Road to Cheltenham: Arpege turner
Lydia Hislop looks back on a week that saw Douvan, Djakadam and The New One all produce winning performances.
The New One: Zowie!
This week saw well-reviewed returns from key members of the Willie Mullins troupe, Djakadam and Douvan, after some loud off-stage whispering about their relative billing. The playwright and leading actors made no adjustments to their script.
Meanwhile the impromptu vintage revival of The New One versus My Tent Or Yours received a standing ovation and extended the winner's run at the hurdles equivalent of the West End rather than the various provincial towns he was set to jog round over fences. Hang the Arkle.
Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase
With Ruby Walsh having unaccountably deserted him to chase a Grade One prize on a dual Gold Cup runner-up, Douvan suffered the indignity of merely being ridden by multiple Grade One-winning jockey Paul Townend. They both muddled through successfully, however, by a touch-and-go 22 lengths.
The winner was impatient to get the job done, moving keenly to the lead amid the charge of horses approaching the first fence. The most impressive bit was when he moved effortlessly clear at the fourth last; the most worrying when he drifted carelessly right at the next, getting in too close and clipping it. But he found his legs readily and did not look like actually falling. He was back in the groove by the second last and, like his rider, hyper-aware at the last.
David Casey, representing the absent Mullins, reported: "Paul Townend said he was hacking at all stages and thought he was actually going slow. That's the type of horse we are dealing with.
"He was just buzzy down to the first fence and he was obviously just very fresh and well. He went and winged the first and landed in front and that was it from there. Paul said he was idling away a bit."
If that's a tactful way of saying Douvan was bored by the standard of his opponents in the Grade Two Hilly Way, then fair enough. Days Hotel is very capable over 2m1f at Cork but, at 11 years of age, progressed into the veterans' category some time ago and has never yet cut it at Grade One level anyway.
Douvan had brushed aside The Game Changer in the Arkle and the latter couldn't have hoped for better on ground palpably too testing for him; he was pulled up after making a mistake at the third last.
However, assertions of Douvan's invincibility are somewhat premature given that – to cite only recent greats – at their peak Sprinter Sacre, Master Minded and Moscow Flyer were rated 188, 186 and 180 respectively. Douvan is currently published at 169 according to the British handicapper, a rating that perhaps slightly under-values his Aintree performance last April.
Clearly, given Sunday was his first foray out of novice company, he hasn't yet been presented with an opportunity to rate more highly and there was little to overly trouble him at Cork – where anything other than a dominant display would have been disappointing.
You'd still like to see some horse eyeball him over a few fences but, with Sprinter Sacre retired, you wonder whether one currently exists to do that.
Douvan is currently (a please-don't-bet-with-us-until-we-let-some-of-you-have-£10-at-2/1-on-the-day) 4/7 (usual restrictions apply) but, in all seriousness, there is little in this division to worry him currently even if he isn't a 180+ horse… which he probably is.
Fox Norton is on the upgrade but needs to improve to match Douvan and, er, that's it. Un De Sceaux will go Ryanair unless it's muddy. The lovely Sire De Grugy isn't going to win another Champion Chase – bar accidents – at his age. This is shaping up to be an event that will require tackling via alternative markets nearer the time.
One horse that won't be an option is Vaniteux, who failed to boss inferior horses in Cheltenham's two-mile handicap chase off a mark of 154 last Saturday. He fell at the second last in the Arkle when rider Nico de Boinville was determined to at least try to put it to Douvan; it's looking increasingly as though he might have been alone in that sentiment.
Timico Gold Cup
For a horse that's twice finished second in a Cheltenham Gold Cup, Djakadam has the propensity to land steeply and crumple into the ground on occasion. He's done it twice at Cheltenham – when still travelling strongly four out in the 2014 JLT and in the BetBright Chase last January.
He is by no means a bad jumper but this undercurrent adds a frisson of jeopardy to following the horse, as I do. It was therefore welcome news that Walsh chose to maintain this finely-honed partnership rather than pursue Douvan's Cork cakewalk. It was potentially even more encouraging that Mullins said he saw signs of even that intermittent flaw being ironed out.
Referring to the mistake Djakadam made at the seventh in the John Durkan Memorial Chase, Mullins observed: "That was a good effort first time out. He was able to find a leg when he made his only bad mistake at the downhill fence but other than that he jumped very well… He survived that – something he has not done before – so it shows he is maturing."
Aside from this – admittedly important if it's proof of a summer and not one swallow – we learned nothing new about Djakadam. He is still a high-class staying chaser who's superior enough to win a Grade One against decent enough race-fit rivals at a trip well short of his best.
The literal form of his second successive win in this major 2m4f Punchestown event does not compare with his best form – that's come at Cheltenham, in two Gold Cups, for those who are perplexingly still not sure whether the course "suits" him. But it was still an entirely satisfactory start to his campaign.
As outlined in the first Road of the current series, the Gold Cup case for Djakadam rests on increased maturity, a trouble-free preparation – in contrast to last year – and perhaps (but not definitely) getting softer ground.
Having already dealt with the first of those thoughts, Mullins moved on to the second: "Last year he was held up after getting cut at Cheltenham [when falling in January]. It was right between his front legs and was stapled. It came right but was hardly ideal ahead of a Gold Cup."
Thankfully both Mullins and Walsh afterwards attested to the horse's stamina and pitched a staying campaign pivoting around the Gold Cup, suggesting the daft Ryanair theory isn't getting any traction where it counts – although I don't doubt he'll get an entry in the race.
In second Outlander jumped better than can often be the case – he probably would have won the Clonmel Oil Chase on his previous start bar for tipping up and he also fell in the 2015 JLT (at the same fence as Djakadam two years earlier). Although he's effective at 2m4f, he shapes as though some improvement can be reaped from a step up in trip.
Third-placed Sub Lieutenant has improved at around this distance this season and jumped well here, apart from the last. He's never run at Cheltenham to date and has fallen short in Grade One company but seems to be thriving for joining Henry de Bromhead.
