Road To Cheltenham: Sizing it up
Lydia Hislop has bets for the Ryanair Chase and the Neptune as she continues her journey on the Road To Cheltenham.
Sizing John: Worth backing now for the Ryanair
There were two highly significant Grade Two events in Ireland in the past week, one of which shook up the relevant ante-post market and one of which didn't. Both winners look to be likely Festival types, however.
There was mostly bad news in this division when it emerged that Valseur Lido's season is likely to be over and Killultagh Vic's might not begin.
The former sadly sustained a condylar fracture of a cannonbone during routine work at trainer Henry de Bromhead's yard last Friday and was immediately taken to Fethard Equine Hospital for treatment.
"I'm hopeful a couple of screws will sort it out," Gigginstown House Stud's Eddie O'Leary commented soon after the incident. "Hopefully it won't be career ending but we won't make any further comment until we see how he comes through the operation."
Valseur Lido had been entered along with 47 others for the Ryanair, as well as for the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup, and a run in next month's Irish Gold Cup would have clarified his likely target. Far less importantly, he becomes the first of our ante-post bets to bite the dust.
Killultagh Vic took that dubious honour last year and the radio silence on his condition since Patrick Mullins gave a downbeat report last November had seemed telling. He has not been seen since damaging himself when making a remarkable recovery from a last-fence sprawl to win at Leopardstown 12 months ago.
"The bad news is he will miss Cheltenham," Willie Mullins reported in his Racing Post column last Saturday. "It will just come a bit soon for him. The good news is he is back riding out and he might make one of the spring Festivals, perhaps Punchestown."
Meanwhile, that day on the track Vaniteux won Kempton's Listed Chase in convincing enough style, although he surely benefitted from Vibrato Valtat and Quite By Chance taking each other on from a long way out.
"Paul [Moloney, winning jockey] kept Vaniteux covered up all the way and he got the trip round here but I don't know if it tells us he would get it round Cheltenham," said trainer Nicky Henderson. "He really wants good ground and this is slow enough for him but it's better than it's going to be anywhere else at this time of year."
That, of course, is one of the key reasons we must fight to keep Kempton. As one of the few British racecourses not resembling a quagmire during winter, it provides a suitable stage for important graded races and plays a pivotal role in the conditioning of top-class horses for key spring targets.
Besides its rich heritage – the organic product of decades of history that can't be "created" anew, as Jockey Club Racecourses chief executive Simon Bazalgette seems to think – this is another fundamental reason why the King George belongs at Kempton and not at Sandown or even Ascot. The race will be damaged, probably irreparably, if swapped to venues that can usually offer only heavy ground at Christmas.
Even Bazalgette seemed to acknowledge this on ITV Racing's Opening Show last Saturday when, having asserted that "all the things we can do at Kempton we can do either just as well or better [elsewhere]", he felt obliged to add: "Or almost as well. The King George will be a different race at Sandown but it will be a great race."
Frankly, a Sandown King George would be more like a level-weights Welsh National – and we already have the original the following day at Chepstow. It shames JCR that they appear not to understand fully this essential worth of one of their own assets – even if they're capable of putting a price tag on it.
It was also slightly surreal to watch Bazalgette endorsing the removal of about 60% of JCR's fixtures from Britain's most populous area on a TV show his organisation will judge harshly if it fails to reach a new audience. If ITV must convert a tough crowd, why has JCR shoved it in the too-difficult tray all these years at Kempton? That looks a lot like hypocrisy.
Back to Vaniteux: I still couldn't trust him. Even if he probably is better suited by a sounder surface, he's no scrapper and I can't have him on my mind for the Ryanair – or indeed any Festival race. Vibrator Valtat, the only other horse to finish, was conceding 1lb to the winner but continues to operate a tad below his best and is currently finding it difficult to get any traction.
Frustrations with King's Odyssey continue for Evan Williams, who saw his second-season chaser finish a distant third to Three Musketeers at Market Rasen this week. He'd previously fallen when travelling well in the Caspian Caviar but had since suffered a puncture wound and missed "a couple of bits of work".
Williams said beforehand that "we're not worried if he doesn't win" but he was 25 lengths adrift and yet to demonstrate that he's capable of transitioning into level-weights graded company.
And finally – hot off the press after watching the Kinloch Brae at Thurles – I must advise you to back Sizing John for the Ryanair. This market was always going to get a shake-up whatever the result when he took on fellow entries Black Hercules, Sub Lieutenant and Smashing in the race Don Cossack used as a stepping-stone to the Gold Cup last year.
