Before I begin this mammoth task of reviewing the Festive action, I hope you all had a fantastic Christmas and a great New Year with plenty of winners unlike myself. Although there is a lot to look at, I tried to be as selective as possible but like normal, I’ve probably gone overboard. I would like to thank you for the continued support for the blogs over the year and I hope to continue the blog throughout 2015, including the Flat season which I haven’t done in the past.
Kempton is the first place to start the Boxing Day analysis and the card began with a novice hurdle where Jollyallan maintained his unbeaten record over hurdles with a workmanlike success over two very useful rivals in Sempre Medici and Arzal. The winner will need to improve on his jumping but that should be the case on spring ground in the Supreme. Harry Fry was keen to stress post-race that Jollyallan needs more race experience before he wishes to commit him to the Festival, however, his future lies when going chasing next autumn.
The runner up Sempre Medici was probably on the losing end of the argument when blundering away any chance. With the amount of talent the Willie Mullins yard possesses in the novice hurdle division, it wouldn’t be much of a surprise to see this horse be a similar type to Arctic Fire and end up in a race like the County Hurdle where a really strong pace would suit him really well. Considering the pace he went early on, Arzal did extremely well to finish as close as he did. He claimed the notable scalp of West Wizard over course and distance in November and does look a useful yardstick.
The novice handicap chase looked to have some well handicapped horses on paper and Stellar Notion showed here that he still looks capable of plenty more with a lovely round of jumping for Paddy Brennan and Tom George. Making use of his long stride, he made every inch of the running and whilst he made a mistake at the last, there was plenty left in the locker to fend off Knock House. The future looks bright and if his mark is minded, the obvious race in the spring would be the first day of Cheltenham in the novice handicap but in time, he will prove to be better than handicap company.
Knock House ran really well in second having given King’s Palace and Sausalito Sunrise a fair race at Cheltenham before fading to finish last that day. He will definitely win his fair share of big races over fences around this distance. Generous Ransom was doing his best work late on after making an error mid-race and looks as though he will appreciate a step up to three miles sooner rather than later. Keep him on side as the season goes on.
One other I am convinced has a big prize in him over fences or hurdles at this distance is Katgary. Whatever big target he ends up in this spring, he will be worth chancing as although he has been comprehensibly beaten on his three starts, there looks to be a long term plan. River Maigue was a huge disappointment and looks to have gone off the rails.
The Kauto Star Novices Chase looked to have plenty of strength and depth beforehand however the race fell apart big time and went to the horse who jumped by far the best in Coneygree who maintained a good gallop for three miles whilst his main rivals fell by the wayside, most notably Saphir Du Rheu who went at the seventh. This was a famous success for the Bradstock family and for jockey Nico De Boinville with this being their first Grade One success.
The winner didn’t get it his own way early on with Carraig Mor taking him on for the lead before he got too close to the eighth and unseated Noel Fehily and once his main rival Sausalito Sunrise departed six out, the race was left for him as Virak wasn’t travelling and Warden Hill was tailed off.
Trend lovers will make the note that no horse has ever won both this race and the RSA but Coneygree is a thorough stayer and I had my doubts whether Kempton would be a track that would play to his strengths. Cheltenham will definitely suit but the worry there would be if him and King’s Palace take each other on from an early stage. The Reynoldstown at Ascot has been nominated as a potential target before the Festival, a race the Bradstocks won with Coneygree’s half brother Carruthers.
Warden Hill needed riding away from the start and looked outclassed before the carnage took place but won his match race with Virak for second place after the final fence. It’s difficult to know where to go with him with the same comment applying to Virak who was struggling heading into the back straight. It could just be that this race was one too many in this part of the season but the RSA Chase bet looks more hopeful than realistic now.
To the non-finishers, Sausalito Sunrise had jumped well and was keeping tabs with Coneygree when falling in the back straight. Hopefully the injury he picked up isn’t too serious as he still looks an above average staying novice chaser. Carraig Mor had jumped well and set a decent pace with the winner before getting the second in the straight wrong and sending Noel Fehily into the Kempton turf whilst Creepy made a desperate mistake at the fourth and never recovered.
