Road To Cheltenham: Grand plans
Now that we've been hit in all directions by form developments over the typically busy Christmas period, it's time to pause and take stock prior to absorbing the New Year action. I hope you're sitting somewhere comfortable?
Outlander wins the Lexus Chase but it's the two obscured horses behind him – Don Poli and Valseur Lido – who Lydia Hislop wants to be backing now
Timico Gold Cup
Thistlecrack must have lost his L-plates somewhere between the third fence at Newbury in November and lining up at Kempton last Monday because he looked the finished article, on just his fourth chase start, when becoming the first novice ever to win the 32Red King George VI Chase.
Manifestly the small field aided his cause – and that fact probably also placed his only credible rival Cue Card at a disadvantage – but the younger horse was also brilliant in dismissing with exuberant contempt four rivals vastly more experienced and decorated in this sphere.
The signs were there from the outset when, despite the whole field bar Tea For Two vying for the lead at the first, Thistlecrack jumped it with a calm maturity not underwritten by his previous experiences. He then let rip at the second with a boldness that no longer exceeds his powers of execution. From that point onwards, he was in an unshakeable rhythm.
Paddy Brennan sensed it even before the final circuit and moved Cue Card closer to his stable companion. At the 12th fence, he applied some pressure but found it immediately and unexpectedly took a toll on his own horse's jumping. The titleholder was beaten two fences later, the rest of the field at that point toiling even more markedly.
There is no doubt Brennan was forced to play his cards sooner than ideal due to the readiness with which Thistlecrack was dominating the rest of the field – he had to try to shove something in the winner's spokes. Had there been a larger, deeper field – as there was two days later in the Lexus, say – he could have produced Cue Card after others had tried their luck.
Asked what he thought of Brennan's tactics, winning jockey Tom Scudamore said: "I was quite happy that he was taking me on as soon as he did. I don't think he realised what a good horse Thistlecrack was and probably couldn't believe quite how quick we were going. He probably took me on sooner than ideal for him because he wasn't going well enough. I just knew that as long as I kept on jumping, the rest was going to follow."
In fact Thistlecrack simply powered away with easy surefooted alacrity. His engine has always revved to a level noticeably higher than you might notionally prefer in a staying horse but it takes no toll on him in the closing stages. Even over the undulating three miles, two and a half furlongs of the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup, I suspect it won't cut out.
Scudamore believes Thistlecrack is "an exceptional racehorse" and admires how, whatever happens, "he finds a way of winning". Trainer Colin Tizzard, who saddled the 1-2, observed: "None of us know how good Thistlecrack is, do we? Even now! Although we've got a pretty good idea… He's been that explosively brilliant for a while now and he just had to do it over fences round Kempton."
Asked about that spectacular leap at the second, Tizzard summed it up precisely: "Tom's seen it and went for the stride; the horse has seen it and he's jumped it, didn't he? It wasn't sort of guessing at it like he did at Cheltenham. The job's been done now… His jumping is now as good as any horse's jumping, isn't it? He's just a very very beautiful boy."
Tizzard admitted the decision to go for the King George, rather than the Kauto Star, did not come as easily to him as he believes it did to John and Heather Snook, Thistlecrack's owners, whose bold decision singlehandedly saved the 2016 edition of the King George from being a sparsely contested snooze-fest. They richly deserve their success, having patiently afforded Tizzard the space to nurture a horse that had only raced three times by the age of seven.
"It took me a lot longer to think whether [this race] was right or not because horses like this don't come along very often and you don't want to put them in a place where they're not comfortable," said Tizzard. "But at Newbury it became pretty obvious that he could take these on.
"And everyone else must think it as well because when we decided to declare him to run here, the Irish cancelled their ticket, didn't they? Everyone else is thinking it – it's not just me: this is a very good horse."
Everybody is indeed thinking that – he is scarcely odds-against for the Gold Cup, having been first slated at 10/1 in March and then trimmed to 7/2 as a once-raced novice chaser by the time we started on this Road To Cheltenham in early November.
It has proved a King Lear's Fool of a price, especially now yet another Gold Cup hero faces a race against time – of which more in a moment – but I still think he's been too short at every viable stage. I'm also stubborn.
However, it's beholden on me to unpick the argument for this dizzyingly short-priced favourite, if I can. If one exists, it rests on whether Thistlecrack can be so dominant on a very different track over two furlongs further – albeit the Gold Cup field isn't shaping up to be that much larger than the King George. The argument is also related to what exactly he achieved at Kempton.
Cue Card aside, he had little to beat. Former dual King George winner Silviniaco Conti is in the late autumn of his excellent career. Tea For Two is still yet to show form good enough for this level in open company. Josses Hill has looked a more complete chaser this season and did so again here until his stamina ran out. He must surely head for the Ryanair now and must run better than last term's eighth.
So the fact these horses, for varying reasons, were hunting up Cue Card for second speaks of how far short of his own high standards he ran. What to make of this? Tizzard mentioned afterwards that Cue Card had been "brilliant" in his work in preparation for Kempton so the muted performance – if not the fact of his defeat – was not presaged by his wellbeing at home. His trainer has been an accurate barometer of this in the past.
It could be that Cue Card's third Betfair Chase was a loud last hurrah from this enduring chaser now rising 11 years of age – while fully acknowledging that hurrah it undoubtedly was, given the time he clocked. It might be that these days he requires the testing going provided by Haydock – a track that also suits him particularly well – to give of his best rather than Kempton's pretty-much-good ground. It might be that unsuitable tactics and/or Thistlecrack's brilliance on the day somehow broke him. Whatever, he was up to a stone below his best.
My instinct is therefore that the winner was very impressive in not beating much. That isn't to denigrate his achievement at all but merely to observe that the Gold Cup should be a much deeper, less straightforward race.
Comparing the earlier performance of Might Bite – who would have won the novices' equivalent of the King George over the same course and distance bar for falling when drawing further clear at the last – is also interesting. Had he stood up, he would have won by about 18 lengths and probably clocked a time two or three seconds quicker than Thistlecrack's.
It's not unusual for top novice events to register faster times than open-company equivalents. When asked about that phenomenon after the King George, Scudamore argued that there tends to be no respite in the pace of open-company events whereas in novice events horses can race more within themselves, resulting in a quicker time via the even distribution of energy.
However, a sectional breakdown of the King George versus the Kauto Star reveals that at every point in each race, Thistlecrack and Mighty Bite were going at pretty much the same pace. So on this occasion the rhythms of the two events were no different. It means the novice should be rated in the 160s if Thistlecrack is indeed all that.
The good news is, true to trainer form, we're going to get another opportunity to assess Thistlecrack before the Gold Cup. "It's three months away," said a baffled Tizzard when asked whether he'd do the modish thing and put his good horse away for the rest of the winter. "I think we'll race again."
Cheltenham's Cotswold Chase next month – the meeting where Thistlecrack won last season's Cleeve en route to victory in the Race Briefly Known As The World Hurdle – is the target. Cue Card on the other hand could well go straight to the Gold Cup, where he's still got ye olde stamina question to answer, although Tizzard has since mentioned an alternative target – of which more later on.
One of the reasons for that revision happened the following day when Native River won the Welsh National from a mark of 155. That puts him bang into the Gold Cup mix and he's now clear second favourite behind Thistlecrack at 8/1.
"I've ridden him four times and each time he's improved," commented rider Richard Johnson in his Betway column. "He's got such a great attitude – he always delivers… He has to be a big player [in the Gold Cup] as he stays and jumps. If you take Thistlecrack out, it's a very open race."
Being picky, Native River wasn't quite as impressive at Chepstow as he had been in winning the Hennessy – whether that was due to the greater weight (albeit he was unpenalised for that Newbury win and 8lb well in here), the softer ground or the undulating track is hard to pin down. He didn't jump as well, with he and Johnson having a few creative dissents on the approach to fences as the latter repeatedly gunned him into them.
