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2016 Cheltenham Festival Preview – Championship Races with Nick Scholfield

With less than a week to go until the tape rises for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle,  Luke Elder and Calum Madell are joined by special guest and twice Cheltenham Festival winning jockey Nick Scholfield to cover the four Championship races at this year’s meeting. Nick also answers questions put to him about his likely rides including leading Triumph Hurdle contender Zubayr and other horses at the yard of champion trainer Paul Nicholls.

2015/16 Christmas & New Year Racing Review

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.

Boxing Day

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.

Altior continues to impress and looks a key Supreme contender.
Altior continues to impress and looks a key Supreme contender.

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.

Full Shift would need to improve again on this performance.
Full Shift would need to improve again on this performance.

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.

Tea For Two makes history for Lizzie Kelly with her becoming the first woman to ride a Grade One winner.
Tea For Two makes history for Lizzie Kelly with her becoming the first woman to ride a Grade One winner.

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.

Normal service resumed for Faugheen in the Christmas Hurdle.
Normal service resumed for Faugheen in the Christmas Hurdle.

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.

Cue Card pounces on Vautour in the dying strides to finally win the King George.
Cue Card pounces on Vautour in the dying strides to finally win the King George.

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.

Cue Card and Paddy Brennan have proved to be a match made in heaven.
Cue Card and Paddy Brennan have proved to be a match made in heaven.

“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.

Is the Gold Cup the most suitable race for Vautour in March?
Is the Gold Cup the most suitable race for Vautour in March?

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.

The manner in which Don Cossack has travelled on his last two starts raises concerns for me.
The manner in which Don Cossack has travelled on his last two starts raises concerns for me.

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.

Apple's Jade and Jer's Girl fighting out the finish.
Apple’s Jade and Jer’s Girl fighting out the finish.

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.

Douvan a class apart in the Racing Post Novices' Chase under Patrick Mullins.
Douvan a class apart in the Racing Post Novices’ Chase under Patrick Mullins.

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.

27th December

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.

Gibralfaro needed every yard to get on top of Duke Of Medina.
Gibralfaro needed every yard to get on top of Duke Of Medina.

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.

Ar Mad continues to impress over fences.
Ar Mad continues to impress over fences.

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.

The jump at the last proves vital for Sprinter Sacre as Sire De Grugy blunders.
The jump at the last proves vital for Sprinter Sacre as Sire De Grugy blunders.

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.

Can Sprinter Sacre regain his Champion Chase crown?
Can Sprinter Sacre regain his Champion Chase crown?

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 jumped smartly on hurdling debut.
Ivanovich Gorbatov jumped smartly on hurdling debut.

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.

Un De Sceaux leading before his fall two out.
Un De Sceaux leading before his fall two out.

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.

Long Dog didn't look at his best yet still won. A step back up in distance will help.
Long Dog didn’t look at his best yet still won. A step back up in distance will help.

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.

Falcon Crest would appeal plenty for the Boylesports Hurdle off 136.
Falcon Crest would appeal plenty for the Boylesports Hurdle off 136.

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.

28th December

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.

Prince Of Scars sprung a surprise in the Squared Financial Christmas Hurdle.
Prince Of Scars sprung a surprise in the Squared Financial Christmas Hurdle.

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.

Don Poli just doesn't appeal to me as a Gold Cup winner.
Don Poli just doesn’t appeal to me as a Gold Cup winner.

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.

29th December

20/1 offered about Fixe Le Kap for the Triumph looks generous.
20/1 offered about Fixe Le Kap for the Triumph looks generous.

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.

Barters Hill looks the clear one to beat in the Albert Bartlett.
Barters Hill looks the clear one to beat in the Albert Bartlett.

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.

No More Heroes relished the step up to 3m in winning the Neville Hotels Novices' Chase.
No More Heroes relished the step up to 3m in winning the Neville Hotels Novices’ Chase.

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.

Nichols Canyon showed great tenacity to see of Identity Thief.
Nichols Canyon showed great tenacity to see of Identity Thief.

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

Seeyouatmidnight staked his claims for the RSA Chase with a tough victory in the Dipper.
Seeyouatmidnight staked his claims for the RSA Chase with a tough victory in the Dipper.

