The Path To Glory: Part Five - The Winners And Losers Of The Equine Flu Outbreak
Equine Influenza has wreaked havoc on British horse racing over the last three weeks. But some trainers – and some horses – have been affected far more than others, because of the new rules on flu vaccines introduced as a control measure by the BHA. Prior to the outbreak, horses were only required to be vaccinated against flu once a year; the new rules dictate that horses running in the UK must have been inoculated within the last six months, so trainers whose vaccination programmes occur during summer have had to give horses an unplanned booster injection.
This is important: not only have some horses missed their intended ‘prep runs’ for Cheltenham, but even if they haven’t, being vaccinated will have caused them to miss at least one week of full training. It would be similar to a human athlete getting ill three weeks before running a marathon: it might not affect the result at an amateur level, but it would be likely to have an impact on the Olympics where every day of training counts. There have definitely been winners and losers as a result of the flu outbreak.
Many British trainers inoculate their string during the winter, and as such have not needed to interrupt their horses’ training. Chief among them is Paul Nicholls, who in typical style has taken full advantage of changing circumstances by saddling a colossal number of winners since the resumption in racing. The most significant of these wins was notched up by Clan Des Obeaux, who showed that his King George win was no flash in the pan with an 11-length demolition of a small, but talented field in the Denman Chase. The seven-year-old is still yet to win over further than three miles, which means his stamina for the extended Gold Cup trip is untested, but he could hardly have been more impressive and now warrants proper respect at Prestbury Park.
Grand Sancy’s victory for Nicholls in the Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton was a good piece of form in itself, with classy types Sceau Royal and Vision Des Flos trailing behind, but it also boosted the chances of Colin Tizzard’s Elixir Du Nutz for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. He had the beating of Grand Sancy in the more prestigious Grade One Tolworth Hurdle in January, and given that Tizzard’s horses didn’t require flu boosters, and that Elixir Du Nutz was not planned to run again before March anyway, he must have rock-solid claims.
Another trainer unaffected was Nigel Twiston-Davies, whose great hope Al Dancer also enhanced his claims for the Supreme with a valuable victory in the re-arranged Betfair Hurdle. Despite being a handicap, three of the last six winners of that race who’ve then run in the Supreme have been placed, including 2018’s runner-up Kalashnikov. Having said that, this was not the strongest renewal, and Al Dancer’s RPR of just 152 reflects that he will have to improve further in March to triumph. His price is now arguably too short.
Apart from the unlucky Donald McCain, whose yard was at the epicentre of the flu outbreak, the main victim seems to have been Nicky Henderson. The champion trainer told the Racing Post: “We had to stop, and you can’t go out and gallop them again. We have a little bit of catching up to do…they haven’t gone backwards, but it’s just rather shredded their programme.”
Some of his horses have been particularly affected because they have missed vital ‘prep’ runs in addition to having their training interrupted by injections. Santini, current favourite for the RSA Chase, is a large horse who clearly needs plenty of work, and Henderson was open in discussing his concerns: “I really would have loved to have run him last weekend. He does need to go to a racecourse, and maybe even jump some fences.” With less than three weeks until Cheltenham, that is going to be a problem. Two notable others that the champion trainer wanted to run but couldn’t are Verdana Blue and On The Blind Side.
Most negatively impacted of all was Angels Breath. Although he may be extremely talented, he is now dangerously under-prepared for the Supreme. As Henderson himself commented: “It will be fast and furious [in the Supreme], and all he’s done is go round in a six-runner race with only four hurdles.” It’s as if your only preparation for a penalty shoot-out in the World Cup Final had been taking shots from six yards into an open goal in your back garden: natural ability may still see you win the shoot-out, but you haven’t exactly prepared for it. Angels Breath is entered in all manner of races over the coming days – indeed, he may have run before this article is published – but he simply isn’t going to get the required experience in any of these small-field February races.
Colin Tizzard’s string were unaffected directly by equine flu issues, but current Gold Cup-holder Native River was still a victim of the outbreak. He missed his intended big race tune-up in the Denman Chase because it was postponed a week and moved from Newbury to the less-suitable Ascot. Tizzard has shrugged this off, but it could be significant: Native River has been to the Festival four times in his career, and every time bar this year he has prepared with a run in early-to-mid February.
Meanwhile, in Ireland
Apart from a handful of Gordon Elliott’s horses who travelled over to Ayr on the day flu was found at Donald McCain’s yard, Irish racing was almost entirely unaffected by the outbreak. Yet this didn’t stop another Gold Cup contender from also missing his intended prep run. Presenting Percy continued his baffling campaign – so far, one victory in a hurdles race – by missing the Red Mills Chase. He is entered to run this weekend, but even that engagement isn’t certain. This can’t be ignored: prior to Percy’s last two Cheltenham Festival victories in the RSA and Pertemps, he had raced five and six times respectively during the season. Furthermore, although Native River only ran once before landing last year’s Gold Cup, that was in a chase; no winner of the Gold Cup has failed to run in a chase that season for more than 30 years. If any trainer can defy that statistic, it is the unorthodox Pat Kelly, but it is very concerning nonetheless.
Meanwhile, two horses with Cheltenham aspirations showed off their good health with performances so striking that they must be noted. The most impressive victory was recorded by surely the most remarkable horse in training, Gigginstown’s tiny warrior Tiger Roll. The 2018 Grand National and Cheltenham Cross-Country winner was sent off at 25/1 for the Grade Two Boyne Hurdle, run over two miles five furlongs at Navan – an understandably long price, given Tiger’s recent focus on long-distance staying chases over the biggest obstacles – but made a mockery of those doubting him by getting up to win by a comfortable four lengths. Is there anything this amazing horse can’t do? He looks in even better form than last season, and he will go off a deservedly short price for a repeat Cross-Country win in three weeks.
Monalee got back into the winner’s enclosure with a strong run in the Red Mills Chase at Gowran Park. He was giving decent horses seven pounds, so a two-length win represented a return to form after three below-par performances. Remarkably, given how obviously Monalee seems better suited by a trip of around two-and-a-half miles, his trainer Henry de Bromhead still insists that he is “50-50” as to whether to run his horse in the Ryanair Chase or the Gold Cup. If de Bromhead does see sense and enters him in the shorter Ryanair, he seems certain to go close: on both his last two runs at Cheltenham he has finished second, behind Penhill and a certain Presenting Percy.
Ireland is already in the ascendancy over Britain at the Festival, winning 17 races to 11 in 2018. The recent equine flu outbreak in Britain will only make it harder for that trend to be reversed this year. More than ever, the Irish form will need close examination before wagers are placed in March.