Our team reflect upon an exciting weekend of National Hunt racing across Britain and Ireland.
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My Tent Or Yours and Jezki advertised their Champion Hurdle claims this weekend. Can either win at Cheltenham?
George Primarolo: It would be folly to write either of them off but they've both got an awful lot to prove before they can be seen as worthy contenders. At the moment, Hurricane Fly would be head and shoulders above them on what we've seen on the track but he'll be a ten-year-old at the Festival next year and time is going to catch up on him at some point. I do think there will be a new name on the trophy this season but it's not easy to pinpoint exactly which it will be at this moment in time. On what we've seen so far MTOY seems a crazy price to me.
Ian Brindle: I've been staggered by some of the negativity regarding Jezki's win at Fairyhouse. To describe him as "unimpressive" misses the point of how well he travelled down the back (off a true gallop) and though he fudged the last - he always had the race in safe keeping. MTOY surprised me a little at Newcastle as I didn't really expect him to win quite so easily. Connections have got to be happy with how he did it though as has been alluded to, he has to improve again to trouble the Fly. I hold an ante-post voucher on Jezki and see no reason to be slinging it into the bin anytime soon.
Ben Coley: Like Ian, I was somewhat surprised to see the word "unimpressive" used to describe Jezki because for me his was a perfectly pleasing performance bar that mistake at the last, albeit one which didn't scream superstar. I'd probably put his and that of MTOY on a par - don't forget, Jezki beat a proven Grade One winner over a new trip which he barely looked to get and while Grumeti has a Grade One to his name, it's fair to say those in behind at Newcastle aren't top-notchers. AP's post-race remarks with regards the price of MTOY seemed sensible and while I wouldn't be at all surprised were he to win the Champion Hurdle, I currently have him third in the pecking order and much prefer The New One.
Will Hayler: Yes, they can both win. I've learnt before with a kick in a pocket that judging a horse's Cheltenham claims on the basis of what they have achieved in altogether different conditions in Ireland can prove a costly business, so I won't be putting a line through Jezki. As for MTOY, he exceeded my expectations first time out and still looks to have all of last season's razzle-dazzle in his armoury. Would I be backing either though? Not at the prices.
Is it too early to be writing off At Fishers Cross after his defeat on Saturday?
GP: I thought At Fishers Cross ran a perfectly respectable race at Newbury and was coming to win the race when he made a howler at the second last. He obviously wouldn't beat an on-song Big Buck's at Cheltenham but he may not have to and the whole market revolves around whether the former champ comes back in the same sort of form as he was in when we last saw him. The World Hurdle is a race where horses come back and run well time and time again so I can't really see anything wrong with the 7/1 on offer about Solwhit to be honest. Big Buck's surely can't come back as good as he was can he? Some training feat if he does.
IB: It looked hard work for him in my book and Barry Geraghty was already shovellng the coal early. You should never rule out a horse on one bad run but to all intent's and purposes, this year's World Hurdle is effectively still about one horse only and whether he turns up.
BC: While I'd be keen not to write At Fishers Cross off on the back of one run, particularly given the mistake which ruined all chance, there has never been any doubt in my mind that if Big Buck's is about 90% of the horse he was, he will win the World Hurdle. The quandary is when to back him, because if he's workmanlike - as he can be - on his reappearance he may not harden much, and at least we'll know he's fit and well. It is indeed a big ask to come back from such an absence and pick up where he left off but we shouldn't forget that this horse is probably the best National Hunt horse in training with the possible exception of Sprinter Sacre, yet we can have 3/1 about him winning a race we know he'd win at his best. It could go horribly wrong, but can't everything? I might have talked myself into an antepost bet.
WH: Personally, I was a little surprised to see the (over-?)reaction to his defeat. All of JP's horses are trained with one meeting in mind and I'd be surprised if he's not in the shake-up at Cheltenham. Besides, Celestial Halo has shown he can go well after a break before and it's not as if he's a bad yardstick for a potential World Hurdle contender.
