Before I begin the mammoth task of reviewing the action since Boxing Day, I hope you all had a wonderful Christmas and New Year with plenty of winners and enjoyment of some brilliant racing over the Festive period. The review will be done in chronological order from Kempton’s Boxing Day meeting to today’s action from Plumpton and Naas.
Kempton kicked off proceedings with Altior continuing his unbeaten record over timber in the opening novice hurdle for trainer Nicky Henderson and jockey Nico de Boinville, making it four from four despite hitting a flat spot turning for home. Once ridden for his full effort, he soon established an unassailable advantage and found plenty for pressure to scamper clear of some fair rivals in behind to win as he pleased by 13 lengths.
The more I see of Altior, the more I like him. Whilst he won on hurdling debut at Chepstow, he raced far too keenly and it was a concern to see how he would progress going forward in better company. Although he still raced slightly with the choke out at Kempton, he switched off better due to the gallop set by Marracudja and produced a career best over hurdles. The fact he beat Simon Squirrel by 21 lengths here compared to just 5 and a half last time at Cheltenham’s Paddy Power meeting suggests we are dealing with England’s leading hope so far for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and is worthy of a position near the head of the market with his continual progression. Better ground will also be of huge benefit for the son of High Chaparral.
Open Eagle filled the runner up spot and produced his best round of jumping to date. He loomed up menacingly approaching the second last but was comprehensively put in his place by Altior. A step up in trip will probably be on the agenda sooner rather than later and it wouldn’t surprise to see him in a handicap hurdle later in the season. Marracudja set a fair gallop but like many of Paul Nicholls runners looked to find little off the bridle. The yard form will crop up a few times throughout the piece but he does look to have ran his race whilst Simon Squirrel wants better ground to be seen at his best and remains of interest, especially when tackling the larger obstacles next season.
The two hurdling debutants Meet The Legend and Gwafa both emerge with some credit. The former was running for the Skeltons for the first time in the Highclere colours and raced far too freely even with the hood on. He will have learnt plenty for the experience whilst the latter had some quality handicap form on the Flat and jumped well enough on the whole. He will have no issue winning an ordinary novice hurdle and should prove competitive in decent handicap hurdles.
Henderson didn’t need to wait long for another winner thanks to Full Shift taking the novices handicap chase for Barry Geraghty and his retainer JP McManus in an eventful contest where several had their jumping severely tested. It was a marked improvement on his chasing debut at Newbury when well beaten behind Arzal but was all out here to hold on from Bekkensfirth who had survived a dreadful mistake at the third last. His jumping was better than most but he still made niggly mistakes and would need to improve on this in future.
The runner up Bekkensfirth jumped the best until his error three out and did well to fight back against Full Shift. On this showing, he wouldn’t be inconvenienced by a step up in distance and should continue to win more novice handicap chases. Sirabad was keen again in the hood but travelled strongly into the race before looking to not see out two and a half miles. The instant suggestion would be to step back down to the minimum distance but he still looks a weak finisher and a horse that would appreciate more time to strengthen and develop. Rock N Rhythm seemed to enjoy these new tactics but the handicapper needs to relent slightly.
Of those that failed to complete, Antony’s jumping was poor compared to Sandown and the writing was on the wall before leaving the back straight whilst Buckhorn Timothy had made jumping errors and was still travelling ok when falling six out. West Wizard crumpled on landing at the last after stopping quickly for new connections but was thankfully fine whilst Unique De Cotte spectacularly unseated Tom Scudamore around halfway.
The Kauto Star Novices’ Chase saw Tea For Two provide Lizzie Kelly with a historic success when she became the first woman to ride a Grade One winner over jumps, a feat she almost achieved on Aubusson at Auteuil in November when denied by the evergreen Thousand Stars and Ruby Walsh in the Grand Prix d’Automne.
What was quite astounding about his performance was how much he found in the closing stages considering how keen he raced early over a trip which held concerns pre-race. His jumping had been electric at Exeter on chase debut and it was a more assured round rather than him being flashy, with Lizzie Kelly keen to ensure that he got into an early rhythm over the first couple of fences. Although he saw it out well to the line, it wouldn’t be a surprise if he came back in distance for either the Scilly Isles at Sandown, where the jumping test would suit ideally, or the Pendil back at Kempton. For the future, going back left handed shouldn’t pose any issues even though his record going the other way has a stronger look.
Southfield Royale ran a much better race than expected on a track that wouldn’t necessarily play to his strengths and delivered his best round of jumping which has clearly improved on each start this season. Aintree has been muted as the target rather than Cheltenham where a sounder surface will bring about more improvement.
Native River emerged with plenty of credit back in third. The track clearly didn’t suit yet he still battled on tenaciously after making several errors on the way round. A stiffer test of stamina and a stronger gallop will see him in a more positive light. The RSA has been mentioned as the target over the National Hunt Chase so the 33’s on show looks generous each way value considering he will be better suited to the conditions of an RSA rather than last week.
