Weekend review: Player or layer
Our panel look back on the weekend's action at Newbury and Leopardstown with the aim of unpicking clues for the future.
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How do you assess Last Instalment's Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup chances following his victory in the Hennessy at Leopardstown on Sunday?
Ben Linfoot: A nice performance from a lightly-raced chaser and he beat the right horses in Sunday's Hennessy in Tidal Bay and First Lieutenant. They were the two top-rated horses going into the race with marks in the high 160s, but Tidal Bay needs further these days and First Lieutenant strikes me as an overrated animal. I think the handicapper will rate the race through the fourth, the 154-rated Texas Jack, and on that basis Last Instalment is probably worthy of a mark in the mid 160s. That puts him firmly in the Gold Cup picture, as the recent golden era where Kauto Star, Denman, Imperial Commander and Long Run all achieved winning marks in the 180s looks over judging by what we've seen this season. Connections said afterwards that he might not run in the Gold Cup if the ground was too fast, so that would be a concern for ante-post backers.
Will Hayler: As a part-owner of an injury-plagued racehorse or three, it's always nice to see another old warrior reward the kindness shown to him and come back successfully from a battle with injury. But when you hear Michael O'Leary describe him after the race as having 'legs of glass', it's hard to want to get your cash down yet for the Gold Cup. Put it this way - I'd rather take 6/1 on the day on soft ground with the trainer having given the horse a clean bill of health than take 10s now with four weeks' of worry still to come - especially with the Ryanair still being an option too!
Michael Shinners: I thought it was a tremendous performance and one that put him firmly in the Betfred Gold Cup picture. The way he jumped and travelled was really impressive and he wasn't stopping at the end. The ground looks as though it could be a key element into whether or not he runs, as Phillip Fenton was keen to emphasise how fragile he has been. It could be argued that a 13-year-old finishing second brings the form down. However Tidal Bay is no ordinary 13-year-old!
Ian Ogg: With so many firms offering money back or free bet concessions in the event of a non-runner I think he's well worth supporting for the Gold Cup at 10s. He was a very smart novice and doesn't look to have lost any of his ability following a high class defeat of a competitive field on Sunday. I can't honestly believe that he'll come back in trip for the Ryanair with so much form over further and I think he looks a huge player.
The Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle market finally has a clear market leader in Vautour following his win in the Deloitte. Is he the real deal? Could The Tullow Tank reverse the form at Cheltenham or do you think he'll go for the Neptune now?
MS: I thought he was awesome. He looked magnificent in the parade ring and looks a chaser in the making. The way he jumped and then stuck on, made me think we were watching a seriously talented horse. In beating The Tullow Tank, he has showed how much class he oozes and he looks the one to beat in the Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle.
BL: He is the real deal and Ruby Walsh and Willie Mullins are learning all the time with him, making all on Sunday after coming to the conclusion he's an out-and-out galloper. I think he's got a touch of class and The Tullow Tank wasn't really gaining on him at the finish, with Vautour looking like he had plenty left in his own tank. He's a worthy favourite for the Sky Bet Supreme and it will take a good one to beat him. I would run The Tullow Tank in the Neptune.
"Not sure myself about this piece of form, nor do I fancy Vautour at his revised price. He just looks too much a future steeplechaser and not quite enough an out-and-out speedster and my hunch is that The Tullow Tank will do a lot better in a properly-run race."
WH: Not sure myself about this piece of form, nor do I fancy Vautour for the Sky Bet Supreme at his revised price, likeable though this effort was. He just looks too much a future steeplechaser and not quite enough the sort of out-and-out speedster who tends to win the Supreme. It was strange to see Ruby Walsh allowed to have things his own way in front and my hunch is that The Tullow Tank will do a lot better in a properly-run race. That said, the winner seemed - to my eyes - to be going on again at the finish. Not an easy race to get a handle on.
IO: Connections seems to be leaning towards the Neptune with The Tullow Tank and that's understandable given the way that he jumped on Sunday but there have been plenty of Supreme winners with a bit of stamina in their make-up and his powerful finish could be tailormade for a strongly run two miles at Cheltenham. He didn't appear to have any obvious excuses on Sunday though and Vautour's hurdling was far slicker. The winner looks to be out of the top drawer but I'm quite happy to sit and wait until the day at his current price.
The JCB Triumph Hurdle market was shaken up following wins for Calipto at Newbury and Guitar Pete at Leopardstown. Which one impressed you the most with the Triumph in mind?
BL: Guitar Pete lowered some lofty reputations at Leopardstown but I wouldn't say Dessie Hughes has another Our Conor on his hands here. This was his sixth hurdle start and he made the most of that experience. Already beaten by Royal Irish Hussar at Cheltenham, you could take the view the British have a stronger hand in the Triumph and Calipto is certainly a player. I liked his slick hurdling at Newbury and I'd much rather have a Triumph voucher with his name on it than Guitar Pete's.
