Beginners chases during the summer months – or at least those purporting to be same – have a habit of throwing up noteworthy occurrences. In recent years, the same particular contest in Punchestown was won by Sizing Europe and Arvika Ligionniere. Both have gone on to much greater things. In the case of one, that latter statement is the biggest downplay of this or any century. The thing is, the main luminaries of the National Hunt scene tend to be out on grass at this time of year. These months are supposed to be the forte of the ‘summer horse’. In other words, either steeds deemed not good enough to run at the business end of the season or one ‘laid out’ for a big pot in one of the valuable summer handicaps having pined for better ground.
Yet, as the above examples demonstrate, stars can be unearthed at unusual times too. Ballinrobe was recently the venue for one such happening. Well, not so much a new discovery as a franking of a long held view. Namely, that Rebel Fitz is a very talented horse capable of going right to the top.
The horse is trained by Mick Winters. He’s one of the great characters in racing. An ‘interesting’ interview subject who tends to have the At The Races presenters – particularly the English based ones – in quite a dither. Winters is a very good trainer, too, mind. As the achievements of horses like For Bill, Missunited and Rebel Fitz demonstrate.
That the latter won the beginners chase in Mayo was no shock. But there was something very telling about the manner in which the victory was achieved. Barry Geraghty oozed confidence on the former Galway Hurdle winner. So much so, in fact, that it was one of those situations where, having got it right he looked like a genius. Had he got it wrong – which nearly happened – poultry produce would’ve been heading for his face!
What it underlined, though, was the confidence with which Geraghty now operates. There’s an old adage that good horses make good jockeys and, while the Drumree man has always been a top notch pilot, since his linkup with Nicky Henderson, he has progressed to yet another level.
Henderson finished the last season in his territory as champion trainer again. He has the best string of horses there now too. Thus, it’s difficult not to feel there’s a bit of a shifting of the sands over there. Simply because, as things stand, Henderson seems to have the edge on Paul Nicholls.
And, though otherwise might be stated, gut feeling suggests that may have played a role in Ruby Walsh’s decision to scale back his involvement at Ditcheat. He undoubtedly had genuine reasons, but chances are they may only be a part of a changing picture in a broader sense.
Sometimes, it must have at least felt like living out of a suitcase. That can’t have been easy for Ruby or his wife or young family. Understandably, that will have formed the largest part of his thinking. In any sport, however, when a certain age is reached, percentages have to be played.
It’s been fairly obvious that things have been changing within the Nicholls operation for some time. Especially with the likes of Harry Fry and Dan Skelton going out on their own. A lot of the flagship horses like Kauto Star, Denman and Master Minded are now gone. Big Buck’s and Al Ferof may soon follow suit. All told, it’s hard to avoid feeling that, from Ruby’s perspective, the opportunities at Willie Mullins’ might now outnumber those at Ditcheat.
Either way, Walsh’s decision will have ramifications both sides of the Irish Sea. Nicholls has insisted that he’ll still use the Kildare man when available. So what does that say to the newly appointed number one, Daryl Jacob? Or, for that matter, how will Paul Townend feel now, with Mullins’ main man more or less around full time?
There’s a scenario, of course, where the status quo will be maintained. A very plausible one, too, such is the current strength of the Mullins team. The trainer clearly has enough ‘stock’ to keep both men going. Then, it just comes down to the two men themselves making the right calls!
You sense that there’s a possibility too that things could go in a different direction. For Ted Walsh currently has the best string of horses at his disposal since the days of Commanche Court and Papillion. Now, Seabass may be 11, but you get the impression there are still good days to be had with him. While others like Rossvoss, Colbert Station, Summer Star and Champagne James are capable of making the Naas handler a major player this season.
Someday, you’d imagine Ruby will take over the training reins. That’d mean doors opening for others too. Whatever happens, though, he’s bound to be making headlines for a long time to come.
FOGRA: In memory of Ollie Cunningham (1933-2013). A dear friend who nurtured my love of racing and allowed me to see a side of racing – and indeed of life – I never had before and may never do again. Being in his company was forever a pleasure, always entertaining and one hell of an education in life. I hope he himself felt some of the joy and happiness he brought to our lives during those special, treasured years we shared. May he now have all the winners he always dreamed of on the racecourse above and may he rest in peace.