Sizing John had chased home Douvan seven times in his career to date so it was definitely time for a change and the fact he was entered in all three championship chases already indicated new trainer Jessica Harrington was thinking the same way.
Stepping up to around 2m4f was something I mooted for this horse last term when pondering the JLT market and he shaped as though it would suit when refusing to allow Douvan an entirely free pass at Leopardstown last month.
Admittedly, he had been below his best over that trip at Aintree last April but one attempt wasn't enough evidence and he's bred to stay further than two miles. Duly, he needed almost every inch of this Thursday's well-run Grade Two to get the better of Sub Lieutenant.
You're always going to get a feverish pace when Smashing is involved and he set off in his usual headlong manner but Sub Lieutenant moved up to press him on the run towards the usual third last. Sizing John had to be mildly nudged to stay on their heels and shaken up on the landing side but turning into the straight it looked as though Robbie Power felt in with a shout.
Sub Lieutenant by no means handed it to him, however, and it was only as they bypassed the final fence that Sizing John started to get on top. He's now 8/1 pretty much everywhere for the Ryanair and that's understandable for a horse proven at Cheltenham, on a sounder surface and that will be suited by a slightly stiffer test of stamina. Let's back him to win NRNB with bet365. Five of the seven rivals the same price or shorter than him in that market are likely non-runners.
Third-placed Black Hercules is running like a horse that's simply not firing. He was slow or slightly awkward at many fences and actually did well to work his way into contention after what turned out to be the second last. News of any pre-Festival tweaking or an uplift in his wellbeing would be interesting as he's not exactly running horribly.
Timico Gold Cup
Despite a widely anticipated small Gold Cup field for 2017, the total entry of 39 horses was the largest since 2013 (when 40 were engaged) and still more than any other year since 2008. The enhanced powers of the Colin Tizzard and Gordon Elliott yards dominate this year, with five entries apiece.
Indeed there was fanciful talk of Tizzard saddling the first five home – a feat achieved by Michael Dickinson in 1983 and unlikely to be echoed here given Tizzard Number 5 is the 153-rated Theatre Guide. That is, of course, barring the world turning upside down. Know of any precedents for that in 2016?
Happily owner Jean Bishop wants to run Tizzard Number Three Cue Card in this race rather than waving the white flag and backing out to the Ryanair. His trainer argues he "did not run up to his mark" in the King George at a track at which "even in his real pomp he didn't really perform to his best". But he did beat Vautour at Kempton in 2015, remember.
Tizzard Number 4 Alary has a rating of 162 for his British debut in this Saturday's Peter Marsh Chase and, given all the hype, it's not surprising this twice Grade One-placed French recruit is favourite. But his mark looks more than enough and he faces a progressive sort at Haydock in Definitly Red.
Given one of Elliott's quintet, titleholder Don Cossack, has already fallen by the wayside, the likelihood of progressive Empire Of Dirt lining up – as mooted after he won the Troytown – must increase. He's no forlorn place prospect, especially if you're necessarily playing small in a specials market and his participation could be decided by running in the Irish Gold Cup. Pricewise has tipped him for the Ryanair, mind.
Another over-priced and seemingly likelier participant is Many Clouds, sixth to Coneygree in the 2015 Gold Cup four weeks prior to his career highlight Grand National triumph. Three weeks between Cheltenham and Aintree might well be enough for trainer Oliver Sherwood and owner Trevor Hemmings to take this course with a seemingly refreshed horse.
Another Gold Cup entry to note is Zabana, whose Festival experience last year ended when the tapes went back for the JLT and whose trainer Andrew Lynch now seems to be backtracking on thoughts of the Ryanair. Reportedly, Lynch has had a good grumble about the wide trip steered by Davy Russell on this horse in the Lexus. Like it made the difference.
The 39 also include Vroum Vroum Mag, who's entered in everything – a theme that continued this week with entries for the three major hurdle events and no doubt soon the Stoke-On-Trent by-election, too.
Notable absentees include Shaneshill, Seeyouatmidnight, Un Temps Pour Tout, Carlingford Lough and Gilgamboa. The latter two no-shows mean JP McManus relies on pint-sized mare Kotkikova and Minella Rocco, not seen since taking that heavy tumble at Aintree last month. Only the latter is a realistic contender, surely.
And finally Willie Mullins has been as unequivocal as he gets on the nagging calls to run Djakadam in the Ryanair. "He will run in the Gold Cup barring something extraordinary happening between now and then," he said in his Racing Post column.
