Tony Keenan's Irish Angle

Tony looks back at last weekend's Punchestown meeting, as well as putting Gordon Elliott's juveniles under the microscope.

  • Wednesday 18 November
  • Blog
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If hurdling high drama is your thing, then Sunday’s Unibet-sponsored Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown remains a race to watch again and again - and figuring out exactly what unfolded is a challenge.  

It was a messy contest, but probably more from a trouble-in-running and bad hurdling point-of-view than a pace one; the gallop was a decent one, though they did finish slower from three out than Buildmeupbuttercup and Fury Road’s races earlier on the card, despite them being over further with the hotter part of the race early on.

Typical Champion Hurdle pace it may not have been, but regardless of the gallop, runner-up Saint Roi is going to be keen, as he has been in all five starts for Willie Mullins. His hurdling needs work; he does not jump like the supposed Champion Hurdler, but that is something which can be overcome (Faugheen managed it), for all that it is not optimal.

That he met trouble when Mark Walsh backed out of a pocket following the second last has been well-documented, but that was all obvious, and one wonders if his difficulties in-running will be overrated relative to the winner Abacadabras idling after that last. Interestingly, this was also a feature of Abacadabras’ run in the Supreme; where Shishkin met obvious trouble in-running and did well to win from that point-of-view, Elliott’s horse hitting the front too soon may be more difficult to assess.

Abacadabras (left) at March's Cheltenham Festival, where he could return for the Champion Hurdle.

To question the temperament of Abacadabras outright would be harsh, but he has a kink and needs a certain type of ride, one that might be easier to execute in a Champion Hurdle than a trial, while Sunday’s ground would not have suited, plus he hurdled worst of all. At this moment, I would have him marginally ahead of Saint Roi for Cheltenham, though they are far from the only show in town.

Of the others, Coeur Sublime ran a huge race to come there travelling strongly at the last - trading at 4/6 -  but his weak finishing effort (and history of breathing issues) tempers enthusiasm, while Jason The Militant seemed not to go hard enough, coming back for more late. A step up in trip may suit him.

In some ways, the most interesting horse from the Morgiana was the one that wasn’t there: Aspire Tower. Five-year-old winners of the Champion Hurdle are rare, but not unheard of, and he beat both Abacadabras and Jason The Militant at Down Royal, that pair running basically to the pound here.  

He was getting weight from both but won impressively having been the subject of late support, Rachael Blackmore apparently saying the choice between him and Jason The Militant had been an easy one which would have appeared the case beforehand to me, the latter having had fitness on his side.

Aspire Tower looked a star on his first two starts for Henry De Bromhead, winning by a combined 31 lengths, but the second of them came in an attritional race last Christmas, and he was not the same horse afterwards; the extended break with no Punchestown may have been a blessing for him.
Last time looked a clear career best, and he appears overpriced for Cheltenham relative to Abacadabras at least.

Novice chasers provided much of the other classy action from Punchestown over the weekend, with Gordon Elliott landing a pair of Grade 2s. The race won by Felix Desjy was a strange one where the pace seemed to slow markedly in the middle. Emily Moon – who made a bad error at the first – able to make a mid-race move to lead, which in turn sucked her stablemate Sizing Pottsie into going for home early.

Felix Desjy, to his credit, was able to pick up his 148-rated rival, while the jockey always seemed confident of doing so, but overall it was a messy race with favourite Darver Star one of a few horses over the two days seemingly not at home on the ground, in trouble from four out.

Pencilfulloflead’s defeat of Latest Exhibition seemed more solid, the winner fast-tracked over fences after taking in both bumpers and hurdles last year and much the better for it; the stronger tempo of such races seems to suit him better as he is all stamina.

Latest Exhibition did get the better of him in the jumping stakes, however, and may not have been at home on the really heavy ground.

Saturday’s opener was won by Asterion Forlonge in a time that was notably faster than the handicap chase won by the 137-rated Daly Tiger later on the card, and he jumped well by the standards of some of these Mullins chase debutantes.

The runner-up Conflated seemed to have improved markedly from debut (had his season cut short early last term after a setback), while Asterion Forlonge’s jumping to my eye was relatively straight, with the error two out more on landing than going over the fence.

A possible issue about being better going right-handed remains in play, but his trainer was talking three miles afterwards, which basically necessitates going the other way; the races up to March of suitability are at Leopardstown, Naas, Navan and Cheltenham, though perhaps they will consider the Grade 1 at Limerick on December 26th.

Back in third was the 50/1 shot Rebel Gold, and he jumped best of all before lacking the natural ability to go with the winner and runner-up. Tom Foley’s seven-year-old has improved for going chasing, and might prefer some better ground with a beginners’ chase, perhaps at somewhere like Thurles, not beyond him.

Robbie's Got The Power

There have been few winds as ill as COVID-19, but even it has blown good for some: Big Pharma, video conferencing companies and takeaways among them, along with, bizarrely, Robbie Power.

A few months back, Power opted to relocate to England with the Colin Tizzard yard as his base - Jessica Harrington cutting back on her National Hunt team likely playing a part.

The Irish government rules mean that Irish jockeys who travel to the UK for rides would have to isolate on return unless it was a card where they also rode in a Group or Grade 1, those races provided for under elite sportsperson exemptions.

Many good National Hunt meetings in the UK, such as those at Cheltenham last weekend, don’t have Grade 1s, and Irish trainers seemed keen to use a familiar face there, Power picking up mounts for Gordon Elliott, Paul Nolan, Jessica Harrington and Emmet Mullins.

Perhaps Irish trainers will bring their own riders over for the biggest of days, but I wouldn’t count on it, and Power seems well-placed to benefit.

Elliott's Juveniles On The Up

One of Power’s winners on Saturday was the Gordon Elliott-trained juvenile hurdler Duffle Coat, who was landing his second victory in the UK this season, and fourth in all, his success epitomising how well the trainer has done in the division this season.

Things could not be more different from last year, as the table below indicates:

Gordon Elliott-trained Juvenile Hurdlers in Ireland, last two seasons

Period Winners Runners Strike-rate Places Place Strike-rate Level stakes Actual/Expected
May to December 2019 1342.9%4 11.7% -28.500.37
January to March 2020 635 17.1% 9 25.7% +1.931.01
June 220 to present 919 47.3% 11 57.9% +24.801.45

It took Elliott until New Year’s Eve to register his first juvenile hurdle win last season with Gealach at Punchestown, and while he still managed a one-three-four in the Fred Winter, things having picked up after the turn of the year.

Getting some limited horses handicapped remain likely factors into his low strike-rates, but this season’s team looks much stronger, and the Triumph Hurdle rather the Fred Winter, appears likely for aiming juveniles such as Quilixios, Zanahiyr and Duffle Coat.

Tony Keenan's Irish Angle
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