With only fifty days until the Cheltenham Festival, the past weekend has given us plenty of thoughts leading towards March with the return of the horse dubbed as the Black Aeroplane in Sprinter Sacre at Ascot whilst The New One bid to cement his position as England’s leading Champion Hurdle hope in the Champion Hurdle Trial at Haydock. Over in Ireland yesterday, Vautour was on the comeback trail after his blip at Leopardstown over Christmas behind Clarcam.
Ascot’s card began with a juvenile hurdle which went the way of the Newbury winner Top Notch for Nicky Henderson and Barry Geraghty but was made to work pretty hard for it by Golden Doyen who put behind him his run at Chepstow where you can forgive any horse a bad run on desperate ground with Maxie T back in third.
The winner already shapes like a stayer and whilst they are the types that tend to win a Triumph Hurdle, he strikes me as one that would get outpaced before staying on into the frame as opposed to winning the race. We will see the best of him up in distance but it won’t be this season unless they go into handicap company as he isn’t a novice due to winning a hurdle race last March. Golden Doyen is definitely worth his place in the Triumph Hurdle and remains a likeable type but whether he’s good enough is another matter. Maxie T looks a longer term prospect whilst Ahio showed enough to suggest he will win a race or two in the future.
The OLBG Mares Hurdle looked a competitive race on paper and the result has a strong feel to it with the novice Bitofapuzzle showing marked improvement for the step up in distance to three miles after a good effort at Haydock last time for Harry Fry and Noel Fehily beating recent Kempton winners Carole’s Spirit and Land Of Vic. The winner came from the Point to Point field and this was a career best effort. Connections felt post-race that this would be the race that really made her as a horse with this being the first truly run race she has experienced over obstacles under rules. She did finish her race very tired and now goes for a break before returning in the spring. With three miles looking to be the main help to her, the mares race at the Festival wouldn’t be on the horizon unless the ground was extremely testing.
Carole’s Spirit was flattered on her last win at Kempton but has ran her usual game race here, putting it up to Bitofapuzzle from a fair way out. She also finished out on her feet and has booked her ticket for March. The drop back down in distance shouldn’t inconvenience her much. Land Of Vic made several mistakes before staying on too late in the day whilst Fairytale Theatre gave a boost to Carrigmoorna Rock’s win in Ireland with a solid effort back in fourth.
The Holloways Hurdle provided an across the card double for Venetia Williams with Baradari adding to Aso’s win at Haydock when getting up in the final strides to deny Lyvius in a thrilling finish with Le Mercurey finishing strongly back in third. On the run-in, jockey Aidan Coleman looked mindful about his use of the whip but found enough and appreciated the step up in distance. He could return for the limited handicap over course and distance next month and a rise in the weights shouldn’t inconvenience him.
Lyvius made a mistake at the third last which didn’t cost him too much and looked the likely winner going to the second last. Once he hit the front, he didn’t do very much which allowed Baradari another bite of the cherry which he duly took. He looks difficult to place despite his consistency. Le Mercurey ran a far better race here than on his UK debut at Newbury in a race which has worked out unbelievably well. Although it was a step up, it was still a strange effort as he travelled strongly before looking to stop very quickly in the straight. He then finished with a wet sail to grab third on the run to the line, albeit under hands and heels from Noel Fehily. He is clearly a long term prospect, the type of horse that his trainer will excel with over the next few seasons and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him miss the big Festivals in the spring with a novice chase campaign in mind for the autumn.
I’m still convinced we will see more improvement from Garde Le Victoire once he gets decent ground and he ran a perfectly respectable race giving weight all round. The Coral Cup looks the ideal place to go at the Festival where an end to end gallop should also help his jumping out as well. Rayvin Black ran a good race despite not seeing out the extra distance whilst Abracadabra Sivola jumped terribly and may be more suited by finding suitable targets in France.
