I fought the urge to write about Matthew Syed’s blatantly ignorant column entitled, “Whipping horses is ruining racing. It must be banned” in The Times this week to concentrate on some of the performances that most caught the eye over the last couple of days.
While the case, it shouldn’t be forgotten – and I’m sure it is not - that the sport of horse racing is in a critical time in its journey. Political and outside pressure on welfare and gambling matters are testing the sport’s governing body, the British Horseracing Authority (BHA).
On welfare, which Syed’s piece concerned, the BHA continue to impress however, as we saw in the 2011 changing to the current whip rules. It took a bit of time to bed in with everyone in the industry – when introduced they were met with strong criticism in some quarters - but with hindsight, I think it’s safe to say it was without a doubt a great move.
Safety changes to the Grand National and most recently, a 2018 Cheltenham Festival review, go further to showing how seriously the BHA take welfare issues in the sport, and for this, they should be commended.
They continue to work transparently with political figures and animal rights groups in an open, flexible and professional manner, so listen to the BHA about welfare matters, not the likes of Matthew Syed, who literally knows nothing about horse racing, the horse as an animal or the horse as an athlete.
Back to the stars of the game now, the horses.
TEPID SUPREME MARKERS PUT DOWN
On Friday, there were two nice performances from two-mile novice hurdlers that impressed. Strangely enough, both are sons of Al Namix. In the opening race of the International meeting, Colin Tizzard’s Elixir De Nutz defied a 10lb Grade 2 penalty to beat some useful types in the British Stallion Studs EBF "National Hunt" Novices' Hurdle.
Under Harry Cobden, who stole a few cheap lengths early, the pair made-all for a ready and slick-jumping success to see off Fergal O’Brien’s Jarveys Plate, whose earlier hurdles effort at Hereford is working out nicely.
This win also gives the Olly Murphy-trained Itchy Feet a boost. He was beaten by Elixir De Nutz (1¼ lengths) at Cheltenham’s November meeting in the Grade 2 Supreme Trial Novices' Hurdle, but the fact he gave the winner 5lb means he comes out a slightly better horse.
There was one more takeaway from Elixir De Nutz’s race, the late non-runner Angels Breath. Nicky Henderson pulled his horse out because of the quick ground, but the fact he was so strong in the market overnight and in the morning, makes him an interesting prospect going forward.
Arguably, Al Namix’s most impressive son of the two was a winner in a later handicap on the card, Al Dancer. Nigel Twiston-Davies’s inmate was impressive on the eye when running out an easy 11 lengths victor from the Greatwood Hurdle sixth, Not That Fuisse.
The strong-travelling grey, who wears a hood, caught the eye in all major aspects; he travelled, he jumped, he quickened, and he stayed. He looks a highly progressive sort and is one to bear in mind for the 2019 Betfair Hurdle at Newbury.
His final circuit time was just under four seconds quicker than the 138-rated Elixir De Nutz, although he did carry 4lb less. While there is still a real sense of not seeing the best younger horses out this season just yet, due to the ground; in Great Britain at least, the likes of Al Dancer, Elixir De Nutz and Itchy Feet have impressed me most over two miles.
Is there an ante-post bet in there yet, where the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle is concerned? The answer is no, but they are a trio of likable horses to note.
BATTLE HUGELY IMPRESSIVE ON HURDLING DEBUT
While I didn’t part with my hard-earned in a Supreme Novices’ Hurdle ante-post play, I took the plunge in the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle market (20/1) after Gordon Elliott’s Battleoverdoyen was a very impressive winner at Navan on Sunday.
Ante-post betting on the Cheltenham Festival is one of my favourite aspects of the jumps season, and this Gigginstown-owned five-year-old looked graded class to my eye, as he ran away from his maiden field for a 13 lengths success under Jack Kennedy.
Since his point-to-point success at Loughanmore back in April 2017 for trainer Gerry Cosgrave, the son of Doyen has had to wait nearly 18 months to get over an obstacle, and the giant five-year-old wasted no time in taking to the task.
Battleoverdoyen dwarfed his hurdles, and you can already see chasing will be his game, but he was athletic enough to put in a polished round of jumping. In terms of horses winning their maiden first time out in Ireland so far this season, this guy struck me most.
This was a beautiful start and went a small way to paying back the £235,000 connections paid for him last year at a Cheltenham April sale.
A DIFFERENT WORLDS
In a review piece from the Cheltenham November meeting, it’s fair to say I was lukewarm on The Worlds End winning the RSA Insurance Novices' Chase after he was beaten at even-money under a penalty. A Grade 1-winning novice hurdler two campaigns ago, Tom George’s inmate was bitterly disappointing last season over timber, but remained an interesting recruit to the novice chase ranks this season.
Having started his new career well at Chepstow, the star quality looked to be lacking in November, but the seven-year-old looks to have bounced back and was a hugely taking 26 lengths winner last Friday. In many respects, he looked a different animal, especially in how he jumped.
Under Noel Fehily, who replaced the injured Adrian Heskin, The Words End looked a much happier horse making the running at a useful gallop. These prominent tactics saw a slicker jumping performance, compared to his last start, allowing him to show all his old sparkle. For me, it was a career best performance.
The switch of jockey, change of course and more positive tactics all concocted into a fine display. Fehily’s quiet style, which is the closest we have to Ruby Walsh in the game, really appeared to suit the son of Stowaway. The stiffer, more galloping nature of the New Course, as well more aggressive tactics all played their part.
It remains to be seen if the McNeill Family-owned gelding can repeat this in a more competitive affair under different variables, but one thing is for sure, front-running and/or prominent tactics look a must going forward.