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.

This appears to be no fluke from Camping Ground.
This appears to be no fluke from Camping Ground.

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.

2nd January

Yorkhill travelled like a dream on desperate ground.
Yorkhill travelled like a dream on desperate ground.

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.

3rd January

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 doesn't convince as a chaser and will be vulnerable when facing stiffer tests.
Shaneshill doesn’t convince as a chaser and will be vulnerable when facing stiffer tests.

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.

Bellshill will appreciate a much sounder surface than encountered today.
Bellshill will appreciate a much sounder surface than encountered today.

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.

Eyecatchers

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.

2015 Cheltenham Trials Day + Doncaster & Leopardstown Review

The Festival is getting closer and closer with Cheltenham’s Trials Day meeting being the centrepiece of the weekend, the last chance we can get some Festival clues from the home of National Hunt racing. We also had some informative action from Doncaster relating to the Festival and other spring targets plus a fantastic card yesterday from Leopardstown.

Peace And Co jumping the last with Karezak in the Triumph Hurdle Trial.
Peace And Co jumping the last with Karezak in the Triumph Hurdle Trial.

The JCB Triumph Hurdle Trial revolved around the hugely impressive Doncaster winner Peace And Co who was sent off a very warm favourite however he gave his backers cause of concern early on as he was exceptionally keen due to the complete lack of pace with nobody wanting to make the running. The new tactics worked well enough as he travelled by far the best before putting the race to bed in comfortable style, albeit showing some signs of greenness. The winner will now be next seen in the Triumph Hurdle itself and whilst he deserves to be favourite, the price is pretty ridiculous with it as short as 6/4 in spots. I think he is the most likely winner of the Triumph but I couldn’t put him up as a selection with his price so skinny.

Karezak continues to improve in juvenile hurdles and this is by far his best effort over timber. He took up the running after the second last but was just a sitting duck for Peace And Co. He could potentially be the each way value of the Triumph having only been beaten three lengths here and is still a relatively big price compared to the favourite. Whilst the whole field were affected by the lack of pace, Zarib was one that was especially keen disputing the lead with Ibis Du Rheu and has definitely improved upon his Newbury win back in December. He has the option for both the Triumph and the Fred Winter depending what the handicapper assesses him with better ground likely to suit as well.

Storm Force Ten was outpaced once the tempo quickened up sharply after the second last before he stayed on well up the hill to almost grab third from Zarib. He shaped with plenty of promise when behind Bivouac at Sandown and although he was getting seven pounds from that rival here, this was certainly his career best over hurdles. He would definitely have a leading chance in the Fred Winter and his mark should go up sufficiently to get into that race. Bivouac looks a long term chasing prospect and was badly inconvenienced by the lack of a gallop. He clattered through the last flight but was beaten at the time. He probably won’t return for the Festival which would be a wise decision for his future.

Ibis Du Rheu looked immature and is one for the future.
Ibis Du Rheu looked immature and is one for the future.

Ibis Du Rheu was a disappointment however, there were positives to take from the performance. He will certainly improve once he gets a lead in a race as he looked very green running into hurdles, almost as if he was going to run out at them. On the whole he jumped well enough but his keenness ended any chance he had. On appearance, he looks to have plenty of growing to do and it wouldn’t surprise to see him next season as a decent handicap hurdler like his half brother Saphir Du Rheu. He shouldn’t be returning to the Festival in March but for the future, he is one firmly to keep on side.

The Timeform Novices Handicap Chase was missing Ned Stark who was a non-runner but it still looked particularly strong contest on paper and it didn’t disappoint with Generous Ransom, an eye-catcher last time out when staying on at Kempton behind Stellar Notion, improving on that effort to take his second victory over fences. The stiffer track definitely suited here and he travelled powerfully before idling in front.

Generous Ransom making an error at the last but won with a bit to spare.
Generous Ransom making an error at the last but won with a bit to spare.

There was definitely plenty left in the tank and a step up to three miles in time will no doubt bring about improvement. He remains on the eyecatchers list as he deserves to be kept on side and would go very well in a Festival handicap chase, apart from the novice handicap as I think the Old Course would be too sharp for him over that distance. If his mark isn’t high enough, then the three mile handicap chase on Grand National day would suit him well.

