Leopardstown: An eye on Cheltenham

  • By: Donn McClean
  • Last Updated: January 29 2014, 8:46 GMT

Donn McClean reviews the key action from Leopardstown's Champion Hurdle meeting with one eye on Cheltenham.

Hurricane Fly: Brilliant at Leopardstown
Hurricane Fly: Brilliant at Leopardstown

The intriguing puzzle that is the Stan James Champion Hurdle puzzle just gets more intriguing with every new piece that you take out of the (puzzle) box.

Hurricane Fly was brilliant in the BHP Insurance Irish Champion Hurdle on Sunday. Interrupted preparation, first to play his hand, untidy jump at the last, headed on landing, it didn't matter, he overcame it all, stuck his neck out and battled back to win like the true champion that he is.

The stats say that he can't win a Champion Hurdle at the age of 10. The last time a 10-year-old won the Champion Hurdle, Jimmy Carter was in the White House. But here's another stat: 19 Grade 1 wins. Hurricane Fly is an exceptional 10-year-old hurdler, just as Sea Pigeon was an exceptional 10-year-old hurdler.

At last, Hurricane Fly has made his way up to the top of the Champion Hurdle betting lists. It has taken two more Grade 1 wins to get him there, but the main thing is that he is there now, because that is where he should be. As things stand, he is the most likely winner of the race. He sets the standard to which the young pretenders - hugely talented bunch though they are - must aspire.

That said, just as in the Ryanair Hurdle at Leopardstown's Christmas Festival, Sunday's vanquished have grounds for optimism, Our Conor more than Jezki this time. Jezki just raced too freely off a relatively sedate overall pace, he expended much of the energy that he would have needed in the latter stages of the race in endeavouring to go faster than AP McCoy wanted him to, and he was a spent force by the time he landed over the last. The faster pace that he is likely (though not certain) to get in the Champion Hurdle should suit him better.

Our Conor ran a cracker. Barry Connell and Dessie Hughes expected him to improve significantly from the Ryanair Hurdle, and he duly did, turning a near-six-length deficit into just a one-and-a-half-length deficit on 1lb worse terms. His age allowance will be completely eradicated in March, so he has that 2lb to find for starters before he sets about addressing the length and a half, but there are reasons for believing that he can improve again.

He is following the Dessie Hughes template. Hardy Eustace finished last of seven behind Golden Cross in the December Festival Hurdle in 2003, and was beaten in the Cleeve Hurdle and the Red Mills Trial Hurdle as a prelude to his victory in the 2004 Champion Hurdle. And he finished only third behind Macs Joy and Brave Inca in the AIG Champion Hurdle in 2005 before he went and won his second Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham the following March.

"Our Conor is only five and Sunday's race was just his sixth over hurdles, so he still has bags of scope to progress. You can be sure that, all things being equal, he will do so between now and Champion Hurdle day. Best odds about him of 7/1 are more than fair."

While Our Conor won his four hurdle races last season as a juvenile, he improved with each run, as evidenced by Timeform ratings of 109, 132, 150 and 164 respectively. His Triumph Hurdle win was a career-best by some way, and he is shaping that way again this term.

His run in the Ryanair Hurdle at Christmas was his first run over hurdles since the Triumph Hurdle, so he was obviously entitled to come on for it, just as he is entitled to come on for Sunday's run.

He sits at the opposite end of the age-prism, half Hurricane Fly's age. Again, however, the stats say that he cannot win: only one five-year-old winner since See You Then in 1985. However, as with Hurricane Fly, he is an exceptional five-year-old, a record-breaking Triumph Hurdle winner.

There is a little bit of a worry that Our Conor may major on stamina more than speed. Triumph Hurdle winners often do. Although he is by Jeremy, his dam won over a mile and six furlongs, and his siblings include a raft of middle-distance performers on the flat and Gidam Gidam, winner of a Class 2 four-mile handicap chase! To that end, the switch from the stiffer Triumph Hurdle track to the sharper Champion Hurdle track, and the probable move to better ground compared to last year's Friday ground, may not be in his favour.

That said, he has won over seven furlongs and a mile on the flat, and he showed a nice change of gear on Sunday on ground that times say was significantly faster than the official description of soft to heavy. He is only five and Sunday's race was just his sixth over hurdles, so he still has bags of scope to progress. You can be sure that, all things being equal, he will do so between now and Champion Hurdle day. Best odds about him of 7/1 are more than fair.

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Trifolium's win in the Frank Ward Solicitors Arkle Chase turned the Racing Post Arkle picture inside out. An impressive performance by Defy Logic or Felix Yonger would have jettisoned either one to the top of the ante post market. Alas, for varying reasons, both fell short.

