Road to Cheltenham: No World beater
Lydia Hislop begins her Road to Cheltenham series with a review of the weekend's key performances.
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The Cheltenham Festival dominates the jump calendar like no other meeting, in no other discipline. This weekly column intends to highlight those horses to have run in the past seven days that might have as their ultimate target a race during those famous four days in March.
There will be positives and negatives as the evidence mounts over the following weeks, hopefully building towards a shortlist of strong contenders for the main events.
As things stand, the Hennessy is unlikely to impact as much as last year's renewal on the premier staying chases - although matching the 2012 renewal was a tough ask. Nationals of one sort or another were mentioned for the first and second, Triolo D'Alene and Rocky Creek, although Paul Nicholls is now talking Lexus for the latter. Both would need to improve greatly for more ambitious targets; the less exposed Rocky Creek might be the more likely to do so. Neither has run well at Cheltenham, albeit Rocky Creek has only tried it once. Katenko, an intended runner in the Gold Cup last season before being struck by a severe bout of colic, still had every chance when falling. We still don't know whether he is good enough, or even as good as he was prior to his unfortunate illness. Lord Windermere was taken out of his rhythm and hampered in avoiding that prone rival - an inhibiting factor that should not be underestimated in chases. He got back into the race afterwards, but that effort might have taken its toll in his tame finishing effort. However, it might just have been a bit lacklustre full stop. Whatever, he has not yet enhanced his fringe Gold Cup claims.
Although he will be rightly keeping his options open for as long as possible, My Tent Or Yours surely currently leads Jezki in Tony McCoy's "dilemma" over which will be his Champion Hurdle ride. The Fighting Fifth winner won their Cheltenham match in last season's Supreme and made the more visually impressive comeback of the JP Mcmanus-owned pair, even if Jezki's Fairyhouse win was superior on paper. My Tent Or Yours made a couple of minor errors and was typically keenish, but won his race readily. Jezki was trying two-and-a-half miles for the first time and saw it out well, beating substantial rivals in Zaidpour and Diakali; the latter was flying the flag for Our Conor's Triumph Hurdle form. Grumeti, third in the 2012 Triumph and only sighted on the racecourse once last season, shaped encouragingly at Newcastle until lack of race-fitness told. Melodic Rendezvous appeared to lack Champion Hurdle speed - although an ill-timed error didn't help matters - and that was disappointing after the thrill of his Elite victory.
My Tent Or Yours 4/1
The New One 4/1
Our Conor 9/2
Hurricane Fly 6/1
At Fishers Cross looked held by Celestial Halo when making the last and most significant of his errors at the second last in the Long Distance Hurdle. He needed to improve anyway on last season's form to match even the winner's recent best, such as his second in last year's World Hurdle. At Fishers Cross had suffered a setback prior to his intended start at Wetherby and such minor things can blow up to be a big deal in the best races, so he'll surely do better. However, his jumping remains a frailty and may prevent him from toppling a division that has Solwhit at its head and Big Buck's hovering in the wings. That said, it did improve as the months passed last season and, as a horse that may take some knowing, he could fare better when McCoy gets back on board. Celestial Halo is unbeaten at Newbury and a very good horse at his best; it's hard to think something won't beat him in March, however.
This division has begun strongly this term, with the previous week's substantial effort on this side of the Irish Sea (over three miles) by Utopie Des Bordes trumped by Cockney Sparrow's staying-on second to My Tent Or Yours. She continues to progress but must prove she is as effective over an extra half-mile, however. Her Flat profile and way of going does not encourage you to think she'll improve for the extra trip - and she'll need to.
You won't need reminding that Ireland has not only the hitherto peerless five-times winner of the David Nicholson, Quevega, but also her young stablemate Annie Power, who scalped Zarkandar at Ascot recently, in this category. The titleholder is set to be ten years of age next March but her last effort, her fourth World Series Hurdle success at Punchestown, was probably her career best. Her form sets the standard, clear of the potentially Champion-bound Annie Power's, whose is clear of the rest.