Saphir Du Rheu is becoming incredibly frustrating. He is undoubtedly a huge talent as he proved over hurdles last season and when he won at Exeter; jumping supremely well. He fiddled his way over the first fence but had got into a fine enough rhythm before getting the seventh wrong. Post-race, Paul Nicholls said he would have plenty of schooling which means they haven’t given up with fences just yet but if another incident similar to this were to happen, we could easily see him back over hurdles and potentially lining up in a weakened World Hurdle with big question marks lingering over the main protagonists.
The Christmas Hurdle was seen as a one horse affair beforehand with the exciting talent that is the unbeaten Faugheen dropping back to two miles for the first time since his Punchestown rout back in the spring. Here he never came out of second gear to beat Purple Bay by eight lengths. The only moment of doubt he gave his backers was a slight error at the last but the manner in which he disposes of his rivals just takes your breath away. At this current time with a lack of potential superstars in the National Hunt game, Faugheen is the shining light which the sport needs. He was cut to be as short as even money favourite for the Champion Hurdle and with more improvement still to come, the limitless potential is scary, even though he will face his toughest test to date on the second Tuesday in March against The New One and Jezki.
Purple Bay would be well worth a go in the Champion Hurdle as he has really turned a corner recently with him backing up his Elite win at Wincanton. Whilst he was never going to match Faugheen, he beat the rest convincingly. Blue Heron went out and set the pace but was a sitting duck when Faugheen loomed up alongside going to the second last but he has ran his race. He could easily go to Haydock for their Champion Hurdle Trial next month and whilst he isn’t good enough to win a Champion Hurdle, a lack of runners next month could be an incentive to pick up some good prize money.
Sign Of A Victory travelled strongly but looked to be found out by the softer conditions. He looks difficult to place as he would be carrying near enough top weight in all the competitive two mile handicap hurdles but looks a shade below top class. Sgt Reckless was another to struggle on the ground and looks to need top of the ground so expect to see him out plenty in the spring whilst Irving can be forgiven due to lameness.
With the reversals of Saphir Du Rheu and Irving, Paul Nicholls didn’t need to wait long for his Christmas tonic when Silviniaco Conti took back to back King George’s under a sublime ride from Noel Fehily with a display of front running both Desert Orchid and Kauto Star would have been proud of. Apart from the fourth last where horse and rider looked to have a disagreement, his jumping was superb and he has looked a different horse since the fitting of cheekpieces on his last start at Haydock in the Betfair Chase.
He cemented his position as favourite for the Gold Cup and as Britain’s leading staying chaser. 2015 looks his ideal opportunity to finally get his turn on the Gold Cup roll of honour. No horse has ever done it on their third attempt in the race, however The Fellow won it on his fourth attempt in 1994, having twice gone down agonisingly in photo finishes. Whilst Silviniaco Conti is winning races like the Betfair and King George through his staying ability, three miles on flat tracks compared to three and a quarter on an undulating track could be his undoing come March time. In saying that, he is clearly the one to beat.
Dynaste improved on his Betfair Chase effort back in second, another to benefit from the addition of cheekpieces. He travelled kindly but Silviniaco Conti had the whole field in his grasp turning for home and once he kicked, he wasn’t for catching. Interesting quotes that came out from David Pipe indicate that a route will be plotted back to the Ryanair to defend his crown which would be far better than aiming him at the Gold Cup where he would be a non-stayer.
Nicholls had a 1-3 with Al Ferof filling the same position as he did twelve months ago, running a similar race. This now looks enough proof to suggest a drop back in trip will be of benefit, with Nicholls wanting to convince owner John Hales to have a go at the Champion Chase,a race which he won with One Man, another grey who had stamina limitations when it came to the Gold Cup. With that division looking extremely open, he could easily drop back to two miles and be a key player in the division. The same comments also apply for Champagne Fever who ran far better than he has done at this time of the year in the past. He was keen enough behind Silviniaco Conti but was still travelling really well going to the third last before failing to see out the distance in a one paced fourth. When allowed to go a gallop in March, he could be very dangerous as his display in the Arkle was breathtaking.
Cue Card ran his best race this season but he looks to have become regressive since his injury. The Ryanair would be his ideal target at the Festival, as it would John’s Spirit who ran a brilliant race considering Jonjo O’Neill’s yard aren’t firing at present. A mistake three out did finish his chance but he travelled like he normally does in the big field handicaps we have come accustomed to in which he stalks and pounces late. Menorah hadn’t travelled as well as he did in both the Charlie Hall and the Betfair when making a shuddering mistake at the fourth last. He was probably beaten before he made that error.
