Hello and welcome to my Ante-post Diary which will be updated each Tuesday from now until the start of the Cheltenham Festival in March. I will run through the general format from week to week. In each update I plan to go through the four Championship races (Champion Hurdle, Champion Chase, World Hurdle & Cheltenham Gold Cup) initially before discussing the novice divisions over hurdles and fences. Obviously as we get closer to the Festival the handicaps will also be discussed in depth as well as some of the other shoulder races and bets will be recommended where necessary
A glance at the early markets for next year?s Champion Hurdle suggests that there isn?t much depth to this division this season. Having said that, the main reason that there are only four runners priced at shorter than 20/1 is that the 2015 winner Faugheen made a successful return to action at Punchestown a couple of weeks ago.
Willie Mullins? nine-year-old had not been seen on a racecourse since winning the Irish Champion Hurdle in January 2016 but seemed to be back in full working order, beating the reliable Jezki by sixteen lengths. I have to say I was very impressed and all indications were that he retained plenty of ability but having been off the track for nearly two years, we just have to hope that he can stay sound between now and March. To be honest, when he was winning two years ago I thought he was just about unbeatable over 2m and arguably one of the best Champion Hurdlers we had seen. I am not surprised to see him head the market now and although I suspect he will be a good deal shorter on the day (if he gets there), I don?t think there is much to be gained from taking a best-priced 15/8 now.
According to the market, his main challenger at this stage looks to be the defending champion Buveur D?Air who is on course to make his seasonal reappearance in the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle on Saturday. Nicky Henderson?s six-year-old improved throughout last term and although he was an impressive winner at both Cheltenham and Aintree, I can?t help but think he would have a bit to find, if he was taking on a full-strength Faugheen.
Prior to last weekend, there were plenty of people looking to Defi Du Seuil to make an impression on this division, having proved much the best of the juveniles last term. However, Philip Hobbs? charge could only finish fourth in the Coral Hurdle at Ascot and most firms have reacted by pushing him out from as short as 6/1 to as big as 20/1. Personally, I thought he just didn?t see out the extra half mile as he travelled as well as anything and having jumped the third last, Barry Geraghty seemed quite content to take a pull on him. However, the petrol seemed to run out soon after and was outstayed by Lil Rockerfeller and L?Ami Serge, who both have the Stayers? Hurdle as their primary target for March. Of course it is disappointing that he finished behind Wakea but I think it is still early days with him and I would hope to see him dropped back to 2m next time. His trainer reported afterwards that he was seemingly fine and as long as that remains the case, I think he can bounce back next time and still mount a serious challenge come March.
The fact that the only other horse generally available at less than 20/1 is Melon gives you an idea of how few contenders there seemingly are for this race at the moment. Last season?s Supreme Novices? Hurdle runner-up didn?t manage to win last term after making a winning debut but there was plenty to like about his win at Down Royal at the beginning of this month. His jump at the final flight left plenty to be desired and although he has only had four runs over hurdles and is open to further improvement, I think he has plenty to do to get up to this level.
The major news in this division so far is that Altior looks more than likely to head straight to the Festival having had a operation on his wind a couple of weeks ago. Nicky Henderson?s charge was being prepped for a tilt at the Tingle Creek but made a noise during routine work and connections have decided to operate on his wind to help him. This is reportedly the same procedure that Sprinter Sacre had at the end of his novice hurdling campaign and I have every faith that he will return in A1 condition come the Spring.
However, I have to say that I think the market is a little skewed at present as I feel Douvan should be at least the same price as Altior. Prior to running below-par in last year?s race, Douvan was widely regarded as an exceptional chaser and having suffered a stress fracture to his pelvis during that race, I am happy to put a line through it. It has also been interesting to read comments from Rich Ricci and Willie Mullins that they were never really happy with him last year, that despite him winning all three of his starts prior to Cheltenham. Following the news of Altior?s issues I thought Douvan would supersede his rival at the head of the market but the pair have remained much the same. The only reason I can see for not siding with Douvan here is that he has the option of going up in trip but in truth I don?t see him as a Gold Cup horse and frankly the Ryanair Chase doesn?t have the same prestige as the Champion 2m race. The indications are that Douvan will make his return to action in the next couple of weeks in the Hilly Way Chase at Cork or the Tingle Creek at Sandown and I think if he wins there, he will be much shorter than the 3/1 currently on offer. There is no doubt that Altior was a very good novice but it seems people have quickly forgotten just how good Douvan is and considering that he is likely to have race fitness on his side come March, I think he is the one to side with at this stage.
Douvan?s stablemate Min also threw his hat into the ring for this race when winning at Gowran last weekend. He too would have the Ryanair as an option and he seemed to see the 2m4f trip out well here, for all he only beat Flaxen Flare on the day. It is worth remembering that his only defeat came when splitting Altior and Buveur D?Air in the Supreme in 2016 and having had just the eight starts, he looks one to keep an eye on as the season goes on.
It would also be remiss of me not to mention Fox Norton who looked in the form of his life when winning the Shloer Chase for a second time a couple of weeks ago. He was relatively unlucky second in last year?s Champion Chase to finish second and proved his class when winning Grade 1s at both Aintree and Punchestown. Like many in this division, he also has the option of going up to 2m4f and it could be that he ends up in the Ryanair, especially if Douvan and Altior both turn up in the Champion Chase.
Harry Fry?s Unowhatimeanharry had an excellent campaign last term and although he came up short in March, there is every chance that he can go a little closer this year. The key factor for him is likely to be the ground as his only defeat last term came on good ground at the Festival and he was just caught out by the speedier Nichols Canyon. He did manage to turn the tables on that rival at Punchestown however on slower ground and I imagine he will likely have a similar campaign to last year in the hope that the ground is in his favour come March. The form of his reappearance win was franked at the weekend as Top Notch ran out a ready winner of the Christy 1965 Chase on Saturday and with fitness on his side, Harry Fry?s horse looks likely to give Thistlecrack plenty to think about at Newbury on Friday.
In truth, this looks a division that has the potential for something to come through and make a real name for themselves and it will be interesting to see how the form of last year?s Albert Bartlett works out as the season goes on. Monalee and Ami Desbois have both gone novice chasing but Penhill has the potential to make a smart hurdler on quick ground. He won?t be seen until the New Year but with most of his best form coming on a sounder surface, he shouldn?t miss too many targets.
The Worlds End fell in the Albert Bartlett and despite failing to fire at Haydock on Saturday, I wouldn?t be too quick to write him off. Despite the fact he won on soft ground last term, I?m not sure Saturday?s conditions were ideal and I still think he has the potential to make an impact in this division.
One other one I want to mention is Apple?s Jade who would interest me were she to go down this route. Her stamina came to the fore when winning the Mares? Hurdle at last season?s Cheltenham Festival and I think there is every chance that she would get 3m. Obviously retaining the Mares? Hurdle is more than likely to be her main objective but I would see this as a viable alternative and it will be interesting to see if connections decide to go down this route with her.
For me, there is only one place to start here and that is with Thistlecrack who looks all set to make his return to action over hurdles at Newbury on Friday. Colin Tizzard has been pleased with the nine-year-old?s preparations and all being well, he should be able to see off whatever turns up in the race. Looking ahead, this looks likely to be a prep for the King George, which he won so well last year before heading to the Gold Cup. Clearly he has to prove all is well on Friday but I am led to believe that the setback he had wasn?t too serious and there shouldn?t be any danger of him suffering a recurrence. The only question mark I have is whether he would really see out the Gold Cup trip but looking at those around him in the market, I think he looks the most attractive at this stage.
Second in on most lists is last year?s winner Sizing John who swerved Saturday?s Betfair Chase with connections unwilling to run the horse on heavy ground on his seasonal reappearance. He has plenty of form on soft ground but with the season ahead, it seemed the sensible decision to wait for an alternative target. There is no question that he improved immensely once stepped up to 3m last term but having run two big races at Cheltenham and Punchestown last Spring, I wonder whether those may leave their mark this term.
Of last year?s novices, at this stage Might Bite looks the most likely to play a leading role in the Gold Cup picture but given his wayward tendencies at Cheltenham in particular, I would be unwilling to back him with any confidence. He is clearly a very talented performer and would have won the Feltham in a very quick time but for falling at Kempton last year but I think there are more reliable options in the race.
One of our ante-post selections last season Disko could also develop into a Gold Cup horse come the end of the season, having won a Grade 1 over 3m at Punchestown. I have to admit it is a little frustrating to read comments such as ?I?ve always seen him as a three miler? from his trainer, having tipped him for the RSA last term but it might be that wasn?t the right sort of race for him at that stage of his career. His bold front-running style means he rarely finds trouble in his races and if he continues to improve, there is no reason why he can?t end up in the Gold Cup picture come March.
The fly in most ante-post markets for the Cheltenham Festival is Yorkhill who is towards the head of the market for most of the Championship races. Personally, I didn?t feel he was a natural over the larger obstacles last term but there is no question that he was very impressive when winning the JLT at last year?s Festival. The form of that race is strong and on breeding at least, he looks to have every chance of staying 3m. Having said that, I would be inclined to go down the Champion Hurdle route with him but it is likely to be a case of wait and see with him.
It is still early days for the novices but there have been a few performances which have caught my eye including Footpad who made a winning debut over the larger obstacles at Navan a couple of weeks ago. Willie Mullins? five-year-old was a smart hurdler, finishing fourth in the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham before going one place better over 3m at Punchestown. What impressed me most was how well he jumped under Daryl Jacob and the way he attacked his fences was synonymous with a much more experienced horse. One thing that you have to do in the Arkle is jump at speed (as we have seen to our cost in the last two renewals) and at this early stage of the season, it seems that this five-year-old is well equipped. We are likely to learn more as the season goes on but he looks an above-average recruit to chasing at the moment.
