Lydia Hislop's Cheltenham Contraflow
Back from a short hiatus, Lydia Hislop's Road To Cheltenham returns as she wraps up the past month's Festival punting clues.
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Given our vehicle had been parked for a few weeks to allow the chauffeur some annual leave, now would seem an ideal time to get back behind the wheel again for a one-off round-up of events of the past month - a contraflow en-route to Cheltenham, if you will.
Then, on the eve of the Festival on Monday, it will be time to assess the final state of play and to get tipping in those races in which bets have not already been advised... And perhaps, if nerves set in, in some that have.
Last Instalment built on his highly encouraging comeback run over an inadequate trip in January with an authoritative win in the Irish Hennessy. On his earlier form, you would not be dogmatic that a sound surface (as it is looking increasingly likely we will have by Friday week at Cheltenham, if not sooner) would disadvantage him.
However, he has fought back from a tendon injury in each foreleg, so it may be that cut now suits him ideally. Connections certainly think so and suggest he may not run if the going dries out too much.
I would have preferred Michael O'Leary, Last Instalment's owner, (and the owners of trainer Philip Fenton's other remaining Festival contenders) to have taken Barry Connell's stance of not running their horses until the charges against Fenton have been resolved by the Irish courts. Connell's The Tullow Tank therefore misses the Festival.
Fenton is charged with possession of anabolic steroids following a raid by the Irish Department of Agriculture in January 2012 and the case against him has been adjourned until 20 March.
In a move beholden upon it and yet which its operatives surely knew to be futile, the British Horseracing Authority drug-tested Fenton's Cheltenham entries (including The Tullow Tank) and interviewed the trainer once these charges belatedly - embarrassingly late, for the Irish Turf Club - were known.
It was announced earlier this week that all results - including hair testing, whose temporal reach is longer - were negative and the horses were cleared to run.
We are currently operating in an era in which the BHA has had no jurisdiction over the practices of pre- and out-of-training yards and therefore cannot know with any certainty what substances may or may not have been administered to any horse.
It would therefore have been logically indefensible to exclude three horses from the Festival that have returned negative tests and against which there is no actual proof that steroids were ever used.
A cloud of suspicion will attend the Fenton-trained Last Instalment, Dunguib and Value At Risk next week, but that is the symptom and not the cause of the problem. The BHA's line in the sand should not be drawn for the sake of one ephemeral Cheltenham but for the enduring sake of the sport.
The entire racing and breeding industry must get on board with zero tolerance of performance-enhancing drugs at all stages of a racehorse's life. Only that level of transparency can ensure lasting confidence and stave off the self-defeating years of denial that damaged cycling so deeply.
So - ground permitting - Last Instalment runs but even his career-best latest effort leaves him with plenty to find with Bobs Worth (particularly on that horse's wins last season) and Silviniaco Conti's more recent form.
First Lieutenant got outpaced behind Last Instalment before staying on for third. He lacked gears in last year's Ryanair, too, so the Gold Cup should be his target. He may not be quite good enough but he has rarely faced sound conditions and three miles - except at Aintree, where he won.
Captain Chris is in the form of his life and showed it again last time. He has won an Arkle - and on the tighter Old Course at that - but jumped persistently and characteristically right when sixth in last year's Gold Cup. That makes it hard to argue his Cheltenham case but he is a classy horse at his best. His Ascot win and Silviniaco Conti's King George are the strongest form-lines of the current season.
Captain Chris's vanquished are unlikely to be key players, although Medermit ran with a modicum of promise on his return from a 674-day absence. He has shaped as though staying trips might now be best. However, he must make monumental strides in a very short space of time to win a Gold Cup.
Cheekpieces have improved Harry Topper in his last two starts and he was impressive in deep ground at Newbury but the weather has turned against him. He will have place claims in any future slog of a Gold Cup.
Al Ferof simply couldn't deal with Newbury's going and trainer Paul Nicholls has won the battle with owner John Hales to redirect him to the Ryanair. Wrongly, in my opinion.
Long Run's defeat of Knockara Beau was a long way below what is required, although the reapplication of cheekpieces seemed to help. Teaforthree and Triolo D'Alene will use the Gold Cup as their Grand National prep. The latter has already been backed so the former could be interesting each-way in any 'betting without Bobs Worth and Silviniaco Conti' markets.
Paul Nicholls has changed his mind about Rocky Creek and will now try the Gold Cup. You can his form two ways: either he's a non-stayer or was short of fitness (seasonal debut and then returning from colic) on both starts this term. I think it's the former and he's not good enough anyway.
