Alex Hammond: Coneygree class
Sky Sports News' Alex Hammond reflects on Cheltenham and looks ahead to the weekend action at Ascot and Haydock.
Coneygree: Can win on his return
Only one place to start sadly and that's with your reflections on Sunday's events at Cheltenham. Can you sum up how you felt following the announcement of Sprinter Sacre's retirement followed by the fatal injury to Simonsig?
I was lucky enough to be at Cheltenham on Sunday so was pleased to see Sprinter Sacre paraded after Nicky Henderson announced his retirement due to a leg injury sustained in the week. It was at the Open meeting 12 months ago that he won his first race since coming back from his serious heart problem and it was a performance that made the hairs on the back of your neck stand up and saw you clear your throat before you could talk to the person next to you. It was just as emotional to see him this year too and it felt the right thing to do for Henderson to bring him up the road to Cheltenham to strut his magnificent stuff in front of an appreciative crowd. Calling him a dual Champion Chase winner doesn't accurately define this talented equine god. Yes, he won the race twice which takes some doing, but he was one of the few horses that we took to our hearts (ironically) and admired. He was beautiful, bold, brave and had overcome significant adversity and deserves a peaceful and long retirement.
Sadly, that is something that won't be afforded to another of Henderson's stable stars. We had to endure the sad demise of gallant grey Simonsig who suffered a fatal fall in the Shloer Chase. Like his illustrious stablemate he also had problems over the years and probably delighted and frustrated his trainer in equal measure. As soon as he got to his feet after the fall that claimed his life you could tell something was horribly wrong and a hush fell over the racecourse when it became apparent it was serious. I had backed Fox Norton in the race, but along with the rest of the crowd, watched in silence as he continued his step up the chasing ladder for new trainer Colin Tizzard. Yes, we all know that with racing comes risks, but accidents like this are hard to take. Having been involved with racing for all of my adult life I know that horses can get themselves into scrapes just standing in their boxes or fields at home (as we saw with Vautour) and thankfully it doesn't happen as often as some people think. I feel most of all for the person that looked after him at home and the staff who had most to do with him. Having been in that situation myself it is heartbreaking. It is also a real blow for both his patient owner and trainer. However hardened you are to life and life with animals, it still cuts to the quick.
The Friday night rain helped Taquin Du Seuil roar back to form with victory in the BetVictor Gold Cup – what now for him and disappointing stablemate More Of That?
What on earth happened to More Of That?! To coin a phrase, he ran too bad to be true and I'm sure he will put that behind him in the future. It was great for Jonjo O'Neill to win it with Taquin Du Seuil who was by no means a rank outsider, but I was convinced More Of That would take this en-route to much better things over fences this season. O'Neill had flagged the 2014 World Hurdle winner up as the best he has ever trained before the race on Saturday and said a recent breathing operation should have helped his cause. However, he ran moderately and was pulled up, so hopefully something will come out in the wash. I was slightly concerned beforehand that the stable hadn't been churning out the winners of late, but Taquin Du Seuil's win disproved that theory, although it is possible for some horses to run well even when a stable is a bit quiet. More Of That has burst blood vessels in the past and maybe that is still an issue, although the vet didn't find a problem in the immediate aftermath. That wasn't his running and it's back to the drawing board for the time being. As for the winner, he's sure to go back to Cheltenham in December where the ground should be suitably soft.
Sunday was a great day for the Skeltons who went one better than last year in the stanjames.com Greatwood Hurdle. How high can North Hill Harvey scale on the hurdling ladder this term?
JP McManus had to watch a couple of his fancied horses run below par over the weekend, the other was Winter Escape in the Greatwood. He lost his unbeaten record and could only finish 11th behind North Hill Harvey; again I hope he can put that behind him. As for the winner he showed a likeable attitude to hold off the staying-on Modus and he looks a bright prospect. I don't know when they will send this 5 year-old chasing, but that is the long term aim for this point to point winner and I expect we won't see the best of him until he jumps a fence.
What are going to be the main factors that decide who takes home the Betfair Chase crown this year?
Well, the main factors will be:
* Is 2015 Gold Cup winner Coneygree ready to roll on his first start for a year?
* Can Cue Card put his seasonal reappearance defeat at Wetherby behind him?
* Can Seeyouatmidnight step up to the plate and take on the big boys in his second season chasing and cut it at the highest level?
* Has Silviniaco Conti's run at Down Royal two weeks ago left its mark or will we see the best of him in the King George?
* Was Irish Cavalier's win in the Charlie Hall a true reflection of what he is capable of, or did the opposition run below form?
I think the Bradstock's know exactly what it takes to get Coneygree ready first time up and it's just a shame that Nico de Boinville is injured and misses the ride. I really hope Richard Johnson is free to take the ride (at the time of writing there was no news on that front and a decision will be made on Thursday morning). He has had a couple of away days to gallop at Haydock and schooled at Nicky Henderson's, so that will have all helped in getting him tuned up for this and I hope we see the same Coneygree on his return to action. There's no doubt Cue Card's run at Wetherby was less than expected, but I think he'll be ridden more patiently on Saturday. Seeyouatmidnight has his favoured soft ground on Saturday and he's an exciting chaser for the North. I'd be worried about his prominent style of running though which would see him take on Coneygree up front. Silviniaco Conti has won this twice and finished placed twice in four starts in the grade 1, but he's 10 now and may be vulnerable. I'd be happy to watch him, rather than back him, but there's no doubting this is a race that suits him well. Irish Cavalier had race fitness on his side in the Charlie Hall and he needs to run here to see where he stands at this level for the rest of the season. I hope that Coneygree wins the race and he's my selection. I'm interested to see how Seeyouatmidnight fares. He has something to find at the weights and looks likely to be taken on for the lead, but his trainer Sandy Thomson is in form and in Brian Hughes he will be partnered by a jockey riding at the top of his game.
Does anything else catch your eye looking ahead to the weekend's action?
Well if Richard Johnson rides at Ascot rather than Haydock I'd be interested in anything he rides at the Berkshire track! There is the possibility he'll be claimed for Menorah against Coneygree of course. Philip Hobbs has some nice horses entered at Ascot though, so it wouldn't be a huge surprise to see Dickie head there to ride those horses for his main stable.
At Haydock I've already backed the Paul Nicholls trained Caid Du Berlais in the Fixed Brush Hurdle on Saturday. Stan Sheppard claims 5lb off his back and was on board for his win at Aintree in a handicap hurdle earlier this month. He has been raised 8lb for that decisive win and there should be more to come from this 7 year-old who has run well off this sort of mark over fences and with his conditional rider's claim looks to have a great chance of winning again. He has won over fences so these obstacles will hold no fears. At the time of writing he was an 8/1 shot for the 2 mile 7 furlong race.
I think it could be a good day for the champion trainer as his Dodging Bullets is expected to have come on for his reappearance third in the Haldon Gold Cup. He is one of the favourites for the Stellar Artois 1965 Chase at Ascot.
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