Road to Cheltenham: Sad times

'An irrerversible, incalculable breach of trust'. Lydia Hislop can't think about Cheltenham, without reflecting upon Kempton's news.

The joy of watching horses running in circles was extinguished this week by the shock announcement that Jockey Club Racecourses plan to sell Kempton Park for housing. It's the direction from which the sport might least have expected the knife given it's supposedly JCR's remit to safeguard it.

They of course argue this sale achieves exactly that via investing in Sandown, where Kempton's jump racing will be transferred, and constructing a new all-weather track at Newmarket, where they should have built one in the first place. Subject to the necessary permissions, the latter venture will work well – provided they're not proposing the anti-spectacle of Europe's second straight AW mile.

Remember it was only 2005 when JCR ripped up Kempton's once-valued turf Flat course and replaced it with an all-weather track – all that infrastructure investment for what will be just 15 years' return.

To the concerned observer, the game plan for Kempton seemed to have been chasing the betting-shop pound and caring little about those arriving through the gates, meaning yet fewer came. The former strategy undoubtedly worked in terms of bookmaker income and bargaining power but apart from two or three jumps fixtures each year, the racecourse itself became a soulless shadow of its former self. That makes me angry; I doubt I am alone.

But to blithely bulldoze history is utterly devastating. Horses have raced at Kempton since 1878. It's the home of the King George VI Chase, where the great Kauto Star and Desert Orchid were at their scintillating best and Arkle brought down the curtain on his unparalleled career in 1966.

Its closure also signifies the widening fracture between urban and country life, modern demands and our cultural heritage, our capital city and racing. The soon-to-be-total loss of greyhound tracks in London should be a terrifying precedent. Kempton's closure brings such extinction one step closer – if not the creeping visceral fear of a wider one for jump racing, set in a context of a dwindling northern scene.

We can only hope proposals for Sandown achieve greater permanency. But it will be a challenge (polite word) for a course with such limited real estate to sustain a greater volume of jump racing without deteriorating its own turf. It's also more prone to heavy ground – and therefore abandonments – than Kempton. The character of the King George will also change and there will be a greater homogeny among our top NH events.

Like the tearing-out of Haydock's iconic black fences to pursue Flat racing's drunken fast buck, this risks being another ill-considered act of ultimate self-harm by those who should be jump racing's protectors. JCR have only offered strategic financial reasons for closing Kempton – it is not failing on the balance sheet – so it would appear developers have merely found their price. Meanwhile, racing and its fans will weigh the cost of this irreversible, incalculable breach of trust for decades to come.

Timico Gold Cup

Sadly but not unpredictably, this year's Gold Cup is likely to contain neither of its most recent winners following news in the past week that titleholder Don Cossack has been retired and his predecessor Coneygree is all but certain not to be ready in time.

Trainer Gordon Elliott took the decision to retire Don Cossack after he suffered a further setback in his rush to get fit in time for his postponed comeback assignment at Gowran Park next month.

Lydia Hislop on Djakadam "Fortheloveofgod, if you haven't backed him each-way yet, I have no words."
Lydia Hislop on Djakadam

"I am very sad to report that Don Cossack has suffered a setback and will now be retired," Elliott said in his Betfair blog. "We found that he had a bit of heat in his leg yesterday and we've made the decision to call time."

Right from the outset since discovering an injury when preparing him for the Punchestown Festival last April, Elliott had warned this "horse of a lifetime" would immediately be retired were he to suffer another problem.

"We knew it was never certain we would get him back to the racecourse and even after that to get him back to his best, but we were hopeful and he was on track," Elliott added. Unfortunately, it was not to be.

A few days earlier, the Bradstocks had all but bowed to the inevitable when announcing that Coneygree, who in 2015 became the first novice since Captain Christy to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 1974, wouldn't even be entered in this year's edition. (But what's history, eh? We spit on history.)

Having made his comeback at Haydock in November after missing most of last season due to injury, Coneygree failed to make his date with the King George – bitter pause – on Boxing Day due to a "niggly" setback. At the weekend there was talk of a race against time to get to the Gold Cup; the next day it seemed pretty much lost.

