Kevin Blake

In his latest column, leading racing writer Kevin Blake analyses the most recent performances of Champion Hurdle contender Laurina and Supreme Novices’ Hurdle hope Angels Breath.

  • Monday 25 February
  • Blog
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LAURINA AND ANGELS BREATH SPLIT OPINION

The build-up to the Cheltenham Festival is always a fascinating time. As it gets closer, opinions tend to get stronger and positions become more entrenched. This is unfortunate for those horses that have their final runs before the Festival in the weeks leading up to it, as they seem to get judged more harshly than those that appear earlier in the season. Perhaps it is a consequence of many people already having their minds made up regarding their fancies for Cheltenham and not being willing to give “new evidence” the weight it might warrant, but it certainly seemed to play out in recent days with the performances of both Laurina and Angels Breath being given largely frosty receptions.

The unexposed Champion Hurdle contender Laurina was first up to the plate when contesting a Listed mares’ hurdle at Punchestown on Wednesday. She didn’t have a tough task on paper in being asked to give away 6lb to the 145-rated five-year-old Stormy Ireland and duly got the job done in very straightforward style, but it was a performance that seemed to leave most observers unimpressed.

There was a great amount of focus on her jumping, which was perceived to be too airy for a Champion Hurdle contender. However, one wonders was that the first time such commenters had ever seen Laurina race, as giving her hurdles a bit of air has been a tendency of hers since her very first start for Willie Mullins. That’s just the way she jumps. Barring a particularly big jump at the fifth flight last Wednesday, she was quite good in the main by her standards, particularly so in the closing stages.

For me, it was a more than satisfactory performance from Laurina. She settled well, showed good gears to put the race to bed after the second-last flight and coasted home from there. She can also perhaps be given some extra credit as that she had received a flu vaccination the week before the race which could only be a hindrance, albeit one of an unknown degree.

Laurina wins the Listed Quevega Mares Hurdle at Punchestown
Laurina wins her Cheltenham prep, the Listed Quevega Mares Hurdle

While she wouldn’t be my first pick for the Champion Hurdle, she is still very much an unknown quantity at the highest level. She may not be the slickest jumper of a hurdle in the division, but she has a better technique than Faugheen did in his prime and his clumsiness didn’t stop him winning a Champion Hurdle.

That Willie Mullins and his team have held her in such high regard for so long also has to be respected. I certainly wouldn’t be going out of my way to talk her down going into it, that’s for sure.

The other most notable horse that was on trial in recent days was the Nicky Henderson-trained Angels Breath in the Dovecote Novices’ Hurdle at Kempton on Saturday. The five-year-old has been something of a talking horse all season and was promoted to favourite for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle after making a winning hurdling debut in a Grade 2 novice hurdle at Ascot in December.

However, that was considered an incomplete bit of evidence by many given that the field looked particularly weak for a Grade 2, the pace of the race was muddling and only four hurdles were jumped. With him having missed a number of intended engagements since then, everyone was anxious to see him again before Cheltenham and they got their chance at Kempton on Saturday.

Considering his profile and the expectations surrounding him, that he was beaten by Southfield Stone was widely considered a disappointment. Indeed, he duly drifted out to as big as 16/1 for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle with some bookmakers in the aftermath of it. However, I wouldn’t take nearly as negative a view of the performance as many did.

It should be remembered, this was just Angels Breath’s second run on the racecourse and third in total. It was coming off the back of a preparation interrupted by missed targets and a flu vaccine. The course and distance was always in danger of being sharper than ideal for him and this was exacerbated by the race being run at a pace that put the emphasis on finishing speed. He also had to give 5lb away to all his rivals.

All of this considered, I thought there was a lot to like about the run of Angels Breath. He raced quite fresh in the early stages and that was perhaps indicative of the interrupted preparation he had. He jumped more slickly than he had on his hurdling debut and showed good mid-race pace to get into a challenging position at the top of the straight. While he picked up well from there, the hard-fit and well-ridden Southfield Stone had too much in reserve and was able to get away with a mistake at the last and drifting notably left on the run-in to prevail by ¾-length.

It is also worth noting that Nico de Boinville was notably easy on Angels Breath in the closing stages, only giving him one backhander on the run-in.

Despite the negativity surrounding Angels Breath in the immediate aftermath of the race, I suspect this experience will bring him on significantly both in physical and mental terms. For me, he is still very much a contender in a wide-open Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. While some of the very big prices he was pushed out to after the defeat have been revised in recent days, he is still 10/1 in a place at the time of writing and appeals as being likely to go off quite a bit shorter than that.

With just two weeks to go, let’s hope all the big guns get to Prestbury Park in one piece. Le Richebourg and Fusil Raffles being ruled out of the meeting on Monday has served as a harsh reminder that things can change in the blink of an eye in our great sport. Hopefully those are the last of the high-profile horses to be ruled out by injury in the next fortnight.

WATERING POTENTIALLY A KEY FACTOR AT CHELTENHAM

As we count down the days to the Cheltenham Festival, the lack of rain that has dogged this National Hunt season is likely to come more and more into focus. Looking at long-term weather forecasts can seem like an odd thing to do when the forecasters often struggle to predict weather that is much closer at hand, but at the moment there doesn’t seem to be any great expectations of significant rain in the next fortnight.   

Watering prior to the Cheltenham Festival isn’t an unusual thing, but it is important to consider the bigger picture in the lead-up to this year’s festivities. Cheltenham is sure to feel like it is under extra scrutiny this year after six equine fatalities at last season’s Festival prompted a wide-ranging report into why that had happened. Thus, one can be certain that Cheltenham will be focusing more than ever on reducing the risk of a repeat of that.

That is of course a positive thing. However, it does have practical ramifications for their watering policy in the coming fortnight. Given that one line from the report into last year’s equine deaths stated that “fatalities generally decrease in softer/slower conditions”, one can be sure that there will be a temptation for them to overdo rather than underdo their watering in advance of the meeting.

The team at Cheltenham are excellent at their job and an amount of trust can be put in them to deliver a safe, fair surface. However, this year presents them with an unusual set of variables and that is worth noting for those that might be hoping for the unusually dry forecast to result in ground that rides good-to-soft or firmer on the opening day.

Kevin Blake
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