The absence of Cue Card, due to a stress fracture to his pelvis, has robbed this race of one of its few credible winners. He's out until next season, sadly.
The white flag having been raised on Sprinter Sacre's season of woes, the Champion Chase and its overlapping sister, the Ryanair, are now two very different animals. Close assessment must logically wait until next week when running plans will be more sharply defined for a greater number of horses entered in both races.
Baily Green, last year's Arkle second, was backed for the Champion Chase on Wednesday and, certainly, his uncompetitive efforts on deep ground in Ireland this term are probably not representative of what he might be capable of at Cheltenham next week. His latest hurdles effort was just marking time. His trainer knows how to approach a target.
However, his best form this season has been over two-and-a-half miles and I thought the Ryanair, on the more galloping New Course, was a more suitable target for this strapping horse.
Module's victory over Dodging Bullets in the Game Spirit seemed a triumph of stamina in testing conditions, so it was surprising to hear trainer Tom George nominate the Champion as the target instead of the Ryanair. He ran like he needed a trip in last year's Jewson, too.
Last year's Ryanair runner-up, Dynaste, has reportedly had a breathing operation since flopping in the King George and has duly since been backed. In fact, he's currently the wise-guy horse of that race.
Wednesday's six-day declaration stage for this race raised yet more questions. It had seemed possible that Jezki might make the running, to exploit his stamina and provide a strong pace for free-going owner-companion My Tent Or Yours as a natural by-product. However, the supplementary addition of a third JP McManus runner, Captain Cee Bee, changed things.
The Captain may as well not have run when pace-making in Ireland this season, ignored as he was by his rivals. Next Tuesday, it may be that he heads a pincer movement, going out in front but with Jezki sitting second and taking over on the lead on the charge for home.
Trainer Jessica Harrington is also reported to have mooted the application of a hood for Jezki, a horse that can also be buzzy. Certainly, something better change on this season's form if Jezki is going to be a real contender.
It was all going swimmingly for My Tent Or Yours, with a smooth win in a bumper-for-jumpers on the all-weather at Kempton that will have helped to reduce self-defeating fizz levels come the big day. Now swimming is the preferred option after he sustained a puncture wound to his near-fore sole.
At a Bloomsbury preview evening I attended on Wednesday night, Nicky Henderson's second jockey Andrew Tinkler asserted that all of My Tent Or Yours' vital preparation had already been done and that a horse of his highly-strung temperament might actually benefit from a pre-race swimming regime rather than ticking over on the gallops.
However, anything that takes even the smallest edge off in a race as fiercely competitive as this could be paramount.
Melodic Rendezvous put up a gritty performance in testing conditions to beat Zarkandar at Wincanton, a track he likes. Drying conditions mean his opponents won't be disadvantaged and he has a good deal to find with the principals even on his best heavy-ground form.
Un De Sceaux demolished another race last time out, this time at Gowran where he shaped as though a return to a left-handed track would suit. That track is probably not going to be Cheltenham - at least this year. Trainer Willie Mullins continues to mutter about not over-facing him.
However, he stood his ground at the five-day stage - as did stable-companions and World Hurdle entrants, Annie Power and Thousand Stars, who was way below his best at Leopardstown on Saturday.
The big news was Annie Power's participation being confirmed, prompting her to leapfrog Big Buck's as favourite. Now the only question is whether she will stay.
Tony McCoy announced he will ride At Fishers Cross instead of More Of That, his reasoning being that the Paul Nicholls-trained battalions will ensure it is a strong pace to suit Big Buck's and explore an unknown in Annie Power. For that strongly-run scenario, he has chosen the horse proven as a stayer.
However, in his Cheltenham racecourse blog of Wednesday, he did concede: "It was a tough decision and I rode More Of That this morning and he is flying. I was on him thinking 'Maybe I should be riding him at Cheltenham...'". But he added that Rebecca Curtis believes At Fishers Cross has "turned a corner".
It was nonetheless encouraging to hear that More Of That was going well after reports of a minor setback had belatedly trickled out in preceding weeks.
On the track, Celestial Halo was way below his best on testing ground at Haydock, returning from a 77-day absence due to a foot infection. His World Hurdle role is likely to be more foot soldier to his stable and owner companion, Big Buck's, than his leading part of last season.
Fingal Bay made a successful return to action after being sidelined with a tendon injury and unseen since running out in an Exeter novice chase in December 2012. He is unexposed if retaining his ability but a potentially feasible handicap mark makes the Pertemps his likeliest target. You worry about that 'RO' in his form figures, though - especially second time out.