I don’t really want to dwell much on the Christmas Hurdle as Faugheen proved he was back to form with an easy success over The New One in the manner in which you would have expected. On that evidence and what we saw later in the week from Nichols Canyon (see below), he remains the clear one to beat come the Champion Hurdle. The New One’s old tendency of jumping right emerged in the closing stages and a step up in trip is probably the ideal route to take whilst Hargam ran well and reversed form from the International with Old Guard who ran slightly flat. A break should do him good before a crack at the Aintree Hurdle over 2m4f in the spring. I’m already looking forward to him going novice chasing next season as he has the capability to be a high class chaser and a prime example to showcase the ability of Notnowcato as a National Hunt sire. Sign Of A Victory wants faster ground and a Flat campaign next summer could just be the right way to go with his mark of 87.
The King George on paper looked to have everything. The highest rated chaser in Don Cossack, the young pretender in Vautour, the resurgent Cue Card, the winner of the last two years Silviniaco Conti and the gallant Hennessy winner Smad Place.
What the race delivered was a Christmas cracker that will live long in the memory with Cue Card stealing the prize from Vautour in the dying strides and keeping alive the Jockey Club £1 million pound bonus after his Betfair Chase saunter. This time Cue Card had to dig deep to reel in Vautour, who had looked the likely winner turning for home. His King George record before this success had been questionable and whilst he didn’t look completely in love again with Kempton, his class managed to get him through.
Treatment of a trapped epiglottis in the summer has transformed Cue Card’s form, bringing him right back to his very best. The same horse that burst onto the National Hunt scene in the Champion Bumper as a four year old in 2010. The horse that dominated the Ryanair Chase in 2013. The only horse capable of getting close to Sprinter Sacre in his prime. One of the highlights of this National Hunt season is the return of the old guard. It would have been a braver man than myself to predict before the Charlie Hall that Cue Card would be in line for the £1 million bonus and Sprinter Sacre would be unbeaten this season
Plenty of credit rightly goes to the horse but we shouldn’t forget the human side. Trainer Colin Tizzard has done a marvellous job to get the son of King’s Theatre back, the new stable built on the yard has aided with breathing and his usually pronounced head carriage not so prominent in his races. Jockey Paddy Brennan has built up an excellent rapport, a man whose confidence and mojo has returned with a vengeance. He was adamant at Haydock that he was back on a Gold Cup horse for the first time since Imperial Commander and his comments to Matt Chapman on ATR’s On The Line regarding the King George made for interesting listening.
“When I rode him in the Charlie Hall, I didn’t really have an opinion on any race at Cheltenham. When I rode him in Haydock, I pulled up and I thought ‘Oh my God I’ve just ridden a Gold Cup horse again’ and that’s genuine. When I went to Kempton, he missed the first and second and I thought we we going no where. All he did was stay. Personally I don’t think he was in love in Kempton and class got him through. I think he’ll stay and I wouldn’t swap him for anything.”
Sometimes with connections of horses you take their comments with a pinch of salt. But I seem to remember Brennan when he rode Imperial Commander and his belief in the horse’s ability to stay and win a Gold Cup. He was proven right on that occasion and whilst there is still a question mark over Cue Card’s stamina for 3m2f round Cheltenham, he heads there with a realistic chance of becoming the second horse to win the bonus after Kauto Star in 2007 (albeit under Betfair’s sponsorship). I do think Djakadam is currently the one to beat but if Cue Card happens to be thereabouts going to the final fence, nobody will be shouting him home more than me.
Lastly, racing can be a difficult game at times and loyalty is something rarely seen all through the sport. So for owners Bob & Jean Bishop to maintain the faith in Tizzard and to be rewarded with two of staying chases biggest prizes is richly deserved. We sadly lost Bob Bishop last Wednesday, the news breaking on New Year’s Day. He got his last hurrah from Cue Card in the King George and the scenes if the horse could do the unthinkable in March for everyone involved, there won’t be a dry eye in the winners enclosure.
Vautour ran a fine race in defeat. He was a lot sharper than his return to action and despite jumping slightly to the left, it wasn’t as deliberate or noticeable compared to Ascot apart from the final fence when showing signs of tiredness. Having tracked Silviniaco Conti for the first circuit, he led going away from the stands and always looked comfortable going his pace compared to his rivals in behind until after the final fence when run down by Cue Card.
Did Vautour see out the 3m trip? The answer; yes. Connections wish to keep all options open until closer to Cheltenham and whilst there’s only one Cheltenham Gold Cup, it may be wise to wait a year. He’s only a 7 year old who has plenty of time on side and with his trainer’s approach to the Festival of ‘Win as many races as possible’, it wouldn’t be the biggest of shocks were he rerouted to the Ryanair or the Champion Chase depending on how Un De Sceaux gets on in his next start. Although Mullins would dearly love to win the Gold Cup, he already has two other leading contenders in Djakadam and Don Poli who have proven themselves as strong stayers. There’s likely improvement to come from Vautour back at Cheltenham on spring ground but it won’t be as much as some expect.
