Lydia Hislop's Road To Cheltenham
Lydia Hislop refuses to jump aboard the Sire De Grugy bandwagon as she reviews the pick of the action. Here's her latest column.
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This was a week of comebacks and as-you-were performances, as plans for Cheltenham began to solidify and reality started to bite in some quarters. Whereas we could once again rely on one bonny chestnut horse to give his running, it emerged that another putative leading Festival contender won't be seen at all this season.
The tremendously likeable Sire De Grugy continues to mop up everything in the two-mile division, underlining what an improved horse he is this season. On Saturday in Ascot's Sodexo Clarence House Chase, the chestnut ball of talent brushed aside two putative contenders in this division - one old, one new - with devastating authority.
Trainer Gary Moore has shed his former reluctance and now believes his horse has earned a place in this Festival field. Quite right: in Sprinter Sacre's absence, Sire De Grugy is undoubtedly the dominant force in this division currently.
However, it remains a concern that he did not move or jump as fluently as he can when beaten by Kid Cassidy at Cheltenham in November (albeit receiving 10lb and technically best at the weights). A sound surface might also again be an issue at the top level. He makes zero appeal at 11/4.
"It remains a concern that he didn't move or jump as fluently as he can when beaten by Kid Cassidy (albeit receiving 10lb and technically best at the weights). A sound surface might also be an issue at the top level. He makes zero appeal at 11/4."
At Ascot, the seniors were chiefly represented by Somersby - given that terrific veteran Oiseau De Nuit would have hated the ground - and, with perhaps endearing predictability, he failed to take his cue in a race staged 24 hours after the funeral of Terry Biddlecombe, husband and assistant to former trainer (and current assistant to Mick Channon) Henrietta Knight.
This course and distance had proved in the past Somersby's optimum, but he made a mistake and unseated Dominic Elsworth at the fifth. It's hard not to conclude that his moment has long gone.
The (slightly) younger pretenders were headed by Hidden Cyclone, who has been improving steadily this season but made too many mistakes here to trouble Sire De Grugy even slightly.
Trainer Shark Hanlon suggested Hidden Cyclone jumps better when racing left-handed and indicated that the Champion Chase remains the target. However, his overall profile doesn't shout a left-handed bias and, on paper, this Ascot effort was still probably a career best... and not good enough.
At Haydock on Saturday, Melodic Rendezvous got his season back on track after having his colours comprehensively lowered by My Tent Or Yours in the Fighting Fifth. He tore a muscle at Newcastle but, confidently ridden here, accounted for the useful Ptit Zig to win by four-and-a-half lengths, albeit receiving 4lb.
Connections have had their confidence knocked by his Fighting Fifth reverse and missing the Festival last season with a poor scope. Trainer Jeremy Scott was adamant back then that this Flat-bred horse would be better on a sounder surface - an assertion rendered not outlandish by his Elite win.
Melodic Rendezvous should certainly come on for this run, given he has had a setback, but still has quite a bit to find with the market leaders for this banner contest. Daryl Jacob reported Ptit Zig felt "a bit flat' in an effort that wasn't quite as good as his Ladbroke second.
When chatting with Racing UK's Jonathan Neesom prior to Exeter last Tuesday, he remarked that I would have to revoke my 2013 Award For Thinking In Horseracing because Team Twiston-Davies were no longer planning to run a pacemaker for The New One in the Champion Hurdle.
One glance at the following day's entries followed by a phone-call to Sam Twiston-Davies and that news was confirmed.
"After Kempton, we were a bit excited and a bit frustrated and were throwing ideas around everywhere, but now we've decided probably to just leave it and hope there is a pace," Twiston-Davies said.
He acknowledged that he is hoping the strong-travelling, relentless galloper Un De Sceaux lines up, but that is no certainty. The key part of trainer Willie Mullins' comment on the subject in Saturday's Racing Post was: "We will have to consider whether pitching him into the Champion Hurdle at this stage of his career would be the wisest thing to do."
Twiston-Davies also conceded that, as feared here previously, his dad's yard has "not got the ammunition" to provide a pacemaker capable of running fast enough for long enough in a Champion Hurdle.
"We'll have to hope something goes on. If it doesn't work out, he's a young horse and there will be other Champion Hurdles for him. But it's not often you get a slowly run Champion Hurdle," Twiston-Davies added.
However, you do get them. *Puts statuette back in storage; wipes dust from hands*
Twiston-Davies will school The New One over hurdles this week, his jumping technique having been earmarked for improvement following his costly last-flight blunder in the Christmas Hurdle.
