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Thread: Lydia Hislop's Road To Cheltenham 2018

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    Super Moderator Diamond Geezer's Avatar
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    Lydia Hislop's Road To Cheltenham 2018

    Always a good read whether you agree with her or not, so will endeavour to keep them all in one thread this season. Starts off with Altiorgate and thoughts on the main championship races

    https://www.sportinglife.com/racing/...ltenham/126612

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    Great from Lydia. I like her even more now she has called out Choc Thornton as a ****.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Digger View Post
    Great from Lydia. I like her even more now she has called out Choc Thornton as a ****.
    He was trying to reignite it again yesterday on Twitter but she didn’t rise to it.

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    I can't take to her find her very irritating.

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    Think television does that to people, they seem to become very self-important.
    Ah! but a man's reach should exceed his grasp......

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    Quote Originally Posted by Colin Phillips View Post
    Think television does that to people, they seem to become very self-important.
    Oh so true, Colin.
    Two's company, three's allowed.

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    Hadn't realised this, hidden away in the article

    "the new British rules, designed to address ailing field sizes, that prevent increase to the rating of any horse beaten in a novice or beginners’ chase (at class 2 and below) provided that horse has raced four times or more over obstacles. Punters need to take notice of this because others clearly have."

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    Quote Originally Posted by tiggers1972 View Post
    I can't take to her find her very irritating.

    I don't know how Lydia handles her knockers.

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    I dont suppose there's any chance of a copy and paste for those of us blocked from the SL at work?
    Alba Gu Brath!

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    Lydia Hislop continues on the Road To Cheltenham with her thoughts on Thistlecrack, Buveur D'Air, two new ante-post bets and much, much more.

    Things really kicked off this week, both in terms of performances and the debate they provoked – on both sides of the Irish Sea. Eyes down: we’re going straight in.

    Timico Gold Cup

    The reaction to Thistlecrack’s comeback in the Long Distance Hurdle – a 13-length defeat – was overwhelmingly negative.

    As a result, bookmakers more than doubled his odds – from an unrealistic starting point, in my opinion, given this horse had been sidelined with a tendon injury – for both the King George and Gold Cup.

    Most observers I encountered also reacted with similar disdain – and you can see why. Beforehand, Colin Tizzard was widely quoted as being pleased with the fitness of his horse. “He’s done plenty of work,” he told the Racing Post. “He’s as fit as we need him for this. He’ll run his race.”

    Assistant trainer and son Joe went further, telling their Coral blog: “I remember going into this same race two years ago, hoping that we had something a bit special but we weren’t sure. In fact I remember we’d missed a bit of work with him, so I told Tom Scudamore that he would improve for the run and he still bolted up.

    “So I think we have him even fitter than we did two years ago. Every box has been ticked. We haven’t missed a piece of work since he’s back in; he’s done everything we’ve asked of him. Remember he hasn’t been off 18 months – he ran at the end of January… so it’s not like he’s been off for ages.

    “There are no real excuses for him really, although clearly it’s his first run of the season and it’s more about the King George and the Gold Cup rather than tomorrow.”

    So Thistlecrack palpably did not run as the Tizzards expected – or at least he didn’t from approaching the second last onwards.

    His past hurdling form – the stuff that saw him imperiously unbeaten in the 2015/16 season, culminating in victory in both the World (as it was then) and Liverpool Hurdles – should have enabled him to beat Unowhatimeanharry (especially in receipt of 6lbs) or, if not fully fit, at least put up a fight.

    As it happened, he travelled on the keen side of strongly towards the fore of the field – ridden by Tom Scudamore as though fitness was of no concern – but was niggled along on the home turn and quickly folded after the third last. His remaining jumps looked instinctive and he was inclined to hang as Scudamore nursed him home with taps down his neck to keep going.

    Confession time: in the immediate aftermath of the race, I asserted the Tizzards would be “pleased” with Thistlecrack’s reappearance. This was clearly wrong given they had left themselves little wriggle-room, but I remain of the view that the post-race negativity – in effect as to whether this horse will be a top-class player again this season – is overblown.

    Thistlecrack during his return to action at Newbury
    Thistlecrack during his return to action at Newbury
    Your take partly depends on what you were expecting from the horse beforehand. The towering pre-race positivity from Team Tizzard evidently contributed to his starting price of 11/10 favourite, as well as the fact he was receiving 6lbs from his supposed main rival and his hurdles form of two seasons ago was by far the best on offer in the race.

    This seemed enough to more than offset the fact he was returning from a serious setback, was ceding race-fitness to all bar one rival and had not jumped a hurdle in public for 19 months. If you’re in the habit of disregarding yak and deeming all such injuries as deal-breakers from an ante-post perspective (as asserted here, passim), it was perfectly conceivable that the horse might completely blow out. Instead he did something in between.

    In a relatively deep Grade Two hurdle not conducted at a total crawl, he travelled with familiar classy contentment albeit occasionally betraying at his obstacles that he’d been chasing last season. He then went from comfortable to beaten pretty quickly.

    Did this race therefore expose a new problem? Apparently not. Asked for his calmer reflections on the previous day, Tizzard senior said on Racing UK last Saturday: “He’s fine. I’ve thought about it and after he tore his tendon he had two months in his box, four out in the field, came back in and had two months walking and cantered for a month and galloped for a month.

    “It was excusable he blew up and right to two out he was as good as anything – you thought he’d win and his class would take him through. We were talking a good story and, on reflection, we were probably talking him up too much. But up to the second-last, it had sounded absolutely right.”

    Asked whether he had enough time to get Thistlecrack back to full fitness for the King George, Tizzard said: “Lots of horses improve massively for one run. It’s the best part of a month and he should be fine.”

    As Paul Jones observed in his ante-post column this week, this might not be the first time that the Tizzards’ instinctively front-foot nature has led them to miscalculate. A similar thing happened with Cue Card’s debut in the Charlie Hall last season prior to his 15-length victory in the Betfair Chase. Yet that horse (albeit with no injury to factor in) was only about 10lbs below his best; Thistlecrack was more than 25lbs shy.

    So for ante-post punters, this raises the alternative scenario that Thistlecrack’s 15 minutes are up – and that’s the interpretation that held sway last weekend.

    Perhaps his injury has shaved away that crucial edge of ability he previously possessed? Another theory knocking about is that Thistlecrack was ‘bottomed’ by the Cotswold Chase in January – that he glimpsed the dark side when dragged to the peak of exertion by Many Clouds, who sadly surpassed it. Such horses are never the same again, goes the hypothesis.

    Given my response to his return was more positive than this, do I fancy him for the King George? No, because I didn’t fancy him anyway – last year’s triumph was set to be inferior to Might Bite’s Kauto Star performance on the clock (until that horse fell at the last) and Thistlecrack beat little of substance as things played out on the day (as argued here last year).

    The 2017 edition is set to be a classier – so Thistlecrack would, in my opinion, not just need to be back to his best but actually be that bit better. I simply don’t expect that to happen.

    That said, if intensive work between now and Kempton doesn’t expose an underlying problem, his form could make a significant recovery, even if falling shy of actual success. In short, I’m disinclined to consider him a back number just yet even if he makes zero ante-post appeal to me and despite the fact he’s rising ten years of age. The clock is undoubtedly ticking, I accept.

    Interestingly, Tizzard junior revealed on Racing UK’s Luck On Sunday that their experience with Thistlecrack has caused them to re-think stablemate Native River’s return to action in the new year. Last season’s Gold Cup third was set to run once prior to his second attempt at the race. Discretion being the better part of valour, they’re now working on two prep runs…

    I hadn’t entirely bought the Native River “keeping him a fresher horse” line; to me, that had meant that the Grand National, rather than the Gold Cup, was the priority given it’s totally out of character for that yard to have a well horse stand in his box for longer than a few seconds.

    This news alters that nuance a tad. Perhaps, in ye olde manoeuvre to utterly baffle BHA Head Of Handicapping Phil Smith, Native River will now cunningly return over hurdles?

    Talking of the National, Willie Mullins believes the Ladbrokes Trophy winner Total Recall is best aimed at the Aintree marathon rather than anything loftier.

    “He’d have to improve another 10lbs to be competitive in a Gold Cup field,” he said. “He looks a Grand National horse to me. That’s the route I would be going.

    “We’ll see what the English handicapper thinks of him and what the Irish handicapper thinks of him, but I’m thinking he’s going to be rated 158 to 160. That warrants an entry into the Gold Cup but he might finish fourth, or fifth or sixth maybe.”

    Immediate bookmaker reaction bizarrely concentrated on the winner rather than Whisper, who had just failed by a neck to concede a stone – and later prompted some excitable comparisons with Denman’s monstrous first Hennessy off the same mark but in an utterly different style.

    Granted, the strong-travelling winner – greatly improved since leaving Sandra Hughes – would have been a tad unfortunate had Paul Townend not got him up near the line, given the inconvenience the runner-up caused by jumping right across him at the second last. Equally, I don’t hold with the view that Davy Russell committed Whisper too soon.

    If anything, as Nicky Henderson confessed afterwards, it was the 4lb penalty for winning a Kempton graduation chase on his seasonal return that greatly contributed to Whisper’s defeat as things panned out. The trainer had won the Hennessy with both Trabolgan and Bobs Worth first time out and is usually not shy of ducking opportunities.

    Whatever, this was clearly a career-best performance from Whisper and one that warrants consideration of a Gold Cup target come March. Yet of course the main implication for this race was the scale of compliment it pays to stablemate Might Bite, who had jumped his rivals silly and was pondering a sly one in the Arkle Bar when permitting Whisper to run him so close in the RSA Chase.

    Nonetheless this was more grown-up from Whisper, for whom the pre-race concern had been his tendency to hit a flat spot would cause him to lose touch with the pace – the equivalent of competitive surrender at Newbury. There was no whiff of that, therefore 20/1 for the Gold Cup – at a meeting in which he thrives – looks long for each-way punters even though he’ll be ten come March. Next stop is apparently the Cotswold Chase.

    Sadly, Coneygree was again pulled up after looking vulnerable from a very early stage. This time, Nico de Boinville reported the horse made a noise. The Bradstocks will get him checked out but it appears a breathing operation beckons. One suspects this is another setback too far for the 2015 Gold Cup hero and his rousing Punchestown Gold Cup effort was his final bravo.

    Also pulled up was American, who failed to make the grade under less forceful tactics than those employed for his best performances at a lower level. Both Harry Fry and Noel Fehily cited his inexperience – a fragile horse, this was only his fourth start – and a preference for more testing ground. The Welsh National may yet figure.

    Apart from inside a neuron deep in Mullins’ unconscious mind, there have still been no definitive plans uttered at this stage for Yorkhill, although last month his trainer dropped out the possibility of switching to hurdles later this term. This makes three seasons in a row of utter bafflement. If Yorkhill didn’t exist, Mullins would need to invent him. Truly, this horse is the muse that inspires his full creative vent.

    Check out Sky Bet's latest Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup odds

    Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase

    There has only been anticipation and yak in this division this week. “Douvan looks great and is in terrific order, so I’m already not looking forward to next Saturday,” the injured Ruby Walsh reported ruefully on Luck On Sunday.

    Do not underestimate the fact that the Tingle Creek is this horse’s toughest assignment yet – even harder than the Champion Chase in which he fractured his pelvis last March or his serial past encounters with Sizing John, who went on to record his peak form to date over three miles and further.

    Returning from that setback, Douvan faces a top-class rival in Fox Norton who’s race-fit, effective at this distance and better suited by underfoot conditions than when the pair last met. In this context, both the 5/6 offered for Saturday’s Sandown clash and the 3/1 for the Champion Chase about Douvan are highly unappealing.

    Whatever happens is bound to impact on Min’s standing in the betting for both the Champion Chase – for which this column took 8/1 last week – and Ryanair. If all proves straightforwardly well with Douvan, then Min will surely head for the longer Festival target. If there is any ambiguity – or, more extremely, if Douvan flops – then everything becomes up for grabs.

    “Whether [Min] goes down the two-mile route or the two-and-a-half-mile route, I don’t know,” Mullins characteristically observed. “We’ll just try to keep [Min and Douvan] apart as much as we can.”

    On Saturday Douvan also faces the improved Politologue at his optimum trip plus potentially the likes of Queen Mum titleholder Special Tiara or his stable companion Ordinary World, last term’s Arkle third, and recent Ascot winner Sir Valentino.

    San Benedeto – beneficiary of stable companion Politologue’s last-fence fall when winning the Grade One Maghull Novices’ Chase in April – heads instead to Sunday’s Peterborough Chase at Huntingdon according to trainer Paul Nicholls.

    Ryanair Chase

    It’s been an even quieter week in this landscape – unless you count the Mullins-trained, Rich Ricci-owned Benie De Dieux winning a mares’ procession – sorry, chase – by eight lengths at Carlisle. She jumped those relatively easy fences from the front with unbending authority.

    However, although she’s quoted as short as 12/1 for the Ryanair, I can’t see Mullins looking in the mouth the gift horse of the improved mares’ chasing programme for an outsider’s tilt at the Festival.

    A quartet of races this weekend – the Tingle Creek, Hilly Way, John Durkan and Peterborough Chases - should shake up this market good and proper.

    Should Un De Sceaux underperform or fail to show and Douvan returns unscathed at Sandown, then I’ll probably have jumped the wrong way with Min.

    If you’d like to take out some insurance against that scenario and don’t mind sacrificing one or two points for the sake of holding two likeable positions with the same horse, Bet365 still offer a very reasonable 10/1 about Min for the Ryanair.

    Unibet Champion Hurdle

    Anything other than unequivocal victory for reigning champion Buveur D’Air in Newcastle’s Grade One Fighting Fifth Hurdle would have been disappointing, as Henderson acknowledged in the aftermath. Good thing it was silky then, if not even requiring anything more than 10lbs-plus below his best form.

    Having tractably sat behind an inadequate pace set by inferior horses, he led at the third last and, despite getting in close to the penultimate flight as match-fit Flying Tiger attempted to land a glove on him, he was by far the quicker away from it and simply breezed clear. Dual past winner Irving then belatedly pounced on a vulnerable Flying Tiger to snatch second.



    ITV Racing

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    Buveur D’Air is highly effective on testing ground – to the extent you wonder how he’d fare over two miles on the fast-ish surface Cheltenham often used to produce on the first day of the Festival. Such thoughts are likely academic these days, however.

    It’s highly conceivable that Buveur D’Air will do better again this term, given he’ll be concentrating on hurdling rather than having to be switched from fences way past half-time. Kempton’s Christmas Hurdle is his next target where, if Mullins’ follow-up aside to my off-camera questioning of his Christmas plans is anything to go by, he won’t be meeting Faugheen.

    After the usual straight bat of “no plans yet”, Mullins offered that he’d probably rather stay closer to home with the much-sidelined 2015 Champion Hurdle winner than travel across the Irish Sea for an early showdown.

    That makes for a pretty dull division until they meet in March – if indeed they do, bearing in mind Faugheen has been a no-show for the past two years. Defi Du Seuil has fluffed his entrance, Apples Jade is largely sticking to the mares’ route and the Mullins-trained Punchestown Festival Grade One winner Cilaos Emery was brushed aside by her in the Hatton’s Grace last Sunday.