Both Cue Card and Vautour could have ended up being the bridesmaids of the piece had Don Cossack not fallen at the second last. Just like his previous start at Down Royal, he didn’t travel particularly well and a mistake at the last with a circuit to go knocked him back. From that point onwards Bryan Cooper was nudging away, trying to keep tabs with the leaders. It’s testament to the horse’s ability that he still had a winning chance going to the second last before capsizing but the issue with Don Cossack going forward is this recent trait of not travelling well through his races, something that is paramount in a Gold Cup, and he will certainly face an uphill struggle if having to be niggled along with a circuit to go.
Al Ferof proved again that he isn’t good enough at the top level over 3m but ran respectably to be third. Owner John Hales has given up on the Gold Cup and has said he will go straight to the Ryanair as a fresh horse. We could also see Smad Place heading there after being given a bizarre ride. Beforehand it was expected that he would try to go from the front and use his asset of jumping like he did in the Hennessy. Instead, he jumped off tracking the leaders and was never able to land a blow, a mistake at the ditch going away from the stands leaving him on the back-foot. In the end, he proved not to be good enough but the new tactics seen on his previous two outings had looked to revitalised him so the change seemed a poor decision.
As for Silviniaco Conti, the sarcoid issues and other factors seem to be stacking up against him. He jumped well in front but once headed by Vautour, he seemed to lose interest and dropped away tamely before being pulled up three out. The obvious suggestion is to give him a break before bringing him back in the spring for the Bowl at Aintree. The Grand National would be the last race on my mind.
Leopardstown’s Christmas Festival hosted two Graded contests on the opening day with the Knight Frank Juvenile Hurdle taking centre stage first on the card. Apple’s Jade picked up the first of many Graded successes for Willie Mullins over the Festive period under a power-packed ride from Jonathan Burke to deny Jer’s Girl who had attempted to make all the running. The winner had only one start in France where she had been impressive enough at Vichy and she showed a willing attitude on ground that looked testing enough for her. It’s likely she will return for the Grade One over course and distance in February but it wouldn’t surprise me if the form of this was reversed by Jer’s Girl.
The daughter of Jeremy jumped well in the lead for Robbie Power and had he been more forceful going to the final flight, she may well have held on but lost valuable momentum. She also showed excellent tenacity when the winner challenged and is a definite runner back here in February. The Triumph Hurdle may not be suitable as her trainer Gavin Cromwell seems convinced she wants cut in the ground to be at her most effective.
Footpad stopped quickly after travelling strongly and may just appreciate a sounder surface whilst Campeador did well to finish where he did after pulling hard throughout. The application of a hood should help his chances in future and given connections, he could easily be a candidate for the Fred Winter. Rashaan was a disappointment considering how impressive he had been previously on similar ground at Fairyhouse. Let’s hope he can return to form next time for his small connections who have turned down large money offers to live the dream.
The Grade One Racing Post Novices’ Chase which beforehand looked a race full of strength and depth was turned into a demolition job by the most exciting novice chaser this season in Douvan who barely broke sweat under substitute rider Patrick Mullins. The only slight causes for concern came at the final two fences where he wasn’t completely fluent but the way he dismissed Sizing John, the horse who had finished 7 lengths behind him in the Supreme was quite extraordinary. This time he beat him 18 lengths without having to come off the bridle. There’s little more to say than barring injury, here’s the banker of the 2016 Cheltenham Festival.
Sizing John was never travelling from an early stage so praise must be given as he tried to give Douvan a race turning for home but was simply put in his place by a potential star of the future. The son of Midnight Legend still remains exciting. He still has the potential to be a Cheltenham Festival winner but as long as connections avoid the Arkle and head for the JLT where the step up in trip on better ground will bring about plenty of improvement. His main market rival Shaneshill doesn’t completely convince me as having the makings of a top chaser and he’s available at 12/1. He’s well worth the risk at that price. Velvet Maker was completely outclassed whilst Ttebbob under different tactics was a major disappointment and stopped very quickly.
With the Welsh National at Chepstow being postponed until 9th January due to waterlogging, the main UK focus was on Kempton’s second day of their Winter Festival which started with a juvenile hurdle where Paul Nicholls saddled the Prix Finot winner Favorito Buck’s whose sire Buck’s Boum is a full brother to four time World Hurdle winner Big Buck’s. The writing was on the wall when ridden along after the third last and he was pulled up quickly on the approach to two out.
