Tony Keenan's Irish Angle

Tony Keenan draws conclusions from Saturday's Ladbrokes Champion Chase, while noting Jim Bolger's views on drugs in racing.

  • Wednesday 04 November
  • Blog
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BATTLEOVERDOYEN SET FOR BIG GRADE 1'S TO COME

The first Grade 1 of the Irish jumps season, the Ladbrokes Champion Chase, took place at Down Royal last Saturday, and while lacking the passionate punting crowd the track usually attracts, it was still an interesting race to watch from home albeit not one to get carried away with from a form perspective.
The overall time did not compare particularly well with the later handicap chase over the same course and distance where the top-weight was rated 124, while 13 lengths covered the nine horses at the line.

A few of the runners were using this as a pipe-opener rather than an endpoint, but that wasn’t the case with The Storyteller, for whom this will likely prove a career best. He seems to have benefitted from Fairyhouse and Punchestown being cancelled last spring, as it meant instead of going into Grade 1 company against in-form winter horses, he got a rest and came back against lesser summer types since Galway, looking well placed to win four races since.

In that period, he accumulated over €120,000 in prize-money, every euro useful for Gordon Elliott’s title bid, and there can be little doubt the trainer has maxed him out over the last four months.

Connections of the runner-up Chris’s Dream will hope he can make the Grade 1 breakthrough this winter, and this represented his best effort at the top level, but there was a sense of opportunity missed afterwards - he powered through the race, got to the front a bit too soon for one effective over shorter, and now his first start whilst fresh has gone. For one so effective off a break, perhaps the John Durkan would have been a better option.

Presenting Percy was the big interest horse going into the race, and he ran adequately, no better. Gordon Elliott has resuscitated the careers of quite a few older jumpers but they were often horses with falling handicap marks that could be exploited, whereas Presenting Percy’s rating means he still has to mix it with the better – and, crucially, younger – staying chasers.

He travelled second best here after Chris’s Dream before fading late into fourth; perhaps it was fitness that cost him and he will finish off his race better next time, but he didn’t exactly run to line late last season, something Davy Russell alluded to after his run at Christmas, saying that ‘I thought from the back of the last to the line…that he’d just stay on a bit better than he did.’

Perhaps it is a trap to believe he would have finished strongly in the Gold Cup too, had he not fallen at the second last as he still seemed to be going okay at the time, but he was not alone in that as it was a notably slow pace. The jury remains out for me.

His new stablemate Delta Work ran what is becoming his standard seasonal debut, looking in need of the outing, and while there is improvement to come with him, we do know his ceiling by now. Though still only seven, he’s had 21 career starts having started back in the September of his three-year-old season, and getting back to his best, rather than improving on it, might be all that can be hoped for.

If there was a horse to note for the better forthcoming Grade 1 chases from Saturday, perhaps it was another Elliott horse, Battleoverdoyen. I was a little surprised he took his chance against Samcro in the Lough Construction Chase, suspecting that Gigginstown were playing wait-and-see with the ground, and planned to pull one of their runners out, but he not only beat his owner-mate but beat him well.

Perhaps that one would have finished closer but for a mistake three out, and certainly Battleoverdoyen was the stronger of the two in the market, while the favourite Easy Game seemed inconvenienced by the ground, but even so this was a performance of merit.

Battleoverdoyen carried a Grade 1 penalty like Samcro, and the pace in the early and middle parts of this seemed notably strong, yet he was one of those that forced the gallop while impressing with his jumping. Most striking of all, however, was the sharp move he made approaching three out to settle the race, showing speed he hitherto seemed to lack, though intriguingly his trainer had mentioned the Fortria as a possible starting point this season - surprising considering he finished last season running in the RSA.

He seemed not to stay there, and it was a second disappointing run in two starts at Cheltenham though a bad journey over was blamed in 2019, while it is also worth noting he may not have been helped when running on fast ground by jumping standards on the last day of the Leopardstown Christmas meeting last year - Minella Indo and Carefully Selected taken out of that race for the same reason.

In the early part of the season proper, he has been unbeatable, however - he’s now won all seven of his starts between October and January in three seasons under rules by a combined 42 lengths, and should be hard to beat wherever he goes before the turn of the year.

BOLGER'S VIEWS ON DRUGS CHEATS CASTS SHADOW

It gives me no pleasure to write about possible doping in Irish racing, to acknowledge that people you admire and root for on a daily basis may not be achieving their successes in a fair manner.

That is what Jim Bolger is asking us to believe at least, and there seems no real reason to doubt him. From any other person, comments on PED use could come across as sour grapes, bitterness of a trainer not as relevant as he once was. But that seems unlikely with Bolger, a man who values nothing above personal integrity, who has fought – and won – court cases against powerful entities like the old Turf Club and Allied Irish Bank.

The manner in which Bolger made his views public also gave them substance. He brought the matter up unprompted in an Irish Field interview with Daragh Ó’Conchuir, suggesting it had been on his mind for a while, before repeating his claims in a follow-up piece with David Jennings in the Racing Post.

Much of Bolger’s ire appears concentrated on the IHRB, his argument that they are heavily funded to maintain integrity (the figure was €9.5m in 2019), but aren’t fully achieving that aim, though it is sometimes easy to find fault with a faceless regulator; if the rule enforcers are to blame, it is not as much as the rule breakers.

The fact is that since the IHRB changed their drug testing laboratory in recent years, the number of positive tests increased significantly. The John Hughes steroid case from 2014 still hangs over the sport in this country, with the recent Chris Gordon defamation case a reminder of the elephant in the room, and the unanswered questions of who the imported banned substances may have been intended for.  

For any sport with huge sums of money moving through it, and in racing that often means the sales ring as much as the racetrack, there is the temptation for participants to cheat to get their hands on it - that is human nature.

Racing fans would be guilty of extreme willful blindness to think our sport is immune to this, especially as the human players do not take on any medical risk by taking a drug, the animal instead being the one that could suffer, while the penalties do not always seem strictly enforced with any remotely reasonable excuses accepted as it is.

One’s sympathy here is with the operators, who are playing totally within the rules and are being beaten by those who are not, but perhaps the truth is that a high-profile drugs case would not be as damaging as we might think.

Would I be less inclined to follow, or have a bet on racing, should Bolger's concerns come to light? I only wish I was so moral, and suspect diehard fans of sports like cycling and athletics would admit the same. You love what you love, warts and all. 

Tony Keenan's Irish Angle
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