McManus owed horse more than a sporting chance at Cheltenham

Our Columnist @GreenandGold_ has written an article for us on the JP McManus owned Sporting John who looks set for the Cheltenham Festival.

At quarter past eight on Saturday morning the tweet came from Ascot Racecourse, ‘8am Inspection has been passed’. The relief was instant. After a week of abandonments and disappointment owing to the storms of Ciara and Dennis, we were finally racing. Twice this week Punchestown meetings had been called off, denying us the chance to see the revitalised ten-year-old, Yanworth. Today we were poised to see a Green & Gold horse at the opposite end of his career.

The Philip Hobbs trained Sporting John had only ever run twice over Rules before last weekend but there’s something about the way he’s won his races that has us dreaming of the very top level.

In November, on Rules debut in a 2m Novices’ Hurdle at Exeter he lined up against more experienced horses (15+ runs between the top 4), with the main competition coming from the stables of Tizzard, Fry, Scott and Nicholls. Harry Senior, Bullionaire, Kissesforkatie and Eritrage the opposition (all winners since).

Green & Gold top jockey Barry Geraghty was on-board and settled Sporting John in mid-division as they set off, the newcomer was inevitably green and awkward in places. By three out the front two of Harry Senior and Bullionaire had forged seven lengths clear and looked to have the race between them. It would’ve been a nice learning debut for Sporting John and everyone at Sandhill Stables would’ve been happy with a placed first run. But, before two out Barry started to niggle the JP McManus owned horse, the response wasn’t instant, but he put his head down to engage another gear. He got over the flight only five lengths down. Barry becoming more animated in between the last two was gradually gaining on Bullionaire who was now losing ground on Harry Senior. Soon after jumping the last Sporting John was into second but still four lengths behind the Tizzard horse. A flick of the whip and a few more encouraging pushes from the jockey and the 4-y-o found a turn of foot usually found on the Rowley Mile in May! The deficit was evaporated in a matter of strides with Barry easing the debutant down in the final 50 yards to win by almost two lengths.

What an introduction! now the Cheltenham festival is on the agenda

A month later Sporting John was back at Exeter. An easier assignment looked on the cards as the bookmakers sent him off an unrewarding (if you’ve got the four you don’t need the one)1/4 favourite in an 18 runner field. Again, Barry settled him off the pace. Signs of greenness still evident but this is a horse who knows he’s good. At three out Barry closed in on the leader and after getting into the drive position for a few strides the race was over with Sporting John gradually pulling clear to win by an eased down 8 lengths. Plenty of gears still to engage in time. With novices there are plenty of false dawns. Every season there are twenty or so horses that have the potential and pedigree to reach the very top. Only a select few make it though.

Ante-post dreams are shattered when talent doesn’t match early potential.

Green & Golds’ Blue Sari was all the rage after a promising start to his career. A bumper win last January was followed up by a runners-up spot in the Champion Bumper behind Envoi Allen (with plenty of top novices in behind). He returned to win his hurdling debut well enough this season. But two subsequent poor runs have put a dampener on that early promise and Blue Sari can be backed at around 66/1 to win the novice Grade 1’s at this year’s Cheltenham Festival. He was single figures in November. Novices!

Just after 9:30am another tweet from Ascot brought us news from the Clerk of the Course of strong winds and further rain throughout the day. The ground was soft, which would be no problem for Sporting John. But racing in storm force winds would be something new! The four runner, 2m3f Novices’ Hurdle was the opening race of a quality Ascot card. Master Debonair trained by Colin Tizzard was the 5/4f favourite, Sporting John 6/4, Pipesmoker 9/2 with Torn And Frayed 14/1. A further three furlongs than his previous two runs wouldn’t be a problem for Sporting John given his PTP win over 3 miles last year.

Image result for sporting john horse

Confidence was still high in the Green & Gold camp despite the bookies favouring the more experienced Tizzard runner. Master Debonair had a cracking bumper season last year, winning twice and running valiantly at the Aintree and Cheltenham Festivals. Two hurdle wins over this course this season probably give him the edge in the form book. Pipesmoker from the Nicky Henderson yard was only making his third career start (2nd over hurdles). A promising hurdles debut in December, finishing just over two lengths behind Green & Golds Chantry House was serious novice form. Torn And Frayed was seemingly running for place money but was still a danger given the talent of his trainer and jockey, Nigel and Sam Twiston-Davies.

After blustery preliminaries in the parade ring the four runners made their way to the start the horse racing pictures may have been rather blurry. As the flag was raised Jonjo ONeill Jnr had the favourite at the head of affairs and once lowered, Master Debonair jumped off in front. Barry and Sporting John a couple of lengths back, Torn and Frayed in third with Nico De Boinville and Pipesmoker racing a little keenly at the back.

Positions remained unchanged for pretty much two miles with Jonjo seemingly happy enough setting the pace. Barry had Sporting John jumping like a seasoned campaigner all the way round. Slick and economical read the post race analysis.

At two out Master Debonair showed signs of cracking as Sporting John and Barry loomed up on his inside. After touching down together both jockeys started to push, the Green & Gold horse instantly put a length between himself and the former leader. As the final flight came into view Sporting John kicked into turbo and put 4 lengths between himself and Master Debonair. Pipesmoker was running on strongly and overtook the favourite before they jumped the last. Sporting John was now 5 lengths clear from the Sevenbarrows horse and wasn’t for catching. Despite easing down near the finish, he was still pulling further clear to keep his unbeaten record intact with an official 6 1/2 length winning margin. What storm; the racing picture is now more clear ?!

More gears shown today than before, but we haven’t scratched the surface yet! bring on Cheltenham

After the win, trainer Philip Hobbs suggested a bit further would be most likely for his next assignment. Potentially setting up a mouth-watering clash with leading novice hurdler, Envoi Allen in the Ballymore Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival.

The sight of those two jumping the last flight together and battling up the hill on that Wednesday Opener would be an absolute treat for all racing fans.

Of course, we’ll be hoping our boy wins and after that performance we definitely have a major shout. All roads lead to Cheltenham!