The Clarence House was the main focus point for horse racing fans on Saturday with the eagerly anticipated return of Sprinter Sacre, the best two mile chaser I have seen in my lifetime and likely to ever see. His problems over the last year or so have been documented and the racing fan in me wanted the Sprinter Sacre of old to return and completely dominate his rivals.
He was settled in fourth position by Barry Geraghty and travelled well enough throughout the race and did show some signs of his former self, most notably at the fourth last when Geraghty asked him to jump which was brilliant to see. However, when push came to shove in the straight, Geraghty wasn’t hard on the horse and once Dodging Bullets kicked on past him, he was looked after with an eye towards the future.
The race has split opinions on what we can expect from Sprinter Sacre in the future. Personally, I don’t expect to see any improvement from here even though connections are adamant there is more to come. Yes, Barry Geraghty was quick to look after him. Yes, he wasn’t given such a hard race after the final fence, but the horse would not have gone to Ascot unless he was fighting fit and ready to go. The other worry I would have regarding March is what response Barry Geraghty gets once put under pressure. Even though they wouldn’t have wanted to give him a tough race, a small tap with the whip could have helped to see for future purposes if he would find anything at all if asked.
I don’t believe at all that the horse come here needing a run as Nicky Henderson would have wanted a fair idea to see where he stood with him before making a decision based on the future. The next port of call will be Cheltenham and whilst I would love for him to regain his Champion Chase crown, it looks a tall order, even with the weak opposition in the current two mile division.
Although the race centred around Sprinter Sacre, this was definitely a career best effort from Dodging Bullets who put to bed the comments about his resolution and has so far this season upheld his form strongly. The Tingle Creek he won may not have been the strongest of renewals but he now adds some substance to it with his victory here. If he continues in this fashion then he must go close at the Festival and winning jockey Noel Fehily seemed confident on his chances, especially as he now looks the horse he once threatened to be earlier in his career.
Twinlight has ran well enough here but still doesn’t convince completely. He looked at one stage as though he was going to finish tailed off before staying on again past Somersby into third. It would be a surprise if he were good enough to win the Champion Chase. Somersby was given a forceful ride and ensured it was a true test for those in behind. For a horse of his experience, his jumping was shoddy and it was no surprise to see him fade as he did.
The two mile five furlong handicap chase provided Paul Nicholls with another winner in the shape of Rebel Rebellion who gave conditional Jack Sherwood another big Saturday winner after Silsol on Hennessy day. Given a wonderful positive ride, the winner travelled far kinder than he has done on more recent efforts and was always finding plenty to fend off top weight Fox Appeal who benefited from a fantastic patient ride from Richie McLernon. Tom Jonasson, assistant trainer to Paul Nicholls was quick to rule out the Grand National as he wouldn’t stay that far and said a return to the Topham would be the plan, but a rise in the weights after this will probably prove too much there.
Fox Appeal has the ability to win a big prize over fences and one day he will put it all together in a big race. A race like the Racing Plus Chase round Kempton could suit him if getting three miles. Failing that, he could be the type for the Galway Plate as he performs better going this way round and the distance would suit. Eastlake ran his best race for sometime here before fading in the closing stages. This improved effort can be built upon and he is another likely to return to Aintree for the Topham where he jumped the fences really well whilst Tenor Nivernais looks to be crying out for a go at three miles after getting outpaced.
Haydock’s Peter Marsh card wasn’t the strongest and I am only going to concentrate on two races as I actually found the feature contest impossible to weigh up with the field strung out across Merseyside. I will say though that the winner Samstown was given a ride that should be considered a candidate for ride of the season by Brian Harding who could easily have given up after a bad mistake early on but his patience paid off and whilst he almost threw the race away after the last, there looked to be extra in the tank. He may return to Haydock next month for the Grand National Trial which will probably be just as much hard work as Saturday was.
