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.
After the Hurdlers, we now look to the action over fences.
The only place to begin in the novice-chasing division is with Lalor, a magnificent winner of the Arkle trial at Cheltenham for an understandably emotional Kayley Woollacott. Lalor travelled easily, jumped safely and efficiently, had notable acceleration when asked, and relished the famous hill. In short, he looked every inch an Arkle winner, and if it was only natural for the trainer to be carried away, the normally sanguine champion jockey Richard Johnson was also effusive in his praise for the performance: “He's got scope but he's also quite nimble and clever as well, and the way he finished off the race was really pleasing. You have to think of him as an Arkle horse.” The strength of the form has been questioned, and it is fair to say he would probably have to improve again to win an Arkle, but based on what’s actually happened on the track this season, the form is rock solid.
Dynamite Dollars ran his race in second place, and he had the clear beating of Claimantakinforgan – who looks like he needs further – on form lines through the consistent Highway One O One and Dolos. So at this point Lalor is a fair favourite for the Arkle, but at current prices is too short to back until we have seen all the other contenders.
Lalor was certainly more impressive than the previous ante-post Arkle favourite Kalashnikov, who was merely decent on his chase debut against a weak field at Warwick. He showed off his powerful engine to stretch out an easy 11-length win – and that engine really mustn’t be underestimated – but his jumping was either too safe, or on a couple of occasions a little sketchy. He will need more practice over the fences to become worthy of his short price in the Arkle market.
Among other British potential Arkle candidates, Maria’s Benefit got some black type at Bangor with another classy jumping display, but she was all out to beat Jester Jet, an opponent who is better over longer distances. Even so, she’s 2/2 over fences and should be seen in a graded race soon.
The best two-mile form on the track in Ireland so far this season has been from Voix du Reve at Punchestown, who won a Grade Two handily, but the form could be misleading: the winner received three pounds from Cadmium, given a very easy introduction to chasing by Ruby Walsh, and more solid evidence is required before he is an ante-post prospect. Meanwhile Paloma Blue was distinctly underwhelming in his beginners’ chase at Navan. Mengli Khan was successful on his chasing debut for Gordon Elliott, and looks every inch a chaser, but his race was won at a slow gallop and the resulting cut he's taken in ante-post Arkle odds (to as low as 7/1) looks an overreaction at this stage, with Lalor remaining a thoroughly worthy favourite.
Over middle distances no horse has shone as brightly as Lalor, but several have made promising starts. Vinndication missed the business-end of last season, but Kim Bailey has made no secret of seeing this strapping five year old as a chaser, and he looked as tough as teak in getting up to beat a determined Uncle Alastair at Carlisle (the runner-up was worth noting; the front two pulled well clear).
Bags Groove was another to make a good start by winning a Grade Two at Wincanton, when he showed a natural ability to jump at pace and gained ground over the majority of his fences, although did clout the last when the race was won and jumped slightly right-handed.
A horse that’s now proven to relish Cheltenham is Count Meribel, guided to a narrow win at HQ courtesy of a stunning ‘sit’ by Mark Grant two out, but this may have been a weaker renewal than usual. Mr Whipped, in third, needs three miles on this evidence.
It should also be noted that Wenyerreadyfreddie thoroughly franked the unbeaten Lil Rockefeller’s form with a huge-margin win against some proven performers and then a gutsy victory at Ascot against some decent sorts (including clear Pertemps Hurdle plot job Moon Racer). Neil King confirmed that his likeable and consistent seven year old – with 36 runs, 11 wins and £440k of prize money already under his belt – will now be aimed at graded races.
So far, one novice staying chaser has stood out above all the others. La Bague Au Roi won a hot-looking Beginners’ Chase over 2m7f at Newbury, beating Lostintranslation by two lengths, a decent but unremarkable result in itself as she was receiving seven pounds from Colin Tizzard’s strapping six year old – but it was the way she won that was so impressive. She attacked the fences with real tenacity, looked to be enjoying tackling the more challenging obstacles, and showed a super attitude to head Lostintranslation between second last and last. Trainer Warren Greatrex was delighted, saying that “she's high class and deserves to be better than she's shown - I might never train a mare as good as her”. But as far as ante-post betting is concerned, he added a word of caution: “I'm not sure Cheltenham's her track. She hasn't ever really performed there, but that could just be me thinking that.”
It isn’t. Taking facile Class 4s and bumpers out, she is 0/3 at undulating tracks (average RPR 136) and 4/5 on flat, galloping tracks (average RPR 146 with a peak of 153). She needs to prove she likes Cheltenham before she is an RSA or four-miler betting prospect, no matter how brilliant her chasing debut.
