Lydia Hislop: Road to Cheltenham
Lydia Hislop reflects on last week's major action including Sire De Grugy, Arvika Ligeonnaire and a host of exciting novices.
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This was a week with its fair share of disappointments among the established stars, with both Sprinter Sacre and Flemenstar missing their intended engagements and Sir Des Champs failing to negotiate more than two fences. However, there was plenty to learn from the younger generations.
Cheltenham Gold Cup
Ante-post second favourite Sir Des Champs took a purler at the third in the John Durkan Memorial Chase at Punchestown on Sunday, the first fall of his career. He had already started to jump left - something he did on this right-handed track whilst still managing to beat Long Run in last season's Punchestown Gold Cup - before scarcely taking off at the third.
He has made mistakes in the past, particularly in deep ground, but jumped entirely competently on unsuitably soft going in last year's Gold Cup. Provided he is fine following his fall - which is clearly far from ideal - his Gold Cup credentials still rest on the notion that he will be a better horse on a sound surface and returned to Cheltenham, a track that suits him perfectly.
Harry Topper's fringe Gold Cup credentials took a severe knock at Sandown last Friday. He had jumped poorly in the Charlie Hall and yet still managed to win. On this occasion, at a more demanding jumping track, he barely got a fence right even though he only had two rivals to harry him. Kim Bailey will have his work cut out in teaching this horse to realise his latent potential. His pupil doesn't seem to be learning, however.
In accounting with a surging finish for Rolling Aces, who jumped and ran well, Vino Griego put himself into outer Gold Cup territory. He has more than his fair share of jumping issues, but he's actually run consistently well over fences on Cheltenham's New Course. His record there reads: 212. His Old Course record reads: 6458UF.
This is nothing new - Poquelin and The Giant Bolster are just two examples of horses that found the tighter Old Course less conducive than its sister. Luckily for Vino Griego, both the Gold Cup and Argento Chase, his potential next target, are staged on the New Course.
At Sandown, he clocked a good time and was strong at the finish, suggesting that trips of three miles and beyond may suit him best now. It's hard to regard him as a credible Gold Cup winner but he could run creditably.
Unioniste's defeat of Wishfull Thinking was convincing but it's hard to imagine him suddenly improving into a Gold Cup type.
Katenko doesn't appear good enough - whether that awful bout of colic has robbed him of some ability, we may never know. Not uncharacteristically, The Giant Bolster came a cropper. As mentioned above, a glance at his form has long betrayed that tracks like Aintree and Cheltenham's Old Course clearly do not suit him. Like Vino Griego, he should run well in the Argento and Gold Cup without being on your mind as the winner (of the latter, at least).
Queen Mother Champion Chase
It was a great shame that poor results from what was described as a routine tracheal wash prevented Sprinter Sacre from making his seasonal debut, as intended, in last Saturday's Tingle Creek. In his absence, the race itself was more competitive.
The winner, Sire De Grugy, is an improved performer this season and a credible BetVictor Champion Chase candidate in any normal generation. Sadly for him, this is anything but.
The ante-post favourite would have to seriously underperform (or not run) for him to figure, so it was disappointing but no surprise to hear Gary Moore is planning on swerving Cheltenham for a French campaign. Although he was the best horse at the weights when conceding 10lb and beaten by Kid Cassidy at Cheltenham last month, Sire De Grugy didn't look entirely comfortable there either, which probably makes easier the decision to duck.
Somersby, the Sandown runner-up, was playing catch-up after a mistake at the Pond fence, and Captain Conan, the third, put in one of his weak finishes albeit on his seasonal debut. Neither can be on your mind.
It was left to Arvika Ligeonniere to benefit from Flemenstar's absence (due to a knock on his off foreleg) and Sir Des Champs' fall in the John Durkan. He jumped beautifully, bar for one slight error, but was entirely unpressured at his fences.
Trainer Willie Mullins has said in the past that this horse requires a right-handed track and soft ground to be at his best. The formbook bears him out so trimmed prices for the Champion Chase can be safely ignored - albeit that opposition to Sprinter Sacre is diminishing apace. Something will have to finish second.
Hinterland is a second-season novice and enjoying the benefit of his experience. He confirmed the impression that he had Grandouet's measure (before the latter fell on their previous encounter) with victory in last Saturday's Henry VIII Novices' Chase.
He jumps in a low and efficient manner that mostly convinces as sound. In fact, it was his willingness to have a cut at his fences, especially at the last, which proved the difference between him and Grandouet, who was safe and a touch ponderous.
The runner-up was coming back as the line approached and clearly retains a lot of raw ability. You wonder whether things may take a while truly to click for Grandouet over fences, if they ever do, compared with his best hurdles form. Paradoxically, given he loses rather than gains ground at his fences, the final Cheltenham hill - the same one that many have wondered whether he truly gets up - will be his friend at the end of the Arkle, helping him to claw back lost ground.....but probably too late.
