Road To Cheltenham: Up the Hill!
In this week's edition of the Road To Cheltenham, Lydia Hislop adds an impressive winner last weekend to her ante-post portfolio.
Yorkhill: Made a good start to his steeplechasing career and could be the one to take on Altior in the Arkle.
This week it was Britain's turn to conduct some of its most important racing behind obfuscating fog, leaving us to permanently wonder what the exact meaning of the form is. Unowhatimeanharry emerged alone from the gloom in the Long Walk Hurdle to cement his position at the top of staying division.
The following day Yorkhill made his long-awaited seasonal debut over fences and not hurdles, but he was not alone among novice chasers in making a good impression. Meanwhile the gods of the five-day entry stage took with one hand and gave with the other, meaning the King George VI Chase is still worth enduring Christmas Day for.
Timico Gold Cup
Although this division has seen no action in the past week, it certainly has not been short of developments. It began with news on Saturday that Coneygree will miss next week's 32Red King George VI Chase at Kempton because he failed to convince training team Mark and Sara Bradstock of his wellbeing in a workout earlier that day.
"I ride him in all his work and know every step he takes," said Sara. "He'd been in flying form last week but wasn't himself on Saturday. He just wasn't 100 per cent and there's no point running in the King George if he isn't right. It's important not to take any risks."
The 2015 Gold Cup winner, who triumphed in that event as a novice having also romped away with the 2014 Kauto Star over the King George course and distance, is now slated to run in Cheltenham's Cotswold Chase at the end of next month or in Newbury's Denman Chase in February.
The Bradstocks are clearly focused on the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup as their absolute priority, as later underlined via Twitter with the accompanying assertion: "We truly believe he will be as good as ever." They have been accurate barometers for his remarkable career so far, so such a statement should not be lightly dismissed.
His absence immediately made for a different sort of King George, given there will no longer be present such a high-class bold-jumping relentless galloper to drag his rivals through places they don't want to go. One instant reaction to the news came from Alan Spence, who decided to supplement Josses Hill at a cost of £10,000.
"We are running now," Spence told the Racing Post. "We were in two minds but Coneygree is a front-runner and Josses Hill seems to run better from the front. The way of running wasn't the deciding factor but it certainly helped."
This will be Josses Hill's first attempt at three miles and quite a stage on which to experiment. "He's been impressive in his two runs this year and he always runs well at Kempton," Spence countered. "There are more pluses than minuses. Noel Fehily will ride him again."
The increased distance could go some way to narrowing in the latter's favour the six-length gap that existed between Josses Hill and Tea For Two in the Peterborough Chase last month. That said, the former is in far better form. When on song, Tea For Two won the 2015 Kauto Star and made history with conditional Lizzie Kelly as first UK Grade One winner over jumps for a female rider but much, much more is required here.
Back to the developing story and on Monday came the seismic news that owners John and Heather Snook had decided Thistlecrack would take on fellow Colin Tizzard-trained inmate and bonus-seeker Cue Card rather than sticking to the novice route. It transformed the race from a meagre parody of its original entry to one of the most eagerly-awaited clashes of recent times.
That said it's rather premature – even misleading – to liken it to the era of Denman vs Kauto Star given that when those horses first met in the 2008 Gold Cup, the former had won the RSA Chase and his first Hennessy in incredible fashion and the latter two of his five King Georges and the previous year's Gold Cup.
I am by no means seeking to undervalue the sportsmanship and vigour of the Snooks' decision – not to mention the mainline-to-the-heart that it's given the race as a sporting spectacle this Christmas. Their instincts are a hugely welcome contrast to the careful stage-management of stars within the Mullins yard, for example – albeit the fact of a shared owner has on occasion complicated matters there. However neither would I wish excitable comparisons to take for granted the greatness of what has gone before.
The analogy also risks underestimating the scale of Thistlecrack's task: on his fourth chase start, having shown flashes of vulnerability in small-field novice events, he is taking on a stable-companion rated 176 over fences and veteran of 26 chase starts, 17 of which have been in Grade One company and eight of those were triumphs.
That he was a brilliant World Hurdle winner speaks well of Thistlecrack's engine capacity but has less relevance to his chase credentials. Provided the titleholder is near his best in the King George – and the time and manner of his Betfair Chase victory suggest he is – Thistlecrack will need to be every bit as good as he was over hurdles and perhaps even a bit better to win.
Coneygree managed to triumph on his first attempt at open Grade One company in the Gold Cup, admittedly, but jumping was already his major asset.
The absence of that horse was reportedly not a contributing factor to the Snooks' bold call. On hearing of his defection, Heather Snook had stressed: "Nothing has changed. It's not about whom we are up against. He either takes his chance at one level or the other level…
"At the end of the day it will be our decision, not Colin's. Although we totally respect him I don't think it's fair to expect him to make the decision because he has two horses to consider. The buck will stop with us."
Jockey Tom Scudamore endorsed the decision, when it came. "I'm very positive about this and he's not a normal novice," he said. "For most novices this would probably be too much at this stage of their career but this is a special horse."
Tizzard also gave his "full backing" to the Snooks' decision: "Both sets of owners have sat down and talked about it. Both horses are in cracking form, so should take their chance."
He has long acknowledged the inclusion of Thistlecrack risks a stable-companion being the one to deny Cue Card a second shot at Jockey Club Racecourses' £1 million bonus for winning the Betfair Chase, King George and Gold Cup – a feat that ended in a costly fall three out for Cue Card and Paddy Brennan in March. Cue Card has already again won the first leg.
But neither the Snooks nor Cue Card's owner Jean Bishop are troubled by this – you know, like grown-ups shouldn't be. As John Snook said: "This is championship racing."
Bishop added: "If the horses are there and the owners want to run them – as Mrs Snook said – they have the last word… There's no point in worrying because they are two horses who are going to do their best."
Mullins has decided to have none of it, either with Vroum Vroum Mag or the more fanciful Douvan concept. Such notable absentees and a maximum field of seven could allow Thistlecrack to get into a critical rhythm early on – a luxury that might not otherwise have been possible.
Candidates for the pace other than Josses Hill include Road To Riches – of whom more in a moment – and Silviniaco Conti, the previous dual winner pulled up in the race last year. Seemingly a light of former days, he is by no means a certain runner at this stage.
