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    Super Moderator Diamond Geezer's Avatar
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    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 Galliardhomes.com 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.
    SKY BET ODDS (NRNB): RSA Chase


    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
    Selections:
    Advised 30/11/17: Min 8/1 Champion Chase with Paddy Power/Betfair
    Advised 06/12/17: Supasundae 20/1 Stayers’ Hurdle with Bet365 and Paddy Power/Betfair
    Advised 06/12/17: Mengli Khan 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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    Nice to see her give Mr Chow a mention for the Fred winter
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    Iíve enjoyed reading Hislopís pieces so far. Good well thought out arguments, and since several are oneís I would put forward myself are probablly spot on. Unfortunately the alignment means she hasnít much chance of picking winners.
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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.




    CheltenhamRacecourse

    @CheltenhamRaces
    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

    @Pick7
    �� 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.




    CheltenhamRacecourse

    @CheltenhamRaces
    Agrapart fends off the challenge of Wholestone to win the http://galliardhomes.com 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: https://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/fun...hardWoollacott)


    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.




    CheltenhamRacecourse

    @CheltenhamRaces
    Agrapart fends off the challenge of Wholestone to win the http://galliardhomes.com 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!

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    Any sign of an article this week chaps?
    Alba Gu Brath!

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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.

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    Perhaps she is unwell. Not in a Jeffrey Bernard way.
    Alba Gu Brath!

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    Two "bumper editions" due this week

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    Quote Originally Posted by Diamond Geezer View Post
    Two "bumper editions" due this week
    Yes hope she has just been on holiday rather than there being anything untoward.

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    "...at least we know Faugheen once had it." Lydia Hislop's Road to Cheltenham series is back with a bang and a recommended bet in the Unibet Champion Hurdle.
    In a move cunningly calculated to coincide with this polar hiatus, The Road To Cheltenham returns this week in two parts. This edition concentrates on the six championship Grade Ones; the Festival’s novices’ events will then be covered in the second installment.
    Before we get going, it’s time to discuss the thorny matter of the likely going. I will endeavour to conduct this discussion in the infantile language required in order for us all to understand the baffling concept of wintery weather – that is, until sh*t got serious in the past 24 hours.
    Simon Claisse, Cheltenham’s clerk ofF the course, and his team were busy lifting frost covers earlier this week even as The Beast From The East still holds the country in its frozen grip.
    The theory is that further snow forecast to arrive with Storm Emma will insulate the ground instead of those covers and then irrigate as it (hopefully) thaws. At this stage, a Shower Of Power is also forecast for late next week.
    Soft ground is now widely anticipated for the opening day of the 2018 Festival but to my mind all this spells the risk of gluey, sparsely turfed going. The usual “better on better ground” considerations might be academic all week.
    If that's the case, Claisse may wish to adopt the mental brace position for another unearned Slagging For The Clagging.
    Unibet Champion Hurdle

    It falls to the considerable talents of Willie Mullins to conjure a horserace from the mismatch that currently masquerades as the Unibet Champion Hurdle.
    Although Elgin has recently made a modest bid for consideration via winning the Kingwell, the evidence of the past three weeks suggests only former champion Faugheen could even get Buveur D'Air vaguely off the bridle. And even that idea requires a huge leap of faith.
    Prior to my winter break, I was preparing myself for news of Faugheen’s retirement subsequent to another tame effort in the Irish Champion Hurdle. Instead, he produced a much better performance in defeat against a fitter horse whose season has thus far gone more straightforwardly.
    Evidently, this was nothing like Faugheen’s 2016 career apogee in the same race but at least he put up a fight – or “ran half a race”, as his trainer phrased it in the immediate aftermath. “He just seems to have lost his spark,” Mullins added, thus perhaps contributing to what I believe has been an overly negative reaction to the defeat.
    Faugheen routinely out-jumped ultimate winner Supasundae and you even fleetingly hoped, as he rounded the home turn, that he might hold his pursuers at bay. Yet he was ultimately out-stayed after the last, albeit maintaining his advantage to the line over third-placed Mick Jazz – the horse who’d triumphed when the old king pulled up in the Ryanair Hurdle over Christmas.
    “He’ll have to up his game to win at Cheltenham,” a fatalistic Mullins admitted in his pre-Festival stable tour earlier this week. “I still think he can be competitive. He certainly hasn’t gone downhill in his work at home since then but maybe he has been a bit slower to improve than we hoped so far.
    “We know he loves Cheltenham and it has sparked him up before, so all we do is hope that it will reignite him again. He was what he was and hopefully he can come back to that but age isn’t on his side, so if it isn’t to be, it isn’t to be.”
    It’s pretty much inconceivable that Faugheen will ever return to the form that saw him hand out a 15-length thrashing to Arctic Fire, the subsequent County Hurdle winner off a [British] mark of 158. But clearly that form implies some scope for restoration next time we see him. Put baldly: at least we know Faugheen once had it; the others, bar Buveur D’Air, never had or will.
    It’s possible to view Faugheen’s season to date via Mullins’ prism that he’s “been a bit slower to improve than we hoped”. The comeback win last October was an emotional occasion but withstands scrutiny from a time-analysis perspective and is actually a stronger item of form than anything Buveur D’Air has to offer this season (even if he’s always looked capable of better).
    It’s conceivable the sheer effort of that after a 665-day absence may account for Fagheen’s retrograde step next time – the nebulous Bounce Factor in action. In that context, his latest performance was a sizeable recovery.
    Mullins’ words imply more hope than confidence of an improved display but his record amply demonstrates that if there is progress to be made between Leopardstown and Cheltenham, his is the training operation to fashion it.
    Faugheen is also likely to have the benefit of Ruby Walsh back in the saddle. This is potentially a double-edged sword but probably a net positive: Faugheen jumps better for Walsh – needed against so slick a hurdler as Buveur D’Air – but there is a risk this positively minded jockey will ride him like the exceptional force he once was rather than the very good horse he now is and thereby burst him from the front. Walsh will have had plenty of time to gauge at home eactly what remains of the old fire come Tuesday week, however.
    Being able to back the horse with both the best form this season and the highest career peak each-way at 5/1 or better is a reasonable proposition. I would argue Faugheen is priced now as if blowing out is still a large possibility when in fact the last run implies that scenario has greatly diminished. 5/4 a place is long; he should be a shade of odds-on to hit the frame. Therefore, I’m recommending we back him.
    It’s worth noting Mick Jazz was withdrawn from his subsequent target, the Red Mills Hurdle, due to running a temperature. That left the mare Forge Meadow to beat Identity Thief – form about a stone below the latter’s 2015/16 best that still wasn’t good enough even to play a sustained minor role in that season’s Champion Hurdle.
    Minutes before Faugheen staged his half-revival at Leopardstown, Buveur D’Air had continued his serene progress towards retaining his crown via a ready defeat of John Constable in Sandown’s Contenders Hurdle.
    He had to make his own running, gifted more than two lengths at the start, but eased clear approaching the last. The only minor tremor was caused by Barry Geraghty briefly fearing he’d taken it too easy too soon as the line approached and his only credible rival was being ridden out for it. That the winner instantly responded was convincing.
    Everything we know about John Constable says he’s a better horse on a sounder surface whereas Buveur D’Air is very comfortable in deep ground. Even had John Constable produced his best form – given he was potentially flattered by a slow pace in the International Hurdle – Faugheen had the harder task in accounting for Mick Jazz by four-and-three-quarter lengths than Buveur D’Air did in winning by a length and three quarters, even if the latter margin could palpably have been much greater.
    (To finish off his Festival preparations, Henderson's titleholder has since taken part in the dispiritingly popular modern phenomenon of the racecourse gallop, appearing at Kempton alongside Gold Cup-bidding stablemate Might Bite and Theinval. That’ll get da kidz’ blood pumping for this sport.)
    I had been toying with the scenario of John Constable, on better ground and given a pick-up-the-pieces ride (as he surely will be), being a credible each-way option at 20/1 BOG NRNB in the ‘betting without Buveur D’Air’ market, but the weather is deterring me from believing enough would be in his favour to achieve what would surely need to be a career best on paper. Scrap that.
    Studying the form ahead of the Cheltenham Festival? You can access FREE and unlimited racing replays from EVERY raceccourse in the UK and Ireland - Click here for full details...


    Labaik was a surprise winner of the 2017 Sky Bet Supreme

    Call Me Lord had been starting to shape like the left-field contender of the season but Elgin, another improved performer, halted his ascendency at Wincanton when winning that Grade Two despite conceding weight all round and wandering before and after the final flight.
    Trainer Alan King has indicated his intention to supplement the winner for the Champion Hurdle at a cost of £20,000. Elgin was only a distant seventh in last year’s Supreme but now the proud possessor of greater gumption.
    It’s possible this Wincanton form is a tad over-rated but Elgin is proven on the Old Course and the soft ground that’s probably crucial to his chances is now more likely to materialise.
    It looks like Kingwell runner-up Ch’Tibello has at least plateaued, if not dropped below last season’s standard, and the first-time tongue-tie here made no difference. However, I would strongly argue Call Me Lord is better than this bare form after sticking religiously to an inside line throughout while his main rivals raced wider, particularly in the straight.
    The inside has been the very last place you want to be at Wincanton of late and, even though the hurdles were set on their outermost line on Kingwell day, the first-race result suggested a bias was still at play.
    Of course we’re none the wiser about Call Me Lord’s left-handed capabilities as far as any Cheltenham target is concerned but 14/1 for the Imperial Cup at Sandown looks generous.
    Back in fourth, Flying Tiger appeared to register a career best after a 63-day break. Last year’s Fred Winter winner looks fairly weighted for the County Hurdle on a reasonable mark of 140, especially if you side with a more positive view of this form.
    I‘ve seen it mooted somewhere that Charli Parcs could play the role of pacemaker for stablemate Buveur D’Air despite never having raced on the pace in his whole professional life and being far from certain to possess the ability to mix it up front even with a sub-optimal Faugheen.
    You can argue he ran better than the bare form when 14th in the Betfair Hurdle last time, having attended an overly strong pace on the heavy ground he dislikes prior to fading, but he still hasn’t proved he sees out his races under any conditions. Nonetheless, for the second Festival running Henderson intends to keep the faith in his perception of the horse’s talent.
    Stable companion Verdana Blue apparently heads here at the behest of her owner, Henderson reportedly stressed this at his pre-Festival open day while also asserting that she works at home as if up to this class.
    Having been relatively well positioned, she went from travelling strongly to stopping in an instant in the Betfair Hurdle. Earlier comments made about her going preferences by previous rider Nico de Boinville, since echoed by Henderson, suggest the ground could have been to blame. I’m giving her the benefit of the doubt that she may well yet be better than that, if not up to this.
    A likely quartet of Henderson-trained Champion Hurdle contenders is completed by triple runner-up My Tent Or Yours, who worked at Kempton earlier this week with Stayers’ Hurdle fancy L’Ami Serge and Fred Winter possible Style De Garde.
    “Tent was good. He had a good blow and has another bit of work to do,” his trainer commented.
    The significant absentees from this race are Irish Champion Hurdle flop Defi De Seuil, all-round flop Campeador, Stayers’ Hurdle-bound The New One (despite showing better form than his last four seasons at this trip) and Betfair Hurdle disappointment Moon Racer, who contested this race as a big-noise novice last term but suffered colic over the summer.
    Pingshou is again sidelined due to picking up a splint problem to top off a torrid season. Gigginstown’s Michael O’Leary insists Apple’s Jade will contest only the Mares’ Hurdle.
    That leaves Mullins to bolster the field with the likes of slow-starting Wicklow Brave, outclassed Bapaume, unexposed nascent chaser Melon (whom his trainer believes resented the hood in the Irish Champion Hurdle and won’t wear it at Cheltenham) and – drum roll – Yorkhill.
    The latest lesson in the miseducation of Yorkhill took place in the 2m1f Dublin Chase. Having undergone an operation for a chipped bone in his knee since finishing well beaten in the Christmas Chase over three miles, he jumped left into the fences' uprights as usual, plunged through the fourth last and simply looked incapable of staying in touch with such a strong pace.
    Mullins’ latest thinking is: “Maybe there is a chance he just needed the run on his return in the Leopardstown Christmas Chase and we judged him too harshly on that and were too quick to drop him in trip…
    “The choice with him would seem to be the Champion Hurdle or the Ryanair Chase. I think he would be a lot easier to ride in a Champion Hurdle than a Ryanair. I’ve always thought that he would be worth a crack at the Champion Hurdle but he would be a nice one to have alongside Un De Sceaux in the Ryanair.
    “I’m not going to make that decision until much closer to the time but right now I’d say it’s 60/40 in favour of the Champion Hurdle.”
    It would be a supreme irony if, after having to be so enforcedly obsessed with this horse looming over every Festival race for which he was eligible for the past three seasons, he turns out to be an utter irrelevance in championship terms regardless of the discipline or distance. But I’m afraid that’s how I’m viewing Yorkhill these days.
    If – as Mullins has stated more than once now, with partial revisionism – he’s “always thought” the Champion Hurdle “would be worth a crack”, it’s at best curious that he hasn’t campaigned this horse over the smaller obstacles for approaching two whole seasons now.
    Yorkhill was a clumsy hurdler as a novice and looked plain awkward at Leopardstown last time. He would benefit from the attentions of Walsh, who has always got him going more sweetly but that reunion would entail the forsaking of Faugheen.
    If Walsh sided with this nutcase, he’d surely need his own head examining.