The winner's stablemates filled the last two places: Alechi Inois was in too deep and Black Hercules, who hasn't raced since winning the JLT in March, jumped far too scrappily to get involved. The latter was unnervingly listless.
At Cork that same day, it was a shame Gilgamboa had his legs taken from underneath him by the fall of Mozoltov at the third last in the Hilly Way. The trip was far too short for JP McManus's representative, who may be sentenced to contest unsuitable races until the Grand National weights come out. Were he to turn up in the Gold Cup, I suspect he'd run well.
In the same Cork race, Fine Rightly was a well-beaten third for his amateur rider in suitably heavy conditions; he ran creditably for a horse that wants much further and perhaps to race left-handed.
If we're marking him stringently, Village Vic didn't jump quite as fluently as he has done in the past at Cheltenham but it was nonetheless a super effort to carry top-weight into a rallying third place in last Saturday's Caspian Caviar Gold Cup.
On paper it was surely similar to his improved BetVictor Gold Cup second last time out and absolutely merits him consideration for the Ryanair. However, he was swept aside in an admittedly deep edition of that race last term and the feeling persists that he still won't quite cut it at that class.
Grade One winner Kylemore Lough mostly displayed his beautiful jumping technique but stumbled badly three out, stuttered when leading at the last, and got swallowed up. The Grand National fences continue to call his name.
Kings Odyssey was travelling comfortably on the heels of the leaders when unfortunately coming down at the 12th. It was shaping up to be a marked improvement on his Haydock debut – with which, it should be noted, trainer Evan Williams was entirely satisfied – so that was a great shame.
There are more races to be won with him, clearly. He is not yet proven on a sound surface, however.
Stan James Champion Hurdle
All hail that Exeter abandonment: it's kept The New One over hurdles. I had a bad feeling about plan A this season. I have no concrete foundation for that opinion; it was merely an overt concern for one of jump racing's key modern characters and borne of a huge affection for that right-jumping honest bundle of a horse.
The 2013 Neptune Hurdle victor was set to debut as a chaser at Exeter two Fridays ago but frost intervened and instead he was re-routed to Cheltenham's International Hurdle, a race he had won twice previously in 2013 and 2014.
By winning last Saturday he equaled the achievements of those enduringly famous hurdlers, Birds Nest and Relkeel, and in doing so tacitly underlined how daft it is that this landmark in the National Hunt season has been robbed of its resonance by being renamed the 'International' rather than the Bula Hurdle. When placing The New One's achievement in historical context, it requires unwieldy explanation that these horses have not in fact won different races. Absurd.
There is surely no logical reason why Cheltenham and/or Stan James persist with this title; much as the 'World' Hurdle should reverse-metamorphose into the Stayers' Hurdle, this touchstone race should revert to a more meaningful appellation.
What would be lost by calling it the stanjames.com Bula Hurdle rather than the stanjames.com International Hurdle? Exactly nothing – apart from getting Cheltenham to re-examine its overarching name for the two-day meeting. Another plus! Yes, my friends, on the flipside there is much to be gained.
Back to Cheltenham last Saturday and finally getting to see tactics that should have been enacted years ago with The New One.
Ryan Hatch had for the first time been due to ride the talisman of Nigel Twiston-Davies's local yard but he had been unfortunately seriously injured in a fall on the preceding day. (Wishing you a full and speedy recovery, Ryan.) In his absence, the responsibility fell to champion jockey Richard Johnson, who carried out orders to the letter.
The New One, who has always been a strong stayer at two miles, dictated the pace and posed My Tent Or Yours a question he was unable to answer – admittedly in rain-softened ground that would not have suited the dual Champion Hurdle runner-up, albeit he was in receipt of 8lb from the winner.
As detailed inthe Road To Cheltenham two seasons ago, the subject of a Champion Hurdle pacemaker for The New One was raised by his connections but that evidence of Thinking In Horseracing (However Transient) was never followed through. That was the year there was no obvious pace and Faugheen set his own – something we anticipated on Racing UK, arguing that The New One should step up instead. Would you credit it: he didn't, Walsh set his own fractions and Faugheen dotted up? Zowie.
Palpably, a fit and well Faugheen is better than The New One – indeed he's better than any hurdler we've seen since Istabraq. However the robustness of the 2015 champion's hurdling technique under pressure at Cheltenham remains one of the great unasked questions of our racing era. It would be interesting to see The New One both contribute to that examination and advantage his own chance by front-running in that race. It's just a shame he'll be nine years of age when he first does it. Assuming he does…
At least Twiston-Davies seems set on a fourth attempt at hurdling's premier prize. "The way we rode The New One today out in front is what he wants. Exeter was definitely the best abandonment that ever happened," he said.
"Chasing is well out of my mind until next year and we'll bash on towards another Champion Hurdle. He probably isn't quite good enough now. He certainly was three years ago when he was unlucky not to win. With different riding tactics and now he is going straight, maybe he can."
However assistant trainer Carl Llewellyn had other ideas in the Racing Post on Monday: "I would try him over three miles and let the result dictate where to go after that. I've always felt he would get a trip and I would be keen to see him given a go at the World Hurdle. He's so relaxed and could use his two-mile speed."
If mopping up available cash for two-mile prizes isn't important, then why not have a bash at, say, the Relkeel Hurdle over 2m4f or even the Cleeve over three miles. It's a division that, in Thistlecrack's absence and ahead of this coming Saturday's Long Walk Hurdle, as yet lacks a star. But it would seem a massive shame to relinquish one last long-awaited shot at the Champion Hurdle under – HALLELUJAH – advantageous tactics.
Interestingly, last Saturday connections had also finally addressed The New One's long-apparent habit of adjusting right-handed at his hurdles – hardly ideal when taking on the best on a left-handed track – by applying a different bit. Johnson reported that it had seemed to work. Again: Zowie.
