Road To Cheltenham: Vive la revolution!
In the latest comprehensive edition of the Road To Cheltenham, Lydia Hislop reflects on the latest big-name absentees for the Mullins-and-Ricci partnership.
It was another testing week for Willie Mullins and Rich Ricci
After at least two seasons of being held in a queue by Willie Mullins and Rich Ricci, bad luck has finally got through to them. First they lost the scintillating Vautour via a freak paddock accident and then they were unable to get Champion Hurdle winner Annie Power to a racecourse this term.
Earlier this week, the shock and not-so-shock news broke that both Min and Faugheen would miss their respective Cheltenham Festival targets. Now Douvan is wishing they wouldn't keep phoning him to check he's all right.
Stan James Champion Hurdle
The final mutiny for the bounty of the Stan James Champion Hurdle has taken place: both the last two winners, Annie Power and Faugheen, are overboard. The crew has control of the ship.
"We had hoped Faugheen had just tweaked a muscle but we've had it checked out and it's a stress fracture," said Mullins. "It's a real shame… we needed everything to go right [in order to make the Champion Hurdle] and obviously it hasn't… We'll try to get him ready for Punchestown."
His confirmed absence removes much of the mystery surrounding the race – whether he would run, whether he retained the brilliance he showed in last year's Irish Champion Hurdle if he did, and whether many rivals would care to turn up against him. There had been an air of negative expectation for some time.
The first mutineer above deck had been Buveur D'Air, whose reversion to hurdles after two low-slung but successful novice-chasing assignments was presaged by an entry in this race back in mid-January. It was then announced last week that the Champion Hurdle was definitely his aim.
Trainer Nicky Henderson has since only confessed to raising the subject with Barry Geraghty, JP McManus's retained rider, in the Cheltenham weighing room on Trials Day at the end of last month and about half an hour before Faugheen was announced a non-runner in the Irish version.
It certainly didn't look the wrong call at Sandown last Saturday when, although he had even less to beat than it appeared on paper with runner-up Rayvin Black appearing less than enthusiastic and Irving not putting up any fight at all in first-time cheekpieces. But after getting in a bit close to the first hurdle, Buveur D'Air got full marks for artistic impression. He clearly snapped straight back into hurdling.
"Barry jumped five hurdles on him on Tuesday morning and we didn't even need to do it again," Henderson said afterwards. "This was part of my reasoning really: his chasing technique still had a little bit too much hurdle in it and that's where he worried me.
"Watching him at Warwick, he was still hurdling. He can always come back chasing… Assuming he doesn't win the Champion Hurdle!"
Another strand to his reasoning had been watching all the trials and feeling the opposition was much of a muchness – including fellow McManusite Yanworth, whom he acknowledged is "a good young horse", The New One, of whom he is clearly – like most of us – very fond, and his own My Tent Or Yours. Buveur D'Air, he feels, has "untapped hurdle potential in there".
"It was smooth, it was nice," he said. "There's a lot of improvement in him because when you're novice chasing you're probably not getting those soft of hard races. To be fair he hasn't actually had a hard race this season."
Interestingly Henderson made a point of mentioning stablemate Brain Power – who was originally set to represent him in the race – in his post-race interview on Racing UK.
"I would have liked to have run Brain Power as well but he's very unproven in soft ground. I just couldn't see this doing him a lot of good. He might go straight to the Champion Hurdle – in fact, more than likely will do, because I don't think he's for Kelso.
"He'll go to a racecourse [gallop] here or there but he worked very well this morning and is in good shape. You mustn't leave him out."
That's a significant mention for a horse who has manned up considerably this season, is progressing fast and already has more robust form in the book than Buveur D'Air. The latter is all about that untapped potential but you're being asked to take 7/2 about it.
Geraghty declared Buveur D'Air "very slick over his hurdles" and agreed that he was muscling into his Champion Hurdle favours alongside Yanworth, albeit no decision need be made until long after that horse hopefully makes his return from a slight setback. He made the point that Jezki, like Buveur D'Air, was beaten in the Supreme yet came back to win a Champion Hurdle.
