Road To Cheltenham: Impressive Obeaux
Lydia Hislop discusses some musings from Eddie O'Leary and developments in the novice division in her latest instalment.
Messire Des Obeaux impressed in winning the Challow Novices' Hurdle
The most interesting developments over the New Year period involved the novices, with Nicky Henderson's chasing pair Buveur D'Air and Whisper notching further successes and Alan King's hurdler Messire Des Obeaux proving his newly found maturity at Grade One level.
There were also some notable efforts from those seeking to distinguish themselves from the supporting cast for the Festival's championship races and some musings from Eddie O'Leary perpendicular to my own.
Timico Gold Cup
Gigginstown's Eddie O'Leary offered his post-Lexus thoughts to the Racing Post this week and they differ from mine. Shame he's in charge, eh?
We agree titleholder Don Cossack faces "a long road back" and that Outlander "has improved a ton since joining Gordon Elliott" but that's where the similarity ends. However, there's still about ten weeks until Cheltenham; opinions and/or running plans can change in light of further evidence.
Along with Outlander "if he continues to improve", O'Leary still deems Valseur Lido – "[if he] comes back to form" – one of their "best chances in the Gold Cup". That's despite the horse looking the likeliest winner entering the straight in the Lexus and yet finishing fourth.
"I'm not too downhearted about Valseur Lido," he said. "He looked like he didn't stay but we know he does stay, so he deserves another crack at it and he may run in the Irish Gold Cup in February."
I'm less convinced an 11-length defeat of downgrading veteran Silviniaco Conti over three miles at Down Royal in November – or making a mistake for no good reason (tired?) and unseating Ruby Walsh at the final fence in last year's Irish Gold Cup or beating the inferior Wounded Warrior two Aprils ago over 3m1f – constitutes proof that 3m2.5f at the highest grade is that horse's optimum.
It's the opposite argument to the one preferred by those who close their eyes and point to Djakadam's record at 2m4f.
That said, it's unnerving Willie Mullins always maintained Valseur Lido wanted the Gold Cup trip when he trained him last season. Of course, back then Gigginstown insisted on running him in the Ryanair – which just goes to show how things can change… in more ways than one.
What happens next partly depends on the outcome of next month's Irish Gold Cup, clearly, but also on how many of the Gigginstown massive are set to line up for both the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup and their own Ryanair Chase.
There was further creative dissent between O'Leary and me when, despite admitting he doubted Don Poli "would be good enough to win a Gold Cup" and that "he's probably more of an Aintree Grand National horse", he declared "but he'll run in the Gold Cup as there's plenty of time between the two". Unaccountably, there was no mention of the painting class.
That's a shame because Don Poli's chances at Aintree would be maximised if arriving fresh. Three weeks is not his idea of a mental hiatus from racing; three years and hiking up the Himalayas might just qualify. So we shall see: nought may endure but mutability.
In failing by three lengths to concede 9lbs to owner Carl Hinchy's unexposed Irish recruit Shantou Flyer, Village Vic delivered the metronomic front-running jumping performance we've come to expect from him at Cheltenham but was less in evidence in the Caspian Caviar last time out.
There was half a length back to, in third, the more patiently ridden Top Gamble, who conceded 1lb to the runner-up but thrives in testing ground. Although both placed horses are super-consistent stars of the jumps season, neither quite has the class even for a Ryanair – at least on recent evidence of the race.
Rebecca Curtis, who now trains the winner, deems him a future National horse but didn't dismiss the Ryanair as an option. When trained by Colin Bowe last season, Shantou Flyer won at Cheltenham in October but hit the deck relatively late on in the NH Chase.
At Tramore that same day, Village Vic's clumsy former stable companion Champagne West recorded his best effort since finishing second to that horse in the 2015 Caspian Caviar. He still threatened to undermine his own efforts with a dodgy jump at the second last but ultimately beat a fair Listed field by 12 lengths.
That was his second start for Henry de Bromhead, who was worried beforehand about the tight track and felt afterwards that Champagne West had appreciated the soft ground. It was good to see the winner bag this confidence-booster but it did not convince for loftier targets.
