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Thread: Lydia Hislop's Road To Cheltenham 2018

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    Senior Member simmo's Avatar
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    Must say I find this column to be an engrossing read.
    Alba Gu Brath!

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  3. #22
    Super Moderator Diamond Geezer's Avatar
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    .....and there's more

    Lydia Hislop tackles recent performances, race switchers and an ever-growing absentee list in this week's Road To Cheltenham. There's a Gold Cup bet too!
    For the second week running, the most significant action from the track took place among the various novice divisions. Yet even this good handful of notable performances was overshadowed by reports of an ever-growing absentee list among the more established stars.
    Timico Gold Cup
    News broke on Monday that Thistlecrack misses the Timico Gold Cup for the second year running. Following the results of a bone scan that revealed “a small stress fracture… at the top of the tibia”, trainer Colin Tizzard stated that the 2017 King George hero “is likely to be out for the season”.
    It’s hard to envisage a scenario whereby an injury such as this would be resolved to the satisfaction of connections even in time for the Punchestown Festival at the end of April. Unlike certain other potential resurrectees one could mention, in this case I suspect out means out – even if Tizzard was precise enough in his language to use “likely to be”.
    Given this will be the second appreciable setback within one 12-month period, following news of a tendon tear last January, it’s hard to imagine this now ten-year-old ever again operating at the level he did during his bold novice-chasing season – or indeed his imperious hurdling campaign of 2015/16.
    It was yet to be proven that he’d retained his old zip even prior to this latest setback, although his King George fourth – with ways of reading it to be better than that literal form – was undoubtedly a significant step forward on his seasonal debut over hurdles.
    That leaves Tizzard, this time last year long-handed in Gold Cup prospects, perhaps looking solely to Native River to represent him in March if veteran flag-bearer Cue Card heads for the Ryanair – more on him later. The former, last year’s third, has maintained his relatively prominent position in a turbulent Gold Cup ante-post market due to not running so far this season.
    Latest word is the Tizzards have reverted to plan A for his campaign this term and aim to give him one run – in Newbury’s Denman Chase that he won so impressively last year – prior to Cheltenham. Shocked by what they believe was misjudging Thistlecrack’s fitness for his return last November, they had then floated the idea of two prep runs for his stablemate prior to the Gold Cup.
    They have since again cited last term’s tough schedule – including wins in the Hennessy and Welsh Grand National – to underpin their original decision for Native River. As I mentioned before, it also suggests to me that the Randox Health Grand National is at the forefront of their minds. And why not?
    Talking of Native River, I’m inclined to take an each-way position for the Gold Cup with the horse who has twice beaten him at the Festival, Minella Rocco. I argued two Roads back that his Christmas Chase fourth came “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”.
    Now clearly, Rocco comes with a health warning: on a good day, don’t rely on him to jump all fences cleanly; on a bad day, any fence at all. But he’s clearly well suited by Cheltenham, having also won a vintage edition of the NH Chase in 2016 and can again expect to thrive in a well-run event with Native River, Bristol De Mai and Might Bite in the field.
    Minella Rocco is a good each-way price at 20/1, which is generally available. You run the risk that he runs poorly in either the Cotswold Chase or Irish Gold Cup – in which case 16/1 NRNB is available to you – but unless that is in some way deleterious to his health, I’d argue it would probably be irrelevant to his Festival chance.
    As I mentioned in the first Road of this series, I personally backed Might Bite for both the King George and Gold Cup back in April but in terms of this column, his odds for the latter race have always been a shade shorter than I liked at every juncture. It crossed my mind to suggest the 5/1 after the King George but I didn’t and now he’s 3/1 or shorter in every NRNB book currently or a shaky 4/1 in just one place under ante-post rules. Boat missed.
    In this scenario, the type of horse I’d want to back against him is a thorough stayer. Again before this series started, I thought that horse might be Our Duke but a dirty scope and then a back operation after disappointing on his return to action is not the profile I’m seeking here.
    To my mind that leads to either Native River or Minella Rocco – and the latter has two verdicts over the former and is up to twice his price. So it’s Rocco each-way at 20/1 for me.
    His owner JP McManus could end up triple-handed for the Gold Cup after one of his trainers, Tony Martin, indicated he’d like to test recent seven-length Paddy Power Chase winner Anibale Fly at Grade One level in next month’s Irish Gold Cup. But Martin also disseminated the sort of caveat that all trainers employed by such a large-scale operation would always be wise to deploy.
    “I haven’t talked to Frank [Berry, McManus’s racing manager] or JP about anything yet,” Martin said. “[Anibale Fly is] only turning eight and I suppose we’ll have to look at running him in those Graded races over a trip.”
    McManus’s other Gold Cup player is Coney Island, whose odds greatly outstrip his achievements to date mostly because the established players have damaged their credentials for one reason or another. At least two of JP’s three-strong green-and-gold-hooped brigade, if not all of them if you include Rocco, could therefore potentially face off at Leopardstown.
    Tom George has also stated that Double Shuffle now has the Gold Cup on his agenda after his career-best effort – whether flattered by his proximity to ante-post favourite Might Bite in the small print or not – when second in the King George.
    Finally, if this is your kind of thing – it’s not mine – I should mention that Road To Respect is the obvious collateral mover in the Gold Cup market after Gigginstown’s Eddie O’Leary announced that he’s “likely to head straight to Cheltenham”.
    While the Christmas Chase winner’s final destination at the Festival is not yet known, 10/1 NRNB strikes me as over-priced. It sounds like he won’t have the opportunity to blot his copybook between now and then whereas others such as Native River, Coney Island and Our Duke – all of whom are shorter than him at 8/1 NRNB – could. At least one surely will, if only relatively speaking.
    Postscript: Entries for the Timico Gold Cup were released today and totaled 38 with no surprise omissions. They included another Gigginstown project in Valseur Lido, whom O’Leary says will run in the Irish Gold Cup. Expect him to feature among the Ryanair entries tomorrow, too.
    SKY BET ODDS (NRNB): Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup

    Road To Respect (yellow cap): Heading straight to Cheltenham

    Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase
    The explosive device was safely detonated last Saturday, an explicit warning having been given out on the radio beforehand. Now Douvan, having been last month ruled out for the season, is “a long shot” to make the Cheltenham Festival or, if that proves impossible, “then he could make Punchestown”.
    These were the words of trainer Willie Mullins in his Racing Post column, the hint having already been dropped when owner Rich Ricci spoke on talkSPORT2 in the preceding days – as flagged in last week’s Road.
    “There is now a chance, admittedly a slim one, that he might see action before the end of the campaign,” Mullins said. “Consequently, we’ve decided to enter him in the Champion Chase at Cheltenham in the hope that he might come right in time for the Festival.
    “Intermittent lameness had been the problem but he has been doing controlled exercise and is very sound, doing a lot of slow exercise. We’ve been pleasantly surprised by how well things are going with him.
    “Our vets and other experts they have consulted think the problem could have been associated with an old injury resolving itself and we decided he merited an entry for Cheltenham in the hope that he will continue to progress and that the lameness will not resurface if and when he goes back into full work. Hopefully, we’ll be in a position for that to happen a lot sooner than we originally anticipated.
    “It’s a long shot at this stage and getting him back on the track this season might not be a runner. He will need to tick all the boxes for that to happen. If it proves impossible for him to make Cheltenham then he could make Punchestown. Everything is up in the air but we are cautiously optimistic now compared with the situation a month ago.”
    To recap, Douvan’s unbeaten record over fences came to an end when he pulled up with a fractured pelvis in last season’s Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase. He then missed his comeback engagement in December’s Tingle Creek after displeasing Mullins during his preparations and a few days later it was announced that Douvan “won’t be running this season”.
    This was an uncharacteristically prompt and unequivocal statement for Mullins – but it was no sign of a newly found apostasy from his Trappist philosophy. We’ll see ample evidence later of his belief that trainers should speak only when absolutely necessary. This episode can only have strengthened his disdain for idle talk.
    “No doubt people will ask why we came out last month and said Douvan would not run this season,” he said, addressing this subject later in his column. “That decision was based on veterinary advice at the time – and it might yet prove to be correct. However, the situation has changed slightly.”
    Mullins would have preferred these developments to have played out privately but unless you run a hermetically sealed training unit – and few, if any, do – market-impacting information has a habit of revealing itself via the exchanges.
    Therefore, the sensible call is to get on the front foot with keeping the public informed in a timely manner (and perhaps check your language for overblown certainty). The public, for our part in the deal, need to accept that – as I said in the fourth edition of this Road – “plans change and stuff happens”.
    From the point of view of Mullins and Ricci, it is absolutely worth risking £435 to enter Douvan in the Champion Chase now – and perhaps also the Ryanair? – rather than be surprised by the patient’s rate of progress come March and be forced to contemplate a £17,500 supplementary fee.
    Whether he stands his ground at the 13 February £870 forfeit stage could be telling. Let’s hope so because this more positive prognosis is welcome news to all objective fans of racing – even if the circumspection of Mullins’ language reads as though Cheltenham may remain a dream for Ricci.
    In the NRNB markets, Douvan ranges from 3/1 to 5/1. The former is a daft price for a horse that’s been “intermittently lame” all season, the cause of which is still not known. That said, from the bookmakers’ point of view, in the scenario that he does start it’s likely to mean Min would be at best second string and at worst not running in this race at all. There’s also a chance Altior could have beaten Politologue in the Game Spirit by then…
    Incidentally, the news from Seven Barrows on last year’s impressive Arkle hero continues to be consistently positive, so it appears increasingly likely that Altior will make it to the Festival. It still remains highly possible that the Champion Chase will be his seasonal debut, however, given trainer Nicky Henderson has again mentioned the racecourse gallop option. You can get 5/4 NRNB if you like dem odds first time out in the most competitive meeting of the entire season.
    The remaining ante-post market is a mess of Mullins permutations. Of the nine shortest-priced horses, he trains six of them – six! – in Douvan, Min, Yorkhill, Footpad (NRNB lists only), Un De Sceaux and Great Field.
    Clearly Ruby Walsh will want some say in what goes where, in the sense he’ll seek as many live chances in as many races as possible – if indeed he’s fit to ride by then. He has little influence over Footpad, however, whose owners, Simon Munir and Isaac Souede, retain Daryl Jacob. That said, Walsh has ridden that horse at the last two Festivals while Jacob partnered Sceau Royal against him instead – a faintly possible scenario should both horses contest the Arkle.
    It’s highly unlikely that Ryanair titleholder Un De Sceaux will run here (although he will surely be entered). But Mullins has dropped it out – among other things – in a Steve Dennis article in the Racing Post headlined ‘Ready to run or on the easy list: what condition are jumping’s absent stars in?’ that his “main aim is to make Cheltenham” with Great Field.
    Mullins reported that horse to be sidelined last autumn with what he now calls “a small setback”, adding that Great Field is due to rejoin the main yard from pre-training next week and he could be forward enough to take part in next month’s Dublin Festival at Leopardstown “if all is well”.
    Despite this good news, 8/1 NRNB is deeply unattractive about a headstrong error-prone jumper who was pulled up on his only previous start at Cheltenham.
    A far warmer order for the NRNB angle here – as he has been for many another race – is of course The Ubiquity In Equine form. We will discover tomorrow [Thursday], when entries are released for the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase, whether Mullins has entered Yorkhill – his enigma, my nemesis – in this, the right race.
    SKY BET ODDS (NRNB): Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase

    Douvan: Things have changed

    Ryanair Chase
    Any thought of running Cue Card at Kempton this Saturday, providing him with a welcome ease in grade, have been shelved following news of a seemingly minor setback.
    “He’s got pus in a foot and has had his shoe off for three days, so he won’t be going to Kempton,” said Tizzard, who’ll presumably revert to the Grade One Ascot Chase plan – a race this superb horse won last year.
    Otherwise, items to note prior to entries for the Ryanair Chase being released tomorrow [Thursday] include: The Ubiquity’s NRNB best price of 4/1 (compared with 10/1 in one place under ante-post terms) and stablemate Douvan only appearing in the Tote/BetFred lists at 10/1. That could change…
    There are also six points of difference between Disko’s best NRNB and ante-post prices, the former being 10/1 with Bet365. That’s reasonable on last term’s JLT form in which, not ridden as positively as you’d have liked, he finished only three lengths behind Top Notch, a 5/1 shot here.
    Finally, the novice Brain Power is entered against Ryanair titleholder and ante-post favourite Un De Sceaux in Ascot’s Grade One Clarence House Chase on Saturday week.
    Despite his short odds, it’s conceivable the latter could be vulnerable, given he’s three years older, can find 2m1f sharp these days unless it’s testing ground and was only of a comparable standard to Brain Power over hurdles. His rival is also seemingly at his best going right-handed, having impressed most at this track, and this race may function as his Arkle, if that’s the case.
    Brain Power ran extremely well until unseating at the last in the Grade One Henry VIII Novices’ Chase last time, perhaps helping to force things a little too hard and therefore becoming vulnerable to the patiently ridden Sceau Royal.
    I’m sure Brain Power should be second favourite as things stand for the Clarence House and yet actually he’s 10/1 and even 12/1 in one place. You can back him each-way if you still fear Un De Sceaux – the race is only on Saturday week, after all. I can’t have either Waiting Patiently or Charbel being better than him. Fellow novice Cyrname is probably the bigger threat.
    If Brain Power does win, Un De Sceaux will probably drift for the Ryanair. Whether that would be correct or not would depend on the details – Brain Power is a top-drawer horse – but if you like this reasoning you might want to consider getting your preferred Ryanair selection on side NRNB.
    I should also mention Un De Sceaux’s scarce-sighted stablemate Black Hercules here, although he could conceivably also get a Gold Cup entry. He won the 2016 JLT by three lengths from Bristol De Mai but was trounced on all three starts last term and wasn’t sighted beyond mid-January.
    Mullins was quoted in Dennis’s Racing Post article saying: “He’s in great form at the moment and we hope to run on Sunday at Fairyhouse.” That said, his name did not appear among the list of entries.
    Finally, today’s Racing Post contained the surprise news that L’Ami Serge has been entered in the Ryanair – even though the Stayers’ Hurdle remains his medium-term target at this stage. He will even run over fences as his next outing but reportedly not at Kelso this Sunday where he holds an entry.
    “He’s a better hurdler than chaser, although his best run was in the French Champion Hurdle, which is run over mini-fences,” said Anthony Bromley, racing manager to Simon Munir and Isaac Souede. “We’ll run him in a chase before the Festival, partly to see if he has improved over fences.
    “His owners do have Wholestone as well for the Stayers’ which is at the back of our minds, but they also have Top Notch for the Ryanair. As such, the intention for L’Ami Serge is still the Stayers’ on the way back to the French Champion Hurdle.”
    SKY BET ODDS (NRNB): Ryanair Chase

    L'Ami Serge: Surprise Ryanair entry

    Unibet Champion Hurdle
    Only left-field news here – both in terms of yak and a potential improver.
    First, the yak: last season’s County Hurdle winner Arctic Fire has been retired – this news purportedly dropped out in passing in Dennis’s Racing Post article while discussing another horse.
    Runner-up to Faugheen in the 2015 Champion Hurdle, arguably set to win the Grade One Aintree Hurdle on his next start when falling at the last and good enough to triumph at last year’s Festival from a mark of 158, Arctic Fire was a high-class performer. I’m sorry to hear we won’t see him race again.
    Meanwhile, the Tizzards are entertaining dreams of the Champion Hurdle for last season’s Aintree novice-hurdle winner Pingshou. This lightly raced eight-year-old was only tenth in last year’s Supreme but improved markedly to win the Grade One Top Novices’ event and when third to Cilaos Emery later that April at Punchestown. He is yet to be sighted this season.
    “He had a few niggly problems in the autumn and we had to take it steady with him,” said Joe Tizzard, son and assistant to Colin. “His target has always been the Champion Hurdle and the plan was to run in a couple of traditional trials to see where we were with him but that wasn’t possible – which isn’t ideal.
    “He’s just returned to full work and the chances are he’ll go straight to Cheltenham now. He’ll stay hurdling this season and we’ll save novice chasing for next season.”
    The official handicapper for this division says Pingshou has got 21lbs to find on titleholder Buveur D’Air – albeit this will be his first season out of novice company – and he’s a 50/1 shot (or 40/1 NRNB) to do so. He only joined the Tizzards last season and will be rising nine when he switches to fences next term – even if he is built for that job.
    In terms of market-based yak, Faugheen is as short as 7/2 with Hills on ante-post terms. Book an appointment with a shrink and keep screening your bank manager’s calls if you think that is in any way a good idea. Given Ricci spoke of “cracking on”, it must be likely this horse will be trained for the Irish Champion Hurdle next month. One hitch in this plan and surely the retirement trigger is pulled?
    The Ubiquity is best-priced at 5/1 NRNB as punters mull the contradiction of his trainer having in the recent past named this race as a potential target and how inadequately his clumsy jumping is likely to contrast with that of the favourite.
    Finally, there is often a fast-improving handicapper who bridges the gap to graded class in this division. Last season, it was Brain Power; this time it could be stablemate Call Me Lord, who ran away with Sandown’s decent two-mile prize last Saturday from a mark of 143. He’s been raised a handy-looking 9lbs for pulling clear of in-form and/or well-treated rivals.
    The deterrent from a Champion Hurdle – or even Betfair or County Hurdle – perspective is Henderson’s pre-race observation that the horse tends to hang right and would be campaigned accordingly.
    Indeed, he hasn’t set foot on a left-handed track since joining the yard last April. He’s also merely a five-year-old – definitively too young for Cheltenham’s premier hurdling prize in the minds of many.
    The Imperial Cup is the obvious choice for a horse said to love Sandown but given it’s worth far less than the Betfair Hurdle and connections haven’t actually yet chanced their arm left-handed to see whether their perception is well-founded, he could yet head there. If that works, he could also be an outsider to reckon with in this division.
    Postscript: It emerged today that Call Me Lord has been entered in that valuable Newbury event, along with stablemate Charli Parcs, last year’s Triumph Hurdle winner Defi Du Seuil, Pingshou and – he lives! – Moon Racer.
    SKY BET ODDS (NRNB): Unibet Champion Hurdle

    Pingshou: Yet to be sighted this season

    Sun Bets Stayers’ Hurdle
    So-called experts 1; How-Many-Winners-Have-You-Ridden 0. Yanworth, about whom trainer Alan King asserted after his fall at Exeter in November that “there was never any chance that he would switch back to hurdles”, will be entered in the Sun Bets Stayers’ Hurdle next week.
    “What would be the point of that?” King asked at the time of the mooted switch of disciplines. “Yet I saw that suggestion being made and it does annoy me when so-called experts, who’ve never sat on a horse in their lives, say that sort of thing.”
    I had hoped we’d got beyond the ‘if-you-ain’t-done-it-shut-up’ refrain that risks portraying racing as a joyless, unreflective pursuit for the non-participant. Part of the fun of being a racing fan is trying to work out, ahead of everybody else, what might happen down the line. It’s not intended to be slighting to those closest to a horse; it’s just an opinion. Everyone has them.
    So King has belatedly come round to the idea. “All we’re doing is keeping all our options but my advice to ante-post punters is to sit tight at this stage,” he said, when making the announcement in his Weekender column this week.
    “He’s won twice over fences but the staying-hurdle division looks wide open at the moment. I watched Supasundae run Apple’s Jade close at Leopardstown and that form would put Yanworth right into the mix – remember, he beat that horse when he won the Liverpool Hurdle.
    “He’s unexposed over long distances as a hurdler because Aintree was the only time he ran over three miles and the Stayers’ Hurdle is a very valuable race this year, so I asked JP McManus if I could enter him to give us the option.”
    Clearly, Yanworth will still be entered in the RSA and JLT Chases in a couple of weeks’ time and then owner McManus and/or racing manager Berry, in consultation with King, will decide what their squad looks like for each Festival race nearer the time. He ranges from 7/1 to 10/1 for this contest with those firms offering NRNB.
    Another oh-so-predictable switcher is Finian’s Oscar. After also displaying a safety-first attitude to jumping fences, his next start will be in the Cleeve Hurdle on Trials Day at Cheltenham later this month. Previously, Colin Tizzard had argued that stepping back up in trip and/or headgear would bring about a transformation in chases. No longer.
    “We’re going to switch back to hurdles for the rest of the season, with the aim being to run in the Stayers’ Hurdle,” said Tizzard. “He jumps fences adequately but I don’t think he’s that brave.
    “If he doesn’t nearly win the Cleeve, we might go back to the RSA or JLT – and it might not hurt him to have a run over hurdles before returning to fences in any case – but the Cleeve and the Stayers’ is our view and what will probably happen.
    “I need to look after him. I don’t want to run him in a big race over fences at Cheltenham when there’s a possibility he could shake them up in the Stayers’ Hurdle. On last season’s hurdles form, you’d have to think he could be a major contender as well.”
    According to the official handicapper for this division, Finian’s Oscar has 11lbs to find on a conservatively rated Sam Spinner, for example, on the basis of his existing hurdles mark but you would confidently expect him to bridge at least some of that disparity. Whether he wants three miles is perhaps open to question, mind.
    “I don’t for one minute think the Stayers’ will be an easy race,” said Tizzard. “But there’s also no reason why any number of horses won’t switch back from fences to have a go at it. Once a horse goes chasing, he doesn’t have to stay chasing for the rest of his life.”
    Last December, Jockey Club Racecourses announced a £25,000 increase in the total purse for this prize as part of a seven per cent rise in prize money for the entire meeting. That makes the Stayers’ Hurdle worth almost twice the amount of either the RSA or JLT Novices’ Chases.
    This fact evidently concentrated King’s mind and might yet attract more connections to make similar calculations.
    Willoughby Court, last year’s Neptune (now Ballymore) winner and only third behind Yanworth over fences last time, might also be given a Stayers’ engagement – although the idea came across from trainer Ben Pauling’s as thrust upon him rather than being self-generated.
    “I wouldn’t rule out giving Willoughby Court an entry in the Stayers’ Hurdle,” he said. “I don’t know why we’d suddenly change tack but it gives us another option.”
    In other news, Mullins confirmed in that informative Dennis piece that last year’s Albert Bartlett winner Penhill is “back in training and in great form”. The main aim is the Stayers’ Hurdle, with sights also set on Punchestown beyond. He hasn’t run since that fixture last term so it’s good to know he’s in the land of the living. He’s a unanimous 8/1 NRNB.
    This column’s 20/1 ante-post selection Supasundae reportedly heads to the Irish Champion Hurdle next, rather than to anything over a staying trip, to hone him for this blend of speed and stamina.
    Finally, trainer Neil King says last year’s runner-up Lil Rockerfeller is in good shape following his below-par effort in Ascot’s Long Walk Hurdle and heads to the National Spirit at Fontwell next month, a race he won two seasons ago.
    SKY BET ODDS (NRNB): Sun Bets Stayers' Hurdle

