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Kevin Blake dissects last weekend's Moscow Flyer Novice Hurdle, won by Andy Dufresne.

  • Wednesday 15 January
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Andy Dufresne and Captain Guinness divide opinion at Punchestown

January is a funny auld month in the world of National Hunt racing. In a nutshell, pretty much nothing happens. When something of relative note finally does occur, it tends to get analysed to a crisp by a racing public that are hungry for action. This widespread overthinking can result in some fairly funky popular conclusions being drawn that might otherwise be confined to the mustier corners of contrarian Racing Twitter.

This phenomenon looked to play out after the Moscow Flyer Novice Hurdle at Punchestown on Sunday in which the highly-regarded Andy Dufresne got the better of the once-raced Captain Guinness by three quarters of a length. By the time Racing Twitter’s idle hands had finished over-analysing the result, any aspirations that Andy Dufresne had of being a top-class novice hurdler had been widely dismissed and Captain Guinness was being spoken of as one of the most exciting novice hurdlers around.

So, with a few days having passed, now seems as good a time as any to hammer down this race and try to make some sense of it.

Going into it, my own view of Andy Dufresne was that the drop back to two miles would suit him. He had taken a good grip in all of his races, including when getting quite strong in the middle section of the Navan Novice Hurdle, suggesting that a faster pace at the minimum trip would allow him to travel at closer to his optimal cruising speed. His jumping had also been notably slick in his first two starts over hurdles which suggested that aspect of his game would transfer well to the shorter trip.

The thought that he might be suited by a drop to two miles promised to be strongly tested on Sunday, as the hurdles track at Punchestown is far sharper than many people seem to appreciate. That the inside track was used for the first circuit of the race only served to make it an even sharper test. Thus, the race promised to exploit any chink in Andy Dufresne’s suitability for the minimum trip.

As it transpired, Andy Dufresne passed the examination and won in workmanlike style. While many would have been hoping for more from him, I thought he did well in the circumstances. As any race-timing enthusiast will tell you, the quickest way to get from A to B is at the fastest pace that can be consistently maintained for the given distance. Going slower or faster than that optimal pace results in the overall time being slower.

What transpired in the Moscow Flyer Novice Hurdle was an oddly-run race in which the pace was initially very steady, with the leader getting to the third hurdle fully six seconds (approximately 30 lengths) slower than the leader in the run-of-the-mill maiden hurdle run over the same course and distance later on the card. 

From there, the free-going Captain Guinness pulled his way to the front and injected pace into the race, with him having “caught up” to the leader in the maiden hurdle by the sixth flight. From there, the two main protagonists in the Moscow Flyer steadily pulled away from the leaders in the maiden hurdle, with the former registering a final time that was approximately four seconds faster than the latter.

There are a few different ways of reading the pace and run of the race that can put a shine of either one of the main protagonists. While the most popular view seems to be that Captain Guinness did particularly well considering he raced as freely as he did, didn’t jump the final flight cleanly and was ultimately only having his second lifetime start, I would read it another way.

Andy Dufresne wins the Moscow Flyer Novice Hurdle
Andy Dufresne (nearest) is more fluent at the final flight than leader Captain Guinness.

Captain Guinness did indeed pull hard off the steady pace, but I would venture that the mid-race move he made to pull his way to the front wasn’t nearly as costly as it might have seemed. The lengths that he made up in his manoeuvre were gained cheaply in terms of energy cost due to the steady pace of the race at the time he made that move. 

In contrast, having initially seemed content to let Captain Guinness go, Mark Walsh had a change of heart after the fourth flight and decided to ask Andy Dufresne to reel in Captain Guinness, who at this stage was going a proper gallop. It goes without saying that asking a horse to make up lengths when chasing a solid pace is notably more costly than when chasing a steady pace, so that is worth considering when reviewing the race.

For me, this was a more than satisfactory winning performance from Andy Dufresne that enhanced his overall credentials. The bigger-picture question this race posed to him was how he would cope with a sharp two miles and he proved it wasn’t an issue. He also looked well suited by not having to make his own running.

That he again took a strong enough grip off the steady early pace and showed tactical pace to adjust to the mid-race move of Captain Guinness suggests he will be best suited by getting a lead off an end-to-end gallop over a more testing two miles. His slick jumping again proved to be an asset with one exception of a slightly ill-judged leap at the second-last flight, but Mark Walsh always seemed confident he’d get there and Andy Dufresne was ultimately extending his lead over the line.

Prior to the race, I would have been hoping for more than Andy Dufresne ended up delivering, but in the circumstances, it was more than enough to keep the dream alive with him. The Supreme Novices’ Hurdle is the right race for him and he has a live chance in that contest.

I don’t want to be throwing too many stones at Captain Guinness, but I would suggest there are good reasons to justify a cooling of the collective jets regarding his bigger-picture prospects. For me, the two factors that people seem to be honing in on as a means to elevate his performance, namely how hard he pulled and his inexperience, can both be knocked down a few pegs.

In my opinion, inexperience and the potential improvement that it promises is one of the more overblown notions in National Hunt racing. We aren’t dealing with two-year-olds here, these are horses that are much more physically and mentally mature, many of whom will have a significant amount of training and conditioning under their belts long before they get to a track. 

This is particularly relevant to Ireland where the prevalence of schooling bumpers and schooling hurdles means that many horses essentially have one or in some cases multiple “races” under their belts before they make their official debut. Indeed, Henry De Bromhead revealed after Captain Guinness’s winning debut in a maiden hurdle at Navan that he had shown up very well in a schooling race prior to that. While horses will naturally improve with experience, it is generally ill-advised to assume that great amounts of race-to-race improvement will be forthcoming early in a National Hunt horse’s career.

As regards how hard Captain Guinness pulled, this is something I would put a negative rather than a positive spin on. In terms of short-term assessment of his performance in the Moscow Flyer, the hurdle-by-hurdle sectional times suggest that the mid-race move he pulled his way into making wasn’t as costly as many assumed it was. Far more significant are the longer-term concerns that such behaviour raises.

Given that he pulled notably harder on his second start than he did on his first start, it is something that will warrant close examination on his next start as he wouldn’t want to get any worse in that regard. It’s all well and good charging around like a child that has overdosed on Red Bull in maiden hurdles and small-field Graded races, but when things get really serious for him at the spring festivals such inefficiency is likely to be much more ruthlessly exposed. 

If he were to run at the Cheltenham Festival in just eight weeks, the unrivalled atmosphere and feverish raceday experience would be a serious test of Captain Guinness's temperament at this stage of his career.

With that in mind, while Henry De Bromhead isn’t a prolific user of hoods on his horses having only tried them on eight individuals under National Hunt rules since 2014, one wonders if he might consider doing so on Captain Guinness to try and get him to relax.

When all is said and done, if the first two home in the Moscow Flyer Novice Hurdle met again next time, I’d have Andy Dufresne as the shorter-priced of the two and would be confident that he would uphold the form. The stiffer the test of stamina at two miles, the further Andy Dufresne would beat him by.

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