Christmas 2015 was a strange one for Team Ditcheat with some of their horses running well and others running well below what was expected of them. The only recent winners for the yard came on New Year’s Day when landing an across the card double but it’s better to have the issues with yard form at this stage of the season rather than March and April where the nine times champion trainer could be able to capitalise with a fresher team to go to war.
It was left to Gibralfaro to snatch the prize from Duke Of Medina who had made an enterprising move after the third last to try and run the finish out of his rivals which almost worked. The winner, another shrewdly purchased Alan King juvenile, was an improving stayer on the Flat in France and needed every yard of a sharp 2m to get the leader. It was a more than likeable performance for a hurdling debut and his trainer is keen to get another two runs into him before sending him to Cheltenham where, on this evidence, he would appreciate a truly run Triumph Hurdle on Cheltenham’s New Course which favours stayers rather than speedier types.
The Wayward Lad Novices’ Chase brought together two of England’s top 2m novice chasers in Vaniteux and Ar Mad who served up the first part of a Nicky Henderson/Gary Moore clash with the latter confirming his Henry VIII win to be no fluke in the slightest, as he fought back tenaciously after being headed by the former two out, showing another side to a horse that could have been considered one dimensional after his two Sandown wins. Again, Ar Mad’s jumping was a joy to watch. His quick and accurate style forced many of his rivals into jumping errors, most notably Arzal and The Saint James but when headed at the second last, it looked inevitable Vantieux would clear away. However, a flying leap at the last compared to Vaniteux gave him half a chance and he fought back like a tiger under an excellent ride by Josh Moore to grab back the advantage, winning by a neck.
After Sandown, Gary Moore wasn’t entirely sold on going back left handed with Ar Mad but he is worth a second chance, especially under these new tactics which have worked a treat. If he is to have a preparation left handed, perhaps the Lightning Novices’ Chase at Doncaster or the Kingmaker at Warwick could be two ideal places to look at. The latter choice would be a sight to behold if handling going the other way round with those five fences in quick succession down the side of the course. Let’s not forget either that Ar Mad was giving the runner up weight with his Grade One penalty and both his Graded wins are backed up by the clock, especially compared to the Graded chasers that ran later on both cards.
It would be harsh to say Vaniteux was a disappointment as he has bumped into a very good horse on the day but he had every chance to seal the race up the home straight yet failed to. An uncharacteristic blunder at the first fence didn’t faze him and he again jumped soundly but he has had a questionable attitude before when coming under pressure. Arzal made a couple of mistakes on the way round but proved himself capable of winning a decent novice chase before the season finishes. Ittirad acquitted himself well with the step up in grade after two wins in smaller novice chases at Worcester and Newton Abbot. Decent ground looks the key to him and could be the type for the Red Rum at Aintree whilst The Saint James made a shocking mistake at the eighth and failed to recover.
Thirty five minutes later, Henderson and Moore did battle again in the Desert Orchid Chase. This time with their established former champions. We finally got to witness a real horse race between Sprinter Sacre and Sire De Grugy. The first time was the beginning of Sprinter Sacre’s issues, a fibrillating heart in this contest two years ago causing him to pull up before a rematch in this year’s Champion Chase where neither were at their best.
Let’s be honest here. If you had told me after the Haldon Gold Cup that Sire De Grugy would come out next time and win the Tingle Creek, I would have thought you were mad. If you had also told me Sprinter Sacre would return and win the Shloer Chase after his efforts last season, the phone number for the nearest Priory would have swiftly been found and called.
Fast forward two months. Sire De Grugy won the Tingle Creek in a controversial finish and Sprinter Sacre showed some of the old spark remained when taking the Shloer by 14 lengths. One of the comebacks of recent seasons and greatly appreciated by National Hunt fans who had thought the former shining light of the 2m division had burned out.
Just like the Wayward Lad, we were treated to a fantastic duel but it was Henderson who brought the score level. In victory, we saw a different Sprinter Sacre. One I never thought existed before last Sunday. The ability to knuckle down in a proper battle to fend off Sire De Grugy on the run to the line, his only previous experience in a battle coming at the hands of Dodging Bullets in the Clarence House at Ascot where he found zilch for Barry Geraghty’s small urgings.
Although he travelled well enough off the pace set by Somersby, Kempton looks sharp enough these days as he wasn’t able to make up ground in the manner he did in the Shloer. Ideally Nico de Boinville would have been in front much earlier than the final fence and the return to Cheltenham in March should play more to his strengths. The Champion Chase is likely where we will see him next and the apple of Henderson’s eye will go there with as good a chance as any of the main market principals lining up.
Sire De Grugy backed up his Tingle Creek effort and served it to Sprinter Sacre up the home straight until a final fence blunder handed the momentum to his main rival. There was no disgrace in the performance and arguably, he will be more at home on softer ground. The Clarence House at Ascot will be his next port of call and on testing ground, he would be hard to beat. Quicker ground at Cheltenham would be a concern if wanting to back him ante-post for the Queen Mother.
