Ben Linfoot is looking forward to an unusually competitive renewal of the Clarence House Chase at Ascot, while trying to remember the best Flat horses to go hurdling in recent years.
There should be some Elite Sport at Ascot on Saturday. That hasn’t always been the case in the Clarence House Chase since it was upgraded to a Grade One conditions race in 2008 – elite winners, no doubt, but Elite Sport? There have been too many no-contests for such a description to pass muster.
Like in 2009 when Master Minded won a four-runner renewal by 16 lengths at odds of 1/4. Or when Sprinter Sacre beat Mad Moose – yes, Mad Moose! – by 14 lengths at 1/5 in 2013. Un De Sceaux’s Clarence House hat-trick was particularly one-sided in 2018. And a year later Altior beat just two rivals at odds of 1/10 when in cruise control.
More exhibition than competition.
There have been some memorable renewals, too. Somersby being beaten a short head by Master Minded in 2011 sticks out a mile and Henrietta Knight’s horse gaining his first and only Grade One at the eighth attempt a year later is also towards the top of this race’s highlights reel. Then there was Sire De Grugy’s impressive win in 2014 and Un De Sceaux’s demolition job over Gary Moore’s horse two years later, as well.
But Saturday’s contest – and it should be a contest – could top the lot. In Politologue, Waiting Patiently and Defi Du Seuil we have three chasers nudging a rating of 170 and cases can be made for all of them on their very best form, which makes for a riveting renewal.
The most solid is Politologue, currently top of the tree in the two-mile chasing division – amongst those trained in the UK at least. The current Champion Chaser looked as good as ever at Sandown in the Betfair Tingle Creek and he raised his level to a new high at the age of nine following a change in his training routine.
Paul Nicholls thinks he’s found the key and there’s no doubting that Politologue has all the tools required to thrive at this test given he’s jumping - and finishing off his races - so well. Harry Cobden, back on board with Harry Skelton committing to Nube Negra in the Champion Chase, will be looking forward to riding this new model given he rode the grey to four defeats either side of his wind surgery.
It’s probably fair to say that Politologue didn’t beat a horse as good as Waiting Patiently in either the Champion Chase or the Tingle Creek. Defi Du Seuil might have something to say about that, but we’ll get onto him in a moment.
For Waiting Patiently deserves to be positioned second in the billing following his superb reappearance in the King George on the back of 385 days off the track last month. He was keen at Kempton, the stop-start gallop didn’t particularly suit him and he still ran on for a never-nearer second at the line.
A ‘headache’ to train according to Ruth Jefferson, she’s keen to strike while the iron is hot and has supplemented the 10-year-old given he’s going so well at home. The drop back to a two-mile trip is the question mark with him, but going a yard quicker could help him settle better and he was only beaten a length by a then in-form Defi Du Seuil in the 2019 Tingle Creek.
There is little doubt that he needs a strong gallop to aim at over two miles and 167 yards, but he should get that on Saturday with Politologue, First Flow, Bun Doran and Duc Des Genievres all likely to want to get on with things. It could work out nicely for him. The more I think about this, the more I think he’s the bet at around 5/2 or even 11/4 if you’re lucky.
Waiting Patiently, remember, has struck at Grade One level before and at this track. He won the Betfair Ascot Chase over 2m5f in the February of 2018 from Cue Card – a rare victory for a northern-trained horse in what have been lean times.
Indeed, since that win for Waiting Patiently almost three years ago, northern-based trainers have had two winners (Cornerstone Lad and Simply Ned) from 45 representatives in Grade Ones. Willie Mullins has had 73 top-level winners in the same timeframe. Northern stables have struggled to get their hands on anything elite, but Waiting Patiently, who will be running in his seventh consecutive Grade One on Saturday, certainly bucks the trend.
Talking of lean times, this has not been an easy season for Philip Hobbs. His November tally of nine winners was his lowest total for that month since 2009, although one of those was at least Thyme Hill who looks a proper candidate for Grade One honours this season.
His other bona fide Grade One horse is Defi Du Seuil, who drifts between the sublime and the ridiculous like the current Liverpool team. Last season he was so good he was sent off the 2/5 favourite for the Champion Chase, but barely raised a leg in that race when down the field in fourth and then was even worse than that when showing no fizz whatsoever in his seasonal reappearance in the Shloer.
Like Jurgen Klopp, Hobbs is desperately trying to find the answers. He’s had a two-month break since his latest Cheltenham flop and now he’s back at Ascot, where he was so impressive in this race last year when seeing off triple winner Un De Sceaux, who was still throwing some serious punches at the age of 12.
That Defi Du Seuil is a threat to all, but who knows if he will turn up.
Away from the big three there are some interesting horses trying to bridge a considerable gap.
Like the improving First Flow, a winner of his last five starts over fences. Like Fanion D’Estruval, lightly-raced enough to be considered a fly in the ointment. And Duc Des Genievres, the 13-length 2019 Arkle winner who has shown glimpses of that ability in two starts for his new trainer.
But he’s obviously not the elite contender from Ditcheat. Politologue very much deserves that mantle.
This is a cracking renewal of the Clarence House, though, and if he is to add his name to the illustrious roll of honour, it looks likely that’ll he’ll have had to work harder for it than a fair few of those with their names already engraved on the trophy from seasons' past.
Opportunities to be sold abroad and the rise of all-weather racing have contributed to fewer top-quality Flat horses switching codes to the jumps in recent years.
I’ve been racking my brains for the best to have had a go this century and Graham Wylie’s Percussionist, fourth in the Derby for John Gosden and rated 118 on the level, springs to mind, while Nichols Canyon, bought by the same owner from the same source, was a 111-rated Flat horse who successfully transferred his ability to hurdles, winning the Stayers’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival in 2017.
The ill-fated Sir Erec was a high-profile 109-rated horse on the level for Aidan O’Brien and looked to have the world at his feet for son Joseph before he was fatally injured in the 2019 Triumph, where he was sent off the 11/10 favourite on the back of a Grade One win. Landofhopeandglory (103 on the Flat) was another to make the switch between O’Briens for JP McManus.
Forgotten Voice was a 113-rated Flat horse for Jeremy Noseda who won the Dovecote for Nicky Henderson in his best hurdles run at Kempton, while there have been some cracking dual-purpose horses like Overturn, Clondaw Warrior and Simenon, too.
The point is there haven’t been an awful lot of 99-plus rated Flat horses to have made the switch in recent years, I’m certainly struggling to remember any more that were successful in both codes, so the opening bet365 Juvenile Hurdle at Ascot on Saturday is of some interest given it contains a handful of decent performers from the Flat.
All of the 10-strong field have come from Flat racing and four of them were rated 85 or over; Stepney Causeway (85), Vulcan (88), Punctuation (89) and Tritonic (99) being the quartet that achieved the most in their former careers.
The one of real interest is Tritonic, the best Flat horse in the race and one who should really be suited to the demands of hurdling. He handled soft ground well on the Flat, finishing second in such conditions at Royal Ascot in the Golden Gates Handicap last year, a position he filled twice more as he stepped up in trip and grade.
Trained by Alan King then as he is now, Tritonic couldn’t be in better hands. King’s work with the 84-rated Katchit is proof of that, so who knows, perhaps this will be the first step towards Tritonic becoming one of the better known horses to have successfully graduated to the jumps from Flat racing in recent years.