"If everything changed and suddenly everything looked perfect, his x-rays and him, we could supplement him but I'm not going to enter him because I'm 90 per cent certain he will not run," reasoned co-trained Sara Bradstock.

"It's all too quick. It's only two months from now and he's still only walking and we're not going to be there in top form."

Bradstock's concluding statement was a reminder, were one needed, of just how delicate this horse is. "He'll definitely have some spring target and could go to Aintree or Punchestown unless something else goes wrong," she said. "We just need to do this right."

Following news of Coneygree's likely absence, bookmakers reacted by cutting Native River to 13/2 at best – leaving Thistlecrack at Evens to 4/5 – partly because the absence of such a bold-jumping indomitable front-runner will make the second favourite's life slightly easier on the pace.

Djakadam was still stubbornly available at 14/1 and Lexus winner Outlander at a generous 20/1 – although his jumping will need to hold and his stamina is unproven (if likely).

After the Don Cossack news broke, Thistlecrack – for whom an ever-decreasing field is clearly an advantage – was cut to 10/11 and Native River to 6/1 but it's now screamingly ridiculous that Djakadam can still be backed at 14/1 with Sky Bet and Hills. Fortheloveofgod, if you haven't backed him each-way yet, I have no words.

Meanwhile, given the market is happily ignoring current proven Grade One form, it's only logical that Alary – a horse who's won only two of his 13 chase starts and is yet to taste British-style jumping – should be as short as 16/1 – entries for which are announced this week. Thistlecrack was clearly a gateway drug; bookmakers have progressed to the hard stuff.

"Alary was very good this morning on the gallops," said trainer Colin Tizzard, who admittedly does have the first and second favourite in the Gold Cup betting and a certain Cue Card to measure him against. "I don't know when he will run but he's bloody good, I'll tell you that."

Honestly: Kempton closing and Tizzard engaging in that my-other-car-is-a-Porsche yak. I have strayed into a parallel universe and want to come home.

Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase

To continue the air of surreality, Nicky Henderson has entered Altior in the Champion Chase. However, he also entered him in next week's Clarence House, only to backtrack when the reality of actually running him outside of novice company actually started to loom.

That said, the original target of the Game Spirit would require the same leap and the message behind all of these signals is best interpreted as evidence of the regard in which Henderson holds this horse. He's treating him like Sprinter Sacre. Favourite next step is still "racecourse gallop" in my book, mind.

"I had all sorts of people telling me I had to put him in, so we thought about it and we've put him in," Henderson commented, after admitting on At The Races's On The Line show that he'd penciled in the Champion Chase entry.

"I had so many messages last night telling me to take out the rubber, get rid of the pencil and put it in ink, so it's in ink now."

The idea this might actually come to pass is as likely as voting Brexit, electing Trump and closing Kempton. But at least Altior v. Douvan would be worth seeing. That prospect will tempt us when the Champion Chase entries are revealed later this week.

Ryanair Chase

It was lovely to see Garde La Victoire back in the winner's enclosure at Sandown last Saturday for what on paper was probably a career-best performance in beating Bold Henry by two lengths from a mark of 154.

In his Betway blog, jockey Richard Johnson anticipated he might well have "another run in a handicap somewhere before stepping back into graded company". However, to my eye his jumping remains too vulnerable to cut it for this or any other Festival race.

Trainer Alan King has indicated 10-year-old Smad Place, last seen when seventh to Native River in the Hennessy, and the year-younger Uxizandre, unsighted since winning the 2015 Ryanair, will both be among the entries set to be revealed later this week.

In a Racing Post interview, owner Rich Ricci suggested Djakadam would be entered in the Ryanair and that option would be considered if it was quicker ground but he would be heading to the Gold Cup if it were soft. I cannot follow that anti-logic.

Stan James Champion Hurdle

The yak has been mighty for this race in the past week with potential players now crowding at the wings of this small stage while the principal actors are still 'resting'. That's left the audience unsure how to react.