While he no doubt merits his place at Cheltenham, I can't help but feel the Grand National is more Native River's style. It's not difficult to envisage him off the bridle and hard driven to remain prominent with a circuit to go against pacey top-class stayers in the Gold Cup. It's not even as if rain would be unalloyed good news – it might slow the others down but he prefers a sounder surface.
While we're talking Aintree, surely Don Poli should head straight for the National? Clearly a spot of hunting has revived this existentialist racehorse – it made him feel alive again – because he ran a stonker to finish second in the Lexus last Wednesday.
David Mullins rode him aggressively to mostly hold a prominent position in a steadily run affair and the indolent Don Poli responded half-heartedly to those tactics between fences but each time he spotted an obstacle ahead, he came alive. The actual technicalities of jumping seemed to be the only thing holding his attention so there was little incentive for him after clearing the last in dispute of the lead. His innate stamina also then kicked in, mind.
I used to think Don Poli could go either way in the National: love it or spit the dummy after a maximum of three fences. Now I think he'll definitely love it. If he spends the next three months doing something completely different – a painting class, perhaps – and then heads to Aintree, he could really click with the place.
Given I established this as a potential diversion last year, I'm taking a chance and recommending we back him at 25/1 each-way with Hills, Coral or Sky Bet. He's got the class, the jumping skills and the stamina. And he's fast becoming a cult hero of mine.
Talking of which, I thought Djakadam ran perfectly well in the Lexus. Granted he can hardly claim Thistlecrack's brilliance but he ran far better than the literal form in a race conducted at an unsuitably slow pace.
Ruby Walsh took the bold man's route down the inside at Leopardstown, of course, but it didn't prove the best tactic as things panned out because he got shuffled back not once but twice – and that's a fatal setback with a thorough stayer. (Yes, I said thorough stayer, you daft Ryanair advocates.)
Both occasions involved the weakening Smashing, who didn't drop away as early as his inferiority merited because the pace was so slow. He was going less well than Djakadam approaching the second last and on the home turn and checked him back twice.
On the heels of Djakadam, the smooth-travelling Valseur Lido had a similar problem the first time but was malleable enough to adjust around Smashing, avoiding the second bout of interference on the home turn and neatly shutting off Walsh's escape route in the process.
As a result turning into the straight Djakadam was in a share of sixth and actually did well to force a photo for second with the better-positioned not-stopping Don Poli, having been more than two lengths down on him at that stage. All he did was stay on after getting out-speeded so why anyone says he needs to drop in trip is beyond me.
Luckily it's beyond Willie Mullins, too: his only consideration was whether the horse would go straight to the Gold Cup or have one more run in between. That Festival test is what suits him best and I still anticipate a strong showing. If you didn't take the 12/1 each-way in November then take the 14/1 now because he's still the most over-priced horse in a market packed with potential absentees.
The exception to that could of course be the Lexus winner himself, Outlander. He was a length and a quarter behind a more positively ridden Djakadam in the John Durkan and had been shaping all season as though a step up in trip was warranted. He also jumped better than is frequently the case.
As the pace lifted at the second last, he immediately responded to encouragement to take closer order. He was nudged slightly by Valseur Lido on the home turn but was able to hold his ground to join that horse and Don Poli in a synchronised Gigginstown three-horse leap at the last. He then responded to pressure to draw steadily clear at the line.
A steadily-run three miles at Leopardstown is a very different task to a likely well-run three miles, two and a half furlongs at Cheltenham but it could be that Outlander is even better suited by that. Moving up to staying distances might well have given him the extra time he needs to get his jumping right – he fell in last season's JLT and when having a Clonmel Grade Two at his mercy in November. However, it could also be that the manner in which the Lexus was run enabled him to utilise his superior turn of foot against two thorough stayers.
Trainer Gordon Elliott commented: "It wasn't that much of a surprise that he won. He would have won at Clonmel but for falling at the last and there was little between him and Djakadam in the John Durkan at Punchestown when one jump probably made the difference between winning and losing…
"The Irish Gold Cup back here in February would look an obvious race for him."
Although the soundness of Outlander's jumping is another question mark hanging over his Gold Cup ambitions, Ladbrokes's 20/1 looks overly bold given four of the seven horses shorter than him in their market are not guaranteed runners.
One of those horses is sadly 2015 Gold Cup hero Coneygree whom the Bradstocks last week admitted faces a race against time to make it to Cheltenham. He definitely won't be ready to run before the Festival, having missed the King George after failing to please in his homework.
"He's fine but it came out in the wash that he's jarred himself a little bit," said co-trainer Sara Bradstock. "It's not a serious injury but as we all know, while he is a miracle horse, he is also fragile….
"We'll walk him now for a month until he's super-well and then we'll see where we are. He'll be fine by the time the Gold Cup comes around but the question is whether we'll have him ready."
Finally in this section, if the Hennessy wasn't evidence enough, Blaklion's defeat in the Rowland Meyrick surely confirms last term's RSA winner is not Gold Cup class. The first two, progressive Definitly Red and runner-up Wakanda, did race more prominently but Jamie Bargary niggled Blaklion along even as they exited for the final circuit. It was lacklustre.
Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase
It was all too easy for Douvan in Leopardstown's Grade One Paddy Power Cashcard Chase last Tuesday. He didn't have to mine any unseen reservoirs of ability in order to dispense with four solid but unspectacular rivals with clinical ease.
It panned out like this: Alisier D'Irlande careered off in front while Douvan shadowed him at a distance in his own sweet rhythm but then the leader's jumping started to go raggedly out to the left and by the second last the winner simply glided into the lead with the rest of the field under varying degrees of pressure.
No rival looked likely to challenge him in the straight and none did. If you must, you can deduct 0.1 from Douvan's score for artistic impression for getting in slightly close to the last but this was another utterly dominant display from the 1/2 favourite for the Champion Chase.
Afterwards Mullins was all for the perfect 10, even suggesting Douvan could come to rival Hurricane Fly's place at the head of his personal ranking of all the great horses he has trained.
"My heart skips a beat every time he goes down to a fence and gets a bit close to it," he admitted to the Racing Post. "Potentially he must be the best steeplechaser – or horse – we've had. It's hard to see we might have one better than Hurricane Fly but he never jumped a fence. I'm keeping my fingers crossed he just stays sound."
Walsh was also impressed, citing the clock that testified to the best time by far on the day. "I thought Douvan was very good," he said. "He clocked four minutes and two seconds – that's proper speed here."
There will be tougher tasks ahead, you know, but not much more. Not much more. Mullins has his sights trained – as much as he ever does – on the Tied Cottage Chase at Punchestown in February as Douvan's next stop on his procession to Cheltenham.
"I don't plan these things," he said. "Hopefully he'll be sound when we get home and then we'll have a look. The Tied Cottage might be the race for him. We'll look nearer to home rather than have to travel."
Runner-up Sizing John was banging his head against a dementingly familiar wall. That's now seven times he's chased home Douvan in second or third over fences and hurdles. However, now under the care of Jessica Harrington, he produced perhaps his best performance yet but without ever remotely threatening the winner.
Perhaps he should be given another chance up in trip after a below par effort in Aintree's Manifesto Chase in April on his sole previous try at 2m4f. The Ryanair could yet come under consideration.
In-form Simply Ned ran below his best, however, as is most often the case when he has contested the highest grade.
An uncharacteristic mistake from Sire De Grugy that caught Jamie Moore by surprise and unseated him at the second diminished an already-muted edition of Kempton's Grade Two 32Red Desert Orchid Chase last Tuesday into a match between Special Tiara and Sir Valentino.