Roi Des Francs ran respectably at a track that surely didn't suit but Clarcam continues below his best. Alechi Inois would have hated the ground.
Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase
Josh Moore's fall at Huntingdon on Boxing Day resulted in a dislocated shoulder, meaning he won't be fit to ride Ar Mad in Ascot's Clarence House Chase later this month.
The current plan is for elder brother Jamie to take over, which might indicate stablemate Sire De Grugy is no longer being aimed at that race. At the very least, if he did line up it would mean the 11-year-old would be ridden by a brand new jockey because only Jamie or Josh have ever ridden him in public.
Sun Bets Stayers' Hurdle
Conditions at Cheltenham on New Year's Day were surprisingly testing and only became more so during the course of the day – exactly how Relkeel Hurdle winner Agrapart likes it.
Notching a significant double for jockey Lizzie Kelly, he outstayed or out-battled L'Ami Serge – or a bit of both – after the latter breezed into the lead on landing at the last and went a length up on the winner. Agrapart knuckled down to the fight and forced his head back in front on the line.
The winner proved his stamina for this trip, having made little impact compared with his best UK form at around that distance in two starts in France this year, but his ability to be effective on the soundish surface likely at the Festival remains an unknown.
So it's probably not surprising that trainer Nick Williams said: "I don't know where Agrapart goes next. He is very ground dependent. His wins have all been on heavy. The reason for coming here was to see if he could step up to the Stayers' Hurdle."
L'Ami Serge is even more betwixt and between given this outing seems to conclusively prove that 2m4f – especially in conditions placing an extra emphasis on stamina – is at the absolute upper end of his staying needs. He'd been switched from fences following his left-jumping display at Exeter and was perfectly at home over the smaller obstacles.
However he has also found little in the past and it's been pretty much a year since he got his head in front, which is worrisome for a horse of his ability even if he has been highly tried. I wonder whether he's a Grand Annual candidate when, played late, his class might take him to the front when the music stops; even so, he'll still need to jump straighter.
"L'Ami Serge is even more betwixt and between. I wonder whether he's a Grand Annual candidate when, played late, his class might take him to the front when the music stops; even so, he'll still need to jump straighter."
Sporting first-time cheekpieces, third-placed Cole Harden certainly looked happier returned to hurdles than on his effortful chase debut at Wetherby but he's still operating at a level about a stone and a half below his 2015 World Hurdle peak (although I'm starting to think that race was over-rated).
The fact trainer Warren Greatrex reverted to hurdles with him suggests he might, not unexpectedly, have drawn stumps on that chasing lark for this season as least. Handicaps would be an option if the assessor relents further.
Last year's runner-up Lil Rockerfeller had an off day, perhaps because a fourth successive month of having your ears driven off from halfway can pale on even the toughest of racehorses. That's not a criticism: it's his run style but it tends to be one with a shelf life. I hope this hardy perennial bounces back.
Camping Ground won this Grade Two event in bottomless ground last year but has been making mistakes over fences this season and was beaten the moment the pace lifted here. He was trying to concede weight to all bar Lil Rockerfeller. Trying a new trip, Adrien Du Pont had not been asked for his effort at the nine-furlongs-out penultimate flight when landing awkwardly, pecking and shifting Sam Twiston-Davies off sideways.
Over to Ireland and after making his seasonal debut for new trainer Jessica Harrington the day after Boxing Day, Supasundae reappeared four days later in rude health to win a 2m4f event at Punchestown by six-and-a-half lengths from Monksland.
Seventh behind Altior in last year's Supreme, Supasundae would need to find plenty more improvement to get involved in any of the Festival's graded races but this was a career best and Harrington mentioned potentially stepping him up in trip.
Further back in the field, it was good to see Sure Reef back in action after almost two years on the sidelines; he jumped as though he'd forgotten what hurdles looked like but stuck on well after docilely surrendering the lead to the winner at the third last.