Vibrato Valtat ran well for a horse crying out for a step up in trip and whilst he is just shy of top class, the Ascot Chase in February will likely be there for the taking. Somersby has been a terrific servant to connections down the years and this looks likely to be his final season before a deserved retirement whilst Sir Valentino completed in his own time.
To quickly round up the rest of Kempton, honourable mentions go to The Last Samuri and Cannon Fodder. The former staked his claims for a potential bid at the Grand National with a fine performance of jumping and staying in the 3m handicap chase. He might just lack the experience for Aintree this season whilst the latter was dwarfed by the runner up Desert Queen but showed huge determination to take the mares handicap hurdle; her first win in over two years. And thoroughly deserved it was.
The closing handicap hurdle won by Zulu Oscar featured a Paul Nicholls horse returning after an absence in Monsieur Gibraltar who had pulled up at Chepstow after choking mid-race. His first appearance since having a wind operation was encouraging for the future having travelled nicely before being looked after in the closing stages by Sam Twiston-Davies. There is a decent handicap hurdle prize to be won this season and is one to keep a very close eye on wherever he goes next.
Ivanovich Gorbatov started off Leopardstown’s second day by staking his Triumph Hurdle claims with an impressive hurdling debut for new owner JP McManus and Aidan O’Brien. Lightly raced on the Flat for O’Brien, the son of Montjeu was slick over his obstacles and showed a taking turn of foot to see off the filly Let’s Dance who already had winning hurdling experience in France. At this current moment in time, he shouldn’t be that short for the Triumph and I’d be more than happy to wait until nearer the day before committing myself to backing him.
The Paddy Power ‘So Quick, So Easy iPhone App’ Chase saw the return of Arkle winner Un De Sceaux who had missed last month’s Tingle Creek at Sandown. All the natural exuberance from last season was in full force as he blazed a trail until the second last fence where him and Ruby Walsh had a disagreement, ending with him on the floor. Post-race Walsh made the comparison towards Moscow Flyer, an outstanding two miler of an elite generation who, until his defeat to Rathgar Beau at Punchestown in 2005, had form figures over fences of either ‘1’ or ‘U/F’. The fall isn’t much of a concern yet. Apart from a fall on chase debut and last week, his jumping has been sound on the whole but his price is still short enough for a horse yet to prove himself at the highest level outside of novice company. Whilst it was great to see Flemenstar win, the race is worth very little going forward apart from Un De Sceaux.
In stark contrast, the Future Champions Novices’ Hurdle had plenty of depth with Long Dog earning a second Grade One success after making most of the running at a steady pace. It wasn’t a flashy performance and he arguably wasn’t one hundred percent on the day but his attitude cannot be questioned as he kept on finding after looking vulnerable turning for home. When he won in the summer at Galway, the suggestion of him being a horse for the Cheltenham Festival baffled me. All he has done since is improve consistently and now deserves to be mentioned as a genuine Festival contender, although on decent ground a step back up in distance would suit best, the Neptune looking the ideal race.
In behind Long Dog, it was a rough race on the bend where Tombstone was impeded by Woodland Opera falling back through the pack and did well to come from an uncompromising position. A slight mistake at the last didn’t aid his cause before he stayed on well to grab second. The Deloitte in February would be the sensible place to head next to determine whether you go down the Supreme route or up in distance for the Neptune. Petit Mouchoir is definitely a horse that will be suited by further but still needs time to learn to settle properly in his races. It was only his fourth start and with plenty more improvement to come, he remains one of the more exciting novice hurdlers but it could be that Cheltenham comes a year too early.
Bleu Et Rouge was another to make up late significant ground and has a decent prize in him later this season, although he may just need testing ground to show his best. Falcon Crest travelled well before finding little for pressure in the closing stages. Having had three starts over hurdles, it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if he got an entry for the Boylesports Hurdle at the end of January off a mark of 136 where he would be a well handicapped improving type.
Bachasson looked to dislike the ground which is surprising considering his last win in a NHF contest where he hit the ground fairly hard. Better ground in the spring will be a help and he may be one for Fairyhouse whilst you can forgive Woodland Opera’s run as he was beaten in a matter of strides, similar to Ttebobb from the same yard.
Day three of Leopardstown began with an interesting 2m4f maiden hurdle which went the way of hurdling debutante Chain Gang who stayed on all the way to the line to catch Minella Aris. The son of Midnight Legend needed every yard of the trip to win and will be suited by further whilst the runner up kept jumping to his left throughout. The horse of interest in the future is Road To Respect who stopped quickly after getting an easy lead but he looks a weak individual who needs time to develop and better ground to be seen at his best.
