It has not been a particularly good few days for National Hunt racing in this country.
You could say it began with a card at Navan last Sunday that developed into a bit of a farce, and continued all week with no racing whatsoever.
Sunday has long become the showcase for Irish racing, but Navan was a real turn off and you certainly wouldn’t want to see many more programmes like that going forward.
The signs were there on Friday morning when a paltry four were declared for the Grade 1 novice hurdle and, when two of them were owned by Gigginstown, then there was the obvious possibility they mightn’t both meet the engagement.
By Saturday afternoon it became clear that Noel Meade’s Apache Stronghold — not owned by Gigginstown — was a very doubtful runner, with a foot abscess.
He duly came out on Sunday morning, as did Meade’s other runner, Gigginstown’s Very Wood.
He was reported to be “off feed’, so we can only hope the poor old devil will have recovered sufficiently to tuck into his Christmas dinner!
That left Briar Hill (1-4) to make all the running and ultimately stroll home clear of the rather enigmatic Azorian.
Such a short priced horse is worthless to the vast, vast majority of punters and when you add in another at the same odds — Royal Caviar in the bumper — this was a card that immediately had problems.
Toss in three necessary evils — handicaps — and punters were left with just two races that were basically any good to them. No wonder they stayed away in their droves, with the attendance much less than might have been expected.
And then, of course, when the game essentially needed a boost of some sort, we were treated to five blank days.
This, or at least something similar, has been going on for weeks, with just racing on a Thursday in between the previous Sunday and the following Saturday.
That makes some sense, but here we are smack bang in the middle of the National Hunt campaign and it was decided to go a step further and have nothing from last Sunday to today.
Don’t lets hear any waffle about the massive amount of racing that is coming over the Christmas period and the limited number of tracks capable of housing racing in the winter needing time to recover.
No, this week should be allowed to stand on its own merits and closing down the industry for six days simply seems ridiculous.
In the meantime Dundalk’s winter season continues unabated, offering generous money to some terrible horses and promoting mediocrity.
Oh, and how could Dundalk be voted racecourse of the year? Who cares, I hear you ask, and that’s a fair point.
But let’s ask anyway. What is the criterion used for an award that is just plain silly in the first place?
It cannot be based on attendances, or the strength of the betting ring, because Dundalk is hardly a success under both of those headings.
And it can’t be the quality of racing either, that’s self-explanatory. We know it’s not the fact they only house flat racing, on the basis that, next to the National Hunt game, the flat isn’t even popular. A puzzle or what?
What are we to make of Briar Hill, after his defeat of Azorian, earning €45,500 in the process, in that match at Navan?
There is no argument that he has a serious engine, but takes some stoking and, you’d imagine, at some stage this season will be found out.
It has been well documented how lazy he is on the gallops at home and isn’t really much better on the track.
Cheltenham in March — on a decent surface — will surely see him vulnerable, even if he did roar up the hill in March to win the bumper in a canter.
I’d say he will definitely want three miles round Cheltenham to be seen at his best and the Albert Bartlett looks the best option.
And what are we to make of Royal Caviar, following his win in the bumper at Navan? He looked a real star of the future when scoring on his racecourse debut at Fairyhouse, a contest that has been working out reasonably well.
But he certainly found the last furlong at Navan hard work and did not impress at all, compared to Fairyhouse.
Perhaps the second horse at Navan — the well-backed Fine Rightly — has made significant improvement, but he did look well exposed prior to the race. His next outing will be worth noting.
Just what other trainers are currently facing when taking on Willie Mullins was never better illustrated than with the three-year-old hurdle at Fairyhouse last Saturday.
There was plenty of talk about Mullins’ French recruit, Abbyssial, third in his only outing at Auteuil.
But, equally, there was very good word as well regarding Noel Meade’s English import Powder Hound.
This son of Lucarno looked a decent recruit to the jumping game, having won twice on the flat in England for Andrew Balding. His last race was when scoring, in a canter — off a mark of 83 — at Chester in September.
For a while at Fairyhouse he was actually favourite, until those who knew best stepped in and, by the time the starter had let them go, the argument as to who should be favourite had clearly been won by Abbyssial.
But, far more importantly, he also won the battle on the track, impressively by seven and a half lengths. Powder Hound duly took second, no less than 13 lengths clear of the third. It was further evidence that Mullins’ horses live on a different planet.
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