Stan James Champion Hurdle
Superb Story was well backed to win Musselburgh's feature hurdle on New Year's Day and duly obliged. He was well positioned and his jumping flawless but he still needed driving out on his first run for six months and conceding upwards of 10lbs all round. He found more than enough for pressure.
Trainer Dan Skelton had previously raised the possibility of taking the Champion Hurdle route with stablemate North Hill Harvey after he won the Greatwood but his absence from the Bula-Sigh-International might suggest a 6lb rise to 147 has kept the County Hurdle option open.
Superb Story won that race off a mark of 138 last year but had since flopped in the Galway Hurdle when, according to Skelton, "everything that could go wrong did go wrong". The horse also bumped his leg on returning home and hadn't raced since.
"Superb Story runs well fresh and I didn't want to do too much with him before this race. If anything I think he might have blown up a little in the closing stages," said Skelton. "He will probably go straight to the Champion Hurdle now without another run and we'll give him an entry in the County."
The horse is still clearly progressing and did shape as though a lack of match-fitness blunted his authority, so lofty ambitions are worth a shot. It means the supporting cast for the Champion Hurdle is starting to swell but that could change when or if Faugheen and/or Annie Power show their face. Should they not, of course, the rest of the field ceases to be understudies.
However, O'Leary is confident both of this division's ghosts will appear at or before Cheltenham, tempering his enthusiasm for Gigginstown's emphatic Ryanair Hurdle winner Petit Mouchoir, whom he confirmed heads for the Festival's two-mile showpiece.
"Petit Mouchoir is entitled to enter the Champion Hurdle picture now but while it was a very impressive performance at Leopardstown, there was no Faugheen or Annie Power in the line-up," he said.
"He didn't surprise us [at Leopardstown] because we thought we had the Fighting Fifth Hurdle in the bag with him before he fell last month at Newcastle.
"I wouldn't mind these doubts about Annie Power or Faugheen as Willie [Mullins] is training them for March and not now. We have a Champion Hurdle contender and nothing more than that at this stage."
At Warwick on New Year's Eve, Buveur D'Air got mixed reviews for a mixed performance. My take is neither wholly positive nor wholly negative.
The pluses were he jumped the tricky run of five fences in the back straight fast and low, especially given he was dancing to leader Gino Trail's tune and upsides Gala Ball on occasion, and he did well to shrug off the argy-bargy with the latter on the home turn.
The more experienced Gino Trail had also been allowed to dominate, though at a good clip, and has blossomed as a chaser this season so he was no pushover to beat. Winning jockey Aidan Coleman also believes Buveur D'Air is "the type of horse who will never find that much in front" which, as long as he's winning, is no bad thing. The time was comparatively very good.
The minuses are that his fast low jumping leaves little margin for error – he won't be able to plunge through Cheltenham's fences and continue unchecked as he did at both Warwick's and Haydock's second last – and his proposed campaign seems to be the opposite of what he needs.
He seems (rightly, at this stage) to be playing second fiddle in Arkle terms to stablemate Altior, who beat him by eight-and-a-half lengths in last term's Supreme, meaning bookmakers deem his probable target to be the JLT Chase and price him as second favourite at 7/1. The yard also has another candidate, in different ownership, for that race whom we'll discuss later.
Trainer Nicky Henderson spoke last season of Buveur D'Air being suited by a step up in distance but in the event – rightly in my opinion – kept him to the minimum trip. The horse continues to shape as though a strongly run two miles would be his optimum which makes you wonder whether the Grand Annual would be his ideal Festival target.
Given he's owned by JP McManus who also has the likes of Coney Island and Bleu Et Rouge in Ireland, perhaps that notion isn't entirely fanciful. Henderson has said in the past that the horse prefers soft ground, however.
Whereas Gino Trail ran and jumped well, Gala Ball regressed on his chase debut. The quintet of quick fences saw his errors multiply and he came off worse from the interference his jockey initiated in a vain attempt to hold a line to the detriment of Buveur D'Air.
Two decent aggressively ridden past Newbury winners, Cepage and Knockgraffon, were beaten back at that track on New Year's Eve after taking each other on for the lead in the back straight – perhaps to each other's detriment.
