Pat Keane: Buckle your belts for cracking National Hunt campaign

Whisper it, but we may be at the start of one of the greatest National Hunt campaigns of all time!

Pat Keane: Buckle your belts for cracking National Hunt campaign

Whisper it, but we may be at the start of one of the greatest National Hunt campaigns of all time!

For any sport to flourish, serious competition is prerequisite and that has not always been the case, sometimes it was rarely the case, when it came to the National Hunt game.

Gordon Elliott emerging as a real challenger to Willie Mullins was a help, but it was scarcely enough.

We needed more, punters needed more, and a greater spread of top-class horses, away from the two juggernauts, was the dream.

Mullins brought National Hunt racing to an entirely new level in this country. But it had consequences and was, arguably, in the process of souring punters.

To put it simply, for a number of seasons, when a punter really fancied a horse, chances are it was trained by either Mullins or Elliott and, invariably, started long odds-on. It was a turn-off.

But those days seem to be solidly behind us, on the evidence of what we have seen so far in this fledgling season.

Joseph O’Brien has been a massive help in that regard; I hope his brother, Donnacha, runs with the jumps flag as well, and Henry de Bromhead appears to be going from strength to strength also.

There are other trainers who will, occasionally , have a say along the way and it all holds promise of some fair excitement over the next few months. Then it will be team Ireland and all guns blazing come the Cheltenham festival in March.

Fairyhouse last Sunday, of course, showcased the changing landscape of Irish National Hunt racing. In what was as good a day’s sport as you could get there were three winners for Joseph O’Brien and none of the three Grade 1’s was won by Willie Mullins.

The horse that made the deepest impression, at least on this observer, was Gordon Elliott’s Envoi Allen in the Royal Bond Novice Hurdle.

It is captivating when you are essentially in the dark as to how talented an individual might be. That is very much the case with the unbeaten in seven races, Envoi Allen, a point-to-point, four bumpers and two over flights.

Trained to land his point by Colin Bowe at Ballinaboola in early February of last year, current connections, Cheveley Park Stud, apparently gave £400,00 for him after that. Now I don’t care how much dosh you have tucked away in the back pocket that was a brave shout.

All the more so when you look at how that race has worked out. The second was a horse called Nearly Perfect, who is now trained in England by Neil King. Nearly Perfect has since run eight times and has never won. Indeed, his latest appearance was in a handicap chase at Hereford on November 12 when fourth of five finishers, beaten a little over 42 lengths.

The third at Ballinaboola was Appreciate It, now trained by Willie Mullins, who was relatively easy to back on his racecourse debut at Fairyhouse last Saturday, taking third behind Joseph O’Brien’s Assemble. Mind you Envoi Allen did win that point by ten lengths and was obviously impressive.

And impressive is the word that most readily springs to mind with all six of the horse’s successes on the track.

His fourth bumper win was his best, digging deep to hold Blue Sari at the Cheltenham festival. Envoi Allen showed he could jump when taking a modest maiden hurdle at Down Royal last month, but the Royal Bond was a completely different test.

To my eyes he sailed through the race, winning with any amount in hand. I have no idea how good he actually is, but I’ll tell you this, he will never, at least not until meeting a first defeat, be a lay for this punter.

I have to smile when I hear people claiming Samcro is now back to his best, following his fall two out behind Fakir D’Oudairies in the Drinmore Novice Chase at Fairyhouse.

They may well be proved right, but it is way too premature to be drawing such conclusions.

Samcro was, admittedly, travelling powerfully when departing at Fairyhouse, but it is a long way home from there to the post.

Those uttering such mutterings have short memories. He cut out in all three of his races over hurdles last season, none more so than on his final appearance at Leopardstown at Christmas.

In the Grade 1 Ryanair Hurdle, he went off 6-4 favourite to beat five rivals. Samcro, just as he did at Fairyhouse six days ago, moved through the race like a dream and looked all over a winner after the second last.

But he then curled up rather quickly and was a poor fifth at the line behind Sharjah, in what was a very modest renewal. Fairyhouse was encouraging, no doubt about that, but a lot more evidence is required before Samcro can be trusted again.

In the meantime, there are no such doubts about Fakir D’Oudairies. A brilliant jumper, with a great attitude, what’s not to like about him?

If the ground was genuinely soft at Cheltenham, then the Arkle would surely be his race. Watching him going full belt for two miles would be some sight!

Let’s hope the delightful Honeysuckle and her trainer, Henry de Bromhead, won’t be the subject of too much bullshit when it comes to the mare’s likely target at Cheltenham.

She had no sooner bounded to victory in the Hatton’s Grace at Fairyhouse than the speculation began: should she go for the Champion Hurdle?

No, no, no, a thousand times no, she shouldn’t. The Mares’ Hurdle is her race, because the two miles of the Champion Hurdle is just way too short for her.

We saw what happened last March when Apple’s Jade and Laurina were allowed run in the race, you couldn’t find them with binoculars!

We have, occasionally, heard Dermot Weld describe a horse of his as a stayer with speed. It’s a lethal concoction, but horses such as Apple’s Jade, Laurina and now Honeysuckle are stayers.

After her Hatton’s Grace demolition job, Honeysuckle is on the verge of taking her place alongside the great mares, such as the old Apple’s Jade, Annie Power and Quevega.

The Hatton’s Grace was way in advance of anything previously tackled and the manner in which she jumped and eased through the contest was beautiful to watch.

Honeysuckle is now unbeaten in a point-to-point, and on six occasions over hurdles. Only once, however, has she run over two miles, taking a modest Listed event at Thurles.

De Bromhead will probably, diplomatically, play along with the Champion Hurdle chit-chat. But he’s nobody’s fool and, all going well, you can bet she will line up in the Mares’ Hurdle.

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