MS: I'm struggling to find an angle on the JCB Triumph Hurdle. Although Calipto did well at Newbury he doesn't really excite me for whatever reason. I thought although Guitar Pete did well to win, however both Ivan Grozny and Plinth were disappointing, so I'm struggling to know if this form is Cheltenham form. The horse I have been most impressed by is Broughton of John Fergerson's. He was very impressive at Musselburgh and looks underrated and, more importantly, overpriced.
WH: I've been with Calipto for several months now and if the ground has some give in it by the Friday of the Festival, he's got to have a big chance. The bare form of his Newbury victory was very ordinary indeed, but I like this horse, and there don't appear to be any obvious future stars in this year's Triumph line-up.
IO: I'm struggling to believe that Guitar Pete has improved as significantly as some would have us think after Sunday's run and connections didn't appear to be getting carried away. Calipto, who was surprisingly weak in the market, beat some modest opposition well. The form of his debut win is working out reasonably despite Chocala's defeat on Sunday and it will be interesting to see if Activial can give it a boost when we see him next, assuming he's out before Cheltenham. For all that Calipto won well, he appears to be priced up on reputation, connections and in the absence of smart performances in the juvenile division. Neither float my boat and I'd rather back Le Rocher than Calipto given that it's 8/1 the pair.
Likewise, the RSA Chase betting has a very different look to it this morning following wins for Smad Place at Newbury and Ballycasey at Leopardstown. Does either float your boat for the RSA?
BL: Both look good horses but I was particularly impressed with Smad Place at Newbury. It was awful ground on Saturday in windy conditions and all of his best hurdles form came in the spring on better going. With that in mind he did awfully well to jump his rivals silly at Newbury and he should be on everyone's shortlist for the RSA.
WH: Smad Place is a likeable sort of horse and a largely consistent one too. He went some way to resolving my niggling concerns that he might be a bit soft in a tough finish when he quickened away from Sam Winner on the run-in. I haven't the foggiest how good Ballycasey could be and I don't think his connections have either, but he's an obvious contender for the RSA. I wouldn't give up on Carlingford Lough from that race either. He'd have preferred a greater test of stamina than the three-furlong sprint that was served up and I'd fancy him to have been at least second if Bryan Cooper hadn't taken Tony McCoy out going into the final fence.
"I was particularly impressed with Smad Place. It was awful ground in windy conditions and all of his best hurdles form came in the spring on better going. With that in mind he did awfully well to jump his rivals silly and he should be on everyone's shortlist."
MS: I like both horses and was impressed with how they won their respective races. I was particularly impressed with Ballycasey who finally lived up to the hype and looks a major player in the RSA. There was a suggestion that Carlingford Lough was unlucky, but I am firmly of the opinion that the Willie Mullins runner would have won anyway.
IO: Ballycasey clearly merits respect given his connections and there was plenty to admire about the way that he jumped in a race that has been a decent pointer to the RSA over the years. I can't fault Smad Place but there's a nagging doubt in my mind that he won't be suited by the demands of the race; it's something that I can't quite put my finger on but it can be a really gruelling contest and I'm not convinced that he'll really see it out in the closing stages. Carlingford Lough, in contrast, looks just the type to come into his own in the race and I think the top price of 14/1 about this thorough stayer has legs.
What now for Al Ferof?
WH: Two words. Queen Mother. Okay, six words - Bet Victor Queen Mother Champion Chase. That'll keep everyone happy. Why would Paul Nicholls have even put him in the race if he didn't have the same inkling that we all do, that Al Ferof would relish a fast-run race and a contest where his fluent jumping could prove all important. It can't be just me who remembers that flying finish to win the Supreme Novices'. I'm not saying he would win - but it's worth a try.
BL: You can blame the ground, you can blame the trip. But I just think Al Ferof has lost his sparkle. The Ryanair is an easier option than the Gold Cup, and, bearing in mind his weak finishing efforts over three miles his last two starts, it's probably the only way to go. But I couldn't fancy him for that race either judging by his last two efforts.
MS: I think it's back to the drawing board I'm afraid. He looked beat a fair way out and even a drop back in trip might not be the answer. I honestly don't think he would have won over two and a half at Newbury on Saturday and fear he simply isn't as good as he was prior to his injury.
IO: I just wonder if the race at Kempton left a mark. The same has been said of Cue Card and Champion Court after last season's King George and Al Ferof had quite a hard race that day. Cue Card was able to bounce back in the Ryanair last year and I wouldn't put it past Al Ferof to do the same but his price for that race barely shifted on the back of a pretty abject performance which makes him easy to resist at this stage.