Wetherby had the Rowland Meyrick as its feature event on Boxing Day and it looks a potential pointer towards the 2015 Grand National with Dolatulo who stayed on stoutly to see off former winner Cape Tribulation. Back over regulation fences after a spin over the Grand National fences at Aintree in the Grand Sefton, the step up in distance looked to bring about some improvement and a tilt at Aintree in the spring looks the plan.
It’s a shame the owner of Cape Tribulation doesn’t want him to go to Aintree as he would be an ideal National type who jumps well and has a touch of class. He was given his usual patient ride and still looks well handicapped for a big staying handicap chase, probably the Scottish National.
Corrin Wood jumped beautifully out in front and is one that will have Aintree as a main aim considering his trainer but I would have my doubts about him staying although he will be a sight to behold for the first three miles. Cedre Bleu is another going to Aintree in the spring; whether that be the National or the Topham remains to be seen. If the Waley-Cohens have a runner in either Long Run or Oscar Time then expect to see him in the Topham as Charlie Mann has expressed his intent on wanting Sam Waley-Cohen to ride him.
Over in Ireland at Leopardstown, Willie Mullins began his day with another impressive French import success with odds on favourite Alvisio Ville taking the opening contest. You could crab his jumping as it wasn’t particularly tidy but his best leap came at the last and he instantly went clear of his field, winning as he pleased on the bridle. A step up in class will be the next port of call but with the amount of talent within the Mullins yard, it’s difficult to predict where we will see him next. He could turn up in the Deloitte in February, a race won by Vautour on his way to Cheltenham Festival success.
The Knight Frank Juvenile Hurdle looked a formality for Kalkir to increase his reputation for the Triumph Hurdle however the odds on favourite had to settle for second with 33/1 outsider Fiscal Focus landing the spoils on his hurdles debut. A decent enough performer on the flat, he finished second to the globe-trotting Adelaide in a maiden last October at Leopardstown and he handled the ground much better than Kalkir.
Some may look at this as a one off but the winner has got form on better ground as well and is more than entitled to improve upon this effort. Kalkir will still be a key player for the Triumph given a sounder surface Back in fifth, Thunder Zone caught the eye as he wasn’t knocked around much when beaten and looks a similar type to Clarcam who went on to contest the Fred Winter.
Talking of Clarcam, he is now a Grade One winner over fences after a comprehensive performance in a race that took away some of the invincibility that Vautour has possessed. Whilst Vautour underperformed, it would be unfair to ignore the winner who looks a very smart acquisition to chasing and was always travelling far sweeter than the favourite. With Clarcam’s ability to also be as effective on a sounder surface, he would have definite claims in the Arkle, although five year olds have struggled since the weight allowance was taken away.
Vautour never looked happy on the soft ground and did extremely well to recover from a shocking mistake at the fifth last. It was a similar run to that of Champagne Fever in this race twelve months ago and he should return to top form in time for the Festival.
The second day of Kempton’s Christmas Festival featured some humble pie from the past when Vibrato Valtat proved his Sandown win was no fluke when taking the Wayward Lad Novice Chase with the use of tactical speed to beat Three Kingdoms. The Kingmaker at Warwick looks an ideal place to go and although he is a novice, part of me wishes he gets a Champion Chase entry with the division looking so questionable.
Three Kingdoms has surprised a few over fences this season and he looks a smart acquisition. Better ground would have helped his cause and the Grade One at Aintree in the spring will feature high in his plans. Deep Trouble wants better ground as well and was in the process of running a solid race when falling heavily at the last. He looks an ideal type for the novice handicap at the Festival, remembering how he improved for the step up in trip at Punchestown.
God’s Own has now disappointed twice although here he had to make his own running which wouldn’t have suited. He still has plenty of options open for him whilst Grandouet looks finished; a sad sight for the former top class hurdler.
The Desert Orchid Chase looked an ideal place for Balder Succes to get his season back on track but Special Tiara under an inspired Barry Geraghty jumped and galloped his rivals into the ground, with only Balder Succes able to get close to him. It’s a race not really worth analysing in full detail as most of the field were beaten a long way out.