    Yanworth: One on the board for the so-called-experts

    OLBG Mares’ Hurdle
    Breaking news from the Cistercian Order: Mullins’ two leading mares are both alive but, aside from that, all options remain open. Or at least they perhaps do in the case of Vroum Vroum Mag; Limini – it suddenly emerges – is “likely to miss the rest of the jumps season”.
    Useful to know, when you’re talking about what in some cases were the second and third favourites for the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle and the two horses who most closely chased home Apple’s Jade, this year’s odds-on market leader, in the 2017 edition.
    Again, we must thank Dennis’s ‘Ready To Run?’ article for this valuable news. If only Mullins had a regular outlet for timelier communications, we’d all be so much better informed… Oh.
    “We’ve always had a Flat campaign in mind for her, which we could put into practice this summer,” Mullins said of last year’s third, Limini. “Or she could instead be covered and retire.”
    Certainly, both owner and trainer have previously referred to ambitions to race Limini on the Flat. She won three times in France at a relatively modest level for Nicolas Clement and Mullins is certainly adept at switching horses from jumping to make a significant impact on the other code, but LImini is seven years of age, so you wonder whether the moment has passed.
    For Vroum Vroum Mag, there is apparently still hope that she might make it back to the track for a jumps campaign even though both her last intended and last actual races have been affected by lameness.
    “She had a setback at the time of the Morgiana [in November],” confirmed Mullins, before covering all bases. “She’s well now and could go back into training. Alternatively, she may be covered and retired.”
    The Quevega Precedent deters me from entirely writing her off as a OLBG Mares’ Hurdle contender – although I don’t recall hearing of setbacks in the preparation of Mullins’ six-time winner of this now Grade One event. Clearly, that doesn’t mean there weren’t any…
    Whatever, I’d say that puts The Road’s 12/1 each-way selection Let’s Dance into pole position for this race chez Mullins, with only the small matter of Apple’s Jade potentially in her path. At this rate of attrition, she could again wind up being Ricci’s chief hope of a Festival winner – as it turned out she was last year, when she won the Dawn Run.
    The two bookmakers offering NRNB on this race, Sky Bet and Bet365, have also taken the precaution of installing at 4/1 owner- and stablemate Benie Des Dieux; Paddy Power have her only one point longer on ante-post terms.
    That prudence is understandable given Mullins has won eight of the ten editions of this race so far and Ricci had two shots at the prize 12 months ago. This mare’s Irish chase form puts her in the same ballpark as Let’s Dance in ability terms to date but she hasn’t raced over hurdles for more than two years.
    Although Poppy Kay won at Sandown over the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle trip of 2m4f last Saturday, she shapes as though a strongly run two miles would see her to best effect. I doubt she’d have the stamina for this Cheltenham event, with its undulations and stiff finish.
    This scopey mare – already an eight-year-old but lightly raced – travelled strongly throughout the Mares’ Listed Hurdle yet had to battle far harder than this would have indicated to quell the tenacious Midnight Jazz.
    Poppy Kay didn’t frighten her: Midnight Jazz is the mare who gave a sickening (it was subsequently said) Vroum Vroum Mag such a fright at Doncaster last term. First-time cheekpieces seemed to revive her powers of obstinance last Saturday.
    The winner’s stated target of the Betfair Hurdle – confirmed as entered today – looks ideal, given it should enable jockey Richard Johnson to keep her smothered up behind horses as long as possible. She’s also effective on a variety of ground.
    The Sandown race now forms part of what has very much become a success story for the British Horseracing Authority in terms of encouraging owner-breeders to actually race their mares and keep them in training rather than breeding from them after little or no competition. The most concerted drive to enhance this programme is now in its eighth year and the ultimate ambition is to stage a mares’ chase at the Cheltenham Festival, if possible.
    That said, quite often when mares stray beyond this bubble into open compeny, they can struggle. Clearly that hasn’t applied at the top level with the likes of Annie Power and Apple’s Jade herself and I suspect Poppy Kay is well capable of working a mark like 135 at Newbury next month.
    “Poppy Kay would be suited by a bigger field and stronger pace,” confirmed her owner-breeder, Aiden Murphy, at Sandown. “She travels really well in her races and was a bit keen early today. She could go for the mares’ hurdle at Cheltenham with her rating but mote likely one of the handicaps.”
    Murphy also said he was interested in trying his mare over fences and that could further delay thoughts of sending her to the paddocks to breed – exactly what the BHA’s Jump Pattern Committee would have hoped to hear.
    In the short term, however, two-mile handicap hurdles are the most sensible target given the mare has more than a stone – how much more depends on your view – to find with the titleholder of this race.
    It should be noted that Dusky Legend – runner-up in the last two renewals of the Dawn Run – was withdrawn from Poppy Kay’s Sandown race. Yet the fact trainer Alan King had switched her to hurdles after she failed to win in three attempts, the latest ending in a fall at Newbury, suggests she will be entered in the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle.
    She’s not yet quoted anywhere for the race and yet her Festival record would suggest she’d be a place player.
    Two closing news items: first, Jer’s Girl – a faller in this race last year – has suffered a setback and is off games for six weeks according to trainer Gavin Cromwell and, second, Forge Meadow – runner-up to Let’s Dance last time but a disappointment in the 2017 Dawn Run – “definitely” won’t ship to Cheltenham because Jessica Harrington deems her a poor traveller.
    SKY BET ODDS (NRNB): OLBG Mares' Hurdle

    Let's Dance (left) on her way to victory at Leopardstown

    Novice chasers
    At Naas last Sunday, French recruit Demi Sang made his Irish debut for Mullins and McManus in a two-mile novice chase.
    He looked a shade outpaced by the typically assertive tactics of Avenir D’Une Vie and lacked alacrity at his fences but had just got himself comfortable again when landing awkwardly at the second last.
    He then had to be hard ridden to get past the front-runner, whose last-time habit of jumping right had been less in evidence, on the dash to the line. They pulled more than nine lengths clear of their two pursuers.
    The winner hails from the family of Welsh National winner Notre Pere and Champion Hurdle runner-up Osana but Mullins is inclined to keep him at two miles for now and clearly regards him quite highly. On this evidence, a strongly run race would serve better, provided he can get his jumping slicker.
    “I thought he spent too much time in the air at a few fences,” acknowledged Mullins. “We’ll see how he progresses and he could go to Leopardstown for the Frank Ward Solicitors Arkle Chase next month.”
    If he ends up in Cheltenham’s Racing Post Arkle Challenge Trophy – for which Bet365 make him 16/1 NRNB – he might face the likes of Brain Power and Cyrname, both of whom could lock horns with more established top-drawer chasers if lining up in the Clarence House Chase on Saturday week.
    There is a suspicion, stated openly by the latter’s trainer Paul Nicholls, that both those novices could be better racing right-handed. Nicky Henderson, the former’s trainer, pitched his recent Arkle winners Sprinter Sacre and Altior into open company in the Game Spirit prior to returning to novice waters at the Festival. This entry is surely an indication of his regard for Brain Power as well as a good fit in the horse’s overall campaign.
    Returning to Team Mullins, Livelovelaugh carried the Ricci silks to victory in a 2m4f Cork beginners’ chase at odds-on. He jumped soundly under a positive ride, scarcely pressed at his fences, to beat Drumconnor Lad by three lengths. The winner shaped like a thorough stayer and the runner-up was a bit better than the literal form.
    “Livelovelaugh will be a better chaser [than hurdler], we hope,” said Mullins. “He loves galloping and jumping and I would not be afraid to go up in trip with him. He’ll have to go Graded next time and we’ll see where we stand then.”
    Meanwhile, Henderson’s cunning plan to bag a £60,000 bonus for winning a race at Plumpton combined with a Festival event were thwarted when Rather Be unseated Jeremiah McGrath at the third fence last Sunday. The horse ran down the fence and then jumped right, scuffed the birch and unbalanced his jockey out of the left-hand side-door.
    His trainer will now be anxious to find a better – albeit less potentially lucrative – experience prior to the horse contesting the Close Brothers Novices’ Handicap Chase at Cheltenham.
    Finally, Gigginstown spokesperson Eddie O’Leary has stated that JLT fancy Death Duty will unfortunately miss the remainder of the season after damaging some ligaments during the Grade One Racing Post Novices’ Chase that ended for him in a final-fence fall.
    “He suffered the injury early on in the race at Leopardstown, which is why he never travelled,” asserted O’Leary. “He’s had a small operation but hopefully he’ll make a full recovery and we’ll have him back next season.”
    O’Leary also announced that recent Grade One-winning mare Shattered Love will ultimately head for the RSA Chase, via the 2m5f Flogas Chase at the same top level.