    Alan King's Kingwell winner, Elgin

    OLBG Mares’ Hurdle


    Two of last year’s headliners now look more likely than not to reconvene for this year’s follow-up hit. But the chances of this column’s selection Let’s Dance playing Jackie O’Sullivan to Limini’s Siobhan Fahey are starting to look shaky.
    That said, this event at one stage threatened to lapse more into Sugababes than Bananarama territory with at best only one of the original line-up from its strongest edition yet sticking around 12 months later. But the Mares’ Hurdle remains the unambiguous target for titleholder Apple's Jade.
    ITV and At The Races presenter Matt Chapman’s plea to campaign her more daringly for “the good of the game” got a (reputedly old-style) Ryanair customer response. “I don’t care about the Stayers’ Hurdle and she’s not fast enough for the Champion Hurdle,” Gigginstown’s Michael O’Leary told him.
    And now it seems last year’s runner-up and 2016 winner Vroum Vroum Mag will join her. The defining moment of this race’s brief history – with apologies to six-times winner Quevega – came when both these mares jumped the last upsides Limini before Apple’s Jade determinedly forced her head back in front up the final hill.
    There had been some doubt about Vroum Vroum Mag’s participation last year after she was deemed to have caught The Famous Mullins Ferry-Borne Chill en route to an underwhelming success at Doncaster. But in the event she ran well to be beaten by just a length and a half despite being steered wide throughout. You could easily argue a case for better.
    Yet her prospects this year seemed all but buried after finishing lame at the end of last season, missing her intended November comeback due to further lameness and since being declared more likely to retire for breeding purposes by owner Rich Ricci.
    Then she was entered in two recent races – a positive sign in this context, despite not actually reaching the declaration stage in either case. Now it has emerged that, at the risk of provoking a Daily Mail editorial, connections are indeed playing fast and loose with Vroum Vroum Mag’s biological clock.
    “She will run in the Mares’ Hurdle,” Mullins asserted. “She’s in great shape. I didn’t think we’d get her back. She hasn’t been covered yet but we have plenty of time and she could well be later in the year.”
    At nine years of age, Vroum Vroum Mag is no spring chicken but The Quevega Precedent dictates that Mullins is more than capable of producing his leading mare to give of her best first time out at the Festival – he achieved that feat five times out of six with the queen of this race.
    However, Quevega never faced any rival of the calibre of Apple’s Jade – an improved model this season and three years the junior of Vroum Vroum Mag. Even so, the 7/1 widely available – in many books, the longest priced of Mullins’ primary trio from a total of nine remaining entries – is a fair each-way price and will only shorten if the vibes continue to be good.
    By contrast, Let’s Dance still troubles her trainer to some extent – and he threw in a Stayers’ Hurdle curveball this week.
    “She will run in either the Mares’ Hurdle or the Stayers’ Hurdle but I really don’t know which one at the minute,” he said. “She hasn’t really fired at all this season but she is showing a little bit more at home, so hopefully she’s starting to come right.”
    The longer-distance race being apparently under consideration means both that Mullins fears he’s short-stacked in the Stayers’ Hurdle and can’t believe a lack stamina contributed to her tame display behind Presenting Percy in the Galmoy. Therefore her issue is purely wellbeing and so I’d be willing to bet that if she runs in the Festival at all, it will be in this race.
    We learned last year that Ricci is no longer averse to pitching his horses against each other even if they have alternative options and that, having been similarly displeased with Vroum Vroum Mag heading into Cheltenham last year, Mullins was deterred from attempting with her anything more ambitious than racing against her own gender.
    So I’m far from tearing up my 12/1 ticket yet. After all, Forge Meadow’s defeat of Identity Thief at Gowran Park last month was the best performance of her career to date. Remember Forge Meadow was thumped eight lengths by a ‘non-firing’ Let’s Dance at Leopardstown in December.
    (In that same Gowran contest, another Mullins-trained Mares’ Hurdle entry Lagostovegasfinished the beaten favourite in third, having travelled well until making a hash of the third last. She was returning from a 104-day absence.)
    Lady Buttons, who shaped in need of two miles behind Let’s Dance back then, has also since complimented the form by winning the second chase of her career, dropped back to the minimum trip. Trainer Phil Kirby rightly plans to duck this event, however.
    Despite these paper arguments for Let’s Dance, it’s hard to construe Mullins’ current thinking as a positive – especially as he’s backing up tepid words with confirmation that stable companion Benie Des Dieux – a third mare in the ownership of Ricci – is likely to line up here, too.
    “She’s also entered in the Ryanair but the mares’ races looks to be the one for her,” he said. “She has plenty of experience over hurdles in France and we are happy with how she jumps them here at home. Everything we ask her to do, she does – though I was expecting her to win a bit easier than she did at Naas the last day.”
    That Naas triumph was a two-and-a-half length defeat of stablemate and fellow Mares’ Hurdle entry Asthuria; the winner always looked just about in control and also as though a step back up to 2m4f would be of benefit. Perhaps the pulled muscle that caused her to miss her Christmas engagement also have impinged, meaning she could come on quite a bit for that run.
    It’s a fact that Benie Des Dieux best form has come over fences but equally you could argue it’s more significant that those three performances have also been as a result of joining Mullins’ yard. She’s certainly more experienced over hurdles than fences, albeit in France.
    Given he’s won eight of this event’s ten editions, if her trainer deems her a worthy contender then he’s probably right. Yet statistically speaking – as Tony Keenan (@RacingTrends) pointed out last season – switching from fences to hurdles directly into Grade One company is rarely successful immediately.
    Whereas Augusta Kate appears bound for the Stayers’ Hurdle, Merie Devie’s defeat of Alletrix at Punchestown last month also earned her a spot in Team Mullins for this race. That was a comprehensive turnaround of her Leopardstown handicap hurdle defeat by that same mare.
    That previous race had also witnessed last year’s Dawn Run runner-up Barra returning to form in second. Yet even Merie Devie has got about a stone-and-a-half to find with Apple’s Jade.
    The Midnights Tour and Jazz were beaten by Woolstone One – not entered here – at Warwick last month and again look set for also-ran roles. But the former’s stable companion Dusky Legend, twice placed in the Dawn Run, is bound for the Coral Cup according to trainer Alan King.
    Kayf Grace lost her position on the home turn in the Betfair Hurdle and was by no means knocked about in testing conditions. Perhaps she, too, could be handicap-bound next albeit she’s only been eased 2lbs?
    Jer’s Girl – a faller at the third last when yet to play her hand in this race last year – has returned from the sidelines according to trainer Gavin Cromwell. She’s entered in this and the Stayers’ Hurdle but has also been allotted 11-2 in the Coral Cup.
    Finally, Colin’s Sister definitely runs in the Stayers’ Hurdle after trainer Fergal O’Brien opted to duck the National Spirit in favour of heading straight to the Festival and what he believes to be her optimum trip.
    But Warren Greatrex is still dithering about the similarly straight-up, hands-down three-miler La Bague Au Roi after suddenly realising there’s “more depth” to the Stayers’ Hurdle. Zowie: why did nobody mention this before?


    Jockeys David and Danny Mullins

    Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase


    The biggest surprise of this period – to me, at least – was not that Altior came back and trounced Politologue, one-time second favourite for the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase, but that last year’s Arkle winner took part in a race at all. It spoke louder than blogs for Nicky Henderson’s confidence in the horse’s recovery.
    I suspect Paul Nicholls had also assumed Henderson would take the line of least resistance by preferring a racecourse gallop with his returning hero, hence getting his excuses in early by warning pre-race that Politologue, rather than his more absent rival, would be (deliberately) lacking in fitness.
    That’s not to say the excuse wasn’t valid – it’s well known that Nicholls’ modus operandi is to inoculate his yard in January with the target of then winding his team back up to peak activity for the important spring festivals, starting with Cheltenham. But it was telling.
    Even factoring in reasonable improvement for this outing, it’s now hard to fancy Politologue to make more of an impact on the long-time ante-post favourite come Cheltenham – let alone to reverse the form.
    To my mind, he was ridden to best advantage in the Betfair Exchange Chase – valued as the historic Game Spirit by everyone bar its own host racecourse – by making the running, using his (usually) excellent jumping and attempting to get his rivals on the stretch behind him.
    It worked on Valdez, gooseberry in this match and himself returning from a spell on the sidelines spanning more than three years. He took off too far out for the fourth last in a willing attempt to mix it with Politologue and stumbled several strides after landing from the headlong impetus of his effort. (He’d been keen and wasn’t persisted with after this incident, adding up to a decent comeback for future handicap purposes.)
    Trouble was, Politologue couldn’t perturb Altior in the slightest. Head bowed low in his own world, after a less fluent jump at the water (the third) he was mostly faultless; there was a slight ballooning of the second last after being switched right to begin his challenge but he was mostly measured, calm and accurate. He needed only shaking up to draw alongside a rousted-along leader at the last and pulled clear for hands and heels on the run-in.
    Politologue has jumped more cleanly than this in his career but, as a flat track without the concern of Cheltenham’s final climb, Newbury should have suited him ideally. The testing ground should have also played to his strengths. It’s hard to imagine what his trainer can do to change this grey’s act, aside from hope but at least Nicholls made hay with him while this division’s big-hitters were in the sick bay this season.
    Yet while acknowledging he’s “not sure he can beat Altior”, Nicholls has since asserted that front-running tactics are “not ideal” for Politologue.
    “He will improve for that run and we have got to live in hope it’s a different day on a different track,” he said. “He is better in a real fast-run race where he can get a tow into it and use his jumping to keep him in the race. They should go flat out in the Champion Chase and that will suit him much better and hopefully help us close the gap with Altior.”
    For his part, Henderson admitted that “Newbury was as good as you could possibly have dared hope for” and has since issued an upbeat report on how Altior has reacted to his first public exertions since last April. You don’t need me to remind you that a breathing problem then counted him out of last December’s Tingle Creek and required surgery.
    “Altior has been very good since Newbury…The timing of the race was fantastic. We’ve just got to keep him in one piece now,” he reported, adding that the horse would undergo three bits of work and two schooling sessions prior to Cheltenham.
    “From a weight point of view, he wasn’t far off when he ran at Newbury but he’d had a month off and to his credit he held onto his condition,” he said. “Very often horses can fall to pieces on you and lose all the muscle and then you have a long build-up. Luckily, he was very good to us and kept very well and looked great.”
    Interestingly, Timeform has noted that, of the last 106 horses to run at Cheltenham after returning to action as late in the season as did Altior, only one has won. Comfortingly for his supporters, that horse was the Henderson-trained Riverside Theatre prior to his 2012 Ryanair triumph.
    It’s also worth remembering – particularly when considering a best-priced 8/11 favourite – that Altior was not at his best over this course and distance in the Arkle last year. An aggressive ride from Charbel got him on the stretch and, although Altior would have certainly beaten that horse had he not departed at the second last, the winner’s performances either side of that outing (at Newbury and Sandown) were much better.
    I suppose that offers Nicholls further hope regarding the best-case scenario he envisages for Politologue but more pertinently it gives Min’s supporters – of which this column is one – reason to believe he could yet bridge the seven-length disparity that separated him from Altior in the 2016 Supreme.
    Trainer Willie Mullins regards him as “unbeaten this season”, having clearly dismissed from his mind the stewards’ reversal of his narrow defeat of Simply Ned at Leopardstown in December. As mentioned at the time, this was still stronger form than Politologue’s Kempton success that same day.
    Back then, Mullins’ cryptic post-race mutterings were widely interpreted as criticism of a no-hoper lighting up Min in the early stages and causing him to run away with Paul Townend. This contributed to his vulnerability at the business end – that, and the fact Townend took his tactical eye off the ball by allowing a rival room to challenge on his inner.
    Of course, if a chaser with championship ambitions can’t handle a little heat from vastly inferior opponents then he probably won’t cut it at the top table. It may therefore have been significant after all that Townend was given the task of managing Yorkhill in the Dublin Chase.
    While he was unsurprisingly powerless to prevent his mount’s trademark left-handed bias while struggling to keep up – resulting in yet another recalibration of target – David Mullins was granted the ride on Min.
    Obviously, this can be read differently in that his trainer’s most pressing need was for his chief jockey (in the absence of Ruby Walsh) to play shrink to the stable’s prized lunatic. But Min was hugely impressive in establishing his relative merit with the horse promoted ahead of him when they last met. On this occasion, there were 12 lengths back to Simply Ned.
    David Mullins was undoubtedly aided in his task by how this race was run: fully paid-up pace-setters Special Tiara and (initially) Alisier D’Irlande headed off hard in front from the outset. But Min was also more tractable in Mullins’ hands and accepted the former’s lengthy lead, travelling comfortably until bearing down with intent from the second last.
    Some have argued that Ordinary World – 15 lengths behind Altior when third in last term’s Arkle – might have given Min a race had he not blundered and all but unseated his rider, having worked his way into second, at the final fence.
    But this interpretation fails to account for how he’d been under pressure to get on terms whereas Min breezed into the lead, that his mistake was borne of that pressure and how far clear Min pulled from both Special Tiara and Simply Ned, who were also (under differing tactics) in close quarters at the last. In short, Ordinary World was in the process of being flattered.
    Of course, Special Tiara had gone off too fast but the Champion Chase titleholder still shaped like the second best horse in the race – encouraging to see after his uncharacteristic left-veering round of jumping that ended in him crashing out behind Politologue at Kempton. The ground may not be as much in his favour as anticipated come Cheltenham, however.
    Ridden more patiently – probably by necessity as much as design – both Simply Ned and Ordinary World had their chances optimised; Min raced much closer to the frenzied pace and challenged much sooner, yet he still had plenty left at the finish. It’s clear that granted a lead, he’s a top-drawer chaser.
    He’s likely to get one in the Champion Chase given Special Tiara will be defending his crown and Charbel – who ran a shade more encouragingly in first-time cheekpieces in the Tingle Creek last time – will surely also seek to replicate his Arkle tactics for as long as he’s able. (I don’t anticipate he’ll be quick enough to match strides with even an 11-year-old Special Tiara, mind.)
    Ar Mad would be another front-running candidate if lining up here rather than in the Ryanair (albeit he’d need to prove he’s effective racing left-handed). But Min’s stable companion, the headlong Great Field, is an unlikely participant because he’s “in good order but not in Cheltenham order” and will instead stay at home.
    Thankfully, Mullins seems to have put to bed the extraordinary post-race reaction from owner Rich Ricci at Leopardstown when, despite having watched at least some of Min’s Dublin Chase romp, he suggested the winner could yet be asked to step aside and into the Ryanair to make way for a returning Douvan. You what?
    “I couldn’t see him running anywhere other than the Champion Chase,” said Mullins, succinctly. “He… looked very good at Leopardstown last time.”
    By contrast Mullins spoke at length about Douvan whose chances of making it to Cheltenham he now rates as “much better than 50/50”. If that’s the case, “all being well with him, I’d imagine he will go for the Champion Chase” but he also warned that “it’s a day-to-day thing with him”.
    “He has been pleasing me and is doing everything right,” he said of the horse who fractured his pelvis in this race last year, missed his intended return in the Tingle Creek, has been “intermittently lame” this season and was at one stage counted out until next term.
    “We were thrilled with him before he went lame earlier this season. In fact, the day he went lame he did what was probably the fastest piece of work I’ve ever seen him do,” asserted Mullins. “Thankfully what caused the lameness didn’t prove to be as bad as initially feared and we’ve been bringing him back steadily since then.”
    Referring to the entry last month at Gowran Park that Douvan ultimately didn’t take up – a negative in most cases but actually a positive here – he added: “If it had been anywhere other than on our doorstep, he wouldn’t have been entered.
    “I wanted him in there just in case the race cut up but, as it turned out with the ground being as bad as it was, I felt I could train him better at home than by running him there. He has a few important bits of work to do this week but it’s a case of so far, so good.”
    If Douvan does indeed make it to Cheltenham, he’ll obviously be in a more vulnerable state than ideal for a Grade One Festival race – let alone opposition of the calibre of Altior and Min – and that’s before you examine what injury might have detracted from a horse whose lofty reputation relies on multiple beatings of Sizing John at a trip far short of that horse’s optimum.
    Startlngly, the first fence in the 2018 Champion Chase could be the first Douvan has faced perhaps in more than a year. “He might have schooled once in the autumn but that has been the only schooling he will have done since Cheltenham last year and he probably won’t school before Cheltenham this year as I wouldn’t want to risk him,” Mullins admitted. “I think he’s fine in that regard.”
    Douvan has always been a good jumper but this information betrays the fragility of his current state of recovery. 9/2 just ain’t big enough. With Min headed for the same target, he's also far from assured the services of Walsh who will make a hard-headed decision about which horse he prefers.
    For all Douvan’s towering reputation, it would be easy to explain opting for Min in the context of that horse’s smoother preparation. For Walsh to jump the other way is a bolder call than many are suggesting; in that scenario, I’d be hopeful that David Mullins retained the partnership with Min and happily take my chances.
    In other news, trainer Tom George has reported triple Grade One winner God’s Ownsidesteps the Ryanair in an attempt to make it third time lucky in this event. He was fourth to Sprinter Sacre in 2016 and fifth behind Special Tiara last year, a sizeable error at the second last exaggerating his margin of defeat. (Unlike some analysts, I read it no more positively than that.)
    When third in a Kempton Listed event in January, God’s Own was returning from an absence – trusted paddock observers attest he was far from fit – and surely pressed on too early over a trip that stretches him in some conditions.
    “He’s had a stop-start campaign but ran well behind Waiting Patiently at Kempton last time and that will have blown the cobwebs away,” George said. “Last year could easily have been his year but he made two horrendous mistakes that cost him the race. He’s ten but not lacking in enthusiasm and his record speaks for itself in these Grade Ones.”
    Finally, although Doctor Phoenix stood his ground at the forfeit stage for this event and had fellow entrants American Tom, Tell Us More and Ball D’Arc (the last-named stablemate finishing lame as the beaten favourite) in his wake when winning a Naas Grade Three last week, trainer Gordon Elliott maintains he will miss Cheltenham.
    Instead, Elliott has pinpointed a Grade Two at Navan next month. There’s the Irish trainers’ championship to consider, after all. Progressive though Doctor Phoenix has undoubtedly been since joining this yard, it’s hard to consider him a match for the likes of Altior, Min and even Douvan.