The former, awash with sweat, fell when not getting high enough at the cross-fence five out and the latter's bold but largely clean jumping wasn't enough to prevent him being headed by patiently ridden Icing On The Cake approaching the line.
Cepage had been raised 13lbs for bolting up on his UK debut and Knockgraffon was trying to concede 19lbs to the winner but it was still a good effort from Icing On The Cake to take this four-runner novices' limited handicap on his chase debut.
Trainer Oliver Sherwood said niggling problems, including sore shins, had troubled this horse since his return from a ten-month absence over hurdles last time but described his jumping as "exemplary". The strong pace set by the two principals both enabled him to settle and brought his abundant stamina into play.
"This performance suggests the clock didn't mislead about the calibre of his effort last time but I do wonder whether the likely fiercer early pace and bustle of a larger field in the JLT will afford Whisper time to warm to his task."
On New Year's Day at Cheltenham, Whisper followed up his December success over the same course and distance with victory in the Grade Two Dipper.
Jockey Davy Russell again had to wait for his mount to get his eye in as he initially sat off the pace but, despite an error at the 13th fence, it was clear rounding the home turn that he had not yet gone for everything. His mount then responded to lead approaching the last and, despite seeking to hang right, he saw it out well and rallied when pressed.
The performance of runner-up Clan Des Obeaux was somewhat puzzling. He jumped well but exhibited a tendency to adjust right – his absolute undoing at the second last when, still leading, he got in close and clipped it while skewing in that direction and landed unbalanced. He gamely responded to pressure but was held again near the line.
Distant third Briery Belle needs further than 2m5f against this level of opposition and she started to make mistakes from the effort of stretching to keep up with superior horses. She remains a talent over fences and can win a decent handicap and/or a good mares' event.
"It feels as though Whisper has been around a long time and yet he is novice chasing," said Henderson. "He is going to have to come into the reckoning for the JLT."
The reason it feels so long is that it is: Whisper is nine years of age – old for a novice chaser – and that was his 20th start but he seems to have clicked with Russell, the retained jockey of owner Dai Williams from this season.
This performance – and other evidence that we'll come to later – suggests the clock didn't mislead about the calibre of his effort last time but I do wonder whether the likely fiercer early pace and bustle of a larger field in the JLT will afford him time to warm to his task.
This was the first time Clan Des Obeaux has adjusted right to my mind and it's disconcerting that having jumped so superbly well upsides Briery Belle and then Whisper that he made a relatively unforced error. However he remains young at the mere age of five and still has much scope for learning.
Stablemate Arpege D'Alene may have been beaten favourite in third for Cheltenham's preceding attritional 3m2.5f handicap but he boosted his prospects for the NH Chase.
He jumped with assurance and proved malleable position-wise in by far the biggest field he has yet faced over fences and was staying on inexorably when squeezed out by the two converging principals approaching the line. This experience will serve him well and he promises to improve over further.
He seemed to handle the testing ground just fine but hitherto had registered his best form on a sounder surface. He's now best-priced at 16/1 for the four-miler behind Alpha Des Obeaux, who when he last raced broke a blood vessel (for the first time ever, according to O'Leary) and the more credible (at this stage at least) Martello Tower, who must prove his aptitude for a sound surface. I like our 25/1 position.
Other efforts to note from New Year's Day came from steadfast Robinsfirth at Exeter, whose jumping was notably secure under pressure, and Premier Bond, who delivered at Catterick on the promise he'd suggested for a step up in trip behind stablemate Might Bite at Doncaster.
The lightly raced Robinsfirth could head to Cheltenham's Trials Day at the end of this month according to Joe Tizzard, son and assistant trainer to Colin. Premier Bond benefited from first-time cheekpieces and could yet find further improvement at marathon trips, his success here becoming increasingly emphatic from two out.
Baron Alco's victory at Plumpton the following day was further evidence of the strength of his defeat by Whisper at Cheltenham last month. Dropped back to a trip short of his best, he jumped accurately at a strong pace – although admittedly his main rival sadly suffered a fatal injury.