    Brain Power: Could run in the Clarence House at Ascot

    Novice hurdlers
    At last, Summerville Boy got the strongly run race he needs when beating another smart novice in Kalashnikov by four lengths in last Saturday’s Grade One Tolworth Hurdle at Sandown in a comparatively good time.
    Having been patiently ridden with signs of keenness at first, he moved into contention three out before a good jump took him to the lead at the penultimate flight.
    He then wandered a tad in front in the heavy ground and got in too close to the final hurdle, causing jockey Noel Fehily to have to ride with one foot out of his iron for the run-in and permitting the runner-up brief hope. That was soon dashed by Summerville Boy’s determined finish, despite shifting right due to Fehily’s issues, up that last stiff incline.
    “Cheltenham was a falsely run race and we hacked early – Summerville Boy was very free,” Fehily said, referring to the December event in which his mount finished third behind the re-opposing Western Ryder. That day he was also held up too far off that pedestrian pace – probably for reasons of getting the horse to settle, admittedly.
    “We went a more even gallop today and he settled better,” Fehily continued. “He’s a very nice horse. He’ll definitely get further. He’s a big baby and Tom [George, his trainer] has been minding him, running him in these good races because if he didn’t win, he’d keep his novice status for next year. He’ll definitely be better next year.”
    While those words bode well for Summerville Boy’s medium-term prospects, it isn’t the endorsement for a winning novice-hurdler at the Festival to my mind. The alarm bells are “big baby”, “better next year” and George’s apparent fallback plan for next season. That said, Fehily was also particularly insistent that the horse “hated” the heavy ground; his action would endorse that view.
    Even though a strongly run two miles patently suited, it should be noted that Summerville Boy’s owner Roger Brookhouse has the Ballymore in mind for this – and he tends to make the final decision on such matters or else he finds a different trainer.
    Amy Murphy was pleased with Kalashnikov, also arguing the ground was not to his taste. “He’s such a good-actioned horse, I think the ground has just told the whole way up the straight. He was so tough. He’s probably going to need two-and-a-half miles now.
    “I’d say he’d go straight to Cheltenham. He’ll probably be a tired boy – it’s the first time he’s had a race. I think he’ll go to the Neptune (now Ballymore).”
    I’m inclined to agree with everything Murphy said – this likeable horse was on and off the bridle at Sandown, looking uncomfortable on the ground, and has shaped like a stayer both there and when pulling away from Irish Prophecy at Doncaster last month. All that said, his name appeared today among the 59 entries for the two-mile Betfair Hurdle next month.
    Finishing further back, Mont Des Avaloirs had taken the field along at a good clip but shaped to run out exiting the back straight and his jumping also unraveled, to the point he totally lost balance at the second last and trailed his hind legs in the mud in a nasty-looking wobble.
    Western Ryder, who’d beaten Summerville Boy by almost six lengths lengths at Cheltenham, was reported to be ‘normal’ by the racecourse vets after trailing in 31 lengths behind the winner this time.
    Jockey Richard Johnson asserted he couldn’t handle the ground, according to trainer Warren Greatrex. “[Richard] said down the back [straight] he came alive again and thought it was game on, but as soon as he hit the soft ground he was struggling,” Greatrex added.
    In another Grade One on the other side of the Irish Sea, Next Destination asserted his Ballymore credentials in a Naas race that threw up much to analyse.
    In contrast with Sandown, this was a steadily run affair with the entire field still bunched together turning into the straight. The positives for the winner are his good jumping and straightforward attitude – he got this job done with the minimum of fuss.
    That enables all of us to continue calling him the best horse for owner Malcolm Denmark since Monsignor, the 2000 winner of his intended Festival contest. But 18 years later, it is shaping up to be a hot renewal and I would suggest Next Destination could be given plenty more to think about even by third-placed stable companion Duc Des Genievres should they both line up there.
    That horse was having his first start in Ireland and for Mullins. He was patiently ridden, allowed to lose a more forward pitch in a slowly run race. He was still going well when switched sharply right off the inside rail to deliver his challenge soon after entering the straight. He then wasn’t particularly fluent at the last and kept on well without ever looking like reaching the winner. For a horse having just his second-ever outing, this was highly encouraging.
    Of the winner, Mullins said: “He was able to overcome the slow pace, which didn’t suit him. His jumping was very good throughout and because of it he found himself in front a bit soon. It’s very testing out there and he handled it well.
    “He’ll be entered for the Albert Bartlett but I’d imagine the Ballymore will be his race. He’ll get a better-run race at Cheltenham. Whether he’ll run again before the Festival, I don’t know.”
    Runner-up Cracking Smart was gaining on Next Destination at the post after getting outpaced and then taking a long time to get going again. He shaped as though a step up to three miles for the Albert Bartlett would suit and, if that proves to be his target, this can be taken as a positive item of form.
    Owners Gigginstown have a good record in this tough Cheltenham event, having won it with Weapon’s Amnesty in 2009 and Very Wood in 2014. In terms of experience, Cracking Smart would be similar to the former – but that horse was good enough to go on to win the RSA the following season.
    At Ayr early last week, Better Getalong proved a different grade to his rivals in the novices’ hurdle. He’d previously finished third behind Slate House and Summerville Boy in that odd little race at Cheltenham in which three of the eight hurdles were omitted due to the low sun.
    Better Getalong runs in the famous Monet’s Garden silks of David Wesley Yates and has been described by both owner and trainer Nicky Richards as “a bit of a lad”. This was a more professional display, however, with the horse settling well, jumping soundly and travelling comfortably for a four-and-a-half-length success.
    There were still some signs of inexperience nut the direction of travel is positive. Assistant trainer Harry Haynes, admitting the Ayr contest was “a penalty kick”, agreed. “He just had a little look around at the last but I am sure he was idling and could have pulled out a lot more if necessary. He will possibly be better on better ground.”
    Kelso’ Morebattle Hurdle is a possible target next month – potentially a sharp step up in grade as it’s a race sometimes used as a last-gasp Champion Hurdle prep and has been won by the likes of Peddlers Cross, Simonsig, Top Notch and Cyrius Darius in the recent past.
    One potential opponent could be fellow novice Claimantakinforgan, who ducked the Tolworth due to the heavy ground. This race is on trainer Henderson’s radar, despite it being decidedly Oop North, although the Dovecote at Kempton is another option.
    SKY BET ODDS (NRNB): Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle

    Summerville Boy: Could well end up in the Ballymore

    Juvenile hurdlers
    The Grade One Finale Hurdle was rearranged along with the rest of Chepstow’s Welsh National card to last Saturday following its abandonment last month. The going was nonetheless testing, of course.
    It produced a tussle between two smart prospects, with the winner value for a bit more than the bare length-and-a-half in my book. That winner was We Have A Dream, previously a wide-margin victor on good ground at Doncaster.
    He jumped impeccably and travelled through this race comfortably, covering Jamie Moore’s attacking move on runner-up Sussex Ranger at the third last with some ease and making headway pretty much on the bridle to lead approaching the last.
    But that rival – hardened for the battle via much Flat experience – proved harder to quell than you might have expected. That I put down to non-ideal ground for We Have A Dream and both the tenacity and ability of Sussex Ranger.
    Having liked each of their last races, I formed an even more positive opinion about them both as a result of this. Valuably, the winner demonstrated versatility here, accepting a more patient ride and now appears in Sky Bet’s NRNB list for the Supreme, along with stable companion and fellow juvenile Apple’s Shakira.
    Yet I don’t see any reason why he wouldn’t line up alongside that filly in the Triumph, given they’re owned by different people. After all, Henderson saddled the 1-2-3 three years ago, with both the winner and runner-up carrying We Have A Dream’s silks of Munir and Souede.
    Refreshingly, Moore later commented that a better horse beat his mount but that doesn’t mean Sussex Ranger won’t prove useful, too – even if his rider also thinks Cheltenham probably wouldn’t be his bag.
    Over at Sandown that same day, Crucial Moment won the opening hurdles event but you’d fancy runner-up Mister Chow – stablemate to Sussex Ranger – to perhaps reverse the form were they to meet again.
    The winner’s owner was selling all the time after the race – and you can hardly blame him, given the fever that’s generated by the prospect of a potential Festival runner. Trainer Bill Turner has the Fred Winter in mind and the horse jumps well but he’s going to have to improve quite a bit yet.
    Over at Ludlow earlier in the week, Look My Way landed odds of 1/6 to get off the mark over hurdles - despite hanging markedly left in the closing stages. This was a trait he also displayed on the Flat and new trainer John Quinn has concluded he must race on left-handed tracks in future.
    “Based on what we’ve seen today, he’d need another run in similar company to get more experience,” he said. “He’s not ready for throwing in anywhere. His jumping will improve. He needs to slicken up but it’s not easy out of that ground. On the Flat he did improve and I can see him doing the same over jumps.”
    SKY BET ODDS: JCB Triumph Hurdle
    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 15/2 for the Supreme with Betfair
    Advised 13/12/17: On The Blind Side 10/1 each-way for the Ballymore with various firms
    Advised 31/12/17: Let’s Dance 12/1 each-way for the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle with William Hill
    Advised 31/12/17: Presenting Percy 8/1 for the RSA Chase with BetVictor, BetFred, Boylesports or Stan James
    Advised 05/01/18: Apple’s Jade 100/30 NRNB for the Stayers’ Hurdle with Betfair Sportsbook
    Advised 05/01/18: Poetic Rhythm 25/1 each-way for the Albert Bartlett with William Hill, Paddy Power of Betfair Sportsbook
    Back now: Minella Rocco at 20/1 each-way for the Gold Cup with various firms

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    Timico Gold Cup

    Definitly Red proved unflappable in the Grade Two BetBright Trial Cotswold Chase last Saturday, continuing to do his thing even as American consistently out-jumped him. Not that the winner was lacking in this department – indeed, his unflashy dependability is exactly what puts horses bang on the premises in the Gold Cup itself.

    He’s thriving at the moment – this was a career best, carrying a 6lb penalty for his previous peak in the Grade Two Many Clouds Chase at Aintree. He stays thoroughly and has answered any latent concerns about his ablity to handle Cheltenham.

    Connections are entitled to go for Gold in the belief they have a credible shout and 16/1 is perhaps still a shade long, even if he’s been hastily trimmed nine points by those bookmakers who in the immediate aftermath underestimated the value of Saturday’s success.

    It’s likely to be another strongly run edition of this Timico-sponsored event in March and Definitly Red’s ability to soundly mix it, in and among horses, at a strong pace and still have plenty left at the finish suggests that will only suit him. The lingering doubt would be his ability to give of his best were the ground to dry out.


    An impressive round of jumping from Definitly Red (7-1) who wins the BetBright Trial Cotswold Chase for trainer Brian Ellison and jockey Danny Cook.

    2:40 PM - Jan 27, 2018
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    It increasingly looks as though a monster performance in the Betfair Chase at his favourite Haydock is going to be Bristol De Mai’s lonely zenith this season. Although it looked effortless for him to plough through the mud to win a Grade One by a record 57 lengths, such extreme achievement clearly takes its toll. This is the likeliest conclusion, given the ulcers found – and who knows how long they’d been there? – after his sub-par King George effort, where his jumping was also broken down by Might Bite, have presumably been resolved and the ground at Cheltenham should have suited.

    Initially, connections claimed to be undeterred by this latest evidence and still intent on the Gold Cup but the following day there were noises about three Aintree options – the Grand National, Bowl or Topham – indicating they’re coming round to the view that flat tracks suit this horse ideally.

    Back in fourth, The Last Samuri ran with credit and has the Randox Health Grand National – in which he was second two years ago – as his priority.

    Tea For Two has now failed to complete in three starts at Cheltenham and may be another horse best suited by a flat track. That said, he ran respectably in ground that probably disadvantages him until being pulled up before two out. It was a better effort than the letter P in his form will suggest.

    Singlefarmpayment has now failed to complete in two of his last three starts and is in severe need of a more realistic target. There will be a theoretically good case to be made for him going one better in this year’s Ultima at the Festival – little respite, that – but the market tends to have high expectations of this horse. I fear he’s plateaued.

    Despite Coneygree’s love for testing conditions, the Bradstocks thought better of pitching their 2015 Gold Cup hero into the Cotswold Chase on his first start since a breathing operation. Instead, he heads for a clash with Native River in next week’s Denman Chase.