    Credible Sky Bet Supreme runner-up Melon remains on the scene, of course, and presumably Arctic Fire is still knocking about (albeit I can find no mention in dispatches), so perhaps Mullins might put one of them on the boat over Christmas. And there’s always Yorkhill…

    At Newbury, High Bridge clawed his way into Champion Hurdle periphery under a well-judged front-running ride from amateur jockey Alex Ferguson. This was a farce of a race in which horses that were held up stood little or no chance and they all finished in a heap.

    With that in mind, last season’s juvenile big-noise Charli Parcs ran far better than the literal form, making up just over three lengths from the third-last to the second-last hurdles before finding that the well-placed and race-fit winner, aided by his rider’s 7lb claim, had plenty left when challenged. It was a tired error that saw Charli Parcs step at the last and he did well to hold on for second from the unpunctual challenges of still-progressive Poppy Kay and, in particular, Master Of Irony. The last named responded markedly to the maximum pressure applied too late by Russell.

    There should be more to come from the runner-up, a four-year-old whom Henderson argued would prefer a sounder surface. That said, the ground was certainly no worse than good-to-soft at Newbury.

    The Betfair Hurdle, over last Saturday’s course and distance, is surely the winner’s target given a mere 3lb rise tempers the appetite for graded conditions events. Yet the same thinking probably applies to Charli Parcs, who was raised a mere 1lb and is surely the better treated of the pair.



    Racing UK

    @Racing_UK
    High Bridge makes all to win the @Ladbrokes Intermediate Hurdle and is now 3-3 @NewburyRacing. #LWC

    Results ▶️ http://bit.ly/2w8fYfO
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    Check out Sky Bet's latest Champion Hurdle odds

    Sun Bets Stayers’ Hurdle

    There was no fluke to the victory of Beer Goggles in last Saturday’s Long Distance Hurdle. Sure, Richard Johnson had him in pole position at the fore – especially when Thistlecrack suddenly folded and Unowhatimeanharry was been busy eyeing that rival – but he’d mostly earned that spot via a series of excellent leaps.

    Just over a length up on Unowhatimeanharry approaching two out and in receipt of 6lbs, the winner largely maintained that disparity until the runner-up had no extra near the line.

    Beer Goggles arrived at Newbury an improving stayer, having won a Newton Abbot handicap in October off 145 and bettered that with third at Aintree last time from a 7lb higher mark. Nonetheless, trainer Richard Woolacott wasn’t making any great claims for the horse he’s improved more than three stone since this time last year.

    “I’m flabbergasted,” he admitted to Rishi Persad on Racing UK in the winner’s enclosure. “We didn’t think he was the class of that.” The horse is set to miss Ascot’s Long Walk Hurdle – seemingly a logical target – for a sally at the Cleeve Hurdle in January. If that indicates an aptitude for Cheltenham, the Stayers’ Hurdle becomes the plan.

    While you would reasonably expect Unowhatimeanharry to reverse this form were this pair to re-oppose on level terms, that isn’t a given because the winner is still on an upward trajectory whereas the runner-up appears to have plateaued. As I mentioned in the first Road of this series, his no-mistakes third in March’s Stayers’ Hurdle indicated Harry is “entirely beatable”.

    Back then, trainer Fry said he’d run “flat” – that imponderable excuse for any observer – but his disappointment last Saturday was palpable. With admirable frankness, he told Racing UK that he’d have been happy with second were his horse chasing home Thistlecrack; anything else was clearly not good enough.

    Unfortunately for Fry’s ambitions, this run was entirely in keeping with Harry’s form last season, give or take a pound or two, which makes 7/1 for the Stayers’ Hurdle even less appealing than 6/1 was a fortnight ago. In comparison, the 25/1 available for Beer Goggles (not to mention good old Lil Rockerfeller at 16/1) is way too big and exposes the market’s in-built bias against less high-profile trainers.

    Third-placed Taquin Du Seuil, making his seasonal debut and a decent fourth behind Yanworth in April’s Grade One Liverpool Hurdle, was nearly four lengths further adrift and never truly able to get involved.

    Fourth-placed Colin’s Sister ran better than it might appear: she was shouldering a 6lb penalty for her Wetherby success and at least mustered a half-challenge in the straight. She is entitled to another chance with full use of her mares’ allowance in the Long Distance Hurdle.

    Wholestone, a two-length second to the mare in the West Yorkshire Hurdle last time, was never a factor in last here.

    Were Apple’s Jade permitted to take on the boys at the Festival, either in the Champion Hurdle or more particularly in this contest, she would be a proper threat with, in her case, a hefty mares’ allowance. Her latest Hatton’s Grace success has been underestimated in some quarters, I think.

    Yet it seems even a nine-length thrashing meted out to titleholder Nichols Canyon cannot persuade trainer Gordon Elliott away from the David Nicholson.

    “We’ll keep her to mares’ races and the OLBG, which she won last season, will be her target. She’ll probably get an entry for the Stayers’ but it’s 100 per cent that she’ll go for the mares’ race,” he stated. “She’ll have a break now. She’s a stronger mare this season and a better one.”

    Of course, nothing is 100 per cent the trainer’s call when Gigginstown Stud is involved but the lure of a bird in the hand is usually primary.

    Nichols Canyon would have finished closer bar for stumbling and pecking on landing two out. He’s usually capable fresh but conceding 7lbs to a match-fit mare as good as Apple’s Jade was always going to be a tough ask.

    His best form came conclusively at three miles last season, too, so this trip was short of what now seems optimum and yet over which he is relatively unexposed.

    Supasundae’s reappearance back in third caused some bookmakers to push him out to 20/1. I can’t fathom why that should have been the case given he was short of room and ultimately squeezed out under four furlongs from home last Sunday and yet, having been relegated to last, stayed on encouragingly for third against better positioned rivals.


    Play Video
    Apple's Jade - Bar One Racing Hatton's Grace Hurdle (2017)
    We know he handles Cheltenham because he won last term’s Coral Cup, we know he’s being targeted at this race because trainer Jessica Harrington said so – and there ain’t another option for him – and we know he’s unexposed but promising at three miles, having made Yanworth (who may yet end up in this division) scrap for the Liverpool Hurdle on his first attempt at the trip.

    It was also soft ground at Fairyhouse and the balance of Supasundae’s form says he’s better on a sound surface. All in all, it would be rude not to take the 20/1.

    Check out Sky Bet's latest Stayers' Hurdle odds

    OLBG Mares’ Hurdle

    To my mind, Apple’s Jade is an improved model this season and – given her trainer is so definitively vocal about her Festival target – it was quite right that she hardened into 6/4 favourite to retain her crown after triumphing in the Hatton’s Grace.

    Neither Vroum Vroum Mag nor Limini – two mares who can be mentioned in the same breath as Apple’s Jade – have raced so far this term. The former was removed at the five-day stage from the John Durkan Chase this Sunday and also missed last month’s Morgiana Hurdle due to lameness.

    Stable companion Augusta Kate again shaped as not quite good enough for this company when beaten more than 34 lengths in sixth by Apple’s Jade last Sunday. Her jumping isn’t quick or accurate enough.

    Lightly raced Karalee, another Ricci-Mullins project and third to Apple’s Jade in a Punchestown Grade One in April, was distinctly disappointing on her seasonal return at Thurles last Thursday – even if she’d prefer a longer trip and perhaps a sounder surface. The winner Dawn Shadow, in receipt of 9lbs, is bound for the Festival’s mares’ novice event.

    Colin’s Sister is no forlorn hope in this race – particularly as she has probably not yet done improving – but whether this two-and-a-half mile trip suits her as much as three miles is not yet proven.

    Novice chasers

    Willoughby Court was clearly far more comfortable returned to a left-handed track and able to score a convincing, clever-jumping victory in the Grade Two Ladbrokes’ Chase over 2m4f at Newbury last Friday.

    He’d jumped repeatedly out to his left when winning on debut at right-handed Huntingdon despite looking in trouble between the final two fences. It wasn’t the first time he’d been undone by such track orientation, having been beaten on his hurdling debut at Market Rasen last term.

    His jumping was notably fluent here and he was perfectly comfortable pressing the pace before drawing clear from the fourth last in a display of total control.

    Jockey de Boinville informed trainer Ben Pauling afterwards that this horse “has more gears” than they’d thought and reflected that he’d run through them rather too quickly here, if given his time again.

    Both agree Willoughby Court will stay three miles in time but that the JLT is the correct Festival target this term. The 2017 Neptune winner is a perfectly credible 8/1 shot for that event.

    Pauling also spoke afterwards of how this horse had become “easier to train” because he lives less “on his nerves” these days. He identified the Grade Two Dipper Novices’ Chase at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day as the next step.



    Newbury Racecourse

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    Willoughby Court (15-8) is now 2-2 over fences as he wins the @Ladbrokes Novices' Chase and completes a double for Nico de Boinville. #LWC
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    At the evident risk of contributing to the irritation of Alan King, I don’t expect Yanworth to cut it as a chaser – or to be more exact, I don’t expect it to happen this season (if at all) and certainly not at the level to which his connections currently expect him to mix.

    At best he’s a slow learner; at worst, he doesn’t possess the requisite skills, frequently landing too statically. What he does have, however, is more game than for which he’s often been given credit. He made a sizeable mistake when meeting the fourth last all wrong and yet responded positively, rather than beating a retreat, to go down by only three lengths at the line.

    “Yanworth made a couple of mistakes and you can’t afford to do that against a horse of the winner’s class,” King conceded afterwards. “But we’ve got round and we’ve been very competitive – and hopefully he will have learned plenty again.

    “It was only his third run over fences and obviously Exeter [where he crumpled tamely on landing last time] wasn’t ideal, but he needed a couple of runs over hurdles to almost man up. These fences are bigger than anywhere in the country, so it’s a good test.”

    Back in third, Adrien Du Pont took a good step forward – despite being keen – on merely his second start over fences. Formerly a decent juvenile hurdler and the beneficiary of a wind operation in July, fences clearly suit him well. Expect him to continue to progress.

    Earlier on the same day, last year’s Imperial Cup sixth Bigmartre clocked the fastest overall time to register a four-and-a-half-length defeat of Cyrname in a two-mile novices’ handicap chase that represents strong form.

    His jumping was delightfully efficient and intelligent (if slightly right-handed at times). He also did well to elude headstrong clutz Hell’s Kitchen – who’d earlier breasted the fourth and unseated Barry Geraghty – running loose at the fourth last.

    Winning trainer Harry Whittington is considering Warwick’s Grade Two Kingmaker Chase next February, with the Grade One Manifesto Chase at Aintree that he won in 2016 with the late Arzal as his ultimate ambition.

    The following day, Elegant Escape announced himself a staying novice of some ability when delivering an unerringly rhythmic round of jumping to win the Grade Two John Francome Novices’ Chase over just shy of three miles.

    Just prior to the race, trainer Tizzard observed that he’d never seen the horse look so well and that he’d tilted at this Grade Two instead of a less vaunted Taunton contest. His boldness was duly rewarded and this five-year-old is clearly going to be a far better chaser than hurdler, as his frame hinted last year when he displayed unlocked ability in good company.

    The result might just have been different had Black Corton jumped the last more fluently, having narrowly headed the winner two out. But Harry Cobden asked Elegant Escape to attack the last and the pair got away from it more readily to score by three-quarters of a length.

    Tizzard was bringing up a straight hat-trick in this event, after triumphing with both Thistlecrack and Native River, and mentioned the RSA Chase as a long-term destination. In the meantime, the Kauto Star – that the yard won, luckily, with Royal Vacation last year – is the obvious next step for Elegant Escape.

    Kempton would likely mean a re-match with Black Corton, who was trying to concede 3lbs to the winner after five successes over fences already this season with conditional find, Bryony Frost, on board. Trainer Nicholls believes the horse is thriving on his busy campaign and didn’t discount a cheeky appearance in a Doncaster Grade Two on Saturday week, either.

    Beaten favourite Fountains Windfall was still in there pitching when falling at the third last. However, there was a sense of inevitability that his round would end in this manner because he wasn’t giving himself time to measure his obstacles and had already guessed at several before coming down. He had showed that he could be clever in putting himself right but when that failed he was tending to bravely fling himself over these fences. Schooling ahoy.

    Sir Ivan ran creditably enough in fourth but is not this grade. Wait For Me, who hit the deck on chase debut at Chepstow last time, is contractually obliged to make at least one error per outing. He was in generous mood here, making several or else spending too much time in the air.

    Over in Ireland, Death Duty is also proving to possess more speed than most people – perhaps primarily trainer Elliott – had imagined this time last year when he was carrying all before him over hurdles only to come up short in the Albert Bartlett.

    That defeat can be read quite a bit better than literally: he was still going well enough when hampered at the second last and, if stamina isn’t his asset, his lack of impact up the final hill is explicable. The one thing he is yet to prove is whether he needs testing ground to be fully effective.

    He jumped persistently left in the early stages of the Grade One 2m4f Drinmore Chase at Fairyhouse last Sunday but had his rivals on the stretch from the third last and drew clear in the straight. This was a ready disposal of some decent horses and Elliott is all set on the JLT – provided Gigginstown don’t overrule him, natch.



    Sporting Life

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    What a day for Gordon Elliott at @Fairyhouse ��

    Mengli Khan ��
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    Runner-up and experienced chaser Rathvinden tried to go with Death Duty from the second last; he may ultimately do better over further and certainly on a sounder surface. Third-placed Snow Falcon wasn’t as well positioned in a steadily run race and ran a decent race on his second chase start over an inadequate trip.

    Presenting Percy was a revelation in winning the Porterstown immediately afterwards. Perhaps he was beating a field of exposed types but he did so in the style of a horse in a totally different league. His jumping was excellent in a biggish field going at a decent pace.

    The mark of 145 was clearly lenient based on his hurdling form – notably that Pertemps success at last season’s Festival – but he travelled strongly, challenged on the bridle two out, was still on the bit when leading approaching the last – which he jumped well – and came home unextended.

    That level of form puts him on a mark of 157 – already 1lb higher than Don Poli’s rating when winning the 2015 RSA and 3lbs higher than Might Bite’s just plain incorrect rating when winning the same race last term; (he could have been rated in the 160s on his Kauto Star performance).

    I would therefore ideally like to recommend Presenting Percy for a Festival bet but the catch is whether he runs in the RSA or the NH Chase and he’s been backed for both in recent days. He certainly appeared greatly at home over 3m5f at Fairyhouse. The 7/1 with Sky Bet ‘To win any Festival race’ isn’t a shabby offer in the circumstances.

    Incidentally, stablemate Mall Dini also caught the eye, late to get involved and then mildly outpaced before staying on strongly for fourth. He’s a second-season chaser and has already been earmarked for the Grand National by one ante-post column. That’s a fair shout.

    In other Irish news, the JP McManus-owned Bon Papa won his chase debut in comfortable style in all but his familiar awkward head carriage. The race wasn’t entirely satisfactory, with Avenir D’Une Vie falling when going okay in the clear five out and owner companion Stand Up And Fight – backed into favourite – being pulled up. Mullins believes the winner needs further.

    The Storyteller also straightforwardly accounted for Sutton Manor and Live Love Laugh at Fairyhouse. He’s not top class but I admire his lack of complexity.

    Novice hurdlers

    In a similar vein to Presenting Percy, I think Mengli Khan’s Grade One Royal Bond success was initially taken for granted somewhat. Unlike the odds for that chaser, his have not further constricted in recent days.