Chepstow hosted its biggest meeting of the year with the two features being the Finale Juvenile Hurdle and the showpiece; the Coral Welsh National. Simon Munir and Issac Souede already have the ante-post favourite for the Triumph Hurdle in Peace And Co but they unleashed another smart prospect in Bristol De Mai who ran out a very easy winner of the Finale under Daryl Jacob for Nigel Twiston-Davies.
The way he disposed of above average juvenile hurdlers with contempt was hugely impressive and the manner in which he galloped to the line suggests there is plenty more to come. Karezak has fairly strong juvenile hurdle form having chased home Hargam on his most recent start at Cheltenham but was made to look pretty ordinary here by Bristol De Mai. The only question mark you can have going forward about the winner would be his ability to handle better ground, having looked extremely comfortable on this soft ground. Of the rest, Golden Doyen didn’t look happy on the ground and although he has won on soft ground at Cheltenham, he never looked like winning. He is worth forgiving and given another chance on better ground.
The Coral Welsh National featured a false start (What is it with Grand Nationals and false starts?!) and a thrilling finish in which Emperor’s Choice just outstayed Benvolio after three miles and five furlongs of Chepstow’s marathon. Although I didn’t write a blog after the Betfair Chase meeting, Emperor’s Choice went into my notebook as he looked to carry plenty of condition that day and duly backed last time out at Sandown. Did I back him here? Of course not.
He was always in the front line and looked as though place claims were at best going to the final fence. But he found his second wind and fought back tenaciously to defy another prominently ridden horse in Benvolio. With his love for soft ground and a stamina test, a return to Haydock for the Grand National Trial would probably be the right place to go and whilst he will probably get an entry for Aintree, he would need testing conditions to feature.
Benvolio did absolutely nothing wrong in defeat having travelled and jumped really well in the first time blinkers. When Glenquest took it up going to the last, he looked the likely winner but he battled back against that rival, only to get past and be overtaken himself by Emperor’s Choice. He is another like the winner who would be a candidate for Haydock’s Grand National Trial but Aintree may come a year too soon. Off his highest mark at the age of 11, Glenquest has ran a great race and whilst his mark’s too low for Aintree, the Irish National looks an ideal place to go.
Monbeg Dude yet again ran his usual consistent race but I’ve questioned for a while whether he actually needs to be ridden with these exaggerated hold up tactics. He’s now a more straightforward horse and also jumps much better than he did two seasons ago. I’m also unsure where to go with him now as the Grand National trip looked to stretch him and he isn’t Gold Cup class. The pre-race fears for Shotgun Paddy were soon realised when making a shocking mistake at the second fence and he was subsequently pulled up at the top of the home straight with a circuit to go.
Although Leopardstown had action on day two, to cut the blog down I have decided to ignore it as the Dial-A-Bet Chase left me scratching my head with Twinlight’s win and no obvious contender emerged for the Champion Chase.
The Christmas Hurdle (Staying version, not Faugheen’s rout again) featured At Fishers Cross on a retrieval mission after a below par effort on his return behind Cole Harden. Again, his jumping wasn’t tidy and it was left to Lieutenant Colonel and Jetson to fight out the finish with the former coming out on top to give Sandra Hughes a second Grade One success after the death of her father Dessie. The step up to three miles definitely brought out some extra improvement and it was a good piece of race riding from Bryan Cooper to keep Davy Russell and Jetson on the rail. The obvious aim is the World Hurdle and he goes there with a more than realistic chance. One thing is for sure, it would raise the roof if he were to succeed.
Although Jetson would be labelled as a handicapper, he has shown his capability to mix it now thrice at the top level and is another in a very open year worth a go in the World Hurdle plus Davy Russell seems to get on really well with him. Front running tactics seemed to be of benefit to him and he can be ridden handier in his races. It was good to see Monksland run a race with plenty of promise on his return to the track for the first time since winning this race two years ago however, you will need to tread carefully with ante-post betting, especially with his issues.
At Fishers Cross. Yet again, the jury’s out. If you fancy some humorous reading about this race, have a look at Lydia Hislop’s excellent Road to Cheltenham blog which also features some intriguing opinions about the Festive period, some I agree with and vice versa. He does clearly have his issues and again, the suggestion from me would be to chasing with him and if that doesn’t work then retire him as he struggles making a shape over hurdles.
