Jumps Notebook: Sher class
Our Will Hayler has more winners to celebrate from his Notebook and moots a change of plan for the exciting Red Sherlock.
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One way or another, there's obviously a decent chance that Sire De Grugy won't win the Champion Chase. Not only are there doubts about the track, his jumping and the prospect of quicker ground, but he is the sort of horse who needs to get into a rhythm in his races and when that rhythm goes, his chances probably go too.
However, if you think for one minute that I will be taking him on - even if Sprinter Sacre does make the line-up - then I don't think you can have been reading this column so far this season. I said at the start of the campaign that I thought we still hadn't seen the best of this beast and, believe it or not, I still feel the same way despite his bloodless victory in the Clarence House Chase earlier this month.
I suspect that in order for him to win, he'll need some cut in the ground and something to take them on at a fairly fierce lick from the start (Sizing Europe?). But that's hardly hoping for the impossible.
Also paying us out again was Ballinvarrig, who followed up his 5/1 win at Exeter in December when winning on the same Ascot card as Sire De Grugy at 7/2 - once again, his raw ability getting him through. He has now won similar races in similar fashion, creeping easily into contention before staring around and switching his legs, before ultimately answering the question to win.
Ballinvarrig is a huge, attractive old-fashioned chaser and I sense with just seven races under his belt there is only one way this horse's career will go if he remains willing and injury-free. I have also seen nothing that would dissuade me from backing him at three miles or even beyond in time. He may want to be kept to right-handed tracks for now, but should handle quicker ground okay as he doesn't have a particularly extravagant knee action.
What I would say - again - is that I hope Tom George gives him a decent break again, because this isn't a horse who should be taken to the well too many times this season. Further prizes await him if connections continue to exercise their patience.
Patience is a quality that Kim Bailey and the owners of Milord require in considerable quantities. It's often a dangerous business to question a horse's attitude in print when they still have plenty of time to prove their critics wrong and Milord may have many good years left in front of him, but I suspect on the strength of his most recent effort he's going to need to buck up his ideas.
Frankly, coming out of the back straight he looked as if he'd completely lost interest and it was only after being brought wide and being given a couple of sharp wake-up calls that he remembered he was in a race and came through to take control against inferior rivals going to the last flight.
Sadly hopes that Milord would at least now finally break his duck proved wide of the mark. In an episode that bore some echoes of his fall at Uttoxeter at the start of the season, he seemed to land perfectly fine, but his forelegs had just clipped the very top of the flight and he landed a fraction too steeply to get out of the mud. Suddenly, everything turned to jelly, his under-carriage collapsed and another very real defeat had been snatched from proverbial victory.
That's three falls in six starts this term and only one decent effort on his three completions and patience is wearing thin. But I said before that if he's going to win a race, it's going to be at 25/1 just as everyone has given up on him, and my hunch is that when everything falls right in a fast-run handicap hurdle on better ground, he can still cause a surprise. I won't be backing him at anything less than a double-figure price though. I have to stick with him though, as his trainer Kim Bailey has inexplicably started following me on Linkedin.
It's goodbye to Imperial Vic though, after his painfully laboured effort at Newcastle, where even as the others tried to give him the race, he was nowhere near to being able to take advantage.
I had such high hopes for this horse this season after his spirited duel with Green Flag at Kelso first time out, but something's not right. He failed to attack his fences or race with any of the same zest he showed earlier in the campaign. Michael Smith is a good trainer and I half-fancy his chances of getting the flame burning again - but my instinct would be to give him a good break now and he's got to come off the list in case connections decide to pursue what I now believe is a lost cause in the short-term.
Waterunder didn't show much sparkle at Cheltenham at the weekend but still remains high on my shortlist for the Martin Pipe Conditionals' Handicap Hurdle at the Festival, where good to soft going and two and a half miles should be absolutely perfect. Hopefully this soft-ground no-show will at least enable a couple of pounds to be chiselled from his handicap mark.
Shutthefrontdoor could be in action at Wetherby this weekend, which will be interesting, given that I hold a voucher with his name on for the RSA Chase that had started to look a bit worthless in the six weeks since we last saw him. Not that I think the very testing ground which is sure to prevail at Wetherby will suit him and I could advise nothing more than a watching brief if he turns up.
Given the exploits afterwards of the horse who was left in front, Five Star Wilsham might well have won at Ludlow but for losing his jockey four out. His frailties mean that his next appearance might not be for some time, but there's definitely still an engine in there even if the wheels don't always work. Patience can pay at some stage.
His excellent trainer Jeremy Scott has another interesting prospect on his hands in Daveron, who has been allotted a very workable mark of 110 for his handicap debut in the weeks ahead. A late developer, he was all at sea in a couple of bumpers for another yard two seasons ago, but has produced two tidy efforts in novice hurdles in recent weeks and Nick Scholfield wasn't hard on him close home when third at Plumpton a fortnight ago.
His jumping wasn't great there but I thought he came home quite strongly there and I wonder if better ground but help him to get his feet up a bit. Watch the video and see what you think, but I'll be surprised if he doesn't turn out to be a bit better than his rating.
Of all the weekend winners, none impressed me as much as Red Sherlock, who had to pull out plenty to hold off the well-backed Rathvinden in the Grade Two Neptune Investment Novices' Hurdle.
I don't think the runner-up is too far off the top of the Willie Mullins pecking order and he was beaten off fair and square by the winner, who was well on top at the winning post. What I particularly liked about the performance was his stomach for a fight given that he'd never had to work hard over hurdles before. Bar one messy leap, he jumped particularly well too.
Red Sherlock goes in the Notebook as a very smart prospect and how fantastic that Lady Cricket has already produced a number of talented offspring after her own distinguished career over jumps. However I'm not sure I'd want to back him for the race of the same name at the Cheltenham Festival - his most likely target at the meeting according to trainer David Pipe, with stablemate Kings Palace locked and loaded for the Albert Bartlett. I can't help but wonder whether bypassing Cheltenham and waiting for Aintree where the Willie Mullins squadrons are likely to be less numerically-strong might pay off.
On that final subject, it was interesting to catch an interview with Mullins on At The Races after the victory of Hurricane Fly on Sunday in which he concluded that Felix Yonger "is probably a two-and-a-half-mile horse" (when I'd contest that Sunday's defeat should be better attributed to his sloppy jumping than the trip).
Asked whether that meant Champagne Fever was now his number one Arkle contender again, he responded with a broad smile: "I think Ruby would like him to run in the Arkle".
For his part, Walsh always insists in interviews that Mullins is the expert at finding the right races, but this insight confirmed to me that allocating members of the stable's team to each race at the Festival is very much going to be a three-way process between jockey, trainer and owner, despite, even on Tuesday, Walsh insisting "I have no say". If Champagne Fever lines up in the Arkle, we'll even have the evidence to prove it.