    This was a deep novices’ event run at a good pace and the winner accounted for all rivals by upwards of five-and-a-half lengths in the fastest time of the day. His performance also withstood sectional deconstruction. In short, this was form smart enough to hit the frame in most Supremes.

    Mengli Khan isn’t your archetypal Gigginstown recruit, having been a 96-rated handicapper who stayed at least 11 furlongs on the Flat for Hugo Palmer in his three-year-old days last season. Yet despite this background, he has grown to have the scope even for chasing in future.

    Perhaps because stable companion Samcro has sucked out all available heat and noise from the novice-hurdling scene, Mengli Khan is still on offer at 15/2 with Betfair or 7/1 more widely for the Sky Bet Supreme. Let’s take that. I doubt many – if any – will be able to match the level of form he already boasts come March. He is clearly very effective on soft ground but sounder stuff wouldn’t phase him either.



    Sporting Life

    @SportingLife
    How impressed were you by Mengli Khan's latest win at Fairyhouse today? ����
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    Although the Royal Bond hasn’t had an impact on the Festival in the past two years, Nichols Canyon won the race in 2014 and prior to that the names of Jezki, Dunguib, Hurricane Fly, Newmill, Hardy Eustace, Like-A-Butterfly, Moscow Flyer and Istabraq have all adorned its roll of honour. In short, it tends to be a good source of class acts.

    This year’s renewal looked strong and runner-up Early Doors is also a talented animal. He would have been much closer bar for landing in a heap at the penultimate flight but he gave stolid chase to the winner and pulled 15 lengths clear of his nearest pursuer. He’s progressive and shouldn’t be overlooked just because the winner brushed him aside here.

    Le Richebourg struck me as better than a well-beaten sixth would suggest. On his first start for more than four months, he seemed to get tired from approaching the last and should do better.

    On the same card, novice David’s Charm won the two-mile handicap hurdle off a mark of 134 and now sits at the fore of the County Hurdle market. He was relatively well positioned here.

    At the same track the previous day, Discorama caused something of a shock – perhaps chiefly to his jockey – when managing to nut odds-on favourite Blow By Blow on the line. It was the 66/1 winner’s hurdles debut and trainer Paul Nolan was convinced he wasn’t ready but the horse decided for himself that he was.

    Another performance to note was Real Steel’s Irish debut for Mullins. The trainer noted his French recruit jumping a little big in the early stages but his style improved and he ended up winning the Thurles two-mile maiden by four-and-a-half lengths. Townend suggested a step up in trip would suit.

    At Newbury, Lostintranslation put his superior experience at a decent level to good use when winning Friday’s opening contest – albeit Admiral Barratry might have shaken things up had he not been intent on hanging left throughout the straight.

    Santini made an encouraging racecourse debut two races later, defeating his more practised stablemate Chef Des Obeaux, among others, in a good-looking field. The winner is deemed more of a nascent chaser by trainer Henderson.

    Dame Rose made all to win the opening mares’ novices’ event the following day, turning around her earlier course-and-distance form with Cap Soleil. The winner was less aggressively ridden last time but still managed to make all, unchallenged, and the Festival is on trainer Richard Hobson’s radar. The smart runner-up was below form and looked to be hanging in the straight; perhaps a reason will come to light.

    At Doncaster that same day, Kalashnikov won a slowly run race in taking fashion and thus maintained his unbeaten record. Displaying a low head carriage, he was always well positioned at the fore and jumped into the lead at the third last on the bridle. He negotiated the last two hurdles in good style and stayed on strongly. Trainer Amy Murphy has mentioned the Ballymore (formerly the Neptune).

    Runner-up Irish Prophecy was hitherto also unbeaten – including when gifted a race at the start at Sandown when none of his opponents seemed to want to get involved. Here, he laid down a sustained challenge to the winner until making the slower jump at the last and, finding his spirit quelled thereafter, drifting left on the run-in. Both horses emerge with some credit.

    Earlier in the week, the Henderson-trained Diese Des Bieffes followed up his previous Fontwell success at Taunton but didn’t need to improve to register that second hurdles victory.

    Juvenile hurdlers

    Espoir D’Allen continues to achieve whatever is asked of him over in Ireland, most recently winning a Fairyhouse Grade Three conducted at a total crawl. He settled well, jumped soundly and travelled strongly until asked to settled matters entering the straight.

    Geraghty gave a confident backwards glance approaching the second last to see Mitchouka – already a dual winner – seemingly travelling well enough. Yet despite clipping the top and becoming mildly unbalanced, the winner soon had that horse in trouble on landing. Espoir D’Allen then bounded away for a four-and-a-half-length success.

    In his At The Races blog, Geraghty commented on how well this juvenile jumped – indeed he was confident enough to ask him to attack his obstacles on occasion – and that should stand him in good stead for when he encounters a larger field and a pace other than funereal.

    Owner JP McManus also has Apple’s Shakira topping the current juvenile charts on this side of the Irish Sea but is not averse to running multiple juveniles in the Triumph. That said, the filly would also have the option of the Dawn Run with a four-year-old’s allowance. Both would also be eligible to run in the Supreme.

    At least two decent juveniles clashed at Newcastle last Saturday, recording a time superior to Buveur D’Air’s Fighting Fifth coronation. Ultimately, it was Act Of Valour – a 97-rated ex-Irish performer on the Flat making his debut for Nicholls – who triumphed over fellow newcomer Look My Way.

    Had Tom Scudamore known the runner-up better and were it not that horse’s debut over hurdles, he might have cracked on from a bit further out, for they were closing on the winner at the finish.

    Look My Way’s asset is his stamina – as demonstrated by a 22-length success at Ffos Las in September that caused him to be raised only a generous 11lbs by the official handicapper. He will surely thrive over further in time. Trainer John Quinn has got himself yet another useful dual-purpose prospect.

    Act Of Valour stayed 12 furlongs on the Flat and here jumped better than the second. Both are likely to have Chepstow’s Grade One Finale on their target sheet after dealing readily with such testing conditions.

    Third-placed French recruit Embole was still well in touch when lacking fluency at the third last and being on the back foot as a result. He then rallied to get back in touch at the next, only to fluff that also and lose touch. Given this was only his second-ever racecourse experience – whereas the 1-2 were hardened Flat performers – this rates as highly promising.

    Road To Cheltenham selections

    Already advised: Min at 8/1 Champion Chase with Paddy Power/Betfair
    Back Supasundae for the Stayers’ Hurdle at 20/1 with Bet365 and Betfair/Paddy Power (Log in now and back him at 25/1 with Sky Bet)
    Back Mengli Khan for the Supreme at 15/2 with Betfair Sportsbook (Log in now and back him at 8/1 with Sky Bet)

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    Part 4

    Lydia Hislop takes an in-depth look at Douvan's disappearing act while she's backing one for the Ballymore following the Tingle Creek meeting.
    It’s been an eventful week, with the no-show of a Festival flop swiftly succeeded by the glorious return of a Cheltenham hero grabbing most of the headlines.
    SKY BET ROAD TO CHELTENHAM EXCLUSIVE BOOST: Sky Bet have boosted Lydia's selection 'On The Blind Side' to an industry-best 12/1 for the Ballymore Novices' Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival. Maximum stake £50 - log-in and click here to place your bets.
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    Another week and the other of the two horses dominating this ante-post market failed to appear as advertised. This time it was Douvan who sent belated apologies.
    We haven’t seen him in action since he sustained a stress fracture of the pelvis when contesting this Cheltenham Festival event in March but the Tingle Creek had long been identified as his likely comeback vehicle.
    All seemed to be going to plan, albeit that on At The Races the preceding Sunday an abruptly elliptical Mullins stressed in an interview with Matt Chapman that Douvan had “a couple of crucial bits of work to do between now and then and we’ll see what happens after that”. The same applied to Un De Sceaux and Djakadam, he also later added.
    (If you’re registered for the ATR website, you can still watch that interview: it’s posted under ‘Latest At The Races Clips’, dated 4th December and titled ‘Willie Mullins exclusive interview’. It’s worth watching, for reasons we will return to. Reference to Douvan starts at 03:06 but you’ll get a better feel for the interview if you watch it from the start.)
    As it turned out, while the other two horses presumably came through these “couple of crucial bits of work” to their trainer’s satisfaction, Douvan did not. “He did a fantastic bit of work on Tuesday… delighted with him,” said Mullins on ATR last Thursday. “All he had to do then was ride out yesterday and today, which he did…
    “He even did a small little bit of a blow-out this morning and because we knew there were no ferries going out of Ireland today…[details about ferries]…I gave him a little pipe-opener because he wouldn’t be able to do much when he’d have arrived there…
    “And I just wasn’t happy with him. And I said, you know what? What’s the point with him going across to England? I wouldn’t be there the morning of the race and I thought I’m not going to leave it up to someone else to have to make a decision. So I thought: better off to take a pull now and wait and we’ll see how he is ourselves over the weekend.”
    (You can also view that interview, posted under ‘Latest At The Races Clips’, dated 8th December and titled ‘Douvan ruled out of Tingle Creek’.)
    In yet another ATR interview with Mick Fitzgerald on Monday [also on the website, full marks for thoroughness], Mullins elaborated: “He’s ridden out every day this week [but] he just wasn’t 100% right. I wasn’t going to send him over to England and ask one of my staff to make the decision on whether he should run or not. I wasn’t going to go over that early to make that decision either and I just thought, you know what, if you’re in doubt just pull out.
    “We have the whole season to go, you know; the Tingle Creek is neither here nor there for us. Hopefully he’ll be all right at Christmas.”
    This episode prompted swift comparisons with Nicky Henderson’s handling of Altior’s setback, including by those who felt insufficient comparisons had been made. There were indeed some features of overlap and yet also some key points of difference.
    In both cases, it essentially boils down to a horse, widely announced to be running in a particular race, developing a problem – to a greater or seemingly lesser degree – during the preparation for that race.
    In Henderson’s case, his subsequent statements betrayed that when questioned he had made positive noises about Altior’s participation when in fact there was already some doubt – albeit not a definitive problem that he could announce.
    Mullins’ testimony revealed no such contradictions (that I saw): he had openly stated that Douvan’s Tingle Creek participation was conditional and not absolute (which – newsflash – is the inherent risk for every horse you back ante-post). He subsequently said he only developed concerns about Douvan on Thursday morning and therefore, in the subsequent hours or minutes, did not declare him for Sandown.
    As in Altior-cough-gate, an exchange drift and bookmakers’ suspension of the Tingle Creek market pre-dated official news of Douvan’s non-participation, suggesting negative vibes were detectable to somebody prior to Thursday. That means internal procedures and top-down regard for the integrity of information likely to impact on betting markets needs tightening as much at Closutton as it does at Seven Barrows.
    There is also a bookmaking angle: whereas Henderson blogs for Unibet, Douvan’s owner Rich Ricci is chairman of BetBright and that – again – generates among the betting public the perception of a potential conflict of interests. That is why modern racehorse stables and their circles of trust (such as owners, staff, vets, farriers, etc.) require conduct that is beyond such reproach.
    But unless you want to call Mullins a liar, punters must be sufficiently adult to accept that – provided they are kept informed of connections’ current thinking in a timely manner – plans change and stuff happens. If you don’t like that risk, don’t bet ante-post – or perhaps at all. It’s not as if there’s much juice in most ante-post markets these days anyway.
    With that in mind, let’s address the more nuanced element of what took place last week. To reiterate: these next few paragraphs are an adult-only zone. If you find you can’t accept the above reasoning and yet also stretch your empathy to accommodate the following, please don’t come tweeting to me about it.
    Returning to that 4th December ATR clip at 03:06, Mullins is asked by Chapman to agree with various reports that Douvan “has got his swagger back”. Mullins replied, with conspicuous if not uncharacteristic brevity: “He seems fine at home; we’re very pleased with him.”
    Pressed by Chapman, Mullins attempts equivocation and then mentions the “couple of crucial bits of work” but later, when cajoled further, says: “Can we move on to the next race, Matt?” Pleasingly, Chapman ploughed on: “But you never quite felt he was at his best last season, even when he was winning – is that fair?”
    Mullins responded: “I thought he should have been giving me more, considering what he’d been doing the previous season; I thought he should have improved more. This year he looks like he might do that.”
    Now, we’ve talked before in this season’s Road about how such comments, voiced by both Ricci and Mullins, are (at best) after-timing and (at worst) a dispiriting lack of candid communication – from the team that brought you Vautour’s late late switch to the Ryanair back in 2016. There was no mention of any doubts with Douvan last term – indeed, quite the opposite.
    Why mention this? Well, primarily to drive home this column’s weltanschauung: we are interested in actions not words. Some scrutinisers – too subtle for me – discerned tepid interest from Mullins in the Tingle Creek project a long way off – and that 4th December interview can certainly be read that way.
    Did it require merely the slightest tepidity from Douvan’s work to convince Mullins to pull the plug? And/or is his no-show indicative of an ongoing sense of vague dissatisfaction with the horse? It’s not as if the travelling away from his trainer was ultimately the deal-breaker because Mullins also chose not to take up Douvan’s alternative entries at Cork and Punchestown.
    One thing we do know (I and others would assert) is that we won’t be seeing Douvan in the King George. That dream is dead. Again. There is no chance on earth that Mullins would step up to a new trip as his next move. You can surely forget 12/1 the Gold Cup, to boot – if that was ever a credible outcome.
    In fact, if Douvan comes back at Christmas seemingly as good as ever, I would suggest that increases the likelihood of him sticking religiously to two miles and of Min pitching up in the Ryanair, to the chagrin of this column’s ante-post assertion. (He’s a still-fair 8/1 for that race, if you’re of a safety-first mindset and fancy a saver.)
    However, that penultimate sentence actually contains two (no pun intended) conditionals – why not join Mullins if you can’t beat him? If Douvan comes back. And: if Douvan is seemingly as good as ever.
    The former ‘if’ is a risk any time, any place, anywhere but Christmas will be the second time already this season that this horse has been due to race – which is why a surprisingly solid 3/1 for the Champion Chase is even less appealing than it was this time last week.
    The latter ‘if’ tackles a costly assumption at the price. If he doesn’t shine, I’d argue that his connections, who claim to have been vaguely dissatisfied with him for one reason or another for a year now, will be tempted to try something new… (And that’s even before we start to evaluate what repeatedly beating Sizing John at two miles actually means.)
    That said, where Mullins is concerned we must not forget what I’ll think of as The Quevega Rule. He referred to it himself: “The Tingle Creek is neither here nor there for us.” Grade One winners en route (perhaps especially British ones) are valued little compared with the Festivals primarily at Cheltenham but also at Punchestown.
    The season-long absence from games of a Mullins-trained horse is more of a subsidence-prone foundation for a contrary case than with most other stables. As a natural-born sceptic, I have learned this the hard way.
    All of which cod psychoanalysis leaves this column in danger of the sort of brickbat tweet trainer Nick Williams aimed at Chapman last Saturday, which (I assume) got short shrift in the latter’s On The Line show:




    Nonetheless, let’s broadly acknowledge Williams’ point and turn to by far the most tangible piece of information in this division in the past seven days: the coming of age of Politologue in a Douvan-less Tingle Creek, considered a gimme for Fox Norton.
    Politologue had finally convinced all those closely involved with him that two-mile chasing was his preferred métier when all but winning the Grade One Maghull Novices’ Chase at Aintree last April.
    He was then getting the better of Forest Bihan when failing to fully engage his landing gear a couple of strides after jumping the last cleanly. In the end, stablemate San Benedeto – outpaced into errors when beaten twelve-and-a-half lengths at Sandown last Saturday – managed to run down the lonely left-in-leader on the line.
    As a general rule, I don’t like odd falls but I’m giving Politologue a free pass because his absolute asset is highly efficient jumping. That’s why holding him up to get longer trips last season (such as when fourth in the JLT) was never going to play to his strengths. These demanded a relatively positive ride over the minimum trip – as I recall Steve Mellish arguing on Racing UK during his analysis of his Grade Two Ascot success over 2m5f last December.
    On that day in history, trainer Paul Nicholls responded: “He doesn’t tell us he’s a two-mile horse at home. If the ground was very testing, that might be a different ball-game. Cheltenham for the Arkle is a very sharp easy two and I wouldn’t ever be looking at him as a Champion Chase horse.
    “He’s a stayer really but at the moment I’m not that keen on going three miles with him, although I haven’t discussed it with John [Hales, the horse’s owner] yet. So middle distances this year and then if we’re going to go three [miles], that will be next year.”
    Yet Nicholls clearly warmed to the contrary argument when presented with fresh evidence, as any rational human being does, and acknowledged after the Tingle Creek that Politologue had been running over the wrong trip last season. Of course, if it wasn’t for that meddling owner…
    “John has always wanted Politologue to be a Gold Cup horse,” said Nicholls. “And that’s why we tried to make him a three-miler. I thought at Haydock and Cheltenham last year we were doing the wrong thing so we went to Aintree. He was unlucky that day so that’s why we’re back to two miles.
    “I suspect we’ll go to Ascot now [for the Clarence House] and then on to Cheltenham. At his age, he should only get better.”
    Politlogue has been fairly accused of weak finishing but that has mostly been over further, even including his seasonal debut – another factor in his finishing effort – success in the 2m1.5f Haldon Gold Cup last month. There was no sign of a tame finish at Aintree, however, nor indeed at Sandown where only Fox Norton made any inroads on his lead from the last.
    I’ve seen it argued that Fox Norton would have beaten Politologue with a cleaner round of jumping. First, I don’t buy that: although he was undoubtedly inconvenienced by an awkward approach to, and mistake at, the second last and gained about a length-and-a-half on the winner from the last, at the line he was being held. Second, one factor begat the other: it’s because Fox Norton isn’t as pacey a two-miler as Politilogue (or, indeed, as Ar Mad or Special Tiara) that he’s induced to make those errors.
    Fox Norton had already been niggled along after the last of the formidable Railway Fences in the back straight; both Ar Mad and Charbel travelled better for longer than he did. It was his intrinsic class and fight that got him so close to Politlogue in conditions that favoured the winner.
    A bog underfoot might have slowed the pace in the runner-up’s favour but the winner is very adept in testing ground and Fox Norton’s best form – winning Aintree’s Grade One Melling Chase – came on a sound-surface 2m4f. Swings and roundabouts. There’s more on Fox Norton in the Ryanair section.
    Will Politologue get up Cheltenham’s final pitiless hill? I’m somewhere in between: I am sure this consideration will be heavily overplayed in the coming months and yet I suspect there are stronger finishers around with just as much mid-race pace – Altior being the obvious one, if he’s there in March.
    It was clearly the trip – and perhaps even the company? – that beat Politologue in last term’s JLT; it was nothing to do with the final hill. Let’s say risking him was a far more tempting prospect at 16/1 than the existing 8/1 (in one place, Coral).
    That said, there is absolutely no ambiguity about where he will run at the Festival and he is thriving. Not one of the four horses consistently as short or shorter than him in the Champion Chase market with all bookmakers (acknowledging that Coral offer 5/1 about Yorkhill in the unlikely scenario he runs in the right race) can boast both of those things.
    To tidy up the Tingle Creek, this was much better from Ar Mad given he’d last been seen pulling up in the Haldon Gold Cup. He was, of course, cut down in his pomp by injury when careering towards the Arkle two seasons ago and raced only once last term – an extremely good fourth to Un De Sceaux in last year’s edition of this race.
    Last Saturday, he didn’t jump with the fluency required to capitalise on the pace he himself set but he wasn’t a spent force until after the last. He has reserved his best form for Sandown to date but this was nonetheless encouraging and it would be lovely to see him build on it.
    Whether he will be as effective racing left-handed remains a concern but that would be irrelevant if he heads next to the King George – a target trainer Gary Moore initially had in mind for him this time last year.
    A rapidly diminishing head further behind him at the line in the Tingle Creek was Charbel – the horse who was famously upsides Altior when falling at the second last in March’s Arkle but ran tamely at Aintree three weeks later. His seasonal debut over hurdles had been only respectable.
    First-time cheekpieces and a return to the larger obstacles both appeared to help him get his mojo back. He couldn’t match the winner’s neat jumping in the back straight but hung on in there and was still travelling well enough after the Pond Fence. He hit the penultimate flight but stayed on strongly up the final hill to almost catch Ar Mad come the line.
    The plan had been to contest the 2m4f Peterborough Chase until Douvan’s absence caused the Tingle Creek to be reopened and the weather forecast had also placed Huntingdon’s fixture in doubt.
    It will be interesting to see how he fares if trainer Kim Bailey does now step him up in trip. On all known evidence, good though he is, he’s not going to make it to the top over two miles.
    Nicholls has also concluded that San Benedeto is wanting in this grade over two miles, albeit he felt the ground was tackier than the horse would prefer. The Grade Two Desert Orchid remains a Christmas option, however.
    It is very sad that the highly likeable Sir Valentino suffered a fatal injury in his last-fence fall at Sandown, so soon after returning to his best at Ascot. Massive condolences to all those connected with him.




    Ryanair Chase
    The words of Ruby Walsh were ringing in my ears as I watched Cork’s Grade Two Hilly Way Chase develop into a procession. To paraphrase: in testing ground, Un De Sceaux just keeps going at a sustained pace other horses can only manage on better ground.
    To put last Sunday’s going into some context, the last two races on the card were abandoned. Yet if anything, the Ryanair titleholder wanted to go faster. Even at the pace jockey David Mullins permitted, though, he forced his rivals into various errors.
    The headlong Alisier D’Irlande couldn’t get to the front and soon dropped away, his jumping unraveling. Ballyoisin – deemed by the market to be the winner’s main rival after his Down Royal second to Disko last month – made a relatively early mistake and then lost touch; having barely clambered through the third last, it was surprising to see Barry Geraghty ask him to complete. They took an exhausted fall at the next fence. Clarcam jumped slowly at the fourth and was soon allowed to pootle round at a distance.
    Only Top Gamble was able to attempt keeping the winner honest but he was being urged along after jumping left fully four fences from home. He could never land anything resembling a blow on the winner.
    It will be interesting to see whether Mullins fancies taking on Politologue over 2m1f in Ascot’s Clarence House Chase in January – the race he won last year with Un De Sceaux prior to stepping that horse up in trip for the Ryanair, for the first time beyond 2m2f over fences and outside of France where races tend to develop differently.
    That decision will probably hinge on the state of Ascot’s ground at the time, Un De Sceaux these days being widely acknowledged as needing a test at around two miles. Were it to happen, that would be some clash because the young improver Politilogue is fully functional both in heavy ground and at that track.
    You can now back Fox Norton for the Ryanair at the longest price he’s been since the start of the season – 6/1 with Betfair Sportsbook – which is odd, given he’s surely now more likely than before to be targeted at this race.
    Colin Tizzard interpreted the Tingle Creek as a definitive sign that Fox Norton should be going up in trip. “As Robbie [Power, his jockey] said, he missed the first a bit and was always chasing after that. He never got there,” Tizzard said.
    “He got a bit close to the last and Paul’s horse [the Nicholls-trained Politologue] was away. He was beaten by a better horse on the day. I’d say we’ll step up in trip now.”
    Tizzard has frequently mentioned the King George as a potential option and were Sizing John not to show his face at Kempton (more of which in the next section), then Fox Norton could easily become the late Potts’ representative at Kempton this Boxing Day.
    He’d need to win that well to be considered a Gold Cup candidate when his late owners’ family already have the reigning champion – and this year’s King George is shaping up to be a strong edition.
    If he does run in the Ryanair, I can’t see three horses being good enough to beat him: he handles Cheltenham, Festival ground, stays 2m4f well and is a proven top 160s horse. 6/1 each-way is very fair.
    Beyond these races, there was less impact on the Ryanair over the past seven days than scheduled due to the abandonment of Huntingdon – meaning the Peterborough Chase will be staged at Taunton this week (well done for keeping it on a right-handed track) – and the apparently unexplained non-appearance of the aforementioned Disko in the John Durkan.
    There have and will be calls for Djakadam to drop to 2m5f for the Ryanair. As before, this argument requires you to have closed your eyes as Sizing John carelessly outpaced him on landing three out at Punchestown last Sunday (even if the runner-up was said to be less fit than usual).
    Last term’s Ryanair second Sub Lieutenant was part of the race proper for the John Durkan, with Sizing John and Djakadam, and performed creditably but without ever looking threatening. He’s probably better on a sounder surface, mind. Back in fourth, A Toi Phil had been settled further off the pace but on paper ran as well as could be expected.
    Sticking to the Gigginstown theme, Alpha Des Obeaux was well beaten at Aintree last Saturday albeit on the heavy ground he has never liked in the past. His lingering health problems suggest we may have witnessed his peak some time past – over hurdles and behind Thistlecrack.
    Cloudy Dream finished runner-up in that Grade Two named in honour of his owner Trevor Hemmings’ magnificent 2015 Grand National hero, the late Many Clouds – outstayed and, in the circumstances, out-jumped by an attacking Definitly Red. Heavy ground – which he doesn’t like – was probably not the best circumstance in which to try three miles for the first time but it’s understandable that Hemmings was keen to be represented in the race.
    Perhaps counter-intuitively, I’d like to see positive tactics on Cloudy Dream on good spring ground in something like… the Ryanair. He’s a good jumper who seems to get out-sped late – another man’s weak finisher – so I’d like to see a tactical rethink over shy of three miles. That way, he may yet develop into more than a fringe player.
    Flying Angel will have to prove that most nebulous of entities, “a spring horse”, if he’s going to make an impact in this division. Although his last two starts read respectably on paper, in actuality he’s scarcely getting involved in his races so far this term.


    Un De Sceaux, as Ruby Walsh says: 'Keeps going at a sustained pace in testing ground other horses can only manage on better ground'

    Timico Gold Cup
    While winning the John Durkan by an unextended seven lengths, Sizing John had time for a quiet chortle at the theory that he’d done too much too quickly, culminating in the ever-arduous Gold Cup, to be considered a comparable force this season.
    That’s not to say it was a worry-free outing: he made a sizeable blunder (pun intended) at the second fence yet not only proved untroubled by it but often impressive at his fences in the latter stages – in particular when taking a narrow lead on landing at the third last.
    Trainer Jessica Harrington’s decision to dodge a heavy-ground three-mile event in the Betfair Chase in favour of this target looks well judged. It appears this may be a tactic she repeats because she would not confirm that we would see this horse running again over Christmas in either the King George or What-Was-The-Lexus. Only the Gold Cup is on her mind.
    Djakadam must be regretting how angry Douvan’s disappearing pink-and-green silks must have made Sizing John because he’s now being forced repeatedly to play the earnest bridesmaid’s role in the same Ricci silks whenever they meet.
    The dual Gold Cup runner-up gave the current titleholder a fright at Punchestown in April – the tail end of a fabulously tough campaign for the winner – but was well held at Cheltenham in March and frankly humiliated here, albeit he stuck to his task well.
    I’m far from sure the King George will prove his bag – even if I don’t doubt he’ll strip much fitter for it, sharp right-handed tracks aren’t his optimum – and I can’t help but feel his moment has passed. I’m sorry, Djakadam, it’s not me; it’s you. Let’s be mature about this and walk away with some good memories.
    Carlingford Lough’s largely irrelevant performance back in fifth spoke of a Grand National target. Notably, Shaneshill was reported to have been coughing after pulling up in this race, having soon become well detached fro the rest of the field.
    Two other potential Gold Cup outsiders were in the winning enclosure at Aintree last Saturday: Blaklion, well-backed to win the Becher Chase over the National fences at 7/4, and Definitly Red, foot-perfect to make all over the Mildmay Course under a well-judged Danny Cook ride.Betfair Chase hero
    However, the Grand National will surely be Plan A for both. Blaklion was an excellent fourth on his first attempt at the Aintree marathon last season. Definitly Red was taken out of the race when hampered at Becher’s Brook first time around, presumably causing the saddle to slip. He was pulled up two fences later.
    Both successes also gilded the lily of subsequent processional Bristol De Mai, who beat Blaklion by half a length in receipt of 6lbs, and Definitly Red by 23 lengths further.
    In other news, Harrington has reported that Our Duke’s back operation has been successful and he is due to start cantering soon, with the Irish Gold Cup in February being his immediate target.
    Meanwhile, Acapella Bourgeois was beaten in a handicap at odds-on from a mark of 149, making this likely to be the last update on that Mullins recruit.
    Finally, there must be a chance that Disko could develop – or, with no say in the matter, be developed – into the primary Gold Cup candidate for the Gigginstown Stud.
    Unusually for the operation that brought you Don Cossack, Don Poli, Road To Riches and Empire Of Dirt in recent years, their big-race representative is not at this stage obvious. Road To Respect, second behind Outlander in Down Royal’s Champion Chase on seasonal debut, and Valseur Lido, sidelined since last December, are other candidates.


