Mike Cattermole reflects on the Dublin Racing Festival, including the rise of Joseph O'Brien, while trying to get to grips with the Darren Weir news from Down Under.
Apple's Jade the one to beat in Champion
That was Apple’s Jade in the Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown on Saturday. It was almost too good to be true, such was her dominance.
It was a performance that would have sent shivers down the spine of the connections of Buveur D’Air, whose task of bidding to join an elite club of triple Champion Hurdle winners now looks a whole lot tougher.
Like many, I am a big fan of Buveur and love the way he quickens and jumps his hurdles so slickly. But he would have a race on his hands to beat Apple’s Jade at level weights, let alone being asked to give her – and Laurina - 7lb.
It was not as if Apple’s Jade was beating up second-raters last weekend, far from it – there was a string of Grade 1 performers struggling in her wake and the time was very impressive. The only thing that you might note, but certainly not criticise or worry about, was her tendency to jump slightly to the right. But it made no difference at all.
I am not sure what the silly shenanigans were all about immediately after the race when the Gigginstown team seemed intent on teasing the world about sticking to “Plan A” and running her in the Mares Hurdle. Put that down to Eddie O’Leary’s mischievousness!
Anyway, after sleeping on it, Apple’s Jade was confirmed by Gordon Elliott as heading for the big one and this not only massively enhances the race but the whole meeting.
One word of caution - this will be her fourth visit to the Festival which has so far yielded one win in the Mares Hurdle of 2017, in between a second in the Triumph Hurdle and a third in last year’s Mares Hurdle.
However, Elliott and the team seem to know how to get the best out of Apple’s Jade now – they understand her menstrual cycle better - and she is going to be very hard to beat wherever she goes.
Sir Erec looks the real deal
When you look back at that defeat in the 2016 Triumph Hurdle, it was some performance by the winner Ivanovich Gorbatov to give Apple’s Jade 7lb, especially as they pulled six lengths clear of Footpad, no less!
You would have got a big price that Ivanovich would go 24 starts since then and fail to win another race for Joseph O’Brien. At least he showed a bit more at the weekend when third (off a mark of 134) to Off You Go in the Ladbroke Hurdle.
Anyway, O’Brien looks to have another potential Triumph Hurdle winner in Sir Erec who was well on top at the end of the Spring Juvenile Hurdle. I loved the way he hit the line so strongly and there is no doubt that he is a really exciting recruit to the jumping ranks.
When he finished third to Stradivarius at Ascot in the Long Distance Cup on Champions Day in Derrick Smith’s silks, Sir Erec looked like a potential Gold Cup contender for next June. (Watch the closing stages and see how much left he has after they have crossed the line – he is the one taking the longest to pull up).
To then see him show up in JP McManus’s colours to win on his hurdling debut at Leopardstown over Christmas was a real surprise and big bonus for jumps fans. But this latest effort was another significant step forward.
There would not be many over the years who have come off the Flat with a rating of 109 to tackle the juvenile hurdling division and connections look to be keeping their options open as he is still a colt. He has, after all, only had five starts on the Flat.
The ground at Leopardstown last weekend would have been plenty quick enough for Sir Erec, who has a bit of a knee action, and I reckon there will much more to come when he gets more cut in the ground.
O'Brien building up a head of steam
With the Irish jumping scene being largely dominated by Messrs Mullins and Elliott, Joseph O’Brien’s growing presence in the top races is to be welcomed.
Already, he is a massively successful trainer with a Melbourne Cup and Irish Derby on his CV and his mixing it with the other two powerhouses adds some much needed diversity to the Irish jumping scene - by golly it needs it.
On Saturday, O’Brien’s Le Richebourg, also owned by JP McManus, enhanced his Arkle Trophy claims by winning the Irish equivalent (and like the Spring Juvenile Hurdle, led home an O’Brien 1-2) in tremendous style.
Note that his winning time was only a tenth of a second slower than Min’s in the Dublin Chase and he is now as short as 3-1 favourite with Sky Bet for the Festival’s opening chase of the meeting.
O’Brien could make a flying start to the Festival as there has to be a chance that, with Sir Erec going for the Triumph later in the week, his other smart four-year-old Fakir D’oudairies will be pointed towards the Sky Bet Supreme Novices Hurdle.
When he won the Triumph Hurdle Trial by 13 lengths last month, Fakir led home yet another stable 1-2 (Joseph is making a habit of this) with the McManus-owned Fine Brunello in second.
I hear that McManus was so impressed that he has snapped up Fakir D’oudairies and it would make perfect sense for him to be diverted to a different race, especially one in which the younger horses get a handy 8lb from their elders.
The swift fall from grace of Darren Weir, one of Australia’s leading trainers, who was banned this week for four years, has sent shock waves reverberating around the horse racing world.
Weir had developed a reputation of being a genius at the way he would improve horses out of all recognition, especially when they had been sent to him from other yards.
But now we know, following a police raid and the discovery of electric shock devices called “jiggers” that he was not only cheating but being cruel to his racehorses too.
The shock would be administered, on the gallops, after a horse had been struck by the whip to make it go faster.
Some might think that a lifetime ban would have been more appropriate. Still, it is hard to see the Melbourne Cup-winning trainer coming back from this.
It is a sad case on many fronts and raises so many questions about whether there are others out there using similar devices. It would be naïve to think not.
What is strange about it is that Weir was massively successful with over 600 horses registered to him, a staggering number. How long had he been breaking the rules and how many race results had been affected as a consequence?
The implications obviously go beyond the racecourse and into the breeding sheds too.
In short, this is a massive story, every bit as big as the Al Zarooni scandal over here.