Petit Mouchoir finished one place ahead of Footpad at Cheltenham and having also won twice in Grade 1 company last term, he looks another smart recruit to chasing. He jumped very well when winning at Punchestown in October and being trained by Henry De Bromhead, I have every faith that his jumping will stand up to the rigours of a championship race at Cheltenham. Unfortunately, he had a setback following his debut win and is unlikely to be back until February but should he run well on his return, I think he will end up in the Arkle come March.
On this side of the Irish Sea, Brain Power put his name forward as a potential Arkle contender with a thrilling debut success at Kempton on Monday. He jumped well on the whole and although got in a little tight to a couple of fences, it is nothing out of the ordinary for a novice chaser. Nicky Henderson has a very good record when it comes to the Arkle and if this horse can go on improving, he could be a leading contender for the master of Seven Barrows.
I mentioned Monalee briefly when talking about the Stayers? Hurdle earlier on and judged on his chasing debut at Punchestown, he looks another one for the Henry De Bromhead team to look forward to. He only had the five runs over hurdles but showed he was a strong stayer and having had enough pace to win over 2m4f on his chasing debut, it is no surprise towards the head of the market for the RSA.
It will be interesting to see which novice chase at the Festival Finian?s Oscar ends up in and at this stage, I would have to say that the RSA looks the most likely option. His jumping needs a bit of work as he made errors at Chepstow and Cheltenham but he showed a real winning attitude last time to hit the front up the run-in and win going away at the line. It could be that the JLT proves to be his race but I imagine we will have to wait until nearer the time for targets become clearer.
Friday?s novice chase at Newbury has been won by some smart performers in the past including Bobs Worth and Coneygree and it looks as though we will see Yanworth and Willoughby Court take each other on this year. Both arrive with questions to answer with Alan King?s seven-year-old having fallen at Exeter last time and Ben Pauling?s charge having jumped out to his left on his chasing debut at Huntingdon. Newbury should suit the latter in terms of if he does tend to jump that way and if anything Yanworth just overjumped at Exeter. Both have the potential to make up into smart chasers and I will certainly be an interested spectator on Friday.
One who I did have half an eye on over the summer for this race is Constantine Bay who ran a fine race to finish fourth in the Albert Bartlett, having been hampered by the fall of The Worlds End at the second last. He ran well to finish fourth at Aintree but having won a point-to-point, there is every chance that he can make up into a better chaser. Sadly he will miss the whole season with an injury and although his trainer has said it isn?t too serious an issue, it is enough for him to miss the entire campaign.
If it is early days for the chasers then the novice hurdlers have been pretty quiet although there have been a couple of notable performances that I want to quickly mention.
With Rich Ricci revealing on Monday evening that ante-post favourite for the Supreme Annamix will miss the whole season through injury, yesterday?s Monksfield Novice Hurdle winner Samcro has now moved to the head of that market as well as the one for the Ballymore and Albert Bartlett Novices? Hurdles. Gordon Elliott?s five-year-old was as smooth a winner as you are likely to see of a Graded race as barely turned a hair in winning by twelve lengths at Navan. The world appears to be his oyster at present and as novices go, I think he is by far the most impressive I have seen this season so far. One thing he will have to prove eventually is that he is as effective on quicker ground but his trainer believes he could be even better on a sounder surface so he might take a lot of beating come the Spring.
Another performance which caught my eye in the early part of the season is that of Next Destination who saw off some useful rivals when winning at Naas. Willie Mullins? five-year-old saw off the likes of Someday, Paloma Blue and Pallasator when making a winning start over hurdles, pulling clear impressively in the hands of Paul Townend to win by thirteen lengths. He was a close fourth in last season?s Champion Bumper and has all the makings of a smart novice hurdle prospect.
One final horse who I feel has a bright future is Slate House who has won his first two starts for Colin Tizzard. Both of those victories have come at Cheltenham and although the last win is unsatisfactory in that the final two hurdles were omitted, he still found enough on the run-in to get the job done. He looks a strong stayer at 2m and at this stage of the season, I could see him developing into one for the Ballymore novices? hurdle.
The first of my bets for this year?s Festival is a little shorter than I normally look for but I feel there is plenty going in Douvan?s favour in order to side with him at this stage. As I mentioned earlier, I don?t feel there is much between Altior and Douvan and considering that the former is now sidelined until the Sping, I am surprised that the bookies have not shortened up Willie Mullins? horse more. He seems to be on course to run in the next couple of weeks and if he wins as expected I have no doubt he will shortened up. The only risk I see is that he steps up in trip and goes down a different route but I think the percentages are that he will run in the Champion Chase and if does, he would have a leading chance.
I discussed a number of the concerns I have about the other leading contenders a little earlier on and with that in mind, I think this is the right time to be backing Thistlecrack for the Gold Cup. Friday?s assignment is unlikely to tell us anything other than that he is fit and well but even so, it is hard to see him not shortening afterwards. The indications are that he is as good as ever and all being well I think he will head to the King George before going to the Festival. There was clearly something amiss when he was beaten at Cheltenham last term but the rest of his form in the past two seasons suggests he is a cut above his rivals. At 6/1, I think he has the potential to shorten as the season goes on and although there is a small risk involved in backing him before we see him, I think this is the time to get on.
My final bet this week is a bit of a flyer and although he was clear disappointing on Saturday, I think Ladbrokes and Coral have overreacted by pushing him out to as big as 20/1. As I have said, I think he just ran out of petrol last weekend and having been fresh in the early part of the race, he should come on for this outing. He remains a horse with plenty of potential and in a market where there isn?t much depth, I think it is worth us having a small each-way punt on him at 20/1, especially considering some firms are as short as 12/1.
Following Faugheen?s successful return to action a couple of weeks ago, all eyes were on Buveur D?Air at Newcastle on Saturday and Nicky Henderson?s six-year-old didn?t disappoint as he ran out a ready winner of the Fighting Fifth. In truth, it wasn?t a vintage renewal of the race but he travelled smoothly throughout under Barry Geraghty before stretching clear of his rivals in the closing stages. For all that the opposition may not have been up to much, you have to be impressed with the performance of the winner, particularly how quick and nimble he is over his hurdles. Barry Geraghty said on Sunday that he felt Buveur D?Air had filled into himself over the summer and he could potentially be a better horse this term.
Ultimately, only time will tell whether he can get beat Faugheen but that clash could come sooner than we thought, with the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton on Boxing Day likely to be Buveur D?Air?s next port of call. The race was won in 2014 and 2015 by Faugheen and although plans are yet to be confirmed for Willie Mullins? nine-year-old there would have to be a strong chance that the pair could clash at Christmas.
Over in Ireland, Apple?s Jade put up what was arguably a career-best performance to win the Hatton?s Grace Hurdle on Sunday. Gordon Elliott?s mare was brilliant in beating off Nichols Canyon by nine lengths and although the Mares? Hurdle remains her number one target at the Festival according to her owner, the temptation to run her in the Champion or the Stayers? Hurdle is likely to increase as the season goes on.
Not much to report on in this division this week but both Douvan and Un De Sceaux remain on course to make their seasonal reappearances this weekend according to Willie Mullins. The former is set to tackle the Tingle Creek at Sandown on Saturday, with the latter waiting until the following day to run in the Hilly Way Chase at Cork.
In terms of Saturday?s race, there were 11 entries confirmed when the Tingle Creek closed on Monday. Ar Mad, Fox Norton, Politologue and Special Tiara look the most likely dangers to Willie Mullins? runner, who also left in Un De Sceaux at the five-day stage.
Willie Mullins also spoke of Min on Sunday who he was reluctant to commit to either a 2m or 2m4f campaign this term. It is still the early part of the season so there is no need to make a firm decision at this stage but he did suggest that himself and Douvan will be kept apart where possible. That raises the possibility of one stepping up in trip come March but as I suggested last week, I would suggest that Min is more likely to run in the Ryanair than his older stablemate.
Beer Goggles put himself forward as a possible Stayers? Hurdle contender with a game victory in the Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury on Friday. Richard Woollacott?s six-year-old has improved no end since joining the yard last December and having started on a mark of 115, he now finds himself rated upwards of 150. It has to be said that I thought he got the run of the race out in front but there was no doubting his attitude in the closing stages as he saw off the challenge of race-fit rival in Unowhatimeanharry before drawing clear on the run to the line. He is clearly improving all the time but I would imagine his next intended target, the Cleeve Hurdle at Cheltenham in January is likely to tell us more about his chances at The Festival.
I briefly mentioned Unowhatimeanharry who ran a fine race despite being beaten on the day. It is worth remembering that he was conceding 6lb to most of the field here and although you would have fancied him to pick up the winner in the closing stages, he probably gave him too much rope. He remains a top-class staying hurdler and I would imagine we will see him next in the Long Walk at Ascot.
Over in Ireland on Sunday, last year?s Stayers Hurdle winner Nichols Canyon lost little in defeat behind Apple?s Jade at Fairyhouse. Willie Mullins? seven-year-old does have a good record fresh but I think he just found a race-fit Apple?s Jade too hot to handle on the day. He still looked to be in with a chance on the run to the second last but having pecked on landing, his chances of victory were ended. He ran on again after the last but he should benefit physically from this run and although he has plenty of form on soft ground, I think over these longer trips, he is better on a sounder surface.
Having been pretty positive in last week?s post about the prospect of Thistlecrack returning, I have to admit I was pretty disappointed by his display at Newbury on Friday. I think that was largely down to the fact that the comments coming from the stable beforehand indicated he was spot on in terms of fitness for his return to action. His trainer has since admitted that they talked him up too much and having watched the race a few times, I am happy to agree with the assessment that he travelled well into the race but just got tired in the closing stages of the race. Clearly you would have preferred him to finish ahead of the likes of Taquin Du Seuil but Tom Scudamore was kind on the horse once he realised his chance was gone. The bookmakers reacted to his defeat by pushing him out to as big as 12/1 which was fair enough considering the display and you have to admit that he now goes to the King George with plenty to prove. That run should have done him good in terms of fitness but the Tizzard team now have three weeks to get him right for what looks likely to be a vintage renewal of the King George at Kempton on Boxing Day. In terms of the Gold Cup, it all depends how he comes he fares in the King George but I certainly wouldn?t be tearing up our betting slip just yet.
