Road To Cheltenham: Cynical? Me?
In the latest instalment of the Road to Cheltenham, Lydia Hislop unpicks Yorkhill's latest success and the post-race reaction.
Yorkhill: Positives and negatives to be taken from Willie Mullins' latest quotes.
This was the week when Champion Hurdle veterans demonstrated the life left in their nine-year-old legs, although perhaps for an alternative target, and a winning performance from Yorkhill unnerved in the detail and prompted even more disconcerting words from his trainer.
Meanwhile an unexpected Gold Cup contender emerged from the Haydock race expected to inaugurate one of his rivals and the same card witnessed the best British novice-hurdling performance to date this season.
Stan James Champion Hurdle
Last Saturday The New One won his third Haydock Champion Hurdle Trial in trademark right-jumping effortful style, recording a magnificent 18th career success. Outside of Grade One company, this redoubtable animal has been beaten only once in his life.
Afterwards, rider Sam Twiston-Davies put it best. "He seems to come here [and] never does it prettily but he always gets the job done," he said. "He keeps finding… he's a real trier. Three out was a mess, two out not much better, and I went for the safe option at the last."
No need for much more analysis, really, except to underline quite how much The New One smashed through the third last and to observe the new bit that perhaps got him jumping straighter when winning the International Hurdle two starts ago seems to have had a one-race expiry date. His characteristic kink was in evidence from the very first hurdle here.
Admittedly, he had no championship-standard rival to beat after Irving took a hurdler's tumble at the fourth, floored by clipping the top bar, and L'Ami Serge bowed out of battle quickly after the last. Daryl Jacob had been trying to conserve what fight his mount possesses via covering him up on the inside but only succeeded in handing him an excuse to quit when short of room approaching the last and colliding with the wing.
However Nicky Henderson's team was rightly keen to underline the mitigating factors via Twitter the next day by posting the Haydock stewards' report that L'Ami Serge lost a shoe and a post-race endoscopic examination revealed blood in his trachea. Nonetheless his trainer also spoke of switching back to fences. Whatever his mettle, this horse needs his sights lowering.
So it was left to improving handicapper Clyne – also a Champion Hurdle entry – to serve it up to The New One and his excellent hurdling technique under pressure meant his superior rival, conceding 8lb, only mastered him near the line.
Clyne will give himself every opportunity to win more races due to his sturdy attitude and superb jumping. However the Betfair Hurdle doesn't strike me as ideal even though that's naturally his next target given this performance; he'll surely be multiply harried for the lead there.
Fellow Champion entrant Cyrus Darius was returning from 16 months on the sidelines with a tendon issue and had been a highly progressive novice two seasons ago, but he was cooked from the home turn and not persisted with to finish a distant fourth. He didn't show enough to suggest his lofty March target is viable.
For The New One, it's a question of which Festival race and there is dissent in the camp. Assistant trainer Carl Llewellyn and Twister Junior say Stayers' Hurdle – their argument is dealt with in the next section – but Nigel Twiston-Davies says Champion. And he's the boss.
"What if all this time we've had a horse that really does try and gallop yet we never gave him the chance of running over three [miles]?" argued Sam in his post-race interview with Peter Naughton on Racing UK.
"It's an option. I've made Nige promise me that we will try it one day, with the deal that I won't complain about which target he goes for this year."
Apart from illustrating yet again what a superb relationship this father-and-son team enjoy, this was an admirably plain-speaking interview. The urge to try something new with this horse is understandable, given he has fallen short in nine of his 11 Grade One attempts but perhaps that – rather than anything that a trip might influence – is the essential point.
Except for peddling the 'alternative fact' utterly refuted by The New One's record (and worldwide evidence in general) that "Grade Twos are more difficult to win than Grade Ones", Twister Senior was equally straightforward about future plans.
He essentially reasoned that it depends on how Faugheen and Annie Power shape up: if there are doubts about their wellbeing, then he'd favour another shot at the Champion; if one or other returns imperious, the Stayers' event becomes the target.