    Trainer Nicky Henderson also baulked at Cheltenham for Whisper – both last Saturday and seemingly also the Gold Cup Cup itself – in favour solely of an eggs-in-one-basket approach to the National.

    “I’m not sure whether he’ll have a run beforehand but I would expect so. It’s just a case of what and where,” he said in his Unibet blog. “He’s got entries at the Cheltenham Festival but I’m not sure that’s necessarily the right route for him ahead of Aintree as he’ll likely have a hard race in whatever he runs in. At the moment, plans are fluid and we’ll juggle it around when the time comes.”

    Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup - Sky Bet odds (non-runner/no bet)

    There are also a number of notable absentees in this Sunday’s Unibet Irish Gold Cup, including two key Gigginstown representatives Road To Respect and Balko Des Flos, the 1-2 from the Christmas Chase.

    With Disko’s Cheltenham participation far from guaranteed, the absence of stablemate Road To Respect from this Leopardstown Grade One – presumably reverting to the original intention of going straight to the Festival – surely increases the likelihood that he’ll contest the Gold Cup rather than the Ryanair. This progressive horse will have his stamina to prove there.

    Balko Des Flos also has a stable companion to deputise, the two years older Valseur Lido, and the 40/1 NRNB with BetFred wrongly assumes his latest effort was a fluke. However, he would be a prime candidate for a Gigginstown reshuffle on the eve of the Festival and could yet run in the Ryanair.

    The maroon army may also be represented on Sunday by Outlander whereas JP McManus has three standing their ground: this column’s each-way Gold Cup fancy Minella Rocco, Anibale Fly and Edwulf.

    You’ll note that Coney Island hasn’t remained at the forfeit stage. He instead goes for the Ascot Chase a week later where he’ll face the likes of Cue Card and Top Notch.

    That will enable trainer Eddie Harty to judge whether his charge – lightly raced over fences and reported to be fine since his Ascot return – has the necessary maturity to target the Gold Cup this season.

    In a press release for the Ascot Chase, Harty commented: “The race fits nicely into the programme and he won nicely at the track last time over the distance. It is a very good race in its own right and he will be up against strong opposition, so it should be a good test…

    “The Cheltenham Gold Cup is definitely on our minds… but we’ll see how he gets on in his next races as that should leave a clearer picture as to where we stand.”

    Total Recall is also an absentee, suggesting Willie Mullins has won the day in favouring the Grand National over then Gold Cup. The horse was indeed entered at Aintree this week. Both Djakadam and rapidly promoted Killultagh Vic could instead represent the Closutton yard.

    Ryanair Chase

    There was an extraordinary performance from Frodon in winning Cheltenham’s Grade Three handicap chase last Saturday by 17 lengths from a mark of 154. This was the best part of a stone better than anything he’d done before.

    Glued to the inside by Bryony Frost and always jumping beautifully at the vanguard of a strong pace, Frodon was waited with as others committed and then allowed the slip through on the inside entering the straight. The race was immediately over.

    It’s been a long while since he’s raced on heavy ground but his record attests that he’s effective on it. Indeed, surely this effort suggests he’s either particularly advantaged by it or else Frost derived a great benefit from sticking so rigidly to the inside line. Opponents doing too much too soon probably also played a part.

    The official handicapper for this division has raised him 10lbs, directing his campaign – rightly – towards the Ascot Chase and Ryanair. If he ends up in the latter race, it was interesting to note Harry Derham, trainer Paul Nicholls’ assistant, thinks Frodon travels better on the more galloping New Course – host of Saturday’s race and the Ryanair – than on the tighter, sharper Old Course.

    Sporting Life Pick 7

    �� Watch how Frodon, under Bryony Frost pulled away from rivals in the closing stages of the Crest Nicholson Handicap Chase.

    �� Impressive.

    2:05 PM - Jan 27, 2018
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    In either race, Frodon will get the chance to demonstrate whether this standout performance was a creation of a number of coalescing factors or primarily that of a much-improved horse – particularly against his previous ready conqueror Top Notch. Of course, Double Shuffle has also franked this form with his King George second.

    Interestingly, Frodon is now rated 9lbs higher than his most recent Ascot conqueror Gold Present. The official handicapper is presumably waiting for more evidence until making a collateral adjustment, leaving the Henderson-trained chaser on 155.

    Finally in this section, trainer Malcolm Jefferson’s daughter Ruth has indicated that Cloudy Dream – second and outstayed by none other than Definitly Red at Aintree last time – could join stablemate Waiting Patiently in the Ryanair.

    Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase

    No action to report in this division but plenty of yak and the prospect of a market-shuddering edition of the Grade Two Dublin Chase this Saturday in which Yorkhill, Min, the latter’s stewards-room conqueror Simply Ned and Champion Chase titleholder Special Tiara all stand their ground.

    By the way, did I mention Yorkhill chipped a bone in his foreleg when finishing last in the Christmas Chase? Of course I didn’t – because neither did Willie Mullins until last Saturday. I thought I might have been overdoing the Trappist gags but hailMaryfullofgrace I repent! I repent!

    “He was out for ten days which he’d be getting [in any case] after the race,” Mullins said, minimising the news. “I think last year we had to take a splint bone out of him. He seems to rap himself but he recovers very quickly and won at Cheltenham after it.”

    Clearly if Yorkhill does pitch up on Saturday, the setback has indeed not been significant but nonetheless it is clearly far from ideal for this important Champion Chase audition. It will be fascinating to see who rides which Mullins charge in the race that will probably determine which horse is banished to the Ryanair.

    In further news from the sickbed of Closutton, Rich Ricci has seemingly upgraded Douvan’s chances of making it to the Champion Chase to 50/50. Whether he acknowledges that in his own mind as an upgrade or whether it’s just something you say to indicate continuing doubt, who knows?

    “With Douvan it was just the oddest thing,” Ricci said last Saturday. “We are still not quite sure what happened. He was ‘intermittently lame’ is the best way I would describe it. We don’t know if it was related to a former injury but the vets told us he was out for the season.

    “We sent him away and he turned a corner and he was back completely healthy. We started to do some bits with him, a lot of walking, now he is back in training. Everything has to go right and we’ve been here before with him. I’m hopeful he will make the Festival, but everything has to go right. At the moment, it is all systems go.

    “He was in such good form before the Tingle Creek, we kept him busy walking, and he didn’t lose too much fitness. We won’t run him unless he is there to run a big race. I’d say it is 50/50 at the moment. It will be straight there or nothing.

    “He will have two or three critical bits to do before the Festival, probably away at one of the racecourses in Ireland. It won’t be a big racecourse gallop and of course there is always the Leopardstown jumping thing they do two weeks before [Cheltenham].”

    Sun Bets Stayers’ Hurdle

    Neither horse that triumphed in the two significant staying contests staged in Britain and Ireland last week currently holds an entry in this event.

    In the case of ready Galmoy hero Presenting Percy, those who have heard trainer Patrick Kelly speak assert this horse is headed for the RSA Insurance Chase. (By the way, that’s an optimistic insert to a familiar race title. I’m sure I can find a valid reason in the small print not to use it.)

    As for Cleeve winner Agrapart, his lack of entry would appear to be a minor omission. That said, trainer Nick Williams and family paddle their own canoe and usually – but not always – stick to their route once they’ve mapped it out.

    They say this horse must have testing ground and his record bears them out; it’s just that they’re also betting it won’t be unseasonably soft at the Festival this year. They’re probably right.

    Agrapart was well below his best when ninth behind the Nichols Canyon when attempting the full three miles for the first time in this event last year but he’s a year stronger now.

    In Cheltenham’s Grade Two contest last Saturday – usually a strong pointer to the Sun Bets Stayers’ Hurdle – Agrapart out-stayed Wholestone in sapping conditions but the runner-up also pulled eight lengths clear of their nearest pursuer, Colin’s Sister.

    Having been defeated by the mare at Wetherby in November, Wholestone now appears convincingly her superior and his jumping is more reliable than it once was, but – even granted some further steady improvement – he doesn’t quite appear good enough for anything more than a creditable showing at the Festival.

    The World’s End was a little disappointing on paper, getting outpaced at the top of the hill and losing his pitch but showing good determination to stay on for fourth and even briefly threaten for third. He should be given another hearing on a sound surface, given his Sefton success of last April, but he hasn’t quite yet made the transition into open Grade One company.


    Agrapart fends off the challenge of Wholestone to win the Cleeve Hurdle and gains his second success here at Cheltenham.

    3:47 PM - Jan 27, 2018
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    The latest footnote in the Chronicles Of Finian’s Oscar alerts us to a breathing problem that was clearly not breaking news to the Tizzards, given he wore a first-time tongue-tie last Saturday. Add this latest frailty to his careful jumping, the bravery issue and the stated lack of pace for two miles and you have a horse whose reputation is currently far outstripping his achievements.

    However, should there be an equal and opposite over-reaction to his wide-margin defeat in the Cleeve Hurdle, it should be remembered that he was bang there until the turn for home when presumably his rapid reverse could be ascribed to his wind infirmity

    Yet oddly the Tizzards are now talking about switching back to plan A and targeting the JLT Chase, if Finian’s Oscar is ready for the Festival.

    “He had the tongue-tie on for a reason and he is going to have his wind looked at this week. Which operation he needs will dictate the timescale afterwards,” said Joe Tizzard, son and assistant to Colin.

    “We had a look back at the hurdling route. I said before the race, though, that he had not lost a great deal in defeat over fences. He was impressive at Cheltenham and still ran well enough giving weight away at Ascot. If the wind op can help him, he has his best form on spring ground.”

    The only race in which he’d remotely interest me – and he would have to be a big price, his reputation eclipsed by others’ more recent Festival exploits – is the Aintree Hurdle.

    Sun Bets Stayers' Hurdle - Sky Bet odds (non-runner/no bet)

    The progressive Beer Goggles was bravely engaged at Cheltenham last Saturday by the grieving family of the late Richard Woollacott and helped to raise vital funds for three important charities – Mind, the Injured Jockeys’ Fund and the Devon Air Ambulance – as a result. (You, too, can donate here:

    Having been improved 44lbs in the official ratings since joining his talented trainer, the Grade Two Long Distance Hurdle winner looked ill at ease at Cheltenham, always seeking to hang out to his right – something he didn’t do at Newbury.

    It might have been caused by the fact you’re always on the turn at Cheltenham or else indicative of a physical problem. Either way, it raises doubts for this target.

    Thomas Campbell again looked outclassed, as he did at Ascot, and this time there can be no track-related excuse put forward – although admittedly the ground was probably more testing than he’d prefer.

    The official handicapper has now relented 3lbs – meaning Thomas Campbell would still have to concede 3lbs to The World’s End, a horse who’s comprehensively beaten him twice, were they to meet in a handicap.

    You may recall that, back in December in a moment of candour, trainer Nicky Henderson unfavourably compared Thomas Campbell’s inherent class to that of L’Ami Serge, so his falling short of requirements will not have come as a surprise at Seven Barrows.

    Meanwhile, their daring switch of the cited touchstone to the Sky Bet Chase last Saturday almost paid off with L’Ami Serge going down by a rapidly diminishing three-quarters of a length at the line, where he was short of operating room to boot.