The Bula – sigh, the International – was billed as not only an afterthought for the winner but also as high noon for My Tent Or Yours. He hasn't got his head in front since February 2014 and, although his second to Annie Power in the big one last March was a monster performance returning from almost two years on the sidelines, his latest three efforts have been well below his best.
However the rain that fell steadily at Cheltenham last Saturday bought the nine-year-old another free pass – soft ground wouldn't have suited him; neither would the New Course's increased emphasis on stamina compared with, say, the task presented by the Old Course or Kempton's Christmas Hurdle. So the jury is still out on what this talented horse, afflicted by setbacks, is currently worth.
Further adrift, akin to My Tent Or Yours, Old Guard ran better than at Haydock but without actually threatening. Conditions conspired against Court Minstrel characteristically picking up the pieces. Melodic Rendezvous is no longer good enough for the grade. Second-season hurdler Mister Miyagi has advanced his form this year but is surely suited by a greater emphasis on speed and has not yet proven his credentials at this level.
Ryanair World Hurdle
Aside from Llewellyn's ambitions for The New One, the pause button has been pressed in this division until it bursts into action again at Ascot this Saturday when Uknowhatimeanharry could clash with the likes of Ptit Zig on Reve De Sivola's turf.
The Long Walk could have the added spice of top class French raider Alex De Larredya and new Nicky Henderson recruit, 11-times winning mare Kotkikova was also entered, but will reportedly miss the race. It should still be some contest.
Having missed the Bula-sigh-International in favour of fellow McManusite My Tent Or Yours, Yanworth's ambitions persist in a Champion Hurdle direction – albeit he still holds an engagement in Leopardstown's three-mile Grade One at the end of the year. He is now clear third favourite for the two-mile event but, unlike the other three at the top of that market, holds the distinction of having at least run this season.
Interestingly long-absent Jezki, another who marches in the green-and-gold hoops, is also entered at Leopardstown. It would be the 2014 Champion Hurdle winner's first run since April of last year when he tried three miles for the first time and found it very much to his liking.
OLBG David Nicholson Mares' Hurdle
Barry Geraghty reportedly claimed he "was on fumes" after taking the mares' handicap hurdle on Briery Queen at Cheltenham last Saturday, bringing up a treble for the rider on the day. I can only assume he was jokingly referring to himself – or misquoted – because the winner looked as if she could go round again.
Patiently ridden, initially to help her settle, she moved through smoothly to pick up front-running On Demand – who's been a revelation over hurdles – and register a ready success off a mark of 130 on her seasonal debut.
Her best efforts had previously come on a sound surface and Geraghty said the rain-softened ground "wasn't ideal" but acknowledged she is "decent'.
Clearly she must improve markedly to get involved with the likes of Vroum Vroum Mag and Apple's Jade – let alone Annie Power, were she to pitch up here.
Although Debdebdeb ran well in third, she didn't quite land a blow and doesn't look as rabidly progressive as the winner. The effort of Jessber's Dream again flattened out despite this drop in trip; perhaps she needs a flatter track or a switch to fences. As predicted by the market, Run Ructions Run showed a bit more verve.
The precocious Frodon won the Caspian Caviar, beating many chasers who were vastly more experienced and resuming the progress established by his opening three victories in novice chases. He might have got involved in the BetVictor Gold Cup last month had he not blundered badly four out.
Last Saturday, Sam Twiston-Davies rode him deliberately on the outside of the field in order to give the four-year-old a good sight of his fences. He may not be able to replicate such tactics at the Festival and would need to find yet further improvement to get involved in the JLT.
For instance earlier on the same day, Whisper actually clocked a superior time over the same Cheltenham course and distance. Obviously it was raining and the ground steadily softening all afternoon but the margin of superiority – 4.5 seconds – of the novice chase took me by surprise. Perhaps Village Vic just went too steadily.
It was a very different Whisper to the cumbersome chase debutant who stumbled at the first and was careful thereafter at Exeter two Januarys ago. We hadn't seen him over fences on a racecourse since.
Back then, trainer Nicky Henderson was also unhappy with how the horse was training – something that didn't come right until days before the World Hurdle. That was too late to deliver a good Festival performance but soon enough to ready him for a second successive victory in the Grade One Aintree Hurdle. Last season he twisted again: training well but performing horribly on the track.
Henderson takes up the story: "Whisper was in pieces the last time he ran over fences at Exeter and for a year and a half he has been absolute rubbish. We took him to pieces at the end of the summer and couldn't find anything but maybe there is some confidence and happiness back in his life. He was good today."
New jockey Davy Russell gave his mount time to warm to his task and there was a lack of fluency at a couple of fences early on but after that he was able to manoeuvre his mount into position, tracking the leader from three out and making his final decisive challenge from the last. Notably, the horse did race with an upright tail carriage that I do not recall him previously displaying.
Afterwards Russell acknowledged Whisper's importance in the affections of his new retaining owner Dai Walters but was not overwhelmed by the quality of the race. That said, the comparative times might now offer him a different interpretation.
Russell's initial feeling about the Cheltenham race might have been coloured by the marked under-performance of stablemate, Different Gravey. In the minutes before the off, the market hinted the two chasers' fortunes might be reversed.
The favourite was never going at any stage and jockey Noel Fehily looked unhappy after just three fences. He tried everything to get the horse jumping, being patient and taking him more forward, riding him for cover and switching to the outside. Nothing worked.
Different Gravey had hitherto produced his best work at right-handed Ascot and had made a promising chase debut there last month. However, Fehily did not feel Cheltenham's left-handed orientation was the issue and wondered whether a physical problem might come to light; he felt the horse wasn't bringing his shoulders up high enough at his fences.
Ladbrokes drew stumps on him as a chasing project before Saturday's race had even been concluded with Mike Dillon quoting Different Gravey at 12/1 for the World Hurdle while they were still at the top of the hill. You can get 33/1 elsewhere.