Speaking of which, Willie Mullins was in top tantalising form earlier this week when speaking at the launch for Sunday's BHP Insurance Irish Champion Hurdle – a race for which he fields four of the six five-day entries including 2015 Champion Hurdle victor Faugheen.
"Hopefully all will be well with both horses and if that's the case we'll have a big decision to make," Mullins said of his discussions with owner Rich Ricci. "If we split them up and both win that would be great but if we ran one in the Champion Hurdle and he, or she, got beaten then we'd be wondering 'what if?'
"The Champion Hurdle is the big one. At this stage I wouldn't rule out the possibility of both of them running… Both of them have won the race, so what do you do? Run both of them, or only one and go for another race with the other?"
Yep, dem's de options, Willie, as they have been all season. My first reaction to this was that trainers these days know how to play the game when they're promoting a race – even if the race this trailed was more Cheltenham's than Leopardstown's. My second was to wonder whether Mullins is currently quite as confident as he claims about either of his Champion Hurdle winners.
The subsequent kite he flew about Yorkhill reverting to hurdles – albeit he'd need supplementing for this year's Champion, having been perhaps oddly absent from the entries last week – only hardened that view. (More on that later.) Yes, I'm cynical – guilty as charged.
That said, the fact Mullins says he's attempting to get a prep-race into Annie Power in a 2m4f mares' event at Punchestown on 22 February does suggest he's keen to prime her for one of the Festival's more arduous targets. She is of course entered in all three open Grade One hurdles.
Were her definitive target the OLBG David Nicholson Mares' Hurdle, you'd suspect he'd be content to send her straight there but then again at this stage she's still a potential understudy – or co-star, if you believe in miracles – for Faugheen. Stand well back: this situation is volatile.
Seriously: Annie Power and Faugheen really should both run in the Champion Hurdle. They're both defending champions in a sense and what is the point of this sport – especially in jump racing, with its lack of bloodstock consequence – if the best do not take on the best in the best races?
Mullins' track record testifies that he, understandably, prefers to win as many Festival races as possible but Ricci has always talked a hifalutin game about the importance of proper sporting competition. Provided events don't rescue him from making a decision – and they always can be made to, can't they? – this March could be the moment for him to put his money where his mouth is.
Sun Bets Stayers' Hurdle
Jezki made a winning return on his first start for almost 21 months at Navan last Saturday, brushing aside capable but inferior rivals on advantageous weight terms as behoves a former Champion Hurdle winner.
The positives were plentiful: he settled well despite being fresh (even without the hood trainer Jessica Harrington had used to tame him in his younger days), readily took closer order when required and has lost none of his old efficiency at his obstacles. He was already getting the better of Renneti and Tombstone for hands and heels approaching the last, but a fast getaway sealed it.
The flipside is the 2014 Festival hero was about 20lb below his best. That shows up as wildly optimistic the 10/1 he's quoted for the Champion Hurdle in one book – even if that is NRNB. Although connections were non-committal afterwards about his likely Cheltenham target, the 8/1 best with Ladbrokes about the Stayers' Hurdle may suggest that remains their preference.
"Barry [Geraghty, jockey] said he took a blow going down the back, blew up again after the second last and then just filled up and went away," said Harrington. "We had him ready to run at Christmas and he got a little bit of a setback. Every time you go, you worry about whether you have done too much or not done enough and whether he has his old spark."
We'll learn more in the Red Mills Trial Hurdle at Gowran next month, another two-mile event that was identified as Jezki's next target. "I think he gets in with no penalties," explained Harrington.
"I think on soft ground we would be better going two miles and not bottoming him out. He could still do a job over two miles but we know he stays three, so we have options. As long as he's sound in the morning – that's the main thing."