Once Sire De Grugy had departed, everything was even more in Special Tiara's favour: the opportunity to dominate in good ground on a flat track, receiving weight from the supposedly inferior runner-up. In that context, he was far from impressive. In fact it was only the steadfastness of his jumping under pressure that made the difference between victory and defeat.
Although this was clearly better than his last two efforts, Special Tiara is currently cutting a much lesser dash than during his bravura 12-month period that culminated in his excellent third to Sprinter Sacre in the Champion Chase. The top drawer of this division looks beyond his reach this season – and I say that as an ardent fan of the horse.
Sir Valentino, on the other hand, is improving. He'd been totally outclassed in the Tingle Creek so it was hard to assess whether that on-paper career best effort was merely the flattery of numbers. This effort – a half-length defeat from 16lb wrong at the weights had the Kempton race been a handicap – suggests it was not.
It would have been even closer bar for Sir Valentino hitting the second last and even lacking some fluency at the final obstacle. He may well turn up in the Champion Chase but his Sandown defeat betrays the gulf that still lies between him and the likes of Un De Sceaux and an on-song Sire De Grugy.
Falling out the back of the telly and never remotely involved was the remaining runner, Savello. Presumably his target will again be the Grand Annual but it's hard to judge yet what ability he retains this season.
Moore came off worse than Sir De Grugy, receiving a nasty kick to the head during his tumble. Trainer Gary Moore was relieved to report in his Betway column that the horse came home sound despite carrying on jumping loose with the field.
If all remains well, he heads to next month's Clarence House at Ascot where he will be joined by stablemate Ar Mad, who was briefly a possible King George contender. Moore hopes to learn from his next race whether to target that horse at the Champion Chase or step up in trip.
As a result of his King George slamming, bookmakers introduced Cue Card as the new Ryanair favourite. I realise they'd clearly gained access to the doors of perception when making a once-raced novice favourite for the Gold Cup in November but, really, this is just wacky.
I get the concept that Tizzard has two upwardly mobile contenders for the Gold Cup in Thistlecrack and Native River, so why wouldn't he re-route their veteran stable companion to this event? After all, he was extremely impressive when winning it in 2013.
However, the clues are there in the small print: age and four years ago. Cue Card ran poorly in the King George and at least two of the potential reasons for that – the absence of soft ground and vulnerability to younger legs – will surely apply at the Festival in March, whatever the race.
He's clearly got a chance if returning to his Betfair Chase glory but remember he was also well below his best – perhaps with excuses – on his previous two starts. That by mentioning the Ryanair Tizzard seems to have accepted so swiftly his younger chasers' supremacy is also hardly a ringing endorsement for the project. Cue Card surely shouldn't be favourite.
That mantle rightfully belongs at this admittedly early stage for such a race to either Un De Sceaux – who probably runs here (if at all at the Festival) unless the ground is heavy or something happens to prevent stablemate Douvan from running in the Champion Chase – or Valseur Lido.
The latter found only scintillating Vautour too good in last season's Ryanair, albeit he was ridden as the follow-up blow in a Gigginstown combination punch on the winner with Road To Riches enduring a battering on the ropes first.
Valseur Lido seems an improved horse since and travelled into the Lexus nicely before failing to stay. That was also the analysis of Gigginstown's Michael O'Leary who mentioned the Ryanair as his revised Festival target and yet Sky Bet and Paddy Power still offer 12/1. Let's take that, each-way. The 11s and 10s around elsewhere are also perfectly acceptable.
Behind him in the Lexus, More Of That and stable companion Taquin Du Seuil ran respectable enough races – the former responding to first-time cheekpieces to deliver his best effort of the season – but they both fall a tad short of the requisite class.
The same seems to apply to Zabana who had a wide trip but was not facing unsuitable ground and had beaten Outlander at Punchestown in April. The aforementioned Road To Riches seems to be in the wilderness currently.
Compared with these candidates, the more together Josses Hill looks a far more credible player in this division – even if he has something to find on even the King George version of Cue Card.
Last year's JLT hero Black Hercules finished last behind Douvan over 2m1f at Leopardstown last Tuesday after being almost the first of the quintet to come under pressure. But he shaped more encouragingly over an inadequate trip than he had over a more suitable one behind Djakadam last time.
In news from the sidelines, the schedule for getting Traffic Fluide back in action for the Game Spirit, en route to the Ryanair, remains tight according to trainer Moore. The horse resumes "normal exercise" on Monday. "We will just need to see how he gets on in the coming weeks as plans can always change," Moore observed.
Stan James Champion Hurdle
The Champion Hurdle this week gratefully received two RSVPs to what still threatens to be only a small gathering of two-mile hurdlers. However, if Yanworth jumps as scrappily in March as he did when winning the 32Red Christmas Hurdle on Monday, he'll be torched by halfway.
That is, of course, if any of the flame-throwers actually turn up. How many key races have ante-post favourites Faugheen and Annie Power missed so far this season? Three, Mr Christian.
So it is understandable that Yanworth is now 5/1 third favourite for the Cheltenham event, even if a thoroughly competent if unpolished defeat of The New One was the least you could expect from a Champion Hurdle pretender.
Trainer Alan King admitted the combination of sharp Kempton and a lack of deadening rain had bothered him beforehand. Both he and jockey Barry Geraghty were of the opinion that if Yanworth were ever to get beaten "it would be round here" but they wanted to learn something rather than take the "easy option" of this weekend's Relkeel Hurdle at Cheltenham.
As a result, King declared he'd learned Yanworth is "very much in the equation" for the Champion Hurdle. "But I still think we're just scratching the surface with this horse," he added. "He keeps on surprising me."
It wasn't exactly poetry at Kempton but it undoubtedly was a career best. Yanworth made a sizeable mistake at the second and lacked fluency on other occasions, albeit he got better when it mattered most from three out. Having been slightly outpaced on the home turn, he was careful when in close at the second last and then ridden to get on top approaching the last.
King freely admits this horse would have been trained for the Stayers' Hurdle had Unowhatimeanharry not been acquired by Yanworth's owner JP McManus and promptly started dominating that division. But the trainer would now be "quite happy" to head straight for the Champion without another run, if the owner agrees.
A strongly-run race, as that event usually is, would bring into play Yanworth's stamina but there is also the scenario whereby he's off the bridle and making mistakes from an early stage. At least we know he's got game compared with last year when he was just dotting up until beaten by Yorkhill in the Neptune and even once briefly shaped to run out. As King put it, his latest two runs have "manned him up" because he's been forced to find for pressure.
Either the new bit credited with helping The New One to jump straight at Cheltenham only worked once or (whisper it) Johnson brings less baggage to the mission because, with the familiarity of Sam Twiston-Davies back on board, he reverted to jumping right from the very first hurdle.
He was taken on by My Tent Or Yours from the fifth – under a pressing run style that has served the latter well in the past – and the pair had the winner off the bridle exiting the back straight until the pendulum swung away from them quite quickly. The New One hit the second last and, having been quelled by Yanworth, lacked fluency in jumping right at the last.
It will be interesting to see what Nigel Twiston-Davies does next – he's never been a man to derive much meaning from defeat. Might he fly assistant trainer Carl Llewellyn's kite in a bid for the Stayers' Hurdle? If so, he could easily give the three-mile Cleeve Hurdle a whirl at the end of next month. I doubt The New One will stay, but it's worth a shot.
A more unusual shout – especially for a man as staunchly loyal as Twister – would be to recall Johnson for the Champion Hurdle. In all but two starts in this horse's 27-race career, Sam Twiston-Davies has ridden the stable flag-bearer. Much as Johnson clicked with Native River, his forcing style was a welcome novelty for The New One at Cheltenham last time and could bring out the best in him again.