It was instead Baron Alco who took the fight to Whisper. He's a brave horse – perhaps a touch too brave, with a worrying tendency to land steeply – and has built on his smart handicap hurdle form over these larger obstacles. He looks capable of playing a leading part in one of the Festival handicaps, perhaps the Grand Annual or the Close Brothers novices' event.
Back in third Sizing Tennessee failed to build on his second to O O Seven on the Old Course last month. In fact, that form took one hell of a beating with the Henderson-trained November winner getting turned over at odds-on in Doncaster's Grade Two novice event.
There was no obvious excuse; although he was carried right by the winner at the last, it made no material difference. O O Seven may not have stayed three miles or simply found little; his yearning for a premature return to the racecourse stables when veering right at Cheltenham last time out makes you wonder if it's the latter. There was never a moment when he looked the best horse in the race.
That accolade went to the winner Present Man, who dominated utterly despite jumping right at most fences. He has been totally reinvented by Nicholls as a courageous and talented chaser compared with the seemingly faint-hearted hurdler of earlier this year.
He'd only ever raced left-handed once previously, on his Rules debut at Newbury. On this and other evidence, if he is to contest one of the major Festivals this coming spring, he might be best waiting for Punchestown. More immediately, he's entered in Ascot's Silver Cup this Saturday.
Doncaster's galloping track clearly suited the likeable Potters Legend much better than Bangor's tight circuit and he stayed on steadily with an honest head carriage to take second. He looks just the type to win a decent marathon handicap but I wonder whether even Cheltenham's Old Course might be too sharp for him.
A far more obvious type for the NH Chase is second-season novice Arpege D'Alene, who determinedly chased home Singlefarmpayment in a Cheltenham novices' event last Friday that seems to have been underestimated by bookmakers. 33/1 is widely available for the RSA Chase and Stan James even offer the winner at a massive 50/1 for that race.
Singlefarmpayment clocked a very good time in victory; he travelled strongly and jumped efficiently bar for a guess at the sixth. Jockey Adrian Heskin felt, if anything, they took the third last "too well" and ended up in front sooner than ideal. Connections weren't sure whether he'd cope with the good ground but they got their answer with this career-best showing. He's now ready to step into graded company and should not be lightly dismissed.
His temperament is a concern, however. He wears a hood and can pull hard; trainer Tom George described him as "highly strung". Heskin even reported that he got "a little lit up" by the atmosphere at Cheltenham last Friday. Multiply that by the power 1000 and you've got something approaching the din he'd face prior to the RSA.
Nicholls has already has a firm plan for Arpege D'Alene. "He's jumping really well now – he didn't enjoy it last year," he said. "He stays forever so the four-miler at the Festival would be his target, with Will Biddick riding, and then the Scottish National. The way he gallops and jumps that [Ayr] race will be ideal for him, like it was for Vicente this year."
Annoyingly, the last of the 25/1 has left town, but you can still get 20/1 with a few outfits, including BetVictor, Sky Bet, bet365 and Betfair Sportsbook about this grey for the NH Chase and I suggest we take it, each-way a pleasure. He jumps, stays and has got loads of experience – ideal, really. Most importantly, he has an identified Festival target.
The vet reported Label Des Obeaux suffered from post-race ataxia – the equine version of the Brownlee wobbles – after finishing third. The horse also jumped right and made a number of mistakes. Emerging Talent got in close to a couple of fences but was outpaced and ultimately a touch disappointing. Laurium didn't jump well. Relentless Dreamer, who weakened quickly, broke a blood vessel.
There was a smart performance from Might Bite that same day at Doncaster, even though his main opponent failed to complete. The Nicky Henderson-trained winner was probably unfortunate not to win on his seasonal debut at Ffos Las, given he was rallying strongly when slipping on landing at the last and not having time to recover.
Here he went straight to the front and was admittedly unhassled on the lead but his rivals soon looked discomforted by the rhythm he was setting. After Primo Blue fell at the first, Premier Bond – stable companion and eventual distant second – was the first of the remaining participants get the hurry-up. Winner Massagot's jumping got scruffier as he too was outpaced.
Approaching the open-ditch tenth, even Cyrius Moriviere was showing signs of struggling to keep up so it was no surprise that he clipped the top and fell as he stretched for it. His fall hampered the already-beaten pair of pursuers.
After that, Might Bite only had to keep his feet to win. A lapse of concentration probably accounts for his mistake at the second last and he measured well the other three obstacles in the straight. He jumped a little big at times but better than at Ffos Las and recorded a good time here. He still strikes you as not quite the finished article, however.
Henderson originally debuted him over fences behind More Of That at Cheltenham in November of last season, where he made a series of novicey errors; he then kept him hurdling for the rest of the season – amounting to just two starts. It's clear from connections' comments over time that this is a slow-maturing horse who's been given space to realize his evident talent. He's a half brother to smart hurdler Beat That and hails from the wider family of Cheltenham Foxhunter winner Drombeag. He's interesting.
Cyrius Moriviere hadn't made much impact in two starts over hurdles this season but has always been considered a chaser in the making. He's a winning pointer and had jumped soundly prior to his forced error. The two completers were fair hurdlers; Premier Bond might need further now.
At Bangor that same day A Hare Breath beat fellow chase debutants and useful hurdlers, Gala Ball and Starchitect. He'd already returned in fine form this season when registering a career-best fourth in the Greatwood Hurdle. The switch to the larger obstacles produced an even better performance.
Aside from the first, when managing not to get frightened by skidding into it, A Hare Breath jumped well enough; there was a moment when you wondered whether he'd have to speed to tackle the positively-ridden Gala Ball at this trip and track but he was actually well on top at the finish.
Gala Ball brushed through the top of one or two fences. He would have enjoyed the testing conditions and went down fighting. The handicapper says Starchitect is currently the best of these over hurdles but soft ground wouldn't have helped his cause and he was already held when pecking badly after a blunder at the last. He's twice run with credit at the Cheltenham Festival.