Willie Mullins has entered Faugheen and Annie Power, along with five stable-companions (perhaps tellingly, not including Arctic Fire), for the Irish Champion Hurdle at the end of this month. However son and assistant Patrick told the Irish Independent that neither of the past two Champion Hurdle winners is a certain runner.

"Faugheen and Annie Power are both riding away and are of similar fitness," Patrick said. "Hopefully, Faugheen can start to sparkle in his work and we can get him back to the track. Neither he nor Annie has sparked and Dad is taking a patient approach.

"We'd have liked to have Faugheen out earlier but we've not been happy with the way he has sparked – he hasn't in the way we'd have liked. It's nothing serious and he's riding away again but we're very much erring on the side of caution with March the main aim.

"Annie Power only had one run before Cheltenham last year. If we're not 100 per cent happy at the end of the month with either, we'll wait some more."

Perhaps with any other stable alarm bells would be ringing more loudly but we've witnessed Mullins win Festival races from a standing start before – Quevega's repeated successes in the David Nicholson perhaps being the best example – and you'll recall that one of the key reasons given for not running Vautour in the Gold Cup last year was that he hadn't sparked. He still managed at catch fire right on cue.

Lydia Hislop on Peace And Co "Overly-zestful 2014 Triumph Hurdle winner, unraced since pulling up in last term's Champion, Peace And Co lives and breathes – with the emphasis on the latter."
Lydia Hislop on Peace And Co

There are also the understandably high expectations of Ricci to manage. He commented in his chairman's blog for BetBright this week that he's "very hopeful" Faugheen will run at Leopardstown on 29 January. "We are not there yet but the signs are positive," he said. Annie Power was not mentioned.

Meanwhile, Pricewise aka Tom Segal has tipped recent Musselburgh winner Superb Story for this championship event and Nigel Twiston-Davies has confirmed it as The New One's target via the Haydock trial he traditionally wins unimpressively after jumping right throughout.

Henderson has also sorted through his list of potential players – albeit, intriguingly, he omitted the most interesting subject of recent yak. Brain Power got a mention – he runs in Sandown's Contenders' Hurdle and "is learning to race properly and jump properly".

My Tent Or Yours is still hanging in there: he "probably just hasn't come to his very best this year" but is "well capable of coming back, as we saw in the Champion Hurdle last year." The difference then, of course, was we hadn't seen him at all; this time we've seen his husk three times.

"A lot of people told me I was crazy thinking Sprinter Sacre was going to do it last year so we've got to keep believing," Henderson argued.

Overly-zestful 2014 Triumph Hurdle winner, unraced since pulling up in last term's Champion, Peace And Co lives and breathes – with the emphasis on the latter. It would be quite a feat were his trainer able to conjure him back to his juvenile brilliance.

"We're creeping into respectability," said Henderson. "Behaviour is good. We only tinkered with what you would consider a minor wind procedure in the autumn and he had quite a reaction to that and was in hospital for a good month.

"We are probably quite a way behind but having said that we are making good progress now. The horse looks fantastic. He hasn't galloped yet, but he'll be entered anyway."

L'Ami Serge, who was outstayed and/or out-battled in the Relkeel earlier this month, was also mentioned as a potential contender. He could face The New One at Haydock but he surely isn't strong enough for this Cheltenham event, in body or spirit.

Conspicuous by omission in this round-up was Buveur D'Air, who would thrive in a strong-paced two-mile contest such as the Champion Hurdle often is. We'll find out next week whether he merits an entry; were it not for Yanworth already having planted a flag in this division for JP McManus, I wouldn't be surprised to see this low-jumping chaser revert to the smaller obstacles.

That's just a thought at this stage, though, as Henderson has suggested Sandown's Scilly Isles Chase in February as his next target. At least that test-drives whether stepping up to 2m4f suits him. If not, it could be all change afterwards with the Grand Annual another option. He's 40/1 for this race with Hills.