"Does he not deserve another crack at the big one having been runner-up in it twice? I certainly think he does. I've been very happy with him since the Lexus and he has been pleasing me at home since. I'm not sure whether he will run between now and Cheltenham… He is our main [Gold Cup] hope."
More specifically, he is Mullins' only Gold Cup hope.
Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase
An entry of 28 for this race is the fourth largest in 11 years, suggesting Douvan hasn't frightened everyone off – yet. As promised, Nicky Henderson has entered his star novice Altior but I'd still be surprised if this circumspect trainer rolled the big dice.
The numbers include Just Cameron, who has been raised just 2lbs to 149 for success in a two-mile Wetherby handicap chase last Saturday and just isn't in this league, and the mercurial L'Ami Serge, who faces The New One in Haydock's Champion Hurdle Trial this Saturday.
On Tuesday, Pricewise tipped easily the most interesting potential contender in Tell Us More, who beat The Game Changer under suitable conditions for the runner-up – albeit he was conceding 9lbs to the winner – in a Naas Grade Three last November. Both were match-fit.
Tell Us More jumped violently left – not atypically – on that occasion, his first start for Elliott since leaving Mullins under the terms of The Great Divorce and hasn't been seen since.
Stan James Champion Hurdle
Entries for the Champion Hurdle were published this week and Willie Mullins was responsible for nine of the 28 names. However, neither 2015 runner-up Arctic Fire nor 2016 Neptune hero Yorkhill – suggested as a possible by owner Graham Wylie on ITV last weekend – appeared among them.
Arctic Fire has been missing as long as Faugheen – who has been entered, along with Annie Power – after chipping a bone during exercise last February. You might interpret the absence of Yorkhill as a reassuring signal from the Mullins camp that they're confident one of the last two winners of this championship race will turn up.
Mullins is seeking a record-equalling fifth win in the contest. Speaking last week, he was more confident that Faugheen would make Cheltenham than the Irish Champion Hurdle later this month but speaking more recently on At The Races he was more optimistic about the well being of both the market leaders.
"Both worked nicely this morning so I'm very pleased with them. Both horses are pleasing me a lot more now than they have been," he said. "We'll see how they go between now and then [the Irish Champion Hurdle]. I'd like to get Faugheen there and Annie Power to the mares' race at Punchestown – that would be the ideal scenario."
Wylie said he'd like to see whether Nichols Canyon could still be a Champion Hurdle horse given he might have finished second to Annie Power in last year's edition bar for a final-flight error. That certainly suggests the Stayers' Hurdle has slid down this horse's agenda.
He'd surely be more of a player in the two-mile championship than eking out suspect stamina for half as much again but his right-jumping bias under pressure deters me from fancying him even in a diminished Champion Hurdle.
Despite a relatively upbeat report about 2015 Triumph Hurdle winner Peace And Co a couple of weeks ago, Henderson has not entered him here but both Top Notch and – fascinatingly, as suggested last week – Buveur D'Air do appear alongside My Tent Or Yours, Brain Power and L'Ami Serge from the Seven Barrows massive.
As stated from the outset of his season, eight-year-old novice Moon Racer has been entered.
Sun Bets Stayers' Hurdle
Last year's RSA runner-up Shaneshill was not entered for the Gold Cup or Ryanair last week so this race looks his all-out Festival target. With this decisiveness you are really spoiling us, ambassador. He has been tipped for this race by Pricewise.
He was one of 10 entries from Mullins along with Faugheen, 2014 runner-up Annie Power, Vroum Vroum Mag and Nichols Canyon – among others. There were 47 entries in total with last year's second Alpha Des Obeaux not among them, assuaging any fear of trainer Mouse Morris assembling a safety-net for his novice chaser.
There were some interesting potential code-switchers, however: 2014 hero More Of That (as predicted), stablemate Taquin Du Seuil, Grade One chase runner-up Henri Parry Morgan and recent Market Rasen graduation chase winner Three Musketeers.
Entries for The New One, the novice West Approach, long absent Ordo Ab Chao, improving Supasundae and underperforming novice chaser Shantou Village are also worth noting. These engagements also indicated that Camping Ground – who features among them – has left Robert Walford and joined Gary Moore.
The race will also be given an international flavor by the participation of Rawnaq, who defeated Shaneshill and Nichols Canyon in the Grade One Iroquois Hurdle at Percy Warner Park, Nashville, in May.
His Maryland trainer Cyril Murphy has been tempted to target this race by a US$500,000 bonus for winning both races as part of the first-ever Brown Advisory Iroquois Cheltenham Challenge.