For the second time in as many starts over fences Barney Dwan was possibly an unlucky loser; but at Wincanton this week – in contrast to his debut at Kempton when he blundered and all but fell at the last – it wasn't his fault.
He hadn't been all that fluent early on but survived some early errors over these intimidating fences, warmed to his task and turning for home looked to be going best… only for his race to be ended at the third last when front-running Brother Tedd sprawled to his left and brought him down.
This left the way clear for 144-rated hurdler Connetable, 11th in the Triumph Hurdle earlier this year, to make a winning chase debut. He'd been off the bridle for much of the final circuit but responded generously to pressure. He wants three miles – he's by Saints Des Saints, sire of Djakadam and Quito De La Roque – and bottomless ground according to trainer Nicholls
I've long been a huge fan of Briery Belle but the calibre of her success in Warwick's Listed mares' chase last Thursday took me aback. She faced five rivals, all of whom boasted quality hurdles form – including 2016 David Nicholson runner-up Rock On The Moor – and three of whom had previous chasing experience. Like the winner, Desert Queen had already won over fences but that success had come at Listed level for which she conceded 6lb all round.
Typically that mare set a strong pace, shadowed about three lengths behind by the winner, until she drew further clear at halfway; jockey Tom O'Brien was nudging Briery Belle to stay in touch. There was still a five-length deficit at the home turn but the winner is long-suited in stamina and she forced her way to the front between the last two. A tired mistake at the last saw Desert Queen concede victory.
Briery Belle is now rated 145, as is the runner-up. However, 2m4f is very much a minimum for the former; she will improve markedly at around three miles and wouldn't be out of place in graded company receiving the mares' allowance from geldings.
"I actually think she's probably better on faster ground than slower ground, where she can use her jumping," said trainer Henry Daly. "That's her minimum trip and she wouldn't necessarily run over two-and-a-half miles again, but rather go up in trip. There's a Listed race for mares at Leicester in February but I would like to run before then."
Talking of quality mares, Listen Dear won Cork's Grade Three 2m1f mares' event last Sunday. She doesn't look the biggest but attacks her fences with relish. She did get a solo in front and got in a little close to the second last but her final leap was more typically fast and accurate.
Winning rider Townend commented: "She is learning every day. She was very quick to sort herself out when she got in tight to one… She goes a right gallop and is tough as old boots."
She holds a Grade One entry at Leopardstown over Christmas but is merely one of 13 entries from Mullins.
Two smart nascent chasers fought out the beginners' chase at Punchestown last Sunday: American Tom, who jumped well but persistently left, beat Gangster, who made an exciting debut over a trip far short of his needs.
The winner wasted lots of energy with his wonky leaps and would otherwise have accounted for the runner-up more easily. Mullins said his team would investigate "if there was a reason for that, other than being green; he might prefer going left-handed".
He's a lightly-raced horse, having got hurt according to owner Rich Ricci after winning in fortunate circumstances on his Irish and hurdles debut at Gowran Park two Novembers ago. He holds Grade One entries over 2m1f and 3m over Christmas.
Gangster, his former stable companion now housed with de Bromhead under the terms of The Great Divorce, laid down a persistent challenge to the winner in the straight and jumped particularly true under pressure. His best hurdles form came over three miles on testing ground but it tailed off after he ran well to a point when seventh in the Albert Bartlett.
There was some pleasing depth to this contest yet the first two pulled well clear. Back in eighth Squouateur registered his least encouraging effort to date over fences. He screwed over the first, made a mistake at the third and was never near the principals thereafter. He gave the impression of being taken off his feet slightly and now badly needs to step back up in trip. He's ready for handicaps now, though.
At Navan the previous day, Attribution jumped well under pressure when flanked on each side by Briar Hill and Three Stars over the final three fences. He fashioned a narrow lead at the last and ran on well under pressure to repel the former's rally in what was a cat-and-mouse affair.
This Grade Three Klairon Davis victory was the winner's best performance yet over fences but not yet up to the standard of his top hurdling form. Trainer de Bromhead now plans to step this "lazy" horse up in trip.
Briar Hill had already got busy over fences during the summer and acquitted himself well against two race-fit rivals on his return from a break. He got out-speeded over an inadequate 2m1f but, although his round was far from error-free, it was sound when it counted. Hopefully this clumsy hurdler will evolve into a more accurate jumper of a fence.
Three Stars, stablemate of the winner, was last seen when 14 lengths behind Le Prezien in third at Cheltenham. He was attempting to concede 6lb all round here and ran with credit.
Later on the same card, Our Duke made a winning chase debut in the beginners' event. He was travelling comfortably in dispute of the lead when making a mistake and stumbling at the third last but soon recovered to assert. This represented improvement on his previous hurdling and bumper achievements in a lightly-raced career to date.
"I thought that was a very hot race," commented trainer Jessica Harrington. "Robert [Power, jockey] was amazed how quickly he came back on the bridle after the mistake three out – probably his only mistake. He's lived up to what we thought he was last year."
Edwulf would probably have been second but for plunging through the last and eventually unseating Mark Walsh. The mistake didn't come out of the blue and he's now lost the right to be called gawky; my empathy exhausted, I now consider him accident-prone and unreliable.
Gwencily Berbas was going quite smoothly until checked on landing by the left-jumping winner at the second last and quickly beaten before plugging on.
For the second time in as many starts over fences and wearing his head at its usual jaunty angle, Prince Of Scars was the beaten favourite in third. He backed off the first fence, lacked fluency on occasion and wandered latterly. He's always been considered a chaser even though he won a Grade One hurdle and will surely do better upped in trip. Testing ground suits.
On his first start for 1004 days since finishing third to stablemate Faugheen in the 2014 Neptune, Rathvinden didn't last long. He made mistakes early and quickly lost position and confidence on this chase debut.
Daryl Jacob believes too much has been made of the flaws in Wholestone's jumping. If his mount continues to perform as he did to win the Grade Two Albert Bartlett Bristol Hurdle, he'll increasingly have a point.