The below-par return to action of Thistlecrack has also forced Colin Tizzard into a rethink of plans for last year?s Gold Cup third Native River. The plan had been to give him one run before the Gold Cup but now connections are thinking two runs would probably be better for him. He is likely to start in the New Year and having started last season over hurdles, it would be no surprise to see him have a spin over the smaller obstacles on his first run back.
The big winner in the Gold Cup market this weekend was Might Bite whose form got a significant boost with stablemate Whisper finishing an agonising second in the Ladbrokes Trophy. I would be the first to admit that before Saturday, I thought Whisper had it all to do off a big weight but he looks to have really improved this term, getting the better of Clan Des Obeaux at Kempton prior to his brave effort at the weekend. Having said that, I think he would need to step up again to play a significant role in the Gold Cup come March, so I think he is short enough at around the 12/1 or 14/1 quoted by most firms.
We may get a better idea of the Irish Gold Cup contenders at the weekend with Sizing John and Djakadam both possible runners in Sunday?s John Durkan Memorial Chase at Punchestown. The latter has won the last two renewals of the race but should Jessica Harrington?s Gold Cup winner turn up, it will be a better field than he has faced in each of the last two years.
Death Duty moved to the top of several lists for the JLT following an authoritative victory in the Drinmore Novice Chase at Fairyhouse on Sunday. Gordon Elliott?s six-year-old jumped well out in front under Davy Russell and although most of his rivals were still in touch turning for home, he quickened up well between the final two fences and stayed on well to the line to win by three and a quarter lengths. As a novice hurdler he was very exciting at this time of year before disappointing at Cheltenham in the Spring and I was interested to hear his trainer discuss that on Sunday. He mentioned that the horse didn?t travel very well from Ireland to England and he was a bit light on condition on the day of the race, confessing that if he had his time again he wouldn?t have run the horse. He also mentioned that although he believed the horse did stay 3m, he felt that the horse had plenty of speed and therefore the JLT might be the more likely option come the Spring rather than the RSA. Wherever he turns up, he is likely to be well-fancied and although I think the excuses for last season are genuine, I still think he needs to prove himself on a sounder surface as most of his best form has come on soft or heavy ground.
Should he line-up in the JLT, he could face Willoughby Court who made it two from two over fences at Newbury on Friday. Ben Pauling?s six-year-old was not entirely convincing on his chasing debut at Huntingdon in November but this was much more like it as he jumped well out in front. He got a little low at one or two of the fences but other than that it was a fine round of jumping and he stayed on strongly to win the Grade 2 prize by three lengths. He won the novice hurdle equivalent, the Neptune (now Ballymore), at last season?s Festival and all roads appear to lead there again following this fine performance.
In behind Willoughby Court on Friday was Yanworth who I have to be honest, never really looked comfortable throughout the contest. He jumped a little slow and big early on and looked to be struggling to keep up with the leaders when making a mistake at the fourth last. To his credit, he kept going and got within three lengths of the winner at the line. My initial impression was that he might be more comfortable over 3m where they might go half a stride slower and therefore he might have more time to measure his jumps. He hasn?t looked the most natural of jumpers so far but he wasn?t beaten far at the line on Friday and if he can sharpen up his jumping, he could win a nice prize before the season is over.
The mover in the RSA market over the weekend was Presenting Percy who may have been beaten at Punchestown a couple of weeks ago, but bounced back to form with victory on Sunday at Fairyhouse. Patrick Kelly?s six-year-old was dropping back into handicap company but was conceding plenty of weight to more experienced rivals and ran out a ready winner. He was given a confident ride by Davy Russell and having cruised into the lead at the second last, he came nicely clear in the closing stages to win by eleven lengths. The heavy ground was cited as the reason for his moderate display in the Grade 2 last time and assuming the ground is close to good come the Spring, he looks likely to take a leading role in the RSA.
Gordon Elliott?s Mengli Khan is now as short as 5/1 for the Supreme following his victory in the Grade 1 Royal Bond Novice Hurdle at Fairyhouse on Sunday. The four-year-old only had two starts over hurdles last term but has won his last three starts since returning to action in September. He seems to be settling better in his races and for such a big horse, he is very nimble over his obstacles. It is also worth remembering that although he has been winning on soft ground, he won on the all-weather at Kempton last year so a return to a sounder surface is unlikely to inconvenience him. My gut feeling is that other contenders for the race will emerge as the season goes on and whilst he is clearly a smart novice, I wouldn?t be racing to take 5/1 just yet.
It is quite possible that these contenders will emerge in the coming weeks and it is also worth remembering that the loss of last season?s Champion Bumper winner Fayonagh and the injury to previous ante-post favourite Annamix may have left a hole in the division. However, I am sure the likes of Henderson, Nicholls and Mullins all have horses they are hoping will develop into Supreme contenders so it might just be a case of keeping our eyes open in the coming weeks.
Whilst I?m not sure he will make up into a Supreme horse, Amy Murphy?s Kalashnikov looks one to keep on side, having extended his unbeaten record to three at Doncaster on Saturday. He pulled well clear of the rest before putting a previous winner to the sword by ten lengths and he looks ready for a step up in grade next time. His trainer has indicated he could well do just that come January, with Cheltenham?s Trials Day meeting likely to be on his agenda. He could well step up in trip there and it is hard to put a limit on his prospects given the manner in which he has performed in his career to date.
I also wanted to briefly mention Samcro in this week?s update following his owner?s comments that the horse still had plenty to prove in his eyes. He was right to point out that Death Duty won the same Graded race in similar style last term before disappointing in the Spring and that he would wait for his five-year-old to prove his worth on the track before talking him up. It is not surprising to hear the Ryanair boss talking his horse down and even the most ardent of Samcro supporters would have to admit that 2/1 for the Ballymore is pretty short considering what he has done so far.
Not much to report in this sphere this week other than that we might get some Champion Hurdle clues in the International Hurdle at Cheltenham on Saturday. The race was re-opened on Monday due to insufficient entries but following the entry deadline on Tuesday, there were 7 entries. I would imagine that The New One will be popular in the market as he bids to win the race for a fourth time but in terms of the Champion Hurdle, it will be interesting to see how Melon gets on should he line-up. This will be a good test of Willie Mullins? five-year-old against some solid campaigners including the likes of The New One and My Tent Or Yours, with the last-mentioned also receiving 6lb from his younger rival.
Well where do we start with the Douvan Tingle Creek saga? Whatever your opinion on the matter, one thing that seems to be consistent is that his trainer wasn?t entirely happy with the seven-year-old following a piece of work in the middle of last week. According to connections, there is no suggestion of an injury but having worked at the Curragh on Tuesday, they felt that gallop may have taken too much out of him. He was also entered in the Hilly Way Chase at Cork and John Durkan at Punchestown at the weekend but missed those engagements, with his seasonal reappearance now likely to come over Christmas.
In his absence at Sandown, Paul Nicholls? Politologue put up a fine performance to record a first Grade 1 success in the Tingle Creek. The free-going six-year-old jumped very well under Harry Cobden but what was most pleasing was how much he found when challenged by Fox Norton in the closing stages. He looks a real two-miler and although I think he would need to improve to figure in a Champion Chase, given his age, further improvement can?t be ruled out.
As for the runner-up Fox Norton he was a little slow over the first and was always playing catch up after that. Connections have been weighing up stepping him back up in trip following his win over 2m4f at Aintree in April and following this defeat, he now looks as though he finds 2m on the sharp side. He could step up in trip for the King George but come the Festival, I would imagine the Ryanair would be his most likely target.
Another who is more likely to line-up in the Ryanair is last year?s winner Un De Sceaux who made a winning return to action at Cork on Sunday. Willie Mullins? nine-year-old was imperious in testing conditions and showed just how good he can be when the ground is in his favour. As we have seen in the last couple of seasons, the Spring ground probably makes 2m a little sharp for him but I imagine he will go where the ground suits this winter before heading back to the Ryanair come the Festival.
Last season?s Gold Cup winner Sizing John was clipped into as short as 7/2 for March?s showpiece following a fine performance at Punchestown on Sunday. Jessica Harrington?s seven-year-old missed the Betfair Chase on account of the ground a couple of weeks ago but apart from making a mistake at the third fence, he turned in a fine effort to see off Djakadam, who had won the last two renewals of this race. There is no doubt that this was a fine performance but I would say that connections of the runner-up believed he would come on for the run, so perhaps the form isn?t as strong as it first appears. His trainer confessed that she was concerned about the three hard races he had last spring leaving their mark but I guess it will be a case of only time will tell on that. I wasn?t surprised that he was trimmed in the betting on the back of this victory but I have to say I think he is short enough at the current odds.
Those looking forward to the return of Yorkhill were buoyed by some news of the seven-year-old who seems to be set to make his return to action at Leopardstown over Christmas. The race which was the Lexus Chase seems to be the preferred option as connections are keen to keep him to left-handed tracks following his wayward display at Fairyhouse in the spring. That suggests that the Gold Cup seems his most likely option come the Spring but obviously a lot will depend on how he performs.
As for our selection Thistlecrack, Joe Tizzard confirmed on Monday that it was all systems go for the King George and that they had been happy with him since Newbury. Speaking at a 32Red Winter Festival preview, Tizzard said: ?Thistlecrack is good. He has come out of his run at Newbury really well and has never missed a day, which was always going to be the most important thing. He did his usual routine that Saturday and was back galloping on the Monday morning. We think it was just down to lack of fitness, it?s as simple as that. Although I put my neck on the line and said he was fit, I don?t think he was. He looked the part and jumped like he can. Just from the back of three out he got tired. He certainly looks a lot tighter now. I wouldn?t say he?s improved as he has never been a massively flamboyant horse at home, but I am sure he is fitter and he has always been a big, gross horse that has taken a bit of work. We are confident you will see a fitter horse at Kempton.?