Following the primary news about Thistlecrack's participation, there were some smaller aftershocks. Ar Mad, whom Gary Moore had wavered about supplementing when Coneygree defected, was decisively kept to plan A of Ascot's Clarence House over 2m1f next month.
Furthermore Gordon Elliott, who briefly toyed with sending over Outlander from Ireland, has now reverted to his original thinking. The John Durkan runner-up could instead have two stable companions alongside him in the Lexus, Ireland's big staying chase of the Christmas period staged two days later at Leopardstown.
Troytown winner Empire Of Dirt and the mercurial Don Poli, who had a face like thunder last time he ran, are also possible Lexus contenders.
"Don Poli is going well at home and is in better form than when he was pulled up at Down Royal last month when the cheekpieces might not have suited him. He won the Lexus last year [when trained by Willie Mullins] and we're looking at running him in it again," Elliott said.
Alternatively, Elliott is toying with outfoxing Grand National weights-complier Phil Smith by running Empire Of Dirt over hurdles instead. Fiendish. He should try spinning him round blindfolded three times for good measure, too.
O'Leary also had a more definitive take on Don Poli. "He has been out hunting and maybe heavy ground around Leopardstown would bring out the best in him," he said. "If he can't lie up on heavy ground in the Lexus we may start having to think he's a thing of the past."
In Tuesday's Racing Post there was a further update on Christmas running plans from Gigginstown House Stud racing manager Eddie O'Leary. He indicated the Noel Meade-trained Road To Riches could make the journey to Kempton for the King George but that Valseur Lido, trained by Henry de Bromhead since the Great Divorce with Mullins and most recently winner of Down Royal's Champion Chase in career-best style, is their chief Lexus hope.
Presuming he runs, Road To Riches is the over-priced horse in the King George. It was only April when he still held the lead two out in Punchestown's Grade One Champion Chase after a bold round of jumping until hitting the deck.
Previously, he had played duck (sitting variety) to Vautour in the Ryanair when that role probably cost him rightful second to the later-played Valseur Lido. He was only three-and-a-half lengths behind Coneygree when third in the 2015 Gold Cup.
This year's King George could be right up his street, especially if he's allowed to chase Silviniaco Conti solo and in effect set the meaningful fractions while Cue Card and Thistlecrack look at each other. Just a thought…
Whereas Wounded Warrior was mentioned in terms of the Welsh National – for which he would be interesting – neither O'Leary nor Elliott mentioned Roi Des Francs but his name appeared among the seven still standing in the King George. He has failed to make much impact at Grade One level to date.
Finally for this division, Elliott also issued an update on his reigning Gold Cup hero, who suffered a tendon injury while being prepared for Punchestown in April.
"Don Cossack has been coming along nicely over the past few months. In addition to cantering, he swims twice a day and it's so far so good with him," he said. "It's still a case of taking one day at a time but it things continue to go well the plan will be to give him one run before the Gold Cup and it's quite possible he could start back in the Red Mills Chase."
This news contained a key revision. The target Elliott had hitherto cited was the Kinloch Brae Chase, staged at Thurles in mid-January (and reduced to Grade Three in 2017), whereas the Red Mills is staged in mid-February at Gowran Park (and remains a Grade Two).
That tacitly suggested the horse is in fact behind Elliott's preferred schedule, something he in effect admitted to At The Races the following day when acknowledging: "I think the Kinloch Brae Chase at Thurles he won last year will probably come too soon."
Don Cossack will also be entered for February's Grade One Irish Hennessy at Leopardstown but Elliott is leaning towards keeping it "low-key for his first run and maybe over a trip short of his best", hence the Red Mills plan. "We just want to have a nice day out, coming back in one piece, and then go for the Gold Cup if we can."
I can only interpret this as a slight negative for Don Cossack's chances of turning up at Cheltenham on Friday March 17. Clearly, it remains possible that he might make it but it's going to be even more of a rushed job and who knows how much ability he retains – especially for an attritional 3m2f.
Given L'Ami Serge was so much in the habit of jumping left last season that he even clipped the inside wing of the first fence in the JLT, right-handed Exeter was never likely to suit him.
He duly jumped left throughout – conceding ground, impetus and energy – so even though he faced a novice in Le Prezien and an inferior clutz in Oscar Sunset, he didn't shape at all badly in finishing second to the former, beaten just under three lengths, on his seasonal debut.
Trainer Nicky Henderson was beforehand of the view that the 2m4f trip was a doubt, saying: "He's always looked as if he might get two-and-a-half [miles] and then you go there and he suggests he's not getting it."
You can plausibly argue L'Ami Serge's placed efforts over 2m4f at the Cheltenham and Aintree Festivals are in fact his best form but he did also flatten out in those races, perhaps partly as a result of jumping or lugging left so much – at left-handed tracks! My suspicion is that until or unless this problem is resolved, L'Ami Serge won't cut it in open graded company.
Camping Ground hadn't jumped well behind Josses Hill in the Peterborough Chase but was more fluent in Newbury's graduation chase last Wednesday until clipping the top of the cross fence and coming down. He was travelling fine at the time but it was too far out to say whether he'd have bridged the gap to front-running winner Three Faces West, who's improved for cheekpieces. It's starting to look as though Camping Ground won't realise the Grade One ambitions connections have held for him, either.
Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase
No news in this division; in fact, very few players in this division. Here's hoping for something startling to happen in the transfer window. I'm told it usually does.
Sun Bets Stayers' Hurdle
Last Saturday's Long Walk Hurdle should have elucidated this division and, given how foggy conditions were, we did learn a fair amount. However, we were also left in the nonsensical position of having to surmise what might have happened during critical phases of the race.
Racing is both an equine industry and a spectator sport; last Saturday, the authority's responsibilities to those two sets of constituents came into conflict. Horses with campaigns to map out and experience to gain need to be able to race; as long as it is safe to do so – and the consensus seemed almost unanimous that it was – then participants are always going to favour going ahead. There are fees to be earned and bills to be paid, after all.
Yet the paying customer at Ascot and Haydock last Saturday got a raw deal. Those who watched the racing on TV would also have been dissatisfied. The lack of sufficient reliable visual or sectional information also has an impact even beyond the potential souring of racing's fans: it means handicappers and analysts must guess what happened. That's not fair on anyone and will impact in real terms, via the official handicappers' estimates, on participants, too.