    Sizing John: It's all about the Cheltenham Gold Cup again

    Unibet Champion Hurdle
    At Sandown last Saturday, chase switcher A Hare Breadth delivered his best performance yet over hurdles in beating Caid Du Lin by half a length from a mark of 139. Healthily for the sport of horseracing, reportedly we won’t be seeing the winner again until the Festival’s County Hurdle. What a waste.
    Sun Bets Stayers’ Hurdle
    Nothing doing in this division but Saturday week’s Grade One Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot is sizing up to be a cracker.
    OLBG Mares’ Hurdle
    There are signs that last season’s third Limini is in the land of the living, with an entry in the three-mile Leopardstown Grade One over Christmas. However, stable companion Vroum Vroum Mag, last term’s runner-up, was withdrawn from her intended November comeback due to lameness and is yet to be rescheduled.
    Titleholder Apple’s Jade, seemingly an improved model already this season, could also have the Leopardstown race on her itinerary but she’s also entered over two miles at the same fixture as well as in the Long Walk.
    Novice chasers
    Much as I am a fan of the horse, it was surprising to witness Sceau Royal running away with the Grade One Henry VIII Novices’ Chase to the extent that jockey Daryl Jacob could take a pull after the Pond Fence and still win by 11 lengths.
    Given his relatively minimalist frame – he was dwarfed by Brain Power when they engaged battle in the straight – I hadn’t been convinced chasing would suit but there were shades of fellow economy-sized recruit Top Notch (also in the ownership of Simon Munir and Isaac Souede) in the accuracy of his jumping at Sandown.
    Trainer Alan King afterwards admitted that he feared Sceau Royal was 10lbs off what might be required to win this Sandown event but instead he was comfortably the best in a faster time (albeit that is not uncommon) than the Tingle Creek over the same course and distance.
    The margin of his victory might have been exaggerated via being ideally positioned to watch on as Brain Power was perhaps induced to do a tad too much in seeing off various challengers, however he still needed the natural cruising speed to be able to achieve this.
    As a hurdler, Sceau Royal impressed with his slickness over those smaller obstacles and the economy of his jumping over fences was also notable.
    You can feasibly argue he hasn’t built on early-season form for the last two terms – particularly as a juvenile, when he might have had the excuse of his yard being under the weather in the spring. In the Champion Hurdle in March, however, he was exposed as merely a first-division player.
    On that day, Petit Mouchoir – currently sidelined but scheduled to return in the Irish Arkle in February, according to trainer Henry De Bromhead – and Footpad – in the same ownership as Sceau Royal – were both comfortably his superior. Both have already taken well to fences.
    Anthony Bromley, racing manager to Munir and Souede, has pointed out that it’s perfectly possible both Footpad and Sceau Royal could run against each other in the Arkle – after all they have run in the same Festival race for the past two seasons.
    However, there were less alluring alternatives in those years and it could well be, when it comes down to it, that having a viable contender in both the Arkle and JLT will hold plenty of appeal. Of the two, I suspect Footpad is the better equipped for stepping up in trip.
    Brain Power would have been a decisive second had he not hit the last, stumbled and unseated David Mullins. I take a positive view of that performance and believe some bookmaker reaction, pushing him out to 14/1 for the Arkle, was overly negative.
    The question of his suitability for Grade One left-handed targets remains but he’s surely well capable of winning chases at the top level. But both North Hill Harvey and Capitaine had their chance.
    The former pressed Brain Power in the back straight and even headed him on landing after the first of the Railway Fences but was already in trouble approaching the Pond. This was rather tame compared to his previous Cheltenham success. It might be worth noting that this was only his second career start racing right-handed.
    Capitaine was typically keen and hung on in there until the second last where, under pressure to stay in touch, he didn’t quite get high enough and crumpled on landing.
    Finian’s Oscar had won a far from an error-free affair at Cheltenham last time – a performance that suggested a drop down to two miles would be unlikely to suit. So it proved. However, he was never really travelling from the moment he was ridden into the first fence and dove at it. His jumping was also not up to scratch
    Over in Ireland, Avenir D’Une Vie won a Punchestown beginners’ chase pretty much unchallenged and could face Footpad at Leopardstown over Christmas. He’d previously been clear when falling in the race won by Bon Papa last month.
    Runner-up here was Saturnas, making his chase debut after disappointing at Punchestown Grade One novices’ hurdle when last seen in February. More patiently ridden than the winner, he needed a really good jump at the second last to get involved and instead lunged at it. He stuck on likeably, however, and may do better upped in trip.
    At Navan last Saturday, Tombstone got the better of Jett in an edition of the Grade Three Klairon Davis Novice Chase primarily notable for the total number of mistakes made by the four-strong field.
    It was hard to credit Invitation Only having fallen on his chase debut behind Monalee at Punchestown last month, so well did he jump when winning a beginners’ chase over 2m4f on the same card. He made all to win but was strongly challenged by Any Second Now – a six-length second to Monalee that previous day – from a long way out until approaching the last in what struck as a strong contest. A step up to three miles is on the winner’s agenda.
    Back in third, Moulin A Vent also took a good step forward on his debut over the larger obstacles.
    Other performances to note from the past week include Albert Bartlett fifth Ami Desbois maintaining his unbeaten record over fences in a match at Wetherby and Barney Dwan stepping up on his debut to win by a wide margin at Market Rasen.
    I also omitted to mention last week a performance that I suspect some have under-rated: the Plumpton success of Optimus Prime. He jumped well and looked smart, so don’t underestimate this Dan Skelton-trained chaser when he next appears.


    Sceau Royal: Economic over his fences

    Novice hurdlers
    I doubt there will be three horses better than On The Blind Side in the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival, hence I’m recommending backing him each-way at 10/1. I realise this is a major affront to Next Coming Samcro’s many devotees but my concession to you is the place part of the bet. Secretly, though, I’m not scared.
    Prior to Sandown, there had been a difference of opinion, Geoffrey, between trainer and jockey about what would be the ideal trip for On The Blind Side. Henderson said Ballymore; Nico de Boinville thought three miles and the Albert Bartlett. On dismounting last Friday, the latter bowed to the former’s judgment.
    This horse is no potato and he demonstrated that when travelling far better than previously to win that high-level renewal of the Grade Two Ballymore Winter Novices’ Hurdle. There was no sign of his previous flat-spot habit and in the way that he surged clear, a matured athlete, there were echoes of Altior once he got motoring in his novice-hurdle season.
    On The Blind Side is proven at Cheltenham and is justified a rating of 153. That’s good enough to hit the frame – at least – in most editions of the Ballymore. For good measure, here he had six previous winners toiling in his wake – despite conceding up to 5lbs all round.
    The likeable runner-up Springtown Lake – blessed with the most determined of head carriages – put up a proper fight. His worth had been tested in handicaps and, having unfortunately stumbled to the ground with the race otherwise sewn up after the last on his previous start at Wincanton, he was worth every pound of his mark going into Sandown’s contest.
    The disappointment of the race was much-heralded White Moon, hitherto an unbeaten novice hurdler. He was reportedly found to be stiff, with a muscular problem, some time later.
    There were better tidings for Tizzard when hurdles debutant Ainchea won the opener at Sandown the following day. He beat the more experienced ex-bumper horse Whatswrongwithyou – also a Point winner – by a length.
    Over in Ireland, last season’s talking bumper horse – unbeaten in two but ultimately a Cheltenham Festival absentee due to a sesamoid issue – Getabird won his hurdles bow in promising fashion, albeit he was firmly ridden out to gain an education. For what it’s worth, the yak from owner Ricci had been that sidelined Annamix was “probably the pick of our novice team”.
    Stablemate Draconien, a French recruit just starting off for Mullins, took his Clonmel hurdle debut readily by 12 lengths. Rider Patrick Mullins was very complimentary afterwards,
    Meanwhile, another Closutton representative Fabulous Saga paid a handsome compliment to his Gordon Elliott-trained Cork conqueror Cracking Smart when returned to that track and taking a heavy-ground Grade Three by 70 lengths in a first-time tongue-tie.
    Juvenile hurdlers
    The Sandown success of Sussex Ranger last Friday was easy on the eye and hard on the clock. Afterwards, trainer Gary Moore started to doubt the implications of the form, such was the readiness of his horse’s 14-length success, but a time-based breakdown of the performance suggests he should believe what he saw.
    Five horses moved on when the going got tough in this Introductory Hurdle and all of them have merit for future opportunities. A stiff finish advantages the winner according to jockey Jamie Moore, so he was relatively cool on the prospect of heading to Chepstow for the Grade One Finale Hurdle over Christmas. Yet the merit of this form might persuade him otherwise.
    Runner-up Quothquan – unexposed over 14f-plus on the Flat – stepped up on his debut and decent Flat recruit Night Of Glory made an encouraging start to his new discipline back in third.
    Jukebox Jive was admittedly disappointing – did he dislike not being able to dominate? He was certainly out-jumped by the winner in the back straight. For a horse making his racecourse debut – and looking like it in his paddock demeanour – there was plenty to like about the tall Esprit De Somoza.

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    Lydia Hislop reflects on an action-packed week in the second instalment of her festive Road to Cheltenham, adding two antepost wagers to the portfolio along the way.
    Watching the past five days of Leopardstown’s compelling action, it struck me repeatedly how tiresomely Anglo-centric it is to complain that the entire jumps season is sacrificed on the altar of the Cheltenham Festival.
    Or, to view it in a broader manner, to be in any way complicit in perversely devaluing major contests, many of which are even Over Here, as mere trials for some main March event.
    Now that might strike you as rich, given how this seriesPa of columns is named, but I like to think these weekly updates celebrate the road as much as they do its titular destination. I endeavour to make them so and will try harder again.
    I also try to point out many worthwhile sights and alternative destinations en route because, akin to many an inoperable fan, I like all racing. Even a staying selling hurdle at Hexham would fascinate me. Perhaps particularly so...
    But I fear we all slip into such lazy talk now and again, myself undoubtedly included. So the point is Sizing John was not running at Leopardstown to maintain his position in the Cheltenham Gold Cup market. Willie Mullins has been criticised for pivoting his entire season around Cheltenham and yet I could swear he ran all of his big guns, many to his chagrin, last week.
    Equally, I'm not denying the utter fascination of trying to work out which horse will be most suited by which future race. That’s the joy of ante-post betting as a racing fan – even if that pursuit has become more academically than financially rewarding nowadays, especially in the case of the multiplicity of Cheltenham events.
    Yet if we don’t give due weight to the great races under our very noses, we’re wasting five months of the year. And that also applies to many trainers, no doubt as a logical response to owners who have been conditioned – like all of us (at least in Britain) – to focus on four days in March as part of this sport’s disproportionate attempt to command a mainstream audience. We’ve all got to stop it because some of us – fans – become some of them – owners.
    Hence you have horses missing virtually an entire season for one target alone. Not just the top-class horses either, who have racecourse gallops rather than contest actual races (and people want to watch!) but the likes of – random example – North Hill Harvey last season and, it would seem – another random example – A Hare Breath this.
    It’s not even as if the shoulder races – the likes of the County – are worth as much as significant alternative targets en route, such as Ascot’s Racing Welfare Handicap Hurdle two Saturdays ago and Newbury’s Betfair Hurdle in February. And yet it is the County and not the Betfair Hurdle that was oversubscribed in 2017, despite the latter being worth far more – and £60,000 more in 2018. Quite honestly, guys, this is barmy.
    It’s not as if Britain would be able to conjure up a new equivalent to Leopardstown over Christmas or indeed February’s Dublin Racing Festival. Given jump racing is a pan-European pursuit (sorry to break it to you, Brexiteers) and the embarrassment of equine riches resides in Ireland, the spikes of interest that Britain hosts pre-March are probably as good as it gets.
    But they need supporting and they need being presented as the important contests in their own right that they are.
    So my new year’s resolution is to push that thought even more to the forefront of my mind. I’m sure I’ll fail at times – no doubt in several instances in the following 10,000 words – but I will be trying. Happy new year.
    *Please note this edition of the Road encompasses racing up to and including Friday 29 December. Saturday’s racing will be addressed in next week’s instalment.


