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A perfect record, ones all the way. It’s always the race that matters most that isn’t a victory.
Unowhatimeanharry had won all his starts since joining Harry Fry, eight in all, prior to lining up in the latest Stayers’ Hurdle as the 5/6 favourite, but could only find the one pace when Lil Rockerfeller found more approaching the last, and neither he nor the eventual runner-up could do anything about Nichols Canyon’s late finish.
He then ran in the Champion Stayers’ Hurdle at the Punchestown Festival and took his revenge on Nichols Canyon. With Lil Rockerfeller and Snow Falcon below form they were clear of an otherwise-ordinary bunch, but Unowhatimeanharry was back on the map as soon as he’d fallen off it, and is a contender if lining up again at Cheltenham. Of what are now nine wins from ten runs for the Fry yard prior to the start of the new season, four of them have been at the home of jump racing. Unowhatimeanharry won’t have it all his own way though, and staying hurdling looks like being a most competitive division in 2017/18.
Unsurprisingly, the first and second in the latest Stayers’ have sound claims. Going in to the latest renewal Nichols Canyon had the class, that wasn’t in doubt – but did he have the stamina, or more to the point the resolution, having checked out readily behind Petit Mouchoir on two occasions over two miles at Leopardstown. With the good ground in his favour, the answer was a resounding yes to both. Defeat behind Unowhatimeanharry in the Punchestown equivalent isn’t an issue – reliability could be in the build-up to the 2018 Festival, but his record at the Cheltenham Festival is two thirds and a win from three visits. I fancy he’ll bring it on the day.
If Nichols Canyon meets with a setback and can’t run at Cheltenham, his trainer Willie Mullins is likely to have more than one substitute to take his place. Top mare Vroum Vroum Mag springs to mind – she’s better at three miles than shorter, and her defeat in the Punchestown Champion Hurdle when she was last seen out can be forgotten. If connections leave their David Nicholson Mares’ Hurdle-challenge to Limini (and/or another mare we haven’t seen yet), don’t be surprised if she tries to go one better than Annie Power, second to More Of That when it was still called the World Hurdle in 2014.
The point has been made before, as well as above, that the big stables have other good horses they can turn to – but for Newmarket-based Neil King, his whole jumps season will revolve around Lil Rockerfeller, a genuine and increasingly popular racehorse.
Genuine in a finish, that is – the jockey, usually regular rider Trevor Whelan, has to get after him from an early stage. But in the Stayers’ Hurdle, in which he was a 33/1 chance, boy did he keep finding – your heart went out to connections after Nichols Canyon turned up to collar him. Let’s hope he’s back for more.
Nobody else who also ran in the latest Stayers’ Hurdle makes appeal for the next one. Snow Falcon may well have gone close to beating Unowhatimeanharry at Newbury in November if he hadn’t fallen, but he was given five chances to make amends and blew out to varying extents in all of them. He gave his running when third in the Liverpool Hurdle at Aintree, but still found a couple to beat him. Ballyoptic looked in for a good time of it after winning the Silver Trophy at Chepstow on his reappearance but regressed, with two falls and four submissions from his six subsequent starts, so he’s got a lot to prove himself.
The Liverpool Hurdle saw the emergence of Supasundae as a possible Stayers’ Hurdle-horse. The Coral Cup winner was trying three miles for the first time and, off the bridle a long way out (possibly not suited to the tight Aintree track), he found more in the straight and was beaten only a length by Yanworth, the jockeys on the first two receiving whip-bans. He will further strengthen the hand the Irish look to have in the division. Yanworth, the Champion Hurdle-flop who stepped up a mile in trip at Aintree, would strengthen JP McManus’s position in the race if staying over hurdles this season, but he reportedly goes chasing. His jumping of hurdles isn’t always great, so he’ll need to improve over the larger obstacles.
Ballyoptic’s connections are reportedly considering stepping The New One up in trip, but this normally genuine animal didn’t give his running when last seen out, his consistency starting to diminish. He finished fourth to L’Ami Serge in a Listed hurdle at Sandown on the last day of the season – in his pomp The New One would easily have beaten the horses who beat him in the Sandown race, but of course there’s the possibility that he might have been over the top. Regardless, The New One has stamina to prove.
There are a few good novices who might be able to step up to the plate in open company this season, if they stay hurdling. For many Finian’s Oscar will jump off the page. He always looked as though he’d be better over two and a half miles than shorter, and when winning the Mersey Novices’ Hurdle at Aintree – having missed the Cheltenham Festival due to a setback – he shaped as though wanting a stiffer test still, off the bridle on the last circuit before staying on well to beat Captain Forez. He all but won the Champion Novice Hurdle at Punchestown over the same trip, Bacardys collaring him late, and has a big season in front of him, whether staying over hurdles or going chasing.
Neptune Novices’ Hurdle-winner Willoughby Court is likely to go chasing, but the 2017 Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle was won by a potential challenger, with 16/1-chance Penhill finding improvement, making up more ground than most race winners would do from after the second last to the line to beat Monalee, who was below form in the Punchestown equivalent. Penhill is worth at least one chance to prove himself in open company, and improved with the style marks of his Cheltenham win.
The Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle has produced top-class chasers before in Sir Des Champs and Don Poli, both owned by Gigginstown House Stud aka Michael O’Leary, and the latest winner - Champagne Classic, who O’Leary told Racing UK was ‘the worst horse I own’ after the race, could well be mentioned in the same breath as them in the fullness of time. Always in the first eight at Cheltenham, he found plenty in the straight to beat Verni, Runfordave and the front-running Coo Star Sivola, and then went to Punchestown, stepping up in class in the Grade 1 three-mile novice hurdle there. He beat Penhill by two and a quarter lengths, and has claims to being the top staying novice hurdler of last season. If he stays over hurdles, he’s in the Stayers-mix. Not bad for a bad horse.
However, the second-season hurdler I like the most is The Worlds End, the Sefton-winner. His fall two out in the Albert Bartlett undoubtedly made it easier for Penhill to get the win, as he was looking strong and yet to be asked for maximum effort, but he gained lucrative compensation at Aintree. Again he went well, but hit the front too soon ideally – at the third last – and needed an all-out drive in the end after a mistake at the last to hold off Beyond Conceit. He could do with being held on to for longer, but there’s no doubt that he had more in hand than it looked in the Sefton, and there’s more to come from The Worlds End.
Let’s hope all those stay injury-free, and that most if not all of the potentially high-class second-season hurdlers, stay over hurdles.
If the 2018 Stayers’ Hurdle was tomorrow, who are the first four?
The Worlds End
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