As Christmas has spoilt us with a feast of top class action, I have decided to attempt the task of reviewing four days of racing which mainly focuses on the feature races seen over the festive period.
The King George was the main attraction on Boxing Day and it didn’t disappoint with Silviniaco Conti taking the prize back to Paul Nicholls’ Ditcheat stable for the eighth time after a brilliant ride from Noel Fehily beat the gallant Cue Card into second. Connections got the tactics spot on as they didn’t give Cue Card much leeway like the Betfair Chase although Nicholls said post-race that the Betfair was a preparation for this race. He has proved that he is over the fall from last season’s Gold Cup and it was muted at the start of the season that he would go back to Cheltenham for the Argento to give him more course experience before returning in March for the Gold Cup. He was made favourite for the race before Bob’s Worth returned to winning ways in the Lexus however he still merits plenty of respect heading for the blue riband of steeplechasing.
Take nothing away from Cue Card. In defeat, he ran a brilliant race going from the front under a confident ride from Joe Tizzard in which he was ridden like a true stayer however it appeared that he failed to see it out thoroughly which raises questions about the Betfair Chase although the form of that race is working out tremendously well with the winner also giving it a strong boost. His Cheltenham target will be interesting as he could take his chance in the Gold Cup if the ground came up good but he is surely one of the bankers of the week if he goes for a second Ryanair or potentially the Champion Chase without Sprinter Sacre.
The Christmas Hurdle lived up to all its expectations and more as My Tent Or Yours and The New One did battle up the Kempton Park straight but a mistake at the last from the latter gave Nicky Henderson’s star hurdler the opportunity to prove that he is a battler which proved several people wrong including myself who thought he would down tools if a race turned into a battle. Both proved that they are the best English chances of retaking the Champion Hurdle back from Ireland. The New One comes out of this race with plenty of credit as Kempton was always going to play to My Tent Or Yours advantage however I would expect the finishing positions to be swapped around come March time although The New One will need to jump every hurdle spot on as one mistake in the Champion can finish your chances.
Annacotty put in a professional round of jumping to land a deserved success in the Kauto Star Novice Chase. He made every yard of the running under a wonderful ride from Ian Popham who is finally reaping the rewards that he truly warrants. The first time blinkers worked an absolute treat and he was given an uncontested lead which helped enormously. Trainer Martin Keighley mentioned the RSA Chase as a target however he would be very vulnerable trying to make all the running uncontested around Cheltenham. Just A Par is worth forgiving on that run. Kempton was definitely a track that didn’t play to his strengths and is one that would be more suited to a galloping left handed track like Newbury so the novice chase there in February over three miles would be an ideal place to go.
Over in Ireland, Defy Logic took the notable scalp of Champagne Fever in the Racing Post Novice Chase after the Willie Mullins grey made a bad error at the second last which finished his chances. Before that, we were treated to an exhibition round from Champagne Fever who met each fence perfectly and looked to be gaining the upper hand on Defy Logic who takes plenty of credit himself for surviving a bad mistake at the final open ditch and being able to maintain the strong gallop that both himself and Champagne Fever had set. The Irish Arkle back over course and distance would be an ideal target for the winner whilst Champagne Fever for me would be more suited going back up in distance to two and a half at this stage.
The Rowland Meyrick went the way of Cloudy Too who confirmed the promise that he showed in the Hennessy Gold Cup when leading at the top of the straight before fading to finish eleventh. Back in a smaller field, he showed that he is still on the up with a fluent success over Tullamore Dew who yet again showed his consistency in big handicaps and Cape Tribulation showed a lot more than he had done in two previous efforts back in third. It was pleasing to see the Grand National winner Auroras Encore run well for a long way on ground that wouldn’t exactly be most suited to him. The run was similar to his effort in the Classic Chase at Warwick back in January and he will have every chance back at Aintree in April.
It was bitterly disappointing to see Sprinter Sacre not look at one with himself in the Desert Orchid Chase. The usual sparkle that has dominated his past performances just wasn’t there with him being pulled up sharply by Barry Geraghty. I hope for the horse’s sake that he pulls through his heart condition however I find it really disturbing that he is already 60% likely to run at the Festival which makes me question how the horse has recovered so quickly from something so serious.
At the end of the day, take nothing away from Sire De Grugy who picked up the pieces beating Oiseau De Nuit by four lengths. Gary Moore’s stable star jumped the best he ever has done on a racecourse and still had plenty left in the locker if needed. The Champion Chase now looks wide open however on the basis of his Shloer Chase run, Cheltenham doesn’t seem to suit Sire De Grugy but with the Celebration Chase now upgraded to Grade One level at the end of the season, that race is surely the ideal target. Oiseau De Nuit showed again how much of a credit to connections he has been over the years and at the veteran age of eleven, is showing that he is still in good health plus is still capable of landing a big prize somewhere later in the season.
Staying at Kempton, the Grade Two Wayward Lad Novice Chase was taken in nice style by Dodging Bullets who jumped economically in beating odds on favourite Grandouet who to be fair jumped pretty well on the whole but the mistake three out ended what little chance he had at the time. The race did lose some interest when Valdez was declared a non-runner as I cannot see either Dodging Bullets or Grandouet winning an Arkle with the former’s form seeming to tail off as the season progresses whilst the latter’s jumping would be under the sternest examination at Cheltenham and I feel he would struggle.