Glens Melody was again, a non stayer and all roads should lead back to the Mares Hurdle at the Festival where she will probably take on her more illustrious stablemate Annie Power. One of the main questions going into the race was the well-being of Briar Hill who we haven’t seen since his crunching fall in the Albert Bartlett. The main thing was that he travelled nicely through the race but I’m unsure whether he stopped due to a lack of stamina or his fitness as he is notoriously a lazy horse at home who saves a bit for himself.
The Lexus Chase was the other main Gold Cup trial on show over the Festive period and it threw up probably Ireland’s best chance to win the race in Road To Riches who proved here that he isn’t a one-dimensional horse as he was taken on for the lead and wasn’t flustered at all. He also proved that he is a strong stayer by beating the likes of On His Own and Sam Winner, two horses who revel over the Gold Cup distance and would over further as well. A doubt beforehand the winner was softer ground but he handled it well enough and with his record on better ground, he goes to Cheltenham with a big chance.
If On His Own could jump straight at his fences then he would probably be a Grade One winner as he kept jumping out to his right, suggesting he is better going the other way round. Take nothing away from this effort though as he proved that on his day, he’s a genuine Graded chaser with those two seasons aiming him at the Grand National proving to be pretty wasted. Mind you, I find it hard to believe he got beat on this very card three years ago in the Paddy Power Chase off a mark of 125 when brought down after looking beat. The Bobbyjo at Fairyhouse, a race he won before going on to Cheltenham would be his ideal warm-up.
In my Becher Chase review, I suggested that Sam Winner could have a go at the Gold Cup and potentially be top weight for the Grand National. It is now certain that he would get top weight for Aintree after a career best effort here and I’m beginning to warm a lot more to the horse. Although I wasn’t old enough for the era, he reminds me of a top class chaser from the early 1990’s, the type that would be considered to run in both the Gold Cup and the Grand National.
The first time cheekpieces helped sharpen him up as he wasn’t running in snatches here but the fact he was able to race prominently was more down to the lack of early pace from Road To Riches and On His Own. He did well to recover from an alarming error in front of the stands with a circuit to go and was in front going to the last before being headed on the run-in. Some may criticise the form of this race with Sam Winner being so close up, but over the last two seasons what has he done wrong over fences ignoring his Scottish National flop? Yes, he looked very one-paced at both Cheltenham and Aintree but given a strongly run Gold Cup, he would be a certain stayer plus the cheekpieces would certainly help, as would better ground.
Boston Bob is difficult to write up as he was a never nearer fourth but for the future, I doubt whether the Gold Cup trip would bring about improvement from him, his best form coming arguably over two and a half miles. Carlingford Lough ran a really nice race on his return and looked a serious contender going to the final fence before lack of fitness told. The one thing stopping me from backing him for the Gold Cup was the appalling round of jumping he put up in last season’s RSA.
After the John Durkan, I was very tempted to back Lord Windermere for the Gold Cup but I was left feeling slightly disappointed here. Yes, the ground wasn’t completely in his favour but the impression yet again is all about one day in March which goes against what Jim Culloty said after his return to action. Bob’s Worth sadly looks the force of old and whilst connections were pleased and insisted he would come on for the run, it’s not a similar case to his Haydock run last season where he was caught out by the speed test.
As mentioned above, Simon Munir and Issac Souede have the juvenile hurdle division covered and yet another plausible Triumph Hurdle candidate in Top Notch was unleashed at Newbury. Even though he made it look harder work than the other pair, he was carrying a double penalty and did it well to see off Mick Jazz who travelled ominously well but the winner ground it out, looking more of a stayer than a speedier type. It could be that he needs softer ground to feature in the Triumph but he does give his owners a nice headache to have.
Mick Jazz looks a similar type to his stablemate Activial and it would be no surprise to see him miss Cheltenham this season. Maxie T and Ryeolliean both look horses to keep on the right side of, the former when given a handicap mark and the latter next time out.
The Challow Hurdle on paper looked a small and select field but the whole field all acquitted themselves with a fair bit of promise. It went to the Cheltenham winner Parlour Games who was given a supremely confident ride by Noel Fehily to beat two high class novices in Vyta Du Roc and Blaklion with plenty of patience.