Sun Bets Stayers' Hurdle

The Racing Post last week flew the kite of last year's runner-up Alpha Des Obeaux reverting to hurdles for this Festival target as a result of breaking a blood vessel when last seen over fences at Christmas.

He could well get a precautionary entry but seemingly more likely is him pitching up in the RSA Chase without prepping in between – a proven modus operandi of trainer Mouse Morris. I had fancied him for that novices' target prior to his latest effort and he's probably over-priced even so.

Morris, who said the horse had never broken a blood vessel before, says the horse is also likely to have an entry in the JLT Chase but "the RSA is his race, I'd say".

Warren Greatrex reportedly described 2015 Stayers' Hurdle hero Cole Harden's distant third to Agrapart as his best run for 18 months and said that "he seems to be coming right back to form". From this vantage point, however, it was hard to construe any encouragement for a target this lofty.

Greatrex apparently also suggested he "wouldn't be averse to going back over fences and reverting to hurdles again for just that race [the Stayers' Hurdle]." I wouldn't personally put a fence anywhere near Cole Harden again unless it was to prevent him from trampling the vegetable patch.

It must be likely that stablemate One Track Mind will also be entered here, having won Punchestown's Grade One Champion Stayers' Hurdle last April, but been beaten in a Catterick novices' chase last month.

OLBG David Nicholson Mares' Hurdle

Lifeboat Mona improved again to win a competitive edition of Sandown's Listed Mares' Hurdle last Saturday. Switched off towards the rear, she travelled well and responded steadily to pressure in the testing going she loves.

Even though Midnight Jazz had every chance after the second last, there was a sense of inevitability about the winner's victory. She's clearly a smart mare and reportedly heads straight to this race as her next target.

Doubts remain about her suitability for a Grade One contest over the Old Course's sharp 2m4f on a likely sounder surface, however – even if 20/1 definitely underestimates her quality.

Midnight Jazz is also improving and recent impressive Cheltenham winner Briery Queen ran very creditably, attempting to concede 4lb to the winner and being beaten three-and-a-quarter lengths with a degree of comfort.

Co-owner Simon Munir took to Twitter last Sunday to announce the unfortunate news that thriving mare Missy Tata, who has won all four starts this season including a Naas Grade Three in November, has been sidelined.

"Unfortunately Missy Tata's spectacular season has been curtailed by a suspensory injury," wrote Munir, who owns the filly with Isaac Souede. "Fingers crossed she'll be back next season."

Novice chasers

American Tom was uneasy in the market prior to crashing out of Naas's two-mile novice event last Sunday. Inevitably taken on for the lead by eventual winner Some Plan, he was already in trouble after steadily losing his position via some sticky jumps when walking into the fifth last and landing heavily.

It was a relief to see him walk away but he was running dully anyway and would surely not have been involved at the finish had he picked up his feet.

"American Tomtook a bad fall and is fine physically but we can put a line through that run as he was coughing post-race," revealed Ricci in his Betbright blog.

He'd previously made a promising debut when beating Gangster at Punchestown despite jumping persistently left – a habit on display here also – but this effort and its timing throws into doubt his claim for any Festival event.

You may recall David Mullins maintained he'd "saved a bit" when, still leading narrowly, Some Plan fell at Cheltenham in the Grade Two event ultimately won by Le Prezien in November. However he's not really a horse on whom such circumspection always translates to a heightened finished effort. He can find little.

But neither Road To Respect nor Stone Hard had the pace or ability to bother him here and he was entitled to finish tired in heavy ground. His jumping was safe in the latter stages and he kept on going under strong riding from the last, Mullins perhaps sensing him curling up.

It was a good effort on paper – recording the best time of the day – but you sense he remains susceptibly one-dimensional. That said, it would be no surprise to see him pitch up in the Arkle instead of something more circumspect given owner Roger Brookhouse likes to have a go at that race – and given Western Warhorse won it for him in 2014, who can blame him?

Road To Respect had previously been beaten further on better ground by both Min and Coney Island; here his jumping was ragged but he is consistent. Stone Hard regressed from his Limerick breeze-round just after Christmas. To describe his profile as patchy would be some understatement but perhaps this was too swift a reappearance once more on heavy ground.