The Squared Financial Christmas Hurdle had the potential for an Irish contender to stamp their claim as a leading World Hurdle contender. Instead, we had a surprise result with the improving Prince Of Scars coming from handicap company to win comfortably from Alpha Des Obeaux and Albert Bartlett winner Martello Tower. The winner has put his form from last season well behind him since joining Gordon Elliott’s yard and looks a real chaser for next season. Prices of 16/1 for the World Hurdle aren’t particularly appealing as he looks to need softer ground.
Alpha Des Obeaux was left in front too early after Snow Falcon’s fall at the fourth so his performance can be marked up as he was forced to make his own running which left him vulnerable to the winner. If Ireland has any horse with a realistic World Hurdle chance then it’s him as he will improve for better ground in the spring and the 20/1 is fair each way value.
Martello Tower was entitled to need the outing, trainer Mags Mullins feeling he would come on for the run but he just doesn’t appeal for March unless the ground came up testing. He looked in the Albert Bartlett to just be a resolute galloper with a lack of pace and it showed here when having to be niggled after three out just to maintain his position. The impression left from his last two outings is that on decent ground he would struggle.
The decision to run Arctic Fire here seemed a bizarre one. In saying that, he wouldn’t have won at two or two and a half miles as he beaten a long way from home and looked laboured without possessing his usual finishing kick. The drop back to 2m will benefit him and we will hopefully see him in the Irish Champion Hurdle before another bid at the Champion Hurdle in March.
The Lexus Chase lost most of its main stars in the build up. Coneygree who had this and the King George as options is out for the season, Djakadam missed this with the Argento Chase in January the preference and Road To Riches due to an unsatisfactory scope. The turnout was pretty disappointing in the end which made the race look a penalty kick for Don Poli. Although he won, it was an underwhelming success even by his standards.
Having seen him in the flesh at Aintree, he looked more fine-tuned compared to several of Mullins other stable stars and it’s evident to see why with his style of running. Even off a steady pace set by On His Own and Foxrock, he was having to be ridden along to stay in touch approaching three out. Once he got to the lead, he looked all out to hold off First Lieutenant. His die-hard fans will all shout from the rooftops about how lazy he is and a race like the Cheltenham Gold Cup will bring him alive but he has to improve plenty to be troubling the likes of Djakadam, Cue Card and Road To Riches. He could easily do that but the fact Mullins is already talking about the Grand National as a potential target one day signifies he may just lack the pace needed for a Gold Cup.
There’s an argument as well that First Lieutenant could have won if given a more forceful ride by Davy Russell. It was definitely forceful enough after the final fence with the use of the whip down his neck looking unpleasant. Had Russell given him a couple of smacks behind the saddle, we could have seen a different result but it wouldn’t have suited Gigginstowns’ best interests. Another of the old guard that has returned to some decent form, it’s good to see First Lieutenant show resemblances of his old form but he will be difficult to place after looking on a fair handicap mark in the Hennessy.
Foxrock ran a decent race at a track he has shown his best form at and his big day will likely come in the Irish Hennessy unless one of the big guns turns up. On His Own showed a liking for returning to regulation fences after two no shows in cross country contests but he’s never been entirely reliable whilst Sir Des Champs proved the form of his comeback run to be worth very little, a race which was handed to him on a plate thanks to a strange ride on Rubi Light at Thurles. Carlingford Lough showed no promise compared to this race last season and is probably waiting for decent ground in the spring.
Nicky Henderson has a good recent record in Newbury’s opening juvenile hurdle on Challow day for owners Simon Munir & Issac Souede with the likes of Grandouet and Top Notch succeeding before going onto bigger and better things and they look to have another useful recruit in Fixe Le Kap. Only a juvenile, he has the build of a chaser already and raced lazily throughout but once Jeremiah McGrath got stuck into him he responded well for pressure to fend off Tommy Silver in the final hundred yards.
It seems surprising that the son of Kapgarde is the first to emerge as a genuine Triumph contender for Henderson, a division he tends to do well in and the end to end gallop will see the best of him. He already has enough experience of jumping so the ideal place to go is the Triumph Hurdle Trial at Cheltenham’s Trials Day to give him vital experience of the course and distance. With the reasons listed above, 20/1 with Skybet for the Triumph is more than a fair price.
Tommy Silver ran with plenty of promise on hurdling debut having jumped well in the main and shouldn’t find it difficult to win a juvenile hurdle in the coming weeks whilst Kasakh Noir failed to build upon a hugely impressive course and distance win at the Hennessy meeting although time may show that he bumped into two decent horses.
The Grade One Challow Hurdle had a small but select trio head to post but the race lived up to expectations with the unbeaten Barters Hill showcasing himself to be one of the leading staying novice hurdlers on either side of the Irish Sea by winning his first Grade One for trainer Ben Pauling. The son of Kalanisi still showed signs of greenness passing the stands with a circuit to go when needing a reminder to keep his concentration on the job and also at his hurdles with jockey David Bass having to make his mind up for him.
