Lydia Hislop Road to Cheltenham: Min worth backing for Champion Chase

Min (left) is worth an each-way bet in the Champion Chase
Min (left) is worth an each-way bet in the Champion Chase

We take the next step along the Road to Cheltenham, with Min the latest addition to Lydia Hislop's ante-post portfolio.

Recommended bets: Road to Cheltenham

Min e/w at 12/1 for the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase (click here to back NRNB with Sky Bet)

This was a good week for the green-and-gold-hoops, especially in the novice-chasing landscape, while a couple of Gordon Elliott-trained novice hurdlers have also come to the fore and the juvenile scene appears to be heating up, at least in Ireland.

Entries have also this week been published for the Cheltenham Festival’s three championship hurdle events.

Magners Gold Cup

There’s little tangible to report in this section except running plans as a result of the entries being published last week. A total of 43 horses were engaged – the largest number since 2007 – and the winner will earn his or her connections the 1924 Gold Cup trophy that, we are told, after years shut away in a bank vault was acquired by Cheltenham in 2018. Which reminds me: must clear out that cupboard under the stairs.

When Paul Nicholls had his festive tidy-up, he clearly found Give Me A Copper hidden behind all those Christmas cards from Clive Smith. This horse hasn’t been sighted since winning a match on his second novice chase back in November 2017, when already a seven-year-old and having only his sixth career start. He currently holds no upcoming entries.

Back then, Nicholls admitted: "Give Me A Copper is not the easiest to train, but we'll look after him and he'll be all right. He could conceivably be an RSA horse and we'll get some experience into him."

Famous last words. Yet clearly this is a horse long held in some regard and at least this entry will please his original owner-trainer, Donal Coffey, who pronounced after his bumper win at Cork in 2016: "We'd sell anything if we got enough but if he isn't sold, we'll keep him for the Gold Cup! He's a horse who will definitely run in it some year." Strange to tell, the horse was indeed sold.

Give Me A Copper was one of four Magners Gold Cup entries for Nicholls alongside King George hero Clan Des Obeaux (in whom some of the former’s owners also hold a stake), Frodon and Black Corton. Assistant trainer Harry Derham was characteristically clear about the yard’s running plans when interviewed by the Racing Post for that useful collected-quotes feature that it runs alongside its Festival Pricewise column.

"It will be up to Mr Barber [Clan Des Obeaux’s primary owner] and Paul to decide if he’s going to have a run before Cheltenham. If he goes anywhere it will be the Denman Chase and he’s in good form," Derham said. "Frodon goes for the Cotswold Chase at the end of the month. If he proves he stays the trip, then the Gold Cup entry is there, but otherwise his target will be the Ryanair.

"We have always thought of Give Me A Copper as a high-class horse. If he were to win really well first time out then the Gold Cup is something we might consider."

Derham had also mentioned Black Corton would need to "get his season back on track" in Kempton’s Listed Chase last Saturday, his first outing since flopping in the Ladbrokes Trophy. This he did to some degree, however a five-length second to Top Notch – even if staying on well over an inadequate trip – was not Gold standard. All evidence suggests this is too rich for him.

Nicholls is the most successful active trainer in Gold Cup history with four winners – one less than the Tom Dreaper, who saddled the legendary Arkle to win three times (1964-66) as well as Prince Regent in 1946 and Fort Leney in 1968. Willie Mullins, on the other hand, is famously yet to win it despite 22 shots at the Cup to date. As mentioned last week, he’s responsible for nine entries, two more than Gordon Elliott.

Mullins has reiterated that two of his entries, Bellshill and Al Boum Photo, are likely to represent him in the Irish Gold Cup but also hinted that Savills Chase winner Kemboy could yet join them rather than head straight to Cheltenham as previously mooted. If this relatively dry weather lingers, it becomes more likely he’d also be given a shot at Leopardstown.

Elliott has been sparing with his Gold runners, winning the 2016 race with his first-ever representative, Don Cossack, and only fielding Outlander in each edition since. That horse is entered again but his main hope – happily for this column – is surely the mare Shattered Love, who goes straight to Cheltenham after returning from the Savills Chase with sore shins.