Asked to compare his Sandown winner and Yanwoth, he said: "They're both straightforward, have enough pace for two miles and get further – that's what you need for a Champion Hurdle. They were both placed as novices in last year's Festival. They're very similar."
Asked whether Buveur D'Air possesses more intrinsic pace than Yanworth, he didn't agree, pointing out that he'd only ridden the former on testing going. He didn't feel such conditions were important to his chances, however.
Faugheen's exit is likely to concentrate the mind of others, also. The New One, for example, must surely now run here and despite reports to the contrary, it must increase the likelihood that novice Moon Racer will join him. Trainer David Pipe had previously said the race would need to fall apart for him to jump that way…
The fascinating question is what Mullins will do. A couple of firms have added Un De Sceaux to their markets but if connections doubt he's quick enough for the Champion Chase on a sound surface, they're hardly going to try this. The real game-changer would be Yorkhill and, more specifically, which race Ruby Walsh wants to ride him in.
It was suggested on the Racing Post's website that the JLT is the likeliest aim of Yorkhill's three entries. I think it's by far the least likely. Why, when you've got a horse rawly talented enough to win either the Champion Hurdle or Arkle would you run him in a less prestigious and valuable race? You wouldn't.
Had Min still been standing, I would be certain Mullins would switch Yorkhill here but the double whammy opens up a new landscape of uncertainty. Is the presence of Altior in the Arkle a less appealing option than an open-looking Champion Hurdle?
Or has time simply run out for him to get a hurdle prep-run in the bag even if it means Walsh would unthinkably be left without a realistic chance in the big hurdles event? (With apologies to Nichols Canyon, who also now surely runs here and not in the Stayers' Hurdle.)
Sun Bets Stayers' Hurdle
Although the ratified addition of Buveur D'Air to JP McManus's troops for the Champion Hurdle would have comforted those who've backed Jezki for the Stayers' event, the subsequent withdrawal of Faugheen might cause them a wobble or two.
In some ways, I wonder whether the fate of Yanworth might dictate Jezki's target as much as Saturday week's Red Mills Trial at Gowran. Trainer Jessica Harrington has stated this prep race will decide where to go at the Festival but should Yanworth's setback prove more troublesome than thought or he gets beaten on his comeback, then it might be all change.
In that scenario, McManus has the impervious-looking Unowhatimeanharry topping the stayers' charts and might want the back-up of a credible second string in a suddenly wide-open Champion Hurdle. Especially when that understudy has already won the race before.
None of these events may yet come to pass but it crossed my mind… Just saying.
OLBG David Nicholson Mares' Hurdle
No news is good news in this division, especially if you're Mullins. The most he had to report here, thankfully, was that Limini is "working well" and could head to the Punchestown mares' event in which he had intended to run Annie Power.
"I think she's coming back to herself – if she's not back to herself already," he said of the third favourite for this event. "Hopefully she'll get to Punchestown but the way things are going this year you'd wonder!"
Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase
Douvan had nothing remotely within his or the next-door parish of ability to beat in last Sunday's Grade Two Tied Cottage at Punchestown yet again he managed to impress via his utter simplicity as a racehorse.
Indeed he jumped round like a horse preoccupied by the final clue in the cryptic crossword puzzle he'd happened to pick up just before leaving his box. Two or three times he seemed to approach his obstacles absent-mindedly and decide nearing take-off whether to go long or adjust. Whichever he did, it amounted to the same: absolutely faultless, without missing a beat.
Of course he's currently wondering why Mullins has cased him in bubble-wrap since Monday but has probably rationalised it given that he, Douvan, prefers an Aristotelian interpretation of the causes of human happiness. He's delivering a paper on it between Cheltenham and Aintree.
"He just sauntered along at his own speed and did his own thing," said Ruby Walsh, the human being who sat on Douvan. "I just gave him a bit of a squeeze at the second last and he jumped out through the bridle. He won as he liked and probably as you would have expected him to. He just has a huge amount of natural ability and he's a pleasure to ride."
Douvan didn't wait to comment, post-race. The tricky answer to '10 across' had come to him at the penultimate flight and competition entries had to be submitted online by 5pm.