Turning for home he looked slightly vulnerable when coming off the bridle but he’s exceptionally deceptive, a trait now well known from his bumper days. Whilst he’s always saving a bit for himself, the way he dismissed Politologue and Label Des Obeaux was hugely impressive. His Listed/Graded bumper form stands up strongly as does his maiden hurdle success at Huntingdon with the second winning a decent contest at Cheltenham which contained Politologue and post-race, connections stated the likely Cheltenham target would be the Albert Bartlett on decent ground where the step up to 3m should bring about further improvement and is currently the clear one to beat. The fact he’s showing this level of form over hurdles makes me even more excited about what he could potentially achieve later this year when going novice chasing. I’d also go as far as saying he’s the most exciting winner of the Challow Hurdle since Denman romped to victory on New Year’s Day at Cheltenham in 2006.
Politologue would arguably have gone very close under a penalty at Cheltenham but for jinking and unseating Sam Twiston-Davies. He travelled strongly through the race before not finding as much for pressure as expected and similar comments apply to Label Des Obeaux who had looked decent on his two British starts. Both are nice horses but it could be that they have bumped into a very smart prospect in the winner. As an aside, Ireland’s likely leading contender for the Albert Bartlett Up For Review was impressive enough in the Doran’s Pride Novices’ Hurdle at Punchestown on New Year’s Eve but will need to improve for decent ground if he is to be a danger to Barters Hill.
Leopardstown’s fourth and final day saw No More Heroes continue his progression over fences when stepping up to 3m for the first time over the larger obstacles when taking the Grade One Neville Hotels Novices’ Chase with considerable ease. Having taken a keen interest in the son of Presenting’s career since his 39 length rout in a bumper at this meeting two years ago, it’s always pleasing to see a horse you have a high opinion of from an early stage make into a top class chaser.
His current price for the RSA Chase is skinny enough but on his chase starts to date, he has looked so assured in the jumping department and whilst some are concerned about the prospect of him handling decent ground, it shouldn’t be an issue. The only time he has encountered good ground was when he was clearly over the top at Punchestown at the end of last season. I wouldn’t be adverse to him having one more run before the Festival, just to keep him ticking over and a either the Flogas over 2m5f back at Leopardstown or the Ten Up at Navan over 3m would slot in perfectly.
The Ryanair Hurdle saw Faugheen’s Morgiana successor Nichols Canyon take on Fighting Fifth victor Identity Thief with the former making it six Grade One wins over timber. From a long way out the race turned into a match between the pair, a mistake at the second last not helping Nichols Canyon but he showed a tremendous attitude to battle back at the last and outstay Identity Thief in the conditions. Even though he handles testing ground, Nichols Canyon clearly wasn’t at his best on this occasion.
It will be interesting to see whether he has another outing before the Champion Hurdle and he still rates as the main danger to the more illustrious Faugheen on reputation but his record speaks for itself. After the Festival, the Aintree Hurdle would be tailor made for him with the majority of his stablemates likely to have other targets.
Identity Thief has improved again from his Fighting Fifth effort and has underlined his Champion Hurdle credentials after slightly losing his way last season. Better ground shouldn’t be an issue come March and he would hold definite each way claims before going on next season to potentially make into a quality chaser. Windsor Park was disappointing but it was more down to the negative tactics used rather than the horse flopping. The only real piece of evidence we have of him performing over hurdles came at the Festival when actually ridden properly and those backing him ante-post for March will only have his Neptune win to cling on to for a glimmer of hope.
New Year’s Day
The ground was desperate at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day and with plenty of good horses disappointing, the majority of the form does look questionable. What doesn’t though is Seeyouatmidnight’s determined effort in the Grade Two Dipper Novices Chase with an all the way success, seeing off Blaklion by just over 3 lengths with Le Mercurey a further 20 lengths away in third. The winner’s jumping was a joy to watch and he underlined his RSA Chase credentials. His trainer Sandy Thomson stated that he doesn’t exactly need deep ground to be at his best which gives more confidence towards a Festival bid. The likely next port of call is the Towton Novices’ Chase at Wetherby before a return to Cheltenham in March.
Blaklion appreciated the stamina test over this distance and has bumped into a fair horse but he doesn’t convince to have the scope to make a real top chaser. It seemed strange to see Le Mercurey out so quick after his Ascot win with the yard seemingly under a cloud and he weakened tamely on the long run to the final fence whilst Volnay De Thaix hated the ground and lacked fluency. Three Musketeers never really looked comfortable whilst Minella Rocco has been a huge disappointment since going chasing.
The Dornan Engineering Relkeel Hurdle looked highly competitive on paper but was turned into a procession by Camping Ground in a really likeable manner after taking up the running at the top of the hill under Leighton Aspell for Robert Walford. Sent back hurdling after a fall in the Peterborough Chase, the success may have come as a surprise to some but he had decent form as a younger horse in France and a classy performance over fences at Warwick off 145 last February.