My Tent Or Yours has played all of his passes now and must proceed to judgement. It was essentially good ground at Kempton and although this was his best effort yet this term, his form is currently falling well short of Champion standard. A Twitter correspondent (and Sportinglife.com's Ben Linfoot in a Weights & Measures column back in November) suggested the County Hurdle as a more viable Festival target and, albeit the New Course suits him less well, that's a fair shout.
Ch'Tibello was outpaced on the home turn and held together to pick up what pieces he could from the last. That meant he might well have been third anyway had My Tent Or Yours not blundered and lost his footing at the last, when already set for bronze at best.
At Leopardstown three days later, the Grade One Ryanair Hurdle risked becoming a damp squib when Faugheen failed to appear among the declarations. Although Walsh had been hopeful prior to Christmas that he would take part, his comeback target was subsequently revised to next month's Irish Champion Hurdle. That absence is becoming ever more yawning.
Owner Rich Ricci subsequently moved to reassure fans when interviewed on At The Races. "He's there or thereabouts. I don't want people to worry," he said. "It's just been niggles – he got a stone bruise and then it got inflamed. It's very stop-start but he's working every day… He's close. We've had a good run for two weeks with him now and I hope we can keep that going."
Instead it was stablemate and putatively Stayers' Hurdle-bound Nichols Canyon who flew the Mullins flag on this occasion and he was sent off the 2/5 favourite.
However, as mentioned many times previously, Leopardstown has never been his favourite place: the track brings out his tendency to jump right and that habit was more pronounced than usual last Thursday. From the moment former stablemate Petit Mouchoir took over the lead after the first hurdle, Nichols Canyon was wasting time and energy at almost every subsequent obstacle. He even had to defend second spot from Ivanovich Gorbatov in the straight.
One of the reasons for this frailty was his straining to keep pace with an utterly dominant winner. Petit Mouchoir, who'd fallen heavily on his debut for Henry de Bromhead at Newcastle in November, was again keen but from the moment he was ridden into the fourth last and unleashed a mighty leap, it was clear he was not for catching.
The way in which he saw out this race gives substance to those who argued he would have won the Fighting Fifth – he was leading at the time of his fall – although he seemed to settle a degree better on this occasion. This was a huge step forward in the level of his form, backed up by a smart time.
He's now, justifiably, 10/1 fourth favourite for the Champion Hurdle behind two hitherto no-shows and Yanworth. However, the contrast between his 18-length thumping by Altior in last season's Supreme and his subsequent narrow defeat by Buveur D'Air at Aintree makes me wonder whether flat tracks are his bag.
Sun Bets Stayers' Hurdle
Although it's impossible to predict which Festival race she'll contest, Vroum Vroum Mag was impressive when upped to three miles for the first time to win the Grade One Squared Financial Christmas Hurdle last Wednesday at Leopardstown.
She travelled strongly and jumped beautifully – now as slick at this task as she was over fences – to record the best time of the day and lower the colours of a few hopeful candidates in this division. At the last her very presence upsides long-time leader and stablemate Shaneshill, whom she'd been stalking throughout the final circuit, was enough for him to step at the hurdle and take a not-uncharacteristic tumble.
She was idling a tad but clearly saw out the trip well and the patiently-ridden Clondaw Warrior, who might do better at a right-handed track, was flattered to finish so close to her. She also exposed Snow Falcon, who helpfully kept his feet to enable proper assessment for once, as lacking the requisite class for the Stayers' Hurdle.
The problem for punters is whether Vroum Vroum Mag will contest that race or the OLBG David Nicholson Mares' Hurdle – or even the Champion Hurdle or Ryanair – as Mullins freely acknowledges.
"She's extraordinary," he said. "We know she gets three miles now and she even works with our Champion Hurdle horses as well. She can jump hurdles and she can jump fences. She will be the super-sub in Rich Ricci's team and we will put her in wherever we think she can win at Cheltenham."
Depending on the wellbeing of her stable companions – notably, Annie Power – it's another case of 48-hour stage ahoy!
As stated above, Nichols Canyon is one such fellow inmate who had been talked of as a candidate for this event prior to suffering a rare reversal for the Mullins yard last week. His run at Leopardstown is a reminder of how his right-adjusting tendencies are only likely further to undermine his doubtful stamina for a race such as this.
OLBG David Nicholson Mares' Hurdle
Missy Tata continues unbeaten this season and won Limerick's Listed three-runner affair, making all unchallenged last Wednesday. Cap d'Aubois offered the briefest whisper of a threat on the home turn but that soon dissipated and Daryl Jacob's mount carried on jumping well and galloping on the bridle to the line.
It was no more than Missy Tata should have done, really, given she boasted form about two stones superior to the runner-up going into the race. She heads to Cheltenham, presumably for the 2m4f mares' event, either directly or via one more race.
She ran well in last term's Fred Winter at the Festival, travelling nicely until getting caught in traffic and shuffled back on the inside from the second last. Switched to the outer to recover, she was mildly inconvenienced by one of the final-flight fallers before staying on strongly for fourth. That proves she can cope with the big field the OLBG David Nicholson tends to attract these days.
She shapes as though a step up to 2m4f will bring about some improvement and the 16/1 at which she's currently offered may not be forlorn. She does have a habit of flashing her tail under pressure, however.
Although she was backed, Jer's Girl was on the back foot from the first hurdle that she jumped big and slow behind Petit Mouchoir in the Grade One Ryanair Hurdle at Leopardstown last Thursday.
Later recovering her position, she then tried to stalk the leaders but could make no impact and was below her best. Perhaps she had an off day at a trip now short of her optimum or maybe she just gets on with Punchestown best.
Kotkikova, Nicky Henderson's new French recruit owned by JP McManus, shaped well enough on her first run for 245 days behind Vroum Vroum Mag in that Leopardstown Grade One but not well enough to suggest she'd trouble the winner at any trip.
An 11-time winner herself, Kotkikova is unproven at three miles and weakened in the race itself but her new trainer believed beforehand that "she's all about stamina". Henderson now has the option of switching her back to fences in which discipline she is already a Grade One winner and boasts superior form.
The Arkle is – not atypically – shaping up to be perhaps the race of the 2017 Festival. No sooner had last term's Supreme second Min run away with the Grade One Racing Post Chase at Leopardstown on Monday than his Festival conqueror Altior produced another effortless success in Kempton's Grade Two Wayward Lad Chase 24 hours later.
On paper Min faced a more rigorous examination than Altior with Identity Thief, already a dual chase winner and good enough to win the Grade One Fighting Fifth Hurdle last season, lined up against him. That match was short-lived, sadly, with Identity Thief losing ground successively at the third and fourth fences before being pulled up lame. Let's hope he makes full recovery.
That left Min to bully his remaining opponents with none willing or, it later emerged, able to even offer him outside. He lunged slightly at the last when the race was already sewn up but otherwise this was a thoroughly convincing display.
A thrilled Mullins said: "He left the rest of them for dead. Jumping is the name of the game and he jumped from fence to fence and anything that tried to lie up with him, they just couldn't handle it.
"He didn't have respect for his hurdles and ran too free but he has a lot more respect for fences which helps him to settle. That probably helps to give him more pace at the end of his races now. He's matured more over the summer as well."
Walsh was visibly delighted as they crossed the line and afterwards testified: "I didn't know what to expect coming here. He'd been working grand without burning up the gallop but he was that way last year, too…
"He's an easier horse to ride over fences. He has a look where he's going and is a bit more manageable. I was happy with him in Navan but he impressed me today. He reminds me of Kauto [Star]."
That is one hell of a serious compliment coming from Walsh, who isn't free with such assertions. He had previously been suppressing doubts about the wisdom of taking on Altior in this division given the seven lengths between them in the Supreme. But Ricci said Min "got hurt at Cheltenham" and the fact the horse has instantly settled better over fences than he ever did over hurdles could start to bridge that gap.
