WHERE ARE ALL THE TOP-CLASS TWO-MILE HURDLERS?
From the outset of this season, it was clear that the two-mile hurdle division needed something to step up. The division was left reeling after last season’s Champion Hurdle winner Espoir D’Allen died after an accident at home a few months ago, leaving the two-time Champion Hurdle winner Buveur D’Air as the leader of the pack.
However, as admirable as he is and the excellent CV he has put together in his career, the eight-year-old was made look vulnerable last season and the need for new blood in the division was clear.
When one looked through those with the obvious potential to make the transition to the top of the division this season, it was a relatively short list. Historically, it is difficult for top-class four-year-olds to make a successful jump into open company, so one was reluctant to put too much faith in the likes of Pentland Hills and Fusil Raffles.
The latter made a winning return at Wincanton earlier this month, but the laboured style of his win suggests he still has a long way to go to get to the level of the likes of Buveur D’Air.
Thus, the eyes of the National Hunt world turned to Punchestown on Saturday in the hope that the Morgiana Hurdle would produce a leading candidate for the two-mile hurdle crown. Much of the focus was understandably on Klassical Dream, but Saldier’s final hurdle fall when looking to be mastering Espoir D’Allen at Naas on his most recent start a year earlier made him an interesting contender too.
As it transpired, Klassical Dream fluffed his lines. While he was clearly very fresh and gassier than ideal, his effort in finishing third has to go down as disappointing. It is worth remembering that he raced quite gassy on his comeback run last season too and improved when much more settled on his second outing of the campaign, but he will need to leave this form well behind if he is to be a serious contender in the division.
It was Saldier that came out on top on the day, very much advertising his own Champion Hurdle claims. The five-year-old had badly broken his nose in that aforementioned fall at Naas and had taken a long time to come right, but this was a very polished performance from the son of Soldier Hollow.
Dropped into cover by Danny Mullins, he jumped low and slick as one would wish a top-class two-miler to do and put the race to bed in authoritative style in the straight.
Mind, the presence of Petit Mouchoir just 1½ lengths back in third does make one cautious of getting too carried away with the form. While Petit Mouchoir was a low-160s hurdler at his very best, he wasn’t operating close to that level last season or on his seasonal reappearance and had the run of the race in this contest.
A rematch between Saldier and Klassical Dream in the Ryanair Hurdle at Leopardstown’s Christmas meeting seems likely and the result of that race promises to pinpoint Ireland’s leading candidate for the Champion Hurdle.
Though, even if that is established at Leopardstown, one can’t help but take a step back from the two-mile hurdle division and ask where have all the top-class performers gone?
It seems like only yesterday that we had a two-mile hurdle division of the highest class and competitiveness with Hardy Eustace, Brave Inca, Harchibald, Macs Joy and Rooster Booster knocking heads against each other in various combinations. One suspects that any one of those would run riot in the current division. Indeed, there have only been a couple of two-mile hurdlers since that golden period 15 years ago that would stand in against any of them in a Champion Hurdle.
For whatever reason, the two-mile hurdle division has just struggled for depth for much of the last 15 years and one can’t help but wonder why. Is it simply randomness and bad luck at play, or is there a deeper root cause. When one looks at the overall landscape and what has changed in the last 15 years, there is certainly reason to believe that it isn’t randomness at play.
To take the five aforementioned star hurdlers of 15 years as an example, four of the five of them first came to prominence in bumpers in Britain and Ireland and one (Harchibald) was sourced off the Flat in France.
There is little doubt that bumpers have lessened in prestige in the 15 years since and there is a very clear reason why. The rise of Irish point-to-points and the vast sums that promising winners of them make at auction has resulted in the pick of the unbroken National Hunt stock being first sent down that route rather than bumpers.
While Faugheen showed that it isn’t impossible for point-to-pointers to go on to be top-class two-mile hurdlers when becoming the only Champion Hurdle winner in history to come from that background, that grounding seems to incline their connections to lean them towards chasing and/or longer trips as their career progresses.
As well as that, the market has also changed for Flat horses going hurdling. Twelve years ago, Celestial Halo was bought to go three-year-old hurdling having reached a rating of 110 on the Flat in the St Leger. In general, at that time it was far more common for smart performers on the Flat to be bought to go jumping.
Nowadays, it is much rarer for horses like Celestial Halo or indeed any horse rated 100+ to end up hurdling. The reason for this is simple, as there is such strong demand for these middle-distance/staying Flat horses in Australia and other foreign markets that even the strongest National Hunt owners cannot compete with the foreign buyers.
All of these factors may be the result of a free market at play, but one can’t help but be disappointed by the consequences of it. The two-mile hurdle division has always been one of the most prestigious in the sport, but it has been a long 15 years since we were treated to one with real depth.
While it isn’t easy to anticipate where the next star might come from, it is worth bearing in mind that National Hunt racing always has the capacity to produce a star from unlikely origins.
Here’s hoping that one emerges from the murk in the two-mile hurdler division sooner rather than later, as we could do with it.