Declan Rix

In his first column of the New Year, Declan Rix puts forward the case of Laurina not being a serious Champion Hurdle contender. Declan also reflects on some of the Christmas racing, namely the Savills Chase and the King George VI Chase, looking at the bigger Gold Cup picture.

  • Sunday 06 January
  • Blog
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LAURINA IS NOT CHAMPION HURDLE MATERIAL

It was great to see last season’s Grade 2 Cheltenham Festival winner Laurina make a belated successful return to action in the Listed Unibet Mares' Hurdle at Sandown on Saturday.

Having missed earlier campaign engagements due to the unseasonably quick ground conditions, Willie Mullins’s inmate got her season off to the perfect start, winning by 48 hard-held lengths in the hands of Ruby Walsh. In black and white, that looks a monster performance, but it would be naïve to assess her victory in such terms.

For a start, a declared field of four was cut to a match after two non-runners, but more importantly Laurina’s sole challenger, the more than useful Sensulano, was clearly miles below her best with Noel Williams’s six-year-old looking a spent force after jumping just three hurdles.

While it’s not a race that told us if Laurina has improved on last season’s unbeaten novice hurdle campaign, visually, there were encouraging signs. The strapping daughter of Spanish Moon looked alert and bright throughout, appearing happy to be back on the racecourse and under the tightest of holds galloped up the stiff Sandown climb in relentless fashion.

While the engine didn’t come anywhere near being fully revved, given how she saw the race out with such class, you got the feeling she will be competitive with the geldings in her first season out of novice company, especially when in receipt of the 7lb mares’ allowance and in soft ground.

The question that now needs answering, is what path will connections take? Before the season started proper, in an attheraces.com stable tour with Willie Mullins, the handler said, “I think we’ll train her and campaign her with a view to the Champion Hurdle”. After Saturday’s success, Mullins seems keen to stay down that route, but I can’t help but feel, on current evidence, that is the wrong way to go with the Sullivan Bloodstock Limited-owned six-year-old.

First and foremost, when assessing any horses chance in a race, we must start with ability, and at this juncture in Laurina’s career she must improve the bones of a stone to be competitive with the likes of the reigning Champion Hurdler Buveur D’Air (6/4), and even her own stablemate Melon (10/1). The fact that she is more than half the price of last year's runner-up, is frankly, wrong. 

There is a sense that she could well take that jump forward though, because she hasn’t been truly tested yet, but we need to see it on the race track. Other doubts remain too, maybe more tangible worries.

Physically, there is little to suggest that Laurina is a Champion Hurdle winner in waiting. Her Beyoncé-like frame would typically be too big and strong to win on the Tuesday of the Cheltenham Festival. Given her size, it shouldn't come as a surprise she doesn’t jump slick enough. She isn’t a bad hurdler by any means, but a top of his game Buveur D’Air would embarrass her through the air over obstacles.

Laurina wins the Unibet Mares' Hurdle at Sandown
Laurina hits a hurdle on her way to making a visually pleasing seasonal debut

Laurina just doesn’t move like a two-miler either; her relentless galloping stride looks tailor-made for that of a 2m4f+ performer, and furthermore, we have yet to see her compete on anything remotely like spring ground.

At the moment, there is literally nothing that strikes me about her as a potential Champion Hurdle winner, apart from the man she is trained by, but even Willie Mullins can’t turn water into wine. Or can he?

A more sensible and better winning opportunity in the Cheltenham ‘Championship races’ looks the Stayers’ Hurdle. First and foremost, that looks a weaker division, in that there is no star. In terms of the trip, especially on potential spring terrain that would look a more suitable option.

While the three-mile distance is an unknown, there are elements of her pedigree that suggest it’s within reach and, given how good she looked galloping up the Sandown hill on soft ground over 2m4f, that would fill you with plenty of hope.

Stablemates in the staying division include the current Stayers’ Hurdle winner Penhill, and of course Faugheen, among others, so that is a concern, but they are owned by different people.

We shall see how it all plays out, but the trip debate that will likely ensue will be interesting. Dare I mention her in the same breath, as Laurina has done nothing like her yet, but there are shades of Annie Power about this powerful mare, especially given the Mullins camp may face the same question they once did with the great mare, Champion Hurdle or Stayers’ Hurdle?

PERCY STRENGTHENS GRIP ON GOLD CUP

It’s a bit late for Christmas reflections, and I’m sure plenty of people have had their fill, but given this is the first piece since before the festive period, I thought I’d throw my tuppence worth in.

With top-class action at Kempton and Leopardstown over three miles in the weeks just gone, there were plenty of Gold Cup clues on offer. My main takeaway was that a horse that didn’t even run strengthened his position at the head of betting affairs for the Blue Riband event. Of course, we are talking about Presenting Percy, who again missed an intended engagement in the Savills Chase at Leopardstown due to the ground.

That race went the way of the Willie Mullins-trained Kemboy, who got an outstanding ride from David Mullins to go on and score by a widening 7½ lengths. Visually, the way the improving son of Voix Du Nord hit line really caught your eye, and he’s clearly going the right way, but I can’t help but feel he’ll need to improve significantly again to win a Gold Cup. He has got time on his side, mind.

His current official rating of 167 overplays his ability and while he did step forward from his Grade 2 Clonmel Oil Chase success, I don’t think he needed to improve too much to beat his field. The runner-up Monalee doesn’t look at the top of his game this season while third home, Road To Respect, was very unlucky in a race that wasn’t run to suit on the ground.

Over at Kempton in the Grade 1 King George VI Chase, which went the way of the Paul Nicholls-trained Clan Des Obeaux, the below par performances of both Might Bite and Native River, on top of the early exits of Bristol De Mai and the unlucky Waiting Patiently, stop me from going overboard in terms of the level of the King George form.

Again, like Kemboy in Ireland, visually, the smooth-travelling performance of Clan Des Obeaux was easy on the eye, and he is clearly improving, but beating the soon-to-be 11-year-old Thistlecrack, who has suffered injuries, in terms of outstanding Gold Cup form, it is hard to get excited.

On a more positive note where this duo, Clan Des Obeaux and Kemboy, are concerned, what remains a plus is they are improving, they are healthy and are with top-class trainers. That must be respected in this game, especially in this division, when you consider the current wellbeing of Might Bite, who looks a spent force.

Native River’s King George effort is also worrying, in a performance that saw him jump left quite a few times. While Kempton wouldn’t be his ideal track - either was Haydock - he looks to have gone backwards from the Betfair Chase. This is a concern.

Fifth in the betting and King George runner-up, Thistlecrack ran a superb race. The Tizzard’s have done really well to get him back operating in the 160s, but he doesn’t look as good as he was before his injury and the Gold Cup trip will surely stretch him. If he is to stay in March, Tom Scudamore cannot allow him to see as much daylight as he did early here. Scudamore must also sit a lot quieter in the saddle, refraining from asking for big jumps, in what is a necessary energy-saving exercise. The old boy really did look like he was enjoying himself, which was great to see, but the Ryanair really is a race connections should strongly be considering.

Winning Gold Cups is a young man’s game however, and with the form of his RSA victory looking better than Kemboy’s Savills win, and on a par with Clan Des Obeaux’s King George effort, with stamina assured, Presenting Percy, although 4/1 in January, looks a fair bet with plenty of Non-Runner No Bet concessions on offer.

He may not go off much shorter, and he doesn’t deserve to be any skinnier in the betting, but he may well end up winning like a 6/4 shot in a field starting to look a mix of weary warriors and potential non-stayers.

Declan Rix
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