Rawnaq has since won the Grade One Grand National Hurdle at Far Hills, when partnered by Ruby Walsh, and finished second in the Grade One Colonial Cup over fences at Camden. Having been trained in Ireland, he has experience of Cheltenham when finishing third in both the 2015 Brown Advisory Merriebelle Stable Plate over fences and 2013 Greatwood Hurdle.
"I asked Ruby if he felt we could finish in the first four or five… and he said he would not put us off chasing the bonus because it is an open year in the stayers' division," Murphy said.
"At the moment, the plan is to leave here either on February 3 or February 6 to arrive in England the following day. It is a 12-hour drive from our place to Huntsville airport in Alabama, then he has a direct flight to Stansted and finally a road trip to Neil Mulholland's [in Somerset] where he will be based. You are looking at about 36 hours door to door."
Murphy worked with Mulholland at Henderson's yard as well as earlier for Sir Mark Prescott and as a conditional jockey for Bill Turner. He plans to use the National Spirit at the end of next month at Fontwell as Rawnaq's stepping-stone to the Festival. Jack Doyle retains the ride, having missed the horse's last two starts due only to injury.
"After he ran in November, we left Rawnaq alone for a month and then started to pick him up again before Christmas. He did a piece of work last week and another bit on Tuesday," reported Murphy.
"Everything seems to be moving in the right direction for us. He got beat the last day, which was disappointing for everybody, but in hindsight I think the ground was even firmer than we wanted. He just didn't have a cut at the fences."
2014 Champion Hurdle winner Jezki features relatively prominently in the betting for the Sun Bets Stayers' Hurdle with three horses that are shorter than him in the betting being unlikely runners – and that now perhaps includes Nichols Canyon given Wylie's comments.
Jezki has been sidelined since beating Hurricane Fly and Zabana – two doubtful stayers – over three miles at Punchestown in April 2015. And missed putative engagements over Christmas with a small-scale problem.
He's due to return over two miles at Navan this Saturday, rather than taking on faster and younger legs in the Irish Champion Hurdle at the end of the month, and then next month's Red Mills Hurdle at Gowran Park. His odds are likely to tumble markedly if he wins or shapes well on seasonal debut.
"Only Any Second Now seems to know how good he is. Last Saturday at Punchestown he won the Grade Two Moscow Flyer Novice Hurdle from the infinitely more heralded Crack Mome in the style of a horse with an incredibly bright future."
Any Second Now
OLBG David Nicholson Mares' Hurdle
There were 53 entries – the largest number since the race was instituted – and Mullins supplies 15 of them. It's a race he's won every year since Donald McCain dared to win the first running back in 2008.
There were no unexpected absentees. Both Annie Power and Vroum Vroum Mag have been given this option and Mullins also offered an upbeat report on stablemate and titleholder Limini, who hasn't raced since last April.
"She has really come to herself in the past few weeks and is really pleasing me," Mullins said. "If I can get a race into her before Cheltenham I will but it might be hard to fine a race for her now."
American improved on his exciting novices' chase debut defeat of Label Des Obeaux at Exeter in November with a convincing success in a Warwick Listed event last Saturday.
He jumped that tricky track well, whether when led and often slightly impeded by Chef D'Oeuvre jumping right on the first circuit or when moving into the front himself with largely fluid leaps on the second. He was clever when necessary and stayed on strongly, despite edging a little to his right late on.
"For a novice on his second start to jump and travel as he did, especially down the back the second time, was exhilarating," said a clearly enthused Harry Fry. "It's always been a case of getting him to this stage in his career where we could go and jump fences.
"It's well documented – we've said how fragile he is and that's why we don't see him that often but when we can get him in that sort of form, it's very exciting."
"The way he travelled and jumped today was the best I've seen him do it," added winning rider, Noel Fehily. "He's very, very neat… He wouldn't want it too quick but as long as it's on the slower side of good, he'd be fine."
Fry said Fehily had suggested this horse was a Welsh National – and 2021 King George? – type as long ago as Exeter, which suggests the JT McNamara NH Chase will be his Festival target rather than the RSA Chase, although he's likely to be entered in both.
That is if he runs at the Festival. Two elements make that perhaps unlikely: first, American's fragility and, second, the likelihood of unsuitably quick ground.
"Every day when he comes out in the morning you wait with bated breath to see how he walks out across the yard," admitted Fry, who will send the horse straight to the Festival, rather than via a prep, if conditions as Cheltenham turn out to be suitable.