There were plenty of reputations on the line in Saturday?s Henry VIII Chase and although it is harsh to say any bubbles were burst, there was something of a surprise as Sceau Royal landed the spoils under Daryl Jacob. We know from his hurdling days that he is a strong traveller and he was always going well here, cruising to the front on the run to the last. He jumped that well and raced clear on the run-in to win by eleven lengths and in doing so, put himself right in the Arkle picture. His trainer said afterwards that he felt that fences had improved him and he is now available at around 8/1 for the Arkle. His victory also poses an interesting question for the market leader Footpad as Willie Mullins? charge is in the same ownership as Saturday?s winner. Of course they could run both in the same race but having raced Footpad over further than 2m over hurdles, I wonder whether they will be tempted to keep the pair apart and go down the JLT route with Footpad.
Of the beaten horses, North Hill Harvey had beaten Sceau Royal at Cheltenham in October but Alan King?s charge was 5lb better off this time and Dan Skelton?s horse seemed to be beaten fair and square. Brain Power would have probably finished second but for unseating at the final fence having been two lengths down on the winner at that obstacle. He jumped well on the whole and I would imagine he would prefer to be more patiently ridden so I wouldn?t write him off just yet.
One thing we can be pretty certain of is that this is probably the last time we see Finian?s Oscar racing over two miles. Colin Tizzard?s five-year-old was slow at the first and was always on the back foot after that. His jumping went to pieces down the back and I suspect that they were just going half a stride quick for him throughout. He still remains an exciting chasing prospect and the JLT for which he is towards the head of the market, looks his most likely option at this stage of the season.
Willie Mullins? Invitation Only put down a marker in the staying novices division with an impressive victory in a beginners? chase at Navan on Saturday. The six-year-old had fallen on his chasing debut at Punchestown in November but he was very good over his obstacles here, particularly in the closing stages of the race. They got racing a fair way out here and it would have been easy for a novice to get distracted by those around him, but he showed no sign of getting distracted here. He saw out the 2m4f well in the end and with the possibility of going up to 3m before long, he looks a potential RSA horse. He is a general 16/1 shot for that race with the bookies although he is available at 20/1.
Samcro remains the market leader for this particular contest and we could get another chance to see Gordon Elliott?s five-year-old at the weekend as he has an entry at Navan on Sunday. It is the same race that Elliott won with No More Heroes and Death Duty so it is clearly one that he likes to target. Willie Mullins also has Next Destination entered in the same race and with him currently third favourite for the Ballymore, it could be a good early-season indicator as to just how good Gordon Elliott?s horse is.
On this side of the Irish sea, On The Blind Side looks a likely contender for this race and extending his unbeaten record under rules to three with a taking performance at Sandown on Friday. The five-year-old looked to need every yard of 2m5f at Cheltenham in November but although this race turned into a sprint, he travelled much better here under Nico De Boinville. He could be that he is still very green and that he is learning with his racing but the temptation to step him up to 3m is likely to be there for much of the season. His trainer mentioned the Challow Hurdle as a potential target and although that may come too soon for him, he should be able to pick up another nice prize before the Festival. At this early stage of the season, he looks one of the better novices around at this distance and he should continue to improve as the campaign goes on.
Willie Mullins has won this race twice in the last four years and as well as Next Destination (mentioned above), he also unleashed a horse of big potential in the shape of Getabird who made a winning start to his hurdling career at Punchestown on Sunday. The five-year-old was favourite for the Champion Bumper last spring before picking up an injury but all seemed to be well with him here as he ran out a ready winner. In testing conditions, he jumped well on the whole but he impressed with how well he travelled before forging clear of his rivals in the closing stages. More difficult tasks will await but he is between 12/1 and 20/1 for the first race on day two of the meeting.
The picture still seems unclear in most of the races so I am going to keep my powder dry this week. I think the next couple of weeks should be very informative and it could be worth waiting for further clues before jumping in.
Saturday?s International Hurdle provided one of the most thrilling finishes of the season, with the veteran My Tent Or Yours taking advantage of his 6lb weight allowance to get the better of The New One and the young pretender Melon. There was nothing between the trio at the final flight but it might have been the weight advantage that told in the closing stages with the ten-year-old pulling clear on the run to the line to win by one and a quarter lengths. What it told us with regards to the Champion Hurdle is less clear, although having finished second in three of the last four renewals, it would be unfair to rule the Tent out of running into the frame once again this year.
Nigel Twiston-Davies bemoaned the fact that his horse had to concede weight to a horse of My Tent Or Yours? quality. The New One had already won this race three times and lost nothing in defeat and aside from the complaints about the race conditions, I was more interested to hear his trainer raise the possibility of the nine-year-old stepping up in trip come March. That decision is largely dependant on whether Faugheen turns up in March but having come up short in the 2m division at the very top level, he would be an interesting contender were he to step up to 3m.
Melon was sent off favourite for the race but not for the first time he was keen throughout and probably just failed to finish his race off as a result. It is still early days with Willie Mullins? five-year-old and in a more strongly run race, he could be seen to better effect.
Away from Cheltenham, it was interesting to see Faugheen drift in the Champion Hurdle market on Betfair on Monday. This could well be paranoia following the news about Douvan on Sunday but there was plenty of money around for his main market rival Buveur D?Air, who is now as short as 2/1 with some firms. Nicky Henderson?s charge is likely to run in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton next week although plans for the current market leader are less clear, albeit it seems that he will be staying in his native Ireland for Christmas.
Well we got just about the worst possible news for our ante-post portfolio on Sunday as Willie Mullins revealed that Douvan will miss the rest of the season. Having missed his intended engagement in the Tingle Creek a couple of weeks ago, it is understood that the horses has been intermittently lame since then and connections have decided to pull stumps with the horses and allow him to recover in his own time. The seven-year-old is still young enough to come back but it is pretty frustrating considering how positive the bulletins were about him about four weeks ago.
On the back of this news, his stablemate Min who is also owned by Rich Ricci, was cut into around 3/1 second favourite behind Altior. I raised the possibility of Min stepping up in trip come March but now that Douvan is out of the reckoning, I would imagine that he will be directed to the Champion Chase and campaigned accordingly in the coming weeks.
As far as the race is concerned, I would imagine we will have a look at the market in the next few weeks and see if there is the potential for another bet in the race.
I mentioned a few weeks ago that Apple?s Jade would be of interest, were she to go down the 3m route and although her owners insist that the Mares? Hurdle remains her main target at the Festival, it seems she is going to step up in trip over Christmas as she tackles the Christmas Hurdle at Leopardstown. I would imagine the only way that her owners would change their mind is if they thought there wasn?t much depth to the stayer?s division and at the moment, it seems to be waiting for someone to put their name forward as the top dog.
There is every chance that Saturday?s Long Walk Hurdle will offer some clues with last year?s first and second Unowhatimeanharry and Lil Rockerfeller set to re-oppose. Both of those horse also filled the places in the Stayers? Hurdle in March but there are several younger horses who have the potential to be smart stayers come the spring.
Sam Spinner and Thomas Campbell have both enjoyed success in handicap company this term and will now have to prove their worth at Graded level. Both are relatively unexposed at this distance and at the age of five, there is every chance that we haven?t seen the best of them yet. The Worlds End is similarly unexposed but Tom George?s six-year-old will have to improve on his run behind Sam Spinner last month. Ground conditions are likely to be more suitable for him here and we should get a better idea about his Stayers Hurdle claims.
However, the one that interests me most with the Stayers Hurdle in mind is L?Ami Serge who has been called plenty of names in the past, but there is no question that he has improved since being stepped up in trip. He won the French Champion Hurdle over 3m in June and was far from disgraced when second to Lil Rockerfeller in the Ascot Hurdle on his reappearance. He was actually conceding 6lb to Neil King?s horse that day but he meets that rival on more favourable terms and I think there is every chance he can turn the tables. Nicky Henderson?s horses have tended to be improving for their first runs of the season and everything seems to be pointing towards a bold showing from the seven-year-old on Saturday.
The next week or so is likely to make the Gold Cup picture much clearer with the King George and the race formerly known as the Lexus Chase both likely to attract top-class Grade 1 fields. In terms of the former, it seems more than likely that Gigginstown?s representative will be Disko. Noel Meade?s six-year-old made a winning reappearance at Down Royal in November and having improved for the step up to 3m in the spring, he looks an interesting contender. He jumps well out in front and although this year?s King George looks as strong a renewal as I can remember, it would not surprise me to see Noel Meade?s gelding stake his claims for a Gold Cup challenge.
Alan King has indicated that his Henry VIII winner Sceau Royal is likely to have his next run in the Lightning Novices? Chase at Doncaster before heading to the Cheltenham Festival. The five-year-old has shown a dislike for slow ground in the past and it seems that his campaign will largely be dictated by the ground conditions. The race at Doncaster will also give his trainer a chance to give him a short break before building him up again for March and at this stage at least, the Arkle looks his most likely option.
Another potential Arkle contender Petit Mouchoir is reportedly on the mend according to his owner Eddie O?Leary. He said on Monday He added: ?Petit Mouchoir is fine. He suffered a small fracture after winning at Punchestown but we put a pin in it and he?s back cantering well. Hopefully we?ll have him right for the Irish Arkle in February.? I was very impressed with the way he jumped on his chasing debut but there isn?t much to be gained from jumping in until we have seen he is back in full working order.
SkyBet took the step of going No Runner No Bet (NRNB) on the Supreme Novices? Hurdle this week, meaning we have a little insurance when it comes to this market. Obviously the downside is that most of the prices have been slashed but it gives us an interesting option nonetheless.
This Friday?s Kennel Gate Novices? Hurdle is shaping up as though it could prove a useful guide to some of the contenders on this side of the Irish Sea at least. The form of Nicky Henderson?s Claimantakinforgan?s victory has been franked with the runner-up winning next time and having been a high-class bumper horse, there is every chance that he can develop into a top-class novice hurdler. If The Cap Fits finished just in front of Claimantakinforgan in the Aintree Bumper and having won his first two novice hurdles, he looks ready for a step up in class. There are several other possibles at this stage including Slate House who won a Grade 2 at Cheltenham last month. The runner-up couldn?t back that form up at Cheltenham last week but I felt he was worth more than the winning margin that day and despite carrying a penalty, he would have a leading chance if lining up here.