Zarkandar was hampered in the latter stages when beaten by Melodic Rendezvous in the Kingwell and ran pretty well under positive tactics and with blinkers reapplied. But he's twice been thumped by Annie Power this season and, like her, is unproven at three miles.
It has emerged that the all-dominant Quevega worried her trainer Willie Mullins when she "went quiet for a day or two" but she soon bounced back and, given her preparations had already been stated to be ahead of schedule, it does not appear to have been a lasting concern. She is 10 year of age now, mind, and good - even great - things do come to an end sometime.
Donald McCain has berated himself for running the talented Doyly Carte in unsuitably testing conditions at Kelso. Drying conditions put her in the mix for places here.
Quevega's stablemate, Glens Melody, accounted for a good field in heavy conditions at Warwick but a sounder surface is a concern for her and runner-up Mischievous Milly. Conversely, it would suit third-placed L'Unique, who will surely improve for the run after suffering a stone bruise prior to this effort. Her best form - admittedly in a light career - has hitherto been on flat tracks.
Swing Bowler made her belated seasonal debut in the Betfair Hurdle and, having got involved in some scrimmaging, was a highly encouraging fifth. She could never get involved in this race last year but is bred for the distance and is a year stronger. If there is an angle in this race, she might be it.
Carole's Spirit has been withdrawn but Highland Retreat now heads for the race, despite trainer Harry Fry's fear that she requires cut.
Connections have at last settled on the Arkle for Champagne Fever. His schooling session at Leopardstown was fine but he popped around, unpressurised and alone, so it should have been.
Rock On Ruby mostly jumped well in an uncompetitive match against Mr Mole at Doncaster, so the first two in the betting are relatively inexperienced over fences. Not a positive.
In narrowly failing to give 3lb to Module in deep ground at Newbury, Dodging Bullets put up an excellent performance. He travelled like the more likely winner until being outstayed and probably has the best chase form in the Arkle. How he bombed in last year's Supreme is the only cloud, although he has since had a wind operation and is an improved article as a chaser.
His performances this season having not escaped those pesky handicap mandarins at British Horseracing Authority HQ, Ted Veale is now said by a disgruntled Tony Martin to be running in the Arkle rather than the Grand Annual. That's a baffling bit of logic, considering he'll need to be about 20lb better than his mark to win that Grade One.
That Leopardstown schooling session could scarcely have gone worse for Ballycasey, who was jumping in between horses when having a difference of opinion with Ruby Walsh and hitting the deck. The partnership jumped another fence afterwards and Mullins initially reported Ballycasey seemed fine, but acknowledged he was a little bit sore the following day.
Prior to that he had dominated a steadily run race at Leopardstown from the front, despite suffering a blip in his preparation. Yet with so much pace on courtesy of Annacotty, Corrin Wood and Sam Winner in the RSA Chase, Ballycasey's jumping will be put under pressure from the start and could be found wanting. Better ground might suit, however.
Don Cossack seemed beaten on merit by Ballycasey but Carlingford Lough was not entirely done with when he ran out of room and unseated McCoy at the last. This experienced novice is tough enough for the RSA.
Smad Place warmed to his task at Newbury, his jumping getting better as he went, and, having twice finished third in a World Hurdle, he has the class and inclination for Cheltenham. Drying ground will be fine.
However, he only beat Sam Winner by two lengths and was receiving 3lb, so the runner-up was his superior at the weights. The disparity in their prices is clearly wrong. Nicholls believes his horse will come on for the run, having reportedly left something to work on at Newbury.
Tony Calvin, who ghosts Nicholls' Betfair blog, remarked at Wednesday night's Bloomsbury preview that stablemates Just A Par and Black Thunder could yet also contest the RSA rather than the four-miler, although Nicholls would be understandably keen to have a good representative in the longer race, too.
Again, Foxrock (and his jumping) got better the further he went when winning at Navan. He is a leading candidate for the National Hunt Chase and, duly, Katie Walsh has been booked to ride for her dad, Ted. Talking of positive jockey bookings, Derek O'Connor will be on board both Shotgun Paddy in that race and the Kim Muir winner, Indian Castle.
Holywell's Doncaster win confirmed he is a thorough stayer and a key player in the National Hunt Chase also. Trainer Jonjo O'Neill has an excellent record in this race and may make the switch from cheekpieces to blinkers that yielded such success for this horse in last year's Pertemps.