Usually I'd be fielding against a premature coronation of a young horse that's moving into the championship division without being much tested in his two races to date that season – and especially when he's best priced at 4/11. But like the Arkle last year, I make an exception for Douvan. He hasn't proven it yet but I suspect he's the most talented jump horse in training.
Perhaps I missed something but the first I read about Ar Mad's "little setback" was when trainer Gary Moore announced him a Champion Chase non-runner in his Betway blog this week.
"We took the decision last week to take Ar Mad out of the Ascot Chase on Saturday week after his little setback," Moore said. "Even though he is coming along nicely, the Cheltenham Festival is going to come too soon and it looks almost certain that we will head straight to Aintree or Punchestown.
"There is simply no point rushing him back too quickly and you just can't go to Cheltenham undercooked."
His absence is good news for Special Tiara, who wouldn't have been able to live with Ar Mad's early pace even were he still the force of last season, but perhaps lessens the God's Own picking-up-the-pieces angle in the 'betting without Douvan' market. He's now 5/1 there and 20/1 in the outright market.
Moore added that Traffic Fluide is set to have his first start since last term's Clarence House more than a year ago in this Saturday's Game Spirit and the 2014 Champion Chase hero Sire De Grugy, last seen when unseating Jamie Moore at Kempton last month, heads to the same Chepstow handicap he used as a stepping stone to the following year's Festival.
"Once we get Chepstow out the way, we can start to think about Cheltenham and whether he heads back to the Betway Champion Chase for the fourth consecutive year," he said.
"At this stage I'd say that he will only run if the word 'soft' appears in the going description. The ground has just been a bit too lively for him the last couple of years and we could do with some of this rain sticking around."
Of Traffic Fluide, he added: "People keep asking me about his possible Cheltenham target and the truth is we will learn a lot more on Saturday.
"If he comes through the race okay, we obviously have the option of running in the Champion Chase. There is of course the possibility that he may need further than two miles in which case we could step him up in trip and go for the Ryanair."
Thanks for that, Gary and Betway. Who knew that they and Theresa May share a press secretary?
Those hoping for a red-white-and-blue Champion Chase are surely relying on the winner of the Game Spirit to provide it. In a potential triumph over gnarled old cynics like me, it seems Henderson hasn't yet blinked on plans to run his novice Altior against Queen Mum second favourite Fox Norton.
Au contraire Colin Tizzard has already considered conceding Fox Norton's staring contest with Douvan, suggesting that "I've got a hankering in my mind he could be a Ryanair horse". Fox Norton hasn't raced since sustaining a cut to his off-fore when winning Cheltenham's Shloer Chase in November and his trainer believes conceding 5lb to Altior means he's "got it all to do".
Nothing much to update in this section aside from acknowledging Tizzard's curveball with Fox Norton and that Traffic Fluide is definitely in the land of the living. But this Sunday's Irish Gold Cup could easily propel some of this race's key players Gold Cup-wards.
Zabana, Empire Of Dirt and Sizing John are the potential defectors, but this would look like the right race for the first and last-named, however. That said, as Paul Jones has pointed out in this week's Cheltenham Festival element of pauljoneshorseracing.com, Sizing John's owners Alan and Ann Potts tried to envisage Sizing Europe as a Gold Cup horse. Hence why this horse had to be a NRNB selection for this column's purposes.
Timico Gold Cup
Only collateral form to report here after Otago Trail paid a decent compliment to his Haydock conqueror Bristol De Mai when cosily winning a Sandown handicap last Saturday. His 22-length defeat only a fortnight earlier in the Peter Marsh Chase was exaggerated by a second-last blunder, but the winner was in a different class entirely.
Meanwhile his trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies suggested stablemate Blaklion, last year's RSA Chase victor, has the Randox Health Grand National as "his big target" and will use Haydock's Grand National Trial as his stepping-stone. He mentioned the Gold Cup could be an option in between. Twister has never knowingly missed "an option".
Talking of trainers who believe actually racing horses is for life and not just for Christmas, Colin Tizzard plans to get three of his big Gold Cup four (sorry, Theatre Guide, I unaccountably overlooked you: five) back in action in the next ten days.
