Monday, December 20, 2010

Joyeux Noël

Here’s a question, what happens in France every Christmas Eve that does not happen in either Ireland or England? No, it’s not Santa Claus exclusively visiting the land of Les Bleus. Would you believe; perish the thought, that there is horse racing in France on the 24th of December. Unless the likes of Willie Mullins, Noel Meade and Barry Geraghty have taken full advantage of the recent cold snap to carry out some early Christmas shopping, it is likely for those involved in National Hunt racing that Christmas Eve is the day when many last-minute gifts are hastily acquired for their loved ones.

Over the Christmas holidays, while many of us put our feet up and watch racing from the comfort of our living rooms, the trainers and jockeys of Ireland undergo one of their busiest times of the year. For instance, between Ireland and the UK, there were ten scheduled meetings on St. Stephen’s Day last year. In 2009 the racecourses were not even playing catch-up like is the case of late with race meetings being abandoned unceasingly due to the prevalent snow and ice.

In an effort to clear the backlog of postponed races, Fairyhouse racecourse staged a stellar midweek card recently. It was a superb all-Grade affair, the type normally reserved for showcase Saturdays. It featured no less than four Grade One races alongside a Grade Two and a Grade Three. With trainer Willie Mullins a major player on the day, it whetted the appetite for his Christmas assault on the Leopardstown festival and further afield.

Make no mistake; the standard of racing around Christmas is first rate. For years now, the big races run around this time of year have become trials for the major Cheltenham races in March. For instance, this year's Arkle winner, Sizing Europe, won the €90,000 Grade 1 Bord Na Mona Novice Chase on St. Stephen's Day at Leopardstown. RSA Winner Weapon's Amnesty was a short head second to Pandorama in the Knight Frank Novice Chase at the same meet. With Kauto Star aiming for his fifth King George in Kempton on St. Stephens’s day, beating the record of Desert Orchid, this is a peak in the racing season and a true showcase for the best of equine and human talent and what that partnership entails.

The organisers of the Leopardstown Christmas festival expect a crowd of 55,000 to attend over their four day meet. Given that just over 3,000 appeared at Fairyhouse for their all-Grade card, it gives the racing public an opportunity to make up for lost time and turn out en masse and view the superstars of Irish racing before many of them will be put away until Cheltenham.

Looking at the racing calendar for the week between St. Stephen’s Day and New Years is akin to picking up the Christmas RTE Guide and seeing that all your favourite films are on at different times. You are not left disappointed with the fare that is served up. There are so many highlights to choose from, The Long Walk Hurdle at Newbury, The Christmas Hurdle and Feltham Chase at Kempton, the reappearance of "horse of the year" Big Zeb taking on Golden Silver in Paddy Power Dial - A - Bet chase, the rematch of Hurricane and Solwhit. The racing is prestigious and the rewards are immense.

A quick snapshot of the prize money shows that The Paddy Power Chase is worth €190,000, the future Champions Novice Hurdle €80,000, The Lexus Chase €150,000, little wonder racing around this time of year attracts the very best of Irish and UK runners. For some trainers and jockeys, there this represents a nice Christmas bonus, for others it represents a learning curve.

Such was the case after a poor performance in last year’s King George, where trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies’ star jumper Imperial Commander was beaten 63 lengths by Kauto Star. A lesson was learned, ability is nothing without realisation and this was a turning point in the horses career. From that point on, Twiston-Davies conditioned the horse to the point where he was described as “a ball of muscle” when taking on Kauto Star in The Gold Cup and we all know the result. We will see examples of such progression this year, from unexpected quarters perhaps.

Often it is the improvements you see in horses from Christmas to March that makes watching racing at this time of year so special. Horses are like athletes, they peak at various points in their careers and if you can time these peaks, the results can be spectacular.

For the past few weeks, amidst the frozen ground and arctic climate, horses fitness has to be maintained, novices must undergo schooling sessions, work in the training yard carries on, uneasy, unending. When the silks are donned and the hats are tilted in victory in the winner’s enclosures over the next few weeks, it is such thoughts that make for a Happy Christmas for all.

In France they say “Snowy Christmas, wonderful summer”, there will be plenty of time for fresh green pastures for horses once the season is over, but for the horses now there is work to be done and races to be won, and maybe an extra carrot or two as a treat, left behind by Rudolph.

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