ASSESSING THE GRADE 1 NOVICE CHASES IN IRELAND ON ST STEPHEN'S DAY
The four-day feast of National Hunt racing over the Christmas period promises so much. Stars will emerge, reputations will grow, divisions will become clearer and pressing questions will be answered. There will also inevitably be shattered dreams and busted flushes along the way too.
Spatial considerations dictate that not all of it can be discussed in this particular corner of the internet. Confined to one specific segment of the action, I am keen to focus in on the two Grade 1 novice chases that will take place in Ireland in the window of less than half an hour on Thursday.
As informative as each of them promises to be for their respective divisions going forward, they are riveting contests in their own right that warrant the utmost attention.
The Joseph O’Brien-trained Fakir D’Oudairies was close to the top of last season’s juvenile hurdlers and has made an excellent transition to novice chasing this campaign, making the best of his four-year-old allowance to win both his starts over fences. Mind, whether he would still be unbeaten over fences had the challenging Samcro not departed at the second-last fence in the Drinmore Novice Chase at Fairyhouse remains a point of debate.
It is impossible to know with certainty what would have happened, but what that race confirmed is that Fakir D’Oudairies’ fast and aggressive style of jumping is a potent weapon for him. That asset will arguably be even more effective back over the shorter trip of this contest. His connections will be hoping that the rain that is currently forecast for Thursday morning will arrive, but either way he looks to have an excellent chance.
At the time of writing, most bookmakers have the Willie Mullins-trained Laurina as the narrow favourite over Fakir D’Oudairies and it isn’t difficult to see why. The six-year-old has only been beaten once in eight starts since joining Mullins, with that defeat coming in the Champion Hurdle last March. Physically, she has always looked a chaser in the making and her often airy style of hurdling hinted that she would be better suited by fences.
Laurina made her long-awaited chasing debut in a maiden chase over two-and-a-half miles at Gowran Park last month and didn’t disappoint, seeing off Minella Indo by an easy eight lengths. While she received rave reviews from many for that performance, I was ever-so-slightly underwhelmed by her jumping in the face of high expectations.
For the most part it was solid rather than slick and she was shade slow through the air at times. If one wished to put a positive spin on it, she put in her best jumps of the race when the taps were very much turned on at the third-last and last fences.
Those slicker leaps give hope that her earlier lack of speed through the air might just have been a reflection of her inexperience over the larger obstacles. Those that are hoping that was the case will be looking to see her exhibit a slicker technique through the air on Thursday. If she doesn’t, an opponent such as Fakir D’Oudairies will expose and capitalise on it at every fence over this shorter trip.
The early stages of the race will be fascinating, as while Fakir D’Oudairies has shown that he is more than happy to put his rivals under pressure from the front, he is unlikely to have the lead to himself on Thursday.
Djingle is a free-goer that likes to lead and has plenty of experience over fences, so it wouldn’t surprise if he was the one that made the early running with the likes of Fakir D’Oudairies, with Notebook and Royal Rendezvous in pursuit. Mind, the latter two will need to avoid the tendency to jump to their right that they exhibited in their latest starts around right-handed tracks now that they switch to a left-handed course if they are to keep tabs on the likes of Fakir D’Oudairies.
I am inclined to conclude that this contest could well boil down to jumping. Laurina might well improve as hoped in this regard in which case will be tough to beat. However, Fakir D’Oudairies is very much proven in this regard, so siding with him looks to be the percentage call at the current prices.
The Gordon Elliott-trained Samcro has been one of the most talked about National Hunt horses of the last two years. However, a very disappointing second campaign over hurdles in the face of health issues threatened to derail his career.
A switch to fences started off with a promising win at Down Royal in November and he looked poised to announce his return to the top table when approaching the second-last fence travelling best in the Drinmore Novice Chase at Fairyhouse only to fall. As mentioned earlier in this piece, it is impossible to know what would have happened there, but it would be remiss to not point out that Samcro hasn’t always found as much as seemed likely off the bridle, for all that there was mitigating factors last season regarding his health.
In terms of what we have seen of his jumping so far, it would be fair to characterise it as a mixture of tidy and safety-first. At Fairyhouse in particular, if he seemed in any doubt about the stride he was on going into a fence, he eased his way into them before jumping them neatly in the main.
Though, what also must be said is that it was far from a horrendous mistake that led to him falling at Fairyhouse either. He just got a little bit too close and couldn’t get his landing gears out in time on the far side. Had he found a leg, he might only have lost a length due to the mistake. That he failed to save himself from what was a minor mistake is a bit concerning as to how he might cope with a worse error, though his supporters will be hoping it was more so a one-off piece of bad luck that is unlikely to be repeated.
Samcro’s main rival looks to be the Willie Mullins-trained Faugheen. The nine-time Grade 1-winning hurdler was a surprise switcher to fences this season and his first outing over the larger obstacles at Punchestown wasn’t without incident. All was running smooth until the eight-last fence where he made a particularly bad mistake that Paul Townend did well to keep the partnership intact after.
A bad peck after jumping the third-last fence added to the adversity he had to overcome, but he showed that his 11-year-old engine still has plenty of life in it as got himself back into a challenging position and surged up the run-in to win easily.
As incredible as it would be to see Faugheen win a Grade 1 novice chase just days before his 12th birthday, Samcro very much has age on his side. In fact, Faugheen had won a point-to-point before Samcro was even born! Samcro has his own questions to answer, but of the two, he would be given preference.
That said, while the race doesn’t have an attractive each-way shape to it, the selection at a much bigger price is the Jimmy Mangan-trained CASTLEBROOK. The six-year-old has a very different and much slower-burning profile to the two leading contenders, but has impressed in both his starts over fences to date and has jumped particularly well.
Considering he was giving up a lot in experience terms to his opposition, he fared well in a conditions chase behind Getabird and Paloma Blue at Gowran Park last time. Indeed, he is likely to have fared even better had Philip Enright made it more of a test from the front (111.4% finishing speed).
Enright could well have the lead to himself on Castlebrook at Limerick. If he makes it strong test that puts the emphasis on stamina and pressurises the jumping of his rivals, it wouldn’t be beyond the realms of possibility that he could spring a big surprise.