Lydia Hislop's Road To Cheltenham
Lydia Hislop reviews the action, as well as RUK's Half-Term Report, and concludes it's time to play in the Triumph.
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There was a little more conversation than action this week. The significant on-course developments were mostly confined to the novice ranks. Off the track, some plans were more clearly outlined and Ruby Walsh appeared on Racing UK's Half-Term Report. For those who haven't or couldn't watch it, I have reproduced his headline comments here.
A tendency to jump right-handed has always been the concern for Arvika Ligeonniere's Cheltenham prospects but, after winning authoritatively at Punchestown on Sunday, Walsh asserted: "I don't see going left-handed being an issue any more." The horse was certainly impressive.
Even before that success, on the Half-Term Report last Tuesday, Walsh said that bias had come to be less of an issue with maturity and experience. Trainer Willie Mullins also pointed out that the horse has won a Grade One novices' chase at left-handed Leopardstown.
Of course, Punchestown is right-handed and the fact remains that Arvika Ligeonniere has been well below his best in two attempts at the Cheltenham Festival, albeit that his 2010 Albert Bartlett fourth was undoubtedly promising at the time. He was pulled up in last year's Arkle and it's the same course and distance that he will face in this, his intended target. (He also has Ryanair and Gold Cup entries on the less tight New Course.)
Connections have no doubt been tempted in by the doubts concerning Sprinter Sacre and the fact that there's nothing for their horse to run in at home instead. However, Sire De Grugy - let alone the favourite - has better form than Arvika Ligeonniere, even at the latter's right-handed best.
He thumped Special Tiara, my idea of a lively outsider, on Sunday but that was no surprise on soft ground and Davy Russell did not give him a particularly hard time once headed. It was good to see trainer Henry de Bromhead getting a run into him and I remain convinced that he will far outrun his price if allowed to line up.
Walsh rides French import Rubi Ball in this race and was pleased with how well he jumped at Leopardstown because chasers from that country have a tendency to "jump low and flat". He believes he is a better horse going left-handed but conceded that the Gold Cup is a match between Bobs Worth and Silviniaco Conti, whom he used to ride for Paul Nicholls.
During the Half-Term Report, there was a repeated out-of-vision tableau of Walsh going into physical paroxysms of self-loathing whenever the clip being shown happened to include a horse that he was riding making a mistake or falling.
When he could bear to look at last year's Gold Cup, he acknowledged he'd rethought his immediate reaction that Silviniaco Conti might not have stayed, given how he finished off the King George. He recalled the horse had been keen early on at Cheltenham. He also said he wouldn't be worried about the fences, even though the tricky downhill third-last had caught them out then.
He added that he had been disappointed with Al Ferof's Kempton effort.
Conditional jockey Harry Derham's positivity at the final hurdle was the likely difference between victory and defeat on Saphir Du Rheu in the Welsh Champion Hurdle at Ffos Las on Saturday.
Whisper had gained a narrow lead approaching the last but his rider Andrew Tinkler was more conservative and steadied his horse, who hit the flight and conceded the advantage. The pair tried like gusto to repair the damage all the way to the line but they were always being held.
The winner had the advantage of Derham's 5lb claim but he was still conceding 6lbs. He dictated a steady gallop, settling well with his ears pricked, and largely jumped soundly, bar for the second last. Whisper, on the other hand, refused to settle but he did see the trip out thoroughly.
Of the two, only Saphir Du Rheu as yet has a Cheltenham entry and he is improving fast. He was beaten out of sight in the Fred Winter last year but lost his footing with a significant mistake at the third and was never in it afterwards. Ignore that run.
However, as he shares ownership with Big Buck's and Celestial Halo, it seems unlikely that he'll line up in the World Hurdle. However, in him the Stewart Family has another live contender for the Aintree Hurdle over 2m4f. Saphir Du Rheu is as yet unproven on a sound surface, though.
Walsh's view on the World Hurdle was that Big Buck's could go one of two ways after his Cleeve comeback: improve for the run or recoil from a hard race. He acknowledged that his former partner would need to be back to his absolute best to beat Annie Power, if she stays.
Although asserting that he'd be comfortable riding her in any Cheltenham race, Walsh seemed to favour the World Hurdle, emphasising "how strong she was from the back of the last to the line" when beating Zarkandar there on New Year's Day.
