With just 71 days to go until the 2021 Cheltenham Festival we're counting down with a daily feature focused on those special four days in March.
The Savills Chase was the race of Christmas week in Ireland. It was a race that had everything: quality in-depth, a thrilling finish, a worthy winner.
Just about every top-class staying chaser in Ireland - with one notable exception, more of whom anon - was in there among the entries, and you thought, if they all line up, it will be some race. They did and it was. There were 14 runners, it was the biggest field that had ever been assembled in the 28-year history of the race in its current guise, and 10 of the 14 went into the race with an official rating of 160 or higher.
The main unknown concerning A Plus Tard beforehand was whether or not he would have the stamina for three miles at the highest level. Henry de Bromhead’s horse had run over three miles once before, when he was well beaten by Delta Work in the Grade 1 staying novices’ chase at the 2019 Punchestown Festival, but he was only five then, and it was at the end of the season. It may have been that he just under-performed that day. Also, that was going right-handed, his form tells you that he is better going left than going right. It is not a coincidence that his trainer has not run him at a right-handed track since.
The Cheveley Park Stud’s horse stayed two and a half miles well when he won the Close Brothers Chase at the 2019 Cheltenham Festival, and he wasn’t stopping at the end of the Ryanair Chase last March, when he was beaten less than two lengths by Min. Also, two miles looked sharp enough for him when he finished second to Castlegrace Paddy in the Fortria Chase on his debut this season. So it was certainly worth trying him over three miles again.
He stayed all right. He stayed well. He had to stay. Under a confident and patient ride by Darragh O’Keeffe, who was riding his first Grade One winner, who was riding in his first Grade One race, he made up about four lengths on Kemboy between the landing side of the final fence and the winning line, and he hit the line strongly.
You have to think Cheltenham Gold Cup. He has a really good profile for the race now. Of course, the 66/1 that was available about him for the Blue Riband before the Savills Chase has long since gone, as has the 16/1 that was available directly afterwards, but the 10/1 and 12/1 that is available now still looks big.
He is a seven-year-old who has top class form over shorter distances. He has won a Close Brothers Chase, he has run really well in a Ryanair Chase and, remember, he beat Chacun Pour Soi in the Paddy’s Rewards Club Chase over two miles and a furlong at last year’s Christmas Festival at Leopardstown.
As such, he has a similar profile to past Gold Cup winners Sizing John, Kicking King and War Of Attrition before they won their respective Gold Cups, and to multiple Best Mate and Kauto Star before their first. Kauto Star won the Tingle Creek Chase and was favourite for the Champion Chase the season before he won his first Gold Cup, while Best Mate would have been favourite for the Arkle the year before he won his first, had Foot and Mouth not intervened.
As well as that, A Plus Tard has top class Cheltenham Festival form, and he is trained by a top class trainer. He has lots in his favour.
You wouldn’t go giving up on A Plus Tard’s stable companion either, Minella Indo, as a Gold Cup contender. It was just one of those things at the fence past the stands. An uncharacteristic lapse. He had never fallen before. He is usually such a good jumper of his fences.
Barry Maloney’s horse will probably have another run now before Cheltenham. The Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown’s Dublin Racing Festival is the obvious race for him, but there are other options, like the Kinloch Brae Chase at Thurles later this month and the Red Mills Chase at Gowran Park next month. He remains an exciting talent and, only just beaten by Champ in the RSA Chase last March, he remains a live Gold Cup prospect.
The perennial who is Al Boum Photo did more or less all he needed to do in the (other) Savills Chase at Tramore on New Year’s Day. Willie Mullins’ horse is a metronome: shows up, wins his race, goes home. Now you see me.
His route to the Cheltenham Gold Cup first time around in 2019 via the Savills Chase on New Year’s Day at Tramore, and nothing else, may have been down to happenstance. He didn’t take up his intended engagement in the Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown that year because of the unseasonable weather and ground. But, having happened upon a successful Gold Cup formula after years of trying and six visits to the runner-up’s spot, it is not wholly surprising that Willie Mullins was not apt to change.
Last year, the Donnellys’ horse took the same stepping-stone, Savills Chase, Cheltenham Gold Cup, with the same result. This year, same again. If it ain’t broke. Al Boum Photo still sets the Gold standard.