    Alba Gu Brath!

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    Ryanair Chase

    Barring last-minute switcheroos – and don’t think this can’t happen in 2018 due to the new 48-hour stage rules preventing double declarations because they don’t apply to non-novice Grade Ones – the Ryanair picture appears unusually clear. Shurely shome mishtake? There’s still almost a fortnight to go!
    To my mind, this is a four-horse (perhaps even three- or two-horse) race: titleholder Un De Sceaux, rising force Waiting Patiently (if he runs), evergreen veteran Cue Card (if he runs) and the underestimated Balko Des Flos. That’s all, folks.
    Granted, I can acknowledge outside chances for Cloudy Dream if you think trip has been his only issue, Top Notch if he bounces back from Ascot to find his usual Festival form, last year’s runner-up Sub Lieutenant if he’s still in the game at all and Yorkhill, hoving into view from the lunatic fringe (and jumping left, natch).
    The rest? For one reason or another: forget about it. Sometimes it can just mean: forget about it.
    Calls for Cue Card’s retirement – not in this parish – proved to be predictably misguided when he roared back to form last month to go down all guns blazing behind the progressive Waiting Patiently in a race that had it all.
    Conducted from the outset at a pace that tolerated no dogs nor children, Coney Island’s jumping was instantly put under pressure and Traffic Fluide was driven from after the first fence. It was Cue Card who most consistently injected that speed into proceedings, initially accompanied by Frodon and intermittently headed by a reckless Speredek.
    It’s easy to argue Waiting Patiently, ridden like the name suggests, benefitted from the more advantageous tactics under Brian Hughes. He travelled strongly, (mostly) deliberately off the pace, and made smooth headway to challenge. Hughes even delayed his pounce, his mount going better than Cue Card from the penultimate flight.
    Leading approaching the last, however, Hughes saw a better stride than did Waiting Patiently and they more than brushed through it. Yet the impetus for victory was already theirs and although Cue Card (reunited with jockey Paddy Brennan) characteristically never gave up, the winner maintained his advantage to the line – at least, once he’d wandered over to the inside rail.
    Trainer Colin Tizzard has subsequently argued that Cue Card “definitely got interfered with” when the winner drifted across him after the last. He did, but it made no difference to the result.
    This was, quite rightly, an emotional result with Waiting Patiently’s trainer, the late Malcolm Jefferson, having been buried only the previous day and with his daughter Ruth now in charge of his legacy. “Dad would have loved to be here,” she reflected. “And he’d have loved nothing more than to see this horse remain unbeaten.”
    Asked about whether her plans included the Ryanair, there was more than a modicum of her dad in evidence, however. “There are plenty other races bar Cheltenham,” she said. “Everyone else is obsessed, except us. We’re not that fussed.”
    Jefferson insists Waiting Patiently must have soft ground and time between his races. The first requirement, Britain’s recent snow and forecast rain may resolve; the second is perhaps somewhat belied by the three quick, progressive starts her father gave him as a novice last season.
    More appositely perhaps, Jefferson also mentioned this unbeaten chaser is still learning his craft and capable of making the odd mistake – in evidence at Ascot, albeit nothing serious – and that Cheltenham’s sharp but undulating track might not suit.
    You could bank on her dad not to get carried away by having the second favourite for a Grade One; we will learn more about whether Ruth is an exact chip off the old block over the next few days.
    Were she to go for the Ryanair, Waiting Patiently’s form would undoubtedly justify it. Some felt his previous Kempton success had been over-rated but not in this column; this horse is classy. I would, however, share Jefferson’s doubts about the suitability of the track.
    This was 12-year-old Cue Card’s best effort since winning the same race last year – although admittedly his Aintree Bowl second to Tea For Two last April was not far removed. Not long ago, huh? Two starts – one in bottomless ground – is a bit precipitate to start writing off a horse who’s performed consistently at the highest level since the age of four.
    I don’t doubt he’s not as brilliant as he was when winning the 2015 Betfair Chase and King George, nor even when chasing home Sprinter Sacre in the 2013 Melling Chase, but he palpably remains a force in Grade One races. It will be interesting to see whether connections still choose to retire him after Aintree.
    In the meantime, trainer Colin Tizzard has indicated that owner Jean Bishop was misinterpreted in reports claiming that Cue Card’s Cheltenham target had been decided.
    “I’ve spoken to Jean and it wasn’t what she really wanted to say. We will let that run for a while,” revealed Tizzard. “There is no reason why we shouldn’t go for the Gold Cup. Is that any harder to win than the Ryanair? Possibly, yes.”
    You’re darntootin‘ it is, Colin. For my money, attempting to regain the Ryanair crown he won in 2013 – beating First Lieutenant by an imperious nine lengths – rather than having a third crack at the Gold Cup would be the right decision. Cue Card can be ridden more positively in that scenario, rather than being held onto in order to see out the trip against a larger, superior set of rivals.
    Frodon was beaten 18 lengths in third and that’s more in tune with the overall balance of his form than the spike of his flattering Trials Day handicap success; even if he too closely attended the pace at Ascot, Cue Card did the same with bells on so that’s no excuse for Grade One designs.
    Two lengths further back in fourth, Top Notch was disappointing – he was beaten by the fourth last, having never once got on terms with Cue Card. His trainer Nicky Henderson has since acknowledged that he “ran a bit flat” but a scope has revealed no issues, suggesting he just might not have been good enough.
    He was adjusting left at some fences – and Ascot ruthlessly exposes this tendency more than any other UK track – but he’d won round there before, not to mention at Taunton and Sandown, so this can’t be solely proffered as a mitigating factor.
    His case relies on reclaiming the level of form that saw him finish second in the 2015 Triumph, fifth in the 2016 Champion Hurdle and second in last year’s JLT. He was also returning from a (short) break at Ascot and it’s fair to say he’s been at his best when busy in the past.
    Set against those arguments is my long-held view that, when faced with genuine Grade One chasers, this bonny little trier would come up short. I’m hardly going to desert that opinion now.
    Neither Un De Sceaux nor Balko Des Flos have raced since the last Road was written, albeit only the latter had the option. As it turned out, Gigginstown opted to duck the Irish Gold Cup with this seven-year-old and Eddie O’Leary has announced this race to be his Festival target rather than the Timico Gold Cup.
    I have mixed feelings about this: Balko Des Flos’s improved form in the Christmas Chase seemed intimately linked with stepping back up to three miles yet he looks capable of again being ridden positively here and seeing out the race very strongly. I do not regard his latest effort as a fluke.
    I’ve been arguing since the first Road of this series that Un De Sceaux would this year need to be better than he was when winning this race 12 months ago. That’s probably still true but not as emphatically as it was prior to Fox Norton being scratched with a suspensory injury, Road To Respect defecting to the Gold Cup and neither Min nor Douvan being likely to show up.
    Unexpectedly soft ground won’t bother Un De Sceaux per se, although it will place an extra accent on stamina, and he will surely have the services of Ruby Walsh. That would be a huge disadvantage for Yorkhill, whom Walsh rode so adroitly when winning last year’s JLT, should Willie Mullins opt to run him here rather than in the Champion Hurdle.
    It’s worth repeating that the Ryanair is the fourth 2018 Festival race this season to be identified as a potential target for Yorkhill, now that the Gold Cup and Champion Chase have been dismissed. If he’s supposedly so adaptable, perhaps he just lacks the star quality to dominate any one discipline? (If so, to be fair, this could be the race for him!)
    It’s not impossible that Djakadam could be re-routed here, albeit Mullins seems tepid about this prospect. He’d have to be given a positive ride and risks getting burst as a stayer. Stable companion Bellshill – recent winner of the Bobbyjo Chase – is another unlikely contender from this quarter; he’s another stayer, just a less talented one.
    In the last few weeks, the likes of A Toi Phil and Valseur Lido (the latter regressive with each start this term) have been exposed as not good enough whereas others – such as Bachasson, Benie Des Dieux, God’s Own, Killultagh Vic, L’Ami Serge and Outlander – are bound for different targets.
    Gold Present missed his intended start at Ascot last month due to a bruised foot and trainer Nicky Henderson has seemingly suggested he misses the Festival (in which he’s still favourite for the Ultima) in favour of the Grand National. There are doubts about Ar Madracing left handed and Le Prezien’s form isn’t yet good enough.
    Quite literally, that leaves only Sub Lieutenant and Cloudy Dream to consider.
    The former was only a staying-on length and a half behind Un De Sceaux 12 months ago but well below his best on his first two starts this season.
    Yet he wasn’t flattered when getting involved in the John Durkan with Sizing John and Djakadam before ultimately being beaten almost ten lengths. However, that was back in December and I haven’t seen any mention of him since he missed his intended start in the Kinloch Brae back in January. Trainer Henry de Bromhead was also then talking about how he was “crying out” for (a return to) three miles back then, too.
    He is also entered in the Gold Cup and Gigginstown will decide which, if either, option he takes up but he would be a player here if all is well. 20/1 NRNB rather underestimates him.
    Waiting Patiently’s stablemate Cloudy Dream has failed to get home over three miles in testing ground against Gold Cup candidates Native River and Definitly Red on his last two starts.
    There was no disgrace in either performance but the fact remains he’s finished second on eight of his 11 starts over fences. It’s always taken a good horse to beat him but that’s the company he still keeps and there’s something unnerving about how he’s often gone from travelling to paddling in a stride or two.
    I’ve often wondered whether the seemingly counter-intuitive suggestion of making the running with him would help but this probably isn’t the race to be experimenting with that notion.


