By Stephen Dwyer
They say it’s a hard race, and they are right. It’s a big ask for a novice to jump nineteen fences over three miles and 110 yards, harder still when it’s at Cheltenham and to be expected to win there. The RSA is run over the Old course at Prestbury Park, like the New course, it is testing and undulating. Stiff fences and sheer left-hand turns sap the life out of all but the toughest horses and the 350-yard uphill finish has put a firm stop to many plans of victory.
That said, you don’t need to be a world beater to win an RSA. Guts will do, plenty of them though, and the ability to jump downhill and travel well within yourself. Seven seems to be the magic number too, as eleven of the last thirteen winners of the RSA were seven year olds, the younger horses often bypass the race for an easier challenge. Case in point, Timmy Murphy noted that horses are going three strides quicker in the RSA than any other novice race and for that reason preferred to see the progressive Our Father take his chances in the National Hunt Chase over four miles.
And onto the theory that the RSA is a hard race, out of the last ten winners of the RSA four horses did not complete their next race. Weapon’s Amnesty pulled up, One Knight fell and both Rule Supreme and Bostons Angel were unseated. The argument may be made that some of these results were simply jumping errors in a jumping theatre or it could equally be made that the RSA took its toll. But a forty per cent failure to finish ratio cannot be lightly dismissed. By comparison, out of the last ten running’s of the Arkle Chase, comparable in that it is for for novices, the only horse not to finish his race next time out was Azertyuiop when unseating at the first in the Haldon Gold Cup. Starting with Sprinter Sacre the next-race record for Arkle winners was 113215271U compared to 1UP43111UF for the RSA, a comparable win percentage but much higher for non-finishers.
And then to the Irish hopes, it would seem Boston Bob leads the way. He had an unhappy time of it last year at the Festival when unable to make up lost ground to Brindisi Breeze in the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle over 3m. He was strongly fancied for that race and backed into 6/5 favourite but left his followers disappointed. We were left with the feeling that he never really got into the race as Brindisi Breeze found plenty up the hill and ran away a deserved winner. But Boston Bob was always made to be a chaser. His debut over 2m4f at Navan did not elicit a lot of praise, he was niggled two fences from home but evidently found enough to win by half a length. Not the performance you would expect for a horse which was 1/5 on the day. Going on bare form, the second that day, You Must Know Me was beaten 22 lengths next time out when 9/10 favourite so it seems that Boston Bob should be bigger than his current odds of 6/1 for the RSA. He will need a run before the Festival and this is likely to come in the Dr PJ Moriarty Novice Chase over 2m 5f at Leopardstown this Saturday. This race is always an interesting trial for the RSA and Willie Mullins has won both this and the RSA twice before, with Florida Pearl (1998) and Cooldine (2009). It was also achieved by Bostons Angel (2011 so it will be an interesting challenge for Boston Bob.
Two other Willie Mullin’s runners, Aupcharlie and Back In Focus are close in the betting, at about 12/1 and 16/1 respective. All of Aupcharlie’s three wins have come on ground with some cut in it but he was third in the Cheltenham Champion Bumper in 2011 so he does hold respectable course form. He has been second twice over three miles, beaten only a head and half a length on these starts. Aupcharlie travels well within himself during races but his jumping needs to improve slightly if he is to play a part in the RSA. Back In Focus, an ex-Howard Johnson gelding fits the profile a shade more positively. He has progressed nicely over fences and is three from three, winning a beginners chase, Grade 2 and Grade 1 within 11 weeks. He rallied well under pressure to beat Aupcharlie in the Topaz Novice Chase at Leopardstown last time out and he too holds an entry in the Dr PJ Moriarty Novice Chase. He has been compared in his ways to Tidal Bay in his early days but he seems more straightforward. A negative is his form on good ground, he was beaten almost a distance on his only run on good ground at Aintree but he could well be a grinder and that sort does well in the RSA.
The Gigginstown army are represented by Tofino Bay trained by Dessie Hughes. A general 16/1 chance, he is a ten year old and this in itself is a huge negative. No ten year old has won the RSA, (Birthlaw won it aged 11 in 1946 and Minnehoma in 1992 was the oldest at 9 to win the race.) He has won the Troytown and Woodlands Park Grade 2 Chase but his age is enough of a detractor.
The useful Lord Windermere trained by Jim Culloty may have more of a chance than Tofino Bay. At 7 he fits the age profile and has been running well over fences. He finished ahead of the well-touted Marito over 2m 5f in a Grade 2 at Leopardstown so he should get the trip at Cheltenham. He ran well enough on goodish ground in the Deloitte Novice Hurdle, finishing ahead of Captain Conan and Cash And Go so if he steps up in trip it will be interesting.
In a race where favourites have a poor enough record, even for the festival, Dynaste is short but the Irish have a decent recent record and it may prove so in a couple of weeks time.