Of course, the Fry yard also has second-season novice Fletchers Flyer for the NH Chase, who won over 3m6f at Punchestown in April but was below his best on his sole start since at Ascot last month.
Warwick runner-up Champers On Ice was bang in trouble in the back straight second time around behind American, whose jumping enabled him to take utter control of the race. But the David Pipe-trained grey knuckled down likeably to distinguish himself from the rest of the field and also shapes as if in need of the NH Chase's four miles.
His Albert Bartlett third last term suggests that, unlike the winner, he handles a sounder surface and it could be that Pipe again reaches for the headgear for his Festival target, given he wore them for that improved performance.
Third-placed Captain Chaos continues to quietly improve over fences. He was checked by the runner-up's mistake at the 12th before making a more sizeable independent blunder of his own at the second last.
At Huntingdon the preceding day, a drop in grade enabled O O Seven to reclaim the winner's enclosure following a muted effort in a Doncaster Grade Two last time. Conceding weight to inferior horses in a handicap is probably more this horse's bag – although Mad Jack Mytton made him fight for it.
That the winner possesses the gumption for a tight battle will come as some relief for connections because he has seemed a tad errant or feeble under pressure in the past. That said, he hung right after the last and dived yet further in that direction when the whip was drawn before finding enough.
A drop back to 2m4f could be another explanation for his (relatively) superior finishing effort but trainer Henderson believes he "wants three miles" even though his form does not yet corroborate that view.
However, he also admitted O O Seven "just might find it hard to break into Grade Ones at the moment" and plans to target him at the Ultima Handicap Chase on the opening day of the Festival rather than any loftier alternatives.
It was a highly encouraging chase debut from Mad Jack Mytton, who mostly jumped well under a patient ride and was inconvenienced by O O Seven's lurching to the right. The runner-up never lived up to the warm words and lofty engagements invested in him as a hurdler – he was entered in the Champion Hurdle last term – but threatens to make a better chaser, as befits a half-brother to Johns Spirit and The Game Changer.
At Market Rasen this week, Kilcrea Vale ran with great credit against more experienced rivals despite being the beaten favourite in second to a revivified Three Musketeers in the feature graduation chase.
That was only his second start over fences and he's gone under the radar to an extent for such a decent horse who now seems to be putting to good use the ability evident in his brief novice-hurdling days. However, it's worth noting Henderson has campaigned him exclusively right-handed to date.
Over in Ireland Ballyoisin got off the mark over fences in Fairyhouse's beginners' chase last Sunday by dominating his field on a drop in trip to 2m1f. He'd previously fallen on debut there when still leading, albeit at the fourth last, having set an attritional pace in the contest ultimately won impressively by Balko Des Flos.
He again showed a tendency for the headlong but largely jumped well – frequently out to his left – and just had too much verve, on soft ground admittedly, even to entertain a credible challenge.
Perth novice-hurdle winner Townshend tried to muster one on his chase debut and return from nine months off but he was inclined to hang right and could never quite get upsides.
The winner handles a sound surface and would be yet another interesting runner for JP McManus in the Close Brothers Novices' Chase or the Grand Annual.
Earlier on the same card Ball D'Arc's handicap chase success boasted more substance for the latter target. Still a novice, he was well backed and won comfortably in career-best style. He merits substantial reassessment but will still be competitive and Elliott has earmarked that Cheltenham handicap as his target. The horse is effective on a sounder surface.
On the previous day at Punchestown, Edwulf finally got off the mark over fences with his most convincing effort yet. Bar for one significant error, he jumped soundly enough and enjoyed first run on Bachasson, who was always playing catch-up after a nasty looking stumble at the ninth.
The winner is steadily improving and looks more reliable than when first learning his trade this season but I'd still fear his jumping could unravel at a higher level. Jumping fences looks a bit of an effort for the smaller-scale Bachasson but it was good to see him complete after falling on debut.
Mall Dini was again backed into favourite yet still ran without the tongue-tie he worse when winning the Pertemps last season. Perhaps connections have tinkered with his wind since Cheltenham but he is yet to match his hurdles form over fences. He may need to step back up in trip.
Back in fourth, Robin Thyne made a pleasing if belated start to his chasing career on his first outing for almost ten months. He was well positioned, admittedly, and weakened entering the straight but shaped as though he might show improved form over the larger obstacles.
Only Any Second Now seems to know how good he is. On debut at Navan, he decided he was fit and talented enough to mow down the leaders uninvited to triumph at 66/1. Last Saturday at Punchestown he won the Grade Two Moscow Flyer Novice Hurdle from the infinitely more heralded Crack Mome in the style of a horse with an incredibly bright future.