    Willie Mullins: A mixed week, to say the least

    Unibet Champion Hurdle

    It was sad but by no means shocking to see Faugheen pulled up in the Ryanair Hurdle last Friday. This eight-time Grade One winner has raced on only three occasions in the past two years, missing all the major spring Festivals in both 2016 and 2017.
    In some ways, it had been more of a surprise to see him back in winning action in November, seemingly replete with flashes of his old brilliance. Now that heart-cheering success in Punchestown’s Grade One Morgiana Hurdle – for which he was known to be more forward than seasonal debuts past – has something of a last-hurrah look to it. Because Faugheen looked old here; like his patched-up nine-year-old legs just couldn’t move fast enough.
    It didn’t take long for things to start to look wrong. The 2/11 favourite set off in his usual solo lead, two lengths ahead by the first hurdle, but there was so little zest about him that stablemate Cilaos Emery – 19lbs his inferior on official ratings and therefore his closest rival in the race – had the temerity to move up his inside and press for the lead after the third.
    So Faugheen had to let him have it – and not in the way he would have done two years ago. There was no increasing of the pace and leaving his rivals toiling this time; instead, he meekly accepted a lead.
    Come the fourth hurdle, jockey Paul Townend was subjecting him to the indignity of increased nudging. He held his position under sufferance until jumping the third last lethargically and then quickly lost his pitch as the pace lifted. After a few desperate pushes, Townend then rightly pulled up this great champion.
    Dismounted on the track, Faugheen returned to the racecourse stables by horse ambulance but Leopardstown’s vets did not find him to be clinically abnormal, distressed or unsound. Little more than an hour later, trainer Willie Mullins could give only a baffled update.
    “At the moment, Faugheen is sound. He pulled up sound and the vets have passed him fine,” he said. “Paul [Townend] said he just felt very lacklustre over the first few furlongs and he definitely wasn’t himself.
    “I’m sure something will arise. He might be incubating a cold or something like that but at the moment we don’t have evidence of anything.”
    Mullins added: “His work has been fine, so we had no worry about him coming here. The only observation I made before the race in the parade ring was he looked a little cold in his coat compared to our other horse, Cilaos Emery, who looked fantastic.
    "Faugheen can look that way and sometimes they look like that and go out and win. We have to go home, do whatever tests we can do and try to look for a reason. This is obviously a huge setback. I’m not thinking anything at the moment. The important thing is he’s sound to trot up, so it doesn’t look like he’s [got] any leg trouble."
    With Faugheen pulled up, the race developed into a substandard Grade One. Campeador, briefly imagined to be a Champion Hurdle contender of some sort, was unable to make any impact – asked for an effort on the home turn, defeat was accepted before the last.
    That left fourth-season hurdler Mick Jazz to tackle Cilaos Emery in the straight and he was driven past after the final flight to register his first graded success at the fifth attempt.
    He is improving steadily this season but would have at least a stone to find with Buveur D’Air if, as winning trainer Gordon Elliott afterwards indicated he might, he takes up his prospective entry in that Cheltenham event instead of the original plan of a raid on America, where owner George Mahoney is based.
    Elliott recalled Mahoney had flown to Britain with his family in March to watch Mick Jazz in the County Hurdle, only for the horse to be withdrawn lame on the day.
    "George is a good man and he has a few horses with me so it’s nice to be able to repay him,” said Elliott, whose first words were of concern for Faugheen. “I bought him with a plan to go to America but he had a few niggly problems and I’m glad he did now!"
    Of course, this race ravaged the Champion Hurdle’s ante-post market. Most firms removed Faugheen from their betting, although some have since reinstated him at prices ranging from 5/1 to 13/2 (assuming Stan James and Sportingbet haven’t updated their Oddschecker prices of 2/1 and 7/4 respectively… zzzzzzz.) Buveur D’Air is now rightfully an odds-on shot.
    His opposition is scarce. If Stan James have updated, then their 40/1 offer about The New One makes some each-way appeal. Don’t laugh! I know Team Twiston-Davies made a blood oath to run in the Stayers’ Hurdle this term but trainer Nigel has issued the caveat “if nothing goes wrong with the principals in the Champion Hurdle” and currently his horse is consistently in the best shape he’s been since the 2013/14 season.
    He certainly makes far more place appeal than triple runner-up and year-older My Tent Or Yours at a best-priced 16/1, who was receiving 4lbs from The New One when narrowly beating him earlier this month, or gone-missing 2017 Triumph hero Defi Du Seuil at 20/1.
    But to a greater or lesser degree for the past seven years, the two-mile hurdling powerhouse has been based at Mullins’ yard in Closutton. Aside from Hurricane Fly, Faugheen and Annie Power, there have been battalions of deputies, stand-ins and wingmen.
    Arctic Fire, last year’s County Hurdle winner from a mark of 158, would surely have contested the Champion had he been stabled anywhere else. Going into the 2017 Grade One Festival event, seven of the ten runners were rated no higher than him – including, at the time, the winner.
    Between Arctic Fire at 33/1 and Faugheen, there are no fewer than four stablemates in the betting: Melon, Limini, Min and the obligatory Yorkhill.
    Having finished a promising third behind My Tent Or Yours and The New One on just his fifth hurdle start in the International last time, Melon is the most obvious substitute. But he needs to find further improvement and has the look of a chaser-in-waiting rather than a Champion Hurdler. Still, he’s got the scope to mature, would thrive in a strongly run race and is clearly no slouch.
    I’ll touch more on Limini in the Mares' Hurdle section – suffice to say she was discussed as a Champion Hurdle possible last term when Faugheen was ruled out but appeared third best on merit in the 2017 OLBG Mares’ Hurdle. Yet to be sighted this season, I’d have her as a place player at best – even with a 7lb mares’ allowance.
    Which leaves us with the two brake-screeching code-switchers: second-season chasers, Min and Yorkhill. I can’t dismiss either possibility out of hand.
    Min split Altior and Buveur D’Air in the 2015 Supreme when said to have “got hurt” by owner Rich Ricci. He seemed also to have become a more tractable horse than in those days until his latest performance (a subject unfinished in the previous Road and to which we’ll return later) when underwhelming all except apparently his trainer.
    Buveur D’Air is clearly a much-improved model over hurdles now than when Min held that length-and-a-half verdict over him at the Festival. It should also be remembered that the former was held up a little too far out of his ground in that Supreme compared with the first and second.
    However, Min would clearly pose a far more serious threat than the titleholder’s hitherto more certain March opponents. Ditto Yorkhill, who has the raw ability to be effective in a Champion Hurdle but was also frequently untidy in getting across his obstacles in his novice days. Slick jumping, of course, is one of the particular assets of Buveur D’Air.
    And yet it is Yorkhill for whom Mullins has frequently cited the Champion Hurdle as a potential target. After his Fairyhouse defeat last April by Road To Respect – a performance that gets better in retrospect – Mullins said:
    "[Yorkhill] might be easier to ride over hurdles, it might be easier on jockeys. It’s always something I wanted to do anyhow and, just the way this year worked out, I went chasing. I think he’s a real ability over hurdles. He looks either a Champion Hurdle horse or a Gold Cup horse."
    To most of us, that isn’t the most obvious either/or concept and Mullins would now finally appear to have accepted, in light of the Christmas Chase (on which more, later), that Yorkhill isn’t a Gold Cup horse. Therefore by Mullins’ own logic, that leaves...
    It might be easier on the owner-relations front to pitch the marauding Yorkhill into a Champion Hurdle than it would, say, the Ryanair in which Un De Sceaux tops the market for Mullins’ relatively small-scale owner Edward O’Connell or the Champion Chase, in which Min has replaced Douvan as Ricci’s hopeful.
    Put simply, Ricci wants winners – he was prepared to run two in the Mares’ Hurdle last term rather than risk one in the Champion – and it’s Mullins’ job to deliver them for him. Graham and Andrea Wylie, Yorkhill’s owners, would appear somewhat easier to manage. It is Ricci who has made no secret of the business-like returns he expects from the trainer of his horses.
    So it might come down to the Closutton team weighing up whether Min has a better chance against Buveur D’Air, a horse he has beaten but who’s improved as a hurdler since, or Altior, a horse he hasn’t beaten but who hasn’t yet made it to the racecourse this season – and then slotting in Yorkhill in the other race accordingly.
    But throw into that migraine-inducing mix the fact Min (like Yorkhill) has been chasing for more than a year now. Yes, Buveur D’Air made a mid-season switch but that was after just two chase starts in which he was hurdling his fences anyway. What a nightmare!
    And what of a Lazarus-like Faugheen? You couldn’t dismiss Mullins wielding the jump-leads and getting him back on the track but at a much longer price than before, I still wouldn’t bet on it – and I certainly wouldn’t bet on him having the truly smart Buveur D’Air’s measure should connections manage it.
    Ricci wasn’t at Leopardstown last week until the Friday when he was greeted by the melancholy sight of another of his trio of 2015 Festival invincibles falling by the wayside. JLT winner Vautour died in a freak paddock accident at the start of last season, Supreme victor Douvan is currently sidelined for a second time and now Champion Hurdle hero Faugheen’s career again hangs in the balance.
    “Some of Willie’s horses have been in and out all week,” Ricci said at Leopardstown. “Hopefully, it’s something that shows itself and we have a horse [in Faugheen] we can get ready for Cheltenham and fight another day with. It’s been an extraordinarily challenging week and it feels like a long, long winter at the moment.”
    While it would be fair to say the last week went a lot tougher for other connections, there is no doubt that Ricci has also felt fate’s pendulum swing against him. Rudyard Kipling had something to say about that. Let’s hope Mullins has a less conditional answer.


    Faugheen leads through the early stages at Leopardstown

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    Sun Bets Stayers’ Hurdle

    The loss of a little toughie like Nichols Canyon is hard to bear for all of us as racing fans, let alone for owners Andrea and Graham Wylie and Mullins’ entire team. He will be much missed.
    His fall sadly overshadowed what should have been the moment that Apple’s Jade triumphantly smashed through the glass ceiling placed in her way by a stated lack of ambition on the part of her trainer.
    Elliott said repeatedly that she would be sticking to her own sex but luckily (in this instance) for racing fans owners Gigginstown Stud have also repeatedly proved that their trainers’ words mean little. Accordingly, this mare’s last two starts have been convincing defeats of talented gelding rivals.
    In the Grade One Squared Financial Christmas Hurdle, Apple’s Jade was well positioned at or towards the fore in a crawl of a race. She was happy jumping upsides Supasundae and travelled into the race more readily than that key rival.
    However, he pressed the advantage of his lead as they approached the bypassed final hurdle and responded generously to pressure to set her a proper task in the straight. From looking confident, Davy Russell – standing in for usual pilot, Jack Kennedy – had to get tough with the mare but she also replied with gusto to get on top by half a length on the line.
    “Davy said if he rode her again he would have got her into a battle earlier but in fairness she was in front where it mattered. She just loves a battle,” said Elliott, who stated that Kennedy – sidelined after what Russell called “a couple of horrid falls this week” – would retain the ride in future.
    “She’ll be against the girls next time in Cheltenham, the mares’ race is the plan,” Elliott added, perhaps pleadingly, to nobody in particular. Gigginstown’s Michael O’Leary said he “imagined” that would be the trainer’s preference.
    I said last week – an awfully long time ago now – that were Apple’s Jade to win this race “receiving a 7lbs mares’ allowance in the Stayers’ Hurdle would become much harder to ignore”. I was, of course, reckoning without the fact that O’Leary doesn’t find anything hard to ignore.
    As things stand, she should probably be favourite for the Stayers’ Hurdle. Instead, because of the doubts accompanying her likely target, she is second or even third best at prices ranging from 6/1 to 10/1. When the first bookmaker starts to size up going Non-Runner-No-Bet, expect her odds to shorten.
    This was her seventh Grade One success, only two of which have occurred in races confined to her own gender. From her juvenile year, when she posted that spectacular 41-length destruction of Aintree’s Anniversary 4-Y-O Hurdle, she has shaped like a stayer with gears but nonetheless she was only just touched off in last season’s Fighting Fifth.
    This was her first attempt at three miles and, such was the crawl at which it was conducted, it didn’t conclusively prove her stamina for three miles. That said, I suspect she would stay and be highly effective in the Stayers’ Hurdle, which demands exactly the sort of blend of skills that she boasts in bundles.
    It would be the right thing for the sport for her to Go Big come March but, since they were granted a choice of targets at Cheltenham, when have most connections ever prioritised that? (Understandably on an individual basis; iron in the soul in collective effect.)
    Although it was undoubtedly the correct tactic in the circumstances, it may not have suited runner-up Supasundae to make much of the running on this occasion. I suspect he would be better suited by more conventional tactics in a more strongly run race. He’s also unexposed at the trip, given that was only his second start over three miles, and he jumped well.
    That said, Apple’s Jade could also yet improve at this trip and might well have won with more authority in a pacier affair. For me, the lack of gallop is also the reason why the likes of Bapaume finished so close to the two principals rather than anything lacking in their ability. This race was more than nine seconds slower overall than the Pertemps Qualifier earlier on the card.
    All in all, I’m happy with this column’s 20/1 position about Supasundae after a fortnight’s upheaval in this division that has also seen one other credible new player, Long Walk Hurdle winner Sam Spinner, step to the fore.


    Apple's Jade is enjoying another fine season

    OLBG Mares’ Hurdle

    This season, Limini is playing the role of Quevega, with the task of understudy falling to Vroum Vroum Mag. So far each mare is performing her part impeccably, in the sense that we haven’t seen hide nor hair of them.
    Rumours abound, as they are wont to do in racing, about the prospect of Vroum Vroum Mag ever appearing again after finishing lame at Punchestown last April and missing the Morgiana for the same reason. Chary of the Quevega Caveat, I make no such prognostication – aside from to observe last term’s runner-up is an eyebrow-raising 12/1 with Paddy Power.
    Limini was alleged to be showing her face on a racecourse this week. She didn’t – and currently holds no entries. Instead, it was owner and stable companion Let’s Dance who pitched up in Leopardstown’s Grade Three mares’ hurdle and she ultimately won with authority.
    Likeable Forge Meadow typically made the running and, unchallenged until the straight, seemed to run right up to her best but Let’s Dance travelled into the race comfortably and won going away.
    Her fall at Punchestown last time was responsible for Ruby Walsh’s broken leg so it wasn’t surprising to see her slightly balloon the first couple of hurdles but she warmed to her task nicely. She is usually a sound jumper.
    A strong stayer at 2m4f, it’s hard to see her coming into Champion Hurdle calculations chez Mullins and she still has something to find to match Limini’s standout form – if not her more quotidian efforts. But it’s still relatively early days for Let’s Dance out of novice company even though this is her third hurdling season.
    The 12/1 available with William Hill is tempting from an each-way perspective given all three opponents shorter than her – her two stablemates above and the superior (on this term’s form, at least) Apple’s Jade – would have to turn up and two of them run to their absolute best to knock her out of the frame on what she’s achieved even now. She is a Festival winner already, after all. Let’s take that 12/1, each-way more an essential than a pleasure.
    Returning to that Leopardstown race, rare British raider Lady Buttons loomed up menacingly on the home turn only for her to flatten out late and finish fourth. She’s better than the bare form and looks capable of winning a similar contest at around two miles. Having previously won a mares’ Listed chase at Bangor, she’s versatile too.
    Back in Britain, seven-year-old Kayf Grace built on last month’s return from almost a year off to win a handicap hurdle at Kempton from a mark of 132. It was merely her third start over obstacles.
    Trainer Nicky Henderson commented in his Unibet blog: "She’s had lots of problems and struggles and it was good to see her win well in what was a very competitive race. We’ve always thought a good deal of her and, if we can hold her together, she will definitely be going places."
    He suggested she would be aimed for "something like" the OLBG David Nicholson Mares’ Hurdle. That was a good step forward but she has a good stone to find on Limini, let alone on Apple’s Jade.

    Timico Gold Cup

    All change, all change please for the Christmas Chase. Out with sponsor, Gold Cup winner and both Mullins representatives. In with the Gigginstown massive – but not exactly in the order you might expect. There’s no reason to mistrust the form, however.
    This was clearly a career-best performance from Road To Respect, whose record since winning the Grade Three Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Stable Plate at last season’s Cheltenham Festival withstands some scrutiny.
    First he scalped a left-jumping Yorkhill at Fairyhouse in April and then returned with a straightforward Grade Three success at Punchestown. He then appeared to be out-stayed by Outlander at Down Royal but those closest to him argued a left-handed track was the primary requirement.
    This performance, aided by a first-time hood, appeared to bear them out because he stayed the three miles thoroughly – albeit this is a race that plays to speed more than out-and-out stamina, with this season’s renewal appearing no different. For comparison, the Gold Cup usually takes a good half-minute more – if not longer – to run.
    Yet patiently ridden by Sean Flanagan, you can even mark up Road To Respect for getting stuck behind a struggling Sizing John after the third last, being appreciably checked by the less well-travelling horse and having to switch round him – all of which may have contributed to a less-than-fluent jump two out.
    But he was soon going best again, joined the leaders jumping left at the last and stayed on strongly. In fact if anything, his need for a left-handed track was more in evidence here than I’ve ever noticed it before – not that it was as marked as Yorkhill’s port-side bias.
    Road To Respect will surely be entered in both the Gold Cup and the Ryanair. Although Gigginstown are yet to win the race Michael O’Leary’s company sponsor, their track record suggests they usually run what they deem to be their best horse in the Gold Cup.
    Trainer Noel Meade is in no doubt where this horse should head come the Festival. “He’s a Gold Cup contender now, so he’ll go for the Gold Cup. Whether he runs in between or not, I don’t know,” he said.
    Yet Meade has been here before, most pertinently with this horse’s uncle Road To Riches whom Gigginstown ruled would run in the 2016 Ryanair against the advice of their trainer, who preferred a second shot at the Gold Cup. So the truth is his Festival target will be up for grabs at least until the Unibet Irish Gold Cup at the start of February, if not beyond.
    Both absent stablemate Disko and the Henry de Bromhead-trained Balko Des Flos are also in that mix. Both the latter and Road To Respect have now proved themselves in open Grade One company, however. Forget about the price tag in the case of Balko Des Flos – he may have been 66/1 but he earned his second place every inch.
    At the fore from the outset – leading, disputing or content to chase Yorkhill – he jumped well and kept trying all the way to the line. A good-looking horse I recall from the twice I’ve seen him at Cheltenham, he’s packed in a lot of experience since falling four out in last term’s JLT and yet is only rising seven years of age.
    He may not have recovered from the cough that kept him away from Down Royal when below form behind Alpha Des Obeaux at Clonmel on his previous start but de Bromhead’s team was back in roaring form last week.
    Balko Des Flos would appear better suited to the Gold Cup rather than the Ryanair as a target, given his improvement at this scarce-tried trip and his tenacity to the line.
    Back in third, it appeared that Rachael Blackmore had Outlander in the right place at the right time throughout. He was carried left by the winner jumping in that direction at the last and had no extra near the line but pulled comfortably clear of the fourth. He was a distant tenth in the Gold Cup last term, however, beaten before interference exaggerated that margin.
    Back in fourth Minella Rocco ran really well, in the manner of a horse who should do a lot better when returned to the superior test of stamina that is the Gold Cup, in which he was second last term. He even jumped quite well for a horse capable of a heart-stopping blunder of staggering proportions.
    Anything he does between now and then is likely to be immaterial to his chances at the Festival and 25/1 is too big – especially when compared with last year’s third Native River, who’s half that price purely by dint of not yet racing this season. A sound surface is probably important to Rocco, too.
    To round up the Gigginstown crew, Valseur Lido ran creditably on his first start for exactly a year. He never really played an active part in the race but had worked his way into fourth when bumped by Minella Rocco after the last and faded, presumably for a lack of match-fitness. Alpha Des Obeaux was mildly hampered by the fall of ill-fated Zabana and running in a first-time tongue-tie but couldn’t get involved.


