Saturday, April 10, 2010

Cheltenham Highlights

Dunguib defeat starts bookies’ bonanza

Dunguib is, as you may know by now, named after a townsland in the Parish of Killenaule, Co. Tipperary. (Cooldine is named after a different townsland in Killenaule but that’s a story for another time.) Dunguib of course, was the leading Irish hope for the Cheltenham Festival and his 1¾-length defeat in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at the hands of Menorah and Get Me Out Of Here was the first blow in a week long bloodbath for favourite backers. Such was the one-sided nature of the results in favour of the bookies that William Hill estimated that a profit of €65 million was made across the Festival. This was aided by the fact there were just four winning favourites from 26 races, a ratio of just 15%, low even for Cheltenham.

In the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle alone, Paddy Power cleared €5 million when Dunguib finished third. That’s enough for a brand new shamrock-green, 8-seater Lear Jet with enough change left over to staff and run it for two years. Much was made of the defeat of Dunguib, but there was no real mystery. The simple facts are that he ran on ground that was not ideal, he was far from fluent at the third hurdle, then he hit the fifth hard and ran wide. He was under pressure up the hill and was beaten by two good horses in a cut-throat championship race. This happens, time and time again, and his starting price of 4/5 was far too short given his jumping. It was Plato who said “A good decision is based on knowledge and not on numbers.” Paddy Power put this into practice.

Dunguib will now head for Punchestown, he may be a price on the day and he is very capable of beating the best novices and senior hurdlers around. Brian O’Connell will keep the ride at Punchestown, the right choice. Philip Fenton insists, O’Connell, still only 23, does not have to make amends for anything that happened in Cheltenham. Any Dunguib doubters may well be silenced after either the Evening Herald Champion Novice Hurdle or the Rabobank Champion Hurdle when the hills around Killenaule will be smiling.

Paddy makes his own parade

6,000 scarves is a lot of scarves. That’s how many Kauto Star- and Denman-themed neck warmers were sold in the run up to the Gold Cup according to Rebecca Morgan, commercial and operations manager at Cheltenham. Never mind the 6,000, there were six other scarves worn on Gold Cup Day, black and white ones adorning the six strong syndicate, Our Friends In The North, in the colours of Imperial Commander.

Our Friends In The North trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies and jockey Paddy Brennan paid no heed to the marketing spin that had been accelerating since Christmas, the blue riband duel, the showdown between Kauto and Denman. The rematch between the former Gold Cup winners, the hype, it really didn’t matter, Twiston-Davies said his lad was “a ball of muscle” and he could not have prepared him any better. Should more attention have been paid to this comment, made by a man who has trained over 1000 National Hunt winners and two Grand Nationals?

Our Friends In The North, like many syndicate owners, have their own setbacks, theirs was in 2004 with the death of useful hurdler Bobby Dazzler following a training yard accident where he slipped and broke his pelvis. They used Bobby Dazzler’s insurance money to acquire Imperial Commander who was bought for £30,000 in 2005. The horse soon became a Cheltenham specialist, winning four chases from five at the track – beaten only when trying to win his third race in two months before subsequently being laid off for a year with a back injury. His first race back was the Paddy Power Gold Cup, which he duly won; he then beat odds-on favourite Voy Por Ustedes to win the Ryanair Chase at last year’s Festival.

This season, Imperial Commander’s battling run in the Betfair Chase last November, where he went down by a nose to Kauto Star, was followed up by a sixth place in the King George where Kauto, at his brilliant best, beat him by a total of over 63 lengths. He hit the second fence badly that day so could possibly be excused. With this run behind him, he was a general 8/1 chance for the Gold Cup, largely considered an each-way chance. Paddy Brennan said the day before the race that he “wouldn’t ride anything else”. John Francome presented a television feature where he cantered on Imperial Commander and was highly impressed by the horse’s tone and balance, describing him as “half-way between Kauto Star and Denman”. Francome was getting the best of both worlds, the brute galloping style of Denman and the poise and precision of Kauto. Not a bad combination.

Imperial Commander looked relaxed and confident in the pre-parade ring. When the tape went up he settled well early behind Carruthers and Denman. He jumped fluidly and following Kauto Star’s exit four out, he went into second and led two out, from where he powered up the hill, away from Denman and a hard-at-work Tony McCoy.

Winning in the end by a widening seven lengths, Paddy Brennan passed the winning post and turned to the Grandstand, putting one finger up to his lips, Arshavin-like, in a silencing motion as he trotted to the winner’s enclosure, a new champion. Imperial Commander was awarded a Timeform rating of 184, the fifth highest of all time, and Brennan, when asked about his silencing gesture, responded: “I put the quiet sign up because he was probably a little bit forgotten coming into the race.”

Now he will be remembered.

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