Don't write off Diakali
Donn McClean reflects on Saturday's action at Leopardstown and the implications it had for Cheltenham.
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We suspected as much before Saturday, but at least we can be fairly certain now that Flemenstar isn't a Gold Cup horse.
These things are easy in hindsight, and the lung infection that came to light yesterday was probably a significant contributory factor to his defeat on Saturday, but we knew after the Lexus that stamina was never going to be his forte and that, even if he had gone and won the Hennessy on Saturday, his stamina for the extra two and a half furlongs of the Gold Cup was always going to be an issue.
On his two attempts now at three miles, Peter Casey's gelding has been ridden defensively. At his best when he is bowling along out in front, flying his fences and putting pressure on his chasing rivals, different tactics were called for and employed over the longer trip, and those tactics simply don't play to his strengths.
He has to drop down in trip now. It is a shame that his illness has more or less ruled him out of Cheltenham, because he would have been a big player in the Ryanair Chase or even in the Champion Chase, but the Melling Chase at Aintree is a realistic target now. We know from last season's Powers Gold Cup and this season's John Durkan Chase that he stays two and a half miles well, and Andrew Lynch could be as aggressive on him as he liked in a Melling Chase. You just hope that two attempts at three miles, and his conditioning for the longer trip at home, has not blunted his enthusiasm for attacking his fences. He certainly didn't jump with his usual alacrity under the restraining tactics on Saturday.
Sir Des Champs? Onwards and upwards. He probably had to win on Saturday if he was to retain his position as second favourite in the Gold Cup market, but it was a thoroughly professional performance.
"You just get the impression that Willie Mullins is training him with one day in mind this year, that everything that he has been doing since last April, including running in the Lexus, including running in the Hennessy, are just stepping stones to the Gold Cup."
Donn McClean on Sir Des Champs
He jumped much better than he had jumped in the Lexus, and Davy Russell got the tactics spot on, taking it up from Quel Esprit as soon as his stable companion showed the first signs of wilting, in order to ensure that it would be a proper stamina test.
He is probably going to have to improve again if he is to win a Gold Cup, he still has about 6lb to find on the top-rated horses on official ratings, but there are five main reasons for believing that he will find at least that magnitude of improvement.
Firstly, he is all stamina, he should improve for going another two and a half furlongs in the Gold Cup. Secondly, he is two for two at the Cheltenham Festival. Whatever it is about the place and the occasion, he seems to thrive there.
Thirdly, he should improve for the better ground that he is likely to encounter at Cheltenham. Fourthly, he is still only seven, he has raced just eight times over fences, he still has natural potential for progression.
And finally, you just get the impression that Willie Mullins is training him with one day in mind this year, that everything that he has been doing since last April, including running in the Lexus, including running in the Hennessy, are just stepping stones to the Gold Cup.
There is a reasonable chance that we will see a significantly improved horse on Gold Cup day.
Our Conor's date with destiny is also on Gold Cup day. Dessie Hughes' horse took up the armband as Ireland's leading Triumph Hurdle contender when he danced in the Grade One Spring Juvenile Hurdle.
There is very little not to like about the son of Jeremy. Rated 84 on the flat, he thrives in his new role as a jumper, he attacks his hurdles willingly, he travels, he quickens and he stays well. He could have been called the winner of Saturday's race from a long way out.
This shaped like a really good race. The second and fourth, probably Willie Mullins' best juveniles Diakali and Blood Cotil, had both been most impressive in winning twice since their arrival from France, while the third horse, Ruacana, brought a good British line of form into the race, having won the Grade One Finale Hurdle at Chepstow on his previous run, albeit somewhat fortuitously.
Also, the time of the race was really good, comparatively the second fastest race run on a top class day, and an impressive five seconds faster than the time that Tennis Cap clocked in winning the competitive two-mile handicap hurdle later in the day.
"Interestingly, eight Aga Khan-bred horses have lined up in the Triumph Hurdle in the last four years, and their record reads 137R2310. It is not a coincidence that these stoutly-bred horses do well in the Triumph, and Diakali could still enhance that record further this year."
While Our Conor is unquestionably the leading Irish player now, I wouldn't go giving up on Diakali yet as a Triumph Hurdle candidate. The Aga Khan-bred gelding should be better suited by the extra stamina test that the Triumph Hurdle presents, and he may do even better if he doesn't have to make his own running.
Interestingly, eight Aga Khan-bred horses have lined up in the Triumph Hurdle in the last four years, and their record reads 137R2310. It is not a coincidence that these stoutly-bred horses do well in the Triumph, and Diakali could still enhance that record further this year.
Cheltenham targets for the other two Grade One winners on Saturday, Champagne Fever and Boston Bob, both trained by Willie Mullins, appear to be as yet undecided.
It was good to see Rich Ricci's horse Champagne Fever back, he stuck on really well to beat a talented sort in Bright New Dawn in a good time, the pair of them clear of their rivals.
In the normal course of events, the Neptune Hurdle would be the obvious race for him at Cheltenham. However, the Ricci/Mullins team already have Pont Alexandre for the Neptune, and they have Ballycasey for the Albert Bartlett, so there is a chance that Champagne Fever will end up in the Supreme by a process of elimination more than anything else.
While he would be a real player if he were to take his chance in the Neptune, you have to think that last year's Champion Bumper winner just wouldn't have the pace for the two-mile contest.
Willie mentioned the Jewson as a possible target for Graham Wylie's horse Boston Bob, but he needed every single yard of the two-mile-five-furlong trip to get up with a last-gasp effort - we are getting used to Graham Wylie last-gasp winning efforts at Leopardstown - under an inspired Paul Townend and land the Dr PJ Moriarty Chase by a nose, a half a length and a half a length.
He does have pace, but he also has bags of stamina and, on better ground, his chances of winning at Cheltenham would probably be enhanced if he were to step up in trip for RSA Chase or possibly even the National Hunt Chase.
Salsify won the Raymond Smith Memorial Hunters Chase again, coming from the rear and from an unlikely position even half-way up the run-in under Colman Sweeney's drive to get up and beat old nemesis Tammys Hill by a neck. This race was Salsify's springboard to Foxhunter Chase success at last year's Cheltenham Festival, and he has a favourite's chance again this term.
We won't be seeing bumper winner Azorian at Cheltenham, however. Purchased just last week by Gigginstown House, the Eoin Griffin-trained gelding ran out an impressive winner. Winner of his only point-to-point at Kilfeacle last month, he is an interesting recruit, but we may just have to wait another year before we can see him at the Cheltenham Festival.
For more of Donn's thoughts, visit www.donnmcclean.com