Native River runs in Saturday's Betfair Denman Chase, Peter Marsh flop Alary attempts an Exeter graduation chase the next day and Cue Card contests Saturday week's Ascot Chase. But Tizzard has warned that the Denman Chase trip "might be on the sharp side" for Native River and that Alary would "nearly have to win" at Exeter to book his Gold Cup place.
It's been joyous to watch Top Notch's ever-building confidence over fences and his richly-deserved first Grade One success in last Saturday's Scilly Isles Novices' Chase guaranteed his participation in the JLT – barring accidents to him or Altior.
There were just five participants but they were almost in a line approaching the Pond Fence so it needed Top Notch to pull right away, both to prove his stamina for two-and-a-half miles and cement his reputation as well named for this chasing lark. That he did by five lengths after a near-immaculate round of measured jumping.
"He's lovely. He's obviously not very big but he's got a massive heart and this is no more than this horse deserves. He's been second and third in all the big races for a long time now so it's nice he's finally got a Grade One under this belt," enthused Jacob afterwards.
"Typical French [horse], isn't he? He measures and makes it a little bit easier for me. I mean I gave him a squeeze at the last of the Railways [fences] down the back straight and he said no, that's a bit too long for me and he got himself over the back of it. He's just grown in confidence with every run."
Jacob was full of praise for the team around Top Notch – his retaining owners Simon Munir and Isaac Souede as well as Henderson and Anthony Bromley – in how they campaigned this horse to steadily develop his confidence. It was a well-considered comment, pinpointing one of the trainer's chief talents.
"We were always worried whether he would ever make a steeplechaser," said Henderson later. "I know people won't like watching three-horse races but for him… getting those races, getting his confidence…
"I never thought you'd ever see him jumping round tracks like this… He's just brimming with it and that's the making of him – simple as that… He's not been a nearly horse because he's been doing very well but now… he loves it and you can't help but love him.
"He's something special – when you see somebody try as hard as he does… And he hasn't got the scope for it, yet on the other hand he gets it so accurately now, he can do it."
Of course, that puts the tin lid on this column's hopes that Top Notch will contest the Arkle – a case of right talent, wrong race. At the time I was far from convinced this horse stayed 2m4f.
Immediately after the race he was an attractive 8/1 for the JLT but since the withdrawal of Min from the Arkle (due to a bruise) has raised the possibility of Yorkhill defecting there, Top Notch is now at least three points shorter. His trainer is long-suited for this race, with Whisper and O O Seven set to act as wingmen.
Back at Sandown, it seemed likely that runner-up Baron Alco might have blown any handicap ambitions trainer Moore might have held but a 3lb rise in fact still looks fairly workable. This brave horse, who responds generously to an aggressive ride, put up the best fight here. But his habit of jumping right was again on display even at this right-handed track and that would worry you for Cheltenham.
Third-placed Le Prezien simply jumped too scruffily but Clan Des Obeaux ran abysmally. It was his first attempt at jumping a right-handed track and it might not have suited. He stood off the sixth far too far and that was perhaps a function of already apparent discomfort because efficient jumping had been a hallmark of his efforts at Newbury and for much of Cheltenham last time.
It was either that or he frightened himself because his jumping unravelled on the far side. It was to his credit that he worked his way back into the race on the approach to the Pond, but that proved unsustainable. Rider Sean Bowen later reported Clan Des Obeaux was "never travelling".
Bowen rode due to Sam Twiston-Davies having committed to stable-companion Politologue in the JLT, with Clan Des Obeaux's owners seeking "continuity" before Cheltenham. You may previously recall trainer Paul Nicholls saying he might miss out the Festival with both horses because he wanted to mind them for the future. I love it when form works out.
Of course this unsettling effort from Clan Des Obeaux could be the deterrent his trainer requires to revert to Plan A, as it were. But maybe not. Nicholls has also got Frodon for the JLT after he looked much more at home returned to 2m4f at Musselburgh last Sunday.
It didn't harm that Twiston-Davies poached a handful of lengths at the start, where Frodon had been characteristically keen to get on with things, and was able to make all entirely unchallenged.
This will have been a timely boost of confidence for the Caspian Caviar Gold Cup winner, who took a tired fall at the last in the Kauto Star when booked for third, but he'll have to hustle in the JLT and that might not be ideal.
