Lydia Hislop's Road To Cheltenham
Lydia Hislop has her say on the Big Buck's furore and reviews the pick of the weekend action. Check our her latest column.
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It's been a week when the most interesting developments have taken place - in some key cases without due fanfare - within the novice divisions. Among the established stars, the news stories connected with Big Buck's continue to dwarf all rivals.
The big news for this division broke in Saturday's morning papers: that Sam Twiston-Davies will ride Big Buck's both in his comeback Cleeve Hurdle outing at the end of this month and, hopefully, in the World Hurdle itself.
It's an exciting opportunity for Twiston-Davies but its greater significance lies in confirming that he is at the forefront of the emerging generation of star riders. Whether it ultimately comes with trainer Paul Nicholls or with one of his rivals, the young jockey is destined for a big job to compare with those that Ruby Walsh, Tony McCoy and Barry Geraghty currently enjoy.
Nicholls asserted in his Betfair column on Sunday that Twiston-Davies had been chosen because, in discussions with his "main jockey" Daryl Jacob about the ride, he formed the impression "almost as if [Daryl] saw it as something of a poisoned chalice".
"[Daryl] explained that, in his opinion, Big Buck's was part of a past generation here at Ditcheat - the last remnant of the Kauto Star and Denman era, if you will - that he has never been part of that, and his focus was on the future," said Nicholls.
"It was as if he regarded the ride as being in a no-win situation: if Big Buck's won, it was all down to the horse; if he lost, and that phenomenal unbeaten run with it, it was down to him. That is no way to approach any race."
He added: "It wouldn't surprise me if Daryl didn't feel a sense of relief at the news."
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In Monday's Racing Post, Lee Mottershead perceptively highlighted the uncanny similarity of language used by Nicholls in this case and during the first signs of disintegration in his past (and differing) association with Sam Thomas in 2008, who was then standing in for an injured Walsh.
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Even without such revealing tells, it is impossible to view this latest episode as a positive for either the mutual valuation or longevity of the Nicholls-Jacob association. Jacob is clearly viewed as no direct successor even to a part-time Walsh - whether from now on or with mutual acknowledgement from the outset, we do not know.
"It's impossible to view this episode as a positive for either the mutual valuation or longevity of the association. Jacob is clearly viewed as no direct successor even to a part-time Walsh - whether from now on or with mutual acknowledgement from the outset."
The manner of Nicholls' explanation seemed so preoccupied with the urge to put right "ill-informed comments" that proper consideration for the resultant feelings of - and wider impact on - Jacob was overlooked.
Note how Jacob precisely avoids mentioning Nicholls when asked to comment on the story. "I'm just looking forward to the future and have plenty of nice horses there [at Ditcheat] to ride," he said "I'd like to say I do wish Sam, [owner] Andy Stewart, Big Buck's and Team Ditcheat all the best, and if Big Buck's comes back to his best it will hopefully help Ditcheat regain the trainers' championship."
It is undoubtedly Nicholls' prerogative to play his hand to achieve the best for the horses he trains for the owners who pay the bills. However, if he is ever again to have a robust "retained jockey" relationship - Nicholls' own distinction - it now seems advisable that the rider holds the aces. Or else, one way or another, he folds. Something for Twiston-Davies to bear in mind, should it ever come to that, perhaps?
In other World Hurdle news, Jonjo O'Neill indicated that More Of That should not yet be considered a definite contender. The Cleeve is no longer his next stop either. As initially feared, connections seem to be considering whether to take a more circumspect, long-term approach - although he will get an entry.
At Navan on Sunday, we learned nothing new about the extremely useful Un De Sceaux save that he does appear to be a definite contender. Foildubh (no tree) gave up the unequal challenge from four out and lost second to the uncompetitively ridden Akatara. The winner settled better than at Thurles last time and may jump better when involved in a race rather than a procession.
Trainer Willie Mullins says he has "a stone to find" with stablemate Hurricane Fly. He would know, but Un De Sceaux hasn't had the chance to show what he's fully capable of yet. He should not be dismissed in what's shaping up to be the banner contest of the 2014 Festival.
Just a reminder that, whereas the World Hurdle entries will be published this Thursday, the Champion Hurdle contenders will be announced on Wednesday. Again, a supplementary stage will apply to both contests.
Despite the ongoing uncertainty around Sprinter Sacre's participation, Cue Card was not entered in this race. Instead, Colin Tizzard will choose between the Ryanair and the Gold Cup.
Crunch time in the defending champion's preparations will take place in three weeks' time, Nicky Henderson stated on Saturday.
Special Tiara is (as mentioned last week) my idea of the liveliest outsider and was entered. The angle on him is predicated on getting good ground, which he won't get in the Sodexo Clarence House Chase at Ascot this Saturday. His trainer, Henry De Bromhead, knows what it takes to win a Champion Chase.
"The most exhilarating race of the week, from my point of view at least, was Corrin Wood's bold-jumping, front-running success at Warwick. He jumped a tricky course of fences with aplomb and it marks him down as a future Grand National contender."
Champion Court received 4lb and a thumping from Captain Chris at Kempton on Saturday. The winner has a Gold Cup entry and won the Arkle in 2011, but is deemed to be better going right-handed (probably is) and his campaign reflects that. The runner-up has an entry in both the Gold Cup and Ryanair. Connections are still mentioning the former, but he is yet to prove his stamina and essentially isn't good enough.