This win – in a fast time – sets up a bonus payment should he win any race at the Festival, where handicaps appear the best option.
Over in Ireland Childrens List pretty much made all to win Punchestown's opening contest on New Year's Eve. He adjusted left a few times – suggesting the opposite orientation of track might suit better – but jumped soundly. Walsh allowed him to pop the last, briefly offering the chasing Edwulf some hope, but his mount then kept on well in the style of a thorough stayer.
The NH Chase is a possibility but he found the demands even of handicap company at all three top spring Festivals – Cheltenham, Aintree and Punchestown – too much over hurdles last season. He again wore ear-plugs here and the time was slow.
Edwulf jumped better than has been the case and rallied from the last to chase the winner without ever threatening to catch him. Bentelimar loomed briefly but may not have stayed this first attempt at three miles and beyond.
On New Year's Day at Fairyhouse there was an attritional novices' event in which only three of the eight runners completed, one of those utterly tailed off. The winner Balko Des Flos shadowed Ballyoisin, who set a good gallop, and the pair were allowed to pull well clear of the rest who clearly hoped they were going too fast in heavy conditions.
Those tactics briefly looked likely to pay off at the fourth last when the pursuers took closer order and Ballyoisin took a tumble but it quickly became apparent that only favourite Arbre De Vie was still capable of giving chase and even his will was broken after the second last.
Positive tactics clearly suit the winner, who finished fifth in the Albert Bartlett and fourth in the Sefton last season. Here he also paid a compliment to his Gowran conqueror Bellshill but is worth a step up in class himself, having clocked the standout time of the afternoon.
Arbre De Vie ran respectably on his chase debut in suitable underfoot conditions but it was worrying to see last year's Albert Bartlett runner-up Fagan stop so quickly that he was pulled up after the fourth last on his belated seasonal debut.
Finally O'Leary passed on some good news about Identity Thief, who pulled up lame after getting struck into at Leopardstown over Christmas and was at first feared to have fractured his pelvis.
"Thankfully that wasn't the case and he's just stiff and sore," he reported. "Henry [de Bromhead] is quite positive about him so hopefully we'll have him back this season."
That news nonetheless indicates his Cheltenham ambitions are at best damaged, at worst all but extinguished. Any setback en route to the Festival tends to show in the heat of battle.
Messire Des Obeaux was impressive in beating a strong field gathered for Newbury's Grade One Challow Hurdle last Saturday although trainer Alan King clearly sees him primarily as a nascent chaser.
He was a tad keen early on at the fore of the main group chasing the two clear leaders, Major Mac and Ami Desbois, but moved smoothly into contention from the third last and needed only the mildest of shakes to lead after the second last. He got in too close to the last and landed flat-footed but had plenty left in the tank and was even idling on the run to the line.
A second-season novice who finished seventh in last year's Fred Winter, he'd previously won at Bangor and a Grade Two at Sandown, defeating Ballyandy by half a length, last time out – an experience his trainer believes taught him plenty.
"He travelled very well through it and probably last time [at Sandown] was the first time he'd really had to battle and I'm sure they learn from that," King told Racing UK's Tom Stanley.
"He'll definitely get three [miles] but I don't think we need to be in a rush to go there yet. He travels very well through a race. I've said all the way through that the one thing I'm excited about is him seeing a fence next season. Of the staying [novice hurdlers], he's up there – he'd be as good as we've got, I think."
King anticipates entering Messire Des Obeaux in both the Neptune and Albert Bartlett; the Neptune trial at Cheltenham at the end of this month is his anticipated next step. For his part, jockey Daryl Jacob spoke of his mount having "exactly what you need for a Cheltenham horse".
"He's just learning, just switching on all the time. The last time he travelled really well but hit a flat spot… It took him a while to get into that top gear but once he got into it he as never ever stopping," Jacob said.
"And today he's learned from that and once he got into top gear he knew exactly what to do when he came off the bridle: he fought hard and he fought well."