When Jezki won a Punchestown Grade One over three miles two Aprils ago, he beat two horses also unproven at the trip in Hurricane Fly and Zabana in an overall time you'd only accuse of being fair. His 2015 Aintree Hurdle success over 2m4f was encouraging, however – far more so than The New One's 2014 triumph when he scrambled home, the needle on empty. Of the pair's stamina for the Stayers' Hurdle task, I rate Jezki's more highly.
Of course owner JP McManus already has favourite Unowhatimeanharry for this event but given he also has Yanworth (and a potential cast of extras) for the Champion Hurdle, Harrington will probably be free to target her horse at whichever race that suits him best.
In either scenario he faces lining up without the service of Geraghty who is unbeaten, six wins from six starts, on board but at least Mark Walsh was the pilot for that Punchestown success.
One absentee from this event whom I overlooked when checking over the entries last week is Different Gravey, who was quoted in this market after running horribly over fences at Cheltenham in December.
OLBG David Nicholson Mares' Hurdle
There's only yak to report in this division. It's possible Apple's Jade could take on Annie Power at Punchestown next month, to ensure it isn't the cakewalk she enjoyed on her return last season. But trainer Gordon Elliott has also mentioned the Boyne Hurdle over three miles as a potential target.
Ascot's abandonment last Saturday means the Grade Two OLBG.com (Warfield) Mares Hurdle will be staged at Huntingdon this Friday. Kotkikova was set to be favourite at Ascot but also holds a Cleeve entry on Saturday. Fellow entrant Whiteout also holds a potential earlier option in Thursday's Galmoy Hurdle at Gowran.
Timico Gold Cup
Last Saturday's Peter Marsh Handicap Chase was rightly billed as the vehicle for a valid Gold Cup hope. Yet that was not, as it turned out, Colin Tizzard's Porsche Number Four – who pulled onto the hard shoulder after the fourth last after a shoddy round of jumping – but rather silky-jumping Bristol De Mai, who motored home in front.
He got into a beautiful rhythm from the outset and whether or not horses were upsides, Jacob scarcely needed to move on this likeable grey throughout the entire three-mile test. This was a resounding career-best from a horse thumped on debut this season and uncharacteristically dull at his fences at Newcastle last time.
His 22-length winning margin was exaggerated by runner-up Otago Trail burying his head in the turf at the second last and some key rivals – Vintage Clouds and Definitly Red – departing at the preceding fence when already beaten, but this dominant display was entirely underpinned by the testimony of the clock. Furthermore the winner was never placed under any pressure and coasted home from two out.
It's possible that Haydock particularly suits Bristol De Mai because one of his better novice-chasing performances came on the same card last year when winning a Grade Two by 32 lengths. That said, his JLT second to Black Hercules at last year's Festival was a comparable achievement.
Jacob reportedly compared him to quadruple Grade One chase winner The Listener, who needed testing ground to excel and was often dispatched to Ireland in search of it, but that might be unhelpfully pigeon-holing a six-year-old who's totally unexposed at three miles and further. Long Run won a Gold Cup at that age in 2011 and Djakadam was six when second in 2015.
Asked whether Bristol De Mai would take up his Gold Cup or Ryanair entry at the Festival, Twiston-Davies said it depends "how Thistlecrack and everyone else goes". But surely he will Go Big – anything else would be against his nature and the is the Gold Cup right race. The official handicapper agrees: he now rates Bristol De Mai at 166, only 5ls behind Thistlecrack's chase mark.
Depending on how literally you processed the hype, Alary was disappointing. He might well have an engine of the size Tizzard claimed beforehand but he'd never raced at British-style tempo over British-style fences. The writing was on the wall from lurching through the first fence. As mentioned previously, a mark of 162 looked more than enough and his erstwhile odds for the Gold Cup plain daft.
Meanwhile in news from off the track, Elliott says Outlander heads straight for the Gold Cup whereas stablemates and fellow Gigginstown soldiers, Empire Of Dirt and a smock-less Don Poli, will go for the Irish Gold Cup next month.