The most exhilarating race of the week, from my point of view at least, was Corrin Wood's bold-jumping, front-running success at Warwick. Trainer Donald McCain's post-race comments indicated that the RSA Chase might now be considered ahead of the four-mile National Hunt Chase.
However, McCain added that some cut in the ground would be preferred. That said, Warwick's "heavy" going description (changed to "soft" later) was at odds with the times, which suggested the ground was actually riding between good-to-soft and soft.
The winner did shift to his right at his fences but he jumped a tricky course of fences with aplomb and found plenty when asked in the straight. It was one of the most likeable performances of the season so far and marks him down, just as his yard would want it, as a future Grand National contender.
Literal conclusions from collateral form, especially from earlier in the season, are dangerous but Corrin Wood beat Black Thunder off level weights and that horse accounted for the useful Many Clouds in November. It's the time of year when many Nicholls-trained horses are not at their absolute best (due to the yard's biannual vaccination regime), so Black Thunder may yet do better. Whatever, this would seem to be a strong form-line.
Shotgun Paddy put himself into the NH Chase picture with a career-best defeat of the doughty Carruthers in Warwick's Betfred Classic Chase. He jumped efficiently and soundly - except for ploughing through the final flight - notably reacting very well, on the stretch, to not quite getting the fifth-last right. He's progressing.
It was definitely worth rescheduling the Tolworth at Kempton last Saturday, wasn't it? What a cracking race it was and yet, inexplicably, how little it has impacted on the Festival's novice-hurdle markets.
Nicky Henderson had the 1-2 in Royal Boy and Josses Hill, with the latter travelling like the winner in the straight yet outpointed near the line. Both jumped the last two critical hurdles, dueling under pressure, with encouraging deftness and pulled a good way clear of a good, deep field. The time withstands comparison and this form is currently being underestimated.
The fact Royal Boy is seven years of age and a second-season novice-hurdler (and also had an abortive go at chasing) might cause this prejudice. But he's put that experience to good use and the way he rallied so strongly suggests stepping back up in trip will suit him even more. 20/1 for the Neptune is far too big.
Josses Hill is the younger, less experienced horse and he might well prove to be Royal Boy's superior in time, especially over two miles. Again, odds of up to 20/1 for that race greatly undervalue his chance.
The Pipe team decided to have The Liquidator ridden positively to make use of his stamina but that probably resulted in 'bursting' a stayer - forcing him to go faster than he was capable of sustaining and getting him beaten further than his ability would merit. Were he to run in the Neptune, he would be a lively outsider; were he to run in a handicap (Coral Cup or, ahem, Martin Pipe), he would be a lively favourite.
"What a cracking race it was and yet, inexplicably, how little it has impacted on the markets. Josses Hill is the younger, less experienced horse and he might well prove to be Royal Boy's superior in time. Odds of up to 20/1 greatly undervalue his chance."
Vautour got his sterner test at Punchestown on Saturday and was examined rather more rigorously than the betting anticipated. Sent off the 1/4 favourite, he had to fight to deny Western Boy by three-quarters of a length. Both appear to be pretty decent horses.
The winner was keen this time, despite getting some cover, and made some scrappy jumps. However, he was better at his hurdles when the pace lifted and did well to extract himself from traffic at the third last. He also battled well from the final hurdle and ultimately outstayed the much-improved runner-up. Mullins was torn between the Supreme and the Neptune afterwards.
Western Boy didn't get the most fluent of jumps at the third and second last. Both might be best suited to a sound surface, although the times suggested the going was nowhere near as testing as given (nearer good-to-soft than soft/heavy). However, I prefer Josses Hill at twice the price for the Supreme.
Back at Warwick, Deputy Dan won the Grade Two novices hurdle, jumping well bar for the last and staying on strongly. He returned with a deep over-reach-type cut to a hind leg and, following treatment at the track, went to Lambourn Valley Veterinary Hospital but is now back home.
Trainer Oliver Sherwood said: "Infection to the cut is the worry but he's going to have a quiet couple of weeks, as he would have done anyway after that run. My vet will redo the bandages this week and we'll know more when we get going with him again, but we're hopeful there will be no reaction."
The ground on the hurdles track was a degree more testing than the chase track on the clock - akin to soft. A glance at Deputy Dan's form indicates that could be a concern, but he does not move like a horse that needs it to be testing and Sherwood believes a sounder surface will be fine. Distance-wise, Deputy Dan would go for the Neptune if the ground is soft, the Albert Bartlett if less so.
Rathvinden, the Mullins-trained raider, made a few errors and also took a disconcerting stumble at the hurdle prior to the one at which he fell (third last) and was not done with at the time. Killala Quay may not have handled the ground, albeit that his Sandown Grade Two win is yet to be franked.
It was his Flat ability that got Goodwood Mirage out of jail at Kempton on Saturday. He was very keen and often jumped big or slow until leading on the bridle entering the straight. Waited with, he then made a significant blunder at the second-last hurdle. Admittedly, he was a little crowded at the time but was not under pressure. He compounded that by almost tripping over the last but got back up to nose ahead right on the line.
He was still improving on the Flat at the end of last season, finishing with a rating of 99. He's still got that engine but will need to improve his jumping technique and tractability - and fast - if he's going to have a chance in the Triumph. He reportedly returns to Kempton for the Adonis next month. That experience will be invaluable.
Joint- or co-second favourite in most ante-post Triumph lists is Thomas Hobson, a grand recruit to hurdling who's joined Mullins to boot. You can see why he's got such a lofty position in the market on paper, but it's mid-January and he's yet to jump a hurdle in public. Just saying.