Captain blows Arkle market open
Ian Brindle assesses the merits of the big novice chases at Cheltenham and Punchestown last weekend.
For many, the Open meeting at Cheltenham is the provider of valuable clues as to the season ahead, and to the Festival in particular.
While the prospect of such testing ground obtaining at Prestbury Park in March is, from a historical perspective unlikely, it's not hard to understand why the trainers are keen to give their top flight performers a run at this unique course.
As large crowds obtain over the course of the meeting, it offers a unique opportunity for the horses to experience the vagaries of all that a festival entails - an experience that cannot be said of the midweek meetings at the gaff tracks.
Nicky Henderson wasn't far away from being champion trainer last year and though this was a relatively quiet meeting for the Seven Barrows maestro, he cannot have failed to have been impressed by the performance of Captain Conan in the Racing Post Arkle Trophy Trial Novices' Chase.
He was somewhat overlooked on his British debut over hurdles last season though the punters certainly weren't in the mood to miss him in Sunday's opener.
The Arkle trial has been a fertile race for finding future winners and though Azertyuiop was the last to complete the double of landing both the trial and the race - horses such as Captain Chris and Contraband have been placed and gone on to go one better in March.
Interestingly, Nicky Henderson believed that Cheltenham was not the place for him last season - hence why he didn't appear at last year's festival; but with the discipline of chasing placing greater emphasis on physicality (an attribute that he possesses in spades) - he appeared to relish the challenge.
Proven soft ground performer, Sire De Grugy, probably ran up to his best in second so this was not a prize that was given away lightly.
The Pipe family have probably been the subject of the attentions of the monopolies commission over the years at this meeting and it was great to see David carrying on the family tradition.
The lightly raced Dynaste has made a habit of getting an early season win under his belt and he did not disappoint his backers on Friday in the Steel Plate And Sections Novices' Chase.
From a formbook perspective, it shouldn't really have been such a surprise. The six-year-old had achieved a high official rating over hurdles (though couldn't quite live with Big Buck's), and was in the position of receiving 5lb from Fingal Bay.
The bookmakers were right to be impressed by his performance - not least in the way that he stayed on stoutly up the hill.
Clearly, there won't be too many yards that will want to be taking him on in Novice company, but as a paid up member of the Fingal Bay fan club - I haven't given up on him just yet.
Disappointing as it was to see him beaten on the day, I felt that Philip Hobbs' charge jumped with far more proficiency that he showed at Chepstow on debut.
Softer surfaces notoriously exaggerate deceleration rates, and while there's no guarantee that he would have turned around the result off level weights, the hope is that as he is related to a couple of winners that have obliged on a faster surface, he has inherited that family trait.
Thehillofuisneach was pulled up lame having run way above his rating of 136 up to that point. Jonjo O'Neill's inmate rattled up a hat trick of hurdles victories last term over staying trips and could be one to bear in mind for handicaps.
As a son of St Leger winner, Shantou, staying was always going to be the name of the game for Our Father who obliged in the Rewards4Racing Novices' Chase.
A winner of his two previous "first time out" starts, there was plenty of morning money around for him on this occasion, and the cool hands of Timmy Murphy seemed well suited.
Murphy sensibly allowed him to school quietly at the back on his chasing debut - giving him plenty of time and room to see his fences, and the horse responded with a series of highly confident leaps during the second circuit.
It's very easy to get carried away by one performance in isolation - and the horse still has to prove that he can back up after a good performance when fresh - but I could well see him being a Grand National horse in 18 months' time.
Pipe had won Saturday's race previously with a subsequent National winner in Comply Or Die, and with the executive at Aintree intent on attracting a better class of horse to the race (last year's winner, Neptune Collonges was rated 157) - the future looks bright.
In the interim, the RSA Chase looks a plausible enough undertaking. I wouldn't personally be ploughing in at this stage of the campaign, though Martin Pipe has had some history with the race - winning it with Miinnehoma two years prior to going on to glory at Liverpool.
Sire Collonges faced a forlorn fight despite battling on stoically with an 8lb concession against him.
Although he has been well beaten when sent right handed in the past, his style of running suggests that the Feltham Chase at Kempton would be an obvious target for the Dom Alco gelding.
Sea of Thunder finished tailed off having chased the leader for the greater part of the contest.
It has to be of some concern for connections that he once again came up short when tried against top flight opposition, but Gigginstown have very much adopted a policy of buying for the longer term and he can do better on a sounder surface.
Over in Ireland, the departure of Oscar's Well robbed of us of much of the spectacle that the AGK Displays Craddockstown Novice Chase promised.
That made three in a row for Twinlight and the Muhtathir gelding who seems to be enjoying some of a resurgence since switching to the larger obstacles.
He hasn't always impressed in terms of his fencing and though no more than adequate on this occasion, the presence of bottomless ground seemed to compensate for the very real problem of being taken on for the lead.
Willie Mullins completed a double with Back In Focus in the Florida Pearl Novice Chase. Odds of 2-5 suggested that this was not unexpected and bar a slight mistake at the third last, those supporters never had too many moments of concern.
Ironically the small field may have been against him as he perhaps travelled a little more enthusiastically than Ruby Walsh would have wanted in the early stages of the race though he had enough class to get home.
Whether he'll be quite as effective with good ground is open to question but he's sure to be very much in the shakeup at Leopardstown over Christmas.