Thursday, May 3, 2012

Six of the best

Six of the best

By Stephen Dwyer

As the 2011/2012 National Hunt season ended last week in Punchestown we take a look back at some of the highlights;

Peter Casey and his big night

Flemenstar is very, very good. He is the joint second highest rated chaser in Ireland (sharing a mark of 163 with Quito De La Roque) following victory in the Irish Arkle by 19 lengths and a peerless display in the Powers Gold Cup. His trainer, Peter Casey from Stamullen, Co. Meath was so delighted following Flemenstar’s performance at Leopardstown that in a live RTE TV interview he said to Tracey Pigott: “I can’t believe it. I’ll sleep tonight. I’ll have f**kin’ sex tonight and everything! 500,000 hits on YouTube later, Peter Casey, who is in his mid-seventies, is an internet sensation where his wife Junie deserves an honourable mention.

Quevega does is again

Queen Quevega, from the team that bought you Thousand Stars and J'y Vole, is one of the best national hunt mares in decades. She is the fourth highest hurdler in Ireland, carrying a loft mark of 161 and won the David Nicholson Mares' Hurdle at Cheltenham for the fourth consecutive year. She followed this up at Punchestown with another victory in the 3 mile World Hurdle and in doing so taking her total prize money to over €660,000.  If there is a drawback it is that we do not see enough of her; Quevega has raced just six times in the last three years. Unbeaten in all of these starts she oozes quality. Surely she deserves a crack at Big Buck’s and with that mares allowance, anything could happen.

Voler La Vedette stays in training

Voler La Vedette , the second-best racing mare in Ireland was not meant to run this season. Last Spring she was sent to Presenting but failed to get in foal.  Connections opted to re-race her and she won three of her six races and finished second in the other three.  Emulating Solerina, another very useful mare, Voler La Vedette claimed her first Grade 1 race in the Hatton’s Grace hurdle at Fairyhouse. She was a memorable second to Big Buck’s at Cheltenham and there is more to come next season for this improving mare, whose name in English means “To steal the show”. How fitting.

Davy Russell, knocking on the door

Over the course of last season, Davy Russell was the busiest jockey in Ireland. He rode in 530 races where he racked up over €1.8 Million in prize money. Last week he was crowned champion jockey for the first time at the end of the Punchestown festival.  Russell ‘s most notable wins in Ireland included Last Instalment in the Dr. P.J. Moriarty Novice Chase at Leopardstown and at Punchestown Sir Des Champs survived a last-fence gaff to take the Growise Champion Novice Chase at Punchestown. Russell was also successful aboard Dedigout  in the Grade 1 Cathal Ryan Memorial Champion Novice Hurdle at Punchestown where he finished a memorable season. As retained jockey to Gigginstown House Stud, the Youghal native is under no illusion how fortunate he is to ride many of the top rated National Hunt horses. He is an affable, straight-talking professional to the point that he was named as Horse Racing Ireland’s National Hunt Ambassador at the start of last season. The title of champion jockey was well deserved, he finished second in the title race five times in his career to date. Tony McCoy was quick to praise Russell “He’s competing in Ireland with some of the best jockeys we’ve ever seen – you’ve only got to look down the list of the most recent winners of the jockeys’ championships in Ireland to see how good you have to be.” In the world or racing there is no better endorsement. 

Hurricane Fly, pure class

The greatest hurdler since Istabraq, Hurricane Fly won his eleventh Group 1 race recently at Punchestown when taking the Rabobank Champion Hurdle. The son of Montjeu made amends for his defeat a month earlier in Prestbury Park when beating the classy Zaidpour and Thousand Stars to land a Willie Mullins 1-2-3 in the race. He carried the hopes of a nation at Cheltenham but all was not well in the Champion Hurdle. Sweating up beforehand, Hurricane Fly was unsettled and ran below his best. Finishing third, he failed in his attempt to win back to back titles. That said, his rating of 173 is head and shoulders above any other hurdler in Ireland and the UK. The 8yo is still the 5-1 favourite  to become only the second horse, after Comedy Of Errors in 1975, to win back the Cheltenham hurdling championship after losing it. At his best, few would bet against him doing so.

Sir De Champs, lucky O’Leary

It is now six years since there was an Irish-trained winner of the Cheltenham Gold Cup. When War Of Attrition won the Blue Riband in 2006, Michael O’ Leary collected the trophy as winning owner. In 2013 he hopes to emulate this success with his  unbeaten Sir De Champs. The French-bred carries crucial course form, twice a winner at the festival he won the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys' Handicap Hurdle in 2011 and the Jewson Novices' Chase this year, both in impressive style. Interestingly, Sir De Champs failed to find a buyer as a two-year-old in France and was again unsold as a three-year-old at the Arqana Summer Sale when bidding reached just €28,000. The horse ran in four flat races before winning a hurdle race and was then acquired privately by his current connections. He may be a short price at 5/1 for The Gold Cup but overall it is very hard to find a recurrent chink in his armour.

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