Astigos improved on his Newbury third behind Gevrey Chambertin and nearly capitalised on the winner slowing up on the run in. His handicap mark is too low for the big spring Festivals but he still has time on his side to get his mark up, although his mark could be preserved for next winter. Irish Cavalier caught the eye for the Rewards4Racing Novices Handicap Chase having travelled well on the heels of the leaders. He was slightly outpaced before staying on strongly up the hill behind two better handicapped horses on this occasion. Although he will need to jump slightly better, he has the capability to improve again and his mark should get him into the race.

Carole’s Destrier put in a much improved effort over a distance probably on the sharp side for him and a return to three miles will definitely help. Perfect Candidate stayed on up the hill after getting outpaced at the top of the hill and is another that will benefit from going back up in distance. Mosspark was a shade disappointing in the first time headgear and it could just be that over this distance they were going a yard too quick for him. He holds an entry in the National Hunt Chase and whilst he wouldn’t be my idea of a fancy for the race, he could be very interesting as they would go a stride slower which would help his jumping. Stellar Notion made a couple of jumping errors but considering he looked a sitting duck, he wasn’t beaten that far overall. A return to a flatter track would be of benefit.

Many Clouds cemented his position as a key Gold Cup contender. Will he be as effective on spring ground?
Many Clouds cemented his position as a key Gold Cup contender. Will he be as effective on spring ground?

Many Clouds gave yet another boost to his Hennessy Gold Cup success when remaining unbeaten this season with a gutsy victory in the Betbright Cup, finally getting the Cheltenham monkey off Oliver Sherwood’s back with this being his first win at the track since the year 2000. Throughout his career, he has threatened to be a very good horse and this is the season where he has kicked on to repay the faith his connections have had in him.

The race was fairly muddling with a stop-start pace set by the winner and Black Thunder, which definitely wasn’t a help to some in behind but take nothing away from the performance of Many Clouds as his claims as a genuine Gold Cup contender were cemented. The only concern I would have come March is whether he needs genuine soft ground to be at his most effective.

One horse affected by the pace of the race was the runner up Smad Place who was another to give the Hennessy Gold Cup form a positive outlook. He was pulling for his head early on due to the lack of early pace and was also inconvenienced by Dynaste on the home turn who was entitled to keep him in behind Many Clouds. To give him credit, for him to finish as close as he did with how much he pulled was a testament to the horse. Whilst he was receiving eight pounds from the winner, he is entitled to come on plenty for this effort having needed the run in the Hennessy.

Smad Place still looks good each way value at 25/1. Photo taken by @fivestripes
Smad Place still looks good each way value at 25/1. Photo taken by @fivestripes

If there was a horse to take for the Gold Cup then Smad Place would be the one for me at an each way price. Sure, he may not be a Gold Cup winner but you cannot fault his record at the Festival with him placing three times out of four, his only below par effort coming in the Triumph Hurdle when shaping as though he needed further. The 25/1 with William Hill and Boylesports looks big enough considering he probably has more going for him than most of the key contenders lining up.

Dynaste was back in third and whilst he wasn’t stopping up the hill, he has been beaten by two stronger stayers than him on the day. Due to the pace, his jumping wasn’t as fluent as it has been in the past. You suspect connections will drop back to the Ryanair, the race where he would have his most realistic chance of Festival success. The Giant Bolster was another that didn’t enjoy how the race panned out and looked to be struggling with over a circuit to go. He got himself back into the race before losing his position again. He will definitely be seen in a better light when presented with an end to end gallop in March and wouldn’t be one to dismiss. Black Thunder looks to want a stiffer test of stamina on this evidence whilst Theatre Guide shaped better than the distance he was beaten. It will be interesting to see where he heads in the spring.

Value At Risk (Left) looks worth a bet in the Albert Bartlett.
Value At Risk (Left) looks worth a bet in the Albert Bartlett.