It was a steadily-run affair dictated by second-season novice Ami Desbois, recently the winner of an open Haydock handicap off a mark of 126 and clearly suited by the rain that had fallen steadily all afternoon.
Under a well-judged ride by Kielan Woods, this front-runner jumped immaculately and responded gamely to pressure. Jacob never had Wholestone too far away but even he recognised that the persistence of Ami Desbois demanded a foot-perfect leap from his horse at the last.
"I didn't think it would take as long to get by him but to be honest I'm quite glad he actually stuck in there as long as he did because my horse doesn't do a whole lot when he gets to the front," he said. "Bar the one mistake, that's the best he's ever jumped."
Both horses head to the Festival's Albert Bartlett-sponsored event; winning trainer Twiston-Davies had identified that target some time ago but Graeme McPherson and connections used this performance to underpin their ambitions for the runner-up.
Whether Ami Desbois would be as effective on the likely sounder surface in March is open to some question but this improver already justifies his place both on ability and gameness. The "grinder" Wholestone, whom Twiston-Davies likened to Blaklion, is known to act on faster ground.
This race had plenty of depth. The score between the winner and another second-season novice West Approach is now 3-0. Aidan Coleman reverted to more patient tactics on this step back up in trip and they seemed to suit the horse, if not as much how the race panned out
If you're playing catch-up, with or without Henry Kelly, you need everything to go smoothly and just as West Approach crept closer at the second last, a hurdle was knocked down in front of him and he blundered, catapulting Coleman to clinging on desperately around his neck. Game over. The horse remains unexposed at this more suitable trip but is starting to get frustrating.
The third glories in the name No Hassle Hoff and, for an inexperienced four-year-old, performed with great credit. He travelled well until getting outpaced when the tempo lifted. The rangy Impulsive Star shaped well for future chasing exploits; even last-placed Anchor Man clearly has ability and would have finished closer bar for hitting the penultimate flight.
Pingshou paid a large compliment to Jenkins, his Newbury conqueror and Sky Bet Supreme ante-post favourite, when winning the closing contest on the preceding day at Cheltenham. On paper, it was a fascinating clash between several highly-regarded and promising novices; in reality, it was something of a crawl with eight horses still in contention approaching the last.
The winner built on his first run for Colin Tizzard despite reappearing only a fortnight after his first outing for almost two years – something the trainer admitted he wouldn't usually do, but he knew owner Alan Potts was in town. The gamble paid off and the six-year-old – always well positioned by Coleman – got off the mark in his career despite hanging left due to greenness when hitting the front.
"Pingshou came to me as a bleeder who had lived out in a field but I didn't want to do that with him," Tizzard said. "He's a beautiful big chap and even if he had been swallowed up off the home turn, it would have been a lovely run."
Henderson fielded two long absentees in William Henry and Gaitway; the market preferred the latter but the former did best. This dual bumper winner was positioned more towards the rear but travelled and jumped well until hanging left after the last. Gaitway, who had finished second in a Wincanton novices' hurdle on his last start almost two years ago, was also inclined in that direction approaching the last. He wasn't overly exerted once a lack of a recent run appeared to tell.
Third-placed Lieutenant Gruber progressed again and Ballyhill ran creditably in his attempt to concede weight all round, offset by the 10lb claim of his substitute rider Tom Humphries. It was a highly-encouraging hurdles debut from recent Cheltenham bumper winner Poetic Rhythm.
On the downside, Sumkindofking ran below expectations but was making a quick reappearance. Midnight Maestro was one of the first in trouble and regressed on his workmanlike Warwick success last month.
Over at Bangor that same day, two more promising types wrestled out the NH novices' hurdle. Four-year-old Report To Base had established a clear lead but was joined quite readily by Kayf Grace at the second last. You briefly considered whether the latter's initial keenness would render her vulnerable but she soon quelled her younger rival, despite that horse far from folding.
The winner, who again wore ear-plugs, hails from a strong jumping family, boasts decent bumper form culminating in success in the Aintree mares' event at the Grand National meeting and was a short price to make a winning hurdles debut here. Toby Lawes, assistant trainer to Henderson, was well satisfied. "We could not have wished for a better showing," he said.
Report To Base had already won over hurdles at Uttoxeter and was trying to concede a stone to the mare. It was an excellent effort in defeat from a horse who probably loved the soft ground but will definitely need much further in time.
Earlier that day at Doncaster Henderson had also won with Post War, who made short work of five opponents on his hurdling debut. From the look of him on TV pictures he is likely to come into his own over fences next season.
He'd disappointed connections on his second bumper start last term but might have got stuck in the mud – the times suggested very testing ground at Chepstow that day. He's an interesting mid-to-long-term project.
The patiently-ridden Benny In Milan chased him home but without ever actually mounting a challenge; he's a maiden after six starts over hurdles. Thorough stayer Wind Place And Sho displayed an aptitude for this discipline on his debut but didn't settle well enough to last home; he'd run poorly on his final two Flat starts. Beaten favourite and winning pointer Desaray further undermined the form of Midnight Maestro's Warwick win with a dull performance on this step up in trip.
There was a less-informative contest at the same track the following day when Duel At Dawn overturned 1/16 shot Blue Rambler. The race had been denuded of much of its spice by the withdrawal of bumper and point winner Give Me A Copper, who'd cost £270,000 at Goffs Aintree sales in April. Not surprisingly, the resultant match was conducted in a painfully slow time.
The winner dictated and simply jumped better than Blue Rambler, for whom warning signs were apparent when he wandered right, totally forgot to pick up his feet on the approach to the seventh hurdle and was left briefly chewing turf as a consequence.
Duel At Dawn was still slightly ahead when both tackled the third last, after which the runner-up seemed to be travelling the better but then he never quite got on terms. The winner enjoyed positive tactics, is an intelligent hurdler capable of measuring his obstacles (albeit he had plenty of time to do so) and a strong stayer.
