The Path to Cheltenham Glory – Part One
Now that the jumps racing season is in full swing, even the most dedicated follower can struggle to keep up with the volume of quality horses on show. This feature will aim to keep readers fully informed of all the most vital developments, focusing on results on the racecourse rather than speculation off it. Initially, it will identify horses to track across the various national hunt disciplines, but as the season hots up and the form lines start to intertwine, it should offer some value ante-post options for the big races and the Cheltenham Festival itself. All aboard The Path To Glory!
The first young horse to really make an impression this season was Pym, a Nicky-Henderson-trained five year old who won in style over two miles at Chepstow. A man of habit, Henderson has tended to use this race for his serious Supreme Novice Hurdle contenders over the years, and sent the mighty Altior here in 2015. However Altior bolted up by 34 lengths, and therefore we must also note the runner-up Deyrann de Carjac, who got within just two lengths of Pym despite carrying six pounds more. Alan King said that Carjac is “a lovely horse…and I would hope and think he is one of my better novices”. Henderson will also be hoping that proves to be the case; if so, Pym could be a real Supreme contender.
Two that stood out at Chepstow over a slightly longer trip were Secret Investor and Double Treasure in the 2.5-mile Persian War, which boasts Silviniaco Conti and Blaklion as recent victors. This looked like a good renewal, with the front two well clear of the rest and given punchy RPRs of 146 and 143 respectively. Secret Investor looked to have plenty in hand at the finish, and trained by Paul Nicholls he is certainly one for the tracker even at this early stage. Third-placed Gosheven shaped well but was outpaced, and as an unexposed Hobbs horse, he could be of serious interest in a handicap over slightly further.
Nigel Twiston-Davies sent two of his brightest novice hurdle prospects on the long journey to Carlisle in the quest for some cut in the ground, and both returned home victorious. Good Boy Bobby and Al Dancer showed an equally gutsy attitude at the finish, seeing off determined challenges from Weather Front and the well-fancied Windsor Avenue to score over 2m1f. Of the two, it was Good Boy Bobby who caught the eye as a better hurdler, posting a quicker time than his stablemate with his more efficient hurdling technique.
Two novice hurdlers impressed at Cheltenham’s showcase meeting. Dinons could have won doing handstands, cruising to a large-margin win over three miles for Gordon Elliott. The Irish trainer struggled to hide his excitement afterwards, saying he “wouldn’t be surprised to see him back over here again for a graded three-mile race. He gallops and stays and if his jumping gets a bit slicker he could be a very nice horse.” If that doesn’t persuade you to put him in your tracker for the Albert Bartlett in March, nothing will. And over 2m5f Canardier won in visually striking style, with the front two well clear, and obviously relished the undulating track and stiff finish. The owners would “definitely love to be back in March,” confirmed trainer Dermot McLoughlin, so note him down for the Ballymore.
Among the mares, Posh Trish made a good start to the season, beating her competition at Chepstow easily enough. She wasn’t embarrassed (finished 10/20) in the Mares’ Bumper at Aintree in April and at only five years old could yet develop into a live contender for the Mares Novices at Cheltenham given her apparent progression from April to October.
Is there anything more exciting than seeing a top hurdling prospect take to fences like a natural? Maria’s Benefit certainly falls into that category, having smashed some stiff-seeming competition at Newton Abbott with a flawless round of jumping. Winner of five hurdle races last season, she arrived at Cheltenham well fancied for the Mares’ Novices Hurdle, but in trying too hard to force the pace against Laurina she faded into fourth. Yet in her seasonal reappearance her over-exuberance looks to have been tamed – she even settled happily into second place for a couple of furlongs when Flying Tiger lit up – and she finished the job like a seasoned professional with a decisive turn of foot two furlongs out. Runner-up Mont des Avaloirs should not be discounted however, as he didn’t look to enjoy the soft-to-heavy ground. And on this form line, Laurina could indeed be a Champion Hurdle contender.
Another mare to have taken a shine to chasing is Colin Tizzard’s Drinks Interval, now rated 147 after a 10-length open-company win, and on that basis is one to consider for graded races given her mares allowance. Her trainer – not normally one to get carried away – agreed after her victory that she “could go to the big tracks now. Her jumping is improving. She has got good form on softer ground and we’ll try to grind her some black type this season.”
The super-consistent hurdler Spiritofthegames has been sent chasing by Dan Skelton this term – perhaps surprisingly given he looked to have a valuable hurdle handicap in his grasp – but immediately vindicated the trainer’s decision by beating some highly rated horses in a listed race at Chepstow. Sent off the 7/1 outsider of four, he may have benefited from Master Tommytucker’s fall, but saw off his other two rivals Monbeg Legend (OR 147) and Poetic Rhythm with relative ease. “We always hoped he could step up a level over fences,” said a delighted Skelton “and he is very good fresh. But he doesn’t want to race right-handed.” There is a question mark over just how good this form is however, after Monbeg Legend’s no-excuses defeat to the versatile - but possibly not top drawer - Cubomania at Cheltenham. This form line could prove instructive over the course of the winter.
Lough Derg Spirit won over 2.5 miles at Wetherby, his striking turn of foot having pressured decent prospect El Terremoto into a mistake four out. But Nicky Henderson’s Arkle hope made two jumping errors himself at three and two out, the former a particularly novicey mistake, and he will have to improve his jumping technique to be a true graded-race contender. Yet rider Nico de Boinville described the errors as “nothing too major”, and added more importantly that “they didn’t knock his confidence…and he’s been schooling well”.