Willie Mullins won the Albert Bartlett for the first time last season with Penhill and his Next Destination went to the head of the market for this season?s renewal following a taking victory in the Grade 2 Navan Novice Hurdle. The five-year-old picked up strongly between the final two flights before racing clear to beat the useful Cracking Smart by five and a half lengths. Despite finishing fourth in the Champion Bumper last Spring, the fact that he won an Irish point suggests that the step up to 3m shouldn?t be beyond him, especially on better ground in the spring. His jockey David Mullins mentioned how impressed he had been with how much he found once shaken up and often that is the sign of a horse who would relish a stronger test of stamina as they are able to switch off before picking at the required time.
However, there was another winner at Navan on Sunday who could end up in the Albert Bartlett by the end of the season and that is Blow By Blow. The six-year-old was the talk of many people last term but missed the whole campaign. Formerly trained in bumpers by Willie Mullins before the Gigginstown split, it has taken him three goes to get off the mark but the step up to 2m7f really seemed to bring out the best in him on Sunday. He doesn?t do a lot in front but with connections now starting to learn how he likes to be ridden, he could be the sort of horse who enjoys the extreme test that the Albert Bartlett provides.
Nicky Henderson has won the Triumph Hurdle a record six times and he currently has two of the first four in the betting at his disposal for this year. The ante-post favourite Apple?s Shakira made it two from two in Britain on Saturday, getting the better of a small field to win in handsome fashion at Cheltenham. Her trainer mentioned that she has been a lot more lively in her home work since her first run for the yard and in fact she travelled keenly for much of the way here in the hands of Barry Geraghty. What impresses me most is how quick she is over her hurdles and this full-sister to Apple?s Jade looks the one to beat come March at the moment, for all that better ground is a question that she still has to answer.
Henderson also won the Summit Juvenile Hurdle at Doncaster for the second time in four years as We Have A Dream saw off some useful rivals to stake his claim for Cheltenham glory. Daryl Jacob decided to keep things simple on him and made all as he had done on his British debut at Warwick the previous month. The racing manager for the owners, Anthony Bromley issued a word of caution re Cheltenham, suggesting that ?The Triumph is not the be all and end all? but I would imagine it will largely on how he continues to improve throughout the season as to where he ends up.
Personally, I think it is a little early to be considering horses for the Triumph as there will be any number of juveniles coming out from the woodwork in the coming weeks. However, it was hard not to be impressed with the performance of Stormy Ireland, who made a winning debut for Willie Mullins on Saturday. The form of the race may not have been up to much but the filly put quite a lot of distance between herself and her rivals in the second half of the race, winning by fifty-eight lengths at the line. Clearly tougher tests in the weeks and months ahead will tell us more about her ability, but she is in good hands and could be one to keep an eye out for.
Just the one bet for us this week and as I mentioned in the copy above, I think that L?Ami Serge can prove his worth in the staying hurdle division at Ascot on Saturday. The division as a whole is waiting for a standout performer and having handled all types of ground including good spring ground, it seems that this horse could now show his best when stepped back up to 3m. He won the Grade 1 French Champion Hurdle on his only previous try at 3m+ and having run so well at Ascot in November on his return, he looks primed for a big effort at the weekend. With March in mind, it is worth remembering that he has finished in the first four at the last three Festivals, so he clearly handles it around there and I think 3m could be his trip. He is currently available at 16/1 with a couple of firms and with the prospect of him being shortened at the weekend, I think this is the time to back him for the Stayers? Hurdle.
In my last post I mentioned how weak Faugheen had been in the Champion Hurdle market and within a couple of days, both he and Buveur D?Air were sharing favouritism at around the 7/4 mark. However, both horses have run since then, which has caused a dramatic change in the shape of the market.
Nicky Henderson?s seven-year-old was up first as he tackled the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton on Boxing Day and for all the field he faced wasn?t overly strong, he was very impressive. Barry Geraghty always looked confident but the way he was ridden meant that he needed to be accurate at the last as he loomed alongside The New One. He was very quick at the flight and quickened up smartly in a matter of strides to win going away with a bit up his sleeve. I don?t think there is any question that he has improved this year, although stronger tests are likely to lie ahead in the coming months.
However, there has to be some doubt as to whether the highly-touted clash with Faugheen will go ahead with the latter having been pulled up at Leopardstown on Friday. The ten-year-old looked to be going ok early on but was passed by stablemate Cilaos Emery down the back and having been slow away from the third last, it was clear that he was soon struggling. He was quickly pulled up and dismounted and whilst there doesn?t appear to be a physical issue ailing the former champion, connections are likely to investigate his below-par display before making a plan. At this stage, you would have to be doubtful that he will make Cheltenham although his owner Rich Ricci said on Monday that the Champion Hurdle remained the aim as long as nothing serious came to light.
The effect that these events have had on the market are that Buveur D?Air is now the favourite at a best-priced 4/6. Given that he seems to be in peak physical condition at the moment and he has accounted for most of the British contenders at one time or another, he looks the correct favourite although there is plenty of time between now and The Festival. Faugheen has been pushed out to as big as 13/2 just ahead of his stablemates Melon and Yorkhill who are both available at around the 8/1 mark. The latter in particular looks an interesting contender should connections decide to go down this route although I will discuss him in a little more detail later on.
As for our selection, Defi Du Seuil, he has been trimmed by most firms to around 16/1 despite there being little news on what his targets are. However, it is worth noting that the Philip Hobbs yard have only saddled one winner in the month of December so perhaps the stable is just going through a quiet spell. His trainer confirmed on Sunday that he believed the five-year-old had suffered with an infection when running below-par at Ascot but is hopeful he can get back on the road to the Champion Hurdle in February.
Following the news that Douvan would miss this race a couple of weeks ago, it was good to hear Nicky Henderson confirm that all was going well with Altior?s recovery, with the eight-year-old ready to go back into training. His trainer said ?We?re well on the schedule that was set. It?s quite tight to take in a race before but there?s no doubt he?ll be right for the festival. He was fit and ready to go when we had to stop, so we have plenty of time.? He is a best-priced 6/4 for the Champion Chase and I think it is fair to say that none of his closest market rivals put up a display over Christmas which suggested they could put it up to the favourite.
Willie Mullins? Min had been touted as the potential super-sub for Douvan here and although he was first past the post at Leopardstown, it was a little disappointing that he wasn?t able to see off the challenge of Simply Ned. The placings were reversed by the stewards as the winner bumped the runner-up more than once on the run-in and it was hard to argue that they didn?t get the decision right. What probably cost Willie Mullins? seven-year-old was how quick he went in the early part of the race. In fact, he was keen until the horse challenging him for the lead made a mistake and left him in front to dictate proceedings. With Cheltenham in mind, you would like to see him settle better as the hill could find him out as it did in the Supreme as a novice hurdler.
On this side of the Irish Sea, Politologue extended his winning sequence to three when winning the Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton. The race fell apart when his main rival Special Tiara fell down the back straight and considering that Paul Nicholls? seven-year-old doesn?t do a lot in front, it wasn?t surprising that he was less than impressive. However, as we saw in the Tingle Creek, he can mix it with the top performers and I suspect that a top-class race such as the Champion Chase would show him to good effect. However, his record at Cheltenham (beaten on all three starts) would be a concern and at around 7/2, I find it hard to see him being any shorter on the day.
Looking at the market at the moment, there are a couple of horses who take my eye. Last year?s runner-up Fox Norton was only narrowly beaten by Politologue in the Tingle Creek but now finds himself at more than double the price of that rival at 9/1. If we could pin him down to run in this race then that price would be attractive considering he has already shown he can produce his best at Prestbury Park. However, he has already won over 2m4f which suggests the Ryanair could be a viable alternative target for him. We should also consider his below-par display in the King George where he was never travelling and it could be worth waiting a couple of weeks to see if anything comes to light.
The other horse who looks of interest is Yorkhill who shaped well for a long way in the Christmas Chase at Leopardstown but just failed to stay the 3m trip. Like Fox Norton, he too would have the Ryanair as a potential target but I have no doubt that he would have enough pace to mix it in here. He does jump to his left which shouldn?t be an issue around Cheltenham and it is worth noting that arguably the two best performances of his career have come at Prestbury Park. I?m sure this race will be under consideration for him but like Fox Norton, it seems best to hold fire for a week or so until his targets become more clear.
The place to start here is with news of last year?s winner Nichols Canyon who suffered a fatal injury at Leopardstown in the Christmas Hurdle. The seven-year-old was a fine servant to connections under both codes and won eight Grade 1s for Willie Mullins. He enjoyed his biggest day when winning the Stayers Hurdle at Cheltenham last March and will be a big loss for the Mullins team.
The race in which Nichols Canyon suffered his injury saw Apples Jade get the better of Supasundae following a protracted duel in the closing stages of the race. It looked as though Jessica Harrington?s eight-year-old was getting the better of the argument as they passed the final flight but Gordon Elliott?s mare fought back gamely under the Davy Russell drive to win by half a length at the line. Despite this victory on her first try at three miles, her connections have confirmed that the plan remains for her to defend her title in the Mares? Hurdle on the first day of the Festival (for which she is now odds-on with most firms). However, the runner-up also looks to have a leading chance come March. He has been placed on both his attempts at Grade 1 level over 3m and having won the Coral Cup at last year?s Festival, he should have no trouble handling the undulations of Prestbury Park.
However, the new favourite for the Stayers? Hurdle is Sam Spinner who continued his improvement with a game success in the Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot. He made all as he did in the valuable handicap hurdle at Haydock and having seen off most of his rivals, he found enough to get the better of L?Ami Serge (more on him later). Clearly Jedd O?Keeffe?s gelding is improving and he has only been beaten twice in his seven starts over hurdles to date. One question mark I would have with the Festival in mind is whether he would be able to dominate from the front in the way he has on his last two starts. He will have to prove that he can handle competition for the lead but there is no question that he looks the one to beat at the moment.
