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Wednesday, 16 January, 2019

Underdogs gain exposure as honours spread even among sires

Martin Stevens with the big breeding angles from the festival

Laurina: a brilliant winner of the much maligned Trull House Stud Mares' Novices' Hurdle
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Considering the mammoth size of stallion books in the National Hunt sphere – many of the most popular names will cover in excess of 200 each year – it is remarkable that no sire managed to field more than one winner at the Cheltenham Festival this week.

A trawl through the archives revealed the last time that happened was in 2002, when there were eight fewer races contested.

Oscar claimed the title of this year's leading sire at the festival on a countback, as besides his one winner – Kilbricken Storm in the Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle – he had two seconds, Rather Be and Splash Of Ginge, and a pair of third-place finishers in God's Own and Rocklander.

That haul edged out his former Coolmore National Hunt colleague Flemensfirth's one winner, one second and two thirds.

Oscar may no longer be in service as a stallion, but breeders do have access to Imperial Monarch, a Grand Prix de Paris winner by Galileo out of his half-sister Ionian Sea, at Beeches Stud.

The democratisation of sire power at Cheltenham this year illustrated that there are hidden gems across Europe at all price points.

The biggest revelation was Sandmason, who from meagre chances granted to him by breeders, and from only two runners at the festival, delivered Supreme Novices' Hurdle winner Summerville Boy and Ballymore Novices' Hurdle runner-up Black Op.

The 21-year-old son of Grand Lodge has covered next to no mares at Lacken Stud in recent seasons but will surely see a surge in popularity in the coming weeks.

Yorton Farm resident Blue Bresil also deserves his fair share of praise for fielding three runners at Prestbury Park – Johnny Henderson Grand Annual winner Le Prezien, Champion Hurdle third Mick Jazz and Close Brothers Novices' Handicap Chase fifth Ibis Du Rheu.

Never mind the naysayers – the mares' novices' race is ace

There's no pleasing some people. Even though Laurina put up one of the most scintillating performances of the festival with her wide-margin victory in the Trull House Stud Mares' Novices' Hurdle, and in doing so more than lived up to her billing as a banker of the meeting, the race has again come under fire.

Quite why this contest, now in its third year, gets picked on so frequently as an example of unnecessary dilution of the festival is bewildering. You could just as easily point to the promotion of the Ryanair and JLT Novices' Chase, run over the unexciting intermediate distances of 2m5f and 2m4f, for depriving the shorter and longer championship races of credible contenders.

Likewise a Grade 1 event on the Flat – the Champion Bumper – seems readily tolerated by the National Hunt purists, as do the expanded number of handicaps whose top-weights could potentially have added competition to the Graded events.

It was hard not to agree with Bryan Mayoh, the joint-breeder of Sizing John who has worked tirelessly to improve chances for fillies in jump racing, when he called the disdain for mares' races “the last bastion of male chauvinism” on a recent Racing Post bloodstock podcast.

Even beyond the arguments in favour of such races at Cheltenham based on their competitive nature alone – and it might be added that many of the recent winners have not been kept exclusively to their own sex after their victories, and that Apple's Jade was not the good thing she was supposed to be when beaten by Benie Des Dieux in the OLBG Mares' Hurdle on Tuesday – there are bigger issues at play.

The growth of mares' races are a response to the unsustainable situation in which many National Hunt fillies have in recent times been rendered practically worthless because owners and trainers have been unwilling to buy them.

They should, in theory, make up half the racing population but a glance at any winter racecard will show they account for nothing like that. There has to be more jumps races for fillies and mares to fuel demand for them, and prestigious contests on the biggest stages at that.

Again, it is puzzling that while there is wider consensus on other welfare concerns in racing, such as use of the whip and post-race care of exhausted horses, the largely painless move of introducing mares' races to a major festival in order to generate demand for a discarded sector of the thoroughbred population is so agonised over.

That is not to mention the associated benefits of racing mares, such as breeders being better able to identify which are most worthy of entering production instead of the hit-and-hope approach of breeding from unraced mares that has been prevalent in the jumps game.

That old chestnut... don't judge a sire by their shade

Many jumps stallion owners in Ireland and Britain are loath to stand chestnuts, while the bay with black legs has been elevated to the ideal of beauty because it is, so the theory goes, young horses in that image who hold most appeal to buyers at the sales.

Those chestnuts might not be as aesthetically pleasing to some, but more fool those who equate coat colour with ability, as results at Cheltenham this week proved yet again.

Native River, the admirably honest Gold Cup hero, is a charismatic chestnut, as is Samcro, who did little to dispel the hype surrounding him with his smooth victory in the Ballymore Novices' Hurdle.

Ryanair Chase winner Balko Des Flos is another tawny top-notcher, while handicap scorers Blow By Blow and The Storyteller, and narrowly beaten Champion Hurdle second Melon, are also in the auburn army.

Heaven forfend if you are a National Hunt breeder and your mare foals a chestnut filly, as you can expect market indifference if you choose to sell her as an untried foal or store. The great Annie Power exposed that injustice and this week's mares' novices' hurdle third Champayne Lady and OLBG fourth Indian Stream did their bit for the cause too.

Anyway, just as a bay stallion can be the source of chestnut offspring – see all of Galileo's three Derby winners, Australia, New Approach and Ruler Of The World – so chestnut does not necessarily only beget chestnut. Notably, the bay Summerville Boy and brown Black Op are by the chestnut Sandmason, and dual Foxhunter winner Pacha Du Polder is a bay son of the chestnut Muhtathir.

A stud for all seasons

Newsells Park Stud is primarily a fine nursery of top-class Flat horses, such as Gitano Hernando, Legatissimo, Librisa Breeze, Masked Marvel and Rite Of Passage.

It might not aim for jumps success but that's exactly what it achieved this week by breeding the first two home in the Stayers' Hurdle, Penhill and Supasundae, and Champion Hurdle runner-up Melon. At least those horses show Newsells Park graduates have the will to win.

Special mention too for Gilles and Thomas Trapenard's Haras de Sivola in France, best known for producing star staying hurdler Reve De Sivola. The stud was on the scoreboard twice this week with winning handicappers Coo Star Sivola and Le Prezien.

Leaving a legacy

Late Glenview Stud stalwart Presenting, source of numerous Cheltenham winners including Gold Cup heroes Denman and War Of Attrition, did not get a winner this year but notched a double as broodmare sire with Presenting Percy and Rathvinden.

Both the RSA Chase winner and National Hunt Challenge Cup winner are by Shirley Heights-line sires. Presenting Percy is by Derby hero Sir Percy and Rathvinden is a son of the late Heron Island.

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The growth of mares' races are a response to the unsustainable situation in which many jumps fillies have in recent times been rendered worthless
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