Felix emerges as Arkle value
Will Hayler reviews some of the principal races from the Christmas holiday period to try and find a future winner or two.
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Team Twiston-Davies might have been surprised by having to make much of their own running aboard The New One, but they were surely the only ones. My Tent Or Yours was simply never going to be asked to hit the front until as late as possible, while connections of the outsiders were probably terrified about getting too close to horses rated two stone or more their superiors.
In the event, Duke Of Navan took them along at a slow pace until Sam Twiston-Davies was forced to take the initiative three out - surely the right move on a horse who stays two miles very well. Indeed, it was a move that might well have paid off until they made a mess of the last and the momentum lost allowed My Tent Or Yours to pinch a crucial advantage.
As such, the slightly masochistic response of The New One's trainer and jockey in the immediate aftermath of the race was probably a little over the top, although putting a couple of possible pace options in the Champion Hurdle at the entry stage is a sensible precaution, even if the McManus or Mullins teams end up doing the same thing.
I'll look at the Ryanair Hurdle later, but even though the field all but ignored Captain Cee Bee for most of the way, the fact that he was allowed to build up such a big lead forced the field to get going after him from the third-last and meant the race ultimately proved a more thorough test than many similar Irish Grade Ones turn out to be.
My Tent Or Yours silenced some doubts - not least those confessed afterwards by Tony McCoy - over his resolution, in bravely holding off the renewed challenge of the runner-up.
He'll surely be better-suited by a big field and a good gallop at Cheltenham, although it was interesting that Nicky Henderson said after the race that he'd prefer to get another run into him before the Festival, so that he isn't too fizzed up by the time that the Stan James Champion Hurdle comes around. If Jezki, in the same ownership, goes to the BHP Insurance Irish Champion, that would rule out Leopardstown.
Tongue firmly in cheek, Henderson actually praised McCoy for having kept the winning margin down in order to prevent his rating from going up any further for Newbury's Betfair Hurdle, the race in which he produced such a visually-impressive performance last season.
There's clearly no prospect of him lining up in that contest again, not least because the handicapper actually put him up to 167 from 160 on the back of this victory, but it's interesting to idly ponder whether an 18lb higher mark really would have stopped him from winning last year's race.
I can't put it as precisely as Lydia Hislop did in her assessment of the race, but even if you think both The New One and My Tent Or Yours are short enough in the betting, we can only hope that both make it to the Festival in rude health, as they are two of the half-dozen-or-so contenders who are shaping up to make the Champion Hurdle a truly mouthwatering contest.
Which leads us nicely on to this. I'd already backed Jezki to win this race, before a telephone correspondence with the writer of our Irish Eyes column in the hours building up to the race.
I started off by apologising for toning down the degree of conviction with which he'd written about Hurricane Fly's certain impending victory and ended up being left so convinced by him that the favourite would win that I was thankfully forced to rescue my stake on Jezki with a late saver bet.
One thing I took out of the race was the prickle in the voice of both Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh when they were asked after the race whether they felt Hurricane Fly's achievements had been under-valued.
Mullins, in particular, had clearly taken umbrage at some of the things said or written about his flagbearer and saw this victory as justification of his unusually bullish pre-season suggestions that the horse might even be better than ever this season.
Whether as punters, fans of the sport, or both, we all form judgements every day about horses - as well as jockeys and trainers - and we use those judgements to try and predict the outcome of races.
My judgement was that in last season's Champion Hurdle, it looked like Hurricane Fly might have lost either a degree of his electric turn of foot, gained one or two ideas of his own about the game, or both. It now appears that my judgement was wrong.
Jezki stayed on strongly once McCoy had extracted him from the sandwich between Our Conor and Captain Cee Bee, but the truth is that Jezki simply didn't have the pace to get himself out of that mess. McCoy was first to react to Captain Cee Bee's clear lead and took pole position among the chasing pack, but his mount couldn't match the cruising pace of Hurricane Fly or Our Conor.
That's not to say Jezki is necessarily guaranteed to finish behind Hurricane Fly at Cheltenham, or indeed in the Irish Champion Hurdle where they are scheduled to meet again. He was undoubtedly closing in on the winner close home and I wouldn't be certain that McCoy would necessarily choose My Tent Or Yours ahead of him for the Champion at this stage.
However, given that Mullins has been proven quite so right in his forecasts for the season ahead with Hurricane Fly, it's hard not to believe him when he says that his charge has plenty of improvement still left in him this season.
Given that this race fell precisely between the Christmas Hurdle and King George, you can be easily forgiven for letting this one slip through your television schedule for the day. But if you haven't yet seen the replay, you should do so now.