    Road To Respect (yellow cap) on his way to victory

    Sizing John underperformed to a vast degree, losing his air of invincibility since upped to three miles. Remarkably sent off at odds-on, he was niggled along by Robbie Power as soon as the start of the second circuit and his jumping was notably sloppy. He was palpably in trouble from the third last.
    Prior to his seasonal debut, it had been widely opined that a series of the toughest asks in staying chasing last term – the Irish, Cheltenham and Punchestown Gold Cups within the space of 11 weeks – would take their toll.
    Yet his seven-length defeat of (a reportedly unfit) Djakadam at Punchestown earlier this month implied such fears to be overstated. Having now seen that rival also flop badly in the Christmas Chase, jumping as poorly as I can ever recall, the validity of that form-line is brought into question. Or perhaps this race came too soon for both of them?
    Sizing John was found to be “distressed and clinically abnormal” post-race by Leopardstown’s veterinary staff. Trainer Jessica Harrington later commented: “He is sound now and his heart is OK. Basically, he got slight hyperthermia and he got too hot. As soon as he cooled down, he was grand.”
    Since then, blood tests have revealed nothing so Harrington plans to repeat the procedure over this weekend. “He’s sound and he ate up,” she added.
    Given Sizing John has been such an incredibly consistent and high-class horse, it’s both screamingly premature to write him off on the basis of one run and unnerving that he produced such an atypical performance. From a punting point of view, however, it’s impossible to have 8/1 on your mind with the Gold Cup just 11 weeks away.
    While Djakadam simply jumped and ran poorly, there were more positives to glean from the performance of Yorkhill – even though he finished stone cold last. As so often, your take on his seasonal debut probably pivots on what you thought his ergon was in the first place.
    Given I have deemed it to be two-mile chasing for a season and a half now (and two-mile hurdling in the season prior to that), he is more fully discussed in the following Champion Chase section.


    Minella Rocco (white cap): Underestimated in the Gold Cup market?

    Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase

    Yorkhill’s performance in the Christmas Chase should by rights make it most likely that, after the many wash-up discussions Mullins’ Closutton team will be having following a rare but decidedly un-festive period for them, he will be re-routed to the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase come March.
    But there are many other factors at play in Mullins’ calculations – involving owner management, jockey preference and this enigmatic horse himself.
    For the third season in a row, this Ubiquity In Equine Form hovers threateningly over a clutch of Festival targets. I can only comfort myself that (a) he has befuddled his trainer just as much as he has others, although perhaps for different reasons and (b) at least we can strike a line through one race, the Timico Gold Cup.
    It must speak of the dizzy regard with which this horse is held that Mullins was prepared to throw him into the centrepiece Grade One chase of Ireland’s Christmas period on his seasonal debut and only fifth start over fences. It would seem to me that this was a relatively uncharacteristic thing to do – although I suppose Djakadam did contest the Gold Cup aged six.
    In the event, Townend optimistically attempted to settle Yorkhill towards the rear on the inside but didn’t find much cover there and his mount’s natural exuberance soon saw him chasing the leaders by the third fence, leading approaching the fifth and two lengths clear by halfway.
    Not too long after that, Yorkhill started to jump markedly left in that manner that has become characteristic: so far left that it repeatedly took him onto the inside hurdles track before Townend dragged him back to where he should have been. And repeat to fade. There was no point persisting in the straight.
    With Min having failed to advance his Champion Chase credentials last week – even if there were mitigating factors and the performance had more substance than the market’s relative reaction to Politologue would suggest – surely now is the time for Yorkhill to throw his gauntlet down?
    A strong pace over two miles would enable him to be ridden more straightforwardly, affording him the opportunity to settle and jump within himself. He would then be a potent threat from off the pace.
    You can get 10/1 Yorkhill about the Champion Hurdle, Champion Chase or Ryanair – although admittedly only in one place for the last-named contest. It would be rather galling were this horse, about whose ability both Mullins and Ruby Walsh have been so rhapsodic, to wind up in the compromise destination of the Ryanair.
    If details peripheral to the horse’s requirements but fundamental to Mullins’ ongoing business needs can be managed, this is the race I’d like to see him in. But there is nothing in his campaign track record to suggest I’ll get my wish at the third season of hoping.
    Returning to Min, two Twitter correspondents have convinced me that I was reading Mullins incorrectly when I took his reference to how “the first four furlongs” of last week’s race “told us a lot about [pause] certain things” to mean he wished his horse had been ridden with more restraint early on – if indeed that were possible.
    It crossed my mind at the time of watching that interview and then writing about it that he could have been referring obliquely to supposed ‘spoiling tactics’ employed on the free-going Gigginstown front-runner Tell Us More but ultimately dismissed that interpretation as fanciful based on what I saw of the race.
    Now, I don’t watch enough day-in, day-out racing in Ireland to know whether Mullins has a kernel of a point in this regard. What I do know is that no trainer can expect a race to be run exactly to suit his horse, that by sheer dint of class and numbers Mullins will have bossed many a race in the past and that if Min can’t cope with a bit of hustle without losing his head then he ain’t going to cut it as a top-class racehorse.
    Which leads me to news that after a month of walking twice a day, Altior is back cantering at Henderson’s yard. “He’s been scoped and you name it, we’ve checked it and he’s been given a clean bill of health,” he said in his Unibet blog.
    “So we can now get on with training him for the Champion Chase. Whether he has a prep race will depend on an awful lot of things but the Game Spirit would seem the likely prep race if he has one,” he further confirmed.


    Yorkhill: Who knows?

    Ryanair Chase

    That it’s usually a case of any any any old iron for this race always becomes starkly apparent at this time of year, when you sift through the Christmas let-downs to try to determine which of them might end up here.
    That’s what the Ryanair is, even if it has produced some indubitably top-class winners, such as Vautour and Cue Card – even Imperial Commander and Un De Sceaux himself – in the past. You’d still have preferred to see them in one of the other races, though, wouldn’t you?
    Un De Sceaux was totally dominant in victory last season and has returned in good fettle but it already seems likely that, a year older, he’ll face a tougher edition in 2018 because Top Notch is an all-bar-accidents participant and this is probably also the most likely target for Fox Norton.
    Aside from this trio, it’s typically hard to predict which of the horses prominent in the ante-post betting will actually line up here. I think I can pinpoint a couple of unlikely contenders prominent in that market, however: Thistlecrack, because Colin Tizzard is unlikely to countenance it for a King George winner, and Min, because his latest hot-headed display suggests anything but the minimum trip would stretch him in top company.
    As ever for this race, Gigginstown have a fistful of players they could direct to either this or the Gold Cup. Road To Respect had appeared to be one of their two prime candidates until he went and put himself in the running for the main event by winning the Christmas Chase. He’s 10/1 for both races and probably too long in each case.
    Noel Meade was reportedly unhappy with Disko’s blood tests in the week prior to the King George and so opted neither to ship his horse to Kempton nor to take on the squadron of other Gigginstown horses at Leopardstown that included his stable companion and ultimate winner.
    Disko would be interesting for the Ryanair under the positive ride he didn’t get in last term’s JLT – but so would Road To Respect, given the gears he showed at Leopardstown.
    Pass.
    Novice chasers

    It was far from total doom and gloom for the Mullins stable last week. One of the most exciting performances of the entire period came from their novice chaser, Footpad, delivering in the colours of Simon Munir and Isaac Souede a pretty much faultless Grade One success.
    As Patrick Mullins, assistant to his father Willie, said afterwards to Gary O’Brien on At The Races: “I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a novice just make it look so easy. Everything is so measured and poised – he’s a real professional.”
    The key element that impressed me was his ability to jump well wherever he was positioned in the field for the Grade One Racing Post Novice Chase. He didn’t have to make his own running in order to measure his fences – as many a seemingly impressive novice requires – and yet jumped straight and true throughout.
    He beat Any Second Now by 11 lengths and even that horse – for whom I confess a soft spot – shapes like a steady improver over the larger obstacles even though he is yet to win. He stuck to it but with no chance against the winner.
    It was admittedly odd to see Death Duty held up for this drop down to 2m1f but there was surely little he could have done anyway. As it turned out, his jumping came undone as he was on the stretch to chase Footpad from the ninth fence, where he rather lunged at it. He was well held when getting in too close to the last and falling. You’d imagine he’d step back up in trip next.
    The jumping of both distant third Jett and Avenir D’Une Vie, who unseated Kennedy at the fifth, was again not up to scratch. The latter jumped right persistently until his round came to a premature end.
    Footpad is now the 15/8 favourite for the Racing Post Arkle Challenge Trophy in one place; 7/4 more widely. It’s hard to argue with his dominance in the betting, even if it’s easy to resist his odds. He’s a proven Festival performer, third in the 2016 Triumph and fourth in last year’s Champion Hurdle, and reached an official rating of 157 over the smaller obstacles. He’s already a better horse over fences.
    His closest pursuer in the betting, the Henry VIII Novices’ Chase winner Sceau Royal, is also owned by Munir and Souede so ante-post interest in either horse for the Arkle had been dampened – even though the owners have pitched both horses against each other in the last two Festivals. The thinking was that, unlike the Triumph and the Champion Hurdle, the JLT provides a Grade One alternative to the main fare.
    Footpad has surely secured his ticket to the Arkle now – his blend of high-cruising stamina with secure jumping is tailor-made for the task – but it still wouldn’t surprise me, if trainer Alan King believes Sceau Royal needs two miles also, were these horses to face off again in March. Yet Footpad is surely the scopier, classier horse to my mind – bonny though his rival is.
    Sticking with the two-mile crew, the likes of Sprinter Sacre, Altior, Remittance Man and Simonsig have won Kempton’s 32Red.com Wayward Lad Novices’ Chase in the past but this year’s edition attracted an underwhelming field. That said, the winner Cyrname recorded a strong performance on the eye and comparatively to Politologue on the clock at two seconds quicker.
    In doing so, he paid something of a compliment to his Newbury conqueror, the ultimately Aintree-bound Bigmartre – strong form, as remarked at the time – although he did concede 2lbs to the winner that day and displayed a tendency to jump right. Cyrname was therefore ideally suited to this Grade Two task; being gifted three lengths at the start was a bonus.
    “Over hurdles he was too keen but letting him bowl along in front and allowing him to use his jumping is ideal,” observed trainer Paul Nicholls. “We learned at Newbury he is better going right-handed, so we’ll probably look at races like the Pendil and Scilly Isles.”
    At the same meeting the previous day, serial clutz Hell’s Kitchen finally got his act together over fences because jockey Barry Geraghty gave him no option. Under an assertive ride, he clocked a startlingly good comparative time with King George victor Might Bite. (See the pertinent sectional analysis in the Gold Cup section of Part One of the Christmas Road To Cheltenham here.
    Going into that 2m4f novices’ limited handicap chase, he was rated 137 and he is clearly a great deal better than that. Anything less than a double-figure rise would be handy. Trainer Harry Fry even believes he’s better going left-handed. But you just have to rely on him not to pull hard or breast the odd fence if he’s going to produce this again...


    Footpad: Another fantastic performance at Leopardstown

    Looking further back at Ascot two Fridays ago, Finian’s Oscar failed by a short head to pull the Grade Two Mitie Noel Novices’ Chase out of the fire after jumping hesitantly or disjointedly, particularly on the first circuit.
    It says a lot about his heart – or relief when the fences were finally out of the way – that he was able to force a photo-finish with Benatar at the line. The runner-up was conceding 5lbs but hasn't yet discovered a workable jumping technique.
    It will be interesting to see whether Colin Tizzard enters Finian’s Oscar in the Stayers’ Hurdle (as discussed in the previous edition of the Road) as a good winner of the Grade One Mersey Novices’ Hurdle at Aintree last season. The Potts family, who own him, do have Supasundae in that division, however, and Tizzard likes to stick. There were no signs of him twisting at Ascot.
    "Finian’s Oscar was doing nothing the first mile, very much like he was at Sandown the other day,” he observed. “We will go up in trip and put some cheekpieces or blinkers on. As Bryan [Cooper, his jockey at Ascot] said, it is not that he is ungenuine; he is just careful."
    Referring to previous rider Robbie Power’s post-Sandown summation, that it was all “happening too fast for him” in the Grade One Henry VIII Chase won by Sceau Royal and that “he’s not brave enough” for two miles, Tizzard added: “The word ‘brave’ that we used a couple of days ago is quite significant. He just needs to be a bit braver.”
    Easier said than done – and the step up from two miles to 2m5f was supposed to gird his loins in itself.
    Benatar was a decent hurdler – albeit a comfortably held fourth behind Finian’s Oscar at Aintree – and is an even better chaser, having won a novices’ handicap on his debut from a mark of 142.
    He does need a lead, so this three-runner affair probably wasn’t ideal for him and his jumping could yet tighten up. That he out-leapt his main rival at the last two fences is faint praise. He will be entered in the JLT and RSA but a narrow victory over a poor-jumping rival – even if Benatar has excuses himself – isn’t compelling.
    Despite jumping well, third-placed Dolos was ultimately left a long way behind. He was improving as a hurdler last season and a convincing winner on chase debut at this track last month, even if beating Sternrubin over fences is not the feather it might have been imagined.
    Nicholls had been in two minds about this 2m5f trip and Dolos did appear not to get home. In that case, the original plan of the Pendil or the Scilly Isles might be too much of stretch at this stage in his career.
    Earlier on the same day at Ascot, the Henderson-trained Divine Spear jumped well to record a better comparative time than Benatar in the 2m1f novices’ handicap chase. He’s been raised 10lbs by the official handicapper to a mark of 143 and is very effective on a sound surface.
    Likeable stablemate Rather Be had made a winning chase debut at Towcester the previous day, shaping as though a return to further than two miles would suit ideally. He jumped well and responded generously when briefly pressed by War Sound – who’s making a career out of being thumped by Seven Barrows-trained horses over fences – to pull away by 19 lengths.
    His trainer has already pinpointed the 2m4f Close Brothers Novices’ Handicap Chase at the Festival as his medium-term target. “We’ll have to be very careful with his handicap mark about how we get there,” he said, in answer to a fan’s question via his Unibet blog. “He’ll be out shortly but it won’t be until the ground dries up a bit.”
    Henderson’s blog also revealed that River Wylde, who comfortably accounted for Hell’s Kitchen at Uttoxeter but was then thrashed 18 lengths by North Hill Harvey at Cheltenham, has just returned to fast work after having a minor wind operation.
    "He… obviously wasn’t quite right at Cheltenham last time. Nico [de Boinville, his jockey] came back in and said he made a small noise so we’ve cauterised his palate… I hope to get him back on track for the Arkle," he said.