Whilst there is a misconception that horses by his sire Monsun love plenty of juice in the ground, there is a wealth of evidence to suggest he is more effective on faster ground. The Neptune was nominated as his Festival target and on better ground he goes there with a live chance. John Ferguson has really turned a corner this season with some really notable smart performers who are proving to be consistent as well and this was his second Grade One success after Ruacana was fortunate in the Finale Juvenile back in January 2013.
Vyta Du Roc has clearly improved for the step up in trip and upheld the form of his Sandown win, which received ‘a’ boost (as far as I’m gonna go with that word) with Tara Point winning a nothing contest in an easy manner at Taunton. He looks a proper stayer and the Albert Bartlett would probably suit him better than the Neptune as he would get plenty of time to get into a rhythm.
In saying that, he would likely meet Blaklion and over three miles, I’d take Blaklion to reverse this form with both rivals that have finished ahead of him. It wasn’t Ryan Hatch’s fault as he has had to use his horse’s known stamina to try and expose the others but whatever he would have tried, the likely result would have been the same as Parlour Games used his speed from the Flat like he did at Cheltenham. Back over a course and distance where Blaklion excelled a couple of weeks ago, he goes to the Albert Bartlett with a leading chance.
Despite his inexperience and signs of greenness, One Track Mind showed plenty to suggest he has a bright future and to only be beaten six and a half lengths in a fairly strong Grade One at this stage in his career bodes extremely well for the future. He will be in his element once he goes chasing, as will Arpege D’Alene who was outpaced here but looks a real long term prospect and one that Paul Nicholls will do very well with in the coming years. Native River was also well worth a go at this level and didn’t disgrace himself at all. Overall, this looks an above average Challow Hurdle.
The final day of Leopardstown saw Hurricane Fly defend his unbeaten record at Leopardstown in the Ryanair Hurdle, an incredible twenty first Grade One success which showed his trademark battling qualities to see off Jezki again with his stablemate Arctic Fire close up in third. After the race, Willie Mullins declared he was the best horse anyone has ever trained, a high accolade for a horse of his calibre.
The argument now is whether he will return to Prestbury Park to attempt to regain the crown back from Jezki but for whatever reason, he has never shown the sparkle at the Festival which he usually does in Ireland plus with stable-mate Faugheen staking his claims, it could be that he stays at home for Punchestown in the spring. In between that, a record twenty second Grade One awaits back here in January in the Irish Champion Hurdle.
Jezki was the closest he has ever been to Hurricane Fly in defeat and actually out-jumped him at the final flight before The Hurricane dug deep and repelled his younger rival. He will steadily be brought back up to the boil for the defence of his crown but he will face a difficult task to overcome Faugheen and The New One.
Arctic Fire has ran the race of his life back in third and whilst some may question the form with his close proximity, the faster pace compared to the Fighting Fifth would have helped him plenty, especially as an end to end gallop suits him much more. He deserves his chance in a Champion Hurdle but he would be there to potentially steal a place if one of the leading contenders under performs.
What I said about King Of The Picts last time out in the International review stands; a big field handicap off his mark would be extremely realistic. Tiger Roll travelled well until an error two out knocked him back. A step up in trip would be the right way to go with him now.
A deserving mention goes to Carrigmoorna Rock who was an easy winner of the Grade Three Mares Hurdle after the departure of Analifet at the second last having yet to be asked a question. However, I find it hard to believe she would have beaten Carrigmoorna Rock as she would have needed to relish the step up in distance which was the main question going into the race. Carrigmoorna Rock looked to appreciate the step up in distance and the Cheltenham dream for her owners is definitely alive and for a small syndicate of friends who I got the privilege to meet when RaceMaking at Newbury, it would be brilliant for them to own a Festival winner.
The Topaz Novice Chase looked a race full of quality beforehand and didn’t fail to deliver with a strong display of stamina on show from Don Poli who maintained his unbeaten record over fences on ground probably softer than ideal. The Festival target remains up in the air but he would hold a strong chance in either the RSA or the National Hunt Chase, preference for me would be the RSA if they believe him to be a Gold Cup contender for the future. Plus, he would get a strong pace set by King’s Palace and Coneygree to aim at which should see him in his element.
Apache Stronghold is another to have options open for him having jumped and travelled well under different tactics. He was just outstayed by the winner and a drop back in trip wouldn’t go amiss. A race like the PJ Moriarty in February wouldn’t be a bad place to go before making a decision on the JLT or the RSA.
