Donn McClean: Last Gold Cup value
Our Irish expert Donn McClean takes a look back at last Sunday's Hennessy Gold Cup meeting at Leopardstown.
- Related Content
Irish Hennessy day is a perennial producer of Cheltenham winners. In 2012, the Spring Juvenile Hurdle was won by that year's Triumph Hurdle runner-up Hisaabaat with that year's Triumph Hurdle winner Countrywide Flame back in third. Later on the day, Christie's Foxhunter hero Salsify won the Raymond Smith Memorial Hunters Chase.
Interestingly, Benefficient sprang a 50/1 shock in the Deloitte Hurdle that year (with a young jockey called Bryan Cooper on board, having his first ride for Tony Martin and landing his first Grade 1 prize) with Lord Windermere behind him in fourth. Okay, so you had to wait a year, but there were still Cheltenham winners there.
Last year, you only had to wait a few weeks. Triumph Hurdle hero Our Conor won the Spring Juvenile Hurdle, and had Fred Winter winner Flaxen Flare behind him in fifth. Supreme Novices' Hurdle winner Champagne Fever won the Deloitte, Foxhunter winner Salsify won the Raymond Smith Hunters Chase again and, if the ball had hopped a little more kindly for Boston Bob at Cheltenham, the Dr PJ Moriarty Chase would have produced the first, second and third in the RSA Chase via Lord Windermere, Lyreen Legend and said Boston Bob.
Strange, then, that you have to go back to Imperial Call in 1996 to find the last Irish Hennessy winner to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup. That is 18 years ago now. Perhaps it is down to happenstance. Florida Pearl won four Irish Hennessys, but couldn't do any better than second in the Gold Cup. Beef Or Salmon won three Irish Hennessys but was just never at his best at Cheltenham.
Perhaps different attributes are required for each race. Three miles on a flat track on easy ground in February versus three and a quarter miles on an undulating track on good ground in March. But several Lexus Chase horses (Best Mate, War Of Attrition, Denman, Synchronised) have won the Gold Cup in that time, so maybe that's not it at all.
Perhaps the recovery time between the Irish Hennessy and the Gold Cup is not sufficient. Just four weeks and five days this year. It may or may not be significant that the two Irish-trained Gold Cup winners since Imperial Call, Kicking King and War Of Attrition, both skipped the Irish Hennessy.
That is a slight worry in the context of Last Instalment's Gold Cup claims. (That and his glass legs, obviously.) But it is only a slight worry. Last year's Hennessy winner Sir Des Champs went mighty close in the Gold Cup. It is a pity that Sir Des Champs will be missing this year but, in his absence, Ireland now still has a real live Gold Cup contender.
Last Instalment's performance in the Hennessy Gold Cup on Sunday was huge. The Gigginstown House horse travelled easily in front for Brian O'Connell, his jumping was superb and he picked up coming away from the second last fence like a top class horse. Not only that, but he pricked his ears on landing over the last, and came further clear of his rivals up the run-in, winning by eight and a half lengths in the end.
Sunday's performance made you wonder what the Philip Fenton-trained gelding might have achieved in the last two years had he remained sound. He was a top class novice chaser two years ago, he was unbeaten in four runs, he beat First Lieutenant by six lengths in the Topaz Chase and it would have been fascinating to have seen him go toe-to-toe with Bobs Worth in the RSA Chase. That's how good he was.
That's also how good he is. If you take First Lieutenant as a marker, there is very little between Last Instalment and Bobs Worth. Bobs Worth has beaten First Lieutenant by two and a half lengths, eight lengths and one and a half lengths in three meetings, Last Instalment has beaten him by six lengths and nine lengths in two. It is, of course, a crude measuring stick, but it does provide a collateral guide.
Interestingly, Last Instalment could improve again for Sunday's run. He was really weak in the market before the race, his trainer said that he would come on for it, and his owner's rider passed him over in favour of First Lieutenant. On top of that, although he is nine years old, he has raced just six times over fences in his life. There could be even more to come.
"Given his history of leg problems, there is a chance that he will not be risked in the Gold Cup on good ground. However, there is also a chance that he will run and, if he does, his chance of winning it is a fair bit better than odds of 10/1 suggest."
It was great news that he was reported sound by Philip Fenton on Monday morning. That was obviously crucial. And given his history of leg problems, there is a chance that he will not be risked in the Gold Cup on good ground. However, there is also a chance that he will run and, if he does, his chance of winning it is a fair bit better than odds of 10/1 suggest.
