The Bumper Code
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.
Leading festival Bumper hope Carter McKay with jockey Patrick Mullins.