The likeable Carole's Spirit also has the David Nicholson as a potential target. The mares' novice hurdle that she won at Newbury will prove strong form of its type. She will stay further than Friday's 2m5f trip and may ultimately do best as a chaser. This well-bred mare is a great jumper and knuckles down well. Robert Walford suggested cut in the ground would be an advantage - not usually compatible with a Festival target. She's also got a absolute load of improving to do in order to figure. Fabrika and Tagrita, the second and third, will also win races; the former perhaps over shorter and the latter probably coming into her own over fences.
Likeable with a lot to learn is the verdict on Just A Par. He had to make his own running and may be better with some cover or perhaps just more experience. He needed some taps to take the left-handed bend out towards the back straight but jumped soundly and stayed on strongly. He had a tendency to adjust right at his fences and even lug right on the flat at Newbury, which would not be ideal if repeated at Cheltenham where he has yet to race. However, his second to At Fishers Cross over hurdles at Aintree in April suggested he is more than capable both of racing left-handed and on a sound surface. He looks sure to progress and is a credible RSA Chase candidate. 16/1 is a fair price, although I currently prefer the Le Bec/Shutthefrontdoor form and both are available at identical odds or even longer.
Wonderful Charm has the Jewson as his nominated target - a helpful pointer in itself - but is yet to convince as a Cheltenham horse. Granted, Friday's four-runner field would not have shown him to best effect - getting cover in a strongly run race would be better, as Nicholls has highlighted his tendency to idle when left in front. However, his jumping looks a tad iffy so far.
Valdez's Newbury success was one of the most taking performances of the week. Granted, he beat inferior rivals but he did so in an exceptionally good time - ducking under standard and faster than more experienced horses on the same card. He looks like a proper Grade One candidate and will be a major player in the Wayward Lad at Kempton on 27 December, his nominated next target. The doubt regarding the Arkle is his tendency to jump markedly right, which he showed at Newbury and also at Exeter. Under pressure, which all but the most exceptional experience at the Festival, that could be a critical frailty. However, 20/1 is not a daft price.
"He looks like a proper Grade One candidate and will be a major player in the Wayward Lad at Kempton on 27 December, his nominated next target."
One of these days, John Ferguson is going to get a classy Maktoum cast-off that makes the grade over hurdles in a big way. So far, it seems obligatory that the best of them come with underlying issues and, in this, Mijhaar is no exception. He never became the horse he threatened to be on the Flat, despite many seeming re-dawns, most recently when romping away with a good Hamilton handicap in May. His next three starts were, to varying degrees, flops and there you have the problem with Mijhaar. He made a slick hurdling debut at Doncaster last Friday but will he build on it - or even match it? Eventually, one of them will and that horse might just win the Champion Hurdle.
We learned nothing relevant about Volnay De Thaix's Cheltenham novice hurdle chances in terms of the standard of his ability, save that - albeit unpestered at his hurdles - he is a good or clever jumper, as needed.
The maiden hurdle Wilde Blue Yonder won has produced some serious performers in the past and this year's renewal appeared quite deep. He jumped (bar the last), travelled and fought well. More evidence, please.
Calipto made a highly proficient UK debut at Newbury, even if the second and third softened each other up by taking each other on. He fluffed the last but otherwise jumped well. Paul Nicholls sounded a word of warning about running horses without Flat experience in a race as demanding as the Triumph - a potential weakness that Nick Williams has cited with his past contenders. The upshot of this is: ante-post punters beware that the 2014 Chletenham Festival is not an overriding target.
That is a very likely engagement for the Willie Mullins-trained filly, Analifet, who enhanced her reputation with victory at Fairyhouse on Sunday. She is a deft jumper when she gets her hurdles right, wasting no time in the air and clocked a good time. Her shortened Cheltenham odds look fully justified.
Activial's performance in finishing second to Calipto should not be overlooked; he might have put up even more of a fight had he not been locked in a duel with Chocala from so far out. This was his hurdling debut and he's worth monitoring with half a mind on the Fred Winter