Hinterland's time was quicker than Sire De Grugy's in the Tingle Creek and both he and Grandouet are shaping up to be credible, if not terrifying, Arkle challengers to Champagne Fever. The Punchestown chase debut of Willie Mullins' dual Festival winner hinted that he is heading for the top among the two-mile novices.
The likeable Taquin Du Seuil, third in the same Sandown race, appeared to lack the pace for two miles on good ground. He was unfortunate at the second of the three Railway fences, stumbling on landing and then pecking, thus losing position and impetus at a crucial time. The mistake seemed to come about because he was slightly on the stretch.
The Jewson, over two-and-a-half miles, looks his likeliest Festival target. His Cheltenham defeat of Oscar Whisky to some extent assuages the concern of his below-par effort in last season's Neptune, but it might be that he needs some cut to be at his best.
Claret Cloak jumped well save for the Pond fence but looks shy of this class, as does Balder Succes, who tended to go to his right at his fences and, having got the first of the Railways wrong, lacked fluency over the subsequent two (as is so often the way.) He was eased on the approach to the second last, so don't take the margin of defeat too literally. Manyriverstocross made mistakes and surely needs easing in grade.
Over in Ireland, Felix Yonger was the star novice turn of the week, doing everything right in winning over 2m1f at Navan. Although this was only a four-runner race, Trifolium (good enough to have been placed in the 2012 Supreme) set both a proper pace and a proper test for the odds-on favourite.
Ruby Walsh was subsequently minded that stepping back up in trip would help Felix Yonger. Two seasons ago, he finished a respectful seven-length second to Simonsig in the Neptune but missed last term with a splint problem. He is a highly credible candidate for the Jewson and although 10/1 is not compelling, it isn't fanciful.
Bright New Dawn jumped soundly when making all to win over 2m4f at Punchestown on Sunday, beating the equally determined Dogora by half a length. The winner looks set to be a better chaser than hurdler and is bred to improve at staying trips. He is an interesting contender for the 3m Topaz Novices' Chase at Leopardstown this Christmas.
Tony McCoy said, pithily, of Sunday's Warwick winner, Mr Mole: "He isn't a trier, but that's him." This horse, who wears his head at a jaunty angle, was cut to a desperately short 16s for the Arkle, a race in which he would most definitely need to try.
The Warwick runner-up Vuvokar, a four-year-old making his UK debut at one of our more demanding jumps tracks, showed promise for staying trips and is worth monitoring.
Nick Williams nominated the Racing4Rewards Novice Handicap Chase on the Tuesday of the Festival as the medium-term plan for The Italian Yob, following his win at Sandown on Friday. This horse jumped difficult Sandown immaculately but, as yet, is entirely unproven on left-handed tracks.
Faugheen is unbeaten in four starts now - a Point, a bumper and two hurdles - and boasts a tall reputation, like many (frequently with justification) from the Mullins yard. His jumping has frailties but it was better at Navan last Saturday, when dotting up against lesser rivals, than on his Punchestown debut. He's ante-post favourite for the Neptune and Albert Bartlett in many books, but more evidence in a better grade is required.
Stablemate Vautour jumped economically on his Irish debut on the same Navan card, unaffected by others' mistakes around him, and won the 2m maiden in straightforward fashion. Again, sterner tests await.
Worthy though Killala Quay is - and his Sandown success last Friday was likeable - he doesn't look good enough for a Grade One novice hurdle at the Festival.
Stand To Reason made an encouraging but belated start to his hurdling career at Wincanton, having been off for more than a year with a chipped hock. He didn't have much to beat and, given he seemed not to stay 12 furlongs on the Flat, might always be best at flat tracks where the emphasis is on speed.
It was a great weekend all round for Gary and Jamie Moore. Violet Dancer kicked off their Friday Sandown double with a convincing win in the opening juvenile hurdle. The margin of his superiority would have been greater had he not over-jumped the second last and buckled slightly. His positive response to that mishap reflects well on both his attitude and ability.
Connections' view that he ideally needs some cut in the ground is off-putting for a target such as the Triumph. However, it makes his intended next start - Chepstow's Finale Hurdle - an appealing proposition as that race tends to be staged in deep ground. This horse, a half-brother to the stable's decent and perpetually unheralded Chris Pea Green, might be underestimated in a race like that and he shouldn't be.
Gitane Du Berlais further advertised the overflowing talent at Mullins' yard with victory at Aintree on Saturday. She didn't beat much but jumped well and could have done no more than she did, in a fair time for a three-year-old filly carrying a penalty.