On balance, I therefore think it was the wrong call to go ahead with racing last Saturday. To abandon would by no means have been an easy decision, given both key venues were affected and the fog had the potential to lift suddenly – as it was certainly forecast to do. But what British racing in essence laid on was an alienating, obfuscating farce.
In Racing UK's coverage, three horses with relative chances disappeared into the gloom of the last hurdle in the Long Walk but only one – the winner Unowhatimeanharry – emerged at all. Channel 4 Racing's mobile camera later revealed to us that Ballyoptic had lost his hind legs on landing and, prone, had caused the awkward-jumping West Approach to jink left and unseat his rider.
We cannot know beyond doubt what would have happened had Ballyoptic not fallen but I think we can be sure West Approach would not have won – Lil Rockerfeller, the eventual second, had already passed him, on riding, at the last. (West Approach is discussed more fully in the novice hurdlers' section.)
Immediately afterwards, winning rider Barry Geraghty believed he would have won anyway: "Mine had jumped [the last] well and I thought I had it in the bag but I saw [Ballyoptic] was brought to a standstill – I didn't realise he turned over – but I'd have thought we'd have got him covered at the time."
In contrast Richard Johnson, who'd employed the front-running tactics on the former that had revivified The New One at Cheltenham last week, said in his Betway column: "…coming to the last he wasn't stopping. We were a little bit up on Unowhatimeanharry at the time of falling and I don't think there would have been much between us at the line. I'm not saying we would have gone on to win but I really don't think there would have been much in it."
Having worn out the pause/rewind buttons on my remote control using an amalgamation of Racing UK and Channel 4 shots, I'm of Geraghty's point of view. The two horses actually take off at the last in unison but Ballyoptic was under the greater pressure approaching that obstacle and Unowhatimeanharry draws further clear of Lil Rockerfeller on the run-in.
Comparing his mount's win here to his readier success at Newbury on his previous start, Geraghty added: "[This] was a stronger race, we went a really good gallop; Ballyoptic and Reve De Sivola went fast and mine had just crept into the race. He did it well but it was definitely harder work today.
"He's going the right way [for the Stayers' Hurdle]. He's got a good bit of pace, travels nicely and he's very uncomplicated."
That Unowhatimeanharry can adapt for victory off a dawdle or a searching gallop is an important asset and it speaks of a horse who has now fully made the transition into open Grade One company. He is the correct Stayers' Hurdle ante-post favourite because he is currently the best horse definitely going for the race, but 5/2 feels very short when you don't yet know what your opposition looks like.
Johnson's comments and even pieced-together TV pictures suggest Ballyoptic is greatly over-priced at odds ranging from 12/1 to 25/1. What we can't really judge is whether he went a shade too hard in the Long Walk – it may be that Unowhatimeanharry was advantaged by being patiently ridden to be getting the better of him at the last.
Ballyoptic won the Grade One Sefton at Liverpool as a novice and clearly responded to different tactics here. However, his jumping remains his Achilles' heel now that he's hit the deck, with a chance of winning, on two of his last three starts.
Neil King reportedly believed Lil Rockerfeller was given too much to do. Whilst I can't be dogmatic in countering that, all available evidence shows a horse characteristically rallying for pressure from some way out but who could not travel so readily into contention as the winner – and they came from similar hold-up positions.
The runner-up was slightly disadvantaged by having to switch around less responsive rivals on the home turn but he still lacks Unowhatimeanharry's malleability. Nonetheless he is still unexposed at three miles and is also over-priced at 20/1. We'd know more had we seen whether he or Ballyoptic would have finished second here.
Benefitting from the casualties at the last, Un Temps Pour Tout somehow came through for third. I say somehow because he was contesting second last on the home turn and yet came past both Ptit Zig and classy French raider Alex De Larredya after the last. That's partly what makes me wonder whether Ballyoptic and Reve De Sivola went off too fast.
Admittedly, neither Ptit Zig nor Alex De Larredya are proven in an end-to-end gallop over three miles in British Grade One company. The latter even appeared to be travelling fine on the home turn but could not respond as both Unowhatimeanharry glided and Lil Rockerfeller ground past.
Three-times Long Walk hero Reve De Sivola is starting to look as though he's past his best at the age of 11 but what joy and entertainment he has brought us – not to mention prize money for his connections – over the years. He still went down fighting. Zarkandar also looks a light of former days.
Finally, I should mention Clondaw Warrior who won at Clonmel earlier this month and is currently quoted for the Stayers' Hurdle at 16/1. It should be noted Mullins has said his March target is "the two-mile Flat race in Dubai" but a bold showing at Leopardstown next Wednesday could change his mind.
Prior to this latest success, the horse had been runner-up in the 2015 Doncaster Cup, winner of the 2016 Galway Hurdle, joined the Mullins globe-trotting troupe by finishing second in the American St Leger at Arlington and finished stone cold last in this year's Doncaster Group Two event.
In his Racing UK column, Ruby Walsh observed: "Clondaw Warrior did exactly what the ratings suggested he would when winning over three miles at Clonmel but it was good to see him get the trip.
"I suppose by that stage of the day we had cottoned on to the fact that the ground was definitely a bit drier on the outside and I took advantage of that… He has a rating of 152, which probably leaves him 12-14lb shy of being a [Stayers'] Hurdle horse. You get caught betwixt and between with horses rated between 150 and 160 – often they're not quite good enough for the next level and on the other hand they're burdened with top weight in handicaps."
Of course there's a trump card lurking in the form of Thistlecrack were he to fail in some fundamental way in next week's King George. In the scenario of jettisoning their Gold Cup dream, his connections would be unlikely to opt for the RSA Chase as their preferred fallback option.
Finally, the new bookmaker sponsors of the race formerly known as the World Hurdle have started out on the right foot by reclaiming the historic title. Let's hope the partnership between the Sun newspaper and Tabcorp Holdings Ltd also re-introduces a more Australian attitude to laying bets.
Stan James Champion Hurdle
In the absence of any depth to this division, the fast-maturing Brain Power can now be considered a left-field player after he followed up his opening Sandown win with a seemingly authoritative success in Ascot's competitive two-mile handicap hurdle last Saturday.
