SUNDAY TIMES SPORT

Giving a horse a big name is a hostage to fortune especially if you call it after as legendary as superstar as AP McCoy. But a couple of years ago McCoy’s great patron JP McManus bestowed the title on a big handsome bay that had been impressing on Nicky Henderson’s gallops, and yesterday’s powerful victory in Newbury’s Betway Challow Hurdle reinforced the view that McManus might have not been that far off the mark.

Of course Champ has got a long way to go before he matches Khalid Abdullah’s, who nine years ago named Frankel in honour of the late, great Bobby Frankel,  but Champ is already a lot better blessed than the wretched animals in the past running under the handicaps of such tags as Gangrene, Salmonella, Miss Rubbish and The Slug. He is also a lot more gifted as shown by yesterday’s fourth consecutive victory lifting him to favouritism in the Ballymore Novices Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival.

Quite how good a performance it was to beat Getaway Trump by quite a hard fought two and a half lengths with both Kateson and Brewinupastorm close behind is not easy to assess in a race that began with thirty seconds of walking farce when none of the seven starters wanted to make the running. Even when they did the pace was not fast enough to give Barry Geraghty much peace on the hard-pulling Champ who last time out had carted his jockey to the front at halfway.

“He was not too bad,” said Barry afterwards, “and he found plenty when I really had to ask him after the last. He’s a fine big horse and he should have a future but we are lucky to have quite a few of those.”  Geraghty will be 40 in September and rode his first winner 20 years ago in January but is kept young by the feel of riding fleet of brilliant young horses now sporting the green and gold McManus livery.

Not least of these will be Champ’s stable companion Champagne Platinum who won the novice hurdle earlier at Newbury. It is still first steps for this beautifully balanced grey who made no fool of himself by winning his opening point to point in Ireland on April 1st before requiring a cool £250,000 for his McManus transfer. He is only four years old and whatever Champagne Platinum does over hurdles is likely to be bettered when he moves on to fences.

Meanwhile it was over hurdles in Ireland that Christmas week kept up the series of shocks that have seen champion hurdler Buveur D’Air and Gold Cup winner Might Bite eclipsed at Kempton and former Champion Hurdler Faugheen take a dreadful looking but mercifully harmless fall closing on the mighty mare Apple’s Jade at Leopardstown. Apple’s Jade carries the maroon and white Gigginstown Stud colours of Michael O’Leary as does Samcro who was made 6/4 favourite to get his season back on track in the Ryanair Hurdle only to once again weaken badly on the run in to finish only fifth to Sharjah and ace amateur Patrick Mullins after briefly leading before the final flight.

Afterwards Michael’s brother and racing manager Eddie O’Leary said that Samcro would have a full veterinary MOT and Champion Hurdle participation had to be very doubtful. Something physical might well emerge but it is often worth going with what the eyes say rather than what the script prescribed. In Samcro’s case at both Newcastle and Leopardstown, it was champion hurdle speed that he lacked which is not wholly surprising for a horse whose Cheltenham Festival success was over half a mile further than the Champion distance.

Mind you Leopardstown is as different a test to Cheltenham as is Kempton, and while Might Bite clearly had a big question mark over him after finishing last and found to have bled on Boxing Day, Buveur D’Air surely just got outrun by Verdana Blue who would be odds on to beat him in a flat race. Cheltenham with it’s eight flight and uphill finish is anything but.

The one horse that did deliver in spades last week was Altior at Kempton. Having been dubbed “the best athlete on the planet” in this column three weeks ago he had a bit to live up to but nothing he did over the Surrey track would make me want to withdraw that title. At both Cheltenham and Sandown he had needed to dig quite deep before he could put away his rivals but on faster ground at Kempton he was perfection on the hoof. He was fast and nimble, strong and quick, bold and brave. He held exactly to the script. Pity so many others didn’t.

 

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