The Neptune Trial centered around the exciting talent that is Value At Risk who had come over from Ireland to be trained by Dan Skelton and had made such a huge impression when bolting up on hurdling debut at Newbury. He was sent off a very well backed favourite but had to settle for second best behind Ordo Ab Chao for Alan King, returning from a below par effort at Sandown behind Vyta Du Roc in the Winter Novice Hurdle back in early December. He travelled well behind the leaders and took it up after the last; showing a likeable attitude to fend off the favourite. He will get entries for both the Neptune and the Albert Bartlett and would have definite claims in both races.

If he did turn up in the latter, he would be re-opposing Value At Risk who shaped like a strong stayer. On second viewing, he wasn’t as outpaced as originally thought between the last two hurdles and he fought back tenaciously up the hill. If there was one to take for the Albert Bartlett from the weekend, this was the horse as it was confirmed by Dan Skelton that this was the plan. His jumping had improved from Newbury and the 14/1 best price looks generous considering he was only beaten less than a length. The only small concern I have is about him settling but with a stronger pace guaranteed, it shouldn’t be much of an issue.

The horse that travelled the strongest throughout was Vago Collonges but when push came to shove, he didn’t look the most genuine when putting in his effort. I will give the benefit of the doubt having read comments that his wind may not have been completely right, although it was pleasing to see him boost his form from earlier in the season with Maximiser at Haydock, who is sadly out for the season with a setback. Robinsfirth is a horse that will come into himself next season as he still looks relatively weak but he does have plenty of ability. It may be wise to miss the Festival with him and give him an easy time of things for the remainder of the season.

Some Buckle made a significant move after the second last and looked to have place claims before weakening back in fifth. This was a solid effort in his toughest task over hurdles to date and whilst he may not be good enough for a novice hurdle at the Festival, his future lies over fences next season. Present View wasn’t good enough to hold his own against some smart novice hurdlers but has ran respectably with his next target being the Racing Plus Chase at Kempton. Both Thistlecrack and Stiletto were way too keen for their own good and were both comprehensively outclassed in the end whilst Native River was yet to be asked a question when taking a nasty looking fall two out. He would have been another pointer towards the Challow and it would be silly to assume where he would have finished but he was shaping well at the time of his departure.

Saphir Du Rheu clearing the last on his way to winning the Cleeve Hurdle.
Saphir Du Rheu clearing the last on his way to winning the Cleeve Hurdle.

Having suggested in the Christmas review that Saphir Du Rheu could return hurdling, the Cleeve Hurdle looked a retrieval mission for him after his novice chase career went astray with an unseated rider on chase debut at Newbury and a fall at Kempton in the Feltham on Boxing Day. The apple of Paul Nicholls’ eye managed to get his season back on track and whilst he made it look like hard work, it was pleasing to see him stick his head down and battle up the hill to fend off the six time Grade One winner in Reve De Sivola with another up and comer in Un Temps Pour Tout back in third.

The winner travelled strongly behind the leaders but did look slightly in trouble on the run down to the final flight but showed guts to match his class on ground probably not ideal either. Better ground will help him a fair amount, and the World Hurdle now looks the aim. His current price of 7/1 seems fair considering the majority of his main market rivals all have questions to answer and he is now confirmed a definite runner. On Friday’s video, I mentioned having a theory about the horse however it was blown out of the water by the cool ride given by Sam Twiston-Davies who sat quieter in the saddle on the way round compared to Kempton.

Can Saphir Du Rheu emulate his former stable mate Big Bucks and win the World Hurdle?
Can Saphir Du Rheu emulate his former stable mate Big Bucks and win the World Hurdle?

It was interesting to hear Paul Nicholls comparison of Saphir Du Rheu to Big Bucks after the race over the tannoy. Nicholls described Big Bucks as ‘gutless’ over fences compared to Saphir Du Rheu who is more ‘brave’. I have no doubt in time that Saphir Du Rheu will learn to respect his obstacles more as he gets older and he will no doubt be a leading player come the Festival for the World Hurdle.