More immediately at Cheltenham this Saturday, at-best evens favourite Thistlecrack faces a substantial enough examination in the BetBright Trial Cotswold Chase via the participation of regulars Many Clouds and Smad Place and at a track that exposed his naivety last time he encountered it.
For those hankering after More Of That running in the Gold Cup, if his entry in the Stayers' Hurdle was dispiriting enough, his engagement in Saturday's cross-country event on the same card must be a hammer blow.
Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase
The abandonment of Ascot due to a hard frost last Saturday means the Clarence House has been transferred to Cheltenham and will be sponsored by Spectra Group. Un De Sceaux is set to be present and correct but trainer Gary Moore is not a happy camper.
You can sympathise with his thinking in the short term: it probably would have been more equitable to transfer this race to another right-handed track by waiting a further week for Sandown's fixture. It's unlikely a good horse would run this weekend and a fortnight later in the Game Spirit anyway, so staging the races seven days apart would probably have made no material difference.
However Moore's choice of vocabulary was revealing, not to say alarming if you've backed Ar Mad for either the Champion Chase or the Ryanair. "It's not a fair track, nor a conventional racecourse," he protested to the British Horseracing Authority when consulted on their plan to reschedule the race at Cheltenham. That's gotta put you off, hasn't it?
Having dealt with the Kinloch Brae in last week's edition of the Road, there is little to report here except that Sizing John has reached a price that makes runner-up Sub Lieutenant too long at 16/1.
The extra accent on stamina caused by omitting the last fence definitely helped the winner reel in his good-jumping rival, although I'd still argue Sizing John has the greater potential at this trip.
Meanwhile, the rescheduled Clarence House has provided an opportunity for trainer Alan King to get 2015 Ryanair hero Uxizandre back in action for the first time since that memorable success.
Yorkhill continues to demonstrate his massive ability but his latest success in a Grade Three event at Leopardstown still managed to be disconcerting even before Mullins mentioned targeting next year's Champion Hurdle.
None of his four rivals in last Sunday's contest were slouches by any means and yet he only needed to be minimally nudged out after the last to dismiss them with contempt. Improving Jett – far more patiently-ridden than of late – got closest, almost to his heels by the line, but was hard ridden to do so against a characteristically idling winner.
Contemptuous it might have been but stylish it was not. Yorkhill's satnav is clearly faulty: he jumped even more markedly left than last time, despite switching to a left-handed track. On some occasions he landed three horse widths to the inside of the chase track and had to be quickly corrected by Ruby Walsh. If it had got much worse, his jockey would have needed to find a safe place to perform a U-turn.
Fans of Yorkhill, of which I am one, might argue he jumped left over hurdles. That he did, but never as wildly as this. They might also point to his strong finishing splits compared with the subsequent handicap but the flaw in this argument is that nobody's arguing with his innate ability. It's just that if he jumps like that, he'll be vulnerable in the JLT let alone the Arkle.
Walsh, though, was typically phlegmatic. "He was a bit keen and we went a fair gallop. He'll learn a lot from today. It was typical Yorkhill in front, not doing a lot, but when they got within a few lengths of him he went on again and there was loads left in the tank," he said.
"I thought I went an hour too soon on him in the Neptune last year, when he jumped the last that day he ran around and pulled up. That's just him. He jumps to his left, but that's not a worry – Leopardstown is left, Cheltenham is left and Aintree is left."
Yet surely even the most forgiving of judges were unnerved when, at the aforementioned press conference earlier this week, Mullins seemed to betray some discontent with how Yorkhill has taken to fences.
"We'll see how things go but I would have absolutely no problem going back over hurdles with him next season if we're not convinced about his jumping over fences," he said.
"Leaving Cheltenham [last] March after he won the Neptune, I thought he had what it takes to be a Champion Hurdle contender this year. We thought long and hard about going chasing with him instead so the next few months should be very informative."
