Whilst this weekend on paper didn’t look that exciting, we were treated to some brilliant performances from established stars and plenty of exciting up and coming talent showcasing their credentials for the future with the International Meeting at Cheltenham taking centre stage.
Friday began with the rematch between Kings Palace and Sausalito Sunrise from the Open Meeting. On this occasion, Kings Palace was giving away three pounds compared to the five he received last month. However, the manner in which he beat his main rival here was more comprehensive. His fast and accurate jumping an absolute joy to watch plus his turn of foot after the last was decisive.
Whilst he has won twice over three miles around Cheltenham, he doesn’t lack toe and come Cheltenham in March, he could be extremely vulnerable in the RSA as he would probably do what he did in the Albert Bartlett this year; set a strong gallop and leave himself open to stronger stayers. The JLT could be potentially at this stage in his career the better option, even with the possibility of taking on Vautour. One other thought that comes to mind is after this meeting twelve months ago when taking the Bristol Novice Hurdle; we didn’t see the horse until the Festival so it will be interesting to see if he has another run in between.
Sausalito Sunrise was firmly put in his place here but has still put in a respectable effort. On the evidence seen so far in his career, he looks a thorough stayer and may just lack the tactical pace needed for a race like the RSA, however, the National Hunt Chase would look an ideal target for this likeable type.
His stablemate Return Spring ran a really encouraging race having jumped well for the majority of the race before ploughing through the final fence. He stayed on eye-catchingly up the hill and almost nabbed second place. He looks the type of horse that will excel in staying handicap chases, with races like the Midlands National and the Scottish National in the spring looking suitable aims. Vivaldi Collonges will benefit massively for his chasing debut and could even go back over hurdles to protect his novice status until next season.
Elsewhere on Friday’s card, it was great to see one time Champion Hurdle contender Starluck back in the winners’ enclosure after the two mile one furlong handicap hurdle. Ulzana’s Raid continued his progression for Alan King and the returning Wayne Hutchinson when just denying the ultra-consistent Big Easy whilst Martin Keighley left Prestbury Park with a double courtesy of the old stagers Benbane Head and Any Currency in the cross country, the latter deserving his day in the sun after his agonising defeat at the Festival this year. Sadly, we lost 2013 Festival winner Big Shu after he suffered a heart attack which left a few questions needing to be answered regarding welfare issues.
The final race on the card has in the past proven to be a hugely informative novice hurdle towards the future with the likes of Noland, Tidal Bay, Darlan and Ballyalton all recent winners. Seedling looks a smart enough type who retained his novice status for this season. His best piece of form last season was a length second behind Wilde Blue Yonder at Newbury and is now three from three this season. The 33/1 quote for the Supreme wouldn’t be something of interest to me but he could go into competitive handicaps depending on what the handicapper makes of this performance.
Some Plan still looks a long way from the finished article as he ran far too freely for Paddy Brennan but looks fairly useful based on this effort and his previous form leading into this. A step up in trip in the future will definitely suit him with similar comments applying to the beaten favourite Padge. He was keen early on before allowing speedier types a massive head start which he was never going to make inroads into. Having looked more of a stayer when second to Shantou Bob at Ffos Las, he could be one for the EBF Final at Sandown in March where that stiffest test of stamina will suit much more than the minimum trip.
Saturday’s action at Cheltenham began with the JCB Triumph Hurdle Trial in which the odds on favourite Hargam went one better on his second start over hurdles for Tony McCoy and Nicky Henderson to see off Karezak. The winner was plenty keen enough at the start but settled nicely and most importantly, he jumped economically without being flashy before knuckling down in a battle with the runner up.
Karezak has some of the most useful form in English juvenile hurdles having just beaten Golden Doyen on debut before coming up short against Old Guard at Newbury. The first time visor has brought about some improvement and he went down fighting. Stars Over The Sea’s jumping has been brought into question on both his hurdle starts and again he wasn’t particularly fluent before being beaten comprehensively by the front two. One that deserves to be taken out of the race is Boss Des Mottes. He had disappointed when sent off favourite at Doncaster on his hurdling debut in the UK but here he travelled better than the distance beaten suggests. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him line up in the Fred Winter come March time.
