Lydia Hislop's Road To Cheltenham
Another week brought another opportunity to shorten Big Buck's without him jumping a hurdle. It's been that staying-hurdle division that has seen the most Festival ante-post action this week, but there have also been some notable efforts among the novices in both disciplines.
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On Thursday, probably the greatest staying hurdler of all time took the latest step on his road to recovery. Big Buck's, unbeaten in 18 starts over hurdles since that infamous unseat in the 2008 Hennessy, hadn't been seen on a racecourse since last December due to sustaining an injury.
The winner of a record four World and Liverpool Hurdles was accompanied on a straightforward gallop prior to racing at Exeter by Solar Impulse. That horse is a three-year-old French recruit set to make his debut for trainer Paul Nicholls in Chepstow's Finale Hurdle.
So pleased has Nicholls been with Big Buck's that the horse will return in the Cleeve Hurdle on Trials Day at Cheltenham next month rather than make his comeback in the World Hurdle itself.
Of course, we learned nothing from his gallop about what proportion of his huge ability Big Buck's retains, but he looked as physically imposing as ever and was reported by Jonathan Neesom on Racing UK to be a lot fitter than when paraded at Wincanton in October.
We did learn that Daryl Jacob, despite being stable jockey at Ditcheat, is not guaranteed to ride Big Buck's in races. At this stage, Nicholls would not count out using Ruby Walsh, hitherto the horse's regular rider but now once again based in Ireland full-time, nor even Tony McCoy, who has ridden and won on him twice. Whoever gets the call-up for the Cleeve, however, must be available to ride Big Buck's at the Festival, Nicholls stated.
On Saturday, Ascot then attracted a strong field for the Wessex Youth Trust Long Walk Hurdle, although it was a great shame Celestial Halo could not line up due to a foot infection.
However, the ante-post market prior to his withdrawal suggested that, even had he run, there would still have been a collective self-deception that his fair-and-square Newbury defeat of At Fishers Cross had never happened. That horse went off at odds-on and jumped worse than last time, approaching every hurdle as if it were booby-trapped until finally lurching at the last and depositing McCoy on the floor.
He seems to have forgotten everything that rider so assiduously taught him last season and can't currently be on your mind. He has an engine, mind - to still be hanging on at the second last after that round of jumping (term used in loosest sense) was a reminder of that.
Meanwhile, Reve De Sivola made all, jumped extremely well at times, gaining a length on his field at some obstacles, and ultimately delivered a performance near to his very best in defeating Salubrious by ten lengths. Last year's World Hurdle might have been his main chance, with Big Buck's absent and the ground soft like he wants it (a relatively rare occurrence for the Festival), but he didn't actually run that far below his very best in fourth. Although he will have a different preparation this season - trainer Nick Williams believes winning the Cleeve took too much out of the horse last term - the balance of evidence suggests he's not quite good enough.
On the only occasion - remarkably, for two such talented staying hurdlers - that Reve De Sivola and Big Buck's met, the latter gave the former 8lb and a nine-length beating. Reve De Sivola was some way below his best that day but he still has quite a bit to find with Big Buck's if - and that 'if' should not be treated casually - that horse retains the better part of his ability.
Salubrious was still travelling strongly when making a bad blunder at the second last at Ascot, from which he did not recover. More Of That, who shares an owner in JP McManus with At Fishers Cross, previously nudged Salubrious aside at level weights at Cheltenham and the runner-up's effort here again underlined that he's in form and no slouch.
More Of That might well improve for three miles and, dependent on what he delivers in the Cleeve, must now be considered McManus's leading contender. If you were prepared to take the 12/1 available, as discussed last week, you will only have been encouraged by events of the past seven days. Frankly, knowing what we now know, he is still just as an attractive bet at 8/1 with his owner companion having imploded, that 'if' about Big Buck's, Annie Power reportedly an unlikely runner and all the rest bar Solwhit distinctly beatable.
At Thurles on Sunday, Un De Sceaux breezed around to win by 29 lengths, in a very good time, having been characteristically keen and jumping well bar for the last. This horse is clearly a big talent but he is unproven on a soundish surface (possibly not a problem) and the biggest obstacle to his stanjames.com Champion Hurdle claims is that he hails from the same stable as Hurricane Fly.
Trainer Willie Mullins has twice said Un De Sceaux is "very hard on himself", meaning that races take a lot out of him, so we may not see him much prior to Cheltenham. He will reportedly be avoiding any big guns on his next start but will get a Champion Hurdle entry, the logical target for him.