The Rossington Main Novices Hurdle (I’m using its official name as it most definitely wasn’t a Supreme Trial) went to Aso, a horse certainly going in the right direction for Venetia Williams who was following up in this race after Zamdy Man’s win twelve months ago. This was certainly a career best so far and he handled the heavy ground here without any issues. He holds an entry in the Betfair Hurdle and he wouldn’t be out of place there, especially if the ground came up really testing. It’s worth noting the recent record of the race with how novices have performed.
Kiama Bay backed up his effort over course and distance in November when he clearly would have won having kicked clear between the last two flights. He clearly appreciates a speed track like Haydock and connections may be tempted to give him a break and wait for the Swinton in May, especially as he goes on any ground whilst Qewy put up a respectable effort on his hurdles debut and can definitely win next time out for a drop in class.
The Stan James Champion Hurdle Trial looked to be a racecourse gallop for The New One with an added bonus of prize money. Even giving eight pounds to the whole field; the end result was quite unbelievable. Although he won, it was a lacklustre display compared to his usual high standards as he just scrambled home to deny the bold bid of Bertimont and Harry Skelton.
His jumping on his last two starts at both Haydock in November and Cheltenham has been faultless but here, it had clearly regressed. On first viewing, I thought he looked beat as early as the third last when Harry Skelton sent Bertimont on in a wonderful piece of race-riding which put The New One to the sword. It was only in the final two hundred yards that he was able to get past and stamp some authority on the race.
The really testing ground could be put forward as an excuse for this but let’s not forget he was only just beaten on similar ground less than two years ago by a mudlark in At Fisher’s Cross on Trials Day. Sam Twiston-Davies also commented that The New One was following early pacesetter Got The Nac to the right at each hurdle which I find strange considering how far clear he was. But if this was the case, you could argue that Twiston-Davies should have dropped him in behind other rivals who would have given him a better toe into the race and could potentially have helped with his jumping. His jumping to the right could have also been caused by a slight niggle as it’s a tendency that we haven’t seen before. This will hopefully be sorted out before March, as out of the big three in the Champion Hurdle market, he looks the most vulnerable on the back of this performance.
In the end, his class has shown through but this performance doesn’t leave me brimming with confidence going towards the Festival. It would be extremely naive to believe this was The New One at his absolute best but even at something around seventy five percent, he should be beating these rivals with his head in his chest.
Bertimont ran a fine race in defeat and almost benefited from a stroke of genius from Harry Skelton who took advantage of the odds on favourite’s shoddy jumping at the third last. He looked the likely winner for about ninety percent of the home straight before getting run out of it. As he seems more suited to a flat track, it could be worth stepping him up in trip for the Aintree Hurdle as his fast, accurate jumping would hold him in good stead there.
The final performance of the weekend to look at was Vautour’s win in the Killiney Novice Chase at Leopardstown. It was effectively a confidence booster with him allowed to do his own thing in front. He was novicey at a couple but on the whole his jumping was fine and always going to hold Real Steel when that rival fell at the last. The question I have is whether he deserved cutting in the ante-post markets for Cheltenham. For me, he shouldn’t have. He didn’t really prove much but this is a step back in the right direction. Depending on what Un Des Sceaux does next Sunday, it is more likely we’ll see him in the JLT where he will face a stiff enough task in bidding for back to back Festival wins.
This week’s piece ends on a sombre note with a tribute to the veteran King Edmund who sadly died in a heavy fall at Ascot doing what he loved best. The popular twelve year old was a model of consistency for both Chris Gordon and his main rider Tom Cannon winning nine of his fifty six starts, including two novice hurdles last month at Lingfield and Plumpton in the space of forty eights hours, showing that his enthusiasm still shone brightly. He took a relatively small stable to the majority of the big Festivals including Cheltenham and Aintree, even having a short spin over the Grand National fences in last year’s Topham Trophy. RIP.
Kiama Bay – The Swinton in May should be ideal.
Le Mercurey – Long term.
Tenor Nivernais – Now looks to want three miles.