The RSA Chase 2014 – Looking for the sleeper in the market

Such has been the Irish dominance of the RSA Chase over the last five years that is difficult to reconcile just what a barren landscape the race has been for Irish trained horses at the Cheltenham Festival over the last 30 years. Only the fabulously talented Bobs Worth in 2012 has prevented the Irish flag from being raised in five successive years following wins for Cooldine, Weapon’s Amnesty, Boston’s Angel and Lord Windermere last year. This season, the Irish novices are unlikely to have it their own way with every prospect of the pendulum swinging back across the Irish Sea. Based on early season performances, Smad Place, Le Bec, Wonderful Charm, Shutthefrontdoor and African Gold but to name a few are lively contenders for the race. The focus on the Irish novices has quite rightly been on Morning Assembly and Don Cossack, who fought out a very high standard duel last Sunday at Punchestown. Bright New Dawn has yet to race this season but is another to consider. So although still early in the season, at a point where much attrition can yet occur, the RSA Chase appears to have some depth to it. This article is less concerned about debating the merits of the various contenders mentioned above – that can wait for another day – but more on focusing on one horse from Ireland who has slipped below the radar thus far this season; a possible sleeper in the market. That horse is Ballycasey. In the run up to the Cheltenham Festival last March, he became something of whispering horse due to the steady and persistent weight of ante-post money steadily placed on him for the Albert Bartlett novice hurdle. Perhaps because he ultimately did not run at the Festival, he has become either a forgotten horse or one that has been temporarily overlooked. That focus may change this weekend, with Ballycasey entered up for a chasing debut at both Gowran Park on Saturday and at Navan on Sunday. Team Mullins does not tend to talk their horses up for the sake of it. Witness how Champagne Fever and Briar Hill came to Cheltenham in March relatively unfancied but who came away with Festival glory. So when the shrewd folk talked about Ballycasey last season, the smart punters took note. And they don’t come much shrewder than Harold Kirk, assistant trainer to Willie Mullins. Trek to any course around Ireland and it is likely you will find Mullins in the trainers and owners stand, flanked by Kirk, the former training his eyes through binoculars with the latter watching the race on the big screen. That the duo is inseparable on track owes much to the success of the role that Kirk has played in identifying and attracting new, young talent to the Co Carlow yard, helping to keep the conveyor belt of tomorrow’s stars whirring via the public auction and in the private undisclosed sales across Ireland, the UK and France. Asked in early March who his tip from the yard was, his answer was Ballycasey in Albert Bartlett novice hurdle. “I think he’s a very good horse,” said the mildly spoken Kirk. It was a view held across the yard. In an interview with an Irish newspaper last March, Patrick Mullins likened sitting on Ballycasey to driving a Maserati. Such is the slog fest that is the RSA Chase, that you are more likely to need a Land Rover than a Maserati, but the point is well made. Ballycasey has an engine which purrs. And the size of the engine should ensure he gets the trip. On pedigree, Ballycasey has substantial reserves of stamina. By Presenting, Ballycasey has a sire who fathered two Gold Cup winners in War of Attrition (2006) and Denman (2008), in addition to a winner of the RSA Chase itself, Weapon’s Amnesty (2010). On the dam’s side, there is Montelimar who had a strong influence in a number of Grand National winners including Monty’s Pass (2003) and Hedgehunter (2005). Described by his trainer in the Racing Post’s stable tour as having oodles of stamina and having been entered for the 3m Albert Bartlett novice hurdle last March, there is every chance that the RSA Chase is the race he is being trained specifically for this season. This is an important consideration given that the trainer often gives his novices multiple entries at the Festival, thereby heightening the ante-post risk of backing a horse for the wrong race. Having a single season end’s goal is another key consideration. Look at how Mullins trained Sir Des Champs last season, whose season began less than fully wound up for a bow against Flemenstar in Punchestown in December 2012 where he could not match the latter’s match fitness. His next race was the Lexus Chase in December, where after getting a second wind he was a fast finishing fourth behind Tidal Bay. Mullins is on record as saying his 3m chasers typically improve by 10lb from the Lexus to the Hennessy and it was duly so when Sir Des Champ claimed his first victory of the season in February, leaving him cherry ripe for the Gold Cup in March. With the RSA as his ultimate goal, Ballycasey’s entire season will be built around arriving at peak condition in March. The trainer’s track record in the race is unrivalled among his current peers and you have to go back to Fred Winter with Brown Chamberlain in 1982 to find the last trainer to train three winners of the race. Mullins’ trio of winners Floriday Pearl (1998), Rule Surpreme (2004) and Cooldine (2009) were different types of horses in the own right so he knows what it takes from a horse to win this particularly demanding race. Having been down at Punchestown myself last Sunday, the word filtered through as darkness began to descend was that Ballycasey had jumped like a stag in a schooling session around the track after racing. This speculation was given credence the day after when trainer and pundit Ted Walsh referred to Ballycasey along those lines in the Racing Post. Finally, as a seven year old next March, Ballycasey will fit the modern trends for the race. All seven of the last winners were aged seven, and 8 out 10 of the last winners were of this age. With an official handicap rating of 143, he is also in the range of novice hurdlers who typically improve over fences and win the race. The above is the case for the defence. The prosecution’s case is likely to focus around a couple of important factors. In the first instance, Ballycasey remains both inexperienced under Rules and largely untested in battle. By his own admission, Mullins says they were easy on the horse last year and would be asking a lot more questions this year. Prior to Cheltenham last March, Ballycasey’s on course experience consisted of a Bumper at Leopardstown, a maiden hurdle at Clonmel and an ordinary looking novice hurdle at Thurles. Not exactly the stuff of a Maserati. On form, Ballycasey has 7 lengths to find on Morning Assembly, who beat him in a Grade 1 hurdle at the Punchestown Festival. But given the form of the latter, this was no disgrace for a horse whom a month prior to that was withdrawn from the Albert Bartlett novice hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival because his bloods were off. With only a handful of races to judge him by, Ballycasey’s mettle has yet to be fully tested and proved. The final stages of the RSA Chase are the equine equivalent of hand to hand combat. Victory invariably goes to the animal with that basest of survival instincts. Until we see Ballycasey go eye to eye in a top class race, this remains an unproven dimension to his profile. However, the horse is bred for the task in hand, has been bought for races like this in mind, is likely to run, is trained by a multiple winner of the race, and is likely to have one of the best jockeys of all time on board in Ruby Walsh. Armed with the facts presented above, I am more than happy to trust the opinions of three much better judges than myself – Willie Mullins, son Patrick and Howard Kirk. Having nibbled away at Ballycasey on Betfair at prices in the 27 – 32 range, it appears I am not alone as the price begins to contract. At the very least, I hope these prices will translate into a profitable trade at some point later in the season or who knows perhaps even a lucrative ante-post wager worth holding onto come next March.