Vautour was good in winning the Deloitte Hurdle. The sectionals say that Willie Mullins' horse got an easy lead, Ruby Walsh said that he did it the hard way. Either way, Walsh was superb again in front, dictating a pace that suited his horse, but that horse still had to pick up around the home turn, jump the last as well as he did and stay on up the run-in as willingly as he did to ensure that he beat The Tullow Tank.
The Tullow Tank is a top class novice hurdler, a dual Grade 1 winner, and there was no point at which you thought that he would catch Vautour. He couldn't make inroads into his lead even though he was able to pull 12 lengths clear of the rest of his rivals.
Vautour could ostensibly go either way, he could go up in trip for the Neptune Hurdle or down in trip for the Supreme, just like Champagne Fever did after winning the Deloitte last year. It looks like he will bid to emulate his stable companion. Willie Mullins has a clutch of Neptune potentials, but Vautour and Wicklow Brave will form a formidable two-pronged Mullins assault on the curtain-raiser as well.
There will be Mullins assaults all over the place during Cheltenham week. Ballycasey gained the Grade 1 victory that his reputation demanded in the Dr. P.J. Moriarty Novice Chase. In one sense, it was a pity that it was only a three-horse race, but in another, it was great that three of the right horses took each other on.
The regard in which Ballycasey is held at home has never been a secret, he was always a little shorter in the market for the Albert Bartlett Hurdle last year than his form suggested he should be. He had done really well to beat Mount Colah and Ned Buntline over an inadequate extended two miles at Navan on his chasing debut in November, but he was still taking a massive step forward in taking on two Grade 1 winners in Don Cossack and Carlingford Lough.
It was a pity that Carlingford Lough departed at the final fence but, such was the strength with which Ballycasey galloped to the line, putting daylight between himself and the highly-talented Don Cossack, and notwithstanding the fact that Carlingford Lough stays well and finds plenty for pressure, it is probable that Ballycasey would still have won. It was a massive performance on his first run since November, especially when you consider that he was an 11th-hour deputy for Champagne Fever.
If the National Hunt Chase was under consideration for the Presenting gelding beforehand, this win may have scuppered those plans. It looks like the RSA Chase is the race for him now, and Patrick may have to find something else for the amateurs' race.
"If the National Hunt Chase was under consideration for the Presenting gelding beforehand, this win may have scuppered those plans. It looks like the RSA Chase is the race for him now, and Patrick may have to find something else for the amateurs' race."
Tammys Hill was given a superb ride by Robbie McNamara to get up and pip On The Fringe in the Raymond Smith Memorial Hunters Chase, but he may not be aimed at Cheltenham. On The Fringe lost very little in defeat on his second run back after a long break and, fourth in the Cheltenham Foxhunter when sent off as joint favourite in 2011, he will be a player again this season.
The Tom Foley-trained Never Enough Time was impressive in winning the two-mile handicap hurdle under a well-executed ride from 7lb-claimer Ger Fox, who, like Ruby Walsh and Robbie McNamara, landed a double on a memorable day for him.
JP McManus' horse was recording his second win in less than three weeks. Raised 14lb for his Gowran Park win, he can expect another significant hike for this, but he is only six and he retains plenty of scope for progression. Tennis Cap won this race last year before going on to finish second to Ted Veale in the County Hurdle in March off a 14lb higher mark.
Tiger Roll ran a cracker to chase Guitar Pete home in the Spring Juvenile Hurdle, but Dessie Hughes' horse stamped himself as Ireland's best juvenile hurdler in beating Gordon Elliott's horse and Plinth and Ivan Grozny. Guitar Pete is probably going to have to improve again if he is to win a Triumph Hurdle, but he is a really likeable sort who jumps superbly and who has a really willing attitude.
Rated just 58 on the flat, he is a different horse when you put eight flights of hurdles in front of him. He has now won four of his six races over hurdles and finished second in the other two. He has gained valuable experience of Cheltenham, he improved with every one of his previous five races, and there is every reason to expect that he can improve again for his sixth.
Interestingly, Guitar Pete is a Dessie Hughes-trained horse who was sent off as third favourite for the Spring Juvenile Hurdle before winning it, and who is far better over hurdles than he was on the Flat.
Ring a bell?
• For more of Donn's thoughts, visit www.donnmcclean.com.