    Balko Des Flos

    Sun Bets Stayers’ Hurdle


    What was envisaged as a sharpener in the Irish Champion for this column’s Sun Bets Stayers’ Hurdle selection turned into the scalping of a former star and fleetingly raised the spectre of Supasundae being supplemented for the more prestigious Festival event.
    Not that either trainer Jessica Harrington or jockey Robbie Power appeared more than remotely tempted after his two-and-a-quarter-length out-staying defeat of Faugheen. They were just chuffed by what they described as his best round of jumping yet – an assertion that may remain demonstrably true even if the runner-up half-lengthed him at most flights.
    The latter point means connections have indubitably made the correct call to keep their sights on the stayers’ crown; a quick replay of his Coral Cup success last year underlines their point about scrappy tendencies in his jumping. He’s a better all-round package now.
    “Last season you’d have to cajole him down to the gallop,” Harrington has admitted. “You just had to make him do everything. But this season he’s doing everything more willingly at home and he’s travelling and jumping much better in his races. Whether he has just got more confidence, I’m not sure but he seems to be a lot better this season.”
    In fact, the blend of speed and stamina Supasundae displays is just the ticket for a race that requires you not to lose your pitch and then roll your sleeves up between the long run from the penultimate flight and the last.
    Admittedly, he is yet to be tested in a strongly run three-mile event and the potential for softer ground than envisaged at Cheltenham is not ideal, but you can’t have everything in life – particularly at 20/1.
    Perhaps most pertinently, it should be easy for him to get a good lead here because, as I argued at the time, he looked ill at ease making the running when beaten by Apple’s Jadeand also had to be ridden forcefully over an inadequate trip last time. Harrington agrees.
    “One thing I’m looking forward to with him at Cheltenham is not having to make the running or be very handy as he has been in his last two starts, as I don’t think that really suits him,” she said. “He dosses and makes it hard work for himself when he’s in front.”
    Supasundae’s latest success was doubtless the final temptation for connections of one of his recent conquerors to switch targets and re-oppose him here; for another, not so much. Of course, it’s the O’Learys who are not for turning with Apple’s Jade but Yanworth is now taking the path outlined by so-called experts back in November.
    “He has won twice over fences this season but I spoke to [Yanworth’s owner] JP McManus and [racing manager] Frank Berry and we decided that would be the plan,” trainer Alan King announced. “To avoid any confusion, I’ve taken him out of everything else so he holds no other entries at the Festival.”
    Of course, what happened to alter King’s original course was a perfect storm of foreseeable and unforeseeable factors: the increased purse for the Stayers’ Hurdle as compared with the Festival’s novice chases, Yanworth’s own unconvincing chasing style, an underwhelming season to date from McManus’s intended Stayers’ Hurdle representative Unowhatimeanharry and the increasingly striking fact that Yanworth boasts a victory over the horse who has risen to be favourite for this event.
    You can argue Yanworth outstayed Supasundae when winning the Grade One Liverpool Hurdle last April. However, you can also counter that the runner-up was uncharacteristically on and off the bridle from as early as the first circuit and may not have been at his best just three weeks after what was then the performance of his career to date at Cheltenham.
    Harrington’s comments this week lend further substance to that interpretation. “I’d be hopeful that he can reverse form with Yanworth,” she said. “When he went to Aintree last season, he was after having some hard races and a tough schedule. I think he was just a tired horse and did well to run as well as he did.”
    And let’s get down to brass tacks: would you trust Yanworth with your hard-earned? At 5/1? It would be palpably unfair to dismiss the horse as a raving hound – he’s found for pressure in victory and defeat in the past – but nonetheless there’s something of the night about him. Freud would blame his father.
    Of course, Barry Geraghty will have to choose between Yanworth and Unowhatimeanharry. Despite a more upbeat recent report from trainer Harry Fry about last year’s third, I suspect Geraghty will choose the former – not just because he’s the more fancied of the pair but also because he favoured Yanworth over Buveur D’Air in last year’s Champion Hurdle before a fall rendered his preference academic. He rates the horse; someone has to.
    Joking aside, a strongly run race such as last year’s edition would set things up nicely for Yanworth to be delivered with quirk-minimising lateness but that scenario is now less guaranteed than it appeared three weeks ago with the notable withdrawal of front-runners Beer Goggles, Cole Harden and Barters Hill.
    Nigel Twiston-Davies has also stated that The New One, trying three miles for the first time in his illustrious career, will be ridden with more restraint than usual.
    That leaves the task of forcing the pace most probably to this season’s most upwardly mobile stayer Sam Spinner and last year’s runner-up Lil Rockerfeller.
    The latter travelled better than has been the case of late in first-time blinkers in the National Spirit last time out but was still quite readily overhauled at level weights by Old Guard.
    That winner has cut a more consistent jib this season – bar when bogged down in the mud he hates on New Year’s Day – and has earned his place in this line-up even though his stamina for the task is unproven. I think he’ll run with credit, even if the ground proves softer than absolutely ideal.
    Lil Rockerfeller’s Ascot defeat of L’Ami Serge – who himself galloped at Kempton this week – now seems much longer ago than November and it might be that seasons of being scrubbed along to hold his position – as consistently feared in these columns – may finally have left their mark on his enthusiasm. He did take a large step forward the second time he wore cheekpieces, mind – if that’s not clutching at straws about his blinkers.
    The overarching point is: should that straw be beyond his grasp, there’s potential for Sam Spinner to pretty much make all in the style of Cole Harden in 2015. He can go hard or more restrainedly from the front, as his victories at Haydock and Ascot demonstrated this season.
    Sam Spinner’s rider Joe Colliver might prefer the hard Haydock option in an attempt to run the finish out of Supasundae and then take his chances on his gutsy mount defying any late challenge Yanworth might muster.
    It will need to be finely judged so it’s worth noting Colliver has only had three rides in his entire career at Cheltenham and none were even placed. It’s also fair to acknowledge the same young rider made all on this horse to win the Grade One Long Walk Hurdle on his first-ever visit to Ascot.
    Willie Mullins won this race last year with the much-missed Nichols Canyon and might field a trio of substitutes for this year’s renewal, having withdrawn Shaneshill at the latest forfeit stage.
    Bacardys is a predictable switcher after tipping up over fences at Christmas and Augusta Kate, who looked better suited by a return to this trip when second to Presenting Percy in the Galmoy last time out and made a chance-ending mistake in last year’s Albert Bartlett,.
    Penhill, stablemate and last year’s winner of that Festival novices’ event – a relative speed test as it panned out – completes the Closutton squad but his billing for this specific target has been hardly resounding.
    “He’s good – all his work has been good and the aim all season has been to get him back for the spring festivals,” Mullins said. “We knew from a while ago that we were unlikely to have the time to get a run into him before Christmas and it’s a tough ask to go for a race like the Stayers’ Hurdle without a run.
    “If he runs well there and comes out of it sound, that will be good enough for us and we can go on to Punchestown with him from there.”
    Tom George has confirmed The Worlds End will take his chance in this event, although his hoped-for good-to-soft ground is less guaranteed that it would usually be. “He’s been struggling in the ground all winter,” he said. That’s certainly a reasonable excuse for a retrograde step in heavy going at Cheltenham last time, following a more encouraging effort at Ascot (even if George himself believes the horse has “improved with each run”).
    Finally, soft ground would be ideal for Colin’s Sister and this is her confirmed target – unlike as yet La Bague Au Roi whose trainer Warren Greatrex is still toying with re-routing her to a less suitable trip in the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle.


    Sizing John leads Supasundae in front of the media

    Timico Gold Cup


    Native River has finally given some timely substantiation for his ever-shortening price in this market, hitherto fuelled only by dint of his rivals actually racing and performing below perceived expectations.
    Everything was clearly set up for a big run in the Denman Chase – a race in which he was also impressive last season and at a track that particularly suits. He was also facing another horse that hadn’t raced since last year’s Timico Gold Cup in Saphir Du Rheu and a horse in Cloudy Dream whose stamina capabilities for three miles were already in some doubt.
    Under these conditions, Richard Johnson was always going to be able to execute the chivvyingly positive ride that suits Native River so well. Having been urged along into the straight, he had the race sewn up barring accidents by the second last and won by 12 lengths, conceding weight all round. Put succinctly: he beat little but in fine style.
    Trainer Colin Tizzard hadn’t left much room for manoeuvre had Native River come up palpably short of fitness, as (arguably) happened on a couple of occasions with this yard. I’m thinking of Cue Card’s seasonal debut last term and that of Thistlecrack this.
    Tizzard has been crystal clear that, far from being sidelined with a setback, Native River returned to some degree of training last August and has been deliberately withheld for a one-race pre-Gold Cup campaign. The thinking was to offset his relentless 2016/17 season – something I incorrectly interpreted as having the secondary function of managing a Grand National bid. But he wasn’t even entered.
    In fact, Tizzard recently expanded on his motivation. “We were running into the Gold Cup not in the best of form and he still ran well to finish third,” he asserted. I can’t wear that because no such concerns were mentioned at the time and his Gold Cup third was a roaring run.
    Still, that’s what Tizzard clearly now believes. “We are a lot stronger this time around…I think at the moment we have got it dead right with him,” he added.
    Heading to Cheltenham a fresh, fit and confident horse is undisputedly a powerful position to hold – especially given you can argue Native River probably could have finished second in last year’s edition. To my mind, he lost the runner-up spot to a hitherto outpaced but rallying Minella Rocco only due to pressing on too far out with eventual fourth Djakadam.
    They even briefly outpaced the winner Sizing John with that move. Interestingly, his hard-knocking campaign may have come to haunt him this term with a soon-beaten blowout in the Christmas Chase. What might have been an overly draining seasonal debut against Djakadam – and was surely too quick a reappearance after that duel – didn’t help.
    “They [vets] called him clinically abnormal after Leopardstown,” trainer Jessica Harrington said. “That term covers a range of things but I think he just overheated a bit.
    “Looking back at it, the race probably just came a bit too soon for him after the John Durkan without us realising it. Maybe both him and Djakadam had a harder race than either of us realised at the time and paid for it at Leopardstown.
    “We let him right down after that and have been building him back up since. He did very well during his break [trainer-speak for: got fat] but his weight is coming down to where we want it to be now. We were never going to rush him back for the Irish Gold Cup and have been training him for the Cheltenham Gold Cup since then.”
    The plan is to gallop or school him at a racecourse before making the trip over to Britain to defend his title. “All we can do is get him there in one piece and we’ll hope for the best after that,” Harrington concluded. Hardly a ringing endorsement for a horse some bookmakers rate as second favourite.
    If you’re looking for a solid each-way bet in the race, there is no comparison between the current credentials of last year’s 1-2. It’s Native River at around 6/1 all the way.
    Behind him, Saphir Du Rheu failed to impress, quickly beaten after the first fence in the straight. He’d performed with credit after a wide trip (presumably to grant him a good sight of his obstacles) when fifth in the race last year but hadn’t been sighted this season due to twisting his ankle in last year’s Grand National.
    “He travelled well until three out and then just ran out of petrol and he just needed the run,” trainer Paul Nicholls has plausibly explained. “He went to [gallop at] Kempton on Tuesday and I think you will see a completely different horse in the Gold Cup on better ground with that run under his belt.”
    However, Nicholls has also conceded he’d have preferred “one more race before Cheltenham”. The trouble is Saphir Du Rheu needs not merely to improve massively on “the bare form at Newbury” but also on the best form he’s ever produced. The first-time tongue-tie was also mildly disconcerting.
    A week prior to the Denman, the Irish Gold Cup performed its usual open-brain surgery on everything you were thinking before flag-fall. Therefore it was perfectly logical that victory should go to unconsidered 66/1 shot Edwulf – a horse whose primary miracle was to return to racing at all, let alone register the biggest success of his career to date.
    When he collapsed in spasms soon after jumping the final flight in the 2017 NH Chase, the best most of us were hoping for was that he could be saved for a happy retirement.
    He had to be dragged off the track in order to be attended to, took 70 minutes to load into the horse ambulance and subsequently appeared to be suffering from blindness. That he recovered to this degree is a remarkable tribute to the skill and dedication of all who cared for him. Bravo.
    The worth of his latest form is equally baffling. Had Killultagh Vic stood up at the final fence, I am almost certain he would have won. Outgoing BHA Head Of Handicapping Phil Smith – among others – disagrees, believing Edwulf was bearing down inexorably at the time.
    Yet it took virtually all of the run-in for Edwulf to overhaul Outlander – a horse who’s much harder to beat at Leopardstown than anywhere else – whereas Killultagh Vic had already smoothly headed that rival when taking off for his abortive final jump of the race. He lay winded and prone for some time before getting to his feet.
    Mullins is a man desperately in search of a Gold Cup contender this season – a race he is yet to win despite his remarkable CV. Hence he tossed Killultagh Vic into this Grade One, despite the horse having just two previous starts over fences – at a shorter trip and two seasons ago, the latest of which all but ended in a fall. His remarkable recovery to win that race caused the tendon injury that counted him out for 714 days prior to this season.
    It’s clear this horse retains a great deal of the ability that was blossoming in his novice-chasing days but this latest fall was by no means surprising. He’d put in a sloppy round of jumping throughout the Irish Gold Cup and it’s hard to imagine him getting away with that technique at Cheltenham.
    Mullins in undeterred, however. “He was fine after his fall,” he asserted. “The best angle I have seen of the fall was when I went into the stewards’ room afterwards and watched the reverse angle from behind the horses. You can see that he realises he is wrong going into the fence and is being so careful that he threw his legs out to his left to whip his legs over it.
    “That just unbalanced him and led to the fall. I felt at the time that he would have won. I wouldn’t have been betting against him had he got over the last safely. I wouldn’t have any stamina worries for him in the Gold Cup. That would be the last thing I’d be worried about with him.”
    On that point, we find some common ground. There are exactly 22 things I’d worry about with Killultagh Vic before stamina in the Gold Cup. They’re called fences. Perhaps Ruby Walsh – who’s surely likeliest to choose this vessel of those available to him – can make a big difference. He’ll need to.
    Killultagh Vic’s presence at Leopardstown spelled bad news for stablemate Djakadam, suggesting Mullins was no longer convinced in his Gold Cup capabilities. He had previously produced the worst performance of his entire chasing career when pulling up in the Christmas Chase.
    Although his trainer shares Harrington’s view about that race coming too soon after a punishing John Durkan clash, he’s started to give headroom to an anathema.
    “He has been a bit disappointing this season and his form hasn’t matched what he’s been doing in previous seasons,” Mullins rightly said. “There is some feeling that he should run in the Ryanair rather than in the Gold Cup and that could happen, but I feel he should go for the Gold Cup.”
    Regular readers of the Road will know I have zero time for the Ryanair argument. Djakadam is a stayer and unlikely to be seen to best effect on a relative speed-favouring track like Leopardstown, even when ridden from the front as he was when third behind Edwulf.
    You can argue Djakadam was the third-best (or, at more of a push, even second-best) horse in last year’s Gold Cup, having pressed on too hard and soon with Native River and reportedly belting the second last so hard that he broke the fence.
    Numerologists may cite The Fellow’s precedent of Gold Cup form figures 2-2-4 prior to his 1994 success, but it’s inarguable that Djakadam has been below his best this season – even if odds of 33/1 NRNB rather insult his place prospects.
    Back in fourth in the Irish Gold Cup, Our Duke ran a far better race on his comeback from an operation to correct a kissing spine than he was given credit for at the time.
    He has since convinced many more observers with a doughty defeat of ascendant novice Presenting Percy, conceding weight and over a trip shy of either of their optimum, in a Grade Two at Gowran Park. At just 13 days after his Leopardstown run, that was a swift turnaround and an unusually busy February diary for a Gold Cup candidate.
    Trainer Harrington has explained: “He wouldn’t have run at Gowran Park last time if he hadn’t made a mistake in the Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown. After he made that mistake, Robert [Power, his usual jockey] gave him a chance to recover from it and he avoided a hard race as a result.
    “Because of that, the decision to go to Gowran was easy as I knew he hand’t had a hard race and I really needed him to run again for the benefit of both his jumping and his conditioning. He hasn’t had a lot of chasing experience, so each race at this stage is going to be of benefit to him.
    “I was happy with him at Gowran. He decided to bulldoze one fence out of the way but once he had done that he jumped the last three very well and when it mattered most. He seems to lack a bit of concentration when he’s not going as quick as he’d like.”
    Harrington pinpoints the major concern with Our Duke right there: his habit of making a mistake at a crucial stage and often not for a good enough reason – a trait he displayed in his novice-chasing days.
    It will be interesting to see how new jockey Noel Fehily responds to this flaw - Power having found it understandably impossible to desert defending champion Sizing John in the Gold Cup – because otherwise there’s a lot to like about Our Duke’s credentials.
    He moved smoothly through to challenge for the lead three out in the Irish Gold Cup but appeared to blow up approaching the next, losing his position even before making a mistake and slipping on landing. He then looked booked for seventh rounding the home turn before finding a second wind even before two of his rivals departed at the final fence.
    He did well to stamp his authority over Presenting Percy last time, conceding 7lbs over a two-and-a-half-mile trip, but that blunder at the fourth last came out of nowhere. He can’t afford to lose concentration in the Gold Cup.
    To return to the actual Irish Gold Cup winner, Edwulf has clearly earned his place. He handles Cheltenham, will be suited by returning to a stiffer test of stamina and is unexposed as a chaser, having taken a while to learn his craft as an error-prone novice.
    A month ago, it would have been hard to pick Edwulf as JP McManus’s prime Gold Cup candidate but both Minella Rocco and Anibale Fly hit the deck behind him at Leopardstown while Coney Island flopped at Ascot.
    Rocco had been outpaced and booked for something like fifth when taking a tired fall at the last in the Irish Gold Cup. It might be that Cheltenham enables him to recover his form, given he won the strong 2016 edition of the NH Chase and finished second in last year’s Gold Cup after failing to complete in this same prep race. He had a harder race this year, mind.
    Fly was stepping up in grade and already struggling, his jumping having lacked fluency, when taking a crunching fall two out. He’ll surely stay at home now?
    Coney Island’s unearned prominence in this market was ruthlessly undermined when he was taken out of his comfort zone from flag-fall in the Ascot Chase. Never travelling or able to get into a rhythm, Barry Geraghty pulled him up after the worst of a series of errors at the tenth.
    He’s clearly no Ryanair horse on this evidence and needs a longer trip but he’s not good enough for a Gold Cup either.
    Irish Gold Cup runner-up Outlander could manage only tenth in last year’s Gold Cup; he also fell (when going OK) in the previous year’s JLT and was sixth in the 2015 Neptune (now Ballymore). It’s fair to say he boasts better form elsewhere.
    Nonetheless, he has again made the Gigginstown Gold Cup squad alongside the Noel Meade-trained Road To Respect – last year’s Plate winner who made a smooth transition to Grade One company when winning the Christmas Chase. This progressive horse has stamina to prove and must ensure his jumping is slicker from the outset than it was at last year’s Festival.
    Fellow maroon marcher Balko Des Flos heads to the Ryanair and Disko is now confirmed as missing Cheltenham altogether due to a tress fracture. He was among some significant forfeit-stage withdrawals including Bristol De Mai (Aintree-bound), Coneygree yet (another setback, a stress fracture of a tibia) and Whisper (injured).
    Contrary to immediate post-Ascot reports, the joyously revivified Cue Card is not definitely Ryanair-bound – although Tizzard appears to be edging that way.
    Nigel Twiston-Davies might come to regret going against the grain with Aintree hope Blaklion by contesting the lesser target of the BetFred Grand National Trial rather than the Gold Cup as a stepping-stone. The horse was exhausted when clambering over the final fence to finish a wide-margin runner-up in Haydock’s inevitable quagmire.
    All four of Mullins’ remaining entries could yet stand their ground if his pre-Cheltenham stable tour is anything to go by. In this scenario, Bachasson and Total Recall would join Killultagh Vic and Djakadam in bidding to improve on the haul of six frustrating seconds their trainer has amassed in this race.
    Of Bachasson, Mullins noted: “His connections are keen to go to Cheltenham. He’s a fantastic jumper and while it will be a stiff task for him in the Gold Cup, the intention is to go there with him.”
    This also avoids a Ryanair clash with Un De Sceaux, who’s in the same ownership. However, likeable Bachasson isn’t the biggest unit and although his jumping is quick, it’s also low. He’s also unproven at the trip. I can’t see this race suiting him.
    Mullins had been intent on going straight to the National with Ladbrokes Trophy runner-up Total Recall, but there are four weeks between Cheltenham and Aintree this year and this horse continues to impress since joining the Closutton yard. On the Irish Gold Cup card, he won a handicap hurdle from a mark fully 31lbs lower than his (British) chase rating.
    “We were going to go to the Bobbyjo Chase but it was just coming too soon after his last run and going for the Gold Cup instead just gives us a nicer gap in between his last run and the Grand National,” Mullins explained.
    “He is a relaxed horse that jumps economically and that will stand him in good stead in the Gold Cup. He got very free last time over hurdles but he just jumped the first few too well and ended up getting much handier than we would have liked. It will be much easier to hide him away and get him settled in a race like the Gold Cup.”
    Clearly, Total Recall needs to find about a stone of improvement to play a significant role at Cheltenham and he will be returning to the fray rather more quickly than his well-spaced starts for the stable so far. But he’s clearly thriving so it makes sense to press on.
    Finally, Nicky Henderson reverted both to type and his original post-King George instinct by ducking the Denman Chase with Gold Cup ante-post favourite, Might Bite, in favour of a racecourse gallop at Kempton.
    It might well have been the correct decision for that individual horse but racecourses can’t fret about field sizes and the inequitable dominance of the Cheltenham Festival at the same time as playing host to these opaque pastiches of this sport.