The Champion Hurdle jigsaw box got a good old shaking over Christmas. After Epatante’s defeat in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton on St Stephen’s Day, for which she had a legitimate excuse, the Irish second-season hurdlers’ odds were cut across the board: Saint Roi to 5/1 and 6/1, Abacadabras to 6/1 and 7/1. A convincing victory for either horse in the Matheson Hurdle on the fourth and final day of Leopardstown’s Christmas Festival would have seen his odds shorten further.
The market focussed on the two of them, old sparring partners, on which of them would emerge on top on this occasion after Abacadabras had claimed the spoils in a somewhat inconclusive Morgiana Hurdle in November. Saint Roi won their private duel this time, but neither made the podium, and it was Saint Roi’s stable companion Sharjah who took the laurels.
Easy in hindsight, but the market had under-estimated Sharjah. The market often under-estimates Sharjah. Willie Mullins’ horse, a four-time Grade One winner now and a Champion Hurdle runner-up, has been sent off as favourite just four times in his 30-race career.
When he won the Matheson Hurdle last Tuesday, he was winning the race for the third time on the bounce, and he has never been sent off as favourite for it. And he would have won the Grade One novices’ hurdle at Leopardstown’s 2017 Christmas Festival had he not come down at the final flight. He was the highest rated horse going into the race, he was rated 5lb superior to the second highest rated horse, and he was sent off as third favourite.
You could have argued a little while ago that Susannah Ricci’s horse was a better horse at Leopardstown than he was anywhere else, that he was unproven at Cheltenham, and point to the fact that he did only finish eighth in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle in 2018. But that was before last March, when he probably put up a career-best performance in coming from the rear to finish second to Epatante in the Champion Hurdle.
He was impressive in landing the Matheson Hurdle, he travelled supremely well into the race for Patrick Mullins and he showed that turn of foot, and you have to include him in Champion Hurdle calculations.
And speaking of the Ricci/Mullins axis, Chacun Pour Soi cemented his position at the top of the two-mile chasers’ tree with a seriously impressive performance in landing the Paddy’s Rewards Club Chase.
In Notebook and Put The Kettle On - the latter re-routed from a joust with Altior at Kempton - he faced a couple of worthy adversaries, stable companions, both coming into the race on the back of seasonal-debut victories. But Chacun Pour Soi had himself dotted up in the Hilly Way Chase at Cork on his seasonal bow, unlike last season, when he started off here and probably got done for race fitness by the aforementioned A Plus Tard.
You felt that, given Notebook’s two-for-two record at Leopardstown, this was as good a chance as he would ever have to lower Chacun Pour Soi’s colours, and the Gigginstown House horse ran well but, in truth, he was no match for the Willie Mullins horse. The pair of them eyeballed each other over the third, fourth and fifth fences in the back straight, steeplechasing’s sprinters going toe-to-toe and jumping with ease and accuracy. But Chacun Pour Soi jumped on at the second last fence, the usual third last, and, by the time he landed over what was the last fence, before he turned to face the sun and past the usual last fence, he had all his rivals under pressure and the race in the bag.
Chacun Pour Soi has never run at Cheltenham, and there was the frustration of the 11th-hour Champion Chase scratching last March when he held the favourite’s armband. That said, he is a huge talent and it is correct that he is clear favourite for this year’s race.
Put The Kettle On kept on to take third place, less than two lengths behind Notebook. It looks like the Champion Chase is still her Cheltenham Festival target, not the Mares’ Chase, and that makes sense. Two miles is her trip, a stiff, truly-run two miles, not two and a half miles, and she is dynamite at Cheltenham. She is unbeaten in three runs there, in an Arkle Trial, an Arkle and a Shloer Chase.
She may not have got due credit for winning the Arkle last March, possibly because she was a 16/1 shot, possibly because Fakir D’Oudairies made a significant mistake at the second last fence when he was challenging. But she won well, she was going away again inside the final 25 yards, and she beat her now 160-rated rival by one and a half lengths, with the now 163-rated Rouge Vif 18 lengths back in third.
Also, the winning time was good. It compared favourably with the time that Politologue clocked in winning the Champion Chase the following day on ground that was estimated to be similar. Politologue was admittedly carrying 13lb more than Put The Kettle On carried last, but he will carry 7lb more than her if they both line up in the same race this March, and Henry de Bromhead’s mare remains one of the more interesting Champion Chase outsiders.