A wind operation after a fine fourth in the Imperial Cup has clearly improved the son of Goldneyev who now heads for the World Hurdle via the Cleeve where he will have a rematch against Thistlecrack who he finished ahead of at Sandown. The form is questionable to an extent but if Lil Rockerfeller has ran his race in second then we are looking at a 160+ rated hurdler who wouldn’t need to improve much to figure in March. Lil Rockerfeller has proven himself again as a model of consistency but has ruled himself out of handicaps. He could be the type that heads for the National Spirit at Fontwell at the end of February.
There’s little point in discussing Cole Harden as the season revolves around one day but you would have at least expected him to finish closer to Camping Ground. Aurore D’Estruval travelled well through the contest before shaping as if in need of the outing. Her long term target is the Mares Hurdle whilst Top Notch disappointed for the first time in his career and can ultimately be forgiven. Whisper has also become disappointing and is difficult to assess, just like stable mate Bob’s Worth.
Sandown’s Tolworth Hurdle saw Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh over in England chasing more Grade One success which they achieved yet again with Yorkhill who handled the testing conditions in a professional manner to see off O O Seven whose trainer Nicky Henderson was seen giving Mullins his marching orders back to Ireland in the most eloquent fashion. Considering it was just Yorkhill’s second start over hurdles, his nimbleness from one side of a hurdle to the other was a huge asset and he was entitled to wander under pressure due to greenness in the closing stages after travelling so effortlessly into the race at the second last.
On this evidence, he looks more of a stayer rather than a speedier type, the obvious Festival target being the Neptune where he would improve a great deal for decent ground and could follow in the footsteps of French Holly in 1998 and Monsignor in 2000 who both did the double. O O Seven lost his unbeaten record over hurdles but wasn’t disgraced in the slightest. He is another that will be suited by a step up in distance whilst Agrapart confirmed his Aintree victory not to be a fluke with a good run back in third. Welsh Shadow was beaten a long way out having not been particularly fluent at his hurdles and can be forgiven easily.
To end the blog, a couple of stand out performances from today starting with L’Ami Serge who jumped well on his chase debut in desperate conditions at Plumpton, albeit out to the left. The first victim seemingly of the latest phenomenon that is a trapped epiglottis, he showed no ill effects here and a fine leap at the last signified there was plenty left in the tank even on bad ground. He will need more chasing practice but has plenty of options between 2m and 2m4f over the next couple of weeks.
Shaneshill continued his unbeaten record over fences when beating Sizing Codelco at Naas but he was more impressive in the sense that his ability got him out of trouble rather than his jumping being outstanding. The last two fences in particular were heart in mouth moments and of the Mullins battalion sent chasing this season, he looks the most opposable going forward to the bigger tracks like Leopardstown and Cheltenham where more stiffer fences compared to Naas and Thurles are a major cause for concern which were also highlighted above when discussing Sizing John.
Sizing Codelco put up a career best back in second and was more sure footed than the winner but he was eventually overcome by Shaneshill’s natural ability. He probably isn’t one for Cheltenham this season but could easily head to Aintree for the Maghull, a route taken by Sizing Granite last year. Kitten Rock was ultimately disappointing, his high head carriage potentially caused by a wind problem. It was also found post-race that he was lame but he now has plenty of questions to answer.
The final race to be covered from the last eight days of racing is the Grade One Lawlor’s Hotel Novices’ Hurdle where Bellshill cemented his position as clear favourite for the Neptune after taking an unspectacular victory with most of his market rivals under performing. The ground was probably as testing as he would want it and his jumping was sketchy at times but his class saw him through. There’s plenty still to work on but it’s worth remembering that he thrived on his racing towards the back end of the season so you would imagine there’s a fair amount of improvement to come.
The Deloitte at Leopardstown will likely determine where we see him at the Festival but he certainly isn’t devoid of speed and with the Wylies having Up For Review for the Albert Bartlett, it’s almost certain he will head for either the Supreme or the Neptune. The form of the race is hugely questionable with the proximity of 127 rated Last Encounter. Whilst he’s been a consistent performer, you wouldn’t be considering him for any major prizes in the spring.
Anibale Fly didn’t look completely in love with the ground today and was minded by Barry Geraghty whilst Marakoush failed to build on his quite remarkable success at Punchestown. Stone Hard was soon beaten once turning for home and it wouldn’t surprise were he to bounce back at one of the Irish spring festivals.
Sizing John – Not essentially an eyecatcher but take the 12’s for the JLT.
Falcon Crest – Boylesports Hurdle would be very interesting off 136.
Monsieur Gibraltar – Showed promise and once the yard is fully firing, he will land a big handicap.
Road To Respect – A more long term prospect rather than a ‘Back next time out’ type.
Fixe Le Kap – 20’s for the Triumph Hurdle looks generous.