    Cyrname wins the Wayward Lad in good style

    Returning to Ireland, the feature staying novices’ chase of the Christmas period was robbed of some of its relevance when ante-post RSA Chase favourite Monalee fell, bringing down a helpless Rathvinden and hampering the sticky-jumping Dinaria Des Obeaux in the process.
    The Grade One Neville Hotels Novices’ Chase instead went to scopey mare Shattered Love, who avenged her earlier Punchestown defeat by Jury Duty with a more professional round of jumping under positive tactics. This was a career best effort on her first attempt at three miles but the race did fall apart.
    Jury Duty didn’t have much of a cut at his fences before keeping on in the wake of the winner. Geraghty attempted to smuggle Bon Papa into the race against his will but his high-headed mount had rumbled him by the straight so the game was swiftly up.
    It was disappointing that Moulin A Vent’s jumping didn’t hold up in this contest, given he had been improving takingly beforehand. Rathvinden was yet to make his move when taken out of the race at the tenth but Dinaria Des Obeaux had created plenty of her own problems.
    That no novice has apparently stamped his or her mark on this division is evidenced by the fact that Monalee remains as favourite in the RSA Chase betting despite his tumble – and it’s not as if that fall came out of the blue at Leopardstown.
    His jumping had lacked poise at a handful of fences before he failed to get high enough at the tenth and took a purler of a tumble, flipping right over. It was a relief to hear he was OK afterwards.
    He’d previously looked good when defeating Any Second Now at Punchestown but he pretty much made all that day and his jumping passed un-interrogated. He boasts Cheltenham form, as last term’s Albert Bartlett runner-up, but this was disappointing in what was otherwise a very good week for trainer de Bromhead.
    As a result, I think it’s time to make a move for Presenting Percy. I don’t like putting up horses in the ‘To win at the Festival’ market but I don't think we’ll find out whether this horse is running in the RSA or the NH Chase for some time yet. The only thing I know firsthand about trainer Patrick Kelly is he ain’t for talking, so I wouldn’t blame you for taking the 11/2 in that market.
    But if you’re brave, you’ll take the 8/1 about him winning the RSA Chase because a mark of 157 – established on the bridle against experienced handicappers – says he’s already good enough to win many an edition of that race. If heading there, he could have the trusty services of Davy Russell and there would be no qualms about the trip.
    Presenting Percy is also 10/1 for the NH Chase, where he would be amateur-ridden – not that Ireland wants for ‘professional’ amateurs – and trying a new trip. There was nothing in his 3m5f Porterstown Chase success that suggested he wouldn’t get it but it is an unknown. I prefer the RSA, so let’s screw up our courage and grab that 8/1.


    Presenting Percy has taken to fences well this term

    In other Irish news, smart ex-hurdler Snow Falcon got off the mark at the third attempt over fences after shaping with promise when too far off the pace in a steadily run race behind Death Duty at Fairyhouse earlier in the month.
    Admittedly only two horses finished in this 2m5f beginners’ chase at Leopardstown, but the winner largely jumped soundly and exhibited none of the lapses of concentration that held him back from the top table as a staying hurdler.
    The Mullins-trained Bacardys had been sent off the beaten favourite in this event – the second time in as many starts over fences – but started to run down his fences to the left from the fifth and even made a good impression of Yorkhill, such was adjustment, three fences later. Switched right around rivals at the tenth, his departure was almost inevitable.
    Stablemate Bunk Off Early also failed to justify favouritism on his chase debut at the same fixture earlier in the week. Fellow Mullins inmate Montalbano had initially hared off with Le Martalin until the former hit the third fence hard and fell; the latter was steadily reeled in come the straight, where the last was omitted and one of the loose horses a nuisance.
    Tycoon Prince had the superior toe, track position and perhaps match-fitness to deal with such circumstances and recorded his first success since his hurdling debut in October 2015 when thought to have “a bright future”. Things have clearly not gone straightforwardly in between, due to lameness problems and managing to get to the track only twice last season.
    Bunk Off Early was relatively well fancied but ultimately well beaten in last term’s Supreme. Here, he was the most inconvenienced by the loose horse and stuck to his task well under firm pressure in the straight. He should do better because his jumping was mostly sound.
    Finally, back in Britain, Bryony Frost’s outstanding breakthrough season went up another level when winning the first Grade One of her career on board trusty sidekick Black Corton in the 32Red Kauto Star Novices’ Chase.
    Only hard nuts needed apply in this strongly run edition of Kempton’s novice equivalent to the King George because sectional timing underpinned what was obvious to the eye: they went hard early and came home tired late. In such a situation there are few horses braver than the winner.
    Black Corton has now won seven of his ten chase starts, six of them when partnered by Frost who is now customary sight in races in which she can’t utilise her 5lb claim.
    Ridden with full belief in her small-scale mount, Frost got Black Corton jumping sure-footedly and nippily avoided Fountains Windfall when that rival departed at the fourth last. They then drew out further reserves when Elegant Escape, who’d lost his position at the end of the hard first circuit, staged a late rally.
    There is no doubt that Black Corton thoroughly deserves his place in the RSA Chase but it’s also impossible to dismiss the thought that he won’t quite be good enough to win. Part of the reason for this thinking is how Nicholls has campaigned him – striking repeatedly while the horse is thriving in that signature way he does with smart horses he judges to be just below top class.
    At level weights, this result reversed Black Corton’s Grade Two Newbury form with Elegant Escape, whose resolution nonetheless impressed here. He should run creditably if permitted to line up in the NH Chase and 20/1 is fair.
    Fountains Windfall largely jumped far better than at Newbury but essentially he is too courageous a guesser when things go wrong. He has now hit the deck on his last two starts and is sorely in need of a boost to his confidence. He still had every chance when departing here, although he had gone fast.
    This was a respectable effort in third from West Approach but so far he does not look quite this class over fences. Whereas the jumping of mare Mia’s Storm had seemed to be her major asset coming into this event, that of Ballyoptic had let him down previously. Here neither withstood chasing at the required pace, with Mia’s Storm unraveling relatively early and starting to go out to her left and Ballyoptic descending into blunder city.


    Black Corton wins at Kempton

    Novice hurdlers

    The Paddy Power Future Champions Novices’ Hurdle took several viewings to grasp – and I’m still not sure I’ve fully managed it. However, it took only one look to realise this column’s ante-post Sky Bet Supreme bet Mengli Khan had disgraced himself by ducking out suddenly and crashing through the wing at the second last.
    He was leading at the time and I suspect that doesn’t suit because he’d wandered approaching one of the preceding hurdles, too. He was going well in front when the architect of his own downfall – if there is perhaps a suspicion he may have done a bit too much up front. He can yet do better if smothered up and delivered late.
    Nonetheless, this can only have dented one’s confidence in him as a Supreme prospect because top-flight horses tend to be bombproof in their mentality as a rule. That said, as Labaik and to a far lesser degree Might Bite proved last year, there are exceptions. I’m not giving up on Mengli Khan running a big race at Cheltenham just yet. Some headgear would help.
    After Mengli Khan destroyed the penultimate flight, Real Steel took over on the lead having earlier struggled to go the pace. He’d lost touch with the main pack after the third but got back on terms at the flight prior to the incident and took full advantage of others’ subsequent disarray to make his best way home from the front.
    Stable companion Sharjah quickly gave chase, however, after being inconvenienced seemingly when Le Richebourg jumped left (as he had frequently) into his path independent of Mengli Khan’s antics at the second last. Having travelled into the last better than Real Steel, Sharjah was upsides and looking the likeliest winner when they both took independent falls in a highly dramatic race.
    That left diminutive Whiskey Sour – only chucked into the race by Mullins due to a lack of options – to pick up the pieces for a 19-length success over Le Richebourg. The time was marginally the quickest hurdling effort of the day but would obviously have been better had the leaders at the last stood up.
    The winner had spent the first five hurdles patiently ridden and detached from the field, but on closer inspection he might well have finished second to Sharjah had his two stable companions kept their feet at the last, such was the application with which he finished this strange race.
    “We were thinking Galway but we might have to bring forward the plan,” Mullins said of the winner in the immediate aftermath. “I needed to get a run into him. He’d had a little setback after his last run. It was hard to find a race so I stuck him in this race – that’s it. He was just a runner.”
    Later he described it as “a lucky win, end of story” and added: “I’ve never seen anything like it. Losing the other race [Min’s] in the stewards’ room then Mengli Khan jumping out at the second last.
    “I thought at least then we’d be first, second and third going to the last and then the two of them fall individually. It was extraordinary stuff and I was just waiting for them to bring down our third runner and really cap the day.”
    Mullins also reflected that he was “delighted with how Sharjah ran”. He ascribed Real Steel’s inability to keep pace with the rest of the field early on to “a lack of experience”, pointing to the wealth of Flat practice boasted by the winner and even, by comparison, Sharjah. “We’ll let Whiskey Sour run against those horses at the Dublin Racing Festival and see,” he concluded.
    While Mengli Khan was losing concentration, two British hurdlers emerged on his blindside as serious contenders for the Supreme – if not arguably quite yet at the level that Elliott’s charge set when winning the Royal Bond last month.
    First to lay down his advanced claim was Claimantakinforgan at Ascot two Fridays ago in by far the best time of the day. The other keynote of his Grade Two Kennel Gate triumph was his neat hurdling, even when slightly inconvenienced by previous Cheltenham winner Slate House jumping left across him at the sixth.
    He just needed nudging to hold his position on the home turn, led for being shaken up approaching the last and stayed on well. The doughty Dr Des continued to impress with his attitude in second, sticking on dourly after being outpaced by the winner. He’s progressive.
    Since reassessed to a mark of 146, Claimantakinforgan is getting darn close to near-assured Supreme frame material and, given he wasn’t far behind the ill-fated Fayonagh in last season’s Festival Bumper, we know he handles the track. He’s now the 8/1 favourite, clear of a lengthened Mengli Khan with some bookmakers.
    At Kempton on Boxing Day, the opening success of If The Cap Fits will surely be rated in the same bracket as Claimantakinforgan. The winner is likely to receive an entry in both the Supreme and Ballymore Novices’ Hurdles at the Festival, yet trainer Fry has since signaled he’s leaning towards the former.
    A strongly run two miles in which If The Cap Fits can be delivered late would suit him ideally and could even extract an improved performance because again here, he tended to run about when approaching his hurdles in the lead.
    The time compared favourably with the other hurdle events on the card, including the Unibet Christmas Hurdle crawl won by Buveur D’Air. If The Cap Fits is an exciting prospect for owners Paul and Clare Rooney and 10/1 for the Sky Bet Supreme is, again, very fair.
    In his wake, it should be noted that Diese Des Bieffes got outpaced before rallying determinedly, Solomon Grey was a solid third and Simply The Betts folded after briefly looking threatening. Irish Prophecy – representing the Kalashnikov form – was hampered by the fall of Storm Home at the third last. There was promise in different ways from each of the Gary Moore-trained 66/1 shots, Ar Mest and Airtight.
    In other news – and I’m sure to have missed something here, so tune in next week – Fabulous Saga took the Grade two Guinness Novice Hurdle at Limerick in cussed fashion. Headed by Burren Life approaching the penultimate flight, switched he dug in to narrowly regain the lead at the last. Rallying four-year-old Delta Work might have given him something to think about, mind, had he jumped the last two flights better.
    The winner is a thorough stayer and perhaps a mudlark – two fences had to be omitted on the adjacent chase course this day due to ground conditions. The runner-up is a name to bear in mind for staying chases of the future.
    Earlier in the week at the same track, galloper Sympa Des Flos got off the mark despite jumping deliberately in the 2m6f maiden hurdle and seven-year-old mare Crackerdancer’s hurdles debut success had trainer Ray Hackett talking about the Festival’s Dawn Run contest for novice mares. She showed her inexperience on her approach to several of the obstacles.
    At Leopardstown, Paloma Blue lightened what would prove a heavy week for owner Chris Jones, given the loss of stalwart Zabana in the Christmas Chase two days later. The time was good for the two-mile maiden hurdle and trainer de Bromhead, who scored a Boxing Day treble there, deems him “a Graded horse”. He plans to return for the Dublin Festival.
    De Bromhead was also in the winner’s enclosure with Dicey O’Reilly in the 2m4f maiden later in the week. A first-time tongue-tie at least coincided with a much-improved second hurdles start from a well-regarded animal.
    Finally, as detailed in Henderson’s Unibet blog – read it there first – this column’s ante-post Ballymore selection On The Blind Side missed Saturday’s Challow Hurdle because “he knocked himself behind”.
    “It’s nothing serious and it’s healing by the minute,” he added. “He’ll be back in time for a Cheltenham prep.”
    The Challow will be assessed in next week’s edition of the Road, along with all other relevant races from the early New Year period.


    If The Cap Fits won in taking fashion

    Juvenile hurdlers

    In Ireland, Espoir D’Allen continues his serene progress through the juvenile ranks – mirroring the standing of JP McManus’s other leading juvenile, the filly Apple’s Shakira, on this side of the Irish Sea.
    The Gavin Cromwell-trained gelding probably didn’t need to be at his best to register this Grade Two success at Leopardstown by a length-and-a-quarter from Farclas, with Mitchouka getting two lengths closer to him under 3lb better terms but not finding much off the bridle.
    In truth, it was a one-sided affair with Mark Walsh taking a pull two out and his mount leading comfortably approaching the last. He therefore remains unbeaten and is best priced in one place at 10/1 for the Triumph, behind McManus’s filly at a broad 7/2.
    Mullins threw another juvenile into the mix, following the filly Stormy Ireland’s Fairyhouse romp earlier this month, when debutant Mr Adjudicator, who stayed at least 11 furlongs on the Flat in Ireland, scored a wide-margin success at Leopardstown.
    "He wasn’t an easy ride when he came to us,” admitted Patrick Mullins on At The Races. “The worry was he’d be too keen, hence the hood. Paul [Townend] was happy with his jumping – he’s been a natural at home since day one. come to Leopardstown at Christmas and won as he likes so he’ll step up in grade. You hope these horses are Triumph horses."
    Over at Kempton on the same day, Redicean also made a winning hurdles debut by a comfortable margin. It wasn’t quite so straightforward as for Mr Adjudictor – Redicean was keen and ran about at some hurdles, causing him to make a mistake at the third, but he got on terms with the leaders easily enough and came right away.
    He stayed 14 furlongs for David O’Meara on the Flat and, now housed with Alan King, is in the right yard to make some sort of impact in juvenile hurdles.
    In news from off the track, Henderson reports that the rescheduling of Chepstow’s Welsh Grand National meeting could mean either Apple’s Shakira or We Have A Dream contests in the Grade One Finale Hurdle on the same 6 January card.
    Confirming that the Triumph is the aim for the latter, he said: “They won’t both run but, as this race has been pushed back, it has given us an extra week and so certainly comes into play for one of them.”
    “I want to get Shakira some valuable race experience in a bigger field,” he reiterated. “So we’ll see how the entries look later in the week.”
    The McNeill Family has also been in touch via Twitter to report Act Of Valour’s blood was found to be “completely wrong” when tested two days after his disappointing run at Doncaster earlier this month. No doubt it was a relief to find a reason for a horse who’d previously made such a positive impression when winning on debut at Newcastle.


    Espoir D'Allen on his way to an impressive win

    Selections:

    Advised 30/11/17: Min 8/1 Champion Chase with Paddy Power/Betfair
    Advised 06/12/17: Supasundae 20/1 Stayers’ Hurdle with Bet365 and Paddy Power/Betfair
    Advised 06/12/17: Mengli Khan for the Supreme 15/2 with Betfair
    Advised 13/12/17: On The Blind Side for the Ballymore 10/1 each-way with various firms
    Back now: Let’s Dance each-way at 12/1 for the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle with William Hill
    Back now: Presenting Percy at 8/1 with BetVictor, BetFred, BoyleSports or Stan James to win the RSA Chase

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