Whilst talking about juvenile form, Doncaster hosted a Grade Two which couldn’t have been won more impressively by new Triumph Hurdle favourite Peace And Co who took up the running at the fourth flight and did everything on the bridle under Daryl Jacob, his slick hurdling being his main attribute which he had shown also on debut in France. Bookmaker reaction was as expected and he is as short as 5/1 in places for the Triumph which wasn’t surprising considering the manner of his success.
Only three set out for the novice chase in which Champagne West justified his position as market leader to beat Un Ace but not without some scrappy leaps on the way round. The complexion of the race changed at the fourth last when the leader Little Jon crashed through the wing of the fence. Fortunately, both he and his rider Sam Twiston-Davies got up fine. This left Champagne West in front, however his jumping wasn’t as fluent as it was on debut which allowed Un Ace to challenge on the run in, but the winner used his speed to assert his authority. The winner could return here for the Dipper on New Year’s Day to get some more match practice in before the RSA in March.
The feature novice chase at Doncaster went the way of the improving Virak for Nick Scholfield and Paul Nicholls although the race lost some of its sparkle when the fences up the home straight were omitted due to the low sun. Although Nicholls has the likes of Saphir Du Rheu and Southfield Theatre at Ditcheat, Virak remains unbeaten in three outings this season and is definitely going the right way.
The interesting thing to note is that he has taken the same route as Black Thunder did last season so if lightning is to strike twice, we will see him next at Warwick on Classic Chase day. For an ante-post wager’s sake, the greedy side of me wishes he goes to the Festival and runs in the RSA where he would definitely go into the race as an underrated horse but his price of 200’s on Betfair was too big considering the manner of his Haydock win. At the time of writing, he is 75/1 and that is still on the large side when you look at horses priced up lower than him.
Wakanda outran his odds and will be interesting once stepping into handicap company whilst Killala Quay may benefit from going back over hurdles as he was beaten fairly quickly here. Kaysersberg might have proved the main threat to Virak had he not fallen heavily at the last but happily, both the horse and Gavin Sheehan got up fine.
The Caspian Caviar Gold Cup didn’t look the strongest renewal on paper and was a strange race with Niceonefrankie, a horse that had looked handicapped out of this after his Ascot win going in again. He took it up at the third fence and never saw another rival and could be called the winner four out when Splash Of Ginge departed when travelling okay. Being honest, it’s not a race that looks likely to work out majorly, the one eyecatcher being Splash Of Ginge who had jumped really well until being caught out by the landing at the fourth last.
A contrast in fortunes for Nigel Twiston-Davies changed for the better when Blaklion, partnered by Ryan Hatch who replaced Jamie Moore after his fall from No Buts in the previous race, went and dominated his rivals in the Bristol Novices Hurdle under a penalty. He travelled supremely well throughout with the step up to three miles bringing about plenty of improvement as he put the race to bed in a matter of strides, ridden with a ton of confidence by Hatch.
Blaklion has a fantastic attitude towards racing, highlighted last season when tenaciously battling to victory in a Haydock bumper and he hasn’t done much wrong over hurdles yet. The Albert Bartlett will be his main aim and he will go there with a leading chance. Anteros has obviously appreciated the step up in distance as this is by far a career best effort. As long as the handicapper isn’t too harsh, there should be a decent handicap or two in him over the trip.
The jury’s out slightly on Port Melon who again travelled well in first time cheekpieces but unlike the Open Meeting, he was left behind pretty quickly by Blaklion. It is probably too late to consider going chasing this season so a drop in grade to get some confidence could be the ideal plan. Parish Business plugged on after being headed going to the second last whilst Binge Drinker looks as though he would need four miles to be at his best.