Now there is conceivably a scenario whereby Mullins might have said this in response to a leading question, thereby mitigating its significance, but it's not what you want to hear if you've backed him to win a Festival novice chase this term. However you can also read that comment as a strong steer that Yorkhill will stay chasing this season unless something unexpected happens.
On the downside, that could yet come to pass given Mullins is considering running him again before Cheltenham; on the upside, if you have backed him (as I have) for the Arkle, you'd prefer him to get more invaluable experience after this showing.
Setting aside my specific concerns about a top-class horse for a moment, I would still prefer him to run in the Arkle. The Old Course is the tighter left-handed track of Cheltenham's two and might just suit him – he already proved he handles it when winning the Neptune. A stronger pace would also enable his huge engine to purr along sweetly.
Mullins tends to agree. "We could come back in trip if we want. His pedigree and everything suggests he could go out in trip but whether he's too strong (keen) to go a longer trip or not, I don't know," he said.
"I'm not trying to interfere with his jumping much and I'm hoping with more experience on the track he'll get out of that [left-jumping] habit."
Entries for the Festival's novice chases are unveiled this week and Yorkhill will surely be entered in at least two (if not three or all four) of them, along with stablemate and seeming Arkle first string Min, who runs at Leopardstown this Sunday.
Later on the same card, novice chaser A Toi Phil did well to win a competitive handicap chase after being hampered by a faller on the home turn. He shaped as if needing all of this 2m5f. Success from an Irish mark of 143 underpins the form of Coney Island and Our Duke, both of whom thumped him earlier this season. Elliott reportedly mentioned the Irish Grand National for A Toi Phil.
At Navan the previous day, Acapella Bourgeois soon established a long lead in the 2m4f beginners' chase and odds-on favourite Arbre De Vie was never quite able to get on terms. The latter managed to bridge much of the gap approaching the last but the winner had enough left for a comfortable victory.
He looked a lot happier than at Leopardstown last time, perhaps due to the removal of the cheekpieces or the far more testing surface. Trainer Sandra Hughes certainly believes the latter is pivotal.
"He is very ground-dependent and unless it came up soft at Cheltenham, we will give it a miss," she said, adding that Acapella Bourgeois needs "three or four weeks between his races". Given he often adjusted right at his fences here, Cheltenham might not prove ideal even were the rains to come.
Two smart but raw youngsters clashed in Haydock's Grade Two novices' event last Saturday but each might need a particular set of circumstances to realise their full potential. I suspect neither will run at the Festival this year.
Waiting Patiently ultimately beat Politologue by a length and a quarter, his rider Brian Hughes having eked out his stamina for 2m4f in soft ground with a patient and well-judged ride. He jumped measuredly, challenging on approach to the last and was always holding his rival despite hanging right across to the stands' rail on the run-in.
Trainer Malcolm Jefferson suggested the winner had idled and was delivered purposely late to get home in "not very nice ground" but he also asserted: "I'm not so sure that two miles isn't his better trip – he's got a hell of a turn of foot."
The dynamics of this race rather bear him out: they went hard early and tired in the straight.
In his post-race interview, Jefferson also offered unprompted that Waiting Patiently will have an Arkle entry as well as the assumed JLT engagement. But he also warned: "He wouldn't go to Cheltenham unless it's soft".
These are not empty words; this horse displays a rounded knee action and Jefferson can readily withstand the lure of the Festival. Indeed this horse might have been named after his latest trainer's modus operandi.
Jefferson was quick to recognise this horse's potential as a chaser, though, immediately eschewing a hurdles campaign after schooling him over the larger obstacles. He'd received him at the start of the season from trainer Keith Reveley, who retires at the end of this month. The yard also possesses another decent novice chaser in Cloudy Dream, who might be better suited to the likely conditions at Cheltenham.
Politologue was edgily sweaty in the preliminaries and again too free in the race but he seems intelligently to adapt his jumping to the track at hand. He negotiated Ascot with bold leaps whereas he almost hurdled a few at Haydock, as if sensing those modern-day ghosts of the fences that formerly stood there demanded less respect.