However the worth of that form can't truly be analysed when none of us know how the race developed as a whole – although the overall time attests to it being a smart performance. Trainer Nicky Henderson might have to revise his view that Brain Power is merely "a good handicap hurdler".
His rate of progress, now he appears a more straightforward horse, certainly merits quotes for the Champion Hurdle. He's still available at 25/1 in a market in which at least two, probably three and perhaps more of those shorter than him won't run.
The 32Red Christmas Hurdle was reopened to garner further entries and, when those names became known, Faugheen's name was not among them. Instead Vroum Vroum Mag could take on the likes of Yanworth, The New One and My Tent Or Yours.
However Ruby Walsh swiftly quashed fears this indicated further troubles for the 2015 Champion Hurdle hero, who hasn't raced since obliterating the Irish Champion Hurdle in January after which he damaged a suspensory ligament in the spring and, earlier this season, bruised a foot.
"He's grand, not a bother on him. I'd imagine he's in the Ryanair Hurdle at Leopardstown on the 29th. I don't know if he will run there but it won't be too long until you see him," he said in his Racing UK blog on Wednesday.
"I rode him yesterday and he's fresh and well. He looks a million dollars. Does he retain all his ability? Oh God, he does. I would not be too worried about him."
OLBG David Nicholson Mares' Hurdle
Elliott reported that Apple's Jade, who narrowly bettered Vroum Vroum Mag in the Grade One Hatton's Grace at Fairyhouse earlier this month, is unlikely to be sighted over Christmas.
"She had three races in the space of four weeks, so we'll wait a bit longer before running her again. She'll probably have one run before Cheltenham and then we'll start thinking about which of the Festival races she'll go for."
That last comment is another revisionist statement from Elliott, who'd previously said the OLBG Mares' Hurdle was her definite target. Perhaps Gigginstown think differently.
There was a glut of compelling novice-chasing performance in the last week, of which the most eagerly anticipated was the debut of stunning Neptune winner, Yorkhill.
He took to his new discipline with ease and readily beat fellow debutant and 133-rated hurdler Burgas – the only horse willing or able to take him on to any degree – by 14 lengths at Fairyhouse last Saturday.
He jumped well but – not surprisingly for a horse that had jumped left for most of his novice-hurdling season, culminating in his worst performance when beaten at right-handed Punchestown in April (acknowledging that he had danced at Cheltenham and Aintree, too) – repeatedly to his left.
Mullins was untroubled by his orientation. "I thought he looked very much at home over fences and he has huge scope," he said. "I wouldn't be too worried about the way he jumped left. He was keen today but he wasn't rushing his fences.
"He could go to the Arkle at Leopardstown next month. We would have no difficulty stepping up in trip but he's very very good at two miles."
Graham Wylie, who owns Yorkhill with his wife Andrea, had stated beforehand that Mullins' plan is to secure three prep runs prior to Cheltenham. Bookmakers seem to be assuming this horse will run in the JLT rather than the Arkle but I see no reason why that would be the case.
Not that it's wise to rely on Mullins' long-distance views about targets but it's the Arkle that's been mentioned for this horse, even after Walsh dismounted after winning the Neptune. It's more prestigious than the JLT and worth more. This horse is also surely an intrinsically better horse than Min and more capable of taking on Altior.
Clearly Yorkhill's jumping inclinations need be ironed out, even for left-handed targets, but Mullins' words about him looking "very much at home over fences" chimed with what I saw.
Given my current position on the Arkle is something of a flyer – of which more later – I'm going to advise backing him at 7/1 (with various firms) for the Arkle. There was no performance at the Festival last year that excited me more than Yorkhill's Neptune success and I'm running with that instinct.
Back in Britain the previous day, two Henderson-trained novices were in the winner's enclosure: at Ascot, Top Notch enhanced his reputation over fences, whereas at Haydock Buveur D'Air established his. Analysis of both races was again hindered by foggy weather.
On paper, Top Notch was set a fair task: in Ascot's 2m5f graduation chase he faced 2015 Paddy Power Gold Cup winner Caid Du Berlais – an unusual profile of participant for such an event but qualified due to having won no more than twice over fences – and capable stablemate Hammersly Lake.
Multiple winning hurdler Solstice Star (who held his tail awkwardly) and Sizing Codelco, hitherto one of the unsuccessful members of the Potts' settlement at Tizzard's yard, set off at what seemed to be a strong pace. Such tactics suited Sizing Codelco, who recorded by far his best performance yet over fences in Britain.
From what could be seen of the race, Top Notch was settled well off that pace in third, took closer order on the final circuit and was in front approaching the line. How he gathered in Sizing Codelco in the straight is unknown.
He seemed to jump Ascot's demanding fences relatively comfortably – something that could not be assumed from his frame – and to stay 2m5f, a trip that he had failed to see out (admittedly on heavy ground) on his sole previous attempt.
Asked by Racing UK's Tom Stanley to report what winning rider Daryl Jacob had said of Top Notch's jumping, Henderson said: "One mistake going down the hill; nothing very significant otherwise – all good.
"The experiment was in the trip – that's as far as he's been by a long way… Daryl said that 2m5f round here at a good gallop is as far as he'd want to go."
Henderson added, fondly: "He's not very big and we never really saw him as a chaser but he's been very good at this. The beauty has been to get his confidence sky high via two nice easy races at Plumpton and Warwick. He hasn't grown but his confidence has – and his belief in himself again.
"When you're running round in all those big hurdle races, it's very tough and I don't say it's depressing but he had nowhere to go. Now he's got this new life. I adore the horse – everybody does because he's some trier."
This widens his horizons – albeit I wouldn't yet argue that Top Notch is better suited by 2m4f. Even so, it increases the risk of him winding up in the JLT rather than the Arkle for which I tipped him at 25/1 each-way. He's still 20/1 for the JLT and 14/1 with William Hill 'To win any Festival race'.
Remember this horse finished second in the 2015 Triumph and fifth in the 2016 Champion Hurdle, breaking clear with the classy portion of the field that did not include, for example, Identity Thief. Given his frame, I doubt Top Notch will ultimately go to the very top over fences but I'm sure he'll continue to have a good novice year and those odds underestimate him.