"Frankly, knowing what we now know, he is still just as an attractive bet at 8/1 with his owner companion having imploded, that 'if' about Big Buck's, Annie Power reportedly an unlikely runner and all the rest bar Solwhit distinctly beatable."
More Of That
That Newbury race won by Carole's Spirit last month has indeed proved strong form of its type, as highlighted in the first of these columns. Her defeat of the endlessly loveable As I Am at Haydock on Saturday looked unlikely at more than one stage, but again she displayed two admirable qualities: stamina and the ability to knuckle down. The Festival appears now not to be on her agenda, but she will improve for three miles and make a chaser. She's a medium-term prospect to keep on your side.
As I Am was attempting to concede 5lb to the winner and continues to run consistently well in these decent races. She is perhaps not improving, however, and is not even near Quevega's league.
Tagriita, third to Carole's Spirit at Newbury, won comfortably at Exeter on Thursday, stepping up to a trip that suited well. She's another nascent chaser. Look out for Fabrika, who split the pair at Newbury. Two miles might prove her optimum in time.
Last Monday, we learned only that Rock On Ruby can jump a fence in cold blood, given he had only two markedly inferior rivals to beat, one of whom departed at the third. The 2012 Champion Hurdle winner, making his chase debut at Plumpton on ground softer than ideal, raced with characteristic keenness, made one notable error but reacted to it positively and more often demonstrated the ability to be clever at his fences. Trainer Harry Fry hopes to run him once more before his mid-season target of Doncaster's Lightning Novices' Chase at the end of January. The aim is the Arkle but this was, of course, only step one along that path.
Ascot's Grade Two Betfred Novices' Chase went to Fox Appeal, who's progressing well as a chaser and has been earmarked for the Arkle, too. Despite being reportedly sweaty and edgy beforehand, he jumped largely very well and his poor run (although not without promise) in the 2012 Albert Bartlett is more explicable if, as rider Aidan Coleman believes, a drop in trip is what he has needed.
However, it might be prudent to treat this ten-length defeat of Raya Star with some caution, given chasing seems such an effort for the runner-up and his trainer has advised caution about the form of his yard. Third-placed Mr Mole was taken off his feet and made a catalogue of errors as a result.
Sandown's Tolworth Hurdle is shaping up to be a strong race, with two Ascot winners from last week set to make their next appearance there. Irving won the Grade Two Mitie Kennel Gate Novices's Hurdle by a far greater margin than would have been the case had Prince Siegfried not taken a heavy tumble at the last, also hampering the horse that inherited second.
Irving was possibly just getting the better of that rival at the time and is improving fast. He only needs to find a bit more to be well up to the standard required to be involved at the finish of a typical Supreme and is credibly at or towards the fore of that market.
Prince Siegfried stayed ten furlongs on the Flat, with stamina influences for further in his pedigree, and handled a variety of ground. He was in the process of taking a large step forward when falling. Hopefully, that won't affect him.
Volnay De Thaix rallied for second after losing momentum in avoiding the faller and is better than the literal margin. This four-year-old shapes like a stayer and remains a horse of promise.
The other Tolworth candidate is Willow's Saviour, who has proved a revelation for Dan Skelton and provided the latest highlight in a superb start to his new trainer's career by winning the Ladbroke last Saturday. The way this novice jumped and travelled in a competitive field of seasoned handicappers was very impressive. He is bounding though the ranks and would be eligible for a host of races at the Festival, but is already an entirely plausible Supreme candidate. The Tolworth will be an ideal examination of those ambitions. The importance of testing ground to him is one caveat, however. He's likely to get that in spades at Sandown, of course.
At Newbury on Wednesday, Dawalan showed he had learned plenty from his UK and hurdling debut fourth over the same course and distance in a competitive juvenile event last month. He jumped exceptionally well in the closing stages and Barry Geraghty rode him with confidence. Dawalan is a half-brother to Daylami and Dalakhani, no less, and stays extremely well. He is deemed a Fred Winter type by trainer Nicky Henderson and should not be underestimated.
On the same card, Josses Hill paid a compliment to Faugheen, the horse that trounced him by 22 lengths in a Punchestown bumper last May, by winning the maiden hurdle. The hierarchy of bumper and hurdles form isn't always comparable, of course. This was a sound hurdling debut.
His stablemate, Royal Boy, won the NH maiden hurdle at Ascot on Friday, having been returned to hurdles after an abortive chasing bid last month. This lightly raced second-season novice hurdler appears to at least retain all the ability that saw him finish third, albeit distantly, to Melodic Rendezvous in last season's Tolworth.