Runner-up Baltazar D'Allier gave chase to the winner from the third last but could never quite reach him. Trainer Gordon Elliott suggested he wouldn't be racing much this term: "He's a big weak horse," he said. "He's a horse for next term. Barry [Geraghty, jockey] said he was nice but inexperienced."
Third placed Ami Desboisdidn't jump as well as he had at Cheltenham and, in correcting himself into the third last, was on the back foot for much of the straight until his stamina kicked in. The drop in trip and less testing ground weren't to his benefit.
He was also inclined to hang left, as was fourth-placed Elegant Escape who might have been third but for a stilling mistake at the last that left him trotting rather than galloping for a few strides. He needs further, too.
Another second-season hurdler Major Mac bounced back from a dull effort at Sandown to be a convincing hare at a track he likes, ultimately finishing fifth. He should be capable of winning a handicap, perhaps needing to go left-handed.
Having made a mistake at the second, Cultivator never got involved and his form took a step backwards. Henderson concluded he'd been over-faced and needed to be put away until there is better ground in the spring.
Going into this event Robin Roe was second favourite for the Neptune on the strength of his exciting Aintree hurdles-debut success but hadn't been sighted on a racecourse for more than two months. Trainer Skelton said then this race was the target so there was no sense the horse had suffered a setback.
Sent off favourite, he was a length down on the runner-up and about three behind the winner when taking off too soon and suffering a slithering tumble at the third last. Sadly it later transpired he'd cracked a bone in his knee in that incident and will be sidelined until autumn at the earliest.
Later on the same card William Henry followed up his encouraging comebackat Cheltenham with an authoritative success in the introductory hurdle. Having previously been off the track for 21 months, it was important to see him reappear promptly and build on his hurdles debut and he initiated a 1-2-3 in the race for Henderson.
It was conducted at a crawl, however, and there were plenty of errors in his wake – notably fourth-placed debutant Mister Universum. Runner-up Le Dauphin, a half-brother to 2015 OLBG David Nicholson runner-up Polly Peachum, surely needs further. A rare runner over jumps for David Simcock, former decent Flat handicapper Captain Morley hinted at an aptitude for this game without landing a blow.
"William Henry is a classy horse and I don't think a messy contest like that would necessarily help him," Henderson observed. He was generally upbeat about all three of his representatives, while admitting the race had degenerated into something akin to "a gallop at Seven Barrows". He plans to step the winner up in trip so a Neptune entry must be a possibility.
"Coo Star Sivola relished the testing conditions at Cheltenham and, despite dossing on the job early, won the opening contest with more left to give. Williams is tempted by the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys' Handicap Hurdle."
Coo Star Sivola relished the testing conditions at Cheltenham on New Year's Day and, despite dossing on the job early, won the opening contest with more left to give. A second-season novice, he was a decent juvenile and even finished third in the Fred Winter – a fine performance for a relatively slow-maturing scopey horse.
His season had started well with a second in the Persian War but he was thumped in Grade One company in France last time and still sought his first career success. The step up in trip to 2m4f here did the trick. This success also initiated Kelly's notable double in races precluding the use of her claim.
Understandably given his physique, she deems him a nascent chaser. In the meantime Williams believes "you need to be 150-rated" for the Neptune and is instead tempted by the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys' Handicap Hurdle at the Festival.
Runner-up Report To Base again ran a super race to follow up his Bangor second to Kayf Grace. Perhaps even more than Coo Star Sivola, he loved the ground but jumped less fluently and wandered once headed. This inexperienced horse also looks like a decent staying chaser in the making.
In third, Poetic Rhythm reversed his previous form with Pingshou probably due to being better suited by the trip. The former would have finished closer bar for being repeatedly mildly inconvenienced before and after the final flight where he also landed very awkwardly. He may ultimately even want further.
By contrast Pingshou went from travelling well at the second last to leaving Coleman holding onto to nothing exiting the home turn; he surely did not stay and might also need a sounder surface. Sumkindofking's petrol also emptied in these conditions but he wasn't ever quite able to get involved either. Minotaur jumped monstrously and the only hope to cling onto with the pulled-up Baden is he was simply unable to function in ground that deep but he risks becoming disappointing.