"Cooper inspired a career-best from Rule The World. This horse was second to The New One in last year's Neptune, showing an aptitude for Cheltenham and indicating that he would be better when returned to a longer trip. This win puts him in the mix"
There was a hugely encouraging comeback run from Last Instalment at Thurles last Thursday. This one-time fancy for the 2012 RSA Chase, sidelined with jarred tendons, was having his first outing for nearly two years and in a competitive race over a trip likely short of his optimum.
Conceding weight all round, he jumped really well and was still there, pitching, at the last but had no answer to the speedier and fitter Texas Jack, who does not hold a Festival entry. It was the first time he had been ridden by the highly talented Bryan Cooper, who replaced Davy Russell as first jockey to Gigginstown House Stud a fortnight ago.
Last Instalment appears to retain plenty of ability and is unexposed as a chaser. Hopefully, he will have taken his race well. He is yet to prove that a sound surface suits him as well as a testing one. He also holds a Ryanair Chase entry but has always seemed to be more of a stayer.
Cooper inspired a career-best performance from Rule The World at Naas on Saturday, making all over 2m3f on ground that would have been far heavier than ideal. This horse was second to The New One in last year's Neptune, showing an aptitude for Cheltenham and indicating that he would be better when returned to a longer trip.
This win puts Mouse Morris's charge back in the World Hurdle mix, with - like every other horse in the field - plenty to find if Big Buck's returns near his glorious best. If.
It was great to see Dunguib back in action after an absence of two years and ten months. He's 11 years of age now and holds no Festival entries as yet, but his third to Rule The World was a tentatively pleasing effort. His jumping was a bit scrappy at times, but he was still thereabouts until weakening after the second last.
Baily Green split Texas Jack and Last Instalment at Thurles and was second to Simonsig in last year's Arkle, making it more of a battle than most would have anticipated. A mistake at the last on Thursday set him back and he was rallying, although always being held, approaching the line.
This was much more like his second to Sizing Europe at Gowran in October and the ground was probably a bit more testing than ideal. A strapping chaser, he might find the New Course at Cheltenham even more to his liking than the Old. Odds of 20/1 plus probably underestimate his claims, especially if Cue Card goes for Gold.
Ascot's Grade Two OLBG.com Mares' Hurdle was a super race and Highland Retreat an admirably tough winner. Jumping was the difference between her and the less experienced Carole's Spirit, who lacked fluency over her hurdles in the back straight when she needed to keep in touch more readily.
Those were career-best performances from both, but the winner is not intended for Cheltenham due to preferring deep ground and is deemed a nascent chaser. The latter comment applies to the runner-up, who had the Festival on her agenda prior to Saturday, at least. Dropping in trip would not be an advantage, but there may still be better to come.
The lovable Mickie was receiving 5lb from the first two and, although she kept trying with characteristic gutsiness, she couldn't land a blow on them. Prima Porta ran better than last time and probably wouldn't have enjoyed the ground.
"I wouldn't be dogmatic about Foxrock wanting cut in the ground, even though almost all of his form has come under those circumstances. The more important factor is the trip and he could be a real player if he improves again for a marathon test - which he might."
We learned nothing new from Taquin Du Seuil's straightforward success at Haydock on Saturday, given he was already proven to be a high-class novice and fully effective in heavy ground. He won this Grade Two without ever being put under the remotest of pressure and jumped well, bar for the second last.
Trainer Jonjo O'Neill reported the horse would be entered in all three novice-chase Grade Ones at the Festival - the full lists for which will be released, along with those for the National Hunt Chase, this Thursday. Taquin Du Seuil is shortest for the JLT Novices' Chase over 2m4f but his disappointing Neptune run last year, on a sounder surface, remains a potential blot on his prospects. His best form is on heavy ground.
It will be interesting to see whether stablemate Shutthefrontdoor will also be entered in the RSA Chase, following his flop in December.
Foxrock won at Naas on Saturday in the style of a horse needing a trip and, suitably, the four-mile National Hunt Chase has always been the aim. His jumping got better the further they went and he stayed on very strongly in the closing stages to win by seven lengths in the end.
I wouldn't be dogmatic about him wanting cut in the ground, even though almost all of his form has come under those circumstances. The more important factor is surely the trip and he could be a real player if he improves again for a marathon test - which he might. However, as mentioned last week, Shotgun Paddy sets a good standard in this race.
A second-season novice hurdler who finished 12th in last year's Fred Winter, Zamdy Man made it three from three this term with a Grade Two success at Haydock on Saturday. He beat the much-vaunted Un Temps Pour Tout but the pair of them pulled a long way away from a decent field.
