Tony McFadden previews the Triumph Hurdle and identifies two horses worth backing at a double-figure price...
Tasked with writing the preview for the Triumph Hurdle last year, I based my article around the belief that stamina is what wins the day in the championship juvenile event. A strongly-run 17 furlongs on a stiff course is a significant test for physically and mentally immature four-year-olds, and the persistent rain that fell on the approach to last year's race only served to bolster my confidence. Safe to say that things didn't go to plan, then, as Our Conor, a horse that hadn't been tried beyond 10 furlongs on the Flat, produced a record-breaking performance, his 15-length rout the widest winning margin ever recorded in the Triumph. Our Conor was clearly a cut above his rivals, though, and the effortless style in which he cruised through the Triumph, beating his rivals on the bridle, is very much the exception as opposed to the rule: in an average renewal we should still be looking for horses that possess stamina as their strong suit.
The fact that the favourite, Ivan Grozny, is trading at 9.28/1 indicates just how open this year's race is, though whether Willie Mullins' promising juvenile deserves to be ahead of Le Rocher in the market is debateable. No four-year-old has established outstanding claims, but Le Rocher has the best form in the book, looks sure to relish the demands of a Triumph Hurdle, and is a solid proposition. He should be favourite on all known form.
Like many from the Nick Williams yard, Le Rocher was unraced on the Flat but he managed to win on a couple of occasions over hurdles in France, and he was impressive on his first start in Britain, claiming the Grade 1 Finale Hurdle in comfortable fashion. Things don't get much more testing for a juvenile hurdler than heavy ground at Chepstow, but Le Rocher made light work of conditions, and always appeared to be in control despite producing a sloppy jump three from home. As ever when dealing with small-field affairs run on heavy ground, the solidity of the form is open for debate, though it was clearly an encouraging performance and he built on that promise by running out a wide-margin winner at Cheltenham on Trials Day.
Racing over the same C&D as the Triumph Hurdle, Le Rocher produced a smart effort as he pulled ten lengths clear of some useful rivals which included Finale Hurdle runner-up Kentucky Hyden. The race took place on extremely testing ground and there was a steady pace in the early stages, but it is impossible to knock the manner in which Le Rocher prevailed. Always prominent, tracking the favourite and eventual third, Vicenzio Mio, Le Rocher could be seen travelling ominously well as they swung for home on the long run to the last, and his abundance of stamina was seen to great effect as he powered on remorselessly, extending the advantage all the way to the line.
Triumph Hurdles are rarely slowly-run contests and the strong-staying Le Rocher ought to relish the test. His effectiveness on a sound surface - which he is likely to encounter at Cheltenham - has to be taken on trust but, at the double-figure price, he is worth chancing.
Le Rocher makes much more appeal than Ivan Grozny at the prices, but it would be folly to completely dismiss a progressive young horse trained by Willie Mullins. Placed at Group 3 level on the Flat in France, Ivan Grozny made an encouraging introduction when run down late on by the Aidan O'Brien-trained Plinth at Leopardstown. Ivan Grozny showed the benefit of that experience when bolting up at Naas next time, looking a smart prospect as he quickened clear to win by twelve lengths under a hands-and-heels ride. He is certainly worth his place in better company but is there enough substance to his form to warrant favouritism? A better-value proposition from Ireland could be Ivan Grozny's hurdling debut conqueror, Plinth.
Ivan Grozny undoubtedly produced an improved performance to subsequently win at Naas, but it is worth noting that Plinth looked value for more than the winning margin at Leopardstown, getting close to the final flight and losing momentum as a consequence. Plinth achieved a useful level of form on the Flat, often running respectably in competitive handicaps, and it was encouraging how he overcame obvious signs of inexperience, such as the odd sloppy leap, to win on his hurdling bow. In truth, he looked at least as good a prospect as Ivan Grozny and is clearly in excellent hands, so it wouldn't be a surprise were he to start considerably shorter than his current price of 18.5n/a.
When betting ante-post on the Triumph Hurdle there is always the fear of a smart horse lurking in the wings, ready to be unleashed in the Adonis Hurdle like Soldatino and Zarkandar were in recent years. There could, however, be some value in siding with Royal Irish Hussar who produced a useful level of form earlier in the season and appears to have been forgotten about to an extent following one poor effort. Royal Irish Hussar leapt to the head of the ante-post market after producing an authoritative display here - albeit on the Old Course - at the Open meeting, beating subsequent Grade 2 winner Guitar Pete by a comfortable three and three quarter lengths. Royal Irish Hussar was strongly challenged on the run to the last, but he found plenty for pressure, always looking in control. He produced a laboured effort at Doncaster, beaten a long way at odds on, but that was his third run in quick succession and he is worth forgiving bearing in mind the positive qualities that he had shown at Cheltenham. A strongly-run contest with the emphasis on stamina looks bound to suit Royal Irish Hussar and he should be backed at 3433/1, particularly as any concerns on the jumping front (not always fluent) are allayed by the scarcity of obstacles in the final half-mile.
It is worth mentioning Calipto as he created a favourable impression when winning a strongly-contested juvenile at Newbury in November. Paul Nicholls' four-year-old travelled powerfully and barely had to come off the bridle to get the better of Activial and Chocala, who were representing the top yards of Harry Fry and Alan King respectively. None of the first trio have run since, though the fourth home, Dawalan, has won twice, while sixth-placed Baradari was an emphatic winner on his only subsequent start. Calipto displayed signs of greenness in the preliminaries at Newbury and is entitled to progress from the run, though it is worth noting that the second and third pressed on a fair way out and possibly set things up for the more patiently-ridden Calipto. He is clearly a horse of some potential, but, described as a rather unfurnished type, he may find the experience of a big-field Triumph coming slightly too soon in his career and can be left alone at 11.5n/a.
To conclude, this looks like a wide-open renewal of the Triumph Hurdle but, with the emphasis likely to be firmly on stamina, Le Rocher and Royal Irish Hussar are both horses that have solid claims on form and should be well suited by the stiff test. They look like the value propositions in a tricky race to assess.