The Story So Far
Since the first update in this semi-regular series, there has been an extraordinary amount of notable National Hunt action. Trainers who had previously been reluctant to run their better horses on good ground either ran out of patience, or managed to find the odd bit of good-to-soft ground somewhere in the country, and as such there’s been an almost overwhelming number of top prospects to keep track of.
But don’t worry if you’ve not managed to catch the midweek action at Carlisle or Chepstow, or you’ve been too busy to watch back the big clashes at Cheltenham, Haydock, and Down Royal, The Path To Glory is back.
The elephant in the ante-post room is, of course, the biggest hype horse of the season, Samcro, and his disappointing season debut. Sent off 1.44 favourite, he failed to beat a supposedly inferior field, finishing a length and a half behind the previously unheralded Bedrock, and immediately the internet screamed in its wisdom: “This horse can’t win a Champion Hurdle!”
But closer inspection of the race means Samcro can’t be discounted as a two-mile hurdler just yet. Firstly, he was giving five pounds to the 149-rated Bedrock, and eight pounds to the 155-rated Sharjah, who he swatted aside by a relatively comfortable five lengths. Secondly, the race was won in an impressive time – and so it may simply be that Bedrock had been seriously underrated.
The handicapper largely agrees, putting Samcro on 160 for this ‘disappointing’ performance; not enough to win a Champion Hurdle, but only nine pounds behind 169-rated double-champion Buveur d’Air. Bearing in mind that Gordon Elliott’s string was generally lacklustre around this time, the great young hope can’t be written off. But to this observer he doesn’t seem to have that turn of foot generally required to win a Champion Hurdle, and at this stage he’s unbackable.
Having said that, there hasn’t yet been a truly credible alternative two-mile champion sighted on a UK or Irish race track. Willie Mullins ran Faugheen in the Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown, seemingly because Melon wasn’t firing, and to nobody’s surprise – apart from the betting public who made the ex-champ odds-on favourite, it seems – he didn’t have the pace to win. The great 10 year old could yet be a force in the Stayers’ Hurdle, and should stay over three miles for the rest of the season.
Supasundae and Buveur d’Air are yet to run this term, but the latter could line up in a mouth-watering clash with Samcro in the Fighting Fifth; Laurina seems to be waiting for genuinely soft ground, which is a concern with Cheltenham in mind.
Verdana Blue was a magnificent winner of the Grade 2 Elite Hurdle at Wincanton, seemingly putting herself in the Champion Hurdle shake-up, but then failed to win the Greatwood off a mark of 151, taking her out of consideration again – unless she didn’t run at her best due to having just eight days between assignments.
In that intriguing Elite Hurdle, she beat three of last season’s most promising juveniles: Redicean could only finish fourth and can surely now be discounted from Grade Ones this term; We Have A Dream jumped very slickly and came third; and If The Cap Fits kept on well for second, which looked a good effort given he had been off the track for 10 months.
This impression was confirmed in the Coral Hurdle at Ascot, when If The Cap Fits came from several lengths down turning into the home straight to land the prestigious Grade Two for Harry Fry, while We Have A Dream could only finish a disappointing fourth.
However, this race didn’t do much for the winner’s Champion Hurdle prospects: he needed every yard of the 2m3f, and in the end only narrowly beat the consistent yardstick Old Guard when receiving six pounds, which rates him at about 148, so he will need to improve significantly to be a Grade One player. Harry Fry also poured cold water on the Champion Hurdle as a target after the race, saying this sort of trip suits the horse better. That said, it’s looking increasingly likely that last season’s juveniles weren’t a good crop.
Another mare making headlines was Apples Jade, seemingly back to something like her best with an 11-length demolition job over 2m4f in the Grade Two Lismullen Hurdle. Gordon Elliott maintained throughout the Summer that her Cheltenham and Punchestown disappointments weren’t her true running, and this might prove he was right. The question, as always, with this super-talented horse is: if she is on form, does she go for the Champion Hurdle (surely not?), the Mares (highly likely) or the Stayers (possible)?
For the staying hurdlers more cut in the ground would be welcome, but at Aintree Wholestone did a professional job in winning a 2m4f race against the likes of Unowhatimeanharry and Vision des Flos by three lengths. That put Nigel Twiston-Davies in bullish mood, commenting that: "He's shown a bit of pace there, which is nice to see. We'll make our way to Cheltenham in March… via all the top staying hurdle races in Britain." He’s consistent (third at Cheltenham and second at Aintree in the 2018 festivals) but remains unlikely to win the big races.
One worth noting for three-mile hurdles is First Assignment, who hacked up in a Listed Handicap Hurdle at Cheltenham when a very well-backed favourite. He could subsequently only place third in a Grade Three at Haydock, but remains of interest; after all, any horse with a 2/2 record at Prestbury Park should always be on the ante-post radar.
Among the novices, some of those mentioned in part one of this series haven’t managed to enhance their claims. Pym was well-beaten into second in the Ballymore trial at Cheltenham; Double Treasure never threatened and pulled up. The winner was Fergal O’Brien’s Coolanly, who stayed on nicely up the hill after a patient ride by Paddy Brennan, and the six year old is worth putting on Ballymore shortlists. Meanwhile Good Boy Bobby got stuck in the mud at Ffos Las, and needs to be judged again on better ground.
Some of the most eagerly anticipated hurdling debuts this season were underwhelming. In Britain Acey Milan also failed to handle the deep ground at Ffos Las and ended up a beaten 4/9 favourite. In Ireland Commander Of Fleet did notch an opening victory, but wandered left at the final furlong and idled in front; still, he remains a major prospect for the Ballymore for Gordon Elliott.
Also at Punchestown, Champion Bumper winner Relegate has a defeat in the form book, but would surely have got in front had she not suffered interference from Cuneo. Having said that, her jumping could not have been more deliberate, and she can’t be seriously considered for Grade Ones over hurdles until her technique improves.
But happily other young horses have really impressed, with two in particular taking the breath away with their acceleration in the closing stages. Epatante may not have beaten much in her Kempton romp, but in quickening after the last with a mere shake of the reins by Barry Geraghty, the McManus mare looked uncannily like Buveur d’Air. As a result she has taken a strong hold of the Mares’ Novice Hurdle market, but with Willie Mullins having this race sewn up since its inception, it would be wise to wait to see what the wizard trainer has up his sleeve.
An objectively stronger performance – and almost equally as visually striking – was posted by Eldorado Allen at Sandown. He accelerated so quickly between the second and last, and jumped the last so fluently, that in just that distance he went several lengths clear.
Furthermore, he handed a serious beating to a very good-looking big horse, Severano, fifth in the Aintree bumper, who himself could be worth following. Joe Tizzard says the winner was “eye-catching and… does everything right at home”, and confirmed a tilt at the Tolworth in the new year, the race won by last season’s Supreme winner Summerville Boy. Everything is in place for an ante-post bet before his next run, as he’ll only shorten in the Supreme market.
One other form line is already promising. Elixir de Nutz bounded up the Cheltenham hill nicely in the prestigious Supreme Trial, beating the well-fancied Seddon, but perhaps the horse to take out of this race wasn’t even running in it! Thomas Darby, trained by future superstar Olly Murphy, had beaten Elixir by more than three lengths in October in what now looks like an exceptional maiden, also at Prestbury Park.
He then relished an all-out battle to the line at Ascot with equally promising Didtheyleaveuoutto, who is also worth tracking, especially on his strong Bumper form last term. That Ascot race was run at a very steady gallop, and Nick Gifford will want to see his charge quicken off a stronger pace before dreaming of training a Supreme winner.
That concludes the Hurdlers, here are the Chasers.