    Cheltenham Gold Cup hope Edwulf

    Selections:


    Advised 30/11/17: Min 8/1 Champion Chase with Paddy Power/Betfair
    Advised 06/12/17: Supasundae 20/1 Stayers’ Hurdle with Bet365 and Paddy Power/Betfair
    Advised 06/12/17: Mengli Khan 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 or Betfair Sportsbook
    Advised 09/01/18: Minella Rocco 20/1 each-way for the Gold Cup with various firms
    Alba Gu Brath!

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    In part two of this week's Road To Cheltenham catch up, Lydia Hislop addresses the novices over hurdles and fences, with three additional bets added - with Sky Bet offering enhanced prices about the pair.
    Exclusive Sky Bet Price Boosts

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    Welcome to the second part of this week’s Road To Cheltenham. You can read Part One, addressing recent events in the Festival’s six championship divisions here. This section concentrates on the various notable novice- chasing, hurdling and juvenile exploits from that period.
    Novice chasers

    Please note: there has been some uneasiness about Footpad in the Arkle market. He has been lengthened to 6/4 (13/8 in one place) and his five closest rivals in the betting shortened almost across the board.
    As discussed below, mostly written before that news emerged, there was potential for this to be a market correction given the strength of Footpad’s opposition but there were concerns that this presaged a switch to the JLT.
    However Anthony Bromley, racing manager to owners Simon Munir and Isaac Soued, stated: “Nothing has changed. I’ve spoken to Willie… [Mullins, his trainer, on Saturday. Footpad is] … absolutely fine, no problems with the horse. There’s no reason to change from the original plan all winter, which has been the Arkle.”


    Footpad comfortably accounted for Petit Mouchoir in the Irish Arkle at Leopardstown last month, to the extent that afterwards the latter’s rider Davy Russell was pretty much handing him the Cheltenham trophy, too.
    However, there’s reason to believe the grey could get a lot closer at the very least. In fact, looking again at the betting with fresh eyes, I’m starting to think Footpad is decidedly skinny.
    In that Dublin Festival contest, the winner set off with more than a length’s advantage over habitual front runner Petit Mouchoir; this and rustiness from not having faced a fence in anger since last October may have contributed to Russell’s mount making a real hash of the first two fences.
    He bundled himself over the first, landing unbalanced, and then gamely took off too early at the second – a bad blunder. You can’t fault his attitude, though. He reacted positively to that bad start, closely chasing the strong pace set by Footpad without once being able to get upsides.
    The pair drew a long way clear of their rivals as early as after the second fence – exposing as optimistic the Arkle ambitions of Tycoon Prince, who would ultimately take a surrendering fall at the last, and the winner’s stable companion Demi Sang, who blundered badly at the first and was never involved thereafter. His only remaining Festival entry is now the Close Brothers Novices’ Handicap.
    I’d be keener on third-placed Any Second Now for that same Festival event, however. I’ve been fond of this horse since his entertaining racecourse debut and he’s taken well to fences, chasing home a number of decent horses with higher ambitions than trainer Ted Walsh has ever truly considered for him. A step back up to 2m4f will suit and I’m sure he’s capable of better.
    But back at the top table, Footpad is clearly a high-class novice chaser with an efficient, polished technique and the ability to adapt to any race, tactically speaking. I don’t doubt he’s the right favourite for the Arkle but it won’t be a procession. I’m reminded that it wasn’t even for Altior last year.
    Petit Mouchoir was the superior hurdler, three times finishing ahead of Footpad in Grade One company last season – in particular when third in last year’s Champion Hurdle after setting a hearty pace, unchallenged until the second last, with Footpad ultimately three lengths behind in fourth but never having reached the leaders.
    It’s perfectly credible that Footpad could prove a better chaser than Petit Mouchoir. As his trainer Willie Mullins says: “He’s just so natural and athletic; he takes [his fences] as he meets them. He seldom puts in a short one and just has no fear over a fence. He was a very good hurdler without being top class but his method of jumping a fence has catapulted him right to the top.”
    But Petit Mouchoir has only faced fences in public twice, was returning from an injury lay-off at Leopardstown and (perhaps because of this) did not employ the tactics that facilitated his best performances over hurdles.
    He’ll need to jump a lot better from the outset on Tuesday week but racing more prominently might help – not that Footpad would be bothered by accepting a lead as he’s already done that, too, and won. This could be an interesting re-match and those who took each-way prices of around 6/1 after Petit Mouchoir’s Dublin defeat were of sound mind.


    Saint Calvados: Cheltenham's undulations aren't a pressing concern

    Yet there’s more than one clear and present danger to the favourite. Saint Calvadosobliterated his opponents in the Grade Two Kingmaker Chase in an excellent time last month. He led from the outset, travelled zestfully and again jumped with bold alacrity. In short, he went hard and never stopped.
    On figures, Saint Calvados’s form is almost as good as that of Footpad, if not directly comparable. In actuality, he has faced nothing like the calibre of a Petit Mouchoir and bossing inferior horses in conditions that clearly suit – testing ground and a flat track – can inflate a reputation that’s then remorselessly punctured at Cheltenham.
    In the Arkle, he’ll face rivals accustomed to dealing with jumping at championship pace – or even forcing that pace. The question then becomes – seemingly perversely, for a horse that jumps so fluidly: can he?
    Given the weather (past and forecast) has mitigated the unknown of how he’d cope with a sound surface – he’s got a curling knee action – I think it’s more likely than not he can hold his position. He was fast yet measured at Warwick, not at all reckless or low. Cheltenham’s undulations are an unknown but he tends not to land steeply – a trait that most worries me for this track.
    In fact, it could be Petit Mouchoir’s jumping that unravels if choosing to take on Saint Calvados up front. Footpad is more likely to sit comfortably behind the strong pace, probably as close to it as he chooses. Sceau Royal, in his element when observing a frenetic pace in the Grade One Henry VIII Novices’ Chase prior to sweeping past tired opponents, may sit a shade further off it – but not too far.
    It’s worth noting Matt Tombs’ advice [@thespieler] in the Weatherbys Cheltenham Festival Bettng Guide to “focus on pure speed” where the Arkle is concerned. “They usually go quick and don’t stop,” he wrote, adding that the last horse to win from off the pace was Contraband in 2005.
    While we’re talking trends, Tombs mentions a point that others (such as @PaulJonesRacing in his weekly service) cite against Saint Calvados. Five-year-olds used to have an advantageous weight allowance in events such as this and a good record in the Arkle; in the past ten years, since that playing field was levelled, they are 0/5.
    While I take the general point, the sample is too small to dismiss this horse on that count alone if you like him. I must admit I do and was minded to take the 11/2 fairly widely available until the Footpad disruption happened. Hey-ho.
    Returning to examine Saint Calvados’s Warwick romp, he had North Hill Harvey beaten in the back straight and, although that horse was returning from a break and thrives on racing according to his connections, it’s hard to conceive of him turning this form round. He just couldn’t sustain at that pace and that’s a prerequisite for the Arkle, I’m afraid.
    Runner-up Diego Du Charmil ran a very encouraging prep for the Grand Annual to my eye, however. It was his first start since last October and he jumped soundly at a respectful distance behind the winner. He started to give tepid chase exiting the home turn but soon appeared to paddle through lack of race-fitness after the third last.
    Given how trainer Paul Nicholls prepares his team for the spring festivals, this horse is pretty much certain to improve for the run and already boasts a Cheltenham success in the 2016 Fred Winter. I like his profile a lot for my favourite Festival handicap, the Grand Annual – so much so that I’m prepared to take a chance at 25/1 even before NRNB terms apply.
    Brain Power was a Kingmaker no-show, failing to adhere to the exacting timetable trainer Nicky Henderson had set for his return from surgery to correct a breathing problem. That issue was exposed during his deflating performance in the Clarence House, in which he ended up failing to complete for the second time running.
    Henderson has instead settled for a regime of homework and racecourse gallops, yet has stressed that whereas Altior needed a month’s box rest to recover from the corrective procedure to his wind, Brain Power needed only five days off after his palate was cauterized – an operation of lesser magnitude, clearly.
    However, history says – quite logically for a championship event – that form ending in UF is not a recipe for Festival success, even if his unseating of David Mullins in the Henry VIII Novices’ Chase after he’d helped force an overly strong pace was unlucky.
    At least in the Arkle, courtesy of Saint Calvados and perhaps Petit Mouchoir, he will definitely get the strong pace his trainer was seeking when pitching him against Un De Sceaux at Ascot. Getting Brain Power to settle in his races has been a long-running preoccupation.
    “We didn’t want to make the running at Sandown and that was a bit of a disaster,” Henderson recently reiterated, revisiting what in effect caused David Mullins to be replaced by Nico de Boinville next time out.
    “You have to be quite careful with him and in the Champion Hurdle last year, that was over by three hurdles,” his trainer added. “He was racing far too soon. You want to drop him in and go to sleep.”
    Henderson has been forcibly bullish about Brain Power’s ability this season. However, he was mistaken when asserting of his Arkle rivals that this horse “was the best of them over hurdles by a long way”. Petit Mouchoir was officially rated 2lb higher than Brain’s Power’s peak hurdle rating and Footpad was deemed only 2lb inferior after last year’s Champion Hurdle had been run. Even Sceau Royal wasn’t far off and finished ahead of him in that race.
    Unlike that trio, Brain Power is also yet to prove capable of producing his best form on left-handed tracks. All in all, he’s got too much to prove for this assignment.