It was no cakewalk for stablemate Buveur D'Air who took on smart Cloudy Dream for his chase debut, albeit in receipt of 8lb, and beat him by three-and-a-quarter lengths. He'd shadowed that horse in third until challenging at the last and sprinting away from the fence more swiftly.
The winner had jumped low – scruffily at a few and leaving a dent on the second last – but never looked in danger of falling, especially given Haydock's fences are relatively accommodating these days.
Aidan Coleman confirmed: "Buveur D'Air enjoyed it. He was low and accurate. I wouldn't say he was brave in the sense of taking off outside the wings but he took me right into every fence. He's a very nice racehorse."
He's now 8/1 for the JLT behind Yorkhill and 12/1 for the Arkle behind stable-companion Altior. Henderson acknowledged the "nice problem" of having three smart two-mile novices and anticipates juggling them to avoid any clashes as far as possible.
Buveur D'Air has not ventured beyond the minimum trip in his career to date but Henderson was toying with the Neptune for him last term prior to running him in the Supreme, where he finished third to Altior. He is still yet to convince me that a longer trip will suit even though he's a half-brother to 2009 World Hurdle runner-up Punchestowns.
Cloudy Dream remains a progressive chaser and probably wasn't as suited as Buveur D'Air to what appeared to be a sprint. He also stumbled at the fourth last when looking to increase the revs and landed awkwardly at the last, ceding a critical advantage to the winner.
Trainer Malcolm Jefferson plans to "freshen him up in January and then bring him back". "I don't think he needs any further – a good gallop over two miles will suit him on better ground where he can quicken," he added.
Adding to the series of smart performances last week, Politologue jumped three rivals silly in Ascot's Grade Two 2m5f novices' chase last Friday – but ultimately ended up winning by far less a margin than his dominance was worth.
Nicholls later reported that rider Sam Twiston-Davies believed the horse had idled. "It's a long way up that straight and he'd been in front for a long time," he said. "You'd want a fair animal to gallop and jump with him, I'd say – he's a proper one."
On Rock The Kasbah in the back straight, Johnson tried to sniff out whether there might be any frailties to the leader's jumping but only succeeded in exposing his mount's own. Having forced his horse back on terms at the third last, Politologue's response was a leap of demoralising alacrity.
But then in the straight, having checked twice behind him approaching the last, Twiston-Davies began to agitate at Politologue and at the post there was only four lengths back to the runner-up and little more than 11 to Captain Chaos, who'd made one heart-stopping blunder and another sizeable error.
Yet Nicholls is convinced this trip – not shorter or further – is the right one currently for the horse. "He doesn't tell us he's a two-mile horse at home," he said. "If the ground was very testing, that might be a different ball-game.
"Cheltenham for the Arkle is a very sharp, easy two and I wouldn't ever be looking at him as a Champion Chase horse. He's a stayer really but at the moment I'm not that keen on going three miles with him, although I haven't discussed it with John [Hales] yet. So middle distances this year and then if we're going to go three, that will be next year."
Tellingly, the trainer didn't exactly convey any eagerness about Cheltenham this year, either – although he has backtracked on such mid-season assertions of restraint in the past. Putting all that together and quite possibly coming up with the wrong answer, I suspect Politologue will eventually stay three miles but needs to further strengthen in order to do so.
"Last year when he joined us from France he'd had a busy time, he was very light and you couldn't really be that hard on him training-wise," Nicholls added. "He was over the top when he ran at Cheltenham [when well beaten in the Coral Cup].
"But he had a really good summer off [with owner John Hales's family] and came back twice the horse. In fact it took a lot of getting the weight off him. He's improved for that first run.
"He's got a lot of talent and we've got to look after him. He's a horse for us for the future and I'm not going to try to do any silly things or try to go too high – I'm going to try to get some experience and take it step by step with him."
Although Politologue's pursuers were almost certainly flattered, there was some encouragement for them in different ways. Johnson believes Rock The Kasbah would benefit from going up in trip, Royal Vacation continues to steadily improve and even Captain Chaos showed enough to suggest he can win races if tidying up his jumping.
On the following day at Ascot, Minella Daddy took another step forward even though mercurial Regal Encore mugged him of victory approaching the line in the valuable three-mile handicap chase. He got an entry in the Grade One Kauto Star, just as trainer Peter Bowen indicated he would, and could face the likes of Caspian Caviar winner Frodon, the new and improved version of Present Man and Irish raider Anibale Fly there.
Barry Geraghty continues to be pointedly underwhelmed by Le Prezien. He spoke of scruffy jumping and a need for further when left in the lead from two out for victory at Cheltenham last month. At Exeter last Thursday, he threw out that he wouldn't want to take on L'Ami Serge again at a left-handed track. Given Le Prezien is a novice, that's unlikely to happen any time soon and who knows what else the winner might learn in the meantime.
Geraghty conceded Le Prezien had jumped better than at Cheltenham. Indeed, his surefootedness was conspicuous in a three-runner race in which L'Ami Serge was intent on reaching the A38 and Oscar Sunset tried to sit on most obstacles. Yet given the calibre of the runner-up's form and the depth of his experience, this was nonetheless a good effort from Le Prezien.
Harry Derham, Nicholls' assistant trainer, was also contained in his comments about Le Prezien, saying the horse would be "brought along steadily over fences" and "we will not be aiming too high". We have been advised.
At Newbury the preceding day Beware The Bear still looked a tad raw despite now having won his last four starts and both outings over fences. He beat subsequent Cheltenham winner Singlefarmpayment in receipt of 3lb on his chase debut and was due to be raised to a mark of 139 even before sneaking into the top of this handicap under the BHA's new flexible rule.
The winner – who's growing physically and mentally according to trainer Henderson but still idled markedly after the last here – is now rated a still-handy 145 as a result of his own work and that of his vanquished. Henderson believes Beware The Bear would cope well with softer ground this winter.
He also dreams he's the rare sort of horse that could win him an elusive first Grand National and mentioned the NH Chase as a potential medium-term plan. Back in third, stablemate Lessons In Milan also shaped like a thorough stayer but is not honing his jumping technique as quickly as the winner.
In the following graduation event, Aqalim again failed to convince as a chaser. He'd encountered Thistlecrack on five of his last six starts, only once getting within hailing distance on the latter's Chepstow chase debut, but here looked cumbersome.