Reve De Sivola ran a far better race than expected after his heroic effort in the Long Walk last month at Ascot. He made this a fair test for the young pretenders and to his credit, battled all the way to the line on a track where he has never really shown his best form. He will probably line up in the World Hurdle however, he would need very testing ground to be at his most effective. For his comeback run, Un Temps Pour Tout ran a really nice race having jumped and travelled very sweetly before his effort petered out in the last one hundred yards, which it was entitled to having not seen the track since May. He definitely saw out the three miles which was a question mark beforehand and he’ll re-oppose the front pairing in March. Whether he can reverse the form remains to be seen and would he be as effective on better ground.

Cole Harden jumped out to his left violently at the second last and faded away on ground probably soft enough for him. With the yard form questionable at present, he is definitely worth forgiving plus I’m not convinced Cheltenham’s his track. Unconfirmed suggestions post-race were that he had a breathing problem. If so, let’s hope it’s rectified and hopefully we see him at Aintree on Grand National day for the Liverpool Hurdle.

The Druids Nephew would have a big chance in the Baylis & Harding Handicap Chase.
The Druids Nephew would have a big chance in the Baylis & Harding Handicap Chase.

The Druids Nephew ran a race full of promise heading towards the Festival, with the most suitable race being the Baylis & Harding Handicap Chase on the first day. His handicap form over fences this season looks strong with his second to Sam Winner at the Paddy Power meeting and his seventh to Many Clouds in the Hennessy and he would go there with a big chance. Olofi clearly didn’t stay three miles and may also benefit from dropping into handicap company at the Festival.

The final handicap hurdle went to the ultra consistent Lightentertainment who gave Chris Gordon his first ever Cheltenham winner and was a welcome tonic after the sad loss of King Edmund last week. He did exceedingly well to win considering the lack of hurdles to jump plus he looked one of the first beaten. The horse to take out of the race was Dell’ Arca for the County Hurdle as he should have won this contest. He should be reassessed for this and even then he will still be competitive come March.

Three Kingdoms gained the biggest success of his career. Aintree would suit him well.
Three Kingdoms gained the biggest success of his career. Aintree would suit him well.

Doncaster hosted some quality action and the first of three races to focus on is the Lightning Novices Chase which went to Three Kingdoms who did well to recover from a bad mistake at the third last to see off the tough Solar Impulse to gain his second victory over fences. The winner will be even better on good ground and could be one to skip the Arkle with and go to Aintree with. Solar Impulse chased home Josses Hill last time out and almost beat Three Kingdoms here. This was definitely a career best and he would deserve a go in the Arkle where he could easily run into a place if the race cuts up, especially as it has the potential to.

The Albert Bartlett Trial looked easy pickings for Blaklion on his return to three miles but was another short price favourite to be beaten by Caracci Apache who was given an unbelievable ride by Nico De Boinville as he was struggling a fair way out and not really travelling but perseverance was the order of the day. He clearly doesn’t look straight forward as he collided with the rail right on the line and Cheltenham could come too early for him this season. If connections go to the Festival, it would no doubt be the Albert Bartlett but he would need to travel much better than he did here.

Blaklion was ridden similarly here to his Cheltenham run but took a long time to go past the tough Zeroeshadesofgrey who put him to the sword a long way out. Although he has run well in defeat, I’m not entirely sure what to think of the run but he does go to the Festival with his chance for the Albert Bartlett. It could just be that needs to be freshened up having had plenty of runs.

Zeroeshadesofgrey was meant to run in a Pertemps Qualifier on Friday at Huntingdon and has ran a solid race back in third, proving the trip at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day was on the sharp side for him. He wouldn’t be out of place either in the Albert Bartlett and already has Festival experience from the bumper and is proving himself to be a very good horse for Neil King whilst Binge Drinker travelled really well but when the tempo quickened, he was left flat footed. A real stamina test is what he wants and he will definitely make into a National Hunt Chase contender next season when he goes chasing.

If In Doubt looks ahead of the handicapper on this evidence.
If In Doubt looks ahead of the handicapper on this evidence.

The Skybet Chase had the potential to go to an improving young chaser and If In Doubt proved to be one with a comfortable success on handicap debut. His jumping early on left a lot to be desired but it did improve once the race warmed up and he has won like a horse that is ahead of the handicapper. He will probably go for the Baylis & Harding on the first day of the Festival but he would need to jump better.