At Southwell the following day Sandymount made a decent winning debut; he moved easily into the straight to record a success that improved quite a bit on his bumper form. The next two home both have ability, coming from positions further back. Runner-up Earlshill is an Irish points recruit for Dan Skelton and Undisputed – better than the literal form here (albeit he did hang left) – is now qualified for handicaps.
A (relative) Henderson hotpot was defeated at Ffos Las on Monday when Red Indian made a winning hurdles debut for Ben Pauling, keeping the Russell-ridden Jameson, previously the wide-margin winner of a bumper, at bay.
David Bass rode the winner with some confidence, only asking him to lead approaching the last where a careful jump allowed the runner-up some hope. Jameson, who'd been keen, had the better momentum from the last but still couldn't catch the winner.
A few days earlier at Warwick, Pauling experienced the relief of well-regarded Willoughby Court recovering his poise. The horse recorded good form in bumpers last season but had disappointed on his hurdles debut at Market Rasen when wearing a first-time tongue-tie. This defeat of decent types in Tommy Rapper and last term's Festival bumper fifth Westend Story – who was making his hurdles debut – was much more like it.
More recently, at Wincanton on Monday, there were two performances to note. Movewiththetimes had to get down and dirty to see off Hidden Cargo, who was receiving 6lb, in the novices' hurdle. He'd previously won at Fontwell but was twice hampered when beaten by Moon Racer in a Grade Two at Cheltenham on his previous start. The four-year-old Hidden Cargo had shaped well on his debut when fifth to Jenkins at Newbury.
Nicholls described the winner as "a work in progress" and plans to keep his sights low in the short term. "He has been a bit green in his two hurdle races previously. He needs to gain a bit more experience before he takes on the better novices in the spring," he said.
In the closing maiden Strong Pursuit impressed. The winner of an Irish point in 2015 but well beaten on his Rules debut at Ascot last month, he looked a different horse here. He made most of the running and maintained a strong gallop; his jumping was excellent, especially when threatened by the 127-rated favourite Chocala in the straight.
Over in Ireland, Gigginstown registered a dominant 1-2 in Cork's Grade Three staying novices' event but not in the anticipated order. Rathnure Rebel made all, dictating a clear lead that he never looked likely to surrender despite making a mistake at the third last and rather stuttering into the next; he got the last spot on. Testing ground and three miles is clearly bang up his street.
Jack Kennedy's body language conveyed unease about beaten favourite Monbeg Notorious from a relatively early stage. Having jumped a tad big initially, the horse was niggled along at the end of the first circuit but was outpaced as the winner wound up the tempo and could only manage a laboured 11-length sceond.
In the preceding race, Dr Mikey gave what proved to be further substance to Sunni May's earlier Cork form by beating fellow joint-favourite Woods Well by six lengths. The winner made all, despite repeatedly jumping left, and his closest pursuers were outpaced from three out. Third-placed Black Ace caught the eye on his third start over hurdles but the rest, bar faller Kolumbus, were never remotely involved.
The worth of Sunni May's previous success had hitherto been somewhat obscured by the fact of still-travelling odds-on favourite Bacardys hitting the deck. The winner actually did well to catch the better positioned race-fit front-runner, especially given he was hampered by the fall.
In his latest race in Punchestown's opener last Sunday, Sunni May was always prominently positioned until left in the lead when Lion In His Heart could not resist the dramatic irony of running out at the fifth hurdle; he'd hung badly left at a previous one also. Sunni May also often shifted in that direction so it was not surprising that Power reported he'd be better going left-handed.
He was ridden into the second last and had put all opponents in trouble on the landing side, partly via his own direct left-shifting contribution. He was already well in control when slowing, again drifting left and lacking fluency at the last; he then galloped on strongly to the line.
Trainer Harrington declared Leopardstown's Grade One Future Champions Novices' Hurdle as his Christmas target; that track will suit better and he looks more than ready for a step up in class. Deep winter ground might not serve him best, however.
It didn't help the mare Kalopsia that she got checked in a domino effect set off by the winner at the penultimate flight and was probably then a tad too far back even if she had been fluent at the last. She seemed to want to hang right even as she was ridden out for second.
Fellow McManusite Joshua Lane made a series of scruffy leaps so the blunder that left him briefly eating turf at the last, when upsides the runner-up, was not unexpected. He has plenty of experience and can jump better than this; it was a little disappointing.
Conrad Hastings ran far better than it might seem. He was going well when helped into an error at the second last and also lost his hind legs briefly on the slippery home bend. He never really recovered from that on his first run for seven months; his rider wasn't hard on him in the straight. He may be overpriced on his next start.
The Rich Ricci-owned Turcagua won the following event under a change of tactics, Walsh going straight to the front from the outset. The only sure detail gleaned through the fog on this horse's hurdles debut last month was that he came from too far back in a race dominated by the prominently positioned.
On the pace was also the place to be here, only this time Turcagua was setting it.
Champagne Classic and New To This Town were never too far away and after the winner made a mistake four out – his only blemish – the former tried to press his cause but was impressively brushed aside on the gallop to the last. Nonetheless this was a good hurdles debut from him. Third-placed mare Toe The Line crept into the race from a bit further back than the principals and may do better dropped back down in trip.
Clearly borrowing his prepositional usage from Irish originator Paul Nicholls, Mullins observed of strong stayer Turcagua: "He can go out further in trip. He'll go up in grade next time. He's a fine big chaser for the future and handles soft ground."
At Navan the previous day, you could almost hear 66/1 shot Any Second Now, in the unconsidered McManus red cap, shouting "surprise!" as he burst between the 11/10 joint-favourites to win the opener under all his own steam. He looks raw and exciting.
French recruit C'est Jersey jumped increasingly right, to the point that he blundered badly at the second last; he did well to recover to fight out the finish. Fellow fancy, third-placed Chirico Vallis, needs to smarten up his jumping.