    Monalee: An aggressive ride could suit him in the JLT

    Moving on to the JLT, it struck me while watching last month’s Flogas Chase that Henry de Bromhead should consider running Monalee there rather than in the RSA Insurance Chase.
    In the hands of new jockey Noel Fehily – connections presumably legislating for former rider Davy Russell committing to Presenting Percy should they both end up contesting the RSA – he reverted to front-running tactics and jumped with a great deal more fluency than last time out.
    On that previous visit to Leopardstown, when more restraint was employed over three miles, he took a crashing fall that left him sore for some time afterwards. It was therefore great to see his confidence and verve had been in no way dented.
    His record shows positive tactics suit him well and these would be more easily deployed in the JLT. His odds are currently fractionally longer with NRNB firms for that race than for the RSA but represent far better value in my mind.
    Behind him last time, runner-up Al Boum Photo got outpaced before staying on resolutely in the straight and Mullins has rightly concluded the RSA would be the most appropriate target for this improving novice.
    But he hasn’t yet decided where to pitch third-placed Invitation Only, noting that owners Andrea and Graham Wylie also have authoritative Navan winner Bonbon Au Miel “who looks a real RSA horse, so that might be a factor in deciding”.
    It was a tad surprising that Paul Townend wasn’t keener on getting the lead in the Flogas on Invitation Only, especially if his trainer clearly believes he can stay further. His form and jumping had previously been transformed by adopting a front-running role but here he chased Monalee’s lead, racing rather wide perhaps in compensation. Nonetheless, he still suffered a lapse of concentration at the fourth last.
    Fourth-placed Dounikos is starting to interest me, probably for the NH Chase (for which he is now favourite) but possibly even for the RSA. He was being urged along from some way out in the Flogas and lost his position slightly at the third last before responding positively in the straight.
    He had impetus when joining the pack on Monalee’s heels after the last but was inconvenienced by the winner and third wandering together across him, forcing him to switch. By the time he got rolling again, he’d arrived at the winning post. This was only his second chase start and he wasn’t done with when gifted a debut success by Al Boum Photo’s last-fence fall either.
    The rest were exposed as not good enough for the Festival’s graded targets. Mullins says 10-year-old Rathvinden heads for the NH Chase but he failed to complete for the second time running.
    Sutton Place was particularly disappointing: a first-fence blunder presaging a scrappy round that would end with Barry Geraghty pulling him up. Even though he won on his debut, he’d also been repeatedly out-jumped by Kemboy then. That likeable horse has been confirmed as on target for the JLT, incidentally.
    The bad news for this race was that well-fancied Willoughby Court had been brewing an abscess on his foot and, not long after, he was ruled out of the Festival. That prompted a market shake-up and no doubt some mental recalibration for those with potential JLT candidates.
    Henderson has stated that smart Scilly Isles winner Terrefort, another mere five-year-old, will only run if the ground “came up pretty soft” – a larger possibility now than when he said that.
    Narrow runner-up Cyrname – withdrawn from any Festival engagement in the belief he must race right-handed – has since franked that form by winning the Pendil (admittedly in a race farcically started as a procession).
    After his marginal defeat in a Doncaster handicap, Saint Calvados’s trainer Harry Whittington proposes to step Bigmartre back up in trip for the JLT. There, he is likely to encounter perhaps JP McManus’s sole representative in the race, Modus. Butter wouldn’t melt when he set a walking pace in victory at Kempton last month.
    I’m starting to feel sorry for Finian’s Oscar. His breathing issue, exposed when reverting to hurdles in the Cleeve, has been corrected and connections were then talking of drawing stumps for the season.
    Instead, he’ll be wearing first-time blinkers in the JLT – presumably on the basis that the less he can see of the fences, the less scared he’ll be. “His jumping has been suspect all season but that’s what we are likely to do,” commented trainer Colin Tizzard, comfortingly.
    West Approach, his persistently highly tried stable companion, may join him. He was last sighted when tailed-off last in the Scilly Isles. Would somebody cut this goddam horse some goddam slack?
    The Gary Moore-trained Benatar, who narrowly beat the “suspect” Finian’s Oscar over fences at Ascot last December (admittedly in a race not run to suit him) also reportedly lines up here rather than in the RSA. That might be due to missing intended engagements in the Scilly Isles and/or the Pendil.
    Turning to the RSA, this column’s selection Presenting Percy went down fighting against the more experienced Gold Cup hopeful Our Duke at Gowran last month.
    Some have suggested he should have been able to beat a horse that blundered through the fourth last and was conceding 7lb but I can’t have that. I rate Our Duke’s raw ability very highly and was once again impressed with Presenting Percy’s jumping. It’s been an unconventional preparation from trainer Patrick Kelly but a good one.
    Black Corton certainly won’t want for experience when he lines up in ths RSA on Wednesday week. His easy victory in Ascot’s Grade Two Reynoldstown Chase was his eighth of the season, his seventh for Bryony Frost, from 11 starts over fences.
    This was perhaps his most impressive performance yet from a visual perspective – setting out in front and pinging virtually every fence (adjusting left at some) under a well-judged ride – even if his Grade One Kauto Star success held more substance in my book. It was also the ideal sharpener for the Festival after a short break.
    I’m glad trainer Paul Nicholls is yet to opine that Black Corton has not got the credit he deserves or some such line because, as he acknowledges, that’s partly his own fault. He started out campaigning this horse as if to collect as many races as he could before the big guns started firing – a familiar method for Nicholls and a shrewd one.
    He even chalks up Black Corton’s Newbury defeat by Elegant Escape at his own door. “I didn’t have enough belief he was as good as he was at Newbury,” he admitted. “We didn’t make enough use of him then.”
    Since then, Nicholls has changed his approach: emboldening Frost’s positive tactics and training him like a good horse with a Grade One Festival target. “He just needed the run last time at Ascot but he was fantastic,” Nicholls has commented. “He is really strong at the backend of his races and the hill will suit him. Good ground would suit him as well.”


    Black Corton: Has racked up plenty of experience

    Behind him at Ascot, Ms Parfois and Mount Mews were outclassed and out-gunned. The former cracked after the second last after trying vaguely to mount a challenge; she doesn’t look good enough for the NH Chase even if the ground is soft. The latter didn’t jump well enough and wouldn’t be on my mind for any race at the Festival. Trainer Ruth Jefferson might say the same.
    Barney Dwan, beaten only by a thrown-in Presenting Percy in last year’s Pertemps, has registered his second success over fences, at Musselburgh in early February. His task was rendered facile by the independent departures of Keeper Hill and Peter The Mayo Man at the fourth last but jockey Brian Hughes believes he’d have won anyway – probably correctly but it was too far from home to be sure.
    Barney Dwan jumped marginally the best of that trio – intentionally faint praise. Keeper Hill’s fall was no surprise after a series of too-low jumps whereas Peter The Mayo Man had already committed one sizeable blunder prior to his oddly limp-looking actual fall. The former had hinted at this frailty before; the latter not so much.
    Winning trainer Fergal O’Brien says it will be up to owners Paul and Clare Rooney which of their horse’s three Festival engagements he takes up. They could do with a change of luck, given both Willoughby Court and one-time Supreme candidate If The Cap Fits miss Cheltenham due to setbacks.
    If I were Blaklion, I’d be regarding with hot indignation trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies’s recent comparison of Ballyoptic’s profile with that of my own prior to winning the 2016 RSA. Blaklion’s was both progressive and better, not to mention the fact he was (and is) a far more reliable jumper.
    But to be fair to Ballyoptic, his jumping frailties were almost completely absent when he won Wetherby’s Grade Two Towton Novices’ Chase – and there would have been a good excuse had he made a mistake when denied much landing space at the fourth last when his two remaining rivals converged across him. I still can’t believe he’s good enough for this Grade One target, however.
    Another recent winner said to be bound for the RSA was Allysson Monterg. Triumphant over an inadequate trip on heavy ground on his sole chase start to date, he was sixth in the 2016 Albert Bartlett but sidelined for most of last season.
    Lucinda Russell spoke of the RSA or a Uttoxeter novices’ chase later that same week as the next target after Big River won at Kelso last month; the lesser plan would appear more realistic.
    At Navan, the Gordon Elliott-trained pair Monbeg Notorious and Mossbank fought out an underwhelming edition of the Grade Two Ten Up Chase in which Moulin A Vent was well beaten and fluent jumping generally at a premium.
    The 1-2 are entered in the NH Chase and Irish Grand National; the latter is also in the RSA but Shattered Love and (I would argue) Dounikos look better Gigginstown candidates for that target.
    The Elliott-trained Jury Duty was withdrawn from the Ten Up due to being off his feed but the trainer has confirmed that Fagan – runner-up in the 2016 Albert Bartlett and off games since a ten-length second to Black Corton last October – is still being aimed at the NH Chase.
    Talking of the four-miler, Colin Tizzard is at least considering that notion for his Kauto Star Chase runner-up Elegant Escape. “At the moment we are definitely leaning towards the RSA. He is rated 154 and not many more are rated above him,” he said.
    Such comments equally applied to stable companion Native River prior to him finishing second in the 2016 NH Chase. “But if a top Irish jockey became available in the NH Chase, that might change it,” he dangled.
    At Gowran in mid-February, Up For Review made a welcome return to action after 665 days on the sidelines and looked set to make a winning chase debut for much of that beginners’ event.
    But perhaps he did a bit too much, dueling with Burgas from a long way out, because he was vulnerable to stablemate and fellow belated seasonal debutant Some Neck in the straight. Tired jumps at the final two flights and some wandering to his right were enough for the younger grey to sweep past.
    The runner-up is surely unlikely to take up either of his Festival entries now; he has a poor Cheltenham record to date anyway.
    At the start of last month, I mentioned JP McManus’s record in the NH Chase – leading owner with six past winners – and that No Comment is his sole entry this year. That horse made a more than satisfactory chase debut, chucked into the Grade One Scilly Isles, despite finishing a never-involved 30 lengths behind Terrefort and Cyrname.
    He jumped the tricky Railway fences well before perhaps a lack of fitness told approaching the Pond fence. After finishing seventh in the Martin Pipe last season, he was second in handicap hurdles at both the Aintree and Punchestown Festivals but is obviously short on chasing experience.
    Recent Newbury winner Indy Five is in the NH Chase but isn’t good enough. Returning from suffering a fracture, Ibis Du Rheu finished tailed off behind him and is unlikely to have encouraged Nicholls to press on with the same Cheltenham plan.
    Significant happenings with regard to the Close Brothers Novices’ Handicap include Rather Be’s professional wide-margin success at Fakenham (jumping a little out to the right) after which he retained a mark of 143 and so slips under the upper bar for this race
    Stablemate Divine Spear has been beaten in non-disastrous circumstances at Musselburgh and Jett, whom trainer Jessica Harrington believes will be better over further and on better ground, has won at Thurles. I’m still not convinced by the latter’s jumping on balance.
    De Plotting Shed, who seemed to find less than anticipated when runner-up to Arkle entry Montalbano over two miles at Gowran in Jaunary, has been backed for this race. The step up in trip will surely help a horse at his best over 2m4f to 3m over hurdles.
    Finally, it’s been entertaining to read about the horse I’ve been eyeing warily for the Kim Muir for some months now despite his professed NH Chase target, Mall Dini.
    He’s been declared and scratched twice in my absence, for Punchestown’s Grand National Trial and a beginners’ chase the following week. The first cause was being off his feed; the second for a stone bruise. You could regard these no-shows as a curious positive, mind, given the ground was so testing on both occasions and his form strongly suggests he likes it sound.
    Since then, the Kim Muir weights have been published and he’s got 11-10. But it has been snowing since and there’s plenty of rain due. Some you win.

    Alba Gu Brath!

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    Novice hurdlers


    Saint Samcro enraptured his vocal band of believers with an authoritative victory in a deep-looking edition of the Deloitte Novices’ Hurdle last month.
    It is possible to pick holes in the performance, however.
    He was well positioned to quicken off a steady pace, entering the straight on the shoulder of the leader. The juvenile Mr Adjudicator had clocked a better time over the same course and distance little more than 35 minutes earlier; Samcro was carrying more weight but not enough to swing the analytical balance in his favour.
    He also didn’t achieve much more than in wide-margin triumphs at Navan and (in particular) Punchestown, but I suppose he didn’t need to.
    Yet nonetheless this had all the hallmarks of a smart horse and it was reassuring to see him in action, looking so professional, given he’d not raced since last November. He’s now unbeaten in six starts under Rules, three of those over hurdles, and trades at a prohibitive best of 4/5 for the Ballymore.
    Inevitably with a horse this hyped, his odds overstate his case but he clearly has a very strong chance.
    He’s considered a three-mile chaser of the future but this latest success demonstrated he’s by no means short of pace. I wouldn’t even mind if he ran in the Supreme but Gigginstown’s Eddie O’Leary has said he runs in the Ballymore and “that’s final”.
    He won the Monksfield over 2m4f via class and pace rather than anything else, although he remained very strong at the finish. I’m looking forward to learning more about him.
    Deloitte runner-up Duc Des Genievres caught my eye for the second time in as many starts, as the only horse to make inroads from a disadvantageous position in Samcro’s race. But trainer Willie Mullins is talking about running him in the Albert Bartlett to “suit his connections”. That’s the absolute wrong race in my opinion.
    Were I Mullins, I’d rather take on Samcro again in the Ballymore – or at a push even contest a strongly run Supreme. In fact, anything – ANYTHING – except a three-mile slog (potentially now in very testing ground!) for which a thrice-raced horse is utterly ill equipped.
    Mullins won the Potato Race for the first time last year and had a pretty poor record beforehand perhaps because, as Tony Keenan [@RacingTrends) has argued, he hadn’t seemed to grasp the type of horse required. If he’s considering Duc Des Genievres now, it suggests Penhill was the right answer for the wrong reasons in 2017. Good thing he didn’t show his working.
    Keenan would argue – and I think he’s right – that Penhill was exactly the right type for the race because he had raced seven times over hurdles prior to Cheltenham and a whopping 18 times on the Flat. This was a seasoned campaigner – like fellow past winners Unknowhatimeanharry (17 previous starts), Berties Dream (15), Nenuphar Collonges (11), Martello Tower (8 plus a Point), At Fishers Cross (8) and Very Wood (5 plus 2 Points).
    True, Bobs Worth and Weapon’s Amnesty were smart enough to win it after only five and six previous starts respectively but that pair went on to win two RSA Chases and a Gold Cup between them. Ill-fated Brindisi Breeze won after just four races but we never got to find out what he might have been.
    I trust you take Tony’s point: loads of racing experience is usually vital to winning this race unless you happen to be an absolutely top-class chaser of the future – and even they had raced more than three times beforehand. So let’s hope Mullins changes his mind about Duc Des Genievres. Does he have any form in that regard, d’ya know?
    In fact in all seriousness, I’m tempted from an each-way perspective to back him at Bet365’s 12/1 BOG NRNB (or Ladbrokes’s 14/1 NRNB) for the Ballymore. Provided it’s BOG, you have nothing to lose and it’s only tying up your money for a maximum ten days if he doesn’t run. Let’s do it. He’s an excellent supplement to this column’s 10/1 about On The Blind Side.
    Incidentally, Nicky Henderson has issued another reassuring report about that horse, who had suffered a minor setback. “We just had a fortnight where we got held up with On The Blind Side,” he said. “He was getting sore shins… He hasn’t got them now and is working very well.”
    Returning to the Deloitte, third-placed Paloma Blue saw lots of daylight and refused to settle early on, pulling himself to the front. That meant he was in a good position turning for home but had used up plenty of energy. He’s improving, though.
    In fourth, the Mullins-trained Whiskey Sour maintained his putative standing with Sharjahand Real Steel – established when winning an eventful edition of the Grade One Future Champions Novices’ Hurdle over Christmas when he jumped safely past his two prone stablemates at the last. They both kept their feet yet finished behind him here.
    However, he again got detached and was badly outpaced here before staying on with some application. This small-scale hurdler would thrive in something like the County.
    Mullins is prepared to forgive Sharjah, who to my eye would have won at Christmas had he stood up. “I think the ground was the problem,” he said of his Deloitte seventh. “When the ground gets soft at home he can barely put one leg in front of the other and when it dries out he really improves, so I’d hope he could bounce back on better ground.”
    Of course, it might not be hugely drier ground at the Festival but the plan is to run alongside stable companion and fellow Rich Ricci representative, Getabird, in the Sky Bet Supreme.
    “He is improving all the time but is not a flashy horse at home,” Mullins said recently of the latter. “Even the other day, I wasn’t impressed with his work but Sonny Carey, who rides him, felt he was in great order and he knows him very well. All of his runs have been right-handed but that wasn’t deliberate and we haven’t seen any reason to doubt his ability to perform going left-handed.”
    There isn’t anything in my notes that concern me about Getabird going left-handed for the first time but it is worth noting that it’s an unknown about a 13/8 favourite.
    Mullins has also stated that Next Destination probably runs in the Ballymore. He won a steadily run Naas Grade One in January and his trainer anticipates a stronger pace bringing about an improved performance.