Lots Of Memories tried to make all the running but was firmly put in his place by two smart novices, as was Mala Beach who had conditions to suit here and he looked very one paced back in fourth. Shanahan’s Turn would ideally want better ground but this was still a under-par effort whilst it’s sad to see The Tullow Tank not going on with the promise he showed on chase debut. It could even be that a return hurdling could be on the cards.
New Year’s Day
Cheltenham’s New Year’s Day fixture was highly competitive and featured some potential clues for later on in the season, not just the Festival.
The first race of the 2015 year went to Harry Fry with the likeable Thomas Brown who looked beat on the turn for home but stuck to his task admirably to see off Robinsfirth. Fry said post-race that the horse is still ‘learning about the game’ but you cannot question his attitude as he fought tenaciously and galloped all the way to the line. The Albert Bartlett was mentioned as his preferred option over the Neptune and it’s easy to see why as he looks all about stamina and grinding it out. The runner up improved for the step up in distance and should make a nice chaser next season.
The drop in distance may have proved the undoing of Zeroshadesofgrey having won easily on his last two starts over three miles and he remains a fair prospect for Neil King. He looks to still have a bit of growing to do as well. The Henderson pair of Different Gravey and Birch Hill both looked as though they were going to be tailed off at one stage before both passing beaten horses on the run-in. The latter had a fair reputation but hasn’t exactly gone on since his Point to Point win and the former didn’t improve on his Newbury win. Brother Tedd and As De Mee could be nicely handicapped horses and weren’t completely disgraced.
Mon Parrain appreciated the first time blinkers when taking the staying handicap chase, reminding us of the promise he showed three years ago in the Topham Trophy with the way he travelled and jumped. Although he only beat Our Father by a length, he did it comfortably enough under a lovely ride from Sean Bowen and if the blinkers aren’t just a one trick implement then he will go on from this. The Grand National was mentioned post-race but I feel he wouldn’t have the stamina although if he jumps like he did today, he would give his rider a wonderful spin round for a fair distance, with Paul Nicholls giving a hint that Bowen could potentially keep the ride come Aintree.
Our Father surprisingly has put two runs together for the first time in ages and whilst he has a nice race in him off his mark, caution must be advised. Saint Are got outpaced again and stayed on into third, similar to the Becher Chase. When given good ground in the spring; he will strike. Just A Par was also revitalised by first time blinkers but he does look hard to place but will appreciate better ground.
Nicholls didn’t need to wait long for his next winner as Ptit Zig followed up his impressive Ascot win with another clinical display, beating a very smart opponent in Champagne West. Before his chase debut, comments about him taking his time to come to hand schooling were imprinted in my mind but he now looks a man with the way he attacks his fences. There is always room for improvement but he looks a very exciting proposition and a return to the Festival for the JLT looks the plan.
Having been more in the Saphir Du Rheu camp for the race, this performance has swayed me towards Ptit Zig who unlike his stable-mate hasn’t put a foot wrong over fences. The most exciting part is that he looks as though he could go to the very top over fences and be a major name to take the National Hunt scene by storm.
Champagne West is another leading novice chase contender and he jumped far better than when winning here in December and has improved again. The RSA looks his ideal target with the step up to three miles expected to bring out more and as he can be ridden more patiently, he has every chance to reap the rewards come March. Top Totti jumped fine and will probably mix it over hurdles and fences; a return for the Mares Hurdle is more than likely to be on the cards.
Ned Stark was beaten here but take nothing away from his performance here as he looks a real stayer in the making. His jumping apart from a peck at the fourth last was decent and whilst he probably won’t trouble the principals in the RSA, he looks one to have on side next season, potentially in next season’s Hennessy Gold Cup.
Clondaw Kaempfer looks to find jumping fences easier than hurdling and will have a good race in him come the spring, potentially in handicap company. Little Jon had taken a liberty or two before departing at the final ditch. A confidence booster wouldn’t go amiss for him whilst Urban Hymn never jumped with any fluency and was a major disappointment.