The Paddy Power Dial A Bet Chase went to the very likable Benefficient who popped up again at a bigger price in a Grade One to beat Hidden Cyclone and Arvika Ligeonnaire although the winner had to survive a stewards enquiry however at the time of writing, the result could change as Shark Hanlon is appealing to reverse positions with the winner. For the winner and the runner up, the Ryanair would be the ideal race for them as the winner won the Jewson at this year’s Festival and the longer trip would suit him more than the Champion whilst the runner up has good handicap form behind John’s Spirit and showed another improved effort here. Considering Arvika Ligeonnaire is a right handed bully who has to lead, his run was filled with plenty of promise if he was to return to Cheltenham. Settled in behind by Ruby Walsh, his tendency to jump right wasn’t as alarming as it has been in the past plus he travelled ominously but several Mullins horses did the exact same through the week yet didn’t find much off the bridle. If Sprinter Sacre didn’t turn up for the Champion Chase, then the 25/1 currently on offer from William Hill for Arvika Ligeonnaire wouldn’t be the worst bet in the world. However, if he doesn’t turn up at Cheltenham, then the Punchestown Champion Chase is his for the taking.
The big handicap of the day at Leopardstown was the highly competitive Paddy Power Chase over the extended three miles which finally went to Willie Mullins with Rockyaboya ridden by Ruby Walsh just foiling the gamble on Cause Of Causes who looked likely to take the race on the run in however Rockyaboya showed plenty of guts to battle back. It will be interesting to see whether the winner goes for either the Irish National or the Grand National itself although his handicap mark would have to go up a bit to get in the race. Cause Of Causes quashed my thoughts that he wouldn’t get three miles in this type of race but the original thoughts at the start of the season that the Grand Annual would be the plan have gone straight out the window. Ipsos Du Berlais ran a cracker over a trip that was probably a bit sharp for him. He looks a candidate for the Irish National especially if the ground came up on the softer side. The two top weighted runners Home Farm and Sweeney Tunes will both be forces to be reckoned with in staying chases in both Ireland and England if they come over.
One last note of the day was the very impressive thirty nine length bumper winner No More Heroes who looks potentially a very useful horse for the future.
On Friday in the video, I talked up the chances of Tidal Bay becoming the first top weight since Carvill’s Hill to win the Welsh National. Whilst he didn’t win, we saw one of the best weight carrying performances in recent history as he went down by less than a length behind Mountainous and Hawkes Point giving them both twenty six pounds. It was a tremendous effort especially as he was the only hold-up horse who managed to get into the placings with connections once again keen on targeting the Grand National. Even as a thirteen year old, he would have to go to Aintree with a leading chance although the main concern would be the hold-up tactics especially as you can get into trouble with fallers in front of you.
Mountainous was given a perfect ride by Paul Moloney with the extra distance playing to his strengths on ground that he truly loves. He travelled extremely well throughout the race going round the inside. This race was his plan all season and trainer Richard Lee didn’t seem keen on Aintree when it was mentioned but he has the potential to improve again from this success. Hawkes Point ran a fine race in defeat having raced in a similar position to the winner throughout. He will probably receive an entry for Aintree and would only boost his trainer’s chances of a second win in the race.
Of those in behind Merry King ran a brilliant race for a six year old and will be one to watch for next season’s race but two others caught the eye. The first one was Amigo who ran really well for a long way in the Andrew Cohen colours made popular by Suny Bay. Watch out for him in a three mile handicap chase whilst the second one Teaforthree has one aim all season which is the Grand National so it was pleasing to see a good return from him. Rebecca Curtis has said that it does take two runs to get him fit so there was plenty of encouragement finishing twenty five lengths behind the winner.
Meanwhile over in Ireland, the Lexus Chase took centre stage and it was brilliant to see Bob’s Worth return to form when beating his old rival First Lieutenant who also showed a marked improvement from his last run and with Sir Des Champs running well on what could be counted as his first proper run back since last season, the Gold Cup looks more exciting by the minute. Plus with the ex-French star Rubi Ball running a fantastic race in third, he adds a new dimension to the race especially if he goes for it as he would be Ruby Walsh’s ride in the race and the 20/1 on a horse that will stay the trip looks tempting.
A short entry for the final day however Hurricane Fly continued yet again to silence his critics in the Ryanair Hurdle when taking his eighteenth Grade One in the manner that we have become accustomed to. Although I felt he was extremely vulnerable this season, this performance actually made me rethink his chances at Cheltenham. I don’t think Hurricane Fly can win the Champion Hurdle however if he goes and proves me wrong, I will be the first to hold my hands up and admit I was wrong, especially with the line-up for next year’s renewal looking so strong. Jezki isn’t my idea of the Champion Hurdle winner either although he wasn’t given the best ride today as McCoy had the opportunity to kick just before the turn into the straight, only for Our Conor and Danny Mullins to appear on his outside and block him in with Jezki’s own pacemaker. Our Conor loomed up menacingly although didn’t fully go through with his challenge. Whether his Triumph success has left a mark or he needed the run time will tell but the drift on his price for the Champion itself I felt was a bit of an over-reaction for a four year old facing older horses for the first time albeit getting three pounds from them.
Thank you for reading and I wish you all a Happy New Year!