Very testing going and a positive ride appear to suit Uncle Danny ideally and he got both at Cork last Saturday. Taken to the front from the outset, he largely jumped well in a race that steadily fell apart in his wake.

There was just a moment when, lacking fluency at the fourth last, he briefly appeared vulnerable but it was soon all over in the straight. It was his first success at the sixth attempt over fences and he clocked the day's best time.

Favourite Blazer clipped the third last, landing unbalanced, and his light immediately dimmed so it was left to General Principle, who'd been outpaced on the home turn, to plug on for a five-length second place. He'll do better over further. Jett got round in fourth this time but kept losing ground at his fences. Squouateur appears to be regressing; his jumping went to pieces and he was pulled up in the straight here.

There was a decent performance from Forest Bihan to win by 19 lengths on the bridle at Newcastle last Saturday, in the process recording by far the fastest time of the day.

He's improving with each start and paid a compliment to his previous ready conqueror Waiting Patiently here. He did occasionally jump right – which is fine for his most immediate target but not so much for the Festival.

"He will go to Musselburgh on their Trials Day, either for a handicap or the Future Champions Novices' Chase, and then hopefully Cheltenham," said trainer Brian Ellison.

Cyrius Moriviere has been opening umbrellas indoors again because he was seriously unlucky not to get off the mark over fences at Doncaster on Monday. He had tamed a decent field, in particular with two bold asked-for jumps at the fifth and fourth last, only for the saddle to slip and steerage to go awry approaching the second last. Rider David Bass was duly decanted right.

His mount had previously unseated a different jockey by jumping left at Ludlow's first fence and prior to that took a tumble when trying to keep up with Might Bite back at Doncaster in December. We saw on Boxing Day that few novices could match strides with that horse in such circumstances.

Talking of Might Bite, who would have run away with the Grade One Kauto Star at Kempton in fractions near-identical to Thistlecrack's King George until taking a last-flight fall when asked to go bold: he has unbelievably been raised just 4lb for that effort.

He is absolutely thrown in for a handicap – I had wondered whether that might be the Sky Bet Chase, but he's not among the entries. The imponderable is the effects of that heavy fall but his mark is a staring rick and any price that's odds-against would be too long. He's a 160s horse, if Thistlecrack is an even-money favourite for the Gold Cup.

Lydia Hislop on Death Duty "Perhaps a greater imponderable would be faster ground, given all his substantial hurdling form has been recorded on a testing surface. He might well be just fine and, although 9/4 is short, his claims are considerable."
Lydia Hislop on Death Duty

Back to Doncaster on Monday and Cyrius's departure meant those who'd already accepted defeat were suddenly asked to fight out a frantic finish. It was Querry Horse, who got rolling again at that point after losing his position at halfway, who accepted that invitation with the most alacrity – he could even afford to idle once hitting the front just after the last. The step up in trip was clearly necessary.

Winner Massagot made the odd mistake and was careful at times; he also had to negotiate the prone Bass after the second last. He's beginning to shape as though needing a marked step up in trip. Hammersly Lake was a bit disappointing, his chance ebbing away even before he ran out of room approaching the line. Ma De Fou's jumping simply isn't fluent enough.

Novice hurdlers

I suspect Death Duty would have won Naas's Grade One novices' hurdle last Sunday even had Augusta Kate not taken a tumble at the last – and perhaps with a degree of comfort. As things played out, he won by an ever-expanding nine lengths.

Once again his nimble jumping was on display, particularly at that final telling flight, and his head was bowed characteristically low. He needed only encouragement from fine young jockey Jack Kennedy to get involved in the action and posted yet another career best.

"I would say he is an out-and-out stayer and they did not go fast enough for him," said trainer Gordon Elliott. "Jack thought he had [Augusta Kate] covered and the one thing I do know is that he would have galloped all the way to the line. Our lad is a very good horse.

"He's a proper three-mile chaser. At this stage, of all the good horses I have had, none of them were as good as this fella over hurdles. That does not mean he will go on to do it as a chaser. I would say he is a fair one, though."

