that, between them, Willie Mullins, Gordon Elliott, Nicky Henderson and Henry de Bromhead won 20 of the 28 races at the Festival last season. That total included 12 of the 14 Grade 1s. There’s little to suggest it won’t be much the same again. And yet we had 11/1, 12/1 and 16/1 winners from them on the day.
And remember with many horses in the same ownership and between the two dominant stables, nothing can be certain about which race the novices will run in, and who knows what is still to run from those big yards.
I’ll always wonder might Allaho have gone to the RSA last year to leave the way clearer for Faugheen in the Marsh?
For ante-post punting there so much to consider with so many still unexposed horses, underfoot conditions/trainer form, it’s not for me at this stage.
Epatante versus Honeysuckle in a Champion Hurdle is a 'no contest' for me, and not out of any disrespect for what Honeysuckle has achieved.
The view that her rivals may get in Cheltenham - Epatante speeds away in Newcastle
She got the luck in running in the mares’ hurdle and had an alert pilot on board to use it to her advantage. With Abacadabras and Saint Roi already showing a fair amount of speed in their races this season, there’ll be less likelihood of gaps appearing at crucial times than in a mares’ hurdle.
Epatante just has too much speed, (Simon Rowlands clocked her at just over 12 secs for a furlong and 26.0s for the final quarter of a mile at Newcastle) and she’s very likely to be still improving.
I don’t believe Honeysuckle has the speed of Annie Power to drop back in distance and Epatante is a far more potent rival than those up against Annie in her Champion Hurdle.
Honeysuckle, remember, won a three mile point-to-point at Dromahane as a four-year-old. Stamina is her game.
Honeysuckle’s jumping under pressure was better in Fairyhouse but not comparable to Epatante’s economical skimming technique. No half hour long podcast debate – Honeysuckle will not beat Epatante over two miles.
Ode to Envoi joy
The most talked about horse on Sunday was Envoi Allen. Wouldn’t it be great if all horses just jumped like him?
Envoi Allen may not be the next Arkle and the opposition was not yet the best available on Sunday but… who could not but be impressed with his precision over an obstacle?
He’s the new Best Mate. It was a bit disappointing hearing Gordon say he was bought for Cheltenham and that’s all that matters. One more run against Grade 2 opposition. And it looks like we will have the Best Mate route of two runs to Cheltenham if all goes as planned towards the Gold Cup next season.
Ted and Ruby raved about him and, let’s face it, they have the knowledge and experience. Gordon said he was the horse of a lifetime, even if - as someone pointed out – he’s already had three or four horses of a lifetime in the yard!
Envoi Allen jumps the fences in such perfect rhythm, he’s conserving so much more energy that those who have to shorten, adjust or make even a slight mistake, are losing precious energy.
If Envoi Allen was the talking horse, closer inspection revealed it was not he who put up the ‘wow’ performance last Sunday.
Sometimes you think with so many ‘experts’ time and ratings nowadays, how did we manage to back winners when we only had our own eye to trust?
But this was one where you needed a second eye – the sectional times don’t lie. And even if you are sceptical and don’t read the analysis too much – it prompted another look.
Zanahiyr looked hugely impressive both in physique and performance and a simple comparison by watching the two races side by side on two devices was amazing in revealing how fast the four-year-olds went compared to the Royal Bond.
Racing TV’s Road to Cheltenham does this well too - just a split screen with both races rolling at the same time. It had showed how fast Energumene ran in comparison to the other chases in Gowran and it was the same here.
By the time Zanahiyr was passing the post in his two-mile hurdle, Ballyadam was only just jumping the last. Even if Triumph Hurdle contenders can emerge as late as February, it was something to chew over.
Monkfish - jumped well on his chasing debut
Of the other notable weekend performances in Fairyhouse, Monkfish became the third novice to make a faultless debut over fences. And the third of last year's Grade 1 winning Festival novice hurdlers.
Arkle, March, RSA (or whatever we’ll call it) – Hendo, Elliott, Mullins; Shishkin, Envoi Allen, Monkfish; 7/4, 4/1, 6/4; - together convert €50 to €1,700 in rapid time - easy peasy. No need for half an hour of analysis.
You feel sorry for the connections of Darver Star, Latest Exhibition and Asterion Forlonge, and whoever else has still to go novice chasing.
Mares who dares
It’s been a good week for that much maligned Willie Mullins/Dawn Run Mares’ Novice hurdle.
Concertisa finished first and second in the last two mares’ novice hurdles, Epatante ran in it, if very disappointing, and last week’s winners Floressa, Elusive Belle, Colreevy, Court Maid and Yukon Lil all turned up in the last two years.
Concertista has now been very impressive in two races against fellow mares. She needs to step into open company. It’s just hard to quantify the merit of an easy 12-length win against her own sex at the Festival last year. Hopefully she will take on the geldings next.
Don’t ditch the mares’ allowance until we see how good she is. We want to encourage the mares to go into open company.
Of the others compared to Envoi Allen, Ballyadam looks a work in progress and needs to tidy up his jumping, a few clumsy ones both here and in Down Royal.
It’s a pity Fury Road didn’t make it out on Sunday as, with a 50/1 winner last year, the Stayers' Hurdle was the only conundrum among the Grade 1s and last year’s Albert Bartlett looks strong form, with Thyme Hill’s Newbury win, and Paisley Park obviously no back number. There’s also the possibility of a few staying novice chasers stepping back out of a very hot division – it’s a 'leave til later' race at the moment.
So another weekend beckons and a few more big players on the Grade 1 scene emerge – hopefully Chacun Pour Soi will take another step to a meeting with Altior who I expect to win well in Sandown and put a Tingle in the creek. But the Festival puzzle has a long way to go...stay tuned.