In other UK novice-hurdling news from New Year's day, Neon Wolf and Air Horse One formed two legs of a Harry Fry-trained treble in the opening three races at Exeter.
The former is now unbeaten in a point, bumper and hurdle; he won in straightforward fashion for mostly hands and heels and with more authority than the official three-length margin. The latter finally got off the mark over hurdles at the sixth attempt, steadily getting on top from the second last in testing ground.
At Plumpton the next day, No Comment carried a double penalty to victory in the NH novices' hurdles. The hood he's worn the last twice has helped him start to realise his potential and, hat-trick in the bag, there should be more to come in decent handicaps.
Rewind to Taunton last Friday and Coillte Lass took the scalp of last year's Trull House Stud Dawn Run Mares' Hurdle runner-up Dusky Legend despite trainer Paul Nicholls' concerns about her dropping back to the minimum trip.
Although she's a winning pointer and registered both previous successes over 2m5f, she didn't seem to lack for pace and, once assuming the lead after the third last, she extinguished all hope behind her with a daring long but accurate leap at the next flight. When she clipped the last it scarcely affected her momentum and she maintained her four-and-a-half-length margin of superiority all the way to the line.
Nicholls has "no real plans" for her and didn't mention Cheltenham as a possible target but she's clearly a decent mare and her pedigree suggests her trainer will ultimately be borne out over her trip requirements. It was comfortably the best hurdles time of the day.
Dusky Legend was conceding 3lbs to the winner but comprehensively outpointed. Jockey Wayne Hutchinson sounded the alarm as early as the fourth last, when his mount made a mistake and needed shaking up. By the home turn, she was outpaced. There was a fleeting vague hope when you thought her stamina would kick in entering the straight but the leader's second-last leap crushed that thought.
The runner-up had previously been beaten three-and-a-quarter lengths by La Bague Au Roi at Newbury, when also conceding 3lbs, and this appeared to be a slightly lesser performance. This second season novice is consistent but couldn't at this stage be accused of progression. Her price still ranges from 10/1 to twice that for this year's Dawn Run; Coillte Lass is available at 16/1.
Copper Kay finished third to La Bague Au Roi in that same Newbury race and threw away victory on the step up to 2m5f at Warwick on New Year's Eve. She was eight lengths clear of Ellens Way after the last, the pair having pulled away from the rest after the third last, but seemed to jink at a photographer crouching under the rail and idled so badly that her pursuer, head bowed honest and low, caught her approaching the line. She rallied to force a photo but was still held by a head.
The runner-up had been keen early on but it was Copper Kay's lack of focus that cost her rather than any other factor, so it won't be surprising to see her either delivered much later or in headgear in future. If she could be guaranteed a strong pace, she might still be effective at shorter trips. Her jumping was scrappy at the fourth and third last, so she's doing plenty wrong currently.
Ellens Way was receiving 7lbs and appeared to step up markedly on her previous form, returned to a more suitable trip. Grace Tara lost her unbeaten tag under Rules, her jockey Robbie Dunne reporting she "hung right-handed throughout and stopped quickly".
The notable novice-hurdling performance from Ireland during this period – admittedly something of an exhalation after the frenetic graded action of the preceding days – came from Woods Well at Fairyhouse on New Year's Day.
In heavy ground in which he was entitled to finish as tired as he did, he kept galloping and jumping whereas his rivals faltered. This was another improved performance and Team Elliott sees him as a staying chaser for the future.
Runner-up Gettysburg Address ran creditably enough but made mistakes. C'est Jersey appeared to regress on his Irish debut when surprised by Any Second Now at Navan; his jumping was notably poor but perhaps he found the ground difficult.
On his racecourse debut Time Factor shaped with distinct promise, having been out of his ground early and then fading late from the effort of getting on terms with the principals.
After Charli Parcs had won so impressively at Kempton last week, Nicky Henderson mentioned in the post-race interview that he was also looking forward to running "Percy Street and some others" from his juvenile squad.