Later that day, French recruit Cepage zestfully took apart an open two-mile handicap chase on his UK debut for Venetia Williams. Awash with sweat and appearing, on the TV at least, to be athletic rather than scopey, he moved to the front after the third and never came back.
He adjusted right four out and there was a mistake at the last but otherwise he jumped very soundly, clocking the best time of the day. Given this youngster only registered his first chase success in May, he still retains his novice status and is also already proven over further.
"We hoped Cepage would run well but he's only a four-year-old and it was his first run over these fences which are very different from France," said Williams.
"He's very light on his feet and I wouldn't run him on ground any quicker. He'll be going up for that so I'll look to get him out at the end of next week. I can't answer whether he'll be a handicapper or graded horse yet and we'll take things one step at a time."
To return to Ireland, Bryan Cooper put the greater experience of A Genie In Abottle to good use in winning the three-mile beginners' chase at Fairyhouse last Saturday. He is already an improved model as a chaser and had previously chased home Martello Tower here, shaping like the winner as if he needed to step up to this trip. Here he made all and was best positioned for the charge for home.
"He can't go far enough and the ground can't be soft enough, although he will go on good ground," said trainer Noel Meade. "I would love to aim him at the National Hunt Chase at Cheltenham."
Runner-up Blazer came from a bit further back and was forced wide on the home turn. Having jumped left at a few previous obstacles, he was presented cautiously by Mark Walsh at the abrupt second last; that left him with work to do to catch the winner but he responded to being thrown at the last until finding no extra on the run-in. This was a decent chase debut and initial try at three miles from last term's Coral Cup fourth.
Beaten favourite Mall Dini was slightly short of room on the home bend but Davy Russell never had to stop riding; he was better positioned than the second and just plain outpaced. He's still running without the tongue-tie that was said to be pivotal to his Pertemps success at the Festival in March but perhaps he's had a breathing operation.
Royal Caviar has not featured prominently in Rich Ricci dispatches of the past but that might change after his impressive chase debut win at Thurles last Sunday. He made all unhassled and jumping well but it quickly became clear that none of his rivals had the wherewithal to press him.
He jumped with verve and had a decent mare behind him in second, although Keppols Queen is yet to translate her classy hurdles form to fences. At eight years of age already, the winner is switching codes later than many but positive tactics and perhaps an increased trip may yet bring more out of him.
Performance of the week in this division goes to Death Duty, who was recommended by Walsh at 25/1 for the Neptune during Racing UK's NH Preview show back in mid-November after he'd ridden him to his first hurdles victory at Roscommon. There is no doubting this horse's ability; the only quibble is what his likely target might be.
At Navan last Saturday, he won the Grade Three in most efficient style – sitting on the quarters of front-running Monalee and pouncing in the straight, where he turned on the style with jumping that had hitherto been sound and then became silky. He didn't draw away as one might ideally wish but was always in control.
"His jumping kills other horses and he gets four lengths at a hurdle when another horse might get two," observed Cooper, his usual rider. Trainer Elliott pinpointed a 2m4f Grade One at Naas as the next target but deems Death Duty an Albert Bartlett type – for which he is now best priced 3/1 favourite.
Monalee had previously won a fog-enshrouded event at Punchestown and, having made the running, tried to go with the winner in the straight. He hung in there until the final hurdle but managed also to keep on for second.
By contrast, beaten favourite Invitation Only could never get on terms and seemed to want to hang left; he'd previously jumped in that direction when winning at Gowran. Moulin A Vent, another recent Punchestown winner, played an even smaller role in proeedings.
Wishmoor made mistakes and never got involved. After briefly playing along with his rider by trotting towards the start, Labaik again refused to race.
Speaking of smart novice-hurdling displays, West Approach finally showed what he's capable of in the Grade One Long Walk Hurdle a matter of days after I'd observed how he remains unexposed at three miles but was starting to get frustrating…
His race ended when short of room on landing awkwardly at the last, jinking left at the prone Ballyoptic and unseating his rider. He'd already been passed by Lil Rockerfeller at that hurdle and was probably destined for fourth at best, had all survived that obstacle. However he was clearly – if that's not a misnomer in the conditions – in the process of a career best.
He enjoyed being able to chase a strong pace rather than the Hobson's choice of having to make his own running or suffering a dawdle and this evidence hints he would be capable of making an impact in the Albert Bartlett. It can do no more than hint because we didn't see most of the race.
Later on the same card, another novice Consul De Thaix took on more experienced rivals in the two-mile handicap hurdle. More fancied than on his promising seasonal debut at Sandown, he again chased home stablemate Brain Power in the style of a stayer. It will be interesting where Henderson places him at the Festival – perhaps the Coral Cup? – but there are clearly valuable handicap prizes to be won, perhaps at 2m4f, with him first.
One note about taking a short price about him in one such race: he is as yet a maiden so we don't know what he'll do when he hits the front. He shows no signs of awkwardness but inexperience could be an issue in a tightly-contested affair.
Nicholls introduced two nascent chasers last week that he clearly regards as highly-promising types. Personally, Ascot winner Topofthegame caught my imagination more than did Give Me A Copper at Exeter despite the fact he almost threw his race away and the latter won by 14 lengths.
Give Me A Copper had been threatening an appearance for some weeks, his reputation preceding him, but finally pitched up last Thursday in Exeter's rainy gloom. Unbeaten in one start each in pointing and bumper company, his former trainer Donal Coffey – selling all the time – described him as a gold Cup horse.
"He's a horse who will definitely run in it some year," he averred back in March, before selling him at the Goffs Aintree sales the following month for £270,000. Coffey had also said: "We'd sell anything if we got enough." Members of the Coffey family, you have been duly warned.
At Exeter Give Me A Cooper was clumsy and green but dominated his rivals led by the experienced Bindon Mill and capable Big Meadows, the latter of whom again exhibited a high tail-carriage. Fourth-placed Sideways caught the eye, coming from much further back on his return from a break.
The six-year-old winner is a staying chaser of the future, hails from an excellent jumping family and could even be better on a sounder surface than he's yet encountered.
However, there was something about two-years-younger stable companion Topofthegame's Rules debut performance in the opening contest at Ascot the following day that instinctively made me think I had seen the future – and that it is currently camel-shaped.