Baileys Concerto has been a wonderful servant for Dianne Sayer. His improvement from a mark of 96 last March to 134 here has been a joy to watch and the step up in distance here held no barriers for the horse. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he could improve again on this run and saw him in another three mile handicap chase. Night In Milan has ran an excellent trial for the Grand National, a race which he missed by one last year but there is no concerns about him getting in this year. He could return for the Grimthorpe as his final race before Aintree where he would be competitive off a racing weight.

Another horse muted for Aintree is Renard and he stayed on again back in fourth after getting outpaced. He doesn’t strike me as a Grand National winner but the type to run a decent race. Lost Legend didn’t convince on his first try at three miles over fences and although he won at Kempton on Lanzarote day, his handicap mark looks tough enough. Fairy Rath ran well for a long way before finding the three mile distance stretched his stamina. Back down in trip, he definitely has more races in him,  something like the Newbury Gold Cup in early March before a go in the Topham Trophy which has been the long term plan.

Medermit can be forgiven for this effort as he returned lame whilst his stablemate Godsmejudge looked to need this outing badly and was pulled up. He showed enough promise towards the Grand National and will hopefully have another run before Aintree whilst Royal Player looked to find this too much this early in his career.

Yesterday’s action at Leopardstown had some outstanding performances for various reasons, with the three Graded contests all holding their clues towards March. The Irish Arkle looked one of the most exciting novice chases of the season with three genuine Graded chasers taking their chance to boost their claims for the Arkle.

Un De Sceaux was electric beating two very good horses.
Un De Sceaux was electric beating two very good horses.

The race most certainly didn’t disappoint with one of the best performances I’ve seen in a novice chase from Un De Sceaux who jumped beautifully and nimbly in front and then quickened off a fairly strong gallop to make two very good horses in Clarcam and Gilgamboa look pedestrian. To give ten pounds to a Grade One novice winner in Clarcam and win without Ruby Walsh having to get serious by fifteen lengths just underlines the horse’s scary natural talent.

Although he wanted to get on with things out in front, Walsh was able to settle him more and he didn’t look as buzzed up as he was on chasing debut at Thurles or at Fairyhouse. At this moment in time, he looks the likely winner of the Arkle even with his running style as I don’t think anything could go with him once he kicks off the bend going to the second last. The last horse to make all the running in the Arkle was Anaglog’s Daughter back in 1980 and I fully expect Un De Sceaux to do exactly the same. At a time when the National Hunt game needs a big name for the public to get attached to, this horse could potentially be the blockbuster.

Clarcam who was so impressive over course and distance at Christmas was made to look ordinary here, which he most certainly isn’t. He jumped well but just wasn’t able to live with Un De Sceaux from the second last and off level weights in the Arkle, he would only be fighting it out for a place. Gilgamboa looked outpaced before Un De Sceaux kicked for home and would be much happier going up in distance for the JLT at the Festival where he would hold strong claims in what will likely be the strongest novice chase at the Festival.

22 Grade One victories. There won't be another to match Hurricane Fly's record for a very long time.
22 Grade One victories. There won’t be another to match Hurricane Fly’s record for a very long time.

Words cannot describe Hurricane Fly. Now a twenty two time Grade One winner after taking his fifth Irish Champion Hurdle. Yesterday summed up what he is. Having looked to be in trouble down the back straight and looking one of the first beaten, his class got him back into the race and showed yet again the heart of a lion to battle against Jezki. He had that battle won before Jezki made a shuddering error at the final flight.

This performance also underlines his longevity and the fact that he isn’t regressing in the slightest, a testament to Willie Mullins and his staff. Whilst the heart would love to see him win a third Champion Hurdle at Prestbury Park on the 10th of March, the head says he needs very testing ground for it to be a reality as on this slightly better ground over two miles, he looked vulnerable for a moment. It was a shame not to see him get an entry in the World Hurdle as on better ground and going a stride slower than they would in a Champion Hurdle, it would be fascinating to see how he would fare against the top staying hurdlers.