This was, of course, another boost for the form of rightful Kauto Star winner Might Bite, who hasn't been seen since taking a tumble at the last when clear but returns for Henderson at Doncaster this week.
By winning the Edinburgh National and gaining a mark of 139, Dancing Shadow could have booked a slot in the JT McNamara NH Chase although connections did mention alternative targets such as the Midlands or Scottish Grand Nationals.
At Wetherby that same day, Baywing potentially stated his case for the same Cheltenham target by causing an upset in the Grade Two Towton Novices' Chase at 33/1. The extra accent placed on stamina due to rail movements and heavy ground played to the strengths of this unexposed chaser.
"He's a big heavy-shouldered horse and he needs it soft," commented trainer Nicky Richards. "He'll be a horse for the Welsh National and races like that but we need to educate him first. He's in the four-miler at Cheltenham and that's in my mind but it'd need to be soft."
On the yak front, given owner John Hales now has Politologue running in the JLT, he reportedly wants Ibis Du Rheu to represent him in the RSA despite that horse clearly indicating that three miles stretches him. But Hales has wisely drawn stumps on the Aux Ptits Soins chasing project after witnessing some nervy jumping; that horse might miss Cheltenham for alternative hurdles targets.
David Pipe has mentioned the NH Chase or a handicap for sulky Champers On Ice – headgear ahoy! – but ready Warwick conqueror American heads to the RSA rather than the four-miler according to trainer Harry Fry.
Malcolm Jefferson has reported that Waiting Patiently returned stiff from his exertions at Haydock two Saturdays ago and repeated that anything other than soft ground is a deal-breaker in his Festival participation. He means it.
Monalee was always in the driving seat when winning Clonmel's Grade Three novices' hurdle last Thursday, relaxing just off the pace and moving smoothly into a challenging position around the home turn. He rather bunny-hopped the last flight, landing flat-footed, but extended readily for an authoritative victory.
He's going the right way over hurdles and is unexposed at this three-mile trip, which appeared very much to suit. Of course he was brushed aside by Albert Bartlett favourite Death Duty when they met at Navan last month but although both horses would need to prove their aptitude for faster conditions, Henry de Bromhead is confident it would suit Monalee.
"We think he would like better ground, even if he is grand on ground like that," he said. "He's by Milan and is a good-moving horse. I'm not saying he wants it like the road but Festival ground should be fine."
Battleford added to the comfort of Monalee's success by repeatedly forfeiting impetus by jumping out to his left at most obstacles and frequently making errors in the process.
He is doing better with each start, clearly requires a left-handed track and perhaps better ground so he'd be interesting in something like the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys Handicap Hurdle, even if he ultimately needs more of a trip.
The others were soundly beaten, although Woods Well ran better than it seems after failing to stay. New To This Town might not have enjoyed this ground but Rathnure Rebel can claim neither excuse. Keen-going Turcagua ran so abjectly that he was pulled up.
Later that week at Punchestown, Cilaos Emery crashed out of consideration for the Supreme, at the very least where Walsh is concerned, when defeated by County Hurdle candidate Mick Jazz.
Everything seemed to be going to plan with the then third-favourite for the Supreme when he brightly took the lead approaching the home turn but Mick Jazz covered the move too readily and was upsides under Jack Kennedy at the last, both riders having had to out some work in already. In a scrap to the line, Mick Jazz was able to get there a neck quicker.
"We were toying with the idea of going to the Betfair Hurdle but winners in Ireland are more important than winners in England so we won't go for that," said Elliott, making plain the importance to him of a first trainers' title. "I knew he'd come there on the bridle – It's just what he finds off it – but he came home really well."
That suggests Elliott has questioned Mick Jazz's finishing effort in the past – worth bearing in mind for a horse as short as 10/1 already for the County. Cilaos Emery lacked professionalism – keen in the early stages, scruffy in his jumping and perhaps even a tad green in front. While it underwhelmed those expecting more, it still strictly represented improvement in form.
In recent years you'd wonder whether Mullins would give the Festival a go anyway but with the Irish trainers' title so close, you can't help but wonder whether some of the reinforcements might be kept back for a swoop on Punchestown.
