Dunguib will be something of a dark horse in more than just colour when he lines up for the Champion Hurdle on March 15th.
One of the most impressive Champion Bumper winners (2009), he started at odds of 4/5 in last year’s Supreme and finished 3rd. His jumping in that race was adequate but he’d looked awkward and unskilled at his hurdles in some of his other runs.
Trainer Philip Fenton has reportedly given him extensive schooling this season, and, to me, he looked quite clever at times in his sole outing at Gowran Park on Feb 19th when winning a three-horse race. What was less taking, to my eye, was that he appeared to idle markedly once he hit the front.
What I’m really interested in is the schooling side. Dunguib is eight years old. I accept that many horses of that age are schooled successfully for fences – the jumping technique is very different. Surely the confidence needed to measure a hurdle, ping it and get away quickly needs to be learned much earlier in life?
French trainers have been sending very young horses round loose schools for many years. A yearling set for a jumping career would be broken in alongside Flat horses and often loose schooled before ever being ridden. By the age of two, it will have jumped sizeable obstacles and be ready to race early in its three-year-old season.
When buying horses from France rather than Ireland was becoming popular, French trainers Guillaume Macaire and Arnaud Chaille-Chaille regularly used an outdoor circular school where members of both strings are worked on a near-daily basis.
“I would jump my horses a lot compared to horses in Britain and Ireland,” says Chaille-Chaille, “and when Barry Geraghty has ridden for me, he has been amazed at how my horses jumped. He said they made up two lengths at each – they were just playing with the obstacles. It is all very different from Britain and Ireland from what I have seen.”
Renowned bloodstock agent Anthony Bromley (pic. below, right), who started the French Revolution with purchases like Katarino, Cenkos, Geos, Azertyuiop, Monkerhostin, and, of course, Kauto Star, is on record as saying about breaking horses in young ” . . . the vets say the same – that it helps horses’ tendons. With an exercise regime at two and three, it will stand them in good stead when they are racing. There’s no reason we shouldn’t do it. It’s the conditioning and training that brings about a lot of the advantages that the French horses enjoy.”
So, like humans, are lessons best learnt young in horses? In my memory it is much rarer to see a very slick hurdler than a fine jumper of fences. On the downside, I believe, that fast, fluent, low action essential for gaining an advantage at each hurdle, can also be hard to train out of a horse when it goes steeplechasing.
Master Minded, (an early Macaire ‘student’) breath-taking as his jumping can be at times, regularly ‘hurdles’ his fences (though he can also spring like an antelope when the fancy takes him). He’s a horse I’d never take short odds about, due to that jumping style, even though Ruby says he’s the best jumper he’s sat on.
Back to Dunguib. We’ve seen the result of his schooling only once so far this season, at Gowran park a couple of weeks ago. The thing that impressed me was when he looked to be getting it wrong, he was much cleverer than last season. He is still no Binocular or Clerk’s Choice (no raised eyebrows please – CC is an exceptional jumper of hurdles to my eye, and unfortunate in that he seems to need genuine fast ground – as rare this season as a copy of The Star without a mention of Jordan on the front).
Irish-bred Dunguib was ten weeks short of his seventh birthday before jumping a hurdle in public. French hurdlers were sitting with their hooves up, pipe and slippers at the ready by that age. Are we to believe that this comparatively old dog has learned new tricks?
Your thoughts, as ever, will be welcomed.