O'Faolains Boy put up a career-best performance to beat Many Clouds at Ascot but the dry forecast is a negative. The runner-up was again the best horse at the weights, jumps impeccably, travels strongly and may not be inconvenienced by a sound surface. A mark of 145 would be extremely attractive for handicaps but Oliver Sherwood is targeting the RSA. He may outrun his price.
Gevrey Chambertain was free and stopped very quickly, admittedly on a tough ask for his chase debut. Shorter trips might be what he needs anyway, but that was disconcerting.
Djakadam's form was boosted by Bright New Dawn's Navan success and, from what Mullins has said, him appearing at the Festival is starting to look more likely. Let's hope this classy prospect contests the JLT. Stablemates Felix Yonger and Mozoltov could also be bound for the same race. Having jumped right at time on his previous start at Leopardstown, the latter went left when winning at Naas. He just needs to jump better.
News that Oscar Whisky will wear a first-time tongue-tie in the JLT can only be a (further) negative for his chances. He's the least attractively priced horse in the entire ante-post Festival markets, in my opinion.
Irving has been catapulted to an overly short favourite's price for the Skybet Supreme Novices' Hurdle since winning at Kempton, in which he did no more than you might expect. He's improving, might do even better for a sounder surface and is clearly a player. Splash Of Ginge's win in the Betfair Hurdle paid him a compliment.
In winning a Leopardstown Grade One on Vautour, Walsh was gifted an easy lead and comfortably accounted for the less advantageously ridden The Tullow Tank. The winner jumped well but never really had to hurdle under pressure. He's improving and dry weather shouldn't cause a problem.
Josses Hill was set to be Nicky Henderson's chief representative in the Supreme until impressive Doncaster winner, Vaniteux, started to shoulder his way into the picture by reportedly blossoming in his homework. That horse was to be saved for Aintree but both the market and Tinkler's reports of the Seven Barrows gallops suggests the sands have shifted.
A step up in trip predictably brought out the best in Un Temps Pour Tout when winning at Ascot, albeit his task was made easier by Cole Harden jumping out markedly to his left. (Of all Britain's right-handed tracks, I think Ascot exposes most ruthlessly a horse that needs to go left-handed.)
The handicapper has taken a risk in judging the runner-up not to have given his running - which is true - but the winner dotted up. A gift of a mere 1lb rise for the winner may make the Coral Cup (rather than the Neptune) too tempting to resist. The doubt is whether a sounder surface will suit him quite so well.
In news from off the track, David Pipe reported that all has been well with Albert Bartlett hopeful Kings Palace despite being absent since December - it's credible they were avoiding deep ground - but that The Liquidator is up against it to make the Festival. Pipe believes the latter hated going right-handed at Kempton when disappointing last time, incidentally.
Sherwood seems to be leaning towards the Albert Bartlett over the Neptune with Deputy Dan, as does Henderson with Captain Cutter. The Neptune ante-post market has been persisted unfazed by a report from Mullins that he was briefly unhappy with Faugheen and had changed his feed as a result.
The surprising post-Adonis vibes that Activial, the impressive winner, would miss the Triumph so as not to ask too much too soon in his career have not yet changed. It would be a shame if he does miss the race because he jumped superbly.
It may not pay to take Activial's earlier defeat by Calipto at Newbury too literally because he was softened up by going on a long way out in a duel with Chocala. Calipto won well last time out but probably didn't need to raise his game any to do so. He may be shorter than he should be.
Pearl Castle did well to overcome some trouble in running to win at Doncaster and that would stand him in good stead for a rough race like the Triumph, but it is possible Aintree may yet be the preferred target.
The unflashy improver Guitar Pete accounted for Plinth and Ivan Grozny at Leopardstown. Plinth jumped poorly but, if allowed to contest the Triumph still, may do better on what is likely to be the quickest surface of the Festival's four days. Also, with relatively few hurdles in the latter stages of the race, placing (oddly) relatively little accent on jumping, that might help him - she said, grasping at straws.
Plinth's seasoning from the Flat will also help him in this street-tough race. But the winner, although admittedly well positioned at Leopardstown, is the type of underestimated toughie who can place in a race like the Triumph.
Ivan Grozny's defeat means Mullins may reroute him to the Fred Winter (mark not especially attractive) and the yard's Triumph hopes are now Gitane Du Berlais and Abbyssial.
The former is a potent threat with a 7lb fillies' allowance and having scalped some good older fillies; the doubt is whether she'll be as effective on a sound surface. Mullins had said the latter was "big and raw" after he won his Fairyhouse Grade Two, hardly an endorsement for this race.
It seems abundantly clear that the yard's other car, Analifet, was the Porsche and unfortunately she's parked in the garage with an injury.