It's always interesting when trainers introduce, unprompted, other horses during the slot reserved for an impressive winner. That said, Henderson did also mention that prior to Kempton he had been concerned about his strength in this division.
Given this billing, it may have therefore been significant that Percy Street was an uneasy favourite prior to his hurdling debut on New Year's Eve. On paper, he had good credentials for switching disciplines as a 98-rated horse that stayed 12f and was pretty versatile ground-wise. There was just a small concern that he could often be keen.
This last consideration meant it was not surprising he was well covered up at the rear of the field from the outset but he'd have soon ended up there anyway given how careful and hesitant his jumping was. He made some progress on the home turn but slammed on the brakes again three out and was thereafter never going to catch the leaders. He did keep on adequately in fourth, though, with the stands' rail to help.
It might have been an advantage to race prominently, admittedly, given the first two home, Final Choice and Siruh Du Lac, made or disputed the lead throughout and the third Saint Contest was never that far away at the fore of mid-division.
Final Choice pressed Siruh Du Lac early and again from the fifth for the lead and then narrowly took over at the first flight entering the straight, three out. Saint Contest still seemed to be travelling smoothly at that stage – whereas Siruh Du Lac became outpaced and lost his position – but he got pushed into the penultimate flight and was quickly beaten, drifting left, afterwards. Final Choice meanwhile just ran on strongly to the line while Siruh Du Lac's stamina kicked in to reel in the fading third near the line.
Final Choice was rated just 59 on the Flat after winning his final start over nearly 12 furlongs at Bath for Roger Charlton. He'd made an encouraging hurdles debut at Warwick behind Tyrell, clearly built on it here and looks to have a bigger future under this discipline. It might be that a right-handed track isn't ideal, though, as he's adjusted left on both starts over hurdles to date.
Trainer Greatrex commented: "First Choice was only just fit enough to run at Warwick last time as we were up against time, so I thought he'd improve. His jumping was slick and you can ride him positively and know he'll finish.
"He's unexposed and while he doesn't show much at home, he's got a bit about him. He's probably the most promising juvenile I've had and if he wasn't going to be embarrassed we could think about the Triumph with something in between."
Rider Gavin Sheehan described him as "lazy". "He's always saving a bit and the more I ask him, the more he gives me. He's not very flashy but he gets the job done, so it's ideal. We don't have many juveniles so he'd be one of the best," he said.
Siruh Du Lac shaped as though a more strongly run race and ultimately stiffer test of stamina would suit. Saint Contest might have flattened out due to being keen in the early stages or he may not have found much off the bridle; he stayed at least 12 furlongs on the Flat in France.
At Punchestown that same day, Dakota Moirette gained reward for his steady improvement over hurdles when making most to beat stablemate, Icario. The winner had previously been comfortably held by Landofhopeandglory and then Prospectus but is learning his trade with each start.
He proved capable of an efficient leap here, especially when moving to press for the lead four out, but also of the odd in-close mistake, such as at the second last. Elliott's assistant trainer Olly Murphy said it wasn't the strongest race but the winner stays well and the time was good by comparison.
Icario came from a long way back to take second. The better-positioned A Year To Remember drifted markedly in the betting before returning in third. Former Simcock inmate Loose Ends was not without promise on his hurdles debut for Elliott back in fourth.
Back at Musselburgh on New Year's Day Project Bluebook comprehensively turned around his debut defeat by the more experienced Nietzsche and is clearly progressing fast. He settled better on or near the lead than favourite Warp Factor and jumped more fluently, especially under pressure.
He steadily improved on the Flat as stepped up in trip by trainer John Quinn, who won the 2012 Triumph Hurdle with Countrywide Flame, and likes the sound surface he would likely encounter at the Festival. At the moment, the Fred Winter would appear his most feasible target.
Warp Factor, second to Forth Bridge over the same course and distance on his debut, was keen early but kept trying when clearly held from the last. Nietzsche jumped poorly and does not appear to be progressing; he was already held when hampered avoiding the filly Castafiore, who fell when staying on at the last. She was not done with at the time but her jumping was scrappy even before she took her heavy tumble.
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 25/1 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