In the International review, Splash Of Ginge got a favourable mention when he unfortunately fell at the fourth last. He made no mistake this time in the feature handicap chase under a new rider in Jamie Bargary who rode him with the confidence of a true professional and made his seven pound claim look hugely valuable. For a small horse, his nimbleness over his fences is a big advantage for him and his leap at the last resembled dear old Fondmort in the Tripleprint back in 2002. His profile is similar to Double Ross who went on to finish third in the JLT and whilst he will go up in the weights, the Byrne Group Plate with a claimer on could be the race with the JLT in particular looking a strong race this year.
Hunt Ball showed he still retains his enthusiasm and went really well from the front. This suggests he still has a big prize in him off his handicap mark; that race potentially being the Topham as he jumped the National fences so well on both his previous visits. Caid Du Berlais ran far better than his previous attempt over course and distance in the December Gold Cup where he was pulled up. The only issue for me is whilst he shaped like further would suit, his Galway Plate effort where he didn’t stay lingers on the mind. The Byrne Group Plate would be the plausible Festival target with the race now returning to its original distance in 2015, having been run over a furlong shorter in 2014.
Rolling Aces has changed somewhat this season. He now shapes like a horse that looks to want a trip these days and he stayed on stoutly up the hill after getting outpaced at a crucial stage. He is one that will go to Aintree in the spring and it wouldn’t surprise entirely were he to get a Grand National entry. He looks unexposed over staying trips and would be a very interesting runner if he took up his chance there.
The one to take from the race is Tenor Nivernais who made a mistake at the fourth last and would have finished much closer but for that. His trainer Venetia Williams has a good record in the Byrne Group Plate having saddled Idole First in 2007 and Something Wells in 2009 to victory and his handicap mark has some leniency.
The most popular result on New Year’s Day for the Cheltenham crowd was Rock On Ruby’s second win at the track this season, giving the runner up Vaniteux eight pounds and beating a fair field as well. This looked a stiffer task and on ground again that was soft enough, his class prevailed. Over this longer trip, he can get himself into a lovely rhythm and he looks so relaxed through his races which is wonderful to see. If he goes to the Festival, the World Hurdle is the only race he will get an entry and I just have my doubts about him seeing out three miles.
Vaniteux is now in a very tricky position as he has been put in his place now by two top class horses when getting weight. A drop back in trip will help him but options seem very limited. Cole Harden ran a race full of promise and stayed on stoutly up the hill, nearly nabbing second from Vaniteux. The 25/1 for the World Hurdle tempts me slightly but it could be that a flatter track suits him more.
The race was a starting point for Beat That; not seen since his win at Punchestown back in the spring. He was keen enough early on but travelled really well before blowing up on the home turn. My enthusiasm has been dampened with his no show at both Newbury and Ascot earlier in the season and I would like to see him have another run before the World Hurdle before wanting to recommit to him.
The last race to be covered is an Exeter beginners chase which featured the return of the highly touted Whisper who was making his belated return after a highly successful spell last season over hurdles but was turned over by Caesar Milan, a horse that had disappointed massively on chase debut behind Ned Stark. The winner improved a great deal for first time cheekpieces and jumped much better here for Nick Scholfield, the second of his three winners on the card. Apart from leaving his back legs in the first open ditch, Whisper jumped nicely enough but looked outpaced by the winner and was never able to cut back the deficit. He will come on plenty for the run and like Beat That, he needs watching next time out.
Eyecatchers from the Festive Period
Generous Ransom – A step up to three miles will help him plenty.
John’s Spirit – Shaped really well with the yard out of form. The Ryanair looks a race he could do very well in.
Thunder Zone – A horse that could be a Fred Winter type.
Sam Winner – Hasn’t done much wrong over fences and deserves a go in the Gold Cup.
Maxie T – Watch out for when he gets a handicap mark.
Ryeolliean – One for next time out.
Arpege D’Alene – A real long term prospect and will be featuring prominently on 2015-16 Horses to Follow.
Ptit Zig – Britain’s best chance in the JLT and continues to improve.
Ned Stark – Keep him onside when he goes up to three miles and beyond.
Tenor Nivernais – Looks an ideal type for the Byrne Group Plate.
Wishfull Dreaming – I haven’t covered the race but he did awfully well to win his bumper having clipped heels.
Drucilla – Ran in Exeter’s bumper on New Year’s Day and showed plenty of greenness but his granddaughter of former Gold Cup runner up and Grand National placed Dubacilla should be winning her share of races.