Each racing season takes on its own shape and I wonder if we will look back on this national hunt campaign and the one that went before as times when ground mattered most, 2017/18 a season of storms and snow where the going was interminably soft, 2018/19 a period when the awaited rain never came.
Some figures show the contrast best. In 2017/18 there were 102 graded non-handicap races run in Ireland. 92 of them were run on going described as yielding-soft or slower which was 90% of the pattern in all. Amazingly only one of those races was run on good, the Grimes Hurdle at Tipperary won by Plinth on July 6th!
2018/19 could not be more different. The Lawlor’s Of Naas Novice Hurdle on Sunday brought the total of graded races this season to 48 and 41 of them (85%) have been run on yielding or faster. No one knows if this will continue – weather forecasts have become very accurate up to a week out but beyond that become guesswork – but the good ground horses are having their moment now and may be able to carry it through the spring.
Champions are often able to win Grade 1's on ground that is not ideal but for the less talented the going is important to producing a peak effort. Sharjah is one who has benefitted from this window on good ground and few would have foreseen him as a dual open Grade 1 winner even after the Galway Hurdle. Indeed, his trainer was inclined to explain away his Morgiana victory as a Faugheen underperformance though he was kinder after his Christmas success.
His turn-of-foot has proved a potent weapon lately but one wonders how he would cope with typical Tuesday ground at the Cheltenham Festival, a concern voiced by Patrick Mullins in a recent Newstalk interview. Even if the weather remains generally fine between now and then, the course executive will provide watered good-soft as per welfare directives.
Aramon is another Mullins horse that has enjoyed the good ground of late. Following a slightly disappointing effort on soft at Listowel in September, he has stacked three progressive efforts, winning a Grade 3 and Grade 1 in the process. More patient tactics have helped too but he could be one of those surprise improvers that keeps catching out the market and connections alike, Ruby Walsh commenting after last time that ‘I didn’t honestly think on form he could win.’
Fences have helped Le Richebourg take a step forward this season but he did look one that got bogged down in a slow surface after Galway last term despite often keeping the best of company. Already a leading fancy for the Arkle, his down-the-field effort in last season’s County Hurdle shouldn’t be held against him; not only was the ground too soft but he made a mistake two out just when starting to make his move.
If those are some of the horses that have thrived on decent ground: who are the ones that have struggled? The obvious answer is a waggish ‘the ones that haven’t run yet’ and there is something in that, Willie Mullins commenting recently that he hadn’t had the likes of Carefully Selected out yet due to the ground.
In the same interview, he mentioned Al Boum Photo and said he missed the John Durkan and Savills Chases because of the prevailing ground. He did manage to find him a soft surface at Tramore on New Year’s Day and the horse produced probably the best performance in that track’s history, beating Total Recall six lengths while conceding ten pounds, the time decent too. A fascinating challenger for the Gold Cup, good ground remains a concern for him as the sole disappointing effort of his career came on good-yielding at the 2017 Punchestown Festival.
Shattered Love has form that ties in with Al Boum Photo, the pair having met twice last backend, and looks another that could do with some rain. Going into Cheltenham 2018, there were some concerns about her and the track but it turned out her disappointment in the previous year’s Ballymore was likely more to do with the ground. Her quickening away from subsequent Aintree winner Terrefort on soft in the JLT was one of the most impressive performances of last season’s Festival but while she handles faster ground, cut is needed for a peak effort.
Footpad is perhaps a less obvious soft ground type but the going may be a way of explaining his recent defeat to Simply Ned. His trainer was inclined to put it down to his needing the run after an overreach injury but he looked particularly good cutting a swathe through soft ground novice chases last spring and might prefer some ease.
The aforementioned Naas Grade 1 didn’t take as much winning as expected with both Tornado Flyer and Come To Me flopping but Battleoverdoyen still managed to make the jump from maiden to top table in one step. The eye-catcher however was the runner-up Sams Profile, the youngest horse in the field.
Plenty went wrong for him, some of it of his own making as he made errors at the second and third hurdles along with – significantly – the fourth last as the pace was quickening; the race finishing speed per Timeform here was 111% so that was an inopportune time for an error.
Thereafter he met some trouble early in the straight as the winner got first run and closed up well on the run-in. He is shorter for the Albert Bartlett than the Ballymore at this point but with such a young horse his trainer (who always plays the long game) may opt for the middle-distance race come March.