That could mean Yorkhill is indeed sent to the JLT but the two horses do have different owners and there's just a hint of Min adjusting right at his fences which might be better suited to the New Course, on which the JLT is staged, than the tight Old Course, the venue for the Arkle.
Admittedly, though, that could be just splitting hairs at this stage and, as we all know, Mullins is a great believer in the ups and downs of racehorse training rendering early decisions futile.
"He looks Arkle material," he said of Min last week, however. "Although he could go out in trip. We know that Yorkhill can go out in trip and there is American Tom [also owned by Ricci] as well."
Walsh concurred: "I'd imagine with the pace Min shows, you wouldn't need to be going much further at the minute, even though he probably could."
Behind Min, the likes of Ordinary World and Road To Respect were comprehensively exposed as a cut below top class whereas Three Stars' jumping came undone at that pace.
The next day Altior had little to beat that he had not humiliated before – quite literally in the case of runner-up Marracudja, who'd previously been almost 22 lengths adrift of the winner in the Grade One Henry VIII Novices' Chase at Sandown. This time he got about four lengths closer, having been able to dominate at a characteristically strong pace until being brushed aside at the second last.
The winner loved that tempo and was faultless at Kempton – fluid and clever at his obstacles. Jumping fences seems to take so little out of him. As his trainer observed, each time we see Altior he's "more polished" and this was a "deadly accurate" display.
It was so much the finished article that Henderson, of course, isn't overcome with longing to run him again before Cheltenham. The dreaded words "racecourse gallop" got their obligatory mention – house! – although he did raise the faint hope that, provided this winter doesn't bring ground as heavy as this time last season, the Game Spirit is an option. That was the stepping-stone Henderson used for Sprinter Sacre's triumphant Arkle bid when he beat a certain Cue Card back in 2012.
Asked to compare Altior with his previous winners of the Wayward Lad, like Sprinter, Remittance Man and the ill-fated Simonsig, Henderson said: "There's a long way to go, isn't there? But he's got the pace and the temperament…. He's got a huge amount of talent and this today was all that we'd hoped for."
Noel Fehily has now ridden Altior on all three of his chase assignments but Henderson confirmed that Nico de Boinville will resume control of the reins once he's returned from surgery on the arm broken by a horse treading on him in a fall at Cheltenham in November.
Kempton's second day was a good bit better for Team Henderson than the first when their hotpot novice hurdler got turned over and Might Bite came to grief at the last when having the Grade One Kauto Star Novices' Chase at his mercy. As already touched upon, he was in the process of recording a victory at least every bit as impressive as Thistlecrack's King George success… until he took that rather heavy fall.
Watching, it was hard to understand why Jacob went for a long stride at that final obstacle. From the reminders he administered approaching the fence, he clearly believed Might Bite was idling but he had allowed his mount to pop the penultimate flight out to his left and was only drawing further clear when the duo took their tumble.
Prior to this unfortunate incident, Might Bite's jumping at pace had pushed all his rivals out of their comfort zone – just as he had done in a smaller-field event at Doncaster a couple of weeks earlier.
To repeat: on the clock at Kempton he was racing every bit as hard at every stage as would Thistlecrack later on in the King George and he would probably have recorded a faster time had he stood up.
Jumping, as many great philosophers have observed, is the name of the game however and that's the department in which Might Bite has the odd lapse of concentration. It's not that he's a dodgy jumper – quite the opposite; it's rather that he has the propensity to throw in the odd chance-ending howler. He did it on seasonal debut at Ffos Las and even blundered through the second last at Doncaster.
This abortive performance indicated he has already taken top rank among novice chasers – if his performance indeed merits a mark in the 160s, then he has already surpassed any RSA Chase winner from the past 20 years. Of those winners, Don Poli had the best numbers prior to his 2015 success, when he was rated 156.
So Might Bite already has the raw talent to win quite comfortably any normal renewal of that Festival race – although his best form has been recorded to date on flat tracks, mind. But he's going to need to pull together all the necessary attributes fast and that's provided a heavy fall does not leave any residual effects, mental or physical.
The eventual fortunate winner of the Kauto Star was Royal Vacation, who seemed to respond well to the replacement of first-time cheekpieces with first-time blinkers and, although Might Bite was poised to annihilate him by about 18 lengths, he continues his steady improvement within his own more limited sphere. He promises to be a decent handicapper.
Frodon would have been third but for crumpling on landing after the last when tired legs found no way to avoid the grounded Jacob. He'd looked a fleeting threat to Might Bite just before the home turn before his stamina ran out. On this day at this track in a race run at that tempo, he looked the second-best horse until the 2m5f marker.
Twiston-Davies originally placed Frodon towards the inner but soon switched to the outside – the space-seeking tactics that served the pair well in the Caspian Caviar. Again, you wonder if he'd be able to replicate them and remain effective in a race like the JLT.
Going into this, Present Man and Virgilio boasted a high level of novice form but Might Bite forced the former into errors and ran the latter off his feet. Minella Daddy was exposed in this grade and Irish raider Anibale Fly was simply never going, so jumping blunders followed. Was the ground too quick? Did he not enjoy his first trip outside Ireland? Was he just not good enough? My paddock spies tell me he isn't the scopiest model.
Over in Ireland on the same day Bellshill mastered stablemate Haymount in an interesting edition of the Grade Two Shannon Airport Novices' Chase at Limerick.
Both horses jumped well but, bursting through on the inside of the runner-up, the winner was crucially that shade more efficient through the air and in getting away from the final two fences. Haymount came up first at the second last but Bellshill exited it more quickly and their fates were then sealed.
The winner is open to plenty of improvement stepped up to the three-mile trip that brought out the best in him over hurdles. He's now favourite for the RSA Chase but has twice failed to give his running at the Cheltenham Festival, admittedly on both occasions over trips we now know were far too sharp.
The mitigating factor for Haymount is surely the ground: he moves like a horse who will thrive on a sound spring surface whereas Bellshill has been proven time and again on heavy going such as this was.
Third-placed Attribution continues to improve over fences and should have a decent handicap in him. Diamond King would have hated this ground so this performance probably should be ignored.
Two days later there was another smart staying performance in a hot edition of the Grade One Neville Hotels Novices' Chase. Our Duke won, again managing to recover from small mistakes that threatened to undermine his chance.
Always prominently positioned by Robbie Power, his errors began when strongly pressed for the lead at the 11th but – with an attribute that's coming to be typical – he quickly regained his composure. He was allowed to fiddle the second last while others on his outside flew it and again needed to be shaken up to recover, which he did. Even so, he probably jumped the last least well of the three remaining players but rallied strongly under pressure to lead approaching the finish.
"He made about five mistakes during the race and at the second last I thought that he had to be out of it," admitted Harrington. "He pinged the last and he quickened up well for a horse of his size.
"I know he won his bumper and was good over hurdles but everything he did up until now has been a bonus as he was always going to come into his own as a chaser. The RSA Chase could suit him."
Harrington won the 2011 edition with a much less likely type in Bostons Angel and Our Duke is worth his lofty position in the market. Although one or two of his key rivals melted away, he did well to run down the decent Coney Island and strikes you as a horse whose full ability we haven't yet seen. This win also gives hope that the likely sound Festival surface won't be against him.
Coney Island did more things right and yet was beaten. He was still travelling strongly at the penultimate flight and, having been surefooted throughout, jumped better than the winner over the final two obstacles. It was just that he got worn down on the run to the line, albeit proving his stamina for three miles – something of which I hadn't been sure beforehand.
That said, I still wonder whether shorter might be his optimum or perhaps he doesn't find as much as appears likely. Disko – who did best of the Gigginstown quartet – was closing him down in third when the line came, having stumbled slightly on landing after the last. This was a career best on his first attempt at three miles and quite encouraging.