Patiently ridden by Mark Walsh, he moved into the race like the raw talent that he is: oscillating from travelling well to looking gawky to getting his stuff together approaching the last. A good jump at the last gave him the momentum to get to the front and once he had the lead, he was happy to idle.
Palpably, after leading on the home turn the mistake Crack Mome made at that final flight limited his impact on the race – the blunder caused him to land awkwardly flat-footed – but such is the untapped potential of the winner, I believe he would have won anyway.
This is strong form delivered in an excellent time. Third-placed Runfordave – unlucky to fall when probably poised to win at Limerick last time – was the first to feel the heat but also responded generously to pressure. He gamely harried better-travelling Crack Mome rounding the home turn and approaching the last but was getting the worst of it even before he made an error and Any Second Now swallowed them both up.
The also-rans – all winners and improving in their own spheres – were well beaten off. This is a race Mullins often targets with his best hurdler – he's won it with Mikael D'Haguenet, Vautour, Douvan and Min in recent years – and although he stated beforehand that Cilaos Emery, Bunk Off Early, Cadmium and Pravalaguna were also in the mix, it only lends substance to what Any Second Now has achieved on only his second start.
Winning trainer Ted Walsh said: "I was happy turning in that he was going to be third to two fair horses and when he picked up he did it well. It's a tight two miles around here and he was going as quickly as he wanted to at times, too. He cruised through Navan and probably didn't learn a whole lot. He's a raw sort of horse but he could be very good."
I think he is – and likely to be best suited by the demands of the Neptune. It's true he's only raced on soft or heavy to date but he doesn't move like a horse married to that surface and his jumping is good. He is also clearly a fast learner.
Betway stand out at 20/1 but the 16/1 available with Sky Bet, Paddy Power and elsewhere is just as palatable each-way. Let's take that. Given McManus has so many horses for so many races, the 9/1 offered by Sky Bet to win 'any Festival race' is not unattractive.
In the very next race, Gunnery Sargent pounced on Kolumbus's error at the secobd-last obstacle to win the big-field maiden over the same course and distance. The runner-up represented Bacardys's Leopardstown form and didn't really enhance it, although his more feted stablemate is likely to be a much better horse stepped up in trip.
At Fairyhouse the following day, Barra gained a deserved win in ready fashion when trouncing Kate Appleby Shoes by 12 lengths. She already had the race won before the home turn and Jack Kennedy merely had to be keep her up to her work either side of the last to maintain that wide advantage.
After giving a pair of decent geldings, Joey Sasa and Invitation Only, a run for their money in her previous two starts, this success eased in grade to a mares' maiden was no more than should have been expected but Barra certainly didn't disappoint in her manner or fluency.
Trainer Elliott is considering a graded mares' event back at Fairyhouse in a few weeks' time but this progressive horse would clearly also merit an entry in the Trull House Stud Dawn Run Mares' Novices' Hurdle at the Festival.
Kate Appleby Shoes got outpaced and lost her position at halfway before staying on for a distinct second without ever giving the winner a fright. She may need further now.
Back in Britain, Willoughby Court may have been unchallenged on the lead from start to finish in last Saturday's Grade Two Neptune Investment Management Leamington Hurdle at Warwick but it was not from the want of his rivals attempting to get on terms. A quick jump at the first secured the lead and he was in an unstoppable rhythm thereafter, although he did wander right latterly.
Trainer Ben Pauling had recommended this target, despite his horse meeting the likes of Peregrine Run a stone wrong on official ratings. Willoughby Court was proven at the track, in soft ground and clearly stays 2m5f thoroughly.
"Whether he's ground dependent? I'd like to think he's not but I suppose he handles it well," observed a non-committal Jason Maguire, racing manager to owners Paul and Clare Rooney. "He might got straight to Cheltenham as he likes to be fresh and I imagine he'll be over fences next season.
Both the Neptune and the Albert Bartlett were mentioned as possible options but the latter makes more appeal based on this effort – he shapes like a thorough stayer.
This was a thumping reversal of his defeat by Get On The Yager, a well-held fourth here, at Market Rasen in November but that was on quicker ground and Willoughby Court was then making his hurdles debut and wearing a tongue-tie he hasn't donned since.
But in fact all of his main rivals bar the doughty and improving runner-up Gayebury – who had a tendency to go out to his right – could plausibly have underperformed due to the testing ground.