The Albert Bartlett is the next stop for Death Duty, after "a couple of easy weeks", where he will be trying three miles for the first time. Like his trainer says, he shapes as though it will suit him.

Perhaps a greater imponderable would be faster ground, given all his substantial hurdling form has been recorded on a testing surface. He might well be just fine and, although 9/4 is short, his claims are considerable.

Augusta Kate was dwarfed by her rivals and kept buried in the pack by Ruby Walsh until angled out to challenge approaching the second last. However, she sought to hang right on the approach to both final flights, necessitating repeated slaps down her neck to keep straight but resulting in an awkward head carriage. She didn't get high enough when falling but would have beaten the rest comfortably had she stood up.

Despite racing keenly throughput, the horse who revels in the name Blood Crazed Tiger might have snatched second from front-running Turcagua had he not been hampered by the fall of Augusta Kate at the last. The actual second enjoyed an easy lead and appeared to have every chance.

Earlier, the decision to attack with the habitually keen Turbojet almost paid off in Naas's opening maiden hurdle but Art Of Security caught him soon after the last. Jockey Mark Enright had cast a glance back at the chasing pack entering the straight and again, in concern, when Turbojet lacked fluency at the second last. He'd have seen both the winner and Arvico Bleu travelling well enough.

Art Of Security, who'd recovered well from a scrappy jump three out, then responded readily to hands and heel to challenge at the last and pulled clear on the run-in. Arvico Bleu might have been second but for lurching to the left with a scrappy jump, to the extent he needed correcting to get the right side of the rails. He shapes as though further might suit.

Inexperienced Fit To Be Tied and hurdles debutant Mossback shaped with some encouragement but the overall time was nothing special. Winning trainer Noel Meade deems Art Of Security "a reasonable horse" set for handicaps rather than anything loftier but the win underpins conqueror Bacardys' Leopardstown success last month.

Making his Irish debut at Cork the preceding day, Chateau Conti ultimately won without challenge after poor Hardline took a second nasty tumble in as many races at the third last. The winner's jumping must sharpen up but he hinted with the odd leap that he'd be capable of jumping nimbly in time. He looks a bang two-miler.

"He wasn't quite ready for Christmas, " said Mullins. "He likes to get on with things. His jumping can improve but to be able to do that on heavy ground first time is a good sign."

Hardline had yet to be asked for his effort when lurching right and stepping at the hurdle in an X-rated departure. It was a great relief to see him back on his feet afterwards but it's worrying that he wasn't under any obvious pressure when making his mistake this time and his confidence may be affected.

Quadruple bumper winner Canelie inherited second but she also came from further back than the principals and delivered by far her best effort yet over hurdles.

Britain's big novice event of this period was Sandown's Tolworth Hurdle last Saturday and Finian's Oscar won it easily. Tizzard was exaggerating when describing his jumping as "immaculate" – he guessed at the second and fluffed the last – but he was clearly excited by what he called "a real professional horse".

Rider Tom O'Brien admitted afterwards to Nick Luck on Racing UK that he would have liked a lead deeper into the race but neatly conveyed his mount's domination of this Grade One event when observing that it felt like riding a really well-handicapped horse in a handicap.

Such is the strength of Team Tizzard that his horses instantly command authority in ante-post markets these days and Finian's Oscar was instantly promoted to favourite for the Neptune – although his trainer said he'd be entered in all the Festival novices and is "the sort of horse who could do any trip". He didn't lack pace at two miles here but couldn't afford to make any mistakes in the white heat of a Supreme.

"The easiest option would be to go 2m4f because he's got the speed for two [miles] and he stays," Tizzard observed. Luckily, with this trainer, we'll get to gather further evidence because he plans to run Finian's Oscar again. "What am I going to do for two months if I don't?" he asked, rhetorically. Quite.