    Racing from a mark then 7lbs below his hurdles rating, this was probably as good a performance over fences as anything he achieved as a novice. Presented with the larger obstacles, however, he dug out his old habit of jumping left into the fence uprights, even causing jockey Davy Russell to lose his irons fleetingly at the second. In the manner that suits this horse, Russell made stealthy late headway from his vantage point in rear but the winner Wakanda had pre-empted his every move.

    Henderson had warned this horse’s Festival target would depend on what happened at Doncaster but this wasn’t really a definitive answer. The safer and therefore likelier option would be to stick to the Stayers’ route, with the French Champion Hurdle acknowledged as his primary ambition.

    Nonetheless, this outing was useful if only to remind me of L’Ami Serge’s left-handed bias because it wasn’t so apparent on either start at Ascot this season nor at Sandown last April.

    Follow that logic through and you can make a good argument for him getting closer than two-and-three-quarter lengths to his most recent Ascot conqueror, Sam Spinner, and therefore that he’s too long at three times the favourite’s price. That’s even if the fact they get racing so far out in the Stayers’ Hurdle tempers enthusiasm for paying to test-drive this theory on a silky traveller who often finds little.

    Incidentally, given Daryl Jacob, retained jockey to Simon Munir and Isaac Souede, will presumably favour L’Ami Serge over Wholestone at the Festival and Sam Twiston-Davies will be required for stablemate The New One, it’s likely that Wholestone will line up at Cheltenham with a brand new partner. Twiston-Davies is the sole other jockey to have got on board and that only on the horse’s racecourse debut.

    That said, Russell was an eye-catching booking for L’Ami Serge at Doncaster and, although his associate Monalee is a potential curveball for this division should the Flogas Novices’ Chase not to go to plan this Sunday, he’s always a tempting gun-for-hire come the big shoot-out.

    Finally, strictly from the perspective of this column’s ante-post position, it must be hoped Supasundae runs well in Sunday’s Unibet Irish Champion Hurdle – but not so well that the Potts family start thinking about the £20,000 supplementary fee.

    Ditto, in reverse, our RSA claim Presenting Percy for this race – it is worth £150,000 more than the novices’ chase. After all, last year’s Pertemps victor (from a mark of 146) passed his latest Gowran test comfortably, pulling right away from the final hurdle.

    Trainer Pat Kelly, who makes a (work-mode) Willie Mullins appear garrulous, was reportedly heard to utter something about how much the horse would have hated the heavy ground. It was left to owner Philip Reynolds to pad.

    “We went back hurdling to save the horse a bit for Cheltenham. But he was very, very good there,” he said. “He hadn’t won a graded race before now and people were wondering if he was a graded horse but he has run to his mark there. He has to step up again now and the RSA Chase looks made for him.”

    Augusta Kate produced what was probably a marginal career best in second, clearly suited by a return to three miles, so this race remains an option for the small-scale mare. However, she’d probably need more to hit the money so perhaps the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle is the better – if less financially rewarding – bet.

    Back in fourth, 2016 Stayers’ Hurdle runner-up Alpha Des Obeaux continues to run well below his best on paper, the visual impression of better here surely due to a steadily run race.

    It should be noted that Bacardys, a Stayers’ Hurdle entry and refugee from the novice-chasing ranks, was a late withdrawal from the Galmoy due to “nasal discharge”. He beat Finian’s Oscar over 2m4f at last April’s Punchestown Festival.

    Finally, with Defi Du Seuil not entered in the Stayers’ Hurdle and trainer Alan King indicating that Yanworth heads straight to the Festival, you start to suspect the latter’s target will be representing owner JP McManus in this race rather than either of the novice-chasing events in which he also holds an engagement. Yet Yanworth the longest price for this race on NRNB terms, if you like that sort of thing.

    Unibet Champion Hurdle

    Arcenfete’s tenure as a left-field contender for the Unibet Champion Hurdle endured little more than ten days, from the announcement of his entry until the first obstacle of Naas’s Grade Three Limestone Lad Hurdle on Sunday.

    There, the tall-looking French recruit looked uncertain, ballooned it and landed flat-footed; this presaged a worse blunder at the fourth last, where he barely took off and dragged his hind legs through the obstacle and into the ground on the landing side. Ultimately, he was beaten 49 lengths in last and goodnight, Vienna.

    The winner Sandsend is not entered in the Champion Hurdle and, despite being listed as a possible entry in the Sky Bet Supreme on the Racing Post website, he won’t be in that either as he’s not a novice. Trainer Willie Mullins deems him a future chaser in need of further but the Coral Cup could yet tempt his trainer to send him to Cheltenham.

    Sandsend did well to reel in front-running mare Forge Meadow, despite being the less fluent jumper and looking naÔve in a finish. This was only his third career start and yet he pulled a long way clear with the runner-up, admittedly in receipt of 4lbs from that battle-hardened main rival. He’s a fascinating medium-term prospect.

    Meanwhile, it’s been akin to a particularly silly week in Westminster for celebrated stablemate Faugheen: subject first of an outlandish ’e-woz-nobbled-last-time rumour earlier on – owner Rich Ricci even made a serious-face comment about it – and now of a supposed vote of no confidence for Saturday’s Unibet Irish Champion Hurdle from the betting public.

    I like to think of Melon as the Philip Hammond in this drama to Faugheen’s Theresa May, mainly because the role of Boris Johnson has GOT to be played by Yorkhill, hasn’t it? (Lurches to the extreme left notwithstanding.)

    Mullins has expressed his public support of Faugheen, who’s set to take the stage alongside Philip Hammond – apparently the potential new favourite for this Leopardstown Grade One – and the Gavin Williamson of Team Closutton, Bapaume.

    As Nicky Henderson indicated, reigning two-mile champion Buveur D’Air heads for Sandown’s Contenders Hurdle this Saturday – where he began his hurdling title-campaign this time last season – instead of to Ireland.

    Instead Defi Du Seuil – on his first start since flopping on his Ascot comeback last November – will represent JP McManus at Leopardstown. Last year’s Triumph Hurdle victor has also been removed from the Betfair Hurdle on Saturday week and does not hold a Stayers’ Hurdle entry, so Saturday is a critical juncture for his season.

    Identity Thief is also set to return from a nine-month hiatus in this contest, which also at the time of writing contains unexpected Ryanair Hurdle winner Mick Jazz and Stayers’ Hurdle-bound Supasundae but is not expected to lure the sainted Samcro away from his alternative novices’ target.

    Meanwhile, it falls perhaps to Betfair Hurdle entry Pingshou and definitely to John Constable to keep Buveur D’Air honest at Sandown, with fellow significant entries Defi Du Seuil and Call Me Lord unlikely to show their faces.

    Following a respectable reappearance sixth in the International Hurdle when not beaten far in unfavourable conditions, John Constable has his sights set on the Champion Hurdle. His achievements when landing the double in last year’s Swinton and Summer Handicap Hurdles indicated he is at his best on the sounder surface that spring usually brings with it.

    “We’ve had a terribly difficult job placing him after his exploits from last spring and early autumn,” said trainer Evan Williams. “He is being aimed at the Champion Hurdle. He ran very well last time. To tell you the truth, I was very surprised because he is so much better on drier ground.”

    He’s the type of horse that could end up being interesting each-way in the ‘Betting Without Buveur D’Air’ market, along with the likes of habitual slow starter Wicklow Brave – last seen when tenth in the Melbourne Cup. John Constable is currently 33/1 in that betting and it would seem you have a definite runner for your money.

    Unibet Champion Hurdle - Sky Bet odds (non-runner/no bet):

    OLBG Mares’ Hurdle

    Rather than suggest she should be contesting the Stayers’ Hurdle, Let’s Dance cast a small shadow of doubt over whether she will turn up at the Festival at all – an alarming outcome from the perspective of this column’s ante-post position.

    In a slowly run race on heavy ground, she was in trouble turning for home in the Grade Two Galmoy, then wandered at the second last and weakened markedly thereafter, soon not persisted with. Sure, she shaped like a non-stayer but trainer Willie Mullins clearly felt there was more to it than that.

    Reportedly, he asserted Let’s Dance just isn’t right at the moment and voiced regret about running her at Gowran at all.

    Yet despite this unnerving effort, the mare’s form was upheld last weekend when Forge Meadow, the mare she thumped by eight lengths over Christmas, went down all guns glazing to Sandsend in the Limestone Lad (gifted an easy lead but conceding 4lbs).

    In terms of Let’s Dance getting to the church on time, twelve months ago stable companion Vroum Vroum Mag underwhelmed at Doncaster after being exposed to a “chill” and this also threatened her Festival participation. In the end, of course, she not only made it but was only narrowly quelled by Apple’s Jade; that said, she ran far better in her prep than Let’s Dance did here.

    As for last year’s runner-up herself, owner Rich Ricci has suggested he’s leaning towards retiring her for breeding rather than persisting with training. If neither Vroum Vroum Mag nor Let’s Dance can be relied upon to represent him, the task falls to Benie Des Dieux to switch from fences, although she too suffered a small setback over Christmas.

    Up front in the Galmoy, stablemate Augusta Kate relished the return to three miles. Not quite as well positioned as the winner came to be in that steadily run affair, she was brought across to try to eyeball Presenting Percy in the straight and was inconvenienced when he drifted right approaching the last, forcing her to switch. She did well to manage that hurdle as well as she did but her challenge was over, albeit she kept on stolidly for second.

    Augusta Kate made a chance-ending mistake at the eighth when sixth in last year’s Albert Bartlett, has a defeat of Let’s Dance at the Punchestown Festival on her record and has now run creditably the last twice. She shapes as though she might be better suited to the Stayers’ Hurdle but I suspect she’ll end up bolstering the Mullins troops here.

    Two days after Gowran Park’s fixture, Colin’s Sister finished 11 lengths behind Agrapart in the Relkeel in conditions – testing ground and three miles – that connections feel suit her ideally. It’s possible this defeat could cause them to reconsider her Festival target and switch her here, to a race that – Apple’s Jade and perhaps a well Let’s Dance apart – appears relatively assailable.

    Also on Saturday, dual Dawn Run second Dusky Legend finally made it to the track after two abortive attempts at reverting to hurdles when almost eight lengths behind a pair of smart novices in the Grade Two mares’ hurdle at Doncaster.

    Her Festival record, where she should be granted better ground, and a lack of strength in depth in this event says 40/1 or 33/1 NRNB underestimates her.

    Novice chasers

    Unlikely though it might have seemed for a relatively small-scale horse, Sceau Royal continues to prove a better chaser than he was a hurdler – not that he needed to improve on his previous best to land Doncaster’s Grade Two Lightning Chase last Saturday.

    The winner was carrying a 5lb penalty for his Grade One success at Sandown last month and was confidently ridden to just do enough to account for front-running Shantou Rock. He jumped with his usual low, cat-like efficiency and recorded the best time of the day, on ground you could argue was not much worse than good-to-soft on times.