The winner, trained by in-form Venetia Williams, is clearly very much suited by cut in the ground and stays two miles strongly. He struggled on a faster surface last season, but rider Aidan Coleman reported him to be stronger now.
The runner-up made an encouraging UK debut. There is room for improvement in his jumping and he will benefit from a step up in trip. Both horses would be reasonable outsiders for something like the Neptune.
Stand To Reason was never in it but remains of interest in less extreme conditions, on a flat track that places the emphasis on speed and with a handicap mark.
Champagne West won the NH novices' hurdle at Ascot on Saturday in remorseless fashion and Sarah Hobbs, wife of trainer Philip, pinpointed the Pertemps Handicap Hurdle as his target. He won a qualifier - yes, won it - in December. He is improving but looks very much at home in heavy ground.
The performance of the day at Newbury last Wednesday was that of Cole Harden, who was reminiscent of Carruthers in the hardy, straightforward and relentless manner that he made all for victory in the novices' hurdle. He rather took his trainer's breath away: Warren Greatrex knew he was good, but not that good.....
"Ivan Grozny jumped to the top of the Triumph market. He had been run down by Plinth on debut and a re-match would be fascinating. Aidan O'Brien's runner did well to overcome greenness and Ivan Grozny getting first run when they met."
There is nothing not to like about this horse. He could receive a variety of entries at the Festival but does shape like a stayer. The only doubt would be his proficiency on a sounder surface. He won a bumper on good ground but so far does appear to be particularly effective in the mud.
Exeter garnered impressive fields, both in terms of size and depth, for its hastily arranged additional fixture last Tuesday. Knight Of Noir was the most memorable winner, having been given plenty of time off the track to recover from a nasty fall on his hurdles debut in a warm race at Wincanton.
Here, he was given an extremely patient ride by Tony McCoy and did remarkably well to pick up the well-positioned leaders, who ultimately finished in the three places behind him. However he is campaigned - and he is seen as a future chaser - this is a horse to follow.
The Fred Winter was unanimously cited as the most suitable target for Dawalan, by both his jockey Barry Geraghty and trainer Nicky Henderson, following his success at Newbury last Wednesday. He was promoted to 8/1 favourite in some books as a result - and with good reason.
Making his own running at a crawl on soft ground is unlikely to have brought the best out of him, yet he still accounted for two debutantes (each receiving 7lb) in Carry On Sydney and Prince Khurram, who boasted useful Flat form and clearly took well to hurdling. The winner idled and/or got tired or sick of leading towards the end and had to be driven out.
As a half-brother to Daylami and Dalakhani and being by Azamour, Dawalan does not lack for quality and is highly likely to prefer a sounder surface. He also jumps very well. An official rating of 131 is no gimme but he is more than capable of running to it or even improving.
Contenders have needed a rating of 121+ to make the cut for this race in all bar What A Charm's year. Crack Away Jack won the inaugural running off 133 and that year Ashkazar and last year Caid Du Berlais both finished second off higher marks in the 130s.
The 12/1 available in one place is a good price for Dawalan, but my personal policy is not to bet in the Festival handicaps until I have the declarations. Your policy may well be different.
Don't write off Interior Minister, sixth in the same race but who would have hated the ground. He might yet be competitive somewhere like Aintree or later in the year. Fifth-placed Ivanhoe never got competitive and he very much remains of interest in ordinary handicap hurdles in the short term. He prefers cut.
Gitane Du Berlais didn't just beat her elders (admittedly in receipt of lumps of weight) at Fairyhouse on Sunday but rather strung them out all over Ireland. However, she will not contest the Festival according to Mullins, who expects the ground to be too fast at Cheltenham. He is more likely to seek out targets in France for her.
She clearly enjoyed the 2m2f trip, coming up readily at the last two hurdles for Paul Townend in the style of a horse that had plenty of energy left. She's exciting for the future.
Stable companion Thomas Hobson, a progressive handicapper on the Flat for John Gosden and who last week was still joint or second favourite for the Triumph Hurdle, is yet to be entered in a race. A phone-call to Mullins revealed the reason why: the horse is roughed off in a field and it was never the intention to race him over hurdles this season after such a tough Flat campaign. Nap: I wouldn't take the 16/1.
Instead, Ivan Grozny jumped to the top of the Triumph market for the same yard following his easy success at Naas on Saturday. He had been run down by Plinth on their Leopardstown debut in late December, but this was a good leap forward. Given his Flat form and pedigree, it's entirely credible - as rider Ruby Walsh asserted - that this horse will be even better on good ground.
A re-match with Plinth would be fascinating. The Aidan O'Brien-trained winner did well to overcome his greenness and Ivan Grozny getting first run and the better jump at the last when they met.