Walsh's Supreme options are narrowing apace with the once-hurdled Melon in prime position but the outcome of this Sunday's Deloitte Novices' Hurdle at Leopardstown, for which Mullins holds seven of the 12 entries at the time of writing, will hopefully provide further clarity.
Pravalaguna – Walsh's mount in the Grade Three mares' novices' hurdle at Fairyhouse last Saturday – was disappointing. After being keen and making some mistakes early on, she faded right out to finish a distant fourth.
Stablemate Asthuria might have won but for again taking a heavy tumble and handing the race to Shattered Love. This time she got as far as the last and had apparently exerted less effort than the eventual winner when nose-diving her narrow advantage away. She surely won't go to Cheltenham following a further blow to her confidence.
Shattered Love might have found a way past anyway given she's such a sturdy galloper and she's a likeable mare for the medium term but Elliott is rightly concerned that the 2m1f trip for the Trull House Stud Dawn Run Mares' Novices' Hurdle "could be a bit short for her". Barra, in the same yard for the same owners Gigginstown Stud, is perhaps a likelier candidate.
Another potential Irish contender for this race, the Mullins-trained Camelia De Cotte, flopped behind Mick Jazz so it's looking ever more certain that ante-post favourite Airlie Beach will chiefly represent him in this event rather than take on the geldings in the Supreme.
Back in Britain, Lough Derg Spirit pushed his way back into the reckoning for the Supreme by defeating Peter The Mayo Man, supposedly a superior horse on official ratings who was conceding weight and well backed to do so.
The key to victory in Musselburgh's Trial last Sunday was a return to forcing tactics on better ground that enables the winner to use his deadly accurate jumping to most advantage. Particularly quick leaps at the third and second last put the pack in trouble. The time was quick.
Henderson worries that Cheltenham might be "a year too soon" for this former point-to-point winner; he might also be thinking his preferred tactics are hard to execute in a Supreme.
Earlier that day, Henderson had also seen Neptune entry Burbank beaten by Tree Of Liberty. Perhaps due to the sharp track, Jeremiah McGrath didn't look happy on the runner-up as far out as the fifth last when already applying the niggle but although he inched closer he was never able to bridge the gap to a winner cannily ridden from the front by Brian Hughes.
Tree Of Liberty isn't entered at the Festival, is deemed by trainer Charlie Longsdon to need further and jumped his hurdles like a future chaser here. Stablemate Monbeg Charmer, winner of the Albert Bartlett Trial on the same card, might also miss Cheltenham if Longsdon heeds Hughes's advice to "mind him this year".
The trainer admitted he was "a nightmare" to saddle at Musselburgh and his rider reported he'd got worked up at the start so you can see why the head-screwing experience of a Festival crowd might send this horse over the edge.
He displayed only a little inexperience in the race itself, taking a keen hold and also being inclined to wander a bit in the latter stages but he made all and came up particularly well when asked by Hughes at the second last. Longsdon sees him as a "good staying chaser" of the future.
Beaten favourite Overland Flyer – an impressive winner at Taunton – also refused to settle, raced wide and went out to his left on occasion. Perhaps he needs a more galloping track in this company.
At the same venue the previous day, Gaitway – who holds entries in both the Supreme and the Neptune – shaped as though the latter trip would be more suitable when winning under a back-from-injury Nico de Boinville.
However, Gaitway also hinted he might not be street-smart enough for the Festival, generally spending too much time in the air over his obstacles. His main rival Touch Kick was also mostly interested in hanging left, especially when all but pulling himself up on the stable bend.
The winner has clearly had issues, given that there was almost two years between his first and second hurdle starts, and it wouldn't be surprising if Henderson kept him back for an Aintree target.
Down at Sandown that same day, Rather Be ran with great credit when trying to concede a stone (minus Ned Curtis's 5lb claim) to tough juvenile Coeur De Lion. This head defeat, 13 lengths clear of the rest, probably wasn't enough to convince Henderson to take up his Neptune entry but he remains a promising horse and might be back to the Esher track for the EBF Final next month. Yet I still wonder whether sticking to two miles might be best for now at least.