A more surprising development was Dynamite Dollars’ explosion [sorry] onto the top-class novice chasing scene. This steady 132-rated hurdler delivered a nine-length demolition [really sorry] of 142-rated odds-on favourite Highway One O One at Market Rasen, and looks like a chasing natural for Paul Nicholls.
On the other hand, a hurdler with a big reputation flopped on chase debut at Ffos Las. Vision des Flos was runner up in two Grade One hurdles at Aintree and Punchestown in April, and went off Evens favourite despite a deep-looking field. However he never settled at all, unseated Tom Scudamore at the sixth, and then ran most of the rest of the 2m5f without his jockey. His next run will be instructive.
On ground described as ‘good’ at Kempton – but which seemed quicker – Verdana Blue easily dispatched the field in a listed 2m contest. The performance was visually impressive, but given the race conditions she was a worthy odds-on favourite, and another note of caution was added by Nicky Henderson, who reminded punters that “she has to have this [quick] ground”.
The Welsh “Champion Hurdle” – actually a Class 2 handicap, don’t forget – saw legendary The New One finish in a sad and distant seventh place, with Nigel Twiston-Davies unable to rule out retirement as an option. The winner, Silver Streak for Evan Williams, was backed like defeat wasn’t an option and at just five years old still looks progressive even off a revised mark of 145. Bigger prizes could yet be within his grasp this term.
Among last season’s juveniles, we are yet to see potential superstar We Have A Dream, but two of the other high-profile four year olds were beaten over two miles at Cheltenham. Gumball, heavily backed before the off, was dreadful. A generous interpretation is that he may need a flat track, having now been well beaten at HQ on all three starts; a less generous judge would question the validity of his form last season. Alan King’s Redicean was friendless in the market, but although he was beaten he did show a fighting attitude, staying on gamely up the hill to claim second place. He shaped like a progressive horse that wants further, and had to give no fewer than 15 pounds to the Irish-based winner, Pearl Of The West, who looks a handy front-running mare. The Mares’ Hurdle in March was confirmed as her season’s target by trainer John McConnell, and this may in time rank as decent form.
Due to a combination of the racing calendar and the fast ground, there hasn’t yet been any truly top-class open chasing action in the UK, but two horses have shown signs of coming back to their best. Mia’s Storm had a very satisfactory pipe-opener in a Class 2 handicap hurdle at Uttoxeter and seemed more like her exuberant self again. She seemed to lose confidence last season after a nasty fall at Kempton (when setting off 5/2 favourite in the Grade One Kauto Star Novices’ Chase) but if she has regained her mettle, she may be underrated in big races run on good ground this term. Another horse potentially back to form is Kim Bailey’s Charbel, who won a valuable 2.5-mile handicap chase at Chepstow off a stiff mark of 154, and now rated 159, will surely be seen back in graded company this season. This efficient jumper pushed Altior (below) for speed, before sadly falling in the 2017 Arkle, and if back to that level, can again be a player in top races.
Meanwhile, Paul Nicholls may have found two realistic outsiders for the Ryanair. Modus was back to winning ways in a valuable handicap at HQ despite belting the fence three out, and showed steel to get his neck in front, putting to bed any previous questions over his attitude. This was a strangely run race, and Modus shaped like a stayer despite it being run over two miles. Paul Nicholls felt similarly, saying Modus "probably wants further than two miles now." There has never been any doubt about the tough-as-nails Frodon’s temperament, but his ability has been queried. Yet shouldering top weight in a classy handicap over 2.5 miles at Aintree, he produced a foot-perfect round of jumping under the horse whisperer that is Bryony Frost and held off his rivals. Now rated in the 160s, he will be back in graded races.
In Ireland, the Grade 3 Irish Daily Star Chase over 3m1f at Punchestown saw an exemplary performance from Henry de Bromhead’s Sub Lieutenant, who dismissed Outlander by nine lengths and Sandymount Duke by 16 lengths to record an RPR of 163 with what appeared to be a minimum of effort. With a performance like that, he could come into consideration for a festival-staying chase run on truly good ground in Spring.
Juveniles & Bumpers
It’s still a little early in the season for many of the best raw, young horses to have been seen on a racecourse, but even so there have been a few eyecatchers already.
McFabulous beat an expensively assembled field at Chepstow on his first start under rules, and given that Paul Nicholls confirmed that “this was the first time he has been on grass…he hasn’t left the farm,” he is certainly one to note, especially given the trainer’s further comment that “he could go for the Cheltenham bumper in November but he has schooled so he could go hurdling”.
Fergal O’Brien has a powerful team of bumper horses this term, and Strong Glance lived up to his name with a strong finish up the hill to win a deep-field bumper at HQ. The Cotswolds trainer looks to have a good stayer in the making. Runner-up Master Debonair also showed promise for Colin Tizzard, pushing the winner hard despite not being race fit.
And finally, what you’ve all been waiting for: yes, the guessing games over Willie Mullins’ pecking order of young horses can officially begin again. Another year of speculation, confusion and, ultimately, bewilderment no doubt awaits. Kalanisi Og cost a mere €2,000 and was allowed to go off at 5/1 in a low-profile race at Galway, yet proceeded to win easily; meanwhile the much-fancied and hyped Hollowgraphic sadly died from a bout of colic. You won’t often find this column advising against ante-post betting, but these events were another reminder, if one is ever needed, to stay away from Champion Bumper markets… for now at least!