I'm borrowing Racing UK pundit David Cleary's physical description of Topofthegame; without wishing to hurt the horse's feelings, it's not a misplaced simile. But he won't always look so bony raw and angular; once he grows into his frame, he will surely be a strapping chaser.
He shaped like the best horse in the race by far and lolloped to the front on entering the straight but contrived through idling inexperience to all but throw it away after getting in too close to the last. Criq Rock, who'd settled better than in the past, was even able to force a photo.
Nicholls said: "Topofthegame won his Irish point-to-point without coming off the bridle. He is big and green. He sauntered to the front then idled. He will improve and improve."
Arrestingly he also compared this horse with Denman, the 2008 Gold Cup and dual Hennessy hero a.k.a. The Tank, whom he observed was a comparable physical specimen and whom had also threatened to throw away his hurdles debut success in similar fashion.
Nicholls plans to run Topofthegame two of three more times over hurdles this season, including a decent contest in the spring – not Cheltenham, but Aintree's Sefton Hurdle were you to ask me to guess. He'll then go chasing next term. I think he's the Gold Cup horse, target date 2019.
Later on that same card, Nicholls completed a novice-hurdle double with Capitaine also taking the Grade Two Sky Bet Supreme Trial (or Kennel Gate to you and me). Jockey Sam Twiston-Davies stole lengths relatively cheaply from after the first hurdle, enabling his "buzzy" mount to maintain his lead without over-exertion and to then have plenty of energy left when the challengers eventually came.
Capitaine clearly enjoyed these tactics, even though his head carriage suggested he isn't utterly straightforward, and better ground than the Haydock bog he'd ploughed through last time. He's also a quick negotiator of a hurdle – at least when left alone to measure it un-pestered. Nicholls was talking County Hurdle prior to this success.
The only real challenge, such as it was, came from Keep In Line but you felt it was always something of an effort for him to keep tabs on the winner in the straight and he had nothing left after the last.
Harry Skelton employed more patient tactics on Captain Forez than when third to Jenkins on his UK debut and he responded by settling better, but he was never able to reach the winner. He may want further and definitely wants fences in time.
Thomas Campbell, described by Geraghty previously as "a bit of a playboy", found he couldn't perform in better company. He was in trouble in the back straight and this time failed to respond to pressure; even if he does want further, this was flat. Lough Derg Spirit again jumped impeccably but the form of his Kempton win is not working out and he played no real part here.
Elsewhere this week, the success of Finian's Oscar at Hereford is worth a mention. He's out of a half-sister to the 2012 Champion Chase winner Finian's Rainbow and had won an Irish point in October. He won the 2m5f novices' event by jumping well and beating previous winner Acting Lass by six lengths. That runner-up finished 10 lengths clear of the rest.
Kimberlite Candy also gets a shout-out. He's been bought by JP McManus, of course, since winning at Ascot last month and followed up under a penalty at Newcastle on Saturday, stepped up to a trip that clearly suited. He beat Acdc, who'd hinted at ability prior to being pulled up after a tired blunder at the track last time, by a comfortable seven lengths.
At Newbury last Wednesday, High Bridge made a winning debut in good style for his amateur rider Alex Ferguson, who is also son of owner and the horse's former trainer John Ferguson. Last term's Festival Bumper sixth is now in the hands of Ben Pauling following a one-race stint on the Flat with Godolphin's Charlie Appleby.
He made some small errors but responded positively to pressure to stay on strongly. Pauling reported High Bridge, a dual bumper winner, had arrived in a consignment of ex-Bloomfields horses about a month earlier; he considers him a Cheltenham prospect, most probably for the Neptune – but keeping to two miles on soft ground – even though stamina for that ambition is scarce in the horse's pedigree.
Runner-up Chelsea Flyer, victim of an unfortunate incident at Uttoxeter on his debut when squeezed out of a close finish, made stylish headway out of the back straight until shaken up to chase the winner after the third last. He never quite got on terms with High Bridge but continues to improve.
Wenyerreadyfreddie used to live at Bloomfields, too, but was part of the Ferguson dispersal when he quit training to become Godolphin's chief executive. At that stage this horse had finished second in a Doncaster bumper and went for £95,000 at Cheltenham's April sale.
He was outpaced by the front two late on but, again, shaped well. He's distantly related to Bradbury Star, dual winner of what was then called the Mackeson.
What About Carlo was not atypically awash with sweat and suffered a bout of post-race ataxia on his tough Grade Two debut at Cheltenham last month; he looked a happier bunny here, even if in being part of the breakaway group in the straight and sticking on for fourth possibly amounted to fairly similar form.
Broughtons Flyer still needs to brush up his jumping but he came from further back than the principals for a clear fifth whereas Golden Bridge went from attacking to beaten either side of the third-last hurdle.
Cruiseaweigh has now hung left, to a greater or lesser extent, on four of his five career starts; it was nowhere near as pronounced here as at right-handed Sandown last time but he made no impact after going well on the home turn and was not persisted with from approaching two out. It transpired that he'd broken a blood vessel.
Later on the same card, odds-on favourite Bags Groove finished second for the fourth time in his five-race career. While I can readily believe that Sneaky Feeling, his conqueror here, is a smart horse given the pair pulled nine lengths clear of the third, the degree to which the beaten favourite hung to his left under pressure and into the whip from the last is worrying. Had Sneaky Feeling not been able to wriggle through against the rail, the stewards might have intervened to amend the result anyway.
The winner had failed to win in one shot each at pointing and bumper company and raced quite freely here. He also lacked fluency at his final two hurdles – particularly the penultimate one where he landed flat-footed and lost ground on the leaders. He did well to respond to pressure when switched right but was again stilted at the least. It speaks well of him that he found a way to win and, in doing so, recorded the best hurdles time of the day.
Sarah Hobbs, wife of the winning trainer, commented: "Philip thought Sneaky Feeling would improve from his last run and, as a pointer, he stays and jumps. He's very relaxed and has a good attitude."
The last-named attribute was very much on display and this shock winner – who looked a rangier animal on TV pictures than the runner-up – could be decent. Bags Groove now has questions to answer. He did keep pulling out more when he hit the front but also in diagonal direction; perhaps there's a physical issue or tack adjustment to address? As mentioned before, he's probably also a thorough stayer.