"For me, the ground will definitely be too quick to run her [in the Irish Gold Cup] and we'll go straight for the Gold Cup with her," Elliott said. "She's back hacking away steady. But I don't want to take a chance on that type of ground again with her, because I could mess the rest of the season up if I did."

The "for me" is a wise caveat when training for an owner with ideas of their own and other horses to deploy, like Gigginstown has and does, but hopefully they will concur with Elliott’s plan. Shattered Love won last year’s JLT under a similar regime – admittedly, without the minor setback – yet there’s still some 33/1 around for the Magners Gold Cup. Just saying.

Nicky Henderson, who’s twice won this race with Long Run in 2011 and Bobs Worth two years later, is one of three trainers to have entered a trio of horses – the others being Colin Tizzard, whose plans were discussed in last week’s column, and Noel Meade.

There are no changes to Might Bite’s itinerary – straight to the Gold Cup following the re-cauterisation of his soft palate – but Henderson reported "all options are open" for Terrefort, albeit he seemed to be leaning towards the Ryanair, and considers recent acquisition Valtor a potential candidate following his wide-margin UK debut success just before Christmas.

"Valtor was amazing at Ascot," he said. "I didn’t know what to expect with it being his first run in England for us [then] at the age of nine. He doesn’t show you a lot at home but I love horses like that and he’s a genuine stayer. The Grand National was the original plan but I might have blown that, so he’s entered in the Gold Cup. It’s too early to say whether he’ll run."

Valtor has got about a stone to find with Native River – even more on the titleholder’s peak form – and although that appeared to be a career best, it was his 32nd chase start. Unexposed he ain’t and he’s far more likely to be competitive in a National from a revised mark of 160 than here. Saturday’s Peter Marsh Chase, in which he’s set to carry top weight, may determine what happens next.

Meade’s trio includes recent Troytown winner Tout Est Permis – who heads for Saturday’s Grade Two 2m4f Horse & Jockey Hotel Chase (or Kinloch Brae, to those trying to navigate the formbook) after ducking all festive engagements – alongside the Irish Gold Cup-bound Road To Respect and Kerry National winner Snow Falcon, who’s more likely to run in the Ryanair.

As flagged last week, the 11 horses entered for the Kinloch Brae did not include 2017 Gold Cup victor Sizing John. Remember this horse hasn’t raced since found to be "distressed and clinically abnormal" after the 2017 Christmas/Savills/ex-Lexus Chase then missing Cheltenham due to a "hairline non-displaced fracture of his pelvis". All that for 16/1 NRNB.

The latest update sees Jessica Harrington planning to run him over two miles in a hot edition of the Dublin Chase next month. She’d also like to work Sizing John at Navan this weekend but, yet again, that "depends on what the ground is like". She added: "He seems in very good form at home and did plenty this morning, but getting him away is the thing."

Two previous Gold Cup-placed horses are again entered: last year’s staying-on third Anibale Fly, who could never have been expected to get involved over two miles on his reappearance last month, and 2017 runner-up Minella Rocco, who hasn’t been seen since falling in last season’s Irish Gold Cup.

Of the former, trainer Tony Martin reported: "The plan is to run him in the Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown and take it from there. We were keen to run him at Christmas but we took him out of the Savills Chase as we thought the ground was too quick for him.

"He's in good order and we're happy with him. He ran well in the Cheltenham Gold Cup and the Aintree National last year, and hopefully he'll run well in those races again this year."

Minella Rocco missed his intended engagement, having already undergone wind surgery, in the 2018 Grand National due to unusually testing ground. He’s entered in next month’s Irish Gold Cup, too, but is reportedly more likely to reappear in the Sky Bet Handicap Chase at Doncaster on Saturday week.

Finally, the Bradstocks have not given up on a final Gold Cup hurrah for 2015 hero Coneygree, last seen when cracking along at the head of the King George until fading markedly in the straight.