2015 Albert Bartlett winner Martello Tower got outpaced before staying on dourly and will clearly be best suited by the four miles of the NH Chase at the Festival. His best efforts remain on testing ground. In contrast A Toi Phil was clinging onto the leaders at the home turn and may not have stayed – or it may be that he doesn't stand much racing, with his form again tapering off.
Prince Of Scars really needs some mud and Briar Hill, after promising to pay greater attention to the existence of fences than hurdles, took an early tumble when failing to get high enough and plunging downwards at the ninth.
Gigginstown first string Alpha Des Obeaux weakened rapidly at the 14th prior to blundering through the next and being pulled up. Sadly, it transpired he'd broken a blood vessel.
One excellent novice-chasing performance that might just go under the radar amid this glut of graded action was the winning debut of Bleu Et Rouge at Leopardstown last Wednesday. Owned by McManus, he was backed against a decent field of more experienced rivals and recorded a smart time in the process – comparatively quicker than the Lexus dawdle.
Bleu Et Rouge was a bit novicey in his jumping early on – ballooning the first carefully, giving the third a good whack and lacking fluency or landing awkwardly on occasions. He was already some way off the principals when checked to avoid the prone David Mullins, who'd unseated from Jett at the second last, and did very well indeed to make up that ground to win from such an unlikely position.
Trainer Mullins commented: "He jumps well at home but he didn't bring that to the track. I think he got a fright at the first and lost his confidence. He needs a bit more schooling. He must have a huge engine to win and I thought he had no chance after the second last. I think 2m is fine for him but he'll get more time to jump over a longer trip."
Mullins – or McManus, depending upon who made the ultimate call – tried him over three miles in the Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle at the last Festival but he was probably racing too exuberantly for that dour task when falling for no good reason at the eighth. The tempo in this 2m3f chase seemed to suit a horse with a good turn of foot far more than would a slog.
Bleu Et Rouge also indicated here that a sounder surface is no problem. He has quite a round action and his best performance to date – a Grade One novices' hurdle triumph in February – took place on very testing ground. The JLT looks his race – unless Festival handicaps come calling and he looks a bit better than that. But McManus potentially has Coney Island for that race, although he's perfectly happy to have more than one bunny running for him.
Gangster had lasted longer in the same Albert Bartlett and looked briefly threatening until weakening after the second last but he had endured an interrupted Festival preparation. That said, he made even less of an impact at Aintree or Punchestown afterwards.
Here, a promising second to American Tom under his belt on debut, he jumped well and was always prominently positioned. Having leapt into the lead at the last, he looked to have sealed it but was outpaced by the hard-ridden winner on the approach to the winning post. This half-brother to Ascot Gold Cup winner Rite Of Passage may need a return to further.
Don't Touch It, marching, like the winner, under the green-and-gold-hooped banner, would have finished closer but for pecking badly at the last and kept on likeably after it. He's improving over fences.
Long-time leader Acapella Bourgeois looked like he'd got a warm fire and mince pies more on his mind than the racing – he wouldn't have taken much persuading not to go out for the final circuit – but he stuck at it despite looking a tad awkward at times and was headed only approaching the last.
Blackmail, who's clearly not the easiest to get to a racecourse, loomed up briefly on the home turn before fading. Gwencily Berbas was backed but failed to respond to a first-time visor; he doesn't find much for pressure.
In other Irish novice-chasing news, the benefits of being schooled chez Mullins were again on show at Limerick last Thursday when the deliriously good-jumping Benie Des Dieux won the mares' beginners' chase on heavy ground.
She particularly loved negotiating that rapid run of five fences and had her main market rival Keppols Queen struggling to keep up even the first time around. Nothing else really got into it.
The clock didn't love the performance as much as the eye, however, so it might have been a good horse winning an ordinary race. In mitigation, Keppols Queen pulled up with a severe cut to her left fore; hopefully the injury is not too serious.
In the following race, Undressed won in the style of a thorough stayer. He'd been careful and cumbersome early on but steadily responded to pressure, though hanging right, to lead between rivals at the last. Job done, he was even eased near the line.
At the same track on the preceding day, Stone Hard won the beginners' chase unextended – jumping well and breezing into the lead on the home turn. He'd previously finished fourth behind Haymount at Punchestown in a race that's working out well but didn't run to the line on that seasonal and chase debut.
Given his season imploded when with Mullins last season, before he was sent to Elliott under the terms of the Great Divorce, this was encouraging. Perhaps the drop in trip helped. Assistant trainer Olly Murphy offered the further explanation that "maybe he's just starting to fill into himself."
Favourite and former stablemate Dicosimo was beaten entering the home turn, having jumped so far right at one fence that he collided with the upright. He got very tired in the heavy ground but, given he failed to complete over hurdles on his last three starts, at least he finished here.
Back at Down Royal on Boxing Day, Last Goodbye was better than the bare one-length margin of his defeat of Velocity Boy. The other principals were more prominently positioned but the winner was able to mow them down approaching the winning post.
He had previously been well held by Haymount whereas Velocity Boy had trailed in behind both American Tom and Anibale Fly. But the runner-up here reverted to more suitable front-running tactics and duly produced his best effort yet over fences. Third-placed Burgas had finished a 14-length second behind the debuting Yorkhill last time.
Saturnas is progressive and quelled a decent field in fine style to win the Grade One Future Champions Novices' Hurdle at Leopardstown last Tuesday.
He led the group-chasing pacesetting Le Martalin and jumped well to join him as the field bunched up approaching the second last. He and Brelade then emerged travelling best on the home turn but by the last he had edged ahead for a decisive victory.
This was only his third start over hurdles and he's improved a chunk for each of them. He jumped with far more assurance than when beaten by stablemate Airlie Beach at Fairyhouse last time and could yet be even better stepped up in trip.
Mullins said: "We know that he jumps and gallops so I told Paul [Townend] not to be afraid to go about his business. The last day in the Royal Bond, I thought he might just have met Airlie Beach on a good day but he seemed to travel and jump better here."
Brelade negotiated the step into graded company with credit here, jumping well and emerging as the only credible threat to the winner. He stuck to his task likeably after Saturnas had shaken him off. This was only his second spin over hurdles and there is surely more to come.
Sunni May was unfortunate not to finish closer, having been either squeezed out and/or steadied into the second last where he then made a mistake. That left him with ground to find, which he initially managed before becoming outpaced approaching the last and then rallying strongly en route to the winning post. He is worth his place at this level.
Patiently-ridden Riven Light made too many mistakes to cut it at this grade and Peace News, who'd hit the deck behind Airlie Beach and Saturnas last time, was disappointing, only seeming to want to hang left late on.
Earlier on the same card, Bacardys looked bang in trouble in the steadily run two-mile maiden hurdle when exacerbating the problem with a slow jump at the second last. But pumped along, he responded to Walsh's urgings to press the leader, stablemate Kolumbus, approaching the last and soon wore him down on the other side. Ultimately, Bacardys could even afford to throw in some idling once in front.
He's in sore need of a step up in trip and should take a good stride forward when that happens. He had also suffered a scare prior to contesting this event, having twisted off a shoe en-route to the track.
"We weren't sure whether that would hinder him," admitted Mullins. "But he did it well and would have no problem going up in trip. Kolumbus ran a very good race and he, too, should stay further. Both of them seemed to be suited by the ground."
Talking of the ground at Leopardstown, Walsh was of the opinion that it rode slower on this second day than on Boxing Day despite no rain having fallen.
On that preceding day, Joey Sasa underpinned Brelade's form with a decisive defeat of Barra and Castello Sforza in the 2m2f maiden hurdle. He made a mistake just as Castello Forza jumped into the lead at the second last but steadily responded to get back on terms on the home turn. The mare Barra then seemed to be travelling best and at one point all three were in a line heading for the last flight.
