Cheltenham must accommodate top middle-distance hurdlers

After Willie Mullins’ Zaidpour had landed the Grade 1 Hatton’s Grace Hurdle at Fairyhouse last Sunday, everyone wanted to know what the Cheltenham target for the six-year-old would be.

It will, of course, be the same after every big race in Britain and Ireland for many months to come.

Bookmakers’ representatives were running around with their bits of paper, quoting prices about the horse for Cheltenham, as Mullins did his best to answer various queries.

Sadly, however, the trainer is well aware that taking Zaidpour to Cheltenham will almost certainly be a waste of time.

This is a very smart horse, with his best surely to come, but the simple facts are that there is no race for him at the festival.

Mullins admitted in the winner’s enclosure that Zaidpour is good enough to be entered for the Champion Hurdle, but not good enough to win it. He ran in the race in March, finishing eighth of ten behind Rock On Ruby.

Mullins already has Hurricane Fly for the Champion Hurdle anyway, and knows that horse will beat Zaidpour over two miles every day of the week and twice on a Sunday.

So the alternative is the three-mile Ladbrokes’ World Hurdle. Here he would have to take on Big Buck’s and all the evidence is that is another impossible assignment.

The bottom-line then is that a really good sort like Zaidpour has, essentially, no business at all at Cheltenham.

Nicky Henderson’s Oscar Whisky is in exactly the same boat. He’s too slow for the Champion Hurdle, would only have a shot in the highly unlikely event of the ground coming up testing, and was forced to take on Big Buck’s in the World Hurdle last March, when his stamina ebbed away and he could only finish fifth.

Oscar Whisky and Zaidpour are two smashers, at their very best over two and a half miles.

But Cheltenham steadfastly refuses to put on a race that would accommodate horses who aren’t good enough for the Champion Hurdle and don’t stay three miles.

It is entirely different for chasers. Those that are thought not to be quick enough for two-miles and regarded as not good enough to challenge for the Gold Cup can run at the intermediate distance of two miles and five in the Ryanair Chase.

Indeed, the latest running of the Ryanair produced one of the great races of the festival in March when an inspired Barry Geraghty lifted Riverside Theatre home half a length and the same in front of Albertas Run and Medermit.

Cheltenham surely has to grasp the nettle sooner rather than later and put on a two and a half mile championship race for the likes of Zaidpour and Oscar Whisky.

And if that means having to dump one of those infernal handicaps, which lower the tone of the meeting anyway, then so be it.

If Fairyhouse on Sunday threw up a sure-fire Cheltenham winner then I’ve a feeling it was Champagne Fever.

I know he was beaten by Jezki in the Royal Bond, but there was no sense that either Willie Mullins or Ruby Walsh were in any way disappointed.

We can safely say that two miles on a flat track such as Fairyhouse did not play to Champagne Fever’s strengths.

I’d imagine connections are expecting massive improvement when the grey steps up to two and a half miles plus over hurdles.

His conqueror, Jezki, must possess a savage engine. His jumping left plenty to be desired and yet he was able to sprint clear from the back of the final flight.

The rising five-year-old will have to improve his technique, however, because inevitably poor jumping will prove his undoing at some stage.

At Dundalk last month, in a handicap, the Paul Hennessy-trained First Friday was backed from 14-1 to 6’s.

In a driving finish, he beat Balmont Flyer by a nose and then, very controversially, lost the race in the stewards’ room.

I thought it was a wrong decision on the part of the stewards and said so here two weeks ago.

Hennessy then appealed the decision and had that appeal upheld at the Turf Club yesterday week.

There is no mystery to this, what the Appeal Body concluded was that the Dundalk stewards erred in their original decision.

It really left a sour taste. Those who backed First Friday lost their money and, to add insult to injury, the handicapper moved the horse up by 5lbs in the ratings.

First Friday subsequently returned to Dundalk and ran off his new mark. He could only finish fourth.


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