    With Daryl Jacob required for Bristol De Mai and Wholestone at Cheltenham, Wayne Hutchinson took the ride for only the second time in Sceau Royal’s career. It sounds like he would have been under strict instructions to as much as possible avoid a hard race.

    “I had been quite easy on Sceau Royal since his last run and he should come on for that,” admitted trainer Alan King. “He is a very quick jumper and that was a proper test as Harry [Skelton, on Shantou Rock] set a good gallop. He perhaps didn’t travel quite as well on the ground as he usually does, but I’m pleased with him all the same.”

    Sceau Royal was exposed as merely of championship level in his two terms over hurdles and certainly did not reserve his best form for the Festival in either case. His justifiable position in the market – 6/1 clear second favourite at best – indicates much better is now expected. A sounder surface would suit.

    Runner-up Shantou Rock is a consistent character and continues to run well despite racking up his third straight defeat. Here, he jumped soundly and got Sceau Royal on the stretch, if never the ropes. He’s 1lb too high for the 145 ceiling rating of the Close Brothers Handicap Chase but the Grand Annual perhaps makes more appeal anyway.

    Back in third, Adrien Du Pont was disappointing and, if you were thinking Grand Annual for him, you’re left clutching at the excuse of the stable’s annual inoculation regime having knocked him back.

    Surprisingly, the Arkle remains the plan for Brain Power – clear second best behind Sceau Royal in the Henry VIII Novices’ Chase when unseating his rider at the last – despite also failing to complete at Ascot last time and having since had a breathing operation.

    “We’ve had him looked at and already cauterised his palate, which will hopefully sort everything out,” Henderson said in his Unibet blog. “It’s not a major procedure and he will be cantering again by the end of next week. The Arkle is still very much the plan, where he will get better ground too.”

    Horses with a last-time fall unsurprisingly have a poor Festival record and it could be that Henderson will try to squeeze in a confidence-boosting run between now and March, perhaps in Warwick’s Kingmaker Chase next month. That would also offer further evidence of whether this horse is comfortable racing left-handed.

    Should there prove to be time to make that target, Brain Power would encounter Saint Calvados, whose UK debut form was complimented by Remiluc’s hurdles success at Cheltenham last Saturday (albeit that horse was one of two granted a clear lead by an unsatisfactory start to the race).

    However, Henderson did not have positive news to impart about River Wylde – not seen since thumped by North Hill Harvey at Cheltenham last November. “We’re probably going to have to leave him alone for the time being,” he said.

    “It’s very frustrating and we’re currently in the middle of discussions with his owners but for the short term he is definitely out owing to a problem with a hind leg. Before you assume, it’s not a tendon problem!”

    Chorus: what was it, then? Silence. I love these blogs.

    On the subject of potential Arkle candidates, Bunk Off Early failed to enhance his claims by coming down in the rush for the penultimate flight in last Thursday’s beginners’ chase at Gowran.

    On balance, given left-jumping stable companion Montalbano rallied to defeat the better-travelling favourite De Plotting Shed from the last, Bunk Off Early was probably going best of the three principals at the time of his departure but he had gone too freely and might have been vulnerable.

    The winner is in the Arkle whereas the runner-up holds JLT and RSA entries. More than anything, it would have been reassuring for Mullins to see Montalbano complete after tipping up on his previous two starts. Both he and jockey David Mullins believe the horse will be better on a sounder surface.

    However, of more particular relevance to the Arkle will be an ultra-hot edition of the Irish version this Saturday in which (as things stand) Mullins-trained stablemates Footpad, Bon Papa (not entered at Cheltenham so far) and Demi Sang are engaged and set to facethe Gigginstown trio of Tycoon Prince, Tombstone and comeback kid Petit Mouchoir. Like the last-named horse and Footpad, fellow Leopardstown competitor Any Second Now is also engaged there and in the JLT.

    Racing Post Arkle - Sky Bet prices (non-runner/no bet)

    Two other Mullins-trained horses filled the first two places in Fairyhouse’s beginners’ chase last Saturday. The winner, Kemboy, is entered in all the Festival’s graded novices’ chases bar the NH Chase; the runner-up C’est Jersey in all bar the Arkle.

    Kemboy bombed through the race at a tempo dictated by his own high spirit yet still had enough left to badly blunder through the last fence and quickly come back on the bridle to maintain his advantage at the line. He also ran down the second last to his right but there was no mistaking his ability.

    I liked this horse as a hurdler last season and thought he did well for one so inexperienced to finish fifth in the Neptune (now Ballymore), beaten less than ten lengths by Willoughby Court – a rival he’d probably face if going the JLT route, as his trainer indicated. He’s undoubtedly progressive over fences and showed a lot more speed here.

    Sutton Place previously outpointed Kemboy on their chase debuts earlier this month and that horse, one of a quartet from Gordon Elliott’s yard, is poised to take on more than one of the Mullins machine in this Sunday’s competitive edition of the Grade One 2m5f Flogas Chase.

    Mullins holds five entries in the Leopardstown event, headed by the impressive Invitation Only and Grand National entry Rathvinden.

    Monalee and Snow Falcon, representing Henry de Bromhead and Noel Meade respectively, are the only entries not from Ireland’s two leadings stables set to line up in this contest.

    Returning to C’est Jersey, this was his belated seasonal return and chase debut. He jumped largely very soundly and stuck to his task well, without seeming to be in the same league as the winner. He was tenth at 100/1, beaten 39 lengths by stablemate Penhill, in last year’s Albert Bartlett.

    He improved for blinkers at the Punchestown Festival on his next start and promises to be a better chaser, surely over a bit further.

    As mentioned above, Finian’s Oscar is putatively back in the JLT picture after being well beaten in the Cleeve Hurdle on ground that exposed breathing problems. But he simply doesn’t jump well enough to merit consideration.

    Talking of jumping, Mount Mews lacked the alacrity of Wotzizname at the critical moment over his obstacles when failing by a steadily diminishing half-length to win Doncaster’s novices’ chase last Friday.

    He’d been waited with by a confident-looking Brian Hughes and drew smoothly upsides the winner at the last, only to take longer to find his stride on landing and lose a length. He didn’t have time to recover once regaining his impetus.

    Nonetheless, in terms of ability this was still an encouraging effort from Malcolm Jefferson’s charge on just his second start over fences. It must be highly likely his trainer will choose to overlook Cheltenham in favour of Aintree – as he did over hurdles last term – following this performance.

    Second-season novice Wotzizname, trained by Harry Fry, isn’t yet entered at Cheltenham, having run poorly there on his previous start. He’s since “had his back tweaked” and was right back to his best here, despite one or two errors on the way round.

    His idiosyncratic stablemate Hell’s Kitchen was complimented by last Saturday’s Cheltenham success of Mister Whitaker, the horse he beat with an impressive performance on the clock at Kempton on Boxing Day.

    The latter won a competitive edition of the 2m5f novices’ handicap on Trials Day by almost two lengths from the decent mare Theatre Territory – who can be marked up for helping to force a strong pace – with top-weight Sizing Tennessee a further 15 lengths adrift in third. This was a well-run affair and represents strong form.

    The 1-2 have been raised 8lb and 4lb to 137 and 132 respectively, meaning the latter is not guaranteed to get a run in one of the Festival handicaps. The minimum required to make the cut for last year’s Close Brothers Novices’ Handicap Chase was 137 whereas 133 got you a run in the Plate and 135 in the Grand Annual.

    By dint of the exploits of Mister Whitaker, Hell’s Kitchen has been raised 2lb to a still-generous mark of 145 – the ceiling for the Close Brothers event since it was raised 5lb on last year. Remember, Fry thinks he’s better left-handed and, if you could rely on this headstrong clutz to be reformed, he would look like a good thing. He’s entered twice at Leopardstown this weekend.

    Back at Cheltenham, Ballyandy was reported via the public address to have been lame subsequent to his last outing and perhaps this information enabled enough people to forgive his poor round of jumping to promote him to joint-favourite with Sizing Tennessee.

    But his technique was even worse and surely the sensible call would be to make the Coral Cup or – better, given his form last term – the County Hurdle his Festival target.

    Sizing Tennessee himself has been dropped 2lb to 145, widening his Festival options beyond the JLT, RSA or NH Chases, but this does ask questions about the value of his neck defeat by Yanworth in the Dipper – even if you can validly argue that he probably did too much up front here, especially for a stayer.

    Fourth-placed War Sound went far too fast in front but shaped as though a good two-mile handicap chase could yet go his way. A mark of 130 is unlikely to get him into the Grand Annual. Aintree’s Red Rum Handicap Chase may suit better anyway.

    Much earlier in the week at Leicester, Optimus Prime had scrambled home from high-class hurdles recruit Rayvin Black in what was in effect a match. The winner was conceding 13lb, including runner-up jockey Thomas Garner’s 3lb claim, and at one point had looked likely to get a ready reward for his bold-jumping display.

    But Rayvin Black – on his second and improved crack over fences, some 12 months after his first – refused to go away and the pair served up an exciting tussle over the final three fences. Ultimately, Optimus Prime clung on by a head. The winner is now rated 145 but looks a bang two-miler, probably better on a sounder surface.

    As discussed above, this column’s selection Presenting Percy is now in pole position for the RSA Chase –identified as his target by tight-lipped connections – after his Grade Two Galmoy Hurdle success last Thursday. I can’t believe a yard this circumspect would find a supplementary option for the Stayers’ Hurdle tempting, despite its superior purse.

    His stable companion Mall Dini is a live player for the NH Chase despite, to my surprise, not being entered for the National this week. Second-season chasers that, like him, ran well in the preceding season’s Kim Muir have won this race twice in recent memory: Poker De Sivola in 2010 and Cause Of Causes five years later. Yet the NH Chase was, of course, promoted to Grade Two status last season and that upgrade may come to alter such dynamics.

    Last Thursday’s progressive Thyestes Chase winner Monbeg Notorious is a thorough stayer. He’s still a novice and beat the greatly more experienced fellow Gigginstown soldier Wounded Warrior by 11 lengths in a first-time visor at Gowran.

    Trainer Elliott did say afterwards, however, that he “wouldn’t see him running in novice graded company” and indicated that soft ground was a requirement.

    Moulin A Vent is therefore perhaps a more credible NH Chase candidate, following his victory in a Naas three-mile Grade Three in which he was matched in-running at 999/1 on the exchanges. He’d previously slammed Monbeg Notorious by 18 lengths at Fairyhouse in December but looked set for a thorough beating here.

    Having often been either slow or lacking in fluency at his obstacles, Moulin A Vent looked booked for fourth turning into the home straight. Livelovelaugh still appeared to be going well in front, Mossbank had responded generously to pressure and Jury Duty was waiting to challenge.

    Yet the leader quickly capitulated and Mossbank plunged into the turf at the final fence as he and Jury Duty were disputing. On landing, Jury Duty had a good three lengths over Moulin A Vent, who’d even had to sidestep the fallen Mossbank on landing, but his wandering had betrayed a tired horse and although he plugged on, he had no response to the winner’s rallying surge.

    First-time blinkers and a thorough test of stamina would seem to have combined to get Moulin A Vent back in the game, although his jumping remains an overarching concern.

