Long road back to the top for Run
Ben Linfoot assesses the ante-post National Hunt markets following the weekend's action at Ascot, Haydock and Navan.
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As Kauto Star was left to ponder just why he wasn't strutting his stuff in the testing Haydock Park turf on Saturday, stablemate Silviniaco Conti gave the National Hunt legend one reason with a smoothly efficient performance in the Betfair Chase.
Twelve months previously Kauto Star had brought the house down with a magnificent victory that belied his advancing years, but the soon-to-be teenager was strictly on parading duty in Lancashire at the weekend as the course where he won four Betfair Chases unveiled a statue to mark his retirement.
As he was spared being asked to do battle with Long Run and company, the Ditcheat baton was passed to another of sire-of-the-moment Dom Alco's all-conquering sons, Silviniaco Conti, who has graduated from promising novice to Gold Cup contender with two flawless wins at Wetherby and now Haydock this campaign.
When Kauto won his first Betfair Chase there was the added carrot of a cool million for connections if he went onto win both the King George and Cheltenham Gold Cup as well. Of course he did, and looked like he might do for the next five years too, so the bonus scheme was toughened up before being dropped altogether.
Had the £1million been on offer this season you would presume Silviniaco Conto would be Kempton-bound on Boxing Day. But it's not and he's not, with Paul Nicholls suggesting post-race that he could go straight to the Cheltenham Gold Cup for which he is 6/1 second-favourite with Sky Bet.
There are 111 days between the Betfair Chase and Cheltenham Gold Cup this season and no horse has won the Blue Riband after such a long absence for at least the last 25 years (and I lost the will to keep looking beyond that point), so there is one reason to hold your bets.
Another is the overall validity of the Betfair Chase form. They went a crawl in the early stages and Silviniaco Conti ended up a somewhat reluctant leader under Ruby Walsh who steadily increased the tempo throughout the contest.
The lack of pace early on didn't suit Long Run, The Giant Bolster or Weird Al - three rivals who didn't have the benefit of a run under their belts as the winner did. I'm not saying Silviniaco Conti wasn't a worthy winner - of course he was - and I'm not saying he can't win the Gold Cup - of course he can. But there are reasons to treat this form with some degree of caution.
And what of Long Run? He's now won just once in five starts since his Cheltenham Gold Cup success in 2011 and it could be that that race, where he defeated two of the greats of the game in Kauto and Denman, may just have taken the edge off him. There's a reason why Kauto Star is the only horse in history to regain the Gold Cup and Long Run will this season be the latest charged with that assignment against a particularly talented-looking bunch of second-season chasers.
Sir Des Champs, Flemenstar, Bobs Worth, Al Ferof and of course Silviniaco Conti are all fresh, unscathed staying chasers with huge potential and their presence in the ante-post market for the Gold Cup are as much a reason for Robert Waley-Cohen's seven-year-old being available at 10/1 for the race, as is the owner's insistence on sticking with son Sam as his pilot.
Having said all of that, Long Run's seasonal reappearance was satisfactory as far as being a stepping stone for other Grade 1 targets this season goes. Even if he's not as good as he was, it could be that he needs a severe test of stamina to show his best these days and with that in mind he's still very much a player in the King George and Gold Cup.
On balance he deserves to be favourite for the former contest given that only Al Ferof of the aforementioned five is scheduled to turn up at Kempton. The likes of Cue Card and Sizing Europe are next in the market and they have it to prove at the trip so there could end up being a scenario where Long Run outstays the lot of them.
Kempton mission for Captain
Two other pretenders to the King George throne were in action on Saturday in the form of Captain Chris, last year's third, and Finian's Rainbow who were first and last respectively in the Amlin 1965 Chase at Ascot.
Both are now a best-price 12/1 for the King George following their contrasting fortunes in the heavy ground in Berkshire. It's funny how they are both considered to have the same chance in the Christmas feature given how their careers have developed since they were first and second in the Arkle in 2011.
Captain Chris outstayed Finian's Rainbow that day but he really struggled in his second season over fences, unseating Richard Johnson at Exeter and pulling up at Cheltenham in between only fair efforts when third in the King George and fourth in the Ryanair.
However, his propensity to jump right was quelled on Saturday as Richard Johnson stuck to the inside rail on the right-handed track and such tactics at Kempton could well see him improve on last year's third place. He was always a highly-regarded horse and at eight it could just be that he'll be at the peak of his powers this season.
While Captain Chris was struggling with his form post-Arkle, Finian's Rainbow went from strength to strength. He won four of his next five starts including the Champion Chase at the Festival and the Melling Chase at Aintree, where his demolition of Wishfull Thinking and Albertas Run over 2m4f gave more than a bit of hope he would stay three miles in time.
So, his tame run at Ascot was disappointing. But one bad run on heavy ground is forgivable and you only need watch his Melling Chase effort to remember how effective he is when the ground rides good. There's few horses who look as safe over a fence at speed and while he still has to prove his stamina for contests like the King George, he can bounce back from his Ascot disappointment if we eventually get a dry spell.
One horse who excelled despite conditions being against him at Ascot was Martin Keighley's Champion Court, who put in a terrific seasonal reappearance when attempting to give 20lb to the clearly thrown-in William's Wishes in the Carey Group Handicap Chase.
Over an inadequate trip in testing ground, he beat the rest by 17 lengths under a big weight which gives great hope for him this season when stepped up in trip. Indeed, at the time of writing he's trading at around 60/1 on Betfair for the King George and he could be an interesting outsider if that's his intended target. Don't forget he'd had a tough race behind Sir Des Champs at Cheltenham when he was beaten into second by Silviniaco Conti at Aintree.
Festival targets up in the air
Finally, there were two performances of note over hurdles that deserve our attention when scouring the ante-post markets, namely Oscar Whisky's win in the Coral Hurdle at Ascot and Don Cossack's impressive debut over timber in the I.N.H. Stallion Owners E.B.F. Maiden Hurdle at Navan.
Oscar Whisky is 14/1 for the Champion Hurdle and 25/1 for the World Hurdle following his winning reappearance, but while he has a tremendous win-ratio and is clearly a horse of some ability he did nothing on Saturday to suggest that either Cheltenham race will be any more suitable for him this season then they have been in previous years.
He looks sure to be hard to beat at Liverpool, but given Henderson's strength-in-depth in the Champion division (Darlan, Grandouet, Binocular) if he does go to Cheltenham I can see it being to take on Big Buck's again. On that rationale perhaps 25/1 is a price with juice in it, but it's hard to get away from the argument that he just didn't stay the last time.
Don Cossack's Festival assignment is just as much up in the air as his hurdling debut at Navan prompted bookies to quote him for the Supreme, the Neptune and the Albert Bartlett.
Whichever route Gordon Elliott sends the five-year-old down he looks to have an exciting future in the game, as he hurdled with impressive fluency considering it was his first go and looks to have some engine at this early stage. Even his form stacks up as the second, Sizing Gold, got much closer to Seefood on his previous start and he was runner-up to Busty Brown on the same card in the Grade 2 Irish Form Book 'Monksfield' Novice Hurdle.