    Kalashnikov: Will he be quick enough for the Sky Bet Supreme?

    The weekend after the Deloitte, the novice Kalashnikov was ultimately an authoritative winner of the Betfair Hurdle. Clearly a smart young horse, he jumped notably well under pressure and drew clear of more seasoned (or exposed) rivals by four-and-a-half lengths.
    A revised mark of 154 says he should at least hit the frame in most Supremes. Newbury’s competitive handicap is a useful stepping-stone for novices, exposing them to a hardening racing experience. Two such winners have finished second in this Cheltenham event since 2010.
    However, Kalashnikov needed to be urged along as early as the second hurdle so the worry is whether he has the basic speed you need to stay in touch on Cheltenham’s Old Course. Were he to manage that, then the power he can unleash in the closing stages of the race would be significant.
    Fellow novices Waterlord and Lalor were respectively pulled up (breaking a blood vessel) and well beaten; the latter possibly sat a shade close to a strong pace for the conditions (though others did the same and fared much better). Both were withdrawn from the Supreme; Lalor remains in the Ballymore.
    It may be worth recalling that after Kalashnikov finished second in Sandown’s Tolworth Hurdle having also been on and off the bridle from an early stage, trainer Amy Murphy nominated the Ballymore as his Festival target on the basis he would require a step up in trip. He’s still also entered there but his trainer might feel Samcro looms too large.
    The form of that Sandown Grade One won by Summerville Boy is playing out well: beaten favourite Western Ryder has since more than bounced back with an excellent second to Vinndication in the Sidney Banks at Huntingdon and even tailed-off The Russian Doyen has won a second novices’ event, at Taunton – albeit he was well positioned against a pushover field in the circumstances.
    The concern for Summerville Boy in the Supreme might be the immaturity rider Noel Fehily cited in interviews after his latest victory; however, the horse does seem to be learning fast, having settled better there than previously. A strongly run race will suit. He shouldn’t be twice the price of Kalashnikov.
    Stable companion Black Op, also owned by Roger Brookhouse, has an overlapping entry in the Ballymore. Trainer Tom George has firmly indicated they won’t take each other on; how testing the ground is at Cheltenham will decide where Summerville Boy is targeted. On what we know currently, that suggests the Supreme for him and therefore hopefully the Ballymore for the relatively lightly raced Black Op.
    The Supreme credentials of Claimantakinforgan took a knock when a somewhat listless third in the Scottish Supreme Trial. The professional winner Beyond The Clouds isn’t entered at Cheltenham but runner-up Simply The Betts runs in the Supreme, reportedly at his owner’s behest. He needs to brush up his jumping, fast.
    Nicky Henderson was underwhelmed with a number of his runners at Musselburgh that weekend, blaming the “horrible” ground. It’s possible they collectively ran somewhat flat for whatever reason.
    It hasn’t put him off running Claimantakinforgan in the Supreme, where he will be the trainer’s sole representative. “I wasn’t worried and neither was Nico [de Boinville, his jockey],” he said, of Musselburgh. “He got beaten but it was part of his prep and it didn’t come off on the day.”
    Like Mullins, Henderson has a strong record in this race so his runners always merit consideration. The likeable Dr Des has also franked Claimantakinforgan’s earlier Ascot form by winning at Towcester… albeit he was then well beaten when highly tried in the National Spirit at Fontwell.
    Yet only three of the last 21 Supreme winners were beaten on their preceding start.
    Henderson ran 2016 Derby fifth Humphrey Bogart in the Dovecote on his hurdling debut at Kempton late last month but he never got involved, held up in last and making one sizeable blunder amid a round of jumping that lacked fluency in general.
    Meanwhile, at the other end of the race, Global Citizen set a strong pace from the outset, stringing the field out, and kept up the gallop to win unchallenged. A revised rating of 149 has deterred trainer Ben Pauling from running him in the County but ultimately on experience and career-development grounds rather than any disbelief in the equity of a 19lb rise.
    “I thought anything under 145 was going to be very fair and he’d have been exceptionally dangerous off that,” Pauling said, amid comments that sounded dangerously sensible on the subject on handicappers and handicapping.
    He’s pinpointed the two-mile Grade One Crabbie’s Top Novices’ Hurdle at Aintree as his horse’s next target, although Global Citizen’s new standing suggests he would be a player if supplemented for the Supreme. That said, he’s unproven on an undulating track.
    Behind him at Kempton, bonny Flat recruit Scarlet Dragon made a taking hurdles debut, held up (not settling) well off the pace set by the emphatic winner but coming through nicely from the home turn. It’s plausible that he might just have lacked a shade of match fitness on his first start for 154 days and since having wind surgery.
    Trainer Alan King is still inclined to run him in the Supreme, depending on how well he has worked and schooled in the interim. This horse was a hardy and likeable little warrior for Eve Johnson Houghton on the Flat, rated 108 ultimately and with stamina for up to at least 12 furlongs.
    Fellow highly rated Supreme-entered Flat horses have fared less well on their recent hurdling bows. Carntop went the wrong way on the Flat and made no impact behind Global Citizen. Battalion had been headed when taking a heavy fall at the last at Southwell and trainer Jamie Osborne has not committed to running him again over obstacles.
    In other Supreme news, If The Cap Fits sadly misses the race due to a muscle tear and recent Listed Punchestown winner Hardline – who did well to reel in a well-ridden front-runner to whom he was conceding weight – heads to Fairyhouse’s Easter meeting rather than making the trip to Cheltenham, according to trainer Gordon Elliott.
    Colin Tizzard has a fistful of novice hurdlers to sort into the right Festival races. He believes dropping back to two miles for the Supreme will suit nascent chaser Slate House, last seen when well beaten behind Santini in a Cheltenham Grade Two. I thought he didn’t enjoy the heavy ground that day; his trainer believes “he didn’t quite stay”.
    He hasn’t yet decided whether to run Ainchea – whom he believes “was going to win five lengths” had he not fallen when in the lead at the final flight at Sandown last month – in the Supreme or the Ballymore.
    That horse looked highly unsuited to making his own running in that steadily conducted affair, babyishly wandering about on the approach to his hurdles rather than concentrating, and his departure was in no way out of the blue. I’m not so sure he’d have won five lengths, either. He’d also shown a careless technique when beaten by Tikkanbar at Cheltenham so he’s not for me, wherever he shows up.


    Colin Tizzard: Went a well-trodden route with Vision Des Flos

    That decision is likely to be partly dictated by what Tizzard does with recent Exeter winner Vision Des Flos, who’s in the same Potts family ownership as Ainchea. Now that Robbie Power has resumed his position as the owners’ sole retained jockey, replacing Bryan Cooper on this side of the Irish Sea, you’d think it likely that the two horses would be kept apart at the Festival.
    Tizzard was full of praise for Vision Des Flos’s latest impressive 31-length Listed success. Wind surgery and a first-time tongue-tie clearly helped on his first start for 57 days and since getting beaten by Paisley Park at Hereford.
    “There are not many horses that win a Listed race by 31 lengths,” Tizzard said of his pricey inmate. “He jumped the last and was tanking all the way to the line.”
    Tizzard has won that same Exeter contest with Native River and Finian’s Oscar in the past; trainers are often creatures of habit with their good horses and so this can be translated as a clear signal about Vision Des Flos. The Ballymore is shaping up to be an awfully hot race – obviously.
    Similarly, Lostintranslation could go for the Supreme or the Ballymore after running “a bit flat” according to Tizzard when thumped behind First Flow at Haydock in January. He also has The Russian Doyen in the Supreme, although that horse appeared not to be mentioned in dispatches during his recent pre-Festival stable tour.
    Tizzard must choose between the Ballymore and Albert Bartlett for White Moon, whom he also reported “had a little bit of a setback and was sore behind” after his disappointingly tame display when tailed off behind On The Blind Side at Sandown in December.
    “He was back in full work three weeks ago. He had a month off but he is absolutely fine,” the trainer added. “I see him as more of a three-miler and he will probably end up there [in the Albert Bartlett].”
    Joining him is likely to be Kilbricken Storm, whom Tizzard thinks was not “quite right” when a distant third to Poetic Rhythm in the Grade One Challow at Newbury last time.
    “He had already had two or three hard races. He didn’t travel like he did in those other races and he had a little bit of a dirty nose afterwards, so we backed off him for a bit. He has been fine for the past three weeks,” Tizzard said.
    Neither horse is flush with the hardened race experience we know is the overwhelmingly key asset for the Potato Race; however, Kilbricken Storm at least is bred for the job and his trainer’s account of what happened last time chimes with my interpretation of the Challow.
    Returning to the Sidney Banks, mentioned in passing above: what a super horse Vinndication is. He’s so straightforward, willing and relentless – no wonder he’s unbeaten after four starts, three of them over hurdles and including when he somehow pulled victory out of the fire against Champ at Ascot.
    This time, he accounted pretty readily for a more proven opponent in Western Ryder, moving to the front after halfway and then clear on the home turn where he had the runner-up under pressure. There was a flash of potential vulnerability after the last, with Western Ryder sticking admirably to his task, but it was only fleeting. Vinndication just kept on galloping.
    As mentioned above, this was a welcome return to form for the runner-up and given Huntingdon’s ground was pretty heavy this day, it suggests that might not have been the problem when well beaten behind Summerville Boy and Kalashnikov at Sandown on his previous start.
    In the winner’s enclosure that day, trainer Kim Bailey – in typically phlegmatic form – described Vinndication (entered in the Ballymore and Albert Bartlett) as “still a complete baby”. “He was more switched on today than last time but even when he hit the front he didn’t know what to do,” he added.
    “Logically I’d prefer to go to Aintree rather than Cheltenham but… I know where the owners would like to go! Temptations are there to be put in front of you and to be refused occasionally. I’ve got to look after him – he’s come a long way in a very short space of time…
    “We’ve said for a long time he’s our best novice and he justified that today. He’s as hard as nails and from day one has wanted to be good.”
    Bailey has a strong hand of novice hurdlers this year, also including Grade Two Haydock winner First Flow and recent Musselburgh winner Red River, whom he deems his Albert Bartlett candidate. “I wouldn’t think we’d go three miles [with Vinndication]. I’ll let Red River do that one,” he said. The doubt for me is whether his Huntingdon winner will be quick enough for the Ballymore.
    Red River was returning from surgery to correct a breathing issue that his trainer said stopped him “to a walk” behind On The Blind Side at Sandown last December. Here, he overturned favourite Mr Whipped in the Albert Bartlett Scottish Trial and seemed to improve for a step up to three miles.
    Henderson, who trains the runner-up, was (as mentioned above) unflustered by a number of reversals at Musselburgh that weekend and is happy to proceed to Cheltenham for a rematch.
    Mr Whipped certainly proved he stays three miles here but his Grade Two Warwick defeat of Paisley Park was let down when that horse was beaten at Doncaster last month. Neither Mr Whipped nor Red River has a wealth of racing experience.








    Cheltenham Festival - Ben Pauling on Gowiththeflow

    Paisley Park was beaten by fellow Albert Bartlett entry Gowiththeflow, a consistent horse who had previously finished behind Mr Whipped at Newbury. The winner was receiving 7lbs from the runner-up at Doncaster and perhaps neutralised that horse’s thorough stamina via well-judged ride from the front. Paisley Park also wandered markedly at the last.
    The winner is also entered in the Ballymore and connections appear to be leaning that way. He’d need to find plenty of improvement for that task but perhaps lacks the seasoning for the longer event.
    In other news from Henderson’s yard, both Whatswrongwithyou and lightly raced eight-year-old OK Corral – first and second in a Newbury novice in January – won last month at Kempton and back at Newbury respectively. They hold handicap entries at the Festival but the former is also in Sandown’s Imperial Cup this Saturday and the latter holds a Ballymore spot.
    Chef Des Obeaux continues to impress as a stayer, winning the Prestige in sapping conditions at Haydock last time out – a race won by Brindisi Breeze prior to his Albert Bartlett success and also by The World’s End, who’d just made an assertive move forwards when falling two out in that same Festival event.
    Here, the more experienced Golan Fortune was trying to muster a challenge at the second last when making a chance-ending hash of it. After that, the only mild scare came when Chef Des Obeaux adjusted quite a bit right and hit the final flight but he then stayed on strongly for a resounding success. Apart from that, his jumping was excellent.
    The recent and forecast weather has surely greatly enhanced his prospects of success at Cheltenham, given his rugged stamina and the fact he is yet to race on anything better than soft ground. Four hurdles and three bumpers is a satisfactory amount of experience, too.
    “He loved Haydock,” affirmed Henderson. “If it was soft he would probably be a better horse than Santini.”
    I vastly prefer Chef Des Obeaux’s profile for the Albert Bartlett compared with that of thrice-raced Santini, whom Henderson did not initially commit to running at Cheltenham. That instinct seems to have evolved now, even though he thinks the ante-post favourite is “a better horse on good ground”.
    Completing Henderson’s leading cohort of novices are the mares Countister and Dame De Compagnie, both owned by JP McManus and bound for the Trull House Stud Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle.
    Countister probably would have finished second had Ainchea stood up at Sandown but her trainer has plausibly argued that the crawl-sprint nature of that contest did not portray her in her best light. I suspect she’s also likely to be a better horse on a sounder surface and her vast bumper experience in France will stand her in good stead for the hustle of Cheltenham.
    Dame De Compagnie didn’t find as much as initially threatened when finishing a nose second at Ascot last month but was steadily bearing down on the winner Point Of Principle as they reached the line. She had sweated up before the race and was keen during it. Returning to two miles might well help, as her trainer believes.
    Talking of McManus, it appears that his Tower Bridge will be supplemented for the Albert Bartlett after winning a Leopardstown Grade One over 2m6f at the start of February. He currently only holds a Ballymore engagement.
    He needs to brush up his jumping – it tends to retard his progress through a race rather than aid it – and he strikes me as lazy. I also think the way this latest race was run meant stamina was less of a key feature than it appeared. I suspect Tower Bridge is neither quick nor good enough for the Ballymore nor stamina-laiden enough for the Albert Bartlett.
    The race he won was conducted in two parts. The first involved Fabulous Saga surely going too hard by establishing a long lead over the rest of the field; he was a spent force when headed without a fight in the straight. He’s a stout stayer, burst by going too hard here. His jumping was scrappy, too.
    The second and more relevant section of the race involved everyone else and they never really chased the leader much, relying on him coming back to them – which he did from the third last.
    Poor-jumping Dicey O’Reilly – well named? – and then the fading front-runner both got in the way of Moyross and I’d say this horse wouldn’t be a forlorn hope at a big price in the Pertemps were he to make the cut, even though he’s been beaten since.
    Dortmund Park was travelling well rounding the home turn but got outpaced as the race developed more briskly; he jumped the last well under pressure and stayed out stoutly. The race didn’t appear to be run to suit and he may do better.
    Carter McKay got shuffled back on the home turn but rallied well, jumping the last in fine style to get into the scrap for victory. He had nothing left near the line, however, but may improve again at similar staying trips in future.
    As suggested previously, Jetz benefitted from a step up in trip and was probably a tad unfortunate not to win given how things panned out on the day. He never really settled in this steady-going main group and could be spotted climbing on the heels of the horse in front; he found himself in a cul-de-sac on the home turn and then Power had to wait for a run in the straight.
    They’d weaved to the front when slightly reaching for the last and then stayed on strongly for the line, pulling out more as the hard-ridden Tower Bridge challenged but relatively out-speeded on the run to the line.
    Jetz has got a good race in him at three miles – but not at Cheltenham, where he’s not entered.
    Following the unfortunate news that Cracking Smart misses Cheltenham due to a setback (leaving Santini as the new ante-post favourite for the Albert Bartlett), the task of leading Gigginstown fancy falls to either Dortmund Park or recent Thurles winner Blow By Blow.
    The latter had just got the better of fellow maroon solder and stablemate at Elliott’s yard, Raging Bull, in the Grade Three 2m4f event when that horse took a tired tumble at the last hurdle. The winner shapes like a stayer and has plenty of experience for a race like the Festival’s three-mile novice but does hold a fistful of alternative entries.
    Chris’s Dream could be Bartlett-bound following his 64-length demolition of a Clonmel Grade Three Hurdle on his first start for Henry de Bromhead and returning from 81 days off the track. Weather conditions are currently favouring this thorough stayer.