Third-placed Westerndorf is better than the literal form beyond acknowledging that he conceded 7lb to the 1-2 given he smashed through the third last. It looks like he stays well, also. Tintern Theatre, who also carried a penalty for a previous success, and hurdles debutant Creep Desbois also ran with credit, pulling clear of the sixth.
Back at Exeter on Thursday, Lamanver Odyssey won an unusually large-fielded mares' novices' hurdle that also seemed to have some depth for a race of its type. Winning trainer Fry believes some cut in the ground was in her favour.
She also enjoyed a switch to positive tactics and saw off decent bumper recruit Which One Is Which, strong-staying daughter of fabulous race-mare Lady Rebecca, Lady Karina, and penalty-carrying Cajun Fiddle, who might have held on to a place bar for an ill-timed error at the last.
Talking of mares, Ricci appears to have another smart one in the form of last Thursday's Tramore winner Camelia De Cotte. This four-year-old won readily by 15 lengths on her Irish debut for Mullins, prompting Walsh to comment: "She settled relatively well – she had been a little keen at home. It wasn't the strongest race on paper. At the second last, I heard something behind me and just let out a bit of rein and she went about her business. It was a nice performance."
At Thurles on Sunday, it's impossible to say whether Shattered Love would have beaten Asthuria had the latter not taken a tumble at the third last in the mares' Listed novices' hurdle. The eventual wide-margin winner was certainly going well at the time and had previously acquitted herself with credit in a duel with Let's Dance, the faller's stablemate.
It was slick stuff from Cilaos Emery to win on his hurdles debut in a Navan maiden that same day. The entire herd still seemed to be in contention on the turn for home but he had them well strung out by the line and the time was comparatively strong. He was smart enough to win a Punchestown Festival bumper on his racecourse debut and his jumping technique here was particularly impressive. Mullins was complimentary.
"I liked him at Punchestown in his bumper where I thought he was exceptional and he showed that again today," he said. "He was against stayers and point-to-point horses, took then on from the front and was going away from them. He will go for a novice now and should improve away over the season."
Runner-up Joey Sasa had shown a tenacious attitude when beaten by Brelade last time out but was brushed aside here, though finishing well clear of third at Rules debutant Arvico Bleu. Fourth-placed Fitzhenry built on the flash of promise he showed last time.
At Fairyhouse the previous day, Minella Till Dawn paid a compliment to Moulin A Vent that the latter wasn't able to amplify in better company when winning the 2m4f maiden event. He jumped soundly between rivals at the last and then looked a little green on hitting the front. Runner-up Castlegrace Paddy ran well under a positive ride on his hurdles debut and beaten favourite Al Boum Photo was too keen early on. The trio pulled clear.
Finally, as of last Friday, Skybet offer non-runner-no-bet for the race they sponsor at the Festival, the Supreme Novices' Hurdle. It is entirely valid to discuss the impact of concessions as perverse advertorials by a risk-averse industry that has increased its inclination to restrict to what must ultimately be a self-cannibalising level. However in a market that's otherwise an ex-parrot, this is a great initiative, as ever, for those people who can get on.
At Newbury last Wednesday, Cosmeapolitan made a winning debut for the typically juvenile-strong yard of Alan King. This was a progressive horse on the Flat in 2016, who stays at least 12 if not 14 furlongs and has not finished improving.
There is certainly scope to smarten up his jumping: he lacked fluency at several obstacles but saved his best blunder for the second last, getting in too close and pecking badly. The extent of his superiority was soon apparent when, having been all but upsides before but more than a length down after that error, he got back on terms at the last without Wayne Hutchinson having to go for much. He then stayed on well to the line. It was a slowly-run race and probably lacked depth.
"These horses always improve on their first run. No matter how much schooling you do with them at home, they come on an awful lot for the experience and I'm sure he'll do the same," King told Oli Bell on Racing UK.
"Job done, really, and we'll see how we go on from here. He certainly doesn't want any more than two miles. He might not want heavy but he'd go on most things."
Plans for Cosmeapolitan are fluid given as King himself said he's "got a big team of juveniles" and will have to "shuffle them around"; Kempton over Christmas will possibly come a little too quickly.
Back in second, French recruit Fixed Rate made a good debut for Charlie Mann. Always prominently positioned, he had pressed on into the lead with a good jump three out as long-time leader Marmont fluffed it. He became tired and faded after the last; he stayed more than 14 furlongs on the Flat and was gelded prior to this.
Third-placed Pension Madness wasn't able to go with the leaders on the home turn but stayed on steadily in the straight to pass the exhausted Marmont and finish a relatively close-up third. This was his best effort yet over hurdles and he's now worthy of a mark. He might well need more of a trip.
Like the third, Knight Commander was a maiden on the Flat but rated more highly; he is not without ability for this discipline once he finds his level. Light Of Air regressed from his decent debut third behind Dino Velvet at Sandown earlier this month.
On the same day up at Musselburgh, Forth Bridge managed to repel Warp Factor to get off the mark over hurdles following his encouraging debut second against the decent Coeur De Lion.
He made some mistakes, most critically at the last when crashing through it, but the foothold the runner-up gained was more to do with Forth Bridge wobbling under pressure. The strength of Brian Hughes, keeping him straight with whip and hands, kept him honest. He wore cheekpieces for his final two starts on the Flat and it wouldn't be surprising to see them donned again.
Warp Factor wasn't rated too far behind the winner on the Flat and wasn't proven at so far a trip – 11f compared with 14f. He showed an aptitude on his first completed start. The pair were 20 lengths clear of the rest in the best time of the day.
In Ireland on Saturday Prospectus made a winning hurdles debut in Fairyhouse's juvenile maiden event for new trainer Gavin Cromwell, having been trained on the Flat in Britain by Hughie Morrison. He had won once, over 12f at Ffos Las and achieved a rating of just 69.
His proven liking for testing conditions and innate stamina meant he relished this truly-run race, coming clear of an eased Dakota Moirette by 12 lengths and registering a time faster than the following handicap. He mainly jumped well, though novicey at times. The runner-up had previously been beaten 28 lengths by Landofhopeandglory when in receipt of 4lb.
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
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