Monday, January 7, 2013

January Jumps

January Jumps

By Stephen Dwyer

Hurricane Fly / Ruby Walsh @Irish Champion Hurdle

January is typically one of the quieter months in the horse racing calendar. After the seasonal highlights of Newbury, Ascot. Kempton and Chepstow in December, many of the top trainers use the month as a rest period before Cheltenham. But where the season lulls in January there are still many important races to be contested. There is a Champion Hurdle trial at Haydock and the Victor Chandler Chase at Ascot but one of the meatiest racing offerings is in Ireland at the January Jumps Festival in Leopardstown.  

The January Jumps weekend was the brainchild of Leopardstown CEO Pat Keogh. First run in 2012, it is now a permanent fixture following impressive attendances of almost 13,000 at the inaugural meeting. Encouraged by how the January Jumps weekend was received, Pat Keogh of Leopardstown noted "Having spoken to a number of people, many of them from Britain, over the weekend we were very encouraged as many of them said they would come again and we are promoting the two-day meeting more widely, around Ireland as well as in Britain, for 2013," said Keogh, who described the weekend as "a huge success".

Run on Saturday 26th and Sunday 27th January there is a seven race card on each of the days including two Grade 1 and two Grade 2 races. Among these include the Handicap Hurdle and the BHP Irish Champion Hurdle. First run in 1969 as the Irish Sweeps Hurdle and subsequently named The Ladbroke Hurdle and Pierce Hurdle, the Handicap Hurdle over 2 miles is a major source of handicap hurdling form for the season ahead including major handicaps at Cheltenham. The race was one of the traditional Champion Hurdle trials in the 1970s when Persian War, Night Nurse and Comedy Of Errors (who collectively won seven Champion Hurdles) all won at Leopardstown. In 2011 Willie Mullins trained Final Approach who proved an impressive winner of the MCR Hurdle and went on to score in the Vincent O´ Brien County Handicap Hurdle at Cheltenham. 

There is also significant industry weight behind the January Jumps program. In November 2011, Boylesports and Leopardstown signed a major three-year sponsorship deal. Included in this sponsorship, Boylesports are offering the potential of €150,000 worth of bonuses each year should any horse complete the Leopardstown and Cheltenham Festival double. There is a €100,000 bonus to the winner of the Grade 2 Hurdle should the winner go on to win at Cheltenham and €50,000 if a horse completes the Irish/English Arkle double.

And that Irish Arkle is an intriguing race, it was also at Leopardstown in the Frank Ward Solicitors Arkle Novice Chase (The Irish Arkle) that Flemenstar ,now joint-favourite for the Cheltenham Gold Cup, displayed one of the most commanding rounds of jumping all season, winning by an eventual nineteen lengths. The Irish Arkle however has not been a great indicator for the Arkle Chase at Cheltenham, the last horse winning both was Klairon Davis in 1995. Whether Tony Martin’s Dedigout and Willie Mullin’s Arvika Ligeonniere line out in the race is yet undecided but Jessica Harrington is likely to target the race for Oscars Well. A faller at the third fence last time out in the Craddockstown Novice Chase over two miles at Punchestown, Oscars Well started an odds on favourite that day and connections will be keen to make amends. Willie Mullins may also saddle the French-bred Twinlight who has won three times over fences. A useful front runner, Twinlight was third to Grandouet and Kumbeshwar in the Grade 1 Champion Four Year Old Hurdle at Punchestown in his first season and he looks a very interesting contender over fences. 

The Grade 2 novice Chase over the extended two miles and five furlongs is also a very important pre-Cheltenham trial. Won by Sir Des Champs last year, who was the youngest horse in the race and also carried top weight, this novice Chase is worth noting as year on year the form lines prove strong. 

The highlight of the entire Festival is the Grade 1 Irish Champion Hurdle over two miles. This is traditionally a showcase race for Ireland’s top hurdlers and has been won by Hatton's Grace, Dawn Run, Istabraq and in recent years Sizing Europe, Brave Inca and Hurricane Fly. Seen as one of the most significant pre-Cheltenham Champion Hurdle races, it is worth over €100,000 in prize money and seen as a true test of speed jumping. In truth, it revolves around one horse, Hurricane Fly who has one eye on regaining his Champion Hurdle Crown at Cheltenham.

Hurricane Fly was bred in Ireland and sold as a yearling at Goffs for €65,000. He was sent to France and subsequently bought out of the Jean-Luc Pelletan yard for an undisclosed sum on the advice of bloodstock agent Richard Hobson. The acquisition by Hobson (who is also responsible for the purchase of Golden Silver and Pomme Tiepy) was on behalf of retired Belfast construction worker George Creighton and Rose Boyd who runs an equestrian centre in Co. Down. At Leopardstown, Willie Mullin’s Hurricane Fly is seeking a hat trick in the race and it is extremely difficult to see past him. 

Although beaten when 4/6 favourite in last year’s Cheltenham Champion Hurdle, he ran below his best that day and sweated up badly beforehand and can be forgiven the run. Recently he was a twelve length winner of the Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown in November when defeating Captain Cee Bee by twelve lengths. Beaten just once in Ireland (when incurring a mid-race injury) Hurricane Fly is the most outstanding hurdler since Istabraq. He ran out an easy 6 ½ length winner of the Irish Champion Hurdle last year when beating Oscars Well and Thousand Stars in a small field when just five went to post against the brilliant ‘Fly. The eight year old son of Montjeu is unbeaten in all four starts around Leopardstown and his average winning distance at the track is 5 ½ lengths. In his career to date Hurricane Fly has won fourteen of his seventeen starts over hurdles and is +£14.30 in level stakes. With over £1,00,000 amassed in prize money for connections, there is no reason to see past him at Leopardstown.

Boasting some of the best racing in the National Hunt season, the January Jumps festival promises to reveal some crucial Cheltenham pointers and for many the road to the Festival will be that bit shorter.

Copyright @ Betview Magazine January 2013 edition.

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