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. This is a bumper addition – even including a discussion on bumper horses – and there are even a couple of suggested ante-post wagers if you’re itching to add to your Cheltenham portfolio.
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 4/9 on 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 2-mile hurdler just yet. Firstly, he was giving 5lbs to the 149-rated Bedrock, and 8lbs to the 155 rated Sharjah, who he swatted aside by a relatively comfortable 5 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 9lbs 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 2-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 no surprise to anybody – 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 3 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 8 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 2 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 6lbs, 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 2 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)? The answer, as always, is Do Not Bet Ante-Post On Apples Jade.
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 3 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 (3rd at Cheltenham and 2nd at Aintree in the 2018 festivals) but remains unlikely to win the big races. One worth noting for 3-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 3 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 haven’t managed to enhance their claims. Pym was well-beaten into 2nd 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 6-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 Gerahty, 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, 5th in the Aintree bumper in Aintree, 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 3 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. Thomas Darby might be better suited to slightly further.
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. Therefore 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 2-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 3lbs 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.
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 5-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 is worth noting; the front two pulled well clear. Bags Groove was another to make a good start by winning a Grade 2 at Wincanton, when he showed a natural ability to jump at pace and gained ground over the majority of his fences, including an almighty leap 2 out, 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 2 out, but this may have been a weaker renewal than usual. Mr Whipped, in third, needs 3 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 7-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 2 lengths, a decent but unremarkable result in itself as she was receiving 7lbs from Colin Tizzard’s strapping 6-year-old – but it 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 4-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. Nicky Henderson was blaming the “stiff fences”, which is neither one of those options nor the other. 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 2 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 6lbs. 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 2-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 2 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.
The best juvenile performance so far – among slim pickings, it must be said, until we see the main Irish contenders – came from Paul Nicholls’ Quel Destin in the prestigious Triumph Trial at Cheltenham. He beat a field full of highly-hyped young horses, including Alan King’s Cracker Factory, Nicky Henderson’s Never Adapt, and Jane Williams’ Montestrel, who had beaten Quel Destin previously at Chepstow. Paul Nicholls says the winner is “tough and stays well” but that he might need softer ground to see him at his best. Montestrel’s run was too bad to be true, so don’t discount this one from Triumph considerations just yet.
The value betting angle on the Triumph is to use the early-season form on the track in the UK to try to predict which as-yet-unseen horses brought over from France could be even better. This is hardly a fool-proof strategy, but this year there’s a very obvious contender, Adjali, who beat Quel Destin twice in the Spring in France for Guillaume Macaire, and is being trained by Nicky Henderson, an absolute master at readying juveniles. The only horse to confirm superiority with Adjali in France was Beaumec De Houelle, and he has gone on to win a Grade 2 and a Grade 1 this term. With big odds available, ADJALI is worth an extremely speculative each way punt in the Triumph.
Believe it or not, there has already been a box-office bumper this season. This took place at Punchestown and featured a fight between the two most talked-up Irish prospects: in Gordon Elliott’s corner was Malone Road; for Willie Mullins Mt Leinster went into battle. The bookies couldn’t separate these two before the bell, but there was no doubting the superior horse after the race, as Malone Road delivered a knock-out blow to his rival. His turn-of-foot over the last furlong under Jamie Codd was almost freakish, and earned him the first “you won’t see him again until Cheltenham” from a trainer of the season. He may prove hard to beat in March.
…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.
Eldorado Allen – Supreme Novices Hurdle – 33/1 1pt e/w
Adjali – Triumph Hurdle – 33/1 0.5 pts e/w