They'd broken ranks by take-off however, with Joey Sasa asserting and seeming to relish the two furlongs extra. At the age of seven he's old for a novice hurdler and, according to trainer Noel Meade, started late not due to injury but because he hadn't been broken in.
Barra built on her encouraging Irish and hurdles debut second to Invitation Only here and although Castello Sforza has now beem sent off the beaten favourite in his last three starts, he is consistent and no shirker so perhaps he needs to step up in trip or receive a more positive ride.
Earlier on the card, Bunk Off Early beat Outspoken by five-and-a-half lengths in the two-mile maiden for four-year-olds. Both were well positioned in an averagely-run race but the winner seemed better suited by the sharp trip and also jumped fluidly on his hurdles debut.
Bunk Off Early was at his best at around nine furlongs on the Flat so may always be better suited when conditions place an emphasis on speed. Outspoken was third in the 2015 Melrose but had been sidelined since his hurdles debut more than a year ago. He's absolutely entitled to come on for this run and will appreciate a stiffer test of stamina.
At Leopardstown on Wednesday, Montalbano – described by Ricci at the start of the season as among "the most forward" of his novice hurdlers – made his Irish debut.
He wasn't invited to make all but was instead settled in the rear of mid-division, Walsh later explaining that the horse had been "quite keen at home and I wanted to get him settled". The effect was that of a confident ride.
"He jumped super, travelled well and ultimately won well," he concluded – and you couldn't argue with a word of it.
There was a small blemish at the third last but a good jump sealed the deal at the last and he beat a more settled and improving Youcannotbeserious by almost three lengths in the 2m4f maiden event.
The winner raced extensively on the Flat in France – not Italy – and stayed 12 furlongs but ran only once over hurdles over there. He didn't overly excite bookmakers here, which may undersell him.
Further back in the field, four-year-old It's All Guesswork made a highly encouraging racecourse debut for Elliott.
Island Remede has taken well to hurdles and took a major step forward with victory over Gunnery Sergeant and Kate Appleby Shoes, in that order, in Limerick's maiden hurdle last Wednesday.
Her extensive previous Flat campaign for Ed Dunlop would stand her in good stead were new trainer de Bromhead tempted by the Festival's mares' novice hurdle. She's also versatile ground-wise.
The key to her success here was smoother travelling and better jumping than the runner-up, who had to be urged along to get involved with the leaders from the home turn, wandered and lacked fluency two out before rather flinging himself at the last. The first-time hood seemed to bring about some improvement on this second start since a year-long absence, however.
Beforehand Mullins had described the third, a dual bumper winner returning from 655 days on the sidelines, as "a fine strong mare in good order for her hurdles debut". She ran well until getting in close to the second last and then seeming to lack match fitness.
Earlier on the same card, hooded Coquin Mans achieved a narrow success over the rallying once-raced Surf Instructor to win on his Irish and hurdling debut for Mullins and Townend. It was also his first start for almost two years. The time was comparatively reasonable.
"He was green in everything he did and he can only improve in every way," observed Townend. "Ability got him through and he will have to improve."
On his first attempt at three miles, Penhill bossed the Grade Two Guinness Hurdle at Limerick last Thursday – a race in which hitherto progressive favourite Rathnure Rebel bombed out.
Penhill had been clumsy and outpaced in a Grade One at Fairyhouse over two miles last time; here he was slightly less clumsy but travelled strongly under a patient ride from Townend in rear. He tends to scramble over his hurdles and land flat-footed but he won on the bridle in heavy ground he clearly enjoyed.
"The step up to three miles suited him; it just helped him sort his jumping out," said Townend, optimistically. You wouldn't fancy him to necessarily keep his feet in a big-field Albert Bartlett on faster ground; perhaps Aintree's Sefton Hurdle is a more feasible option, ground permitting.
Call The Taxie and Livelovelaugh, the former steadily improving and the latter having dominated solo on the lead, were brushed aside by Penhill but Rathnure Rebel was the first beaten. Ground and trip should have been fine so either he had an off day or resented not being able to dominate.
Earlier on the same card, Townend had employed positive tactics on Pylonthepressure to make the most of his stamina and clean jumping but Mighty Stowaway would have given them more to worry about had he not clipped the second last prior to rallying gamely. The winner also then proved his resolve – not a given beforehand – and the duo pulled seven lengths clear of the third. Whereas the winner might be versatile in terms of ground, the runner-up might always need testing conditions.
At Leopardstown that same day, Let's Dance eventually saw off the persistent Slowmotion with a round of infallible hurdling in the 2m4f Grade Three mares' event. They joined in duel from the fourth last but the scrappier-jumping runner-up was broken by the home turn and finished tired over a new trip for her.
"Let's Dance did it well – jumped and galloped just as we thought she would. She is improving all the time and will handle a step up in trip," Mullins said.
As a second-season novice, her Festival options include the Trull House Stud as well as the OLBG David Nicholson over half a mile further – if she goes to the Festival at all. She has certainly looked more comfortable upped in trip.
Earlier on the card, Mullins and Walsh had also been successful with the rangy Battleford, beaten favourite over an inadequate trip at Navan last time out. His jumping was less airy than on debut but even more markedly out to his left, to the extent that he landed inside the hurdle track a couple of times. Mullins described him as "a bit novicey over a few of his hurdles" but that would appear to understate the issue.
However, a further step up to three miles is clearly what he wants and it's worth noting Mullins also thinks the horse is "just so strong and big that I don't know if he is fit yet".
Runner-up Coeur Joyeux had been beaten further, in receipt of weight, by Albert Bartlett favourite Death Duty on his seasonal debut. Here he pressed the winner with cleaner jumps from halfway but was a spent force approaching the last and remains a maiden after nine starts, five of them over hurdles.
Over at Down Royal that same day, The Storyteller worked his rivals off the bridle one by one in the 2m3f maiden hurdle. Travelling strongly on the home turn, he jumped into the lead two out and took the last long in his stride for a comfortable success. It paid a compliment to his in-the-fog Punchestown conqueror, Monalee.
In the following two-mile maiden, a quicker last-flight leap from debutant Calino D'Airy enabled him to see off the typically keen favourite Turbojet in a good tussle between two of Ireland's leading 7lb claimers, Dylan Robinson and JJ Slevin. The duo came seven-and-a-half lengths clear of weight-conceding Black Ace.
A Gigginstown project trained by de Bromhead, Calino D'Airy is a winning pointer and may do much better in future. It was the fastest time of the day.
Back in Britain, the much-feted Jenkins, the form of whose Newbury win had been working out inexorably, tumbled from his perch as ante-post Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle favourite with a troubling display in Kempton's opening race on Boxing Day.
His jumping hadn't been that good on his debut but here it was worse. It all started to unravel with his hesitancy at the third and fifth; he then hit the next and was palpably in trouble thereafter. To his credit, he tried to respond to pressure but an inclination to hang right only became more marked and, eased once his chance had gone, he ran down the last acutely to the right.
Frankly it looked as if he was afraid to relax into his athletic ability for some reason, perhaps physical. Maybe a problem will come to light.
Instead it was Elgin who took the spoils. My paddock moles testify he was the best-looking horse in the race and will make a chaser. He was a tad keen early on and covered up until produced between horses at the second last. A good leap meant he secured the lead soon after and overcame a scruffy jump at the last to stay on well, if idling a little.
Trainer Alan King was delighted that he settled better than on his debut at Newcastle but also raised the idea that he preferred racing right-handed – interesting, even if it's rather soon to be dogmatic about it. The plan is to give Elgin a break now before returning to Kempton for the Dovecote in February.
