Lydia Hislop's Road To Cheltenham
Lydia Hislop rates one of this weekend's winners worth a bet right now for the Festival. Check out her latest 'Road To Cheltenham' update.
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This was a week when various unexposed horses either staked their claims as contenders for this season's significant targets or else saw their lightly-built reputations take a serious knock. Among the established stars, it was the hurdlers who took centre stage.
The stanjames.com International Hurdle still boiled down to a match, despite the welcome addition of two French raiders. (Hopefully, France's training corps will not be discouraged from running their horses at Cheltenham, or elsewhere in Britain, because of the ill luck they suffered to a greater or lesser extent on Saturday.)
There was a slow pace that at least partially allowed in-form Jumps Road to stick with the headliners for longer than was seemly.
Brendan Powell jnr, his rider, was also partially responsible for inhibiting the chances of Zarkandar by attempting to burrow between that horse and the preferred stands' side rail. Powell earned a three-day ban and some choice words from Daryl Jacob, whose mount was entirely unbalanced by the manoeuvre.
That also contributed to The New One hitting the front earlier than ideal, so he did well to draw away from Zarkandar's renewed challenge by six lengths. He will be better suited by the likely stronger pace and more sustained competition of the Champion Hurdle. He also benefits from the tactical reflections of his thoughtful and talented young rider, Sam Twiston-Davies.
However, we learned nothing new, given The New One's strike-rate already showed that he finds ways to win in a variety of circumstances - a champion's trait.
Trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies is the human being least likely ever to utter "we'll put him away until Cheltenham", so he has signed up to a clash with My Tent Or Yours in the Christmas Hurdle. All power to him.
Given the staying crown is the stated aim for Zarkandar, his chances on Saturday were surely compromised not just by the hefty interference he suffered but also by the fact his rider slowed the pace down mid-race. He has been a consistent horse of late, with or without blinkers, but this was a below-par effort with excuses. Whether he will stay three miles remains an unknown. Perhaps we might find out in the Cleeve Hurdle?
Whatever, the most convincing World Hurdle bid came from More Of That, winner of the closing Osborne House Relkeel Hurdle on Cheltenham's Saturday card. Now unbeaten in four starts, this five-year-old is highly progressive and beat Salubrious - no slouch, advantageously ridden - comfortably. Quotes of 14/1 from many bookmakers in the immediate aftermath were generous, perhaps confused by owner JP McManus already having At Fishers Cross for the World Hurdle.
That is undoubtedly an element of uncertainty but if you're prepared to take the chance that More Of That will run, the still-available 12/1 underestimates his ability.
He has both stayers and speedier types in his pedigree, but the evidence of his runs so far suggests he will improve again for a step up in trip and, unlike many of the principals in this ante-post market, his best days are ahead. He definitely heads for the Cleeve.
There is nothing to dislike about Kings Palace, winner of Saturday's Albert Bartlett Grade Two Novices' Hurdle at Cheltenham and unbeaten this season. He stays well, handles a variety of ground - although trainer David Pipe believes some cut would be an advantage - and is clearly very good.
Yet the most intoxicating of his assets is the speed and efficiency of his hurdling. That ability will help him hold a prominent position in the deeper waters of a Festival race without Tom Scudamore asking him to go too fast.
Perhaps uniquely, there may be no ambiguity of target for this Pipe horse because the Albert Bartlett is the overwhelmingly obvious target and has already been cited.
5/1 is not an exciting ante-post price but it is a realistic one. He's worth a bet right now.
Briar Hill, last season's Festival Bumper winner, is second favourite in the same market and also won last week in a Grade One match at Navan. He made his own running, which may not have suited but, given he was unchallenged at his hurdles, his jumping was only adequate - barring a good one at the last, offering some hope of improvement.
He responded likeably when briefly threatened by his sole rival, who had tried to run out earlier, but is currently priced up (also in the Neptune) on his bumper form rather than what he has achieved over obstacles. He runs as though three miles would be to his advantage and remains a credible Festival candidate at this stage.
Milan Bound finished fourth behind Kings Palace on Saturday, is better than the bare margin and worth bearing in mind for one of the handicaps.
Good luck in working out the strict hierarchy in last Friday's British Stallion Studs EBF NH Novices' Hurdle at Cheltenham, in which Ballyalton beat Garde La Victoire by a neck. The pace was slow, making hard and fast conclusions dicey. However, both they and third-placed Cocktails At Dawn clearly have ability.
The Ryman Stationery Novices' Chase at Cheltenham on Saturday was a fascinating re-run of the November clash on the Old course between the 1-2-3 Le Bec, Shutthefrontdoor and Sam Winner.
That day's third came out on top this time by four lengths, with the runner-up Le Bec on 3lb worse terms for his previous success. Shutthefrontdoor ran badly. This form-line is destined to perpetual under-estimation, meaning there is no rush to get involved for the RSA Chase ante-post just yet.