"He suffered a very nasty overreach at Kempton," Sara Bradstock reported. "He just caught the heel of his foot, but it’s nothing significant, there’s no structural injury and he’s just a bit sore. The Cotswold Chase is a possibility if it doesn’t look too strong or we’ll look for an open handicap, maybe over three-and-a-half miles, but first he has to heal and get back to pinging his fences."

Ryanair Chase

Top Notch returned to fences with a convincing display in Kempton’s Listed Chase last Saturday, beating an outpaced Black Corton and a hitherto in-form Charbel in straightforward fashion.

Beforehand, trainer Nicky Henderson expressed surprising concern that Top Notch would be "taken off his feet" over 2m4f on a sound surface and afterwards reported that jockey Daryl Jacob had said "at moments, he was". Yet it seemed to me he was by far the most suited to the task of the five-strong field.

The unfortunate Speredek, who’d been keen to post in superfluous-looking first-time blinkers, took them along at a strong pace until reaching for the fourth last when headed by Charbel and falling heavily. Thankfully, he got to his feet.

Both Charbel and, to a greater degree, Black Corton had been niggled along during the final circuit; the former recovered his equilibrium in the back straight, however. Yet if Top Notch was ever in any sort of trouble, it was fleeting because he appeared to cover Charbel’s every move with readiness and then only needed urging into the lead at the second last to take control.

An Irish Gold Cup entry over three miles perhaps explains Henderson’s current thinking, despite Top Notch being unproven at that trip. Yes, he was third in the Long Walk Hurdle on his seasonal debut last month but didn’t appear truly to get home and was well below his best hurdling form of three seasons ago. The Grade One Ascot Chase, over 2m5f, looks a far more suitable target.

When thumped by Waiting Patiently in that race last year, he was palpably well below his best and went on to miss the Ryanair due to not being "his usual perky self" at home. You can make a case that Top Notch’s best efforts are right-handed but his peak left-handed form – such as his 2017 JLT second – isn’t that far behind. I prefer the interpretation that he’s overfaced in better company, causing him to underperform. It’s a theory likely to apply to the Ryanair.

His trainer agrees, fond though he (and I) are of this horse. "He's one of the most likeable horses in training, let alone what we've got, and he will run [in the Ryanair]. But, in all probability, he'll come up just short," Henderson conceded. "But he's so consistent, is very terrier-like and will be competitive."

Top Notch was one of four entries made by Henderson for this Festival event, alongside Valtor, Terrefort and Janika. Both Valtor and Janika are recent additions to the yard owned by Simon Munir and Isaac Souede, but neither looks quite up to the task.

Janika was beaten by Hell’s Kitchen at Kempton on his debut for Henderson last month, coming out slightly the lesser at the weights. That 1-2 have more than a stone to find on, say, Un De Sceaux.

Like Valtor, Terrefort is also entered in the Gold Cup but this appears the likelier target. Last year’s Grade One Mildmay Novices’ Chase winner hasn’t been seen since walking across the line in a tailed-off last, having carried his tail awkwardly high, when beaten at odds-on in an intermediate chase at Sandown in November.

"There was a blatantly obvious issue with Terrefort at Sandown," Henderson told the Racing Post. "His jumping is usually flawless but it went to pieces there and he carried his tail at a very peculiar angle. He’s just coming back into fast work now and all options are open, including the Ryanair… [He] will go to Cheltenham on Trials day and we'll see after that."

Returning to the Kempton action, Charbel was disappointing given he wasn’t even able to fend off the scrappy-jumping and outpaced Black Corton for second. After his career-best Peterborough Chase win – the pick of a series of consistent efforts – trainer Kim Bailey was regretting not entering him in the King George. However, if three miles is what he wants, this form indicates he won’t reach a level high enough to make an impact on Grade One targets such as that.

It’s possible Charbel was flat after a busy autumn, of course, but Bailey is of the view that "the ground was the problem for him at Kempton because it was watered, which made it tacky and he wants good ground or soft". It’s less nuanced but I tend to think Charbel was merely beaten fair and square. His next stop could either be the Ascot Chase or Ryanair, Grade Ones both.

