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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.