Irish raider Peregrine Run had won his last four starts, including a Grade Two defeat of Wholestone at Cheltenham in November, and surely needs a sounder surface. Beaten favourite Geordie Des Champs, who finished stone cold last, might have been totally unable to function after a significant mistake put him on the back foot.
At Kempton that day, Ballymalin extended his win tally this season to four from five starts but, having looked assured of a comfortable victory with all of his rivals outpaced on the home turn, he was forced to fight by the rallying and game Beneagles and ultimately triumphed by only a length.
Having been cautious at his hurdles early on, Ballymalin saved his best leaps for when he was under pressure in the latter stages and responded willingly to pressure. The plan had been to target him at the Festival's Pertemps Final but he hasn't yet run in any of the qualifying races. He certainly stays well and handles a sound surface.
Beneagles was pulled up on his Rules debut in soft ground at Uttoxeter last November but showed his true worth here, going down fighting to a vastly more experienced rival who was admittedly conceding 10lbs. He is clearly a thorough stayer.
Third-placed Alpha Male, sent off favourite here, was outpaced after the seventh flight and waved the white flag with a mistake at the second last. He might not have stayed but is hinting at being just too immature currently to utilise whatever talent he might have.
At Huntingdon the preceding day, Burbank initiated a treble for Henderson with a victory in the two-mile NH maiden event that looked far from likely when he was under pressure and ridden along by Jeremiah McGrath after the fourth last. Yet he responded to those urgings and went from paddling to winning approaching the second last in the style of a gawky but talented horse.
Henderson said he'd been anxious for McGrath to settle a horse that had been buzzy when a good second to Glaring on his hurdling debut here but "the sleep button" had clearly worked too well. Burbank is clearly well regarded but "a work in progress" and will be kept to novice company in the short term to hone his craft. He's definitely going the right way, though – as is runner-up Man From Mars for a lower level. He's qualified for handicaps now.
Beyond Conceit made an exciting winning debut on his first start for Henderson this week at Newbury, having been unsighted on a racecourse for three-and-a-half years. Apart from a touch of freshness in the early stages, you couldn't tell.
At eight years of age, he's late embarking on a hurdling career but his technique was good and he reeled in the advantageously ridden runner-up Shantou Rock with ease soon after the second last, pulling away to win by ten lengths. The only opportunity to deduct points came with a small mistake at the last; the time compared well. This was a performance that demanded an entry in the Supreme.
"Beyond Conceit had a tendon problem and fractured a pelvis," Henderson revealed. "Barry said after the way he tanked through that you wouldn't be in a rush to go over 2m4f. We'll stick to this ground and wouldn't run him on quick after the problems he's had."
Despite a sharp frost requiring the course to undergo three inspections before being given the go-ahead to race, the ground on Newbury's hurdles track was surprisingly no more testing than soft on this day. Beyond Conceit was at his best on a fast surface when trained by Andrew Balding but looked at home here – happily, given his problems. He also stayed at least 2m4f on the Flat but often doesn't translate to a need for marathon trip over hurdles.
At Taunton last week, there was a breezy display of authority from Overland Flyer in winning the three-mile maiden hurdle by 22 lengths in a reasonable time on his Rules debut.
He'd previously won a couple of Points at lovely Larkhill and had taken quite a bit to get fit according to Harry Derham, Paul Nicholls' assistant trainer, who deems him a smart nascent chaser that they "won't rush".
"I had a look behind two out and couldn't quite believe how far clear I was, so he must be a fair animal," said jockey Sam Twiston-Davies. "We could try to win another little race before going up in class. He's by Westerner and they can be a bit quirky but when I gave him a slap he picked up."
In the very next race, Bags Groove finally got off the mark over hurdles at the third attempt over hurdles. He'd contributed to his defeat at Newbury last time with some waywardness after the last but here raced more professionally, with only a hint of a wander when asked to assert.
"Bags Groove had been second a few times but had run well and bumped into good horses. The idea was to get his head in front and go from there," said Fry. "Noel [Fehily, jockey] said they didn't go fast enough for him which is always good to hear. The penny's dropping and he's in the Betfair Hurdle but we could look at the Sidney Banks at Huntingdon."
Runner-up Captain Buck's shaped promisingly on his hurdles debut and first start since April despite his rogue apostrophe, keeping the winner honest by still holding every chance at the penultimate flight.
Bastien is now unbeaten in two starts over hurdles after winning at Plumpton last Monday. He was conceding upwards of 6lbs all round and his jumping was notably sound, especially when challenging for the lead at the second last. He'd had to work to get on terms with free-going Flat recruit Not Never but powered away approaching the last to register an improved effort.
