What ‘snakes’ will climb the festive ladder?

With the National Hunt campaign approaching its halfway stage, Colm Greaves assesses the current state of play

Family board games have made a pleasing comeback this Christmas and retail analysts predict the trend will continue into future years.

Maybe it’s a fightback against the sterility of ubiquitous digital screens and the lonely isolation of ‘app’ addiction, but happily conversation, conviviality, and eye-contact could soon be back in vogue.

It’s a racing certainty that conviviality won’t be a stranger the crowds of horse racing enthusiasts who will turn up at Leopardstown, Limerick or Down Royal this week hoping to pin a tail on a couple of donkeys.

Their age profile generally leans towards the ‘mature’ side so most of them will be familiar with the classic old board game — Snakes and Ladders.

The beauty of snakes and ladders lies in its simplicity. A roll of the dice directs you randomly across a grid searching for the joy of an upward ladder while avoiding the misery of a downward snake.

The game also works well as a metaphor for the jump race season to date.

Many ladders have been scaled and several frustrating snakes descended. Here is the half-time analysis.

THE LADDERS

In recent seasons Willie Mullins has timed his run to the trainers’ championship in the same way Paul Carberry delivered Harchibald back in the day.

Way off the pace behind Gordon Elliott for most of the race and then one effortless looking spurt to the line from the back of the last — which is in Mullins’ case is usually the Punchestown finale.

The rhythm has changed this year and he stands half a million euro ahead of his rival.

One of the stalwarts he will be relying on if he is to stay ahead is the increasingly loveable Un De Sceaux, who played a leading role in the season’s finest race to date.

In fact, this year’s Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown could well prove to be one of the finest races of the decade.

He and Altior locked horns in a two-mile chess match and were in the air together at the last before the champion chaser asserted to collect his 1th win on the bounce.

This deeply classy performance seemed at last to finally free Altior from doubters who tend to throw the shadow of Douvan’s injury absences on his accomplishments.

Nicky Henderson, Altior’s trainer, said it was “as good a performance as he’s ever done” and he was equally as emphatic about his stablemate Buveur D’Air’s victory in the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle — his ninth win on the trot since reverting to hurdling two years ago.

The dual champion hurdler runs in Istabraq’s colours, jumps just as fast and efficiently as the great one and is equally hard to beat.

Despite this, he too remains mysteriously unappreciated in this country. Normally it takes a race or two to get him fully wound up so being this impressive so early in the season sets him up to emulate Istabraq’s famous hat-trick for JP McManus.

His competition in the coming years may come from a newly emerging force.

Influential British Flat racing operation Cheveley Park Stud have invested heavily in Irish National Hunt, buying winning pointers at monopoly prices but it looks like they have some talented youngsters on their books and their expensive strategy might be paying off.

The Elliott-trained Malone Road became clear favourite for the Cheltenham bumper when easily beating a heavily touted Mullins newcomer, Mount Leinster at Punchestown in November and his stable-mate Envoi Allen has won his two bumpers despite still being as green as grass. He could be anything.

But all of these ladders are insignificant when placed beside the one still being climbed by Rachael Blackmore this year. Blackmore acknowledges she is standing on the broad shoulders of the trailblazers Nina Carberry and Katie Walsh, but for a woman to lead the professional jockeys’ championship on such a prolonged basis is a truly ground-breaking achievement. Neck and neck with Paul Townend heading into this lucrative week she says it is only “the middle of the season. Most people are looking back on 2018 but the jumps season is 2018/19. I’m thrilled with how the year is gone but it’s not over yet.”

This is the greatest story of the season to date. Blackmore is no longer a brilliant female jockey. Just a brilliant jockey, period.

THE SNAKES

Of course, where there are ups there are always downs too.

2018 might be remembered as the autumn when climate change and jump racing collided.

It’s not too long ago since the citizens of Ireland were saving bath water in basins to nourish their flower beds and most racehorse trainers have been doing rain dances ever since, increasingly desperate to at last see the words ‘heavy’ or ‘soft’ sustained in going descriptions.

The prevalence of unsuitable going has handbraked the return of many of the better horses including Gold Cup

favourite Presenting Percy, whose connections are hoping for an extended Christmas downpour so that he turns out in the Savills Chase on Friday.

Percy’s absence is symptomatic of a lethargic season so far for staying chasers.

Native River and Might Bite were both easily beaten by the uninspiring one trick pony Bristol De Mai at Haydock, Jessica Harrington still hasn’t been able to get Sizing John fit enough to return and there are no obvious young horses emerging as exciting candidates for Grade One glory.

The disappointment of Presenting Percy’s delayed return to the track has been compounded by the lacklustre performances of two of our most celebrated novices from last season.

Footpad leapt like a buckaroo when winning five novice chases last season but jumped surprisingly poorly on his reappearance at Naas and looked well held by Saint Calvados before coming to grief at the last.

It transpired subsequently that Footpad had suffered a cut during the Naas contest which may explain his lacklustre performance.

Additionally, the seemingly unbeatable Samcro has already been defeated twice including a very comprehensive defeat to Buveur D’Air in that Newcastle race.

Despite these setbacks Gordon Elliott is adamant he will continue to postpone his chasing career and stick the Champion Hurdle plan although he recently admitted that he might “have to change a few things for March. We might ride him a bit different and do a few things different. I think Cheltenham will suit him a bit better than Newcastle but, still, Buveur D’Air is class.”

Both Samcro and Footpad head to Leopardstown this week on missions of redemption.

The jump season could use the leg up on the ladder that would come from their recovered brilliance.

CONNECT FOUR

St Stephen’s day is reset day. People eagerly swap claustrophobic sitting rooms for draughty racecourses, the season pivot towards spring and Cheltenham seems to loom at lot closer than it did last week.

Fascinating narratives will emerge throughout week, some snakes, many ladders.

For instance, Ruby Walsh has signalled his intention to ride at Limerick today, which will be an unexpected Christmas novelty for the Munster track, but then again, Pele played at Dalymount Park and George Best once strutted his stuff at Harold’s Cross.

Among the actual racing this week four contests stand out. The King George today at Kempton could clarify the Gold Cup pecking order if Might Bite and Native River return to form but could equally confuse things even further if either of the doubtful stayers Waiting Patiently or Politologue prevail.

If Footpad beats Min in the two-mile chase tomorrow it will confirm his status as the only realistic challenge to Altior in March and any emphatic winner of the Savills Chase on Friday could be the Gold Cup favourite by this time next week.

But perhaps the most interesting challenge this week will be figuring out the result of the three-mile hurdle, also on Friday.

Apple’s Jade was visually stunning when hacking up in the Hatton’s Grace at Fairyhouse at the start of the month and her performance against Faugheen should clarify her festival pathway.

This brilliant mare could easily run in either of the Champion, Stayers’ or Mares’ Hurdle at Cheltenham and for her owners, Gigginstown, deciding on which route she will take will not be a trivial pursuit.


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