Our selection for the race L?Ami Serge looked to be travelling all over the winner coming to the last but he turned in a sloppy leap at that flight and failed to pick up as well as looked likely. This isn?t the first time he has done this but I think that the relentless end to end gallop of a Stayers Hurdle will suit him better than the way the race was run at Ascot. Daryl Jacob will be at pains to keep him switched off for as long as possible but given his form at previous Festivals, I still think that he can play a major part in the outcome of this race. How much he finds off the bridle is likely to depend on what is happening around him but I wouldn?t be giving up on him just yet.
On New Year?s Day, Wholestone got his season back on track with victory in the Relkeel Hurdle at Cheltenham. Nigel Twiston-Davies? seven-year-old has run slightly below expectations this season so far but was reported to be sick after disappointing at Newbury last time. Here he travelled much sweeter for Daryl Jacob and shaped like the best horse in the race before pulling clear up the hill. His overall form suggests he is a little below the top level of staying hurdlers but he may not have been right at the beginning of the campaign so come the Spring, perhaps he can develop into a live contender.
One final thing I want to mention is that more often than not there is a horse in this race who is returning from an aborted chasing campaign and with that in mind, it could be worth keeping an eye on Finian?s Oscar in the coming weeks. He just doesn?t seem to be enjoying jumping the larger obstacles at the moment and for all he was only narrowly beaten last time, I wonder whether connections will be mulling a switch back to the smaller obstacles. Having said that the same connections own Supasundae so perhaps this is not on the cards but he wouldn?t be the first to come back to hurdles for The Festival.
Nicky Henderson?s Might Bite is now clear favourite for the Cheltenham Gold Cup following his victory in the King George on Boxing Day. There will be plenty of people crabbing the proximity of Double Shuffle and Tea For Two to the winner at the line but it is worth remembering that Might Bite and Bristol De Mai got racing pretty early on the second circuit and I think the two placed horses benefitted from being ridden a little more conservatively. In terms of the winner, he was very professional but for all he looks the one to beat on form, the wayward tendencies he has shown on two visits to Cheltenham would still discourage me from siding with him at this stage.
Our selection at the beginning of the season was Thistlecrack and there is no doubt that his run at Kempton on Boxing Day was much better than his seasonal reappearance at Newbury. He looked to have come on a great deal for his first run and as the field turned for home for the final time I thought he might still give the winner a race. However, he made a bad mistake at the second last and was slow at the final obstacle, which cost him valuable momentum and ultimately a place. In truth, it is hard to argue that he is still as good as he was last year but his trainer is confident there is still more to come from him and if he can finish his race off in March, he could still run a big race.
The big mover in the Gold Cup market over the last few days is Road To Respect who continued his improvement with victory in the Christmas Chase at Leopardstown. Noel Meade?s seven-year-old has now won four of his last five starts and the fitting of a hood for the first time definitely seemed to help him see out the 3m trip. I have heard a few people dismiss him already but I think he has plenty going in his favour, especially as he has course form, having won at last year?s Festival. His form suggests that he is improving and as long as this race hasn?t taken too much out of him, he could have a big say come March.
In behind him, last year?s Gold Cup runner-up Minella Rocco ran his typical race, jumping with little fluency early on but staying on in the closing stages. As I mentioned earlier Yorkhill just didn?t seem to see out the 3m trip but the biggest talking point was probably the below-par showing of Sizing John, who was sent off the 9/10f. Jessica Harrington?s eight-year-old never looked himself through the race and soon after the third last, his chances looked to be over. Immediately after the race, he was reported to be ?clinically abnormal? with his trainer suggesting that he had got too hot but once he cooled down he was fine. Initial tests on the horse in the days after the race have yet to reveal anything and as a result he has been pushed out to a general 8/1 shot to retain his title.
Coney Island?s victory at Ascot just before Christmas has led many to mention Eddie Harty?s seven-year-old as a Gold Cup contender. He was a Grade 1 winner as a novice, winning the Drinmore over 2m4f and ran a fine race when splitting Our Duke and Disko in Grade 1 company last December. It took him a little while to warm to his task here but there is no doubt that he was strong at the line and given his lightly-raced profile, we may not have seen the best of him yet. He needs to take on some of the big guns to make a fair assessment of his ability but I can understand why he has been trimmed in the Gold Cup market.
One final one to mention with the Gold Cup in mind is Disko who has been absent since winning at Down Royal back in November. He was said to be being prepped for a crack at the King George but his trainer wasn?t keen to send him over for such a tough race. We know him well and given how well his stablemate ran when winning at Leopardstown last week, it would be no surprise were he redirected to the Ryanair. He won the 2m4f Grade 2 at Down Royal in November and considering his bold front-running style, the Ryanair could suit him. He is currently around 16/1 for the Ryanair and generally 20/1 for the Gold Cup so it could be worth keeping an eye on him to see which road connections decide to go down.
The Future Champions Novice Hurdle has proved a decent guide to the Supreme in recent years but I?m not sure there have been many more eventful renewals than the most recent one. Gordon Elliott?s Mengli Khan was fancied to continue his winning sequence beforehand and he looked to have the race at his mercy on the run to the second last, only to crash out through the wing at that flight. That left two of Willie Mullins? runners Sharjah and Real Steel to take up the running on the run to the final hurdle, only for them to fall independently at that flight, leaving their stablemate Whiskey Sour to come home and land the spoils.
In terms of Mengli Khan, this is the first sign of any such behaviour from the five-year-old that I can remember and I wonder whether something might just have caught his eye on the day. I would imagine the plan is to go back to Leopardstown for the Deloitte in February and I?m sure that connections will be tempted to fit him with some headgear to aid his concentration.
The one to take out of the race could be Sharjah who looked to have his rival covered when falling at the final flight. He looked set to extend his unbeaten record for the yard to three when coming down and I would imagine he will also head back to Leopardstown in February. With Cheltenham in mind, he would need to prove he is as effective on a sounder surface, having raced exclusively on soft and heavy ground to date. However, he did win on the all-weather in France when he raced on the flat so if anything he could be more effective on better ground.
The 2m novice hurdle run at Kempton on Boxing Day has proved a useful pointer in recent years with Altior and Menorah both winning that race en route to Supreme glory. This season?s renewal saw If The Cap Fits make it three from three over hurdles in the hands of Noel Fehily. Harry Fry?s six-year-old took up the running going to the second last and although he showed a few wayward tendencies between the final two flights, he quickened away smartly from his rivals to win by five lengths at the line. To date, his only defeat under rules came when he was fourth in the Aintree bumper last spring and you can see why he is high on many lists for the Festival opener.
However, on this side of the Irish Sea, the leading hope for me at this stage looks to be Claimantakinforgan who went to the top of most lists for the Supreme following Mengli Khan?s spill last week. The six-year-old was a rare runner for Nicky Henderson in the Champion Bumper last season and acquitted himself well, finishing third behind Fayonagh. His hurdling career to date has gone smoothly, getting the better of the smart Lostintranslation at Newbury before following up in the Grade 2 Kennel Gate Novices? Hurdle just before Christmas. That latest success saw him travel smoothly into contention before picking up smartly after the last and he looks to have all the attributes required for a Supreme. His trainer is normally not far away in the Supreme and at the moment, this looks Seven Barrows? main hope.
Nicky Henderson also has a leading contender for the 2m5f novice hurdle at The Festival in the shape of On The Blind Side who missed an engagement in the Challow Hurdle at Newbury having banged a hind joint at home. His trainer was eager to stress that the injury was not too serious and that once it was healed, there should be plenty of time to get a prep run in before Cheltenham in March.
In his absence, he was paid a fine compliment as Poetic Rhythm, who had finished third behind him at Cheltenham, showed a fine attitude to see off the long-time leader Mulcahys Hill and land the spoils. Despite being run over the same distance as the Ballymore, the record of Challow winners in Wednesday?s opener isn?t great and it seems that this season?s winner is more likely to head to the Albert Bartlett instead, for which he is a general 20/1 shot.
One horse who I have a close eye on with a view to this race is Getabird who was favourite for last season?s Champion Bumper before injury ruled him out of the meeting. He made a winning start to his hurdling career at Punchestown in December over 2m4f which suggests he is likely to be campaigned over that trip or further as the season goes on. He has a few entries in the coming weeks including in a Grade 1 at Naas next weekend which should shed some light on his plans but considering Willie Mullins? fine record in this race, it would be no surprise to see him turn up here.
As well as the current ante-post favourite Next Destination, Willie Mullins also looks to have a leading contender in the shape of Fabulous Saga. The six-year-old has been on the go since the summer but his two efforts in December have suggested that he can have a say in some of the staying contests come the spring. His victory in a Grade 2 at Limerick on Friday was a gritty display, staying on strongly in the closing stages to see off his rivals. The fitting of a tongue-tie has helped him finish his races off and should he continue his improvement, he shouldn?t be dismissed in what often turns into an attritional affair.
We got some more clues on New Year?s Day at Cheltenham as Tikkanbar landed the Ballymore Novices? Hurdle. Whilst this was a trial for the 2m5f race, given the conditions underfoot I would imagine that the Albert Bartlett is likely to be a more suitable target for Neil Mulholland?s charge. He will need to sharpen up his jumping to make an impact at the top level but he clearly has an engine and if the ground came up soft in March, he looks like the sort of horse who would be suited by the test that the Albert Bartlett often throws up.
This seems like a good time to take stock of where we are in terms of the juvenile division. In Britain, the standout performer looks to be Apple?s Shakira who has won both of her starts since joining Nicky Henderson. A full-sister to Apple?s Jade who was runner-up in the Triumph, she has barely come off the bridle in two starts and we could well get to see her again at the weekend as she has been entered in the re-arranged Finale Hurdle at Chepstow. It is still early days, especially in this division, but she has done nothing wrong so far and it is no surprise to see her at the head of the ante-post market at this stage.