In the following contest, Pravalaguna made a winning racecourse debut. Understandably, she showed inexperience as well as talent – wandering on the approach to one hurdle and lacking fluency at others but she travelled and asserted well.
Finally Crack Mome's Clonmel success last Thursday merits mention because he clocked a good time despite running green. Walsh believes he's open to great improvement and he looks a smart recruit for owners Andrea and Graham Wylie.
There were three notable performances in this division, serving to underline that Landofhopeandglory hasn't even got one hand on the trophy just yet.
Most evidently, at Cheltenham on Saturday, Defi Du Seuil enhanced his reputation with victory in the JCB Triumph Trial Juvenile Hurdle. His manner is the most impressive of his assets: despite sitting on the wide outside of a dawdling pace, he settled well and jumped slickly. He was not overly extended to repel the doughty Coeur De Lion by just under two lengths with nine lengths back to the third.
Trainer Philip Hobbs complimented Defi Du Seuil's professionalism. He added: "Barry [Geraghty, his jockey] was particularly impressed with his jumping, especially the last where he met it slightly wrong. His words were 'He's on springs'."
A quick reappearance in the Grade One Finale Hurdle was also mooted, with Hobbs certain that his horse is effective in Chepstow's usually testing ground. He cited the testimony of previous trainer Emmanuel Clayeux that Defi Du Seuil had won in France when the ground was all but unraceable.
Of the Triumph – the horse's ultimate target and usually staged on a sound surface – Hobbs added: "I hope that, like most good horses, he can go on any ground but I feel he's one that copes very well with the soft."
It's the trainer's emphasis on the suitability of soft ground that niggles away at any inclination to back him at 8/1 for that March target. Otherwise he has all boxes ticked: maturity beyond his years, plenty of experience, stamina for the job and a good hurdling technique.
Coeur De Lion will win more races over hurdles and doubtless come into his own when, in time, stepping up in trip. Here, on only his second NH start and having been unexposed on the Flat, he showed signs of inexperience when sensibly asked to make the running by Johnson. He was the sole rival to raise a gallop when Defi Du Seuil began his attack.
Recent impressive Newcastle winner Domperignon Du Lys flopped. He made a significant mistake at the second last and no impact thereafter. Rider Jacob seemed to expect a problem might come to light. "I'm sure he's a better horse than that," he stressed.
Three-times winner Nachi Falls bounced back from a disappointing effort at Newton Abbot last time to finish third, without ever threatening to do better. He looks a tad high in the ratings. French recruit Candy Burg got sweaty in the preliminaries; that and his previous form presaged an overly-keen style of racing that new trainer Venetia Williams must address.
At Doncaster later that same day, Cliffs Of Dover won the sixth of his seven starts over hurdles. In a change of tactics, he led from the get-go – but still was characteristically keen – and never came back to his field. Atypically untidy jumps at the final two hurdles gave Lord Justice the whiff of hope but that soon evaporated as the winner, head bowed low in determination, galloped unrelentingly on.
Time analysis confirmed the eye's testimony that, while Cliffs Of Dover was of course unhassled at his hurdles, he did not nick a cheap lead but rather raced at an exacting tempo. He's worth all the literal metrics of his success, if not a little undervalued by them.
The only concern about his Triumph credentials is that he's being trained by Nicholls as a now-horse rather than one for whom there's an important March target. Nonetheless I would be astonished if he didn't run well in the race, albeit I wonder whether Aintree might suit him better.
The winner didn't need to improve on – or perhaps even match – his best form, a nine-length defeat of Nietzsche at Wetherby. That horse has since franked the form by beating newcomer Project Bluebook at Catterick, himself an interesting staying Flat recruit from a yard that does well with juvenile hurdlers.
To put the Doncaster form into some context, Zig Zag – who like Lord Justice and Landofhopeandglory is housed at Joseph O'Brien's yard – never raised a challenge to Cliffs Of Dover and finished almost 12 lengths adrift off level weights. He'd previously received a four-length beating, in receipt of 7lb, from his most illustrious stablemate.
Landofhopeandglory's form also ties in with impressive Cork winner Dinaria Des Obeaux. She sauntered into the lead on her hurdling debut and first start for Gordon Elliott last Sunday having jumped very well bar for small mistakes at the second and second-last.
Tout Et Permis and Alcander were left trailing 29 lengths and more behind; the latter had finished within five lengths of Landofhopeandglory at Fairyhouse on his previous start with the former almost seven lengths further adrift. Tout Et Permis got squeezed up slightly in a pincer movement at the third last but rallied like an improving stayer.
Beaten favourite Tree Of Knowledge jumped poorly and lost a shoe. Bracklin Princess may have made her headway too quickly. Papal Motel and in particular Landsman caught the eye for future reference. However, there didn't look to be a great deal of depth behind the smart winner, who clocked a good time.
Assistant trainer Olly Murphy admitted he was "pleasantly surprised" with Dinaria Des Obeaux. Owners Gigginstown Stud do not always find irresistible the seductive wiles of the Cheltenham Festival but fillies Apple's Jade and Petite Parisienne (both trained by Mullins) have represented them in the Triumph in the previous two years. The widespread 20/1 massively underestimates her.
Finally Tyrell won Warwick's juvenile hurdle last Thursday in the style of a stayer. Wearing the blinkers he habitually donned on the Flat – but absent on his NH debut at Exeter – he made the running, jumped pretty well and galloped on strongly. He stayed two miles and preferred a sound surface in his former discipline.
"It was softer than he'd like but Tyrell learned plenty from Exeter. The blinkers certainly helped – they just get him to focus. He's essentially a galloper. We might leave him now until the spring as he's a good-ground horse," said trainer Alan King.
The Road to Cheltenham ante-post betting portfolio:
Djakadam: advised 15/11/16 for the Gold Cup at 12/1 each way
Top Notch: advised 30/11/16 for the Arkle at 25/1 each way
Sceau Royal: advised 30/11/16 for the Champion Hurdle at 33/1 each way
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