    Jury Duty was conceding 8lb to the winner and emerges strictly the best horse at the weights. Nonetheless, this was an upheaval of the mare Shattered Love’s Christmas form – a race so incident-packed that it was hard to accept on face value. Jury Duty himself is a consistent soul, however.

    Livelovelaugh appeared not to stay on only his second attempt at three miles (and his first over fences at this trip) despite shaping as though stamina would be his forte on past occasions.

    Contrastingly, Mossbank looked all about stamina, so his engagements in a Punchestown Grand National Trial and the four-mile NH Chase are his most suitable future options. He’s unexposed at three miles or further and might well have won had he stood up here.

    Finally, it’s interesting that No Comment holds a NH Chase entry and could yet make his chase debut for Philip Hobbs in this Saturday’s Grade One Scilly Isles Chase over 2m4f at Sandown. This would seem a very un-Hobbsian thing to do, so he’ll be interesting to watch. Owner JP McManus is the most successful owner in that Cheltenham contest with six previous wins.

    Novice hurdlers

    The extended wait for Santini’s second start over hurdles was worth it for everyone except Nico de Boinville, who instead chose to ride Pacific De Baune in opposition at Cheltenham and finished more than 57 lengths in his wake.

    Trainer Nicky Henderson had withdrawn the winner due to testing ground at Ascot the previous week but felt impelled to take a risk in the Grade Two Ballymore Hurdle seven days later – and it paid off.

    However, the six-year-old had to work hard to wear down previous Doncaster victor Black Op, who might have just held him at bay had he not fluffed the last. The pair drew almost 30 lengths clear of their closest pursuers.

    Despite the compulsion to get Santini back on a racecourse whatever the ground, Henderson is by no means certain this horse will take part in the Festival this year. It’s a medium-term strategy that the trainer often employs – albeit he has been known to change his mind, too.

    “Santini stays, he gallops and he jumps and he’s coped with ground I can’t believe he wants,” Henderson said in tribute. “I suppose we’ll put him in the Albert Bartlett but [owner] Richard Kelvin-Hughes and I agree it might be a year too soon.

    “You’d think of him as an RSA horse next year and if he improves as much as he did from last year, then he’ll be an absolute machine. He’s a proper horse.”

    If we are going to see Santini at Grade One level this season, I’d suggest it’s more likely to be in Aintree’s Sefton Hurdle than the Albert Bartlett.


    Agrapart fends off the challenge of Wholestone to win the Cleeve Hurdle and gains his second success here at Cheltenham.

    3:47 PM - Jan 27, 2018
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    Black Op, on the other hard, is a year older and also shows more pace than Santini; he could stick at around this trip for the Ballymore or step up for the Albert Bartlett. The former might be the better race for him at this stage, given he is not a hardened performer for his age. He wore a first-time tongue-tie here.

    The rest were thumped. I’m prepared to give Mulcahys Hill a free pass because I was half-expecting a below-par run after his relentless performance when runner-up in the Challow. Given how hard that race was and how raw this gelding as yet is, it's not surprising that he ran flat 28 days later.

    Tikkanbar simply doesn’t jump well enough to hold his own in this company. Slate House may be finding his career stilled by ground he can’t handle; I’d at least want to give him a hearing at this trip on a sounder surface.

    Having been the first to struggle, Aye Aye Charlie passed all rivals except the 1-2 to snatch a distant third but De Rasher Counter – a staying chaser in the making – would have surely taken that spot had he not taken a tumble at the last.

    Henderson still has Mr Whipped and Chef Des Obeaux for the Albert Bartlett, the latter having been beaten four-and-a-half lengths on their hurdling debuts by Santini. But On The Blind Side will be entered solely in the Ballymore according to a tweet from Mike Spence, son of owner Christopher, and goes straight to the Festival.

    Meanwhile, at Doncaster that same day Enniscoffey Oscar edged out Shannon Bridge for a short-head verdict in the Grade Two River Don Novices’ Hurdle.

    The winner is improving apace and at 25/1 (or 20/1 NRNB) has been rather overlooked for the Albert Bartlett, given his depth of experience – this was his fifth hurdle start and seventh overall – and hard-bitten attitude are just what you need for the Festival’s three-mile novices’ hurdle.

    Here, Enniscoffey Oscar was locked in battle with Shannon Bridge from two out and looked to be getting the worse of it approaching the last, but he pulled out the better jump to get back on terms and stolidly kept up the fight to the line, despite being carried left across the track by the runner-up.

    “Enniscoffey Oscar is as tough as nails,” testified trainer Emma Lavelle. “this had been the plan since he won here last time but that ground wasn’t ideal for him. He is better on decent going.”

    Lavelle appears to have a decent bunch of youngsters, also including De Rasher Counter and Leamington Hurdle runner-up Paisley Park.

    Shannon Bridge is less seasoned than the winner and was essentially worried out of it, rendered vulnerable with a mistake at the last, after seemingly holding the upper hand. He’s still going the right way.

    At Naas last Sunday, Ballyward got off the mark at the second attempt over hurdles for Andrea and Graham Wylie in the 2m3f maiden, travelling strongly but getting the penultimate flight wrong before finding plenty to see off a persistent challenge from As You Were.

    “It was a dour staying effort and it looked a string maiden with the first two finishing 25 lengths clear of the third. He can only improve,” said Mullins, who plans to enter him in both the Ballymore and Albert Bartlett.”

    There were two highly significant races last weekend in terms of the Trull House Stud Dawn Run Mares’ Novices Hurdle. Frustratingly, having toyed with the 12/1 in the fifth edition of this season’s Road series, it’s fair to say I’ve missed the boat with Laurina, who’s now trading at 7/4 NRNB. Curses. Eye off ball.

    This five-year-old French recruit had clocked the best time of the day when romping away with a Tramore maiden hurdle on her Irish debut in December and last Saturday progressed to win Fairyhouse’s Grade Three Solerina Mares by another wide margin.

    She was always going well, even if the actual hurdling part isn’t her strongest asset just yet. It may not matter – 2016 winner Limini couldn’t jump at this stage of her career either.

    “That looked a very good performance from Laurina,” enthused Mullins. “She has always looked a nice mare at home and that looked a bit special out there today – the way she put away some nice mares on that ground. The mares’ novices’ hurdle at Cheltenham looks the race for her.”

    Merely a few minutes earlier, Maria’s Benefit – the mare whose 30-length Taunton romp last month prompted an interesting blog from handicapper David Dickinson on the BHA website and a resounding mark of 152 – managed to make it five wins on the bounce in the Grade Two Yorkshire Rose at Doncaster.

    She had to fight for it, however, because progressive fellow novice Irish Roe laid down a brave and sustained challenge all the way to the line – even if you always suspected the leader had her measure. The duo finished almost eight lengths clear of the more experienced Dusky Legend.

    Once again, Maria’s Benefit made all at an unrelenting pace and her jumping under pressure was a joy. It might be that her aggressive way of going, combined with a sure-footed technique, is a combination capable of putting Laurina’s jumping under pressure at Cheltenham.

    Even though her rating has been downgraded 3lb, Maria’s Benefit has probably still achieved more than Laurina to date and yet is about three points longer in the market. Irish Roe, is over-priced at more than twice that – she was only receiving 2lb from the winner at Doncaster and is a hardened battler.

    Meanwhile, Henderson has confirmed the Dawn Run as the primary target for Countister perhaps via a run at Sandown or Wetherby this Saturday. He has also concluded that Dame De Compagnie ran poorly at Cheltenham in November due to reappearing just 16 days after her Uttoxeter success.

    “Then she got a little sick at home so she’s had a bit of a rough time of it,” he said in his Unibet blog. “She is back 100% now, though.”

    Finally the same source makes it sound highly unlikely that 2016 Derby fifth Humphrey Bogart will make it to the track in time to target the Festival. “He is lovely and cantering away nicely. I must say that he jumps particularly well but is still some way off a run,” Henderson noted.

    Juvenile hurdlers

    Apple’s Shakira was made to work for her victory in the Grade Two JCB Trial Finesse Hurdle but she emerged dominant from the scrimmage and has also seen her collateral form soundly franked in the past week.

    The latter race first: Nube Negra – calmly dismissed by three-and-a-half lengths by the filly last December – brushed aside elder rivals at Doncaster last Friday. He was entitled to win but did so in straightforward fashion and now heads to the Fred Winter, a mark of 135 assuring him a run.

    The next day, it was Flat recruit Look My Way who put up the fight at Cheltenham in stamina-favouring conditions that were always likely to suit this thorough stayer. He got Apple’s Shakira off the bridle rounding the home turn but she responded positively to take the lead after the final flight and pull away by eight lengths.

    Having beaten the talented and doughty Gumball by 17 lengths on her UK debut, the filly hasn’t really needed to improve her form to remain unbeaten. However, she has gained valuable race-craft experience with each start – something both trainer Nicky Henderson and jockey Barry Geraghty have both said she needed.

    The flat spot she hit here implies she could be vulnerable to losing her position in a larger field on faster ground come the Triumph, however, and there would appear to be highly credible rivals capable of exploiting this vulnerability trained in Ireland.

    Several of them will clash in Saturday’s Grade One Spring Juvenile Hurdle at the Dublin Festival, including the Mullins-trained pair Stormy Ireland and Mr Adjudictaor, Elliott’s duo of Mitchouka and Farclas and the unbeaten Espoir D’Allen. This market is clearly going to move as a result.

    It is possible last Sunday’s Naas winner Sayo could yet make a bid for inclusion in Mullins’ Triumph squad after making a triumphant UK debut. But he’ll surely need further experience if he’s to head to the Festival in any guise because he won very much despite his jumping and did well to get up on the line after repeatedly putting himself at such a disadvantage.

    To return to Look My Way, it will be interesting to see whether trainer John Quinn keeps the Triumph option open, as well as the initially more obvious Fred Winter route, because this gelding would surely be better suited by the superior test of stamina that the New Course provides.

    Not atypically, Gary Moore has strong team of juveniles and Mister Chow kept his end up with what was ultimately a commanding success at Warwick last Thursday. He was unexposed as a stayer on the Flat and still showed signs of rawness here, but he’s learning fast and could be a live wire for the Fred Winter.

    Runner-up Swaffham Bulbeck made a promising start to his hurdling career but beaten favourite Night Of Glory continues to be too keen and has jumping issues.

    Finally, it emerges that Alan King’s Triumph Hurdle hopeful Redicean will stick to Kempton for his final prep in the Adonis later this month.

    Sky Bet JCB Triumph Hurdle prices: Non-runner/no bet
    Alba Gu Brath!

  10. #27
    Senior Member simmo's Avatar
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    Any sign of an article this week chaps?
    Alba Gu Brath!

  11. #28
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    Quote Originally Posted by simmo View Post
    Any sign of an article this week chaps?
    No twitterage at all from her since before Dublin....unusual.

  12. #29
    Senior Member simmo's Avatar
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    Perhaps she is unwell. Not in a Jeffrey Bernard way.
    Alba Gu Brath!

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