    Nigel Twiston-Davies: His Callet Mad has plenty of experience

    Nigel Twiston-Davies has an ideal type for the Potato Race in Callet Mad but the horse also holds a Pertemps option via winning a Musselburgh qualifier last month. He’s had 15 starts over jumps, including seven over fences.
    Switching to patient tactics appeared to suit last time and his trainer has indicated they will be employed again, probably in the novices’ event. I notice he’s been nibbled at recently in this market and I can very much see where those punters are coming from. A good chance.
    Switching back finally to the Dawn Run, Alletrix has complimented the form of – grrr – Laurina by dotting up in a Leopardstown handicap (when admittedly well in). Raised 10lb, she has since run not quite so well at Punchestown but was thumped 11 lengths by Laurina. Grrr.
    Mullins has issued a positive report of the ante-post favourite, describing Laurina as “top class” and looking “really good”. He sees her as a future chaser and says his team is “really looking forward” to running her at Cheltenham.
    In contrast, second favourite Mara’s Benefit suffered an injury scare at the start of February. “She has had a little bit of heat in a knee since she ran at Doncaster where she kicked a hurdle out of the ground,” trainer Stuart Edmunds reported.
    The five-time winner had not missed any work but was due to step up her preparations when Edmunds decided to send her for a precautionary X-ray and scan because the problem was persisting. I haven’t seen an update since.
    The form of that Doncaster success – a narrow tussle with Irish Roe – was not upheld when that horse was pulled up in the Betfair Hurdle, although that was a relatively quick reappearance again on testing ground.
    Finally, it’s worth noting Dame Rose missed her Morebattle engagement due to unsuitable ground.
    Juvenile hurdlers


    Redicean has now taken all three of his starts over hurdles at Kempton but his Adonis victory last Saturday was the first time he looked like a potential Triumph Hurdle winner. Prior to that Grade Two success, he was clearly in possession of a good engine but his jumping was little better than shocking. Yet here he was highly proficient.
    “We gave him lots of schooling after his second run and he must have jumped about 200 hurdles,” trainer Alan King revealed in his recent pre-Festival stable tour. The practice worked.


    Redicean: Jumped loads better after plenty of practice

    The race developed in two parts from the outset when Bid Adieu pulled his way past Harrmonise at the first obstacle and they goaded each other on, running much too fast and pulling well clear of their pursuers.
    Their exertions were ignored by all except those filming the race, so it’s hard to say exactly when the field began to reel them in unless you were there with your bins. But they were closely within sights approaching the fifth hurdle, the winner travelling strongly and then readily slipping up the inside entering the straight.
    The filly Malaya put up a fight, going with Redicean until after the second last where jockey Wayne Hutchison administered a single slap of the whip and his mount instantly settled matters in impressive style. Malaya never gave up, pulling at least ten lengths clear of the third and fourth, but she was still a full seven lengths adrift of the winner at the line.
    King achieved the Adonis-Triumph double with Penzance back in 2005 and despite its proximity to the Festival, this Kempton event is fertile territory for such ambitions.
    Zarkandar, Soldatino, Snow Drop, Katarino, Mysilv and Pollardstown also won both races and subsequent Festival winners such as Binocular, Punjabi and Well Chief also feature on the Kempton roll of honour.
    Recent winners have made less impact but Redicean could be different. The professionalism he displayed here was striking – TCR (total control racing). The ground was the soundest he’s yet encountered over hurdles so that might have played a part in his marked improvement. Conditions could be gluey at Cheltenham, however.
    “I haven’t deliberately kept going to Kempton with him; it was just that’s the way it suited,” King added. “And I’m not worried about the hill at Cheltenham. Penzance had never seen a hill and that didn’t stop him winning a Triumph.��
    Redicean stayed 14 furlongs on the Flat, so he wouldn’t strike you as a speed horse particularly suited to the demands of Kempton. He only joined this yard last October, was gelded, given time to recover and then rushed into his first start over jumps at Christmas.
    It’s therefore not surprising to see his progress gaining a head of steam relatively late. He wasn’t on my mind for this race when I last wrote about the juvenile cohort; he is now.
    Runner-up Malaya comes into play for the Fred Winter from a mark of 136. It looks likely that a soundish surface is important as her only disappointing run for Paul Nicholls came on heavy ground at Aintree. There was much to like about how determinedly she stuck to her task.
    Two other horses greatly enhanced their Triumph credentials during this period by fighting out the Grade One Spring Juvenile Hurdle at Leopardstown. On that day, Mr Adjudicatordenied Farclas by one-and-a-quarter lengths but you wouldn’t want to be dogmatic about which of the pair holds the better Cheltenham prospects.
    The winner made his challenge more smoothly than Farclas, who on the home turn had to be rousted to pass Espoir D’Allen – then second favourite for the Triumph and hitherto unbeaten – and then ridden along to further assert his lead in the straight.
    Mr Adjudicator got on terms at the final flight but it was touch and go for a sustained period about whether he’d be able to get past; as the line loomed, however, he was pulling steadily away. The winning time would compare favourably with that of the older Samcro over the same course and distance.


    Mr Adjudicator (left) and Farclas jump the last together at Leopardstown

    There’s been a blip since, trainer Willie Mullins mentioning during his pre-Festival stable tour that Mr Adjudicator “had a little bit of a cold last week” and “missed a couple of bits of work”.
    “But he’s as fit as a flea so that wouldn’t worry me. He’s fine now and looks to be over it,” he said, also highlighting the juvenile’s considerable Flat-racing experience as a positive factor for the Triumph.
    Runner-up Farclas remains a maiden over hurdles after two starts but took a massive leap forwards here and resoundingly reversed his Christmas debut form with Espoir D’Allen. He could easily do better again and strikes me as particularly well suited to the task presented by the Triumph, perhaps better than the speedily bred Mr Adjudicator.
    Espoir D’Allen was too keen in the early stages but faded more markedly than that would explain to finish quite a distant fourth. Trainer Gavin Cromwell has since scratched him from the Triumph and the horse currently holds no entries.
    On the same day at Musselburgh, We Have A Dream faced a much easier task in the Scottish Triumph Hurdle – as a starting price of 1/5 would indicate. He wasn’t really hassled on the lead but a lack of fluency at the third last helped the scopier Act Of Valour to get on terms at the next obstacle. That horse then slightly pitched on landing, enabling the winner to get away again.
    The runner-up then wandered left, appearing to have come to the end of his tether on his comeback from a 50-day break; he’d previously finished tailed off behind this winner at Doncaster but his blood was found to be wrong that day and this effort was more in keeping with his promising Newcastle debut defeat of the decent Look My Way.
    Act Of Valour shaped as though capable of even better here and is of definite interest for the Fred Winter from a mark of 136. Trainer Paul Nicholls also does well in this race and you can still get 12/1 in some places. I think we should take that.
    We Have A Dream’s trainer Nicky Henderson has since provided excuses for his horse where none are probably necessary.
    “It was very much a last-minute decision to let him run at Musselburgh. We were going to wait for the Victor Ludorum at Haydock but thought that could be bottomless and you have less time [to recover for the Triumph]. I thought let’s go to Musselburgh and get the good ground and we went there and it was bottomless,” he said.
    “I hadn’t prepared him at all and he blew up and that���s why it looked a bit messy two out and then he picked up and really did it well. That was my fault if he wasn’t impressive and he’s a lot better than that.”
    For the record, the times suggest Musselburgh’s ground was soft at worst (unlike Haydock which DID prove to be bottomless) and We Have A Dream clocked the fastest time of the day. Henderson may have been trying to account for the proximity of a horse previously beaten out of sight. I think the answer is: both are quite decent horses but the winner is currently a bit better.
    As well as his ability, We Have A Dream’s straightforwardness is a key asset – he can be positioned anywhere you like and although his trainer would prefer a sound surface, his Grade One Finale success in heavy ground suggests this is not an overwhelmingly relevant factor to his chances.
    Incidentally, third-placed The King Of May shaped with encouragement for a stiffer test of stamina. That was his debut for Brian Ellison after being bought from France and he kept on nicely, if rather flattered by his proximity to a tiring Act Of Valour. He’s worth bearing in mind but not for the Festival.
    Henderson is also hankering after good ground for the long-time Triumph favourite Apple’s Shakira but that’s harder to understand, given she seemed to hit a flat spot in testing conditions before coming home strongly to beat Look My Way at Cheltenham in January. I’d say the current weather is a good thing for her.
    “She doesn’t do a tap at home,” added Henderson. “I did enquire as to what [her sister] Apple’s Jade was like and when they said she didn’t do a tap either, that is all I wanted to hear.”
    The withdrawal of Espoir D’Allen from the Triumph surely removes any lingering ambiguity – of which there has been very little, to be fair – about her likely target because owner JP McManus has other candidates for the other races but now only the filly for this.
    At the moment, Henderson’s remaining Triumph entry Style De Garde appears bound for the Fred Winter after galloping at Kempton earlier this week but Mullins could field three of his remaining five entries.
    The filly Stormy Ireland and the once-tried Saldier are set to make the cut alongside Mr Adjudicator. The former missed her intended clash with her stable companion in the Spring Juvenile Hurdle due to “a little dirty nose” and her trainer “didn’t want to risk her if she wasn’t 100% as with her running style there is no thing as her having an easy race”.
    Mullins continues to heap appreciation on her sole performance to date for him, an “awesome” 58-length from-the-front romp at Fairyhouse in an excellent time. It’s encouraging to hear her issues were only minor and she does at least have prior hurdling experience in France.
    Saldier does not. He only made his debut over hurdles for the yard mid-way through last month, sauntering home in a Gowran maiden in which his main on-paper rival Les Arceaux – since withdrawn from the Triumph but still in the Fred Winter – was beaten before the straight and only one other rival cared to put up a fight.
    The time was no great shakes and his jumping lacked fluency on occasions but he never looked likely to fall and the fact Mullins is prepared to roll the dice with him in the Triumph presumably speaks of his regard at Closutton.
    Saldier has got a decent Flat pedigree and stayed 10f himself in France; Flat experience spanning eight races will at least help in terms of race craft. Zarkandar started hurdling that late in the season and yet still managed to win the Triumph – and he was only thrice raced on the Flat.
    Which of these three juveniles Walsh favours with his services will be a fascinating tell, prompting an immediate trimming of the chosen one’s price. Mr Adjudicator and Stormy Ireland are largely 7/1 whereas Saldier is three points longer.
    In other juvenile news, Finale runner-up Sussex Ranger ran right up to his best Flat form when switched to a steadily run 12f handicap on Kempton’s polytrack. This thorough stayer is clearly better suited to the jumping game but this kept him ticking over.
    Haydock’s Victor Ludorum turned out to be a thriller, with Turning Gold somehow getting his nose past Cornerstone Lad on the line with Lisp two-and-a-half lengths adrift in third. The winner looks a promising lolloper whom trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies believes needs soft ground.
    He holds a Fred Winter entry “in case it’s soft” but had a hard race in draining ground here. The runner-up, who was conceding 8lb to the winner, isn’t entered at the Festival but Lisp definitely heads for the Fred Winter, with trainer King hoping for better ground.
    In a Grade Three at Fairyhouse two Saturdays ago, Mitchouka made it four victories from seven starts even though he still does relatively little, compared with how well he travels, once hitting the front. Trainer Gordon Elliott sends him over for the Fred Winter but concedes that “he’ll get to the last on the bridle but I don’t know if he’ll get up the hill”.
    The good-looking but flattered Chatteris Fen winner Esprit De Somoza finished second to the year-older The Russian Doyen in a Taunton novice last week. The runner-up was keen early on, allowed the winner to get away from him in the straight and was not ultimately given a hard time.
    He could be set for the Fred Winter – won by his trainer Nick Williams last year with Flying Tiger – from a mark of 135. He’d require a strong pace but would relish the stiff finish.
    Nine days earlier on heavy ground at Exeter, stable companion Mercenaire had been brushed aside by another Colin Tizzard-trained year-older rival in the smart Vision Des Flos. The runner-up finished tired.
    Selections:


    Advised 30/11/17: Min 8/1 Champion Chase with Paddy Power/Betfair
    Advised 06/12/17: Supasundae 20/1 Stayers’ Hurdle with Bet365 and Paddy Power/Betfair
    Advised 06/12/17: Mengli Khan 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 or Betfair Sportsbook
    Advised 09/01/18: Minella Rocco 20/1 each-way for the Gold Cup with various firms
    Advised 02/03/18: Faugheen each-way at 5/1 NRNB BOG 1/4 odds a place with Bet 365 for the Champion Hurdle (or 13/2 e/w NRNB 1/5 odds a place with Betfair Sportsbook)
    Back now: Act Of Valour at 12/1 NRNB for the Fred Winter with Coral
    Back now: Diego Du Charmil at 25/1 for the Grand Annual with Bet365 or Betfair Sportsbook
    Back now: Duc De Genievres each-way at 14/1 for the Ballymore NRNB 1/5 odds with Ladbrokes or at 12/1 BOG NRNB 1/4 odds with Bet365
    Alba Gu Brath!

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    Ben Pauling looks like he is gonna cut your faackin' fingers off, unless you tell him him where you've hidden the faackin' stones........
    "Beat the price and lose. It's what we do".

    SlimChance, March 2018

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    Another update from LH today - the last before the Festival.

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