There has been a disproportionate amount of column inches – retro reference to something called ‘newspapers’, kidz – devoted to Waiting Patiently when compared with the amount of action we’ve got in return. This series is guilty as charged. That will tend to happen when you’ve got a trainer prepared to share her internal monologue.

"We thought about Ascot this Saturday [for the 2m1f Clarence House], but given the ground's predominantly good and with very little rain due this week we felt dropping him in trip – having spent the year settling him down – wasn't in his best interests, and the ground would probably be too quick anyway," Ruth Jefferson told the Racing Post.

"He's in the Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown in February, so we'll see what happens over there – it has to rain at some point. There's also the Ascot Chase, and it'd be one or the other. We're not particularly favouring either, but we'd have to consider Ireland if the ground came right."

There were 44 entries in all for the Ryanair, with a record Irish-trained contingent of 29. Willie Mullins accounted for 13 of those – providing proof that Black Hercules lives and is presumably in training – whereas Gordon Elliott entered six, Henry de Bromhead four and Noel Meade three. Of those, only Elliott and Meade are yet to win this contest, which has been diluting competition annually since 2005.

De Bromhead reported titleholder Balko Des Flos had "very sore shins" after the Savills Chase over Christmas and suggested it’s by no means certain he’ll be ready to run in the Irish Gold Cup. Frustratingly for this column, I suspect that means he’s more likely to run here rather than over a longer trip at Cheltenham but this might well be academic as his trainer also admitted "he’s been pretty disappointing this season but hopefully will start to turn the corner soon".

Monalee heads to the Irish Gold Cup, with de Bromhead reputedly needing to persuade his owners that the Ryanair is the most suitable Festival target, but Kinloch Brae-bound Sub Lieutenant has indeed been "disappointing" and – as I suspected – hurdles look like the plan for Petit Mouchoir. Despite an entry here, his next start will be in the Irish Champion Hurdle.

Meade – who also has Road To Respect (sole member of his trio who’s definitely good enough) and Tout Est Permis entered here – has only potentially earmarked this race for Snow Falcon. He’s suffered a setback since winning a Grade Two at Down Royal in November and won’t be ready until the Festival at the earliest.

"[He] is back cantering. He won't run before Cheltenham and hopefully we'll get him there," he said. "While we'll be keeping our options open, the Ryanair might be the race for him."

Compatriot Eddie Harty told the Racing Post he was "very pleased" with Coney Island’s seventh behind Kemboy in Leopardstown’s Savills Chase at Leopardstown last month, which baffles me because he appeared beaten on merit in a steadily run race. At least he didn’t make as many mistakes as usual, I suppose. "The plan is to go straight for the Ryanair," Harty said. "There isn't anything suitable between now and then."

Given the horse trades as short as 8/1 in NRNB markets, Paul Nicholls’ assistant trainer Harry Derham sounded mighty cool about the Ryanair as a primary target for Politilogue. I don’t blame him – Cheltenham’s undulations are the opposite of up his street.

"I suspect Politologue will go for the Ascot Chase and then after that we'll make a plan," he said. "I'd say he's more than likely going to end up in the Ryanair, but Ascot is his first objective as it's a Grade One worth a lot of money and we'll get him spot on for that."

He also expanded on the yard’s choice of target for stablemate Frodon on Saturday. "Frodon is an absolute legend and loves Cheltenham," Derham enthused. "So, we're going to run him in the Cotswold Chase on Trials day. He'd have to give away a ridiculous amount of weight in a handicap, so we thought we'd see if he stays 3m1f. If he does, the Gold Cup becomes an option, if he doesn't then there's the Ryanair. It'll be something of a fact-finding mission."

One element is already decided, however, and that’s Bryony Frost keeping the ride. Owner Paul Vogt added: "She's such a nice person and the post-race review is something to behold. She's a really great girl and gets such a tune out of him."