At Wetherby the same day, the highly likeable Ami Desbois took advantage of favourable conditions to make all under top weight in a Wetherby handicap hurdle. Stepping back up to three miles on testing ground was exactly what this game thorough stayer needed.
"I thought we were going to be put up [in the ratings]… given his form with Wholestone and Don't Hassle Hoff so the handicapper has done us a favour," observed trainer Graeme McPherson. "Ami Desbois is so game and just a novice. We'll look at the Albert Bartlett – it'd take a good horse to pass him if it comes up soft."
At Taunton last Saturday, Mohaayed got off the mark over hurdles at the third attempt but trainer Dan Skelton plans to sidestep the Supreme in favour of the suitably flat track of Aintree. Neon Wolf had previously thumped him by 15 lengths at Haydock.
At Wincanton last Thursday, hurdle debutant Sir Anthony Browne initiated a 1-2 for Alan King but allowed more experienced stable-companion Midnight Maestro the whiff of hope when displaying some greenness by veering left at the last. The pair was 17 lengths clear of their field.
"I thought Sir Anthony Browne was my best bumper horse last season but when he came back off his summer break, his wind had gone and we had to give him a tie-back. He has entries in the Supreme and Neptune – that might be flying a bit high but we will give him another run and see," King said.
The final piece of news from the track this week was substantial enough: Any Drama's 38-length Market Rasen success on Tuesday over a decent enough field meant that talk of the Albert Bartlett was far from fanciful. He did jump a tad scrappily, however, and moves like he'll always need cut in the ground.
"If we are going to Cheltenham, Any Drama would undoubtedly have to run again and be a lot sharper with his jumping," said trainer Harry Fry. "The key to him is soft ground."
But Fry has still got cold feet about Cheltenham for the exciting Neon Wolf due to Noel Fehily's advice that the horse "hits the ground hard… [he] is adamant we only go there if there's plenty of juice in the ground". Fry has got form for saying he'll miss the Festival and then being lured onto the rocks, so this isn't a done deal yet.
In other news, Tizzard seems to be leaning towards the Neptune with Challow Hurdle victor Finian's Oscar, who runs at Exeter on Sunday with the express aim of getting more experience ahead of the Festival. "He looks more of a two-and-a-half miler but then he's not slow and we've decided to wait and see how he fares on Sunday," he said.
Finally amid all the turmoil of last week, I overlooked the fact that my Neptune flyer of a tip Any Second Now has not been engaged at the Festival, as Mark Walsh suggested might be the case.
I was banking on the temptation of running a fiercely progressive horse whose form is working out becoming too strong to resist. But you need an initial entry for the sirens' call to take effect and trainer Ted Walsh has pre-emptively tied himself to the mast.
Coeur De Lion's defeat of the elder Rather Be at Sandown surely bought him a ticket to the Triumph Hurdle. King wryly observed afterwards that he's got "half a dozen juveniles at the minute that all look like they're Fred Winter horses – [but] I'm not going to run them all in it."
This well-named horse, "slow to cop on" when racing on the Flat according to his trainer, appreciated a more patient ride in a better-paced contest than he encountered either when not enjoying setting the pace against Defi Du Seuil at Cheltenham or attempting to concede weight to Don Bersy.
Both those rivals are, clearly, very smart anyway but Coeur De Lion seemed to appreciate getting some cover – although jockey Tom Cannon still said he "took a grip" early on – and jumped more cleanly last Saturday before giving it some of his trademark tenacity to repel a scopier rival on the rise to the line.
King stressed that he's "left a wee bit to work on" and argued that 2m1f of the New Course, host to the Triumph Hurdle, places greater emphasis on stamina than does the 2m of the Old Course where the Fred Winter is played out.
These valid points further supported the Grade One, rather than the handicap, being the preferred target and I suspect this hardy horse will far outperform odds of 33/1 even though the official handicapper says he currently merits a rating of just 133. He's versatile in terms of ground.
Less than an hour later, stablemate Fidux – whom King had still entertained for the Triumph – contrastingly consigned himself to the Fred Winter. Although jockey Wayne Hutchinson to a degree accepted his fate from the second last, his mount was clearly the fourth-best horse. He's been dropped 6lb to a still tough-looking 137.