"The only thing he wouldn't want is quick ground," warned King. "We had a few issues with his knees in the past. He wants a bit of juice, really." When pressed on whether this could put the major spring Festivals in doubt, he wavered slightly. "We might get away with it," he said. "But he's quite a heavy topped horse."
It was a pleasing introduction to hurdles for Mohaayed, who nonetheless was probably flattered by his proximity to Elgin in second and flashed his tail under pressure. His form had evaporated on the Flat in Ireland for Kevin Prendergast earlier this year and, given he was at his best at up to 9.5 furlongs, you wonder whether sharp tracks like Aintree will be more his bag than Cheltenham. That said, he seemed to want to go to his right also.
Ballyhill again ran creditably in third and might be worth trying over further but Glaring might have been second bar for snatching at the second last and skidding on landing. He was going well enough at the time although he had been keen early on.
In other UK Boxing Day news, Rather Be was an impressive winner for Team Henderson at Huntingdon giving away 7lbs or more in weight to all rivals. Always prominent, he went on from the fourth and soon had the field toiling via his powerful cruising speed and sound jumping.
He was either idling or getting tired at the end – given it was his first try beyond two miles and he's closely related to stablemate Sign Of A Victory, it might be the latter. He might just want the minimum trip for now.
Rider Jeremiah McGrath commented: "There was no pace on so I thought I would jump and get a lead over the first couple and let Rather Be stride on if he was still hacking. He was the best horse in the race and I wanted to keep it simple. We think he's a Cheltenham horse so he had to be winning today."
Runner-up Forza Milan stuck to his task well and will be interesting upped in trip now he's qualified for handicaps. Distant third Dawn Missile improved notably on his debut and, on the evidence of his Flat form for William Haggas, will appreciate a much sounder surface.
At Market Rasen, Bandsman narrowly fought off London Prize in a head-bobbing finish to the novices' hurdle. The winner's jumping under pressure was surely the difference between victory and defeat – something he's improved since his last run – although he did wander a little to his left after the last.
The runner-up was tenacious but couldn't quite get past a strong stayer; both are improving. The pair pulled 15 lengths clear of Ain't No Limits, who caught the eye for handicaps. He'll need at least one more run to get qualified and is worth monitoring for a small race.
Defi Du Seuil dominated the Grade One Finale Hurdle at Chepstow last Tuesday, becoming the new Triumph favourite despite a number of new names coming to the fore among the juvenile ranks over the past week.
The winner had already established himself at or near the top with two professional successes at Cheltenham. Trainer Philip Hobbs said after the second of those that he was tempted to take in this race and the horse took the relatively swift reappearance in his stride.
Impressive Aintree winner Evening Hush made the running and, after rather reaching for the first on a long stride, was soon rocking along on the testing ground she enjoys. As early as the back straight, previous Sandown scorer Dino Velvet found the pace just too darn hot.
But Defi Du Seuil bridged the gap to the leader on the home turn with remarkable rapidity, meaning he jumped into the lead when she barely left the ground at the fourth last. After that, course-and-distance winner Dolos was soon dispensed with and although Evening Hush tried to rally, she could pose no threat. Once in front, the winner showed the first chinks in his armour to date by jumping out to his left at the remaining three obstacles.
Jockey Johnson was quick to excuse him. "I was pleasantly shocked at the way he picked up turning in," he said. "I lit him up and got him there too soon but down the back straight his jumping was really good. He was a bit clumsy and green up the straight but he's a very good jumper and has done it well.
"If we had a wet spring, he would take a lot of beating against the top juveniles."
That's now both the trainer and his latest jockey who have mentioned that Defi Du Seuil has a preference for soft ground – even though both of his Cheltenham wins were recorded on a soundish surface. That's the only thing to temper enthusiasm for the Triumph.
The other outstanding juvenile performance of the past week also came from a McManus recruit. Ridden by Fehily, Charli Parcs made a flawless UK debut at Kempton and was immediately propelled to joint-second favourite for the Triumph. His jumping was superb and he won on the bridle, beating honest and hardy Master Blueyes by eight lengths despite conceding 5lb.
The time was excellent: three seconds quicker than the course-and-distance handicap hurdle later on the card. Time analysis shows that three-second superiority was established prior to the third last and then maintained all the way to the line.
"It's just been straightforward. He's the right shape and make for a juvenile hurdler and I hope he's got a big future," said Henderson, who admitted he'd asked McManus to send him a good juvenile because his yard was unusually lacking in that department.
"His hurdling technique is excellent – it's quick. He's a proper hurdler: A to B is very slick and he seems to have gears. He still has plenty to learn, though – he was a bit green in behind."
With that in mind, Henderson intends to run Charli Parcs once or twice more prior to the Triumph.
Over in Ireland that same day, St Leger third Housesofparliament failed to complete a juvenile treble for McManus when readily defeated by fellow hurdles debutant Meri Devie at Leopardstown.
The winner is a French recruit deemed good enough to run in a Group One over 10 furlongs last time we saw her, now housed chez Mullins and owned by Andrea and Graham Wylie.
In a race in which only eight of the 16 starters actually got involved, Meri Devie sat closest to the wide-margin leader, the sweating Easy Pass, who went off too fast and was essentially ignored by the other seven principals. In effect the filly therefore set her own pace and was best positioned to capitalise once the leader folded shortly after the penultimate hurdle.
The Tony Martin-trained duo, Landsman and Prince Charmin, stayed in the fight until the straight and the former was only beaten off at the final flight. Both the winner and Housesofparliament jumped that well but the filly always had the superior speed on the run to the line.
"She showed a good turn of foot, which you'd expect from a mile-and-a-quarter winner on the Flat," said Walsh, the winning rider. "It was a nice performance. She jumped fine and should improve a bit."
Both the winner and runner-up can tighten up their jumping but this was an encouraging start for them both. Meri Devie is now best-priced at 10/1 for the Triumph, whereas Housesofparliament was pushed out from an inordinately short price for a horse yet to jump a hurdle in public to an over-reactive 25/1.
Landsman and Prince Charmin look fair recruits; the latter was also debuting over hurdles. Both were unexposed at middle distances on the Flat for Johnny Murtagh and John Oxx respectively. They might be interesting for the Fred Winter.
On the preceding day, Leopardstown's Grade Two Knight Frank Juvenile Hurdle was essentially a re-run of Fairyhouse's Grade Three event in early December with the first three – Landofhopeandglory, Bapaume and Mega Fortune in that order – taking each other on again.
This time it was Bapaume who came out on top – despite re-opposing his previous conqueror on 1lb worse terms – and underlined Mullins' strength in this division.
Bapaume didn't make his own running, with Landofhopeandglory's stable companion Zig Zag instead forcing on for a long lead from the third, and he also jumped more cleanly, the intensive Mullins-style schooling having clearly taken effect.
There was a moment approaching the home turn when it looked as though Walsh's brave-man route up the inside would land him in another pocket as Geraghty took advantage of Zig Zag weakening to move Landofhopeandglory up on his outside with the intention of getting first run on his main rival.
Instead, Walsh and Bapaume were able to wriggle through against the rail and the two principals eyeballed each other entering the straight, with Mega Fortune outpaced but responding to pressure in third. Come the final hurdle, Bapaume had extracted a narrow lead and, although he landed a tad flat-footed, he swiftly recovered his equilibrium and readily maintained his advantage over Landofhopeandglory to the line.
Although Mega Fortune again took the bronze medal, he still improved on his previous effort and shaped as though the increased test of stamina that Cheltenham holds would suit him very well.
There is not a great deal between this trio on current form but the outcome of this race deposed Landofhopeandglory as Triumph favourite and there is as much as 18 points between this trio's prices across the market as a whole. Bapaume is the shortest and, as the least exposed of the three, that might well be the correct analysis.
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
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