Give us one horse to take out of the Hennessy.
GP: Invictus ran a very good race given the fact he'd been off the track for the best part of two years. He ran as if the race would do him the world of good and he was still threatening with three to go before tiring badly. Alan King wasn't exactly bullish before the race either and you get the impression he didn't want to have him fully wound up just in case. He came back lame as well which could be another reason why he weakened so badly. He's worth another chance and could easily figure in a big staying handicap later this season.
IB: Our Father caught my eye. I was a little dismissive of his chances beforehand but he ran well enough before blowing up and you'd hope that David Pipe can transform him into a horse that is a little more consistent. I backed Highland Lodge and that seemed a cracking trial for the Welsh National.
BC: I'd say Houblon Des Obeaux, a six-year-old who flew home under a big weight having looked set to finish just about last. He'd beaten the winner on his reappearance and the evidence of Saturday suggests that he has another good prize in him. I'm dismayed that he's not in the Welsh National but perhaps it's deemed a year too soon. If he can brush up his jumping, this horse can win a good staying prize.
WH: Highland Lodge was always working a little harder than some of the horses around him in the early stages of the Hennessy, but kept on bravely for his each-way backers. He's a massive player in the Welsh National if Emma Lavelle can keep the wheels on.
There were plenty of novices' in action this weekend, both over timber and fences. Were there any notable performances?
GP: Analifet was impressive in the juvenile hurdle at Fairyhouse on Sunday but it was interesting to listen to trainer Willie Mullins after the race who was very keen to point out that the runner-up, Noble Inn, had run a cracker in his eyes and would be much better when the ground was a little softer. You get the distinct impression that there's much more to come from him and he could be a fair price in a decent juvenile hurdle when the mud's flying.
IB: Any novice chaser of Paul Nicholls that turns up at Doncaster has to be given due respect and I thought Funny Star won the opener on Friday in taking fashion. He might not be a Festival horse but you could imagine he'll pick up a few along the way.
BC: A horse winning a handicap chase by 24 lengths off 135 wouldn't look the ideal formula for an eye-catcher, but Valdez looks a natural over fences and is capable of progressing beyond the handicap ranks for Alan King. His main rival at Newbury came to grief but - and this can only be a guess - I think Valdez would've won anyway and the time says it was a very good performance. Kempton at Christmas is under consideration and he could surprise a few.
WH: Road To Riches ran a big race behind Don Cossack in the Drinmore having helped force a serious early pace. Paul Carberry wasn't at all hard on him in the last 200 yards and I can see him emerging as a big player in the Arkle having shown stamina in the past and tactical speed here.
Did anything else catch your eye over the weekend?
GP: It may have gone under the radar but Mendip Express' victory at Bangor was another no-nonsense performance and Harry Fry's gelding may just be one of these ex-pointers that improves time and time again when sent over regulation fences. He was a prolific winner between the flags last season and could easily prove to be a smart novice this season. Don't forget, he was highly-rated when a raw novice with Paul Nicholls a couple of seasons ago.
IB: John Ferguson introduced another fine recruit from the Flat in Mijhaar. It's hard to know what he beat on his debut over timber but not difficult to see how easily he did it.
BC: Sticking with Alan King's lot, it'll be interesting to see whether Vendor can build on his win in the handicap hurdle at Newbury on Saturday. The way he moved throughout the race was impressive and if he goes up 5lb or so he'll still have plenty in hand of the assessor if he can take another step forward. He's evidently been thought capable of much more than he's achieved thus far. Hey Big Spender also looks primed for another crack at the Welsh National and I'll be surprised if he goes off the 33/1 quoted in places.
WH: At the risk of being accused of copying Ian, Mijhaar knocked me over at Doncaster. He'd become a bit of a fruitloop on the Flat but looked to be having a whale of a time over hurdles and settled better than I could possibly have imagined. He could yet be anything now that he's found something he likes doing (for the time being).