Published 26 February
JCB Triumph Hurdle
Cheltenham would not be Cheltenham without a false start or two. The eagerness to get on with things catches out the experienced and inexperienced alike, and it caught me out when I briefly put out a combined Triumph Hurdle and Champion Bumper preview a few weeks ago.
I had managed to miss the news that Fakir d’Oudairies had just been sold and seemed more likely to contest the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle than the Triumph (still the case at the time of writing), or that Malone Road was a significant doubt for the Champion Bumper (ditto).
So I have “taken a few turns” and come back in for a second go, albeit from a standing start this time.
The essence of my Triumph Hurdle thoughts back then were that Sir Erec was too short in the betting for a horse who had achieved little on the clock in his two wins out of two at Leopardstown. He is even shorter now, at only just odds against.
Talented though Sir Erec is, jumping at speed from the get-go in a Triumph is very different to jumping at speed over just the last couple of flights of races in which you have been allowed an easy lead.
I do not especially fancy Quel Destin, either: he is admirably consistent but has benefited from weakness of opposition and key rivals underperforming, and Gardens of Babylon, Surin and Tiger Tap Tap have a bit to find with the favourite from the Spring Juvenile Hurdle at the beginning of February.
What does that leave, other than a vague hope of some sort of a boil-over in a race in which outsiders have occasionally come good?
The most interesting name of all in the ante-post lists is that of PIC D’ORHY, an ex-French gelding who has not been seen out in this country but who is now in the care of Paul Nicholls. You need not worry about a lack of experience, however, as Pic d’Orhy has more than most: six runs over hurdles, of which he has won three and finished second in three.
Pic d’Orhy was second to the smart Beaumec de Houelle in the Grade 1 Prix Cambaceres at Auteuil when last seen, a race in which he raced handily and was coming back for more at the death. The performance earned him a 145 rating from Timeform, which hardly anything else in the Triumph field has got near.
Pic d’Orhy finishes second in the Grade 1 Prix Cambaceres at Auteuil.
The weeks have gone by without any sign of Pic d’Orhy, but he has been entered at Kelso on Saturday, which would give him 13 days to recover before the big one at Cheltenham.
This is the kind of horse, and kind of bet, that the “non-runner, no bet” concession was made for. If Pic d’Orhy loses at Kelso, or makes heavy weather of winning, there is a fair chance he will skip the Triumph and you will get your money back; if he wins well, then you will probably have a good bet on your hands.
There was a late addition to the leading contenders for the Triumph Hurdle on Monday afternoon, when Pentland Hills, trained by Nicky Henderson, scored impressively on his debut over timber at Plumpton. The gelding’s overall time was more than 2.0s slower than Brandon Castle’s half an hour later despite him carrying 17 lb less.
Pentland Hills’s closing sectionals were notably fast, however, and point to a rating in the 120s. The Triumph may come too soon in his development but there looks to be a bit of an engine there.
Verdict: win PIC D’ORHY (non-runner, no bet)
Weatherbys Champion Bumper
Given that Willie Mullins has trained the winner of Cheltenham’s Champion Bumper on a remarkable nine occasions, and that he provided the first three home 12 months ago, it might be imagined that the best angle of attack for the race is to try to identify what his main fancy is. It is not that simple.
He has had no fewer than 20 runners in the last four contests and the shortest-priced has not come out on top in any of them. Relegate, last year, was the only winner (at 25/1).
Blue Sari is currently his shortest-priced horse in the ante-post market, following an impressive win at Gowran on his only start, when he demonstrated terrific speed (13.5 sec/f in closing stages on soft going) to score by 11 lengths.
The overall time was dire that day, however, and I am not a fan of backing horses with such a profile to step straight into the maelstrom of a strongly-run championship event with lots of runners.
As it is, Mullins’s big rival Gordon Elliott holds a particularly strong hand, with two of the first three in the market. Andy Dufresne has a similar profile to Blue Sari’s – one run, one impressive win in a poor time – but ENVOI ALLEN has more substance.
The imposing son of Muhtathir has won all three of his starts, by comfortable margins at Fairyhouse and Navan, then in more hard-fought fashion – but in a division-leading time – at the Dublin Racing Festival at Leopardstown at the beginning of February. Envoi Allen had Meticulous, Embittered and Beacon Edge snapping at his heels that day, and had Abracadabras doing the same until that one ran out late on.
But the overall time was just 1.5s slower than the excellent one recorded by Apple’s Jade (jumping six flights along the way, admittedly) in the Irish Champion Hurdle earlier on the card, and Envoi Allen conceded 3 lb to his rivals while showing an excellent attitude.
Envoi Allen takes Listed honours at Navan
Anyone hoping that the British contingent will come good does not need to go back far to derive encouragement: Ballyandy won for them in 2016 and British-trained runners filled the first four places the year before.
That latter success came from Moon Racer, and the Plumpton and Ascot winner Eden du Houx – in the same colours and for the same trainer (David Pipe) – heads my home-team bumper figures alongside the recent Exeter winner Get In The Queue.
That pair’s achievements to date are, however, inferior to Envoi Allen’s, who fully deserves to be favourite for the concluding race on Wednesday 13 March.
Verdict: win only ENVOI ALLEN (non-runner, no bet)