"I almost knocked over [Channel 4 Racing's] Alice Plunkett, galloping right up into the corner," he said. He admitted the horse had been "more on her toes" than previously at Doncaster last time and that therefore Cheltenham's pre-race parade would be a mental test to be passed, whichever Grade One she contests.
"Does she have the experience over two miles for a Champion Hurdle?" he asked, rhetorically. "Or do you want to expose her to taking on Big Buck's and At Fishers Cross over three miles and maybe emptying her out? Thankfully, I don't have to make that decision."
Walsh would clearly like to simplify his Cheltenham choices by keeping his key mounts apart but Rich Ricci, husband of Annie Power's owner Susannah, stressed on At The Races that he had full trust in Mullins's team picking the right race for his horses.
Perhaps significantly, Walsh stressed how impressed he'd been by At Fishers Cross as a novice last season and argued that his best round of jumping had coincided with the best ground he'd encountered, at Aintree.
Notably, Walsh declined to agree that he would definitely ride 19 times Grade One winner Hurricane Fly rather than Un De Sceaux (or, indeed, Annie Power) in the Champion Hurdle.
Although he relied repeatedly throughout the show on the line "it depends on how they are on the Sunday before", this particular poker face was a significant moment in the Half-Term Report.
"You never know," he responded, finally. That said, jumping this particular ship would be the boldest of bold shouts, even for one with the stone-cold confidence of Walsh.
He acknowledged that, despite winning two Champion Hurdles, Hurricane Fly was probably yet to match his absolute best Irish form at Cheltenham. Yet he was inclined to blame that on his own tactics, in differing ways, on both occasions rather than link it to the track's topography.
His description of Un De Sceaux is worth quoting in full: "He's just able to go a very strong gallop and sustain it right through the middle part of the race and on into the end of the race. He doesn't have to slow down at any point to get a breath," Walsh said. That witness statement only underlines the visual impression of this horse.
It was a huge shame that Sandown's hurdle races were abandoned on Saturday or else we Brits might have got to see this mighty young talent in the flesh. In the scenario that he runs in the Champion and Walsh rides Hurricane Fly, he said Un De Sceaux "won't get a soft lead", as he has been accustomed to under Walsh so far. He did question whether the young pretender has the experience for this race. However, it was crystal clear he doesn't question whether the horse has the talent for it. 12/1 non-runner-no-bet is not without its appeal - even in clearly the most widely competitive championship race of the 2014 Festival.
Walsh also acknowledged Our Conor as an evolving threat, expecting him to be a better horse at Cheltenham, better still at Punchestown and perhaps reaching his peak this time next year.
Both Walsh and Ricci seemed to dismiss the idea that Annie Power would run in this race against, or instead of, Quevega, provided all is well. "I'd be amazed if Quevega didn't run in the David Nicholson," said Walsh.
All is certainly well currently because the five-times titleholder worked after racing at Punchestown on Sunday and was pronounced "if anything... ahead of schedule" by Mullins.
However, another contender showed she is in excellent form under racing conditions when winning at Pau on Sunday in a good race that she was not widely fancied to win. That horse is Sirene D'Ainay, who in the five years of Quevega's domination of this event has come closest to defeating her. The margin was less than two lengths last year and you will recall that the winner looked in real trouble after being hampered on the bend after the fourth last.
Had the French mare jumped a little better, she would have made Quevega's task even greater and, as the younger horse, she should not be underestimated when returning for a rematch. A sounder surface would be the only unknown, given it was softer than usual at the Festival last year.
Oscar Whisky again split the crowd when winning the three-runner Grade One Scilly Isles Chase at Sandown on Saturday. Sent off at 1/6, he made hard work of it by jumping unconvincingly on an admittedly tricky track (in his first right-handed chase) and, more pertinently, on atrocious ground. But he won despite not being at his best and lacks nothing in guts.
When I interviewed him on Racing UK afterwards, Barry Geraghty, his rider, pointed out that he was conserving the horse's energy in the deep ground, which would have contributed to him appearing unimpressive. Trainer Nicky Henderson stressed how "stuffy" the horse is and how that run will have done him good in keeping him primed for Cheltenham.
However, it's not as if laboured jumping is a new trait. Walsh honed in on it when discussing this horse during the Half-Term Report and emphasised how clean early jumping is critical in both the Arkle and Oscar Whisky's target, the JLT Chase.