The feature race of the weekend was the International Hurdle and The New One again cemented his position near the head of the market in the Champion Hurdle with a decisive performance, giving eight pounds to Vaniteux. Even though I didn’t write a blog for Betfair Chase day, The New One impressed me that day with his jumping and again here he was foot perfect before using his speed to outsprint Vaniteux with the pace set by Zamdy Man not especially quick. Whilst I’m firmly on the side of Faugheen for the Champion Hurdle, The New One has earned my full and utmost respect again, the memories of clattering the last on his return at Kempton now a distant thought.
Vaniteux travelled extremely well and looked much happier on this better surface than he encountered in the Greatwood. A slight mistake two out wouldn’t have helped his cause but he was still on the bridle going to the last before The New One left him trailing in a matter of strides. In receipt of eight pounds, if there was going to be a day where he might have beaten The New One, this was probably it, however, he was firmly put in his place and being realistic, won’t trouble the main players in the Champion Hurdle which makes him difficult to place for the rest of the campaign.
Olofi may be flattered slightly by the lack of pace with how close he has finished to both The New One and Vaniteux but it is brilliant to see him back in good order. King Of The Picts caught the eye for a couple of reasons. The slow pace would not have suited him at all but he jumped well and travelled nicely before inevitably getting outpaced on the run down to the second last. He then flew up the hill to nab Zamdy Man for fourth place.
He looks interesting with an aim towards the Festival with his handicap mark of 140 which gives him the options of the County Hurdle, the Coral Cup and the Martin Pipe. He would be a fascinating contender in either of those races. Zamdy Man clearly didn’t show his best here and probably wants the ground softer whilst Bertimont travelled through the race but just couldn’t go through with his finishing effort.
Former Champion Hurdle winner Rock On Ruby stamped his class in the Relkeel Hurdle on ground that was probably softer than ideal to beat Volnay De Thaix comfortably. His hurdling was really sharp and he looked much more comfortable with the step back up in trip. He was entitled to idle late on but never looked in danger.
Connections now have an interesting dilemma. Do they come back for the Festival and have a go at the World Hurdle or do they go straight to Aintree for another go at the Aintree Hurdle? One would imagine he would have a break now with the likely softer conditions over the winter before returning for a spring campaign. If he does go for the World Hurdle, he will be a fascinating contender with the obvious question being would he see out the trip. Personally, I’m not convinced he would however, his class could see him through and in the words of Noel Fehily “He’d go through the pain barrier for you.”
Volnay De Thaix didn’t jump as fluently as he has done in the past but ran respectably without looking a major threat whilst Brother Brian has ran a career best in third. If the handicapper doesn’t completely hammer him for this effort then he could easily come here for the Pertemps where three miles on good ground could really suit. Lac Fontana ran a lifeless race and this wasn’t his true running so he is worth forgiving.
Away from Cheltenham and Doncaster, my personal highlight of Saturday was seeing one of my old favourites West End Rocker take the Veterans Chase at Lingfield under a superb ride from Tom Bellamy, his first win since the 2011 Becher Chase at Aintree. Whilst he handles better ground, some of his best performances in his career have come on really testing ground and he travelled by far the best of these veterans before going away to win handsomely.
Sunday’s feature was the Navan Novice Hurdle in which Shaneshill was sent off a warm order however he was denied by No More Heroes, one of the horses to follow from the jumps preview video. Two and a half miles is probably the minimum distance he would want to go and whilst it was a tactical affair, he showed that he can quicken, made all the more impressive by the fact Shaneshill was ridden for a turn of foot who has ran with plenty of credit himself.
If No More Heroes does come over for Cheltenham, the Albert Bartlett would be his target but he is all about the future. Shaneshill would probably be a Neptune type but with the firepower from the Mullins yard, he could possibly be the second or third string in the race.
Return Spring – A big staying handicap chase later in the season would be well within his compass.
Padge – Once he goes back up in trip, watch out for him in a handicap. The EBF Final could be the race for him.
Boss Des Mottes – Shaped better than the distance he was beaten.
Virak – The 75’s on offer for the RSA is lenient compared to others in the same market.
Splash Of Ginge – Better ground in the spring could see him win a big pot over fences.
King Of The Picts – Could potentially be well handicapped come March.