Other much-anticipated stayers have been disappointing. The Worlds End did look good on his chasing debut at Chepstow, beating 143-rated hurdler Now McGinty by 14 lengths, but followed that up with a poor run at Cheltenham when well beaten in third. Albert Bartlett winner Kilbricken Storm did manage to get up to win his race at Ffos Las, showing off both his big engine and his love for soft ground, but his jumping was horrendous. A follow-up performance may see Colin Tizzard re-route him to the Stayers’ Hurdle, in which he would have to be respected.
The Betfair Chase was run on good ground at Haydock – an almost unprecedented occurrence that sums up just how dry it’s been – and this tempted all the principal staying chasers in the UK to run. As such Haydock’s biggest fan, Bristol de Mai, was sent off as long as 15/2, but he yet again showed his love for the Lancashire track by putting his more vaunted rivals to the sword with a relentless display of galloping. He has now recorded RPRs at Haydock of 170, 182 and 177; no doubt Nigel Twiston-Davies will be petitioning the BHA to hold more prestigious fixtures there.
A bigger shock than even the good ground was the poor run of Might Bite, who was off the bridle four out and didn’t travel with his usual zest. This run was too bad to be true, and it has to be hoped that he has a minor issue rather than having been bottomed out by last year’s epic Gold Cup.
Native River certainly isn’t finished as a racehorse, but this was more evidence that he is a straightforward (if brilliant) out-and-out stayer, and can get outpaced on flatter tracks and on good ground. Thistlecrack’s run was encouraging in some ways for Colin Tizzard, because the 10-year-old stayed on gamely and still retains a lot of ability, but his jumping was baffling throughout. He may not now be quick enough to win a Stayers Hurdle, but if I were his trainer, I’d be tempted to find out.
Another heartening comeback run from an old favourite took place in a Cheltenham handicap, where Coneygree stayed on into third despite lumping top weight round for 3m3f. All racing fans will be hoping he has one last day in the sun – or in the mud, anyway – and can stay sound. Current wild prices on him in the King George are worth a thought.
There’s no shortage of up-and-coming staying chasers either, in a division that is starting to have extraordinary depth. Elegant Escape displayed a magnificent attitude in a terrific battle at Sandown with the progressive Thomas Patrick, and both are deservedly short prices in the Ladbrokes Trophy betting as a result. If one of them wins that big prize at Newbury, they will bring themselves into Gold Cup reckoning in the way that Denman and Imperial Commander did in the past.
Paul Nicholls has come to the conclusion that the admirably tough Politilogue will develop into a stayer, despite him winning the Tingle Creek over two miles last season. He started in the best possible fashion with a gutsy victory over 2m5f at Ascot, seeing off Charbel despite giving the Kim Bailey horse six pounds. This race was run at a good gallop and looks like rock-solid form; both could be players in the Ryanair Chase in March.
Irish Gold Cup hopes may end up pinned on Road To Respect, who thrashed some decent opposition on good ground at Down Royal to take the Grade One prize. His fourth in last year’s Gold Cup is a good piece of form given that he hated the deep ground, and if he is still progressing then he will have to be respected in March. Also at Down Royal, Monalee fluffed his lines over 2.5 miles, well beaten by Snow Falcon and Shattered Love.
As far as Queen Mother Champion Chase prospects are concerned, we are yet to see the mighty Altior on a racecourse, but the fight to finish second to him in March is warming up. The biggest ripples in the ante-post betting pond were made by Saint Calvados’ thorough defeat of Footpad at Naas.
The two-mile chasing division had been billed as a battle between the reigning champion and the Arkle winner, but clearly this is no longer the case, as a tired Footpad was already well beaten before falling close to home. Harry Whittington was rewarded for doing what other British trainers are so reluctant to do: get your horse fully fit and challenge the Mullins/Elliott duopoly in most of the big races in Ireland. Saint Calvados did his job admirably, but in truth this was a desperate run from Footpad, and probably too bad to be true; his trainer pointed to an overreach early on as the main reason for his run.
The best run in the UK over two miles came in the Grade Two Shloer Chase at Cheltenham, where Sceau Royal – a somewhat forgotten horse after he missed the Spring festivals last season with injury – provided another example of his pinpoint jumping, gaining as much as a length on his rivals at every fence. While he may not have the engine of some of his peers, that skill will stand him in good stead, and it will be fascinating to see him try to put Altior in trouble down the railway fences at Sandown in the Tingle Creek.
As it stands, however, the champion is still on track to retain his crown, although one to keep an eye on is Ballyoisin, a wide-margin winner at Navan and a horse who could still be anything.
…Grand National winning hero Tiger Roll may not have been victorious in the Cross Country race at his beloved Cheltenham, but he stayed on well up the hill carrying top-weight against some primed rivals and delighted his trainer Gordon Elliott, who confirmed his main season target as the Cross Country at the Cheltenham Festival. On this evidence he retains all his zest and shouldn’t be taken on in the market.