"If Oscar Whisky jumps the first like he has done there [at Cheltenham] each time, way up in the air, all of a sudden from being third, he's eighth and Barry [Geraghty] is having to chase the game early," Walsh warned. "There's something about him that doesn't convince me."
But Geraghty retains full confidence in his mount and rightly pointed out that the horse has plenty of fight and courage. He believes that his jumping will not be an issue and that dominating small fields is not essential.
He is a certain runner in the JLT, barring accidents, which you can't say about many of the other main contenders in the betting bar ante-post favourite Wonderful Charm, who has strong claims of reversing his December form with Oscar Whisky at level weights. However, I'm with Walsh on this one.
In the same Sandown race, Benvolio made mistakes and was disappointing, but Manyriverstocross could be a real contender in the Grand Annual. His mark is unlikely to be changed from 138 and that is comfortably good enough to make the cut. Fast ground might be a small concern, though.
It shouldn't have escaped your notice by now that Shutthefrontdoor has had a breathing operation, which probably accounts for his dull display at Cheltenham in December. However, he was withdrawn at Wetherby on Saturday due to the testing ground - probably a wise decision with his potential Festival targets so close at hand.
In his absence, it was a messy, unfortunate affair. Sadly, Coverholder was fatally injured and Green Flag stumbled and unseated Peter Buchanan on the bend. That left the likeable Ely Brown, a five-times hurdle winner and now unbeaten over fences, to stay on strongly for a nine-length success.
His entry in the four-mile National Hunt Chase looks ideal and he was a good sixth in last season's Pertemps, but still has something to find with the likes of Shotgun Paddy and Black Thunder. Whatever Mullins and Jonjo O'Neill run in this contest must also be feared, along with Foxrock. The longer trip is a plus for Ely Brown, however, and he is a player. His Aintree hurdles win in October indicates that a sound surface doesn't bother him, either.
Mullins schooled Champagne Fever after racing at Punchestown on Sunday, along with stablemates Ballycasey, Rubi Ball and others. This Sunday's racing at Leopardstown will hopefully crystalise targets for last year's Supreme winner but how late Mullins habitually leaves his decisions about targets was repeated over and over by Walsh on the Half-Term Report.
Walsh was also inclined to believe he had ridden Champagne Fever over-confidently against Defy Logic, that Felix Yonger is ground-dependent and that Djakadam has a big future and will probably be better next year.
As for the novice stayers, he conceded that Ballycasey will lack experience and is a skinny RSA Chase favourite. "He seems really well at home," he added. "He's an out-and-out stayer, but is a great jumper and has a good cruising speed."
He seemed particularly keen on Morning Assembly - "I love him" - and described him as a "raw, traditional novice" who lacked the winner's street-smartness when beaten by Carlingford Lough but is open to huge mental improvement. Walsh was also complimentary about Gordon Elliott's Don Cossack, whom he believes will be better suited by the tempo of British racing, especially at the Festival, and the step up in trip for the RSA.
Trainer Pat Fahy has reported that Morning Assembly will go straight to the RSA Chase and that he's hanging on in the hope of Walsh being able to partner him. If not, the Davies Russell and Condon were mentioned.
Over here, trainer Harry Fry indicated that, having missed his intended prep at Doncaster due to the testing ground which would have put too much pressure on his wind, Rock On Ruby is likely to go straight to the Arkle.
That means he'd have to do a Well Chief and win the race on just his second chase start. Well Chief was an exceptional chaser. That said, Rock On Ruby did win a Champion Hurdle.
A horse Walsh didn't mention on Racing UK was Wicklow Brave, as he was then just a winner of his sole start in a Cork maiden hurdle. He subsequently became the cosy winner of a Listed hurdle at Punchestown on Sunday.
He's another Mullins-trained project and was much the best in that five-runner contest, despite being keen and not jumping well. He's going to have to hurdle a lot better to justify newly contracted odds for the Supreme.
Walsh thinks "plenty" of Vautour for that race, confirmed that Moyle Park was "disappointing" over Christmas and that Valseur Lido had been "very impressive" when winning his two races in lesser company.
However, he believes the Philip Fenton-trained The Tullow Tank "has the best form". "I was greatly taken by him," he confirmed. Fenton has pinpointed the Supreme, not the Neptune, as the primary target (ground permitting) and his odds have duly been clipped.