Paul Nicholls has long deemed Sam Winner a candidate for the four-mile National Hunt Chase, for which he ranges between 8/1 and 12/1. This projected campaign may partly account for why Sam Winner trades at upwards of 16/1 on some books for the RSA Chase and 20/1 is still available about Le Bec.
However, the times clocked by Le Bec in November and Sam Winner on Saturday strongly suggest that this is realistic RSA Chase form. Nicholls' talk of targets implies that Just A Par, for example, is deemed the superior horse but pecking orders are fluid at this stage.
Sam Winner himself proved that he can hold his form after a promising debut - something he struggled with, returning from injury, last season - and that he is going to make the grade as a chaser - something that looked unlikely after he hit the deck on both his first attempts.
Le Bec was conceding a total of 8lb to Sam Winner and did not jump as well early on as he did in November. However, he did once again show that his jumping was, encouragingly, more assured when under pressure and he is likely to get the soundish surface he likes at the Festival. He remains a realistic RSA candidate.
Shutthefrontdoor was the major disappointment, not jumping as well as on either of his previous starts and very quickly beaten. He may not have enjoyed the New course as much as the Old (the RSA chase venue), probably found the ground too quick and/or a problem may come to light. Pushing him out to 33/1 for the first bad run of his life may in time prove to have been an over-reaction.
African Gold, fourth to Le Bec at Cheltenham in November and fancied at the start of the season for the RSA Chase, was probably taking command of the race when falling three out at Uttoxeter on Tuesday. He was in the process of running better than last time but connections have a lot of work yet to do.
On Friday, Oscar Whisky beat Wonderful Charm in the Ryman Stationery Cheltenham Business Club Novices' Chase.
The winner will rarely get such an opportunity to dictate his own pace and measurement of his fences, dictating unmolested from the start. He was safe but not fluid at his fences and jumped to his right on several occasions - a big Festival concern. He still fails to convince me that he will be as good a chaser as he is (or was) as a hurdler. It all looks like too much of a feat of effortful concentration at the moment.
Wonderful Charm jumped Cheltenham better than I thought he would after watching his Newbury success, so I'm going to mark that opinion down as incorrect. However, doughty though his half-length second conceding 8lb to a far-superior hurdler was, it might be over-rated form. He reportedly heads straight for the Jewson, although he will also get an entry in the RSA Chase.
Close House, who is built to excel over fences rather than hurdles, was not yet beaten when falling four out behind Oscar Whisky. He's interesting, although he became disappointing over hurdles and may need deep ground to excel.
The most serious shake-up in the Festival's ante-post betting came in the Triumph as a result of what happened to hitherto-favourite Royal Irish Hussar in Doncaster's BetVictor Summit Juvenile Hurdle last Saturday.
He was beaten fair and square, just as winning trainer Nick Williams predicted. With a flourish of forthrightness, he had asserted on Friday that he would be "disappointed" if Fox Norton did not reverse his Market Rasen form with Royal Irish Hussar given his 8lb pull at the weights.
He was not disappointed: his previous conqueror proved no competition. Instead, it was another of John Ferguson's talented Darley recruits who gave him a fight.
Fox Norton may not race again until the Triumph, for which he would need to improve - but not out of all recognition - to play an active part in most renewals. The upsides are that his lightly-raced profile and Williams' modus operandi strongly indicate he is likely to progress. The downside is that, as Williams has pointed out many times before, a juvenile without experience of the Flat is at a disadvantage in the rough and tumble of a Triumph.
That theoretically makes runner-up Broughton a very interesting proposition. He was receiving 7lb from Fox Norton and, not surprisingly on his debut, wasn't as confident at his hurdles as the winner.
He is hardened from a Flat campaign under Mark Johnston, but even that trainer admitted Broughton's profile was patchy. The way the horse hung left under pressure and flashed his tail at Doncaster, with Denis O'Regan having delayed resort to the whip as long as possible, suggests he may not be straightforward. Stamina might also be an issue at more testing tracks.
It would be foolish utterly to dismiss Ballyglasheen's defeat of Kentucky Hyden at Cheltenham as form not worthy of a Festival race. The time for a three-year-old was comparatively good and he clearly improved for test of stamina that had been lacking in his past visits to Ludlow. The runner-up was conceding 4lb on the quickest ground he would have yet encountered in his short career. This race might be under-rated as a good Fred Winter indicator.
The third, Commissioned, was making his hurdling debut and would have been closer had his relatively inexperienced rider not made the tactically naïve move of trying to rob Barry Geraghty of the stands' rail.
That forced him to check and his horse to jump the final flight blind. Watch the slightly timid-looking Commissioned to see whether he builds on this experience next time. He is lightly raced and an interesting addition to Team Ferguson.