Come the Festival, faster ground would be an unknown but this horse moves as if he should be well suited by that. More of a concern is perhaps the worth of his form to date proportionate to his cramped odds. The time was identical to the opening juvenile performance and his key rival, Capitaine, was clearly below his best. As O'Brien commented, he'd expected that horse to keep with him longer.

However, it's worth remembering that trainer Paul Nicholls commented after Capitaine's win at Ascot last time that he'd enjoyed making the running on better ground. Here he was restrained chasing the lead on heavy ground. Perhaps the County Hurdle remains his primary target.

Third-placed Chalonnial ran respectably, although he almost wandered right off the track exiting the back straight. Of greater interest is Global Stage, a highly-encouraging fourth under a relatively sympathetic ride on a tough gig for his hurdles debut. It's worth noting that exciting mare Kayf Grace missed this race due to what was said to be a minor setback.

At Doncaster on Monday, Stowaway Magic dotted up in one of those races in which nobody seems to care how they start except for punters and those who'd prefer the Rules of Racing to be applied for reasons of probity.

There were nine or ten lengths between first and last as the starter let them go, the leader Yorgonnahearmeroar having been well backed. The free lengths he purloined turned out to be of little use against a winner this good but relative positioning suggests runner-up American Gigolo should be marked up.

But the winner was at least two grades superior and won this conceding upwards of 7lb all round. He guessed at a couple of hurdles in the straight but clearly has the raw material to carve out a decent jumping career.

Henderson said: "Stowaway Magic needs experience. He is a good jumper but he needs practice. We won a hurdle race with him in May and he should have been out earlier but he had one or two niggly problems.

"He's a horse who wants decent ground and we will look for something nice for him in the spring. He's going to be a chaser next season."

That makes it sound as though Cheltenham won't be on the agenda but Aintree could be.

Another performance worth mentioning was Lakeside Castle's debut 23-length success at Wetherby last Thursday, although admittedly the time was nothing special and favourite Westend Story hung his chance away from the third last.

The winner was making his debut for Dan Skelton having previously chased home Blood Crazed Tiger in a Roscommon bumper. (Great name. I might have mentioned that.)

On Sunday, Constantine Bay won for the second time over hurdles and may head next to Huntingdon's Sidney Banks. He won by six lengths but again the time was no great shakes. "He's a staying chaser in the making so might want minding a bit this season," said Henderson.

In other news, David Pipe reportedly plans to run Supreme favourite Moon Racer once more prior to the Festival and King has changed plans with Elgin, who now heads to Doncaster rather than return to Kempton for the Dovecote so his trainer can test his theory that the horse needs to go right-handed.

Finally, the Mullins-trained Melon has been nibbled at in places in the Supreme market. He was name-checked a few times in the early days of this season but has neither raced nor is entered at the time of writing.

Juvenile hurdlers

Two decent juveniles fought out Sandown's opener last Saturday, with Don Bersy getting the better of Coeur De Lion and the pair pulling 23 lengths clear of sweaty poor-jumping Alcanar. The exciting clash only took place thanks to the abandonment of Ludlow where the winner had been due to run the previous day.

He jumped remarkably well given he'd taken a proper tumble on his UK debut at Warwick last time – in fact it was a superior leap at the last that sealed the deal against a doughty rival. Both are strong stayers and winning rider Aidan Coleman felt the heavy ground was "a big help" to his mount.

Coeur De Lion was attempting to concede 6lb to Don Bersy and, beaten just a length and a half, emerged the best horse at the weights. He's improving all the time and, unlike the winner, is proven on a faster surface. He could run well in the Fred Winter. Both are widely available at 20/1 for that contest but winning trainer Tom Symonds didn't immediately suggest that such targets were necessarily on the agenda.

Finally it's worth airing a point I discussed with a correspondent on Twitter a couple of weeks ago but have daftly overlooked to mention in the Road to date: namely the possibility that Charli Parcs could run in the Supreme rather than the Triumph.

It's a route McManus has taken before with Binocular, who was second to Captain Cee Bee in the 2008 Supreme, and Charli Parcs might well be suited by the relative speed test of the Old Course rather than the more testing New Course on which the Triumph is staged.

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

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