There was a degree of implied criticism of Walsh's ride from Champagne Fever's trainer Willie Mullins after this defeat, perhaps rightly so.
Not only did the jockey have chances to seize the initiative from an earlier stage - not least when Defy Logic pecked at the third-last fence - but he also looked to be caught napping when his mount made a mistake at the next. Mark Walsh seized the initiative and Champagne Fever was simply unable to find the sudden change of gear required while at the same time trying to regain equilibrium.
Walsh gets it right 99 times out of 100 and very, very right on most of those. But, for me, this was 'the one'.
Trifolium was quite an eyecatching runner-up, but the way that he and Art of Logistics - and, to an extent, Ted Veale too - closed up in the final stages suggests that the first two were probably going quicker than they looked as they exchanged blows down the far side.
Interestingly, Champagne Fever will now go up in trip for his next start and that surely opens the door for stablemate Felix Yonger to instead emerge as his stable's number one Racing Post Arkle Trophy hope, having looked to get outstayed over two and a half miles last time out.
His earlier defeats of both Defy Logic and Trifolium now look really excellent form and, although he missed last season through injury, he showed himself not lacking in speed when second to Simonsig (and 11 lengths clear of the remainder) in the Neptune at the 2012 Festival.
Frankly, I'm struggling to see why, at 10/1, he is a longer price than Defy Logic, for the Arkle, not least when even Mullins has admitted in an interview "we look to have a pretty solid candidate for the Arkle" in him.
We've got so used to saying 'stamina won the day' for Bobs Worth, that it is worth emphasising that it was pure ability rather than his relentless staying power that brought him victory in the Lexus Chase.
Rubi Ball was given a brilliant ride from the front by Ruby Walsh, but set off at such a dawdle that turning for home, there was no more than five lengths covering the entire field.
As such, the pace of the race increased dramatically and suddenly two out, and Bobs Worth was among those to come under pressure most immediately.
But brought wide to get a good luck at his rivals and the final fence, he surged home to get the better of Rubi Ball and a resurgent First Lieutenant and would have won by 15 lengths had the race been run over half a furlong further.
This was a first-class performance and he's going to take an incredible amount of beating in his bid to land back-to-back Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cups.
Sir Des Champs didn't run at all badly on what was effectively his first start of the season and looks still to be crying out for better ground.
Another horse to run really well on his reappearance was fifth-home Lyreen Legend, who reversed RSA Chase form with Lord Windermere and will surely break his Grade One duck soon.
I wouldn't put it past him to reverse the form with some of those who finished in front of him if he does head next for the Irish Hennessy.
As I've written previously, I can no more answer the question as to what happened to Cue Card in this contest than anyone else can. If Joe Tizzard feels he stayed the trip - and he argues that they weren't really losing any further ground behind the winner on the run-in once headed before the last fence - then I won't disagree. But I couldn't dream of backing him for the Gold Cup.
Of course, his participation in that race is in itself uncertain and bookmakers have him a firm favourite to run in the Ryanair Chase.
Take him out of the Ryanair and you're suddenly betting 8/1 the field, so if you believe - as I do - that Cue Card will bid for the blue riband, then there must be value in the market for the two-and-a-half-mile race.
Al Ferof, third in the King George, looked to have quite a gruelling time but will surely appreciate the return to a left-handed track. If you knew he was an intended runner than 8/1 might well appeal, but it's complete guesswork and connections might well opt to wait for the Betfred Bowl at Aintree.
Other worthy mentions:
Champagne West won his Pertemps Qualifier effortlessly at Wincanton on Boxing Day. He'll just about get in at the foot of the weights for the Final at the Festival and could yet be anything.
Tantamount was set plenty to do when second to Any Given Moment on New Year's Day at Musselburgh but knuckled down to the task bravely. He'd previously been very impressive at Aintree and, even if he goes up another couple of pounds in the weights, can get back on the winning trail next time.
Urban Hymn beat a couple of smart sorts without coming off the bridle in very testing conditions at Haydock. Some within the Malcolm Jefferson yard consider him the superior of Oscar Rock, a very useful prospect himself. When Malcolm Jefferson says he'll have an easy time this season before going over fences at the end of this year, I believe him, even though plenty of trainers find themselves unable to resist the temptation of a tilt at one top prize.
Oiseau De Nuit was by far the best of the rest behind Sire De Grugy in the Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton. The very testing conditions would not have suited him as well as spring ground will and Colin Tizzard has got this old boy back in excellent form. By no means could he be said to be well-handicapped off a mark 5lb higher than when third in last year's Grand Annual, but he's not one to put a line through yet.