The winner Forth Bridge made virtually all and gained further advantage with slick jumps at the third and second last but he wandered right with a slight error at the last that opened the door for Warp Factor but slammed it in the face of Project Bluebook, who'd been burrowing his way up the inside.
The winner, bred and still owned by the Queen, has taken particularly well to hurdles after his form on the Flat tailed off. He's improved markedly with each start and here accounted for Warp Factor more comfortably than last time on 8lb worse terms. His jumping was better and he looked more straightforward under pressure than has been the case.
"He'd definitely be a Fred Winter horse," said Noel Fehily, who was riding him for the first time. "He's a big horse but he's fairly battle-hardened. The hustle and bustle of the Fred Winter wouldn't bother him too much."
But the next day Longsdon reported Forth Bridge had pulled off a shoe and suffered an over-reach and was undergoing treatment, although he didn't anticipate a grave enough concern to prevent him from making the Festival.
Thinking aloud on Racing UK, he suggested a mark in the mid-130s would tend him towards the Fred Winter whereas anything like 140 would push him into the Triumph. The official answer came through at 139 and that might just be low enough to prefer the handicap. As mentioned before, even though Forth Bridge was more tractable here, don't be surprised – and interpret it as a positive – if there is a move for cheekpieces at Cheltenham.
Warp Factor bounced back to form, suggesting testing ground at Fairyhouse was indeed against him last time, but doesn't seem progressive. In fact he was fortunate to be second here due to the intimidation caused to the third by Forth Bridge's final leap that carried him right, left him short of room and extracted an error.
Recovering, Project Bluebook's rider Brian Hughes had to switch left and left again to make his challenge on the near side of the front two and the line was coming too soon as he started rolling again. He would have been at least second without that interference.
He's been generously dropped 3lb by the official handicapper for this, will appreciate Cheltenham's stiffer test of stamina, can cope with various going, hails from a capable yard and will surely run well in the Fred Winter. While he's entered in the Triumph and Supreme, McManus has likelier candidates for those races. 14/1 NRNB with Sky Bet is a credible offer.
At Market Rasen on Tuesday, Domperignon Du Lys resurrected his rep after a dull effort behind Defi Du Seuil at Cheltenham in December. Fluffing two out and even naively jumping the path when well in the clear after the last were no hindrance to outclassing his opposition and recording a very good time – even if it was in soft ground, which he may require. However Jacob was inclined to blame his previous disappointing run on a quick reappearance.
An excellent last-flight leap was a reminder of how well this horse had jumped on his UK debut and this success will surely reignite Triumph ambitions for owners Simon Munir and Isaac Souede, who have been long-suited in this division in recent years but hold only this one entry in 2017.
Unfortunately Nicholls has announced that prolific juvenile sensation Cliffs Of Dover may not recover from a setback soon enough to run in the Triumph. The six-times winner, his trainer's sole entry, knocked himself when schooling in preparation to run at Musselburgh last weekend. "If he doesn't come right, he might have to go to Aintree," said Nicholls.
Another Musselburgh absentee was Charli Parcs, who'd previously been a controversial late withdrawal at Cheltenham against fellow McManusite Defi Du Seuil. Henderson has since commented that he wanted to run there but instead the horse now heads for Kempton's Adonis Hurdle later this month.
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 [likely NR]
Sceau Royal: advised 30/11/16 for the Champion Hurdle at 33/1 each way
Arpege D'Alene: advised 15/12/16 for the NH Chase at 20/1 each way
Yorkhill: advised 21/12/16 for the Arkle at 7/1 win only
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]
Sizing John: advised 19/01/16 for the Ryanair at 8/1 NRNB win only
Any Second Now: advised 19/01/16 for the Neptune at 16/1 each way [NR]
Vroum Vroum Mag: advised 02/02/17 for the Stayers' Hurdle at 7/1 NRNB each way
Kemboy: advised 02/02/17 for the Albert Bartlett at 33/1 each way
Yorkhill: advised 09/02/17 for the Champion Hurdle at 3/1 NRNB win only
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