Brian O'Connor's Latest Blog

Brian O'Connor's Latest Blog

What If Punch-Bag Wins Gold Cup?

Mon 13th Feb 2017, 09:04

Sizing John strikes the front at the last in Irish Gold Cup
©Healy Racing Photos
The horse that emerged with the most enhanced reputation from Leopardstown's quadruple- Grade 1 card didn't even run. Any notion Douvan may have been a playground bully in repeatedly beating up Sizing John can be binned with the latter successfully stepped up to three miles in the Irish Gold Cup. Now Sizing John goes for the real thing at Cheltenham. Who knows how much he might improve for further again: and who knows how the Douvan camp will feel if, having taken the prudent two-mile route this season, their former punching-bag actually wins the ultimate prize?

It's hardly the most outlandish idea, although Native River is increasingly starting to look like the real deal. This will be an open Gold Cup and plenty will throw their hat into the ring. Even if Sunday's race looked 10lbs below true 'blue riband' class Sizing John now justifies his place. Any idea he might be a true two-miler destined to forever trail Douvan around can be forgotten because Jessica Harrington took a chance.

It's easy to applaud from the sidelines when others take a chance, and especially when there's comparatively little to lose. But that readiness to enter the unknown and risk defeat certainly tallies with National Hunt racing's sporting sense of itself rather more than the series of lucrative long odds-on cakewalks that Douvan has enjoyed this season.

Watching this superb horse is always a joy and it will be the shock of the season if it doesn't yield the two-mile crown next month. And no doubt his campaign this season is the sensible and professional route to take. The option to extend in distance next season is open too although Ruby Walsh for one has pondered as to why. However the dangers in thinking long-term with National Hunt horses have been made depressingly obvious recently.

The prospect of Douvan winging his way around Cheltenham's two miles is wonderful. The idea that Sizing John might win or even get close in the Gold Cup will inevitably invite speculation as to what his old rival might have done if presented with steeplechasing's ultimate challenge. And 'what if's' are a bore.

As for Sunday's other Grade 1 action it might be dangerous to read too much into the bare form given that ground conditions are likely to be very different in four weeks time. With that in mind perhaps the most eye-catching performance came from Bunk Off Early, runner up to his stable companion Bacardys in the Deloitte.

After 'tanking' through the race, and obviously relishing his jumping, it was no suprise Bunk Off Early emptied at the end of two and a quarter miles on very soft ground. Give him two miles and a strong pace in the Supreme and 16-1 odds for the Supreme look appealing.

Also on Sunday, the cockeyed nature of the interference rules were shown again when Someday was allowed keep the bumper despite knocking Voix Des Tiep sideways in the closing stages and winning by only half a length. The logic presumably was that the stewards couldn't be satisfied the runner up would have won without being hampered. But all that needs is for the logic to be flipped on its head: could they satisfied he wouldn't have won with a clear run. So the transgressor keeps getting rewarded.

It is notable how few headlines have been generated either side of the Irish Sea recently in relation to the whip. Maybe that will change in four weeks time when the stakes are highest. But to those responsible for such things it must be a relief.

The problem with the whip though is that controversy is remissive, both in purely racing terms but also in the much broader sense that hitting horses is simply a bad look.

A Mr Bill Roe from Ranelagh in Dublin recently wrote to the Irish Times saying: "Am I the only person who is disgusted to see regularly on sports news the sight of tired horses being beaten to make them reach the winning post first? You wouldn't do it to a dog, so why do it to a horse? It is tolerated because the bloodstock industry is worth billions internationally. A first step would be to take away the jockeys' whips and make them use the force of their personality to persuade the horses to run faster."

Just as it's easy to joke that the force of some jockeys' personalities wouldn't persuade horses to go very fast at all, it's also easy for those immersed in the sport to dismiss such a view as naive and irrelevant.

But racing doesn't exist in a vacuum and over the coming decades there will only be more focus on animal welfare which will make the whip even more of a contentious issue. Because there's no escaping how to the uninitiated, and maybe even the initiated, having a dumb animal being struck in the name of entertainment isn't particularly edifying.

Ultimately it could well emerge that whips get carried for safety purposes by jockeys but not for those flourishes that even when done with real skill hardly make for family viewing. Many will scoff at that but racing's long-term image may well depend on the force of its argument that it isn't cruel.

Finally, America has never had a patent on exceptionalism, and the self-regard that goes with it, so perhaps it's no surprise the horse industry - again - believes the rules which apply to everyone else shouldn't apply to them.

John Osborne can probably count himself unlucky in having to step down as boss of the Irish National Stud after his term finished since state guidelines about CEO's serving just one term didn't seem to count for much before.

However the stink over Brian Kavanagh's reappointment as chief executive of Horse Racing Ireland ensured a level of focus which was never going to help the eminently capable Osborne from going again. The timing stank.

Breeders however haven't been slow to express their anger at the government move, seemingly on the basis that Osborne was very good at the job and that the peculiar nature of the bloodstock game requires continuity.

It's a remarkable echo of the hoary old argument which can be basically boiled down to 'we're different.' Except the horse game isn't that different, and it certainly isn't different enough to justify taking the state shilling and then going off and doing whatever it pleases with it.

You would think the breeding industry might immediately be better served focussing its energies on tidying up its own patch when it comes to anti-doping and not making a show of itself by arguing for ludicrous notice periods which basically tells everyone it wants to be left carry on as before.

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