Nicky Henderson also has another smart prospect in the shape of We Have A Dream who is also unbeaten in two starts for the master of Seven Barrows. He built on a promising British debut at Warwick when winning the Grade 2 Summit Juvenile Hurdle at Doncaster in December, the same race that Peace And Co won en route to Triumph Hurdle glory a couple of years ago. I would imagine his trainer will be keen to keep the pair apart but he is a fine jumper and having already proven himself on a sound surface, he could develop into a Triumph Hurdle contender come the Spring.
Over in Ireland, the leading juvenile looks to be Espoir D?Allen who has won all four starts since joining Gavin Cromwell from France at the beginning of the season. He already has victories at Grade 3 and Grade 2 level to his name and his latest success was arguably his most impressive to date, quickening up smartly in the closing stages to get the better of Gordon Elliott?s newcomer Farclas. I would imagine the Grade 1 Spring Juvenile Hurdle will be the four-year-old?s next target where he looks well placed to gain a first Grade 1 success.
However, there is every chance that we still haven?t seen many of the main Triumph protagonists make their bow over hurdles so it is hard to make a case for any of the above at the moment. I think the best option is to wait until after we see the Grade 1?s over the next few weeks before making a decision.
We now have a clear favourite for the Arkle with Footpad now a best-priced 15/8 following his victory in the Grade 1 Racing Post Novice Chase at Leopardstown. The six-year-old was once again immaculate over his fences and had too much pace for his rivals as he quickened up after the third last. It is worth saying that I think his main rival Death Duty found the 2m trip on the sharp side but it was still an impressive performance and he seems to tick plenty of boxes with the Arkle in mind.
The Irish Arkle back at Leopardstown in February is likely to be his next port of call, where he could face Petit Mouchoir who was reported to be back in work by his trainer Henry De Bromhead. He said: ?We?re still aiming him towards the Irish Arkle on February 3. We?ve certainly not forgotten about him and we?re working away at home with him. We are very happy with where we are.? He would be an interesting contender if he came back to full fitness when you consider that he finished ahead of Footpad in last season?s Champion Hurdle. He too impressed with his jumping on his chasing debut but before we jump in and back him, I think it would be wise to wait a couple more weeks to make sure his recovery remains on track. I can?t see his price contracting much until the week before the Irish Arkle so there doesn?t seem any harm in biding our time.
The market for this race was shaken up on New Year?s Day when Yanworth got his chasing career back on track with victory in the Dipper Novices? Chase at Cheltenham. Alan King?s eight-year-old was still far from convincing with his jumping in the early part of the race but warmed to his task and produced some better leaps in the closing stages of the race when they were needed. He didn?t do a lot once in front on the run-in but he found plenty when challenged, enough to hold off the challenge of Sizing Tennessee. He is now as short as 6/1 for the JLT but I would still see the RSA for which he is available at between 8/1 and 10/1 as the more likely target come The Festival.
Ben Pauling?s Willoughby Court failed to confirm placings with Alan King?s horse from Newbury and I don?t think he was as effective on this slower ground. His jumping, which had been a feature of his success at Newbury, was not as good on this occasion and a mistake at the fourth from home put him on the back foot. To his credit, he stuck to his task and was only beaten eight lengths at the line and I think on quicker ground come the spring, he could still have a big say in the JLT.
I also wouldn?t judge Death Duty too harshly despite falling behind Footpad at Leopardstown over Christmas. The 2m1f trip was too sharp for him and in truth I was surprised that he wasn?t made more use of over this shorter trip. I think a return to 2m4f will enable him to show his true colours and this race still looks his most likely option come March.
Monalee, the ante-post favourite for this race suffered something of a mishap over Christmas when he fell in a Grade 1 novice chase at Leopardstown. It was an uncharacteristic error from Henry De Bromhead?s charge, who had jumped so well prior to that and as long as his confidence isn?t knocked, he still looks to have a leading chance come March. But given the fact that he did fall means that it might be worth looking for some alternatives.
The one to benefit from the fall of Monalee was Shattered Love who reversed form from Cork with Jury Duty. Gordon Elliott?s mare is now four from five over the larger obstacles and in beating the boys here, her prospects have been widened. She saw the trip out well but historically the Flogas Novice Chase is a better trial for the RSA so we will have to wait until February to see who puts their name forward in Ireland.
There was also Grade 1 action in Britain over Christmas with Black Corton winning an eventful renewal of the Kauto Star Novices? Chase. There is plenty to like about the way that Paul Nicholls? horse has improved throughout the season but not for the first time, Fountains Windfall fell when looking to have the race at his mercy. Now clearly jumping is the name of the game so Anthony Honeyball?s horse will need to sharpen up if he is to fulfil his potential over the larger obstacles but it is worth bearing in mind when considering how far the winner can go.
National Hunt Chase
Two of the beaten horses in the Kauto Star Novices? Chase, Elegant Escape and West Approach are both going to be aimed at the RSA according to their trainer Colin Tizzard but having come up short in Grade 1 company here, I would be surprised if at least one of them ended up in the National Hunt Chase. The former seems particularly well equipped to handle the demands of the 4m contest and his overall form suggests that he will find it difficult to make his presence felt in Grade 1 company come the Spring. He found Kempton too sharp for him but stayed on well in the closing stages and reminds me of Native River, who went down the 4m route a few years ago following defeat in the Kauto Star Novices? Chase.
One who could join them in the 4m race is Jury Duty who continued his improvement over fences when second in Grade 1 company at Leopardstown. Gordon Elliott has won the 4m race three times in recent years and this seven-year-old looks capable of taking a hand in this season?s renewal. He was third in the Pertemps Final under a big weight at Cheltenham last year so he should handle the undulations of Prestbury Park and with his trainer viewing him as a potential Irish National horse, he clearly feels stamina won?t be an issue. I?m sure that he won?t be short of potential horses to run in this race but this looks a more sensible target than the RSA.
Our first bet this week is Nicky Henderson?s horse who staked his claims for the Festival opener when winning at Ascot just before Christmas. His trainer has an excellent record of getting horses placed in the race and at this stage of the campaign, this looks to be his leading hope for the race. The Champion Bumper form has worked out well in the Supreme in recent seasons and his third-placed finish in that race shows he can produce his best at The Festival. The challenge from across the Irish sea doesn?t appear to be as strong as it normally is and given the uncertainty of the opposition, I think this is a good time to nail our colours to the mast. The NRNB concession also gives us some extra insurance should anything happen to him in the coming weeks.
Our second bet is this horse who I believe ran a fine trial for the 4m National Hunt Chase when placed in Grade 1 company over Christmas. Chicago Grey was beaten in the same race prior to winning the four miler back in 2011, his trainer?s third winner of the race in the last seven years. He should be suited to the strong stamina test that the 4m race poses and with him as short as 10/1 with some firms, I think he is worth an each-way wager at 20/1.
Not much to report on the Champion Hurdle front this week but we learned more about plans for the current favourite Buveur D?Air who despite getting an entry for the Irish Champion Hurdle, is more likely to head to Sandown for the Contenders Hurdle for his next run. Nicky Henderson?s seven-year-old won the race twelve months ago and his trainer believes that should put him spot on for his bid to retain his crown.
His main market rival Faugheen is poised to return to action in the Irish Champion Hurdle with his trainer Willie Mullins none the wiser following his disappointing run at Leopardstown over Christmas. ?There was no physical evidence of any leg problems or anything like that,? Mullins said, ?so I thought it could be wind or his lungs or his heart or a muscle problem. But we haven?t seen any evidence of that. He?s had an ECG done, had his wind checked, so something must have choked him on the day or something like that.?
As for our selection Defi Du Seuil, Philip Hobbs? five-year-old was one of 59 horses entered for the Betfair Hurdle when it closed last week. The Newbury race is one of a couple of options being weighed up by his trainer and I also have to say that following a quiet December, it has been pleasing to see the yard?s form pick up in the last week or so.
There were 30 entries for the Champion Chase when the race closed last Tuesday with no great surprises and those towards the head of the market all standing their ground.
As expected Douvan was one of those 30 entries and Patrick Mullins said on Sunday that if was a case of slow and steady with the eight-year-old. He told Racing UK?s Luck On Sunday that: ?It?s day-by-day. Our vets are happier now than they originally were. We are slowly progressing him everyday.? In truth, I think it is still a long-shot that he will make The Festival but if Willie Mullins can get him there, I?m sure he will only run him if he feels the eight-year-old can do himself justice.
The big mover in this market in the last week has been Finian?s Oscar who seems likely to go back down the hurdles route following a couple of unconvincing displays over the larger obstacles. ?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 trainer Colin 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.? I have to agree with Colin Tizzard that his six-year-old would have leading claims in the Stayers? Hurdle on last season?s form but given that the owners already have Supasundae for this race, it will be interesting to see if one is redirected.
Whilst the switch from fences to hurdles for Finian?s Oscar was far from surprising, I have to say I was a little taken aback by the news that connections of L?Ami Serge were planning to give him a run over fences in preparation for the Stayers Hurdle. The Stayers? still remains the plan but they see the SkyBet Chase at Doncaster as a potential stepping stone for the eight-year-old.
Anthony Bromley, who is racing manager for Simon Munir and Isaac Souede said: ?As long as Nicky Henderson and Daryl Jacob are happy with how he schools over the next two weeks, it is a strong consideration that he will run in the Sky Bet Chase. We are hoping for better ground and at this time of year there are not many places he will get that. It is a valuable race in its own right and he needs something between now and the Festival. He jumped those Auteuil hurdles, which are like small fences, extremely well. The ground has been very tacky at Cheltenham so that almost certainly rules out the Cleeve (Hurdle) and the other option is the Rendlesham at Haydock, but that will be very deep ground as well. He will get a tentative entry in the Ryanair Chase, as it is easy to be entered now rather than supplement him later, but in all likelihood he will go for the Stayers? Hurdle at the Festival.?