Last year’s Close Brothers Novices’ Handicap Chase winner Mister Whitaker has the Ryanair as his primary target according to Jack Channon, assistant to his father Mick, but also holds a Gold Cup entry and will be entered in various Festival handicaps, too – presumably the Ultima and Plate. Channon Junior has clearly inherited his dad’s positive mental attitude.

"We massively feel there's more to come. He's a fair price at 33/1 for the Ryanair," he said. "You could argue he could be shorter as he's so progressive and unexposed. We were very happy with his BetVictor Gold Cup run as the ground was a bit quick for him. As long as it's good or good-to-soft, we'd have no concerns."

Channon said Mister Whitaker could either run at Ascot this Saturday in the 2m5f handicap chase, provided some rain arrives, or wait for the Sky Bet Handicap Chase at Doncaster the following weekend. If he does line up at Ascot, it will be with a rating of 152 whereas, say, Un De Sceaux – cited again because he’s so consistent - has an official rating of 168. That’s the standard to aim for.

Fox Norton is set to take on Altior – the latter not entered in the Ryanair – in Ascot’s three-runner Clarence House Chase this Saturday and trainer Colin Tizzard is talking of running him again prior to shots at Cheltenham, Aintree and Punchestown.

Most arrestingly, Tizzard also believes Fox Norton – runner-up in the 2017 Champion Chase and the following season’s Tingle Creek but whose best performance came when winning Aintree’s 2m4f Melling Chase in 2017 – is "more of a two-miler". Yet the horse was seemingly bound for this race when ruled out with a "slight suspensory injury" last term.

Now Tizzard Senior says that Joe, his son and assistant, only advised keeping open the "option" of the Ryanair "in case he's lost a yard of pace in the time he's been off". That suggests Fox Norton is more likely to contest the Champion Chase, for which he’s 20/1 NRNB, than the Ryanair, for which he’s half that price.

In other news, Activial has been given the Ryanair as his target, via Trials Day at Cheltenham – presumably in the 2m5f handicap chase where he could meet Aso, who might run there instead of or as well as the Ascot Chase according to trainer Venetia Williams.

It’s also very much worth noting that Jessica Harrington has entered 2017 Gold Cup winner Sizing John in this contest. Perhaps tellingly, she didn’t last year… He’s 12/1 on NRNB terms or 25/1 if you’re feeling lucky, punk.

Finally, I was very sorry to hear about the death of Willoughby Court, winner of the 2016 Neptune Investment Management (now Ballymore) Novices’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival after an infection of his sesamoid bone, for which he’d recently undergone surgery, flared up again.

Trainer Ben Pauling, for whom he was a first Cheltenham Festival winner, paid this horse a handsome tribute. "Willoughby was a huge character around the yard," he said. "His brilliance was that he was that bit different and that bit sharper than any other horse I have ever trained."

Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase

There were just 22 entries for the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase – the smallest number since 2013 – and almost half of them are Irish-trained. However, no sooner had Great Field been entered than trainer Willie Mullins ruled him out due to failing to recover from the latest of his falls, when challenged at the final fence at Leopardstown in the race ultimately won by Simply Ned.

"Great Field is still very sore after his fall at Christmas and will miss Cheltenham," Mullins said. "We're hoping he might make Punchestown but it's probably too early to tell at this stage."

That leaves Mullins with a trio of entries: Footpad, Min and Un De Sceaux, all of whom also hold engagements in the Ryanair and two of whom are the essential knot at the heart of the Champion Chase puzzle – in each-way terms, at least. Namely: will it be Min or Footpad who provides the main competition to Altior?

The ante-post markets are decisively in favour of putative long-term Gold Cup prospect Footpad – as second favourite for the two-miler but longer than his stablemate for the Ryanair – despite having been beaten on both starts this season and again suffering an overreach when second behind Simply Ned at Christmas.

"He seems fine now and is back being ridden out, so fingers crossed everything goes well over the next few weeks," Mullins reported. At the same time, he added that Min is "great" and "likely to defend his crown in the Coral Dublin Chase at Leopardstown".

That puts Min, who won his sole start this season, in the Closutton box seat to