While Hughes allowed Waiting Patiently to lurk behind, Its'afreebee took on Politolgue for the lead in the back straight. The runner-up gradually shrugged off that challenge but despite jumping soundly in the home straight could not shake off the winner. He rallied when headed, keeping on well to the line and was of course conceding 3lb.
Politologue has got a lot of maturing to do if he's going to make it as a chaser. After his previous Ascot success, I wrote: "I suspect Politologue will eventually stay three miles but needs to further strengthen in order to do so." This latest piece of evidence underpins that interpretation but add to it the requirement for mental development. He's never going cut it if he doesn't learn to settle.
His asset is his jumping but he doesn't even relax in the lead. Here, he only confirmed the ability he showed last time rather than build on it and for that reason Cheltenham might well not be the right option for him this season. His trainer Paul Nicholls hinted as much at Ascot but he's not always made of the same granite as Jefferson when it comes to resisting temptation.
Its'afreebee was well below his career-best success at Wetherby last time at a track and on ground that he's coped well with in the past. To the credit of his training at Dan Skelton's yard, he jumped soundly when dog tired over the final two fences. Handicaps on better ground look like his best option.
Recent Newcastle handicap chase winner Bun Doran, pulled up before the last, ran far better than that letter next to his name will imply. His jumping lacked some fluency under pressure but, on ground he likes, he was hanging on in there upsides Its'afreebee until weakening from two out. Provided all is well, he's capable of winning from his mark when his sights are lowered.
Finally, King has stated in his Weekender column that Label Des Obeaux, who's achieved a decent level of form in three placed starts over fences, heads for the JT McNamara NH Chase.
Having negotiated the shallow waters of his hurdles debut at Exeter with an authority greater than his winning margin, the notably well-backed Neon Wolf transitioned into classier company on his second start with the assurance of a smart horse.
Yet in the aftermath of his Grade Two Sky Bet Supreme Trial Rossington Main Novices' Hurdle success, winning jockey Noel Fehily cited the owners' liking for Punchestown – a yen shared by trainer Harry Fry.
However, Fry also has form for finding the siren call of the Festival too seductive to bear and, once this shrewd trainer has crunched the numbers, he may find the Supreme moves up his agenda because this was surely the best performance by a British-trained novice hurdler all season to date.
Carrying 4lb less, Neon Wolf's overall time was better than The New One's 35 minutes later and quicker in the home straight, having reached that bend in a similar time if slightly different fashion. Of course his two mistakes, one of them major, would have retarded The New One by strict comparison.
Fehily pushed out Neon Wolf to the line for this nine-length success but he still left the impression of having more to give. As befits a horse having just his third start under Rules, he showed signs of inexperience when turning for home in the lead but his jumping in the straight was excellent.
"I thought early on he was a little bit babyish in his jumping," Fehily told Racing UK. "As he went on he jumped better and I thought the way he let rip up the straight was very impressive. He showed a great turn of foot up the straight today. For a horse that will definitely stay further I thought he was very impressive."
Fehily had been concerned beforehand that 1m7f at Haydock's sharp track might place too great an emphasis on speed but on soft ground at least, the opposite was the case – this horse had plenty of toe for the task. He added that Neon Wolf wouldn't want "quick" going, preferring "anything with a bit of dig in it" and sees him as a nascent chaser.
The major factor weighing against Neon Wolf's participation in the Supreme might be his naivety compared with typical winners of this race.
He hails from the Point-to-pointing field, something he shares on his CV with only two of the past 1- winners, Champagne Fever and Al Ferof. However, they both subsequently ran eight times under Rules prior to the Supreme.
Neon Wolf has hitherto raced only twice over hurdles. Captain Cee Bee and Ebaziyan both won the Festival's opening event with hurdling experience that scant but they had also run six times beforehand, either on the Flat or in bumpers.