Walsh is clearly very fond of Briar Hill, whom he memorably described as a "leave-him-until-four-o'clock" horse because he's so laidback. "If you took Briar Hill to the bottom of Willie's gallop with our worst horse, he'd come back beside it; if he was with our best horse, he'd come back beside it," he said.
He wouldn't want to ride Briar Hill in the Supreme but could countenance any other target. He doesn't anticipate jumping being an issue for Faugheen. He described Sure Reef as "a decent horse" and also mentioned Clondaw Court and Apache Stronghold in positive tones, stating that the last-named had jumped a lot better on his latest start.
He seemed to indicate that the Neptune would present the most complicated decision for him when choosing which of Mullins' novice team to ride. He asserted that his availability had no influence on the trainer's decisions and that meant he would doubtless on occasion choose the wrong horse to ride.
Tony McCoy must be tired of seeing the backside of Seeyouatmidnight, who has beaten him on two different horses now, both at odds-on. At Hexham, the more vaunted victim was Regal Encore and on Sunday it was Racing Pulse, with the winner unheralded at 66/1 and 22/1 respectively.
We shouldn't underestimate him again: Seeyouatmidnight jumps excellently, gallops strongly and recorded a good time. There is no fluke to his form but you'll probably always get a longer price than you should because Sandy Thomson, his trainer, will be a relatively obscure name at the levels to which this horse will take him.
Seeyouatmidnight is not entered at Cheltenham but Thomson rightly cited the Sefton over an extended three miles at Aintree's Grand National meeting as a credible target. He sees the horse, a Point winner, as more of a chaser.
I gave the benefit of the doubt to Racing Pulse due to the ground at Cheltenham on New Year's Day, but it was good-to-soft ground at worst at Musselburgh. He jumped scrappily and was beaten on merit. His Grade One entries at Cheltenham appear to be flying too high.
Having been beaten by Fox Norton in receipt of weight when chucked into graded company on his debut, Broughton showed he'd learned plenty when winning the Scottish Triumph Hurdle at Musselburgh on Sunday. Despite not settling, he jumped very well and settled matters decisively.
In Clarcam, he was beating a horse good enough to place twice at graded level in Ireland and who both poached several lengths at the start and was gifted an easy lead here. The field stood still for 11 seconds after the tapes went back but, if you take the time from when Clarcam actually started, it was a fair performance on the clock for juveniles.
Broughton was rated 92 at his peak over 1m2f on the Flat for Mark Johnston and threatened to improve for 12 furlongs, but never did. It is possible the stiff test of stamina presented by 2m1f on Cheltenham's New Course could find him out - especially if he pulls hard again. He looks like more of an Aintree type.
Also, don't forget how he hung left, flashed his tail and looked awkward under pressure, with Denis O'Regan delaying using his whip for as long as possible, at Doncaster. His character wasn't tested at Musselburgh.
Hawker, a Triumph entry and stablemate of the winner, made his hurdling debut in the same race. He was led in and held onto by his handler even when the tapes went back, so the buzz of Cheltenham might overwhelm him. He lacks experience, having raced only three times on the Flat for Godolphin, but did show promise here. The Festival surely comes too soon in his career, however.
We know from his Flat campaign with John Gosden that Space Ship is at his best on a genuinely sound surface. He'll need to jump better, though, even for the Fred Winter.
The Triumph market still stolidly refuses to mature but, the more I consider it, the more I like Plinth. I can't get out of my head how he conceded first run and the better final-hurdle jump to subsequent winner Ivan Grozny when they met at Leopardstown, yet still beat him. He might be a better horse on a sounder surface, too.
Walsh commented in the Half-Term Report that Plinth beat him "snug" [on Ivan Grozny] on the line and acknowledged that the sadly injured Analifet was "Willie's [Mullins] top juvenile" and not Ivan Grozny, Gitane Du Berlais, Adriana Des Mottes or Abbyssial. Perhaps significantly, Mullins' other Triumph entries (All Pepper, Ashjar and Noble Inn) didn't even get a mention. For future reference, Walsh also described Abbyssial as a "chasing type", so keep him in the back of your mind for next season and beyond.
My conclusion is that it's best to take the 16s about Plinth now (or 14s with BetVictor using their non-runner-free-bet concession), before he runs at Leopardstown on Sunday.