PAT KEANE: Mr O’Brien can be more than pleased with his day’s work

The handicapper, Noel O’Brien, was entitled to allow himself a little smile, following the running of the valuable boylesports.com Handicap Hurdle at Leopardstown last Saturday.

Popular wisdom had it that he had greatly erred in his assessment of Tony Martin’s Quick Jack and that allowing him to run off a mark of 119, which translated to 9-12, was likely to blow up in his face.

Indeed, one pundit on television over the weekend indicated that if the race were run in Britain, Quick Jack would be competing off a mark 17lbs higher.

How such conclusions are arrived at have long baffled this observer. Britain and Ireland are two entirely different jurisdictions and, to my way of thinking, it is at best difficult to work out whether a horse is well in, or badly in, when moving out of his own home zone.

A good example, perhaps, is Vintage Crop when winning the Melbourne Cup in 1993. The Australian handicapper had to assess a horse he couldn’t possibly have known intimately.

I’m sure he read Vintage Crop’s form as best he could and, maybe, when he was finished decided to give him an extra 7lbs for luck!

Vintage Crop, of course, won in a canter by three lengths and the Aussie compiler of weights had got him wrong by as much as 10lbs.

We repeatedly hear about how badly Irish horses are handicapped in Britain and yet continue to win those races.

At Cheltenham last year, for instance, Irish horses took four handicaps and that has to be regarded as a more than fair return.

So the notion that Quick Jack had a theoretical 17lbs in hand — or even something a bit below that figure — was immediately dismissed as poppycock.

Mind you there were plenty of others, including fellow trainers, who believed he could prove a real blot on this particular handicap.

But just because a horse gets into a race near the bottom of the weights doesn’t mean he may actually be tossed in — we all know that.

And we all know as well that a horse carrying top weight may not necessarily be badly handicapped either.

But, nevertheless, the notion that Quick Jack, only a five-year-old and possibly massively progressive, was set to make a mockery of the handicapper gathered momentum the closer you got to the contest.

And that was certainly reflected in the behaviour of punters, who sent him off the 7-4 favourite to beat 23 rivals, in what looked a fiercely competitive race.

When Quick Jack ranged up early in the straight, he shaped like a sure-fire winner, but it soon became crystal clear that the handicapper had read this better than any of his critics and the hot pot could not raise his tempo in the closing stages, finishing a perfectly respectable third behind Gilgamboa and Flaxen Flare.

Quick Jack never won a maiden hurdle, nor did he ever threaten to do so, but went off a heavily backed 5-4 favourite when taking a handicap, his first success over jumps, at the Listowel festival in September.

On Saturday at Leopardstown, he raced off a mark that was 24lbs higher compared to Listowel.

If the horse had won the Boylesports Hurdle in the manner many had expected then the handicapper, I’d say, would have been in the firing line over the last week or so.

But the facts revealed that Quick Jack didn’t have a big edge, or any sort of edge, and Mr O’Brien could be more than pleased with his work.

Hurricane Fly faces an uphill struggle to win a third Champion Hurdle, that’s the only logical summation surely of his less than impressive win in Sunday’s Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown.

We know he worked exceptionally badly, at least once, in preparation for the race and that he suffered a stone bruise as well.

But Willie Mullins is such a professional that he would not have dared risk the horse unless more than satisfied he was mentally and physically ready to do himself justice.

The fact that 13-year-old Captain Cee Bee, who is rated 26lbs inferior to the Fly, was beaten less than three lengths raises major questions marks about the value of this race.

We can dress it up all we want, but there seems little doubt that Hurricane Fly will need to make a major step forward in the coming weeks.

I suppose a decent case can be made for Sunday’s second, Our Conor, on the basis he simply exploded around Cheltenham last year when winning the Triumph Hurdle.

But we cannot have it both ways. If we’re throwing cold water on Hurricane Fly’s prospects then Our Conor has to be lumped into the same pot.

Jezki finished fourth of four behind Hurricane Fly and the hold-up tactics used really were mind-boggling.

Equally mind-boggling was the criticism levelled at Big Buck’s and, to a greater extent, Sam Twiston-Davies, after the horse returned from an injury-hit break of over a year at Cheltenham a week ago.

I thought it was a cracking run on the part of Big Buck’s and watching the beautiful manner in which he jumped and travelled through the race, it was almost as if Ruby Walsh was actually in the plate.

Paul Nicholls summed it up best afterwards when he said that if a soccer player was coming back after such a long time, he would be given half an hour here and half an hour there.

It’s simply not possible to do that with a racehorse and was entitled to be more than pleased with both horse and rider.

If Big Buck’s thrives on the lead in to the World Hurdle and Nicholls, who is very clever in these situations, is offering the right signals close to the festival, then I know in what direction the few quid from this quarter will be heading.


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