Arctic Fire has confirmed himself here to be a worthy Graded hurdler following his more illustrious stable mate home, proving here that he is worth a place as the Mullins third string in the Champion Hurdle. On spring ground as well and a thorough end to end gallop, it wouldn’t be the biggest shock in the world were he to finish in the frame.
The team tactics for the JP McManus horses failed to work with Plinth unable to set a gallop and go far enough into the race to suit Jezki, who sat on his tail for the early part of the race before disputing the lead around the halfway mark. This move was always going to leave him vulnerable to Hurricane Fly and once they turned for home, it was inevitable the same result was going to happen again. He was beaten before the last flight mistake which he did well to stand up at and he was run out of second place by Arctic Fire. The saving grace for Jezki’s supporters is the improvement we are likely to get from him come March time.

Tiger Roll looked last time to want a step up in trip and the same comment applies after this run. Fiscal Focus ran a really encouraging race for his second try over hurdles, travelling really well until the leaders kicked for home and he was left due to a lack of experience. He would be worth his chance in the Triumph Hurdle against his old age group or if they believe he wouldn’t get up the hill, a trip to Fairyhouse or Punchestown in the spring would be the ideal targets as I wouldn’t expect him to come over for Aintree, even though the flat track would suit him well.

Outlander bounced back from his loss over Christmas at Limerick.
Outlander bounced back from his loss over Christmas at Limerick.

The Nathaniel Lacy & Partners Solicitors Novice Hurdle had a strong favourite in No More Heroes who was unbeaten this season going into this race. However, he was a tad disappointing when fifth behind Gigginstown’s second string Outlander who got back to winning ways over hurdles, reversing the form with Martello Tower from Limerick over the Festive period. He travelled really well and was ridden with plenty of confidence by Paul Townend. Once he was asked to quicken away, he did so impressively but against horses that will likely be better at three miles. The Neptune was nominated as his Festival target by trainer Willie Mullins who was completing a Graded treble and in his stable of superstars, he’d probably take a high enough rank. His price for the race is skinny enough.

Martello Tower probably wasn’t suited by the drop back down in trip compared to the winner but has ran a solid race in defeat. If he doesn’t go to Cheltenham, the likely big target for him would be the Punchestown Festival over three miles. Killultagh Vic was given a different ride altogether compared to Ascot when second to L’ami Serge and the step up in distance here certainly suited better. He would certainly go to the Festival as a second or third string but wouldn’t disgrace himself. Windsor Park was given a strange ride by Davy Russell as he gave the leaders a head start before jumping into the back of Hurry Henry at the second last. If he had been ridden closer to the pace, I feel he would have at least finished second although it could just be a below par effort.

No More Heroes didn’t jump with much fluency compared to his other two starts this campaign with Bryan Cooper never looking completely happy. If he were to miss Cheltenham, it wouldn’t be the biggest surprise. Especially as at the end of last season, Gordon Elliott was mindful to look after the horse with his future lying next season over fences. Another factor for the disappointing run could be down to fitness as Elliott had said after his last start that he would go straight to the Albert Bartlett, similar to Road To Riches at Gowran earlier this season where he was brought in earlier than planned. He is definitely a much better horse than this showing.

Next weekend may provide further clues towards the spring with Sandown holding a decent enough card on Saturday plus the potential to see King’s Palace in action at Wetherby, albeit against weak opposition in the Towton Novices Chase. We also have Musselburgh’s excellent Trials Day and based on the entries so far with two races being reopened, it looks to have some quality about it.

Eyecatchers From The Weekend

Storm Force Ten – Has the potential to be one of the leading UK contenders for the Fred Winter.

Ibis Du Rheu – Not this season but he deserves a mention towards next season and beyond.

Generous Ransom – Keep him on side.

Irish Cavalier – Could be one for the Rewards4Racing Novice Handicap Chase.

Smad Place – He is definitely the E/W value in the Gold Cup market.

Value At Risk – 14’s for the Albert Bartlett could potentially be a decent price right now compared to the day.

Saphir Du Rheu – Obvious eye-catcher but he holds leading claims for the World Hurdle.

The Druids Nephew – The Baylis & Harding Handicap Chase on the first day would suit well.

Dell’ Arca – The County Hurdle would suit perfectly.

Binge Drinker – Staying novice chaser next year.

Fairy Rath – A drop back in distance will see a return to the winner’s enclosure.