Given his obvious quirks it could be that connections are hoping that changing disciplines might help him come March but if he were to run well in the SkyBet Chase, I?m sure connections would be tempted to keep him over the larger obstacles. We will have to wait and see but his overall form suggests he is better over hurdles and given his form at previous Festivals, I think the most likely target remains the Stayers? Hurdle.
Cheltenham Gold Cup
Another race to close last Tuesday was the Gold Cup and there were 38 horses entered including last year?s winner Sizing John, who is now likely to head straight to the race following his below-par display over Christmas. Discussing his disappointing effort, Harrington said: ?Nothing came to light that you could hang your hat on. I just think the race came too soon. It didn?t look like he had a hard race (at Punchestown), but these things can be deceptive ? both him and Djakadam (John Durkan runner-up) ran flat at Leopardstown last time.?
With Thistlecrack being ruled out last week, I have spent some time this week going through the current market to see if there is an angle for us. My initial thoughts were that the likes of Coney Island, Native River and Our Duke were short enough in the NRNB markets at around 8/1, especially the last two as one hasn?t been seen so far this term and the other has disappointed on his only run of the campaign. Minella Rocco also seems to be priced up largely on his run in last year?s race but given the way he tends to jump, I wouldn?t be comfortable siding with him, for all the strong emphasis on stamina should suit him.
The one who looks a little overpriced at the minute is Road To Respect who I think has largely been dismissed following his victory in the Grade 1 Christmas Chase at Leopardstown over Christmas. The seven-year-old has shown consistent improvement since this time last year and to my eyes, his latest victory showed he had all the attributes to be a Gold Cup contender. He settled much better in the first-time hood and that allowed him to see his race out in the closing stages and land the spoils. Denman and Synchronised both won this race en route to Gold Cup glory and given that the seven-year-old already has winning form over fences at The Festival, he seems to have plenty going in his favour. He will go straight to The Festival so his trainer should have plenty of time to freshen him up and with proven form on better ground as well as soft ground, I think he is a little over-priced at 11/1 with William Hill.
The final race to close last week was the Ryanair and although many of the horses have been entered in multiple races, this race attracted 44 entries.
I did give some consideration to putting up Disko for this race because although 3m seems his trip, with the depth of talent at Gigginstown?s disposal, it seems likely that he may be redirected to this trip as he was in the JLT last year. I don?t think he was ridden to best effect in that race last year with both his career-best performances coming when he has been allowed to bowl along out in front. However, the fact that he hasn?t been seen since winning at Down Royal in November is a concern and recent events have inspired a change in thing.
The event to which I refer is the victory of Waiting Patiently at Kempton on Saturday, where he extended his unbeaten record to five over fences. Malcolm Jefferson?s seven-year-old jumped well throughout but what was most impressive was the way he quickened up to put the race to bed between the final two fences before racing clear on the run-in. It is worth remembering that he beat subsequent Tingle Creek winner Politologue last January and I think his trainer?s patient approach to his development is now starting to serve him well. He could easily line up in the Champion Chase but I think the 2m5f trip of the Ryanair is probably his optimum at present and having shown this sort of form on slightly quicker ground, I am more confident that he can show his best on spring ground at Cheltenham. He has gears as well as stamina and looking at last year?s Ryanair, I think a horse with a higher cruising speed may well have been able to stay closer to Un De Sceaux and possibly reeled him in up the run-in. He seems to possess those attributes and at 6/1 NRNB, I think he has plenty going in his favour.
There is a new favourite for the Festival opener following Getabird?s victory in the Moscow Flyer Novices? Hurdle at Punchestown on Saturday. Willie Mullins has won that race in the past with Mikael D?Haguenet (2009), Vautour (2014) and Douvan (2015) and this year?s winner looks a horse of big potential following this display. Patrick Mullins was keen to set a strong gallop on the six-year-old but with his lead reduced at the second last, it looked as though Mengli Khan was likely to give the winner plenty to think about. However, Willie Mullins? gelding soon quickened away from his rivals and was driven out on the run-in to score by nine lengths. His trainer mentioned afterwards that he was pleased with the rain beforehand and he still looks to have question marks to answer in terms of spring ground. His jumping was very good here over 2m but whether he would be as effective over the same trip on spring ground is something of an unknown. Mikael D?Haguenet went down the Ballymore route to good effect in 2009 following victory and I wonder whether connections may have similar thoughts about this six-year-old.
Harry Fry also confirmed this week that the plans for If The Cap Fits largely depend on the weather in the coming weeks, although the Supreme still seems to be the preferred target for his six-year-old. Fry said: ?He has come out of his race at Kempton very well and we are delighted with the progress he has made this season. He will be entered in the Supreme and the Ballymore at Cheltenham, but the race I am favouring at this stage is the Supreme. We will see how the weather pans out before deciding on another run, but it is only nine weeks until the opening day of the Festival. He is a very light-framed horse that doesn?t take masses of work and he is certainly not a horse to run in testing ground. He will certainly not run this month. We will keep our options open and see how he is doing, and what the weather is doing, before making any decisions.?
Nicky Henderson already has one leading fancy for the Ballymore in the shape of On The Blind Side and he could have another on his hand as Mr Whipped made it three from three over hurdles with victory in the Grade 2 Ballymore Leamington Novices? Hurdle. This is the same race that Willoughby Court won before going on to win the same Festival race and although this year?s winner still showed plenty of signs of inexperience, you have to be impressed with the way he travelled into contention. Nico de Boinville was at pains to hold onto him for as long as possible and although he didn?t do a lot in front, he found enough to hold off the late challenge of Paisley Park. The winner is still very green but has clearly got an engine and although this one of the more competitive races at this stage, the 14/1 NRNB seems fair enough based on this effort.
Alan King has long been renowned for his training of juvenile hurdlers and at present, his shortest-priced runner in the Triumph market is Redicean who made it two from two over hurdles at Kempton on Saturday. I have to admit for most of the race I thought he was struggling because he was slow at a number of his obstacles but he still continued to travel strongly behind rivals and when the field turned for home, it soon became apparent that he had plenty left in the tank. He pulled well clear in the closing stages and although the form is hard to weigh up, there is no doubt that he was impressive visually. With the spring in mind, he will need to jump much better if he is to play a part in a higher grade but this was only his second start and it could be that he may also jump better in a more strongly run race.
One performance which I feel may have been overlooked in this division is that of Esprit De Somoza who won at Huntingdon on Friday. The race was won last year by Divin Bere, who was second in the Fred Winter before filling the same place in Grade 1 company at Aintree. It did look as though Nick Williams? four-year-old was suited by the strong pace set by those towards the head of affairs but he was still pulling well clear of his rivals on the run-in and I think he could be smart. He was entitled to build on his hurdling debut given his tall frame and considering the lack of depth in this market at the moment, I am a little surprised that he isn?t a little shorter than 25/1. Clearly he has a bit to find with the likes of Apple?s Shakira and Sussex Ranger, whose form ties in closely with his, but this was a smart performance and it will be interesting to see how he fares when stepped up in grade.
Willie Mullins has won four of the last six renewals of the JLT, including the last three and he could be represented by Invitation Only this time around as the seven-year-old followed up his Navan success with victory in a Grade 3 chase at Punchestown on Saturday. He seems to enjoy being out in front and although his jockey David Mullins fired at the final few fences, he responded well with some mighty leaps in the heat of the battle. He seems to be getting better with experience over fences and although I think he has a bit to find on form with some of the others towards the head of that market, he looks to be going the right way and this looks his most likely target at present.
Anthony Honeyball will have been relieved to see Fountains Windfall win at Kempton on Saturday, as the eight-year-old put a couple of falls behind him to record a ready success. To my eye at least, he looked to be going the best in the Grade 1 Kauto Star Novices? Chase on Boxing Day but made a novicey mistake at the fourth last which brought him down. He did jump much better on the whole last Saturday and although the race probably wasn?t as strongly run as the Grade 1, it was still a good race. The RSA now seems the main target in the Spring, for which he is between 8/1 and 10/1 with most firms. However, he has only run once at Cheltenham in the past in his bumper days and with no options for him to run there now before the Festival, I would prefer to be siding with a horse with previous experience at the Festival.
As I mentioned earlier, looking at the Gold Cup market at the moment, I feel that the horse who is overpriced at present is Noel Meade?s seven-year-old. Despite concerns with many of the field about form, wellbeing and quirks, this seven-year-old has continued to improve this term and also has valuable winning form at the Festival to his name. The proximity of Balko Des Flos to him at the line at Leopardstown is leading many people to knock the form but that race showed he could jump and travel in a strongly-run race and the fitting of a hood seemed to allow him to see the race out better than he had at Down Royal in the autumn. He seems to be going the right way and at 10/1, I think he has a good each-way chance.
Our second bet this week is Malcolm Jefferson?s seven-year-old who made it five from five over fences at Kempton last weekend. His connections have mentioned that they could be going down the Champion Chase route but given his liking for soft ground, I would be a little concerned about him over 2m on spring ground. He has also shown his best form to date over 2m4f and I saw enough on Saturday to suggest he can run a big race in the Ryanair if he lines up here. The NRNB concession gives us some security in case he goes down another route but if he lines up on the day, I think he will be a good deal shorter than his current price of 6/1.
My final bet this week is our first dip into the handicaps and with his trainer Ben Pauling suggesting he was a decent price for this race last week, I think he looks an interesting contender for the Coral Cup. The six-year-old had some very good form as a novice including beating Benatar by nine lengths at Newbury and he was just over the top by the time he went to Aintree. He was in need of the run when fifth at Kempton in November and although his defeat at Aintree was disappointing on the face of it, with the winner having followed up on Saturday at Warwick, perhaps that performance isn?t as bad as it initially appeared. The heavy ground would also have probably been against him and I think it is interesting that his trainer has earmarked this race as a target. He has long said he believes that this six-year-old is one of the better horses in his stable and having had just the five runs over hurdles, there has to be more to come from him. He would have scraped in at the bottom of the weights on a mark of 139 last year and with a rise in the weights unlikely to give him a massive burden at Cheltenham, I think he is worth a small each-way bet at 16/1 with the NRNB concession.
Just the fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.