Unless he has another start, Neon Wolf would be pitching up with just four races under his belt – a Point, a bumper and two hurdles. Of the past ten winners, only Douvan had as little experience but at least all of his starts were over hurdles. Your non-exceptional Supreme winner has already felt the heat of battle in many races – even Altior had appeared seven times.
Perhaps Neon Wolf is exceptional – evidence is accumulating for this hope – but it could be that his long-term growth would indeed be better served by ducking the Festival this year. If connections roll the big dice, he's a highly attractive 10/1 NRNB with sponsors Sky Bet right now. Were the Festival to be staged on softish ground – a rare thing – that price would look very long. I'm pretty sure his revised official rating of 148 doesn't do him full justice.
Runner-up Elgin just couldn't ever get to grips with the winner. He jumped well but jockey Wayne Hutchinson seemed to accept the struggle was unequal on the approach to the last.
Trainer King had targeted this race to test-drive his theory that Elgin requires right-handed tracks but, although that might comfort his connections for the manner of his vanquishing, there was no obvious kink to his racing left-handed here and this was a career-best on paper. It might be as good as he is. We'll find out more when he takes in Plan A, next month's Dovecote.
That Mohaayed, previously runner-up to Elgin at Kempton, was a well-beaten fourth gives this notion some substance but his margin of defeat was exaggerated by dragging his hind legs through the third last with prolonged effect. That said he was under pressure, though responding to a degree, at the time.
Third-placed Crievehill continues to improve in his own sphere and jumped safely when tired late on, having been keen early. He never had the pace to get near the winner and was comfortably held by the second, too. He looks a chaser.
Rewinding to Ludlow last Thursday, River Wylde won the closing novices' hurdle comfortably under a penalty in soft going, travelling strongly into the lead approaching the last but then hanging greenly left to the stands' rail.
He'd previously dotted up in a maiden over the same course and distance and boasts an upwardly mobile career trajectory. His only blip to date came when trailing in 40 lengths adrift as beaten favourite in a Cheltenham bumper last October.
"River Wylde is a good horse and he would have hated that ground," said Henderson. "We'll head to the Dovecote next with him and that will tell us whether to go to Cheltenham. We'll find out just how good he is when he gets some better ground. The timing of this race was crucial, really – it enabled us to give him some more experience as he's still green."
Over in Ireland, C'est Jersey paid a small compliment to my Neptune fancy Any Second Now by winning a 2m4f maiden at Navan last Saturday by a clear margin. He'd previously been mugged by that horse over two miles here in December but ran poorly over this trip at Fairyhouse last time.
Mullins reached for the cheekpieces on this occasion and perhaps they made the difference. C'est Jersey travelled sweetly at the fore of mid-division and made stealthy headway towards the lead from the home turn.
He was shuffled back by ultimate fourth A Rated jumping left across him at the second last but recovered to challenge at the last. There he sprawled right and bumped main rival Black Key. Shaken up by Walsh, he then quickly recovered to power clear.
Perhaps Black Key was materially unbalanced by the collision because he initially found less off the bridle than his smooth waited-with progress to the last had promised. He did recover to chase the winner more meaningfully but his chance had gone by then. A decent stayer on the Flat for Hughie Morrison two terms ago, he was more comfortably held last time by the winner's stablemate Montalbano at Leopardstown.
"He's improving slowly," Mullins said of C'est Jersey. "He could go out to three miles although he shows us plenty at home. He doesn't have any regard for his hurdles so he could be one of those horses that might do better over fences."
The eye-catcher was sixth-placed Bilbo Baggins who didn't seem to want any adventures this day, buried in a share of second last exiting the fourth last but coming past beaten horses in a race totally dominated by those who raced far more prominently. He possessed no credible Rules form prior to this but had shown flashes of ability in Points.
At Leopardstown the following day, Justmemyselfandi showed improved form to get off the mark on his second start in the 2m2f maiden hurdle, underpinning the form of his Limerick conqueror Kemboy. The latter is a potential live Neptune player and is entered at Leopardstiown this Sunday.