Divin Bere arrived from France with a tough-enough looking mark of 137 but at Huntingdon last Friday made a winning start to his career in Britain in juvenile novices' company with a gutsy defeat of Master Blueyes.
Both horses had plenty experience from the Flat, although the runner-up boasted the more credible career in that discipline, and joined in battle from after the third last.
Having looked to be going less well on the home turn, Master Blueyes led narrowly approaching the penultimate flight only to fluff it and forfeit the advantage. Divin Bere then came up well at the last, only to be bumped by his unbalanced rival who then leaned left upon him in the straight but could never quite master him. The winner was even conceding 4lbs from the runner-up and belied trainer Henderson's lack of optimism beforehand.
Fehily appeared concerned to give his mount the most considerate of winning rides on his first start for almost nine months, in ground he described as "tacky" and racing into a headwind.
He added that Divin Bere had developed well from the narrow horse he recalled seeing earlier in the season and is "precocious". His advice to owner Chris Giles will be "to get on with it" because "he looks the type to be very competitive in juvenile hurdles".
Master Blueyes, who'd previously been thumped eight lengths by fellow Henderson inmate Charli Parcs, has now had three starts over hurdles and improved with each of them, although his jumping under pressure was scrappy here. It nonetheless earned him a 12lbs rise to 132 which rather assumes Divin Bere's French rating is reflective of his ability and was produced under a different style of racing at the first attempt. The time was reasonable mind.
However, their rating should ensure these principles get a ticket for the Fred Winter – for which they can both be backed at 20/1 – given this juvenile handicap has been suffering from inflation in recent years. The lowest rated runner in its last three editions was 127, 129 and 128.
Another form-line tying in with Charli Parcs was on display at Kempton the next day when odds-on favourite and French recruit Poker Play, whom he'd beaten a length on their respective debuts at Enghien in November, was comfortably held by previous Catterick winner Fidux.
Poker Play had briefly appeared to be travelling better on the home turn but was soon outpaced entering the straight. However he stuck to his task well in the style of a horse that would appreciate a greater test of stamina such as the Triumph would bring. Yet he also moved as though cut in the ground might be necessary.
The winner took an appreciable step forward here but does have a habit of getting in close to his hurdles even when asked long by his rider. He never looked like falling but the frenetic speed test of the Fred Winter – for which he is now among the marker leaders at 16/1 – might catch him out.
Having won over the course and distance on New Year's Eve, Final Choice flopped at Newbury this week when finishing a distant last of four. This retrograde step could be predicted from the exit from the back straight when Richard Johnson was already nudging to hold his position. The slightly more testing ground may have played a part but this was disappointing.
That granted Flying Tiger a comfortable success over two debuting rivals but he already possessed the form to more than trouble the favourite, even had that rival been on song, if he could just transfer it from France where trainer Nick Williams had raced him for his first three starts.
He'd raced too keenly at Exeter in November but here Lizzie Kelly managed to settle him a bit better despite the minimal cover that just three rivals afforded. Once he took over at the third last, as a strong stayer proven on the ground he was only going to move further clear. He jumps excellently.
"Flying Tiger promised to be good last spring in France so it's great he's come back," said Williams. "We put ear-plugs on him because he's highly strung. He's classy but the favourite obviously didn't run his race. Either the Fred Winter or the Triumph is possible."
The Fred Winter currently appears the more viable option given his mark of 128, which the handicapper could yet reassess on the basis of this but is unlikely to. As mentioned above, that rating is flirting with the recent cut-off point for this Festival handicap. Flying Tiger must also prove he doesn't need testing ground to perform well.
Over at Fairyhouse last Sunday, Ex Patriot repelled a rallying Mengli Khan to win the four-year-olds' maiden hurdle by a length. The winner had failed to get his head in front on the Flat for another yard and so it was understandable to see him wobble about when asked to assert on leading for hands and heels after the penultimate hurdle.
A good last-flight jump was perhaps crucial because the runner-up, a fellow hurdles debutant switching yards and codes, persisted strongly to the line. Winning trainer Ellmarie Holden is considering stepping into Grade One class at Leopardstown next month, where a great deal more would be required.
Back in fifth, Warp Factor seemed a cut below his two previous Musselburgh seconds behind Forth Bridge and Project Bluebook – perhaps the heavy ground was to blame.
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 [likely NR]
Any Second Now: back now each-way for the Neptune at 16/1 with Sky Bet
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