The Bumper Code

Irish Examiner - Racing - - CHELTENHAM PREVIEW 2017 - Colm Greaves

Among the many good rea­sons to warmly em­brace the trea­sure that is Ir­ish jump rac­ing is the gen­uine af­fec­tion that ‘the bumper’ gen­er­ates among race­go­ers here.

Nom­i­nally it is just the quirky last race on the card, of­fi­cially a Na­tional Hunt Flat Race. There are no ac­tual hur­dles or fences to ne­go­ti­ate and it’s usu­ally con­tested by un­fa­mil­iar horses, many of whom tend to have a ca­sual re­la­tion­ship with any­thing even nearly ap­proach­ing peak ath­letic fit­ness.

The jock­eys are al­ways am­a­teurs who may be too heavy, too old, too un­tal­ented, too un­in­ter­ested (or all of the above) to ride as pro­fes­sion­als and the bet­ting mar­kets are of­ten in­ex­pli­ca­ble.

Yet there is sits, the cher­ished fi­nale on win­ter race cards, the last op­por­tu­nity to re­cover the day’s un­lucky losses or to play up the shrewd win­nings. It is stud­ied and dis­cussed to a de­gree far above its im­por­tance and there are sev­eral the­o­ries as to why this might be so.

One is that our long history of po­lit­i­cal ag­i­ta­tion has left us with a pas­sion for se­crets and sub­terfuge that when com­bined with an­other of our great loves — gam­bling — the bumper is a heaven-sent tem­plate that ful­fils both needs. It’s a race that’s nor­mally pop­u­lated with un­raced or un­der ex­posed horses, some of them trained tightly and ready to run for their lives, oth­ers just en­joy­ing a nice day out, gin­gerly bank­ing valu­able race­course ex­pe­ri­ence to ex­pend in fu­ture bat­tles.

The sat­is­fac­tion comes from know­ing which is which, who is ready to shine and who is still in devel­op­ment mode. Crack that code and there fol­lows not just fi­nan­cial profit, but the warm glow of self-val­i­da­tion that comes from know­ing some­thing oth­ers didn’t.

Sec­ondly, there is the ‘day­dream’ the­ory. Watch the horses cir­cle in the pa­rade ring be­fore the bumper, par­tic­u­larly on a big race day at a metropoli­tan course, and it is al­most to stop your­self from day­dream­ing of pos­si­ble fu­tures and hope that you are present at the dawn of a le­gend.

Like paus­ing for a mo­ment to watch the Ju­niors hit prac­tice balls at Holy­wood Golf Cluband­mak­ing­notic­ingthat the mop-topped lit­tle fella called Rory could be use­ful some­day. Or lean­ing against the pa­rade ring rail at the old Mullingar race­course in De­cem­ber 1961 and won­der­ing where that un­raced Tom Dreaper-trained new­comer, Arkle, got his un­usual name.

The third the­ory of Ir­ish bumper pop­u­lar­ity be­gins with a guess­ing game around the mid­dle of Novem­ber and con­tin­ues all the way through to the off of the fi­nal race this af­ter­noon.

This game is no­to­ri­ously dif­fi­cult and to win you must cor­rectly iden­tify which one of the Wil­lie Mullin’s bumper crop will win at Cheltenham. The prize is worth the ef­fort — the lovely smug­ness that comes from a win­ning long odds ante-post docket and tor­tur­ing friends that you knew the an­swer all along.

The real an­swer is that bumpers are pop­u­lar in Ire­land due to a blend of all of three the­o­ries.

Knowl­edge. Hope. De­duc­tion.

Equally clear is that de­spite their best ef­forts, the Brits still don’t re­ally get bumpers. They have tried to in­te­grate the race into their rac­ing cal­en­dar, but only in a luke­warm way. Two grand races over a mile and six are just not the real thing and they even al­low pro­fes­sional jock­eys to ride in them.

Sacri­lege! But in fair­ness to the home team, they have been up­ping their game a lot since they first suc­cumbed to Ir­ish lob­by­ing and added the race to the Cheltenham festi- val menu in 1992.

Although they have only won seven from 24 since the race orig­i­nated, Bri­tish trained run­ners have cap­tured four of the last seven edi­tions. All other win­ners were Ir­ish and al­most half of those were trained by Wil­lie Mullins.

Horses of the cal­i­bre of Mon­te­lado, Dato Star, Florida Pearl, Alexander Ban­quet, and Cue Card have all tri­umphed and other Grade One win­ners too nu­mer­able to men­tion have used the race as a step­ping stone on the way to great­ness, and the trend con­tin­ues.

As usual, there is no other way to de­scribe the sil­ver an­niver­sary of the fes­ti­val bumper, other than just plain fas­ci­nat­ing. While it may not be the strong­est look­ing field ever, the out­come is as un­cer­tain as usual and the pos­si­bil­i­ties end­less. And sur­prise, sur­prise — Wil­lie Mullins trains the favourite.

Carter McKay gets his name from the char­ac­ter Ge­orge Kennedy played in the 1980s TV soap opera, Dal­las, but there is noth­ing make be­lieve about this par­tic­u­lar Carter.

The hand­some grey has won his prep races at Leop­ard­stown and Naas very eas­ily and even the fa­mously care­ful Mullins is find­ing it dif­fi­cult to mask his con­fi­dence. “That per­for­mance would com­pare to any­thing. A horse that can win around Naas do­ing that is a fair ma­chine,” he re­marked last week.

The un­cer­tainty lies in that he shown a pref­er­ence ground more test­ing than he is likely to en­counter at Cheltenham. Ad­di­tion­ally, he only beat three op­po­nents in a slow run can­ter at Naas, a less than op­ti­mum re­hearsal for to­day’s choke out cav­alry charge. Although a wor­thy favourite, he is by no means a banker. So, what can beat him? None of the English trained run­ners jump out as the next Cue Card but you can only day­dream of what the fu­ture might hold.

The best of them might be War­ren Greatrex’s West­ern Ry­der who has been first and sec­ond on his two runs to date. Part owned by the golfer Lee West­wood, he looks like an ideal type for this race.

He was nar­rowly beaten last time out con­ced­ing 21lbs to Daphne Du Clos who was a clear sec­ond favourite be­fore she was with­drawn by Nicky Hen­der­son last week.

Cause Tou­jours won his only race un­der rules very impressively at War­wick be­fore Christ­mas and has been laid out care­fully for to­day. His sta­ble rate him highly and his rider Harry Skelton says “he has got the head to cope with the Fes­ti­val and is a well-bal­anced horse, so the track shouldn’t be a prob­lem ei­ther.”

But if Wil­lie Mullins is to be de­nied a ninth win, it is likely that an Ir­ish ri­val will thwart him. Some­day was beaten into sec­ond place on his de­but at the Punchestown Fes­ti­val last spring and wasn’t seen out again un­til he beat Voix Des Temps in a de­cent bumper at the Leop­ard­stown Gold Cup meet­ing last month. Some­day had to dig in deep to win half a length but he ran a lit­tle green that day and the first two came 15 lengths clear of the third.

He should im­prove for the ex­pe­ri­ence.

Some­day has been heav­ily backed for the race for the last two weeks and his trainer, Jessica Har­ring­ton, won this race 10 years ago with Cork All Star so knows what it takes to get the busi­ness done in a race that will be warmly em­braced.

Pre­dic­tion: 1. Some­day 2. Cause Tou­jours 3. Carter McKay.

Pic­ture: Healy Rac­ing

Lead­ing fes­ti­val Bumper hope Carter McKay with jockey Pa­trick Mullins.

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