It was a ballsey decision by Bryan Cooper to ride the 7/1 shot Trifolium instead of the 7/2 shot Mozoltov (and those relative prices had taken the rider's choice into account), but, not for the first time in his career, the 21-year-old obviously knew what he was doing, and Trifolium ran out an impressive winner. Admittedly, the race did not take as much winning as it might have, with Defy Logic bursting a blood vessel and Felix Yonger jumping less than fluently out of the softish ground, but there was still a lot to like about the performance that Trifolium put up to win the race.

The Charles Byrnes-trained gelding travelled well just behind Defy Logic, he jumped well, he breezed into the lead at the third last as Defy Logic wilted, and he stayed on well over the last and up the run-in. In winning, he reversed previous defeats at the hands of both Felix Yonger and Defy Logic, and he clocked a good time, over eight seconds faster than the time that Treat Yourself clocked in winning a competitive handicap chase run over the same course and distance a half an hour later.

Trifoliium was a little bit of a forgotten horse, possibly because we didn't see him for most of last season as he struggled with a series of problems. However, he was a high-class novice hurdler two seasons ago, and was only beaten a length and a half by Cinders And Ashes and a neck by Darlan in the 2012 Supreme Novices' Hurdle, so you know that he handles the track and Cheltenham Festival conditions. He goes for the Arkle now and he is a player, no question.

You have to feel for Paul Nolan, Defy Logic was shaping like a real-live Arkle candidate. His defeat of Trifolium and Champagne Fever on his previous run tells you that he is a top class two-mile novice chaser, and his strength in the market before Sunday's race (morning price of 5/2 to SP of 11/8) tells you that he was impressing at home. But a burst blood vessel means you have no option but to re-group and start again.

Willie Mullins will no doubt juggle his two-mile novice chasers a couple of times between now and 11th March. Felix Yonger's defeat means that he may sidestep the Arkle now, and that Champagne Fever may move centre stage again. However, Susannah Ricci's horse is reportedly on track for the Dr PJ Moriarty Chase back at Leopardstown on Hennessy day and, while that race is run over two miles and five furlongs, it is usually more a pointer to the RSA Chase than the Arkle.

Mullins sent out Cooldine to win the PJ Moriarty in 2009. He sent out Boston Bob to win it in last year, when Lord Windermere finished third and Lyreen Legend fourth. Also, Bostons Angel won it in 2011 before following up in the RSA Chase, while Weapon's Amnesty finished second in the PJ Moriarty in 2010. Arkle winner Forpadydeplasterer did chase Cooldine home in the PJ Moriarty in 2009, so there is a precedent there, but the Leopardstown race has produced four of the last five RSA Chase winners.

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"Djakadam is built for jumping fences and is now two for two in steeplechases, and he should progress again for this. He is a super jumper when he meets one on a long stride, and that would be a significant asset at Cheltenham."

Ted Veale ran a nice race to finish fourth behind Trifolium. Settled in second last of the seven runners, he was a little keener than ideal in the early stages of the race and his jumping was a little sketchy, but he warmed to his task nicely as the race progressed, and Paul Carberry was not hard on him once his winning chance had gone.

This was just Ted Veale's third chase, and it will be interesting to see what mark the handicapper gives him now, but he can't be too harsh. John Breslin's horse won the County Hurdle last year off a mark of 134, and something close to that would make him interesting for the Grand Annual. He has loads of gears (he is three for five on the flat) and you know that Tony Martin will have him at concert pitch for Cheltenham if he goes there. Alderwood won the County Hurdle off a mark of 139 in 2012 before landing the Grand Annual off a mark of 140 last March.

Speaking of Tony Martin, his Quickpick Vic put up a really nice performance in landing the maiden hurdle that opened Sunday's card. Sent to the front from flagfall by Ruby Walsh, the field closed up on him a little on the run to the second last flight, but he moved on again easily around the home turn and stayed on powerfully to win by over nine lengths, apparently unextended.

Interestingly, the Old Vic gelding clocked a faster time than the time that Hurricane Fly clocked, all out, to win the Irish Champion Hurdle. This was just Quickpick Vic's second run over hurdles, he should progress again for it, and Tony Martin appears to hold him in really high regard. He could be a lively outsider for the Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle if his trainer decides to aim him at the race.

On Saturday, Djakadam looked good in beating Bright New Dawn in the Grade 2 Killiney Chase over two miles and five furlongs. He was receiving 11lb from the runner-up, but he always looked the more likely winner of the two, and the pair of them finished clear of the useful Mullaghanoe River.

Just below the top juvenile hurdlers last season, Djakadam is built for jumping fences. He is now two for two in steeplechases, and he should progress again for this. He is a super jumper when he meets one on a long stride, and that would be a significant asset at Cheltenham. Willie Mullins mentioned the JLT Chase (the old Jewson) over Sunday's trip as a possible target, and that makes a lot of sense. Even though his age allowance would be reduced to 1lb by then, he would still be a major player in the race. Longer term, he is surely a high-class staying chaser in the making.

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