Back at Thurles last Thursday, The Storyteller took the scalp of Battleford under a guard-changing ride by Jack Kennedy in the extended 2m6f event. He would probably have won anyway but as eventual third Wishmoor weakened from his position disputing the lead with the Walsh-ridden runner-up, Kennedy wriggled his mount into that position – up the inside of his main rival, no less. The chutzpah of the lad.
Battleford had nosed into the lead at the third last with a far better jump than either of his closest pursuers but under pressure he started to adjust left after that. In particular, he got in too close to the second last and that mistake in effect presented victory to the more professional winner. Granted the office, The Storyteller made no mistake at the last.
"He's a nice horse and will win plenty of races. Whether he goes into a handicap or stays in novice company, we will see," said Elliott. "The owners like to have a runner at Cheltenham so he'll probably run in something over there. More of a galloping track will suit him better."
I like The Storyteller's steadily improving trajectory. He shapes like a thorough stayer and that could result in him contesting the Albert Bartlett unless Elliott gets him qualified quickly for the Pertemps. The Coral Cup or Martin Pipe could place a tad too much emphasis on speed but he does handle a faster surface and is maturing all the time.
Battleford was beaten on merit and stuck on, hard ridden, in the straight. He appears a class below graded company over hurdles but could get a workable mark for handicaps.
Earlier on that card, Battleford's stable-companion Al Baum Photo took the second division of the two-mile maiden hurdle in the style of a horse that will do better upped in trip. Mullins is already on the case and suggested entries in both the Neptune and Albert Bartlett.
In the first division Surf Instructor built on his rallying second to the Mullins-trained Coquin Mans with a likeable success, outspeeding another member of the Mullins massive, Timi Roll, approaching the last and then securing victory with a good jump. Four-year-old Icario, last seen when second to smart fellow juvenile Dakota Moirette, then rallied to pass Timi Roll for second spot. This race was a fractionally slower time than the later division.
Word reaches me that Mark Walsh suggested Any Second Now could miss the Festival for the benefit of his long-term development. The crunch will therefore come next week when we discover whether he's been entered in the Neptune. If he is and his form continues to work out, the lure of Cheltenham might (rightly) prove tough to resist.
Turning to the mares, Toe The Line followed up some decent placed efforts – most notably when third to Turcagua at Punchestown last month – by winning the opening event at Leopardstown last Sunday. While her owners are keen on the Trull House Stud Dawn Run Mares' Novices' Hurdle, trainer John Kiely believes she's "not in that league" – correctly, on all known form to date.
But Airlie Beach, who won an open Grade One for novices at Fairyhouse last month, heads straight to Cheltenham. That's according to Steve Massey, racing manager for owners the Supreme Racing syndicate.
"If Willie [Mullins] was to say we'll run in the Supreme, we'd say great," said Massey. "However it's not every day you have a favourite for a race, which she is for the mares' novice after her Grade One win… I'd say she's more likely to run [there]."
There is little to report from this division with Cosmeapolitan having missed a date against his elders with the abandonnment of Taunton last Saturday.
The most interesting performance therefore came at Wetherby when Most Celebrated, a lightly-raced Flat recruit from Saeed bin Suroor's Godolphin yard now housed with Neil Mulholland, won by 28 lengths pretty much on the bridle. He could yet progress into a Fred Winter contender.
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
Arpege D'Alene: advised 15/12/16 for the NH Chase at 20/1 each way
Yorkhill: advised 21/12/16 for the Arkle at 7/1 win only
Don Poli: advised 31/12/16 for the Grand National at 25/1 each way
Valseur Lido: advised 31/12/16 for the Ryanair at 12/1 each way [likely NR]
Sizing John: advised 19/01/16 for the Ryanair at 8/1 NRNB win only
Any Second Now: advised 19/01/16 for the Neptune at 16/1 each way
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