Friday, March 23, 2012

A Beautiful Friendship

By Stephen Dwyer

An early departure could so easily have happened. Barely thirty seconds into this year’s Gold Cup, What A Friend met the second fence on a wrong stride and fell. Upsides him was Synchronised,  Tony McCoy was blessed not to be brought down as What A Friend tumbled on landing. McCoy then quickened away from the fallen horse, his luck was in. On the first circuit, Synchronised ran along the rail near the rear guard. Efforts to settle him proved in vain and several times he was out of camera shot such was his distance from the main protagonists. 

Half a mile later, McCoy was visibly hard at work on Synchronised when Ruby Walsh pulled up Kauto Star whose departure met with sincere applause from the 70,458 in attendance.  Nine 12-year-olds have been placed in Gold Cups but not this year and it remains to be seen if we have seen the last of the great horse. After the Gold Cup Ruby Walsh admitted that McCoy noticed that Kauto was not travelling well had said to him mid-race; “If I were you I’d pull him up”, it was a measured call and the right decision. 

As Kauto Star made his way back to the grandstand, McCoy was still niggling his horse along. He would touch 25/1 in-running during the race and several times it looked like his chance was lost. It seemed a tough day at the office for the Champion Jockey. Synchronised is not the most natural jumper in the world but McCoy made his mind up for him at several fences. Every time he was not fluent over a fence, his jockey would push and encourage him further. Turning for home, Synchronised was last of the chasing pack. Long Run was niggled by Sam Waley-Cohen and McCoy was several lengths off the pace. It was only at the last fence that a fully extended jump gained ground and he quickened on landing. Synchronised stayed on well, ears pricked, and won going away from The Giant Bolster and Long Run.  

Surprisingly,  Synchronised had run only once over fences this season prior to The Gold Cup. He beat the well-touted Quito De La Roque and Rubi Light in the Grade 1 Lexus Chase at Leopardstown over Christmas and was expected to travel well in this year’s renewal of The Gold Cup. Prior to winning The Lexus he had started at 25/1 and 50/1 in two Handicap Hurdles. If not a brilliant jumper, Synchronised is a magnificent stayer. He won the Midlands National over 4m 1f and is a dual winner of the Welsh National over 3m 5f. 

Speaking with McCoy afterwards he admitted; “Synchronised is all heart and he’s all will to win and I felt coming round the turn that nobody was going to come home better than him. This sounds like a crazy thing to say about a Gold Cup horse but he’s not really a chaser. He hasn’t got the physique but he won purely because of the size of his heart and by Jonjo producing him to win.”
It was a first Gold Cup victory for JP McManus and his 36th Cheltenham win to date. JP didn’t back Synchronised but he knew his horse would see out the distance; “When he jumped the third last I began to think he had a good chance. I knew he’d stay very well and in the Gold Cup you have to get that trip. That’s the one thing you have to do, otherwise you don’t win it.”

JP was quick to praise McCoy. He was simply sensational aboard Synchronised, he used all of his experience and gritty resolve to win the race. He attacked the fences in contrast to Sam Waley-Cohen who you feel did not extract the best from Long Run. Instead of confidence trickling down to the horse, Waley-Cohen regressed into an uneasy rhythm. Remember that when Mr. Mulligan won the Gold Cup with McCoy on board in 1997, Sam-Waley Cohen was barely fifteen years old, that is the depth of the gulf in class. Waley-Cohen was also banned for two days for his third-placed ride on Long Run Cup after the stewards found he had used his whip above the permitted level. There is more to come from Long Run but the day rightly belonged to Synchronised who is the 8/1 favourite for the Aintree Grand National.  He is gamely bidding to become the first horse since Golden Miller in 1934 to win the Gold Cup and The Aintree Grand National in the same season.

There was a final twist in the story too, the Dam of Synchronised is Mayasta who was also owned by JP McManus. Mayasta, trained by Francis Berry for JP was the winner of nine races under rules. In a Handicap Hurdle at the Punchestown Festival back in 1996, Mayasta became the first winner that Tony McCoy rode for McManus. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Big Four

By Stephen Dwyer

The odds are stacked against them. 16/1 is the current price for the big four to retain their crown. Hurricane Fly, Big Buck’s, Sizing Europe and Long Run are all worthy champions but surely something has to give ?
Cheltenham is no time to get heavily involved in short priced favourites. In recent Festivals the hotpots of Dunguib, Kauto Star and Master Minded were all beaten at odds of 4/5 or shorter. In 2011 Cue Card, Time for Rupert, Master Minded and Poquelin started around the 2/1 mark and again failed to win or in some cases, even place. No question that the “big four” are class acts but there are too many variables for them all to win this year. Although all are proven at Prestbury Park, it is a tall order to win there two years in a row.

Hurricane Fly, the reigning Champion Hurdler faces the toughest race of his career on Tuesday. Granted he was mightily impressive in last year’s renewal but faces a young improver in Zarkandar and an in-form Binocular. He had Peddler’s Cross, Oscar Whisky and Thousand Stars behind him in 2011 but none of these are as quick as Binocular on his day. There is one negative against Binocular in that the last winner of the Christmas Hurdle to go on and to Champion Hurdle success was Dawn Run in 1984. Binocular was held by Hurricane Fly at Punchestown last May and it is difficult to see him beating a horse considered by many to be as good, if not better than Istabraq. Last word on this to Tony Mullins who said at a recent preview night that “even another outbreak of foot and mouth won’t stop Hurricane Fly”.
Big Bucks rightly dominates the market for the World Hurdle. At the prohibitive odds of 4/9, he is expected to continue his unbeaten run over the extended trip and remain the highest rated National Hunt horse in the world. Oscar Whiskey and Thousand Stars provide the immediate opposition but the statistics are against them. Both ran in the Champion Hurdle last year and it is twenty years since a winner of the World Hurdle previously ran in the Champion Hurdle. That said pundit Mick Fitzgerald doesn’t rule out Oscar Whisky: “He will (Big Bucks) be beaten one day and Oscar Whisky could be the one to do it”. The Irish have also not had a winner of this race in seventeen years and in reality Big Buck’s is as close to a certainty as you will get at Cheltenham where his odds are the shortest of the entire Festival.

Winner of a Greatwood Hurdle, Arkle and Champion Chase, Sizing Europe will make a very bold bid to retain his title for 2012. He looked the most likely winner of the 2008 Champion Hurdle before almost stopping to a halt due to injury and has done nothing but improve this season.  As good as Sizing Europe may be however it is work mentioning that 10 of the last 11 defending Champion Chase winners were beaten when attempting to defend their title the following year. Nine of those started favourite or second-favourite. At Cheltenham last year Sizing Europe led home an Irish 1-2-3-4, no doubt an in-form Big Zeb will pose a challenge but more may come from Finian's Rainbow. Nicky Henderson believes Finian's Rainbow to be a more settled horse this term and his jumping has improved and is lightly raced. Sizing Europe may have them all on the stretch as he did last year and as it stands he is the one they all have to beat. It will take a very good horse to muscle past him.
Amateur riders only win the Gold Cup once every 30 years. Does this mean that after success in this race last year that Long Run cannot win again ? Connections believe that he can and none more so than his Corinthian pilot Mr. Sam Waley-Cohen. There are doubts as to whether Long Run has trained on since beating a below-par Kauto Star last year but Cheltenham plays to his strengths. The extra distance will suit but he has been held by Kauto Star all season. Nine of the last 12 Gold Cup winners won the King George the same year and Ruby Walsh has adopted different tactics with Kauto Star this year. Long Run has to settle early in his races as he is prone to jumping errors. There could be a big priced winner of the Gold Cup this year as there are doubts over Kauto Star’s age (just two 12 year old winners of the race and in the last 12 running’s of the Gold Cup, 59 horses aged 10 or older have been beaten). The amateur jockey aboard Long Run is also a negative for many who pin their main hope on  believing Long Run’s class will see him though.

From a betting perspective, the 6/4 available for a Hurricane Fly/Big Buck’s double is still short but attainable. Tread carefully however as over the  last four years there have been 67 horses to start under 4/1 and only 12 have won (with Quevega and Big Buck’s multiple winners).
Time then to enjoy but not lose your shirt, after all there are only four days in the year; the rest aren’t Cheltenham.

Friday, March 2, 2012

The Wonder Mare
By Stephen Dwyer

You can’t but admire The Hammer & Trowel Syndicate. Comprising of a bricklayer, Sean Deane and Ger O'Brien, a carpenter, the syndicate have a history of acquiring top class racing mares. The Hammer & Trowel pairing was set up at a Christmas party in 2006 and their three mares, J’y Vole. Thousand Stars and Quevega are a testimony to shrewdness and more than a little good fortune. Among this trio however it is Quevega who burns brightest. She is unquestionably the best mare in Ireland, England and perhaps Europe. Seeking a fourth win in the David Nicholson mares hurdle at Cheltenham in two weeks’ time, she is for many the safest bet of the entire festival.

Quevega is thoroughly French. She was bred by Pierre Rives near Allier in central France in 2004 from a six-time winning mare Vega IV and the precocious sire Robin Des Champs. She was quickly put into training with Bertrand de Watrigant who commended the soundness of the young filly; “She was kind and gentle and you could do anything you wanted with her. Truly, very easy and adorable with a terrific turn of foot”.

Sent to the summer sales as a three year old, Quevega was unsold in the ring but would win her next three starts before being spotted by bloodstock agent Pierre Boulard. At the time, Boulard was seeking a new mare for the Hammer & Trowel Syndicate. A couple of weeks later, Quevega arrived at Willie Mullin’s yard and has since progressed to become one of the leading stars of Closutton. She quickly won her first two hurdle races by a combination of 21 lengths and also ran in France at Auteuil, where she finished third in the Group 1 Prix Alain du Breil, just two lengths behind Hurricane Fly.

At Cheltenham in 2008, Quevega won the first of her three Mares hurdle races when easily quickening away from the field. It was 14 lengths back to the second mare, not bad for a race worth £100,000. She was the easiest winner of the entire Cheltenham festival. After finishing third in the Irish Champion Hurdle, Quevega returned to Auteuil for the Group 2 Prix la Barka but sustained a suspensory ligament that almost finished her career. Carefully rested, she would not race again for several months but took the renewal of the 2009 Mares race in Cheltenham in great style. By the age of seven, Quevega was a dual Cheltenham Festival winner and successful in nine of her 16 races.

After successfully landing the hat-trick in the Mares hurdle at Cheltenham last year, Quevega stepped up to 3 miles when winning the Grade 1 World Series Hurdle at Punchestown. That was in early May and she has not been seen on a racecourse since. Despite the long absence, trainer Willie Mullins has reported the eight year old to be in peak condition ahead of another run in the David Nicholson race. Conditions appears tailor-made for the wonder mare who to date has won over €500,000 in prize money for her connections. 

Although she is as short as 4/7 to win her fourth Mares Hurdle, opposition for Quevega appears thin on the ground. The main antagonist in the race, Unaccompanied, is only to run if Quevega does not. The only real negative is the face that the mares race is run on the opening day of the Festival when the ground regularly rides at its deadest for the week. This should not matter too much for Quevega and her class should see her through. Another big win at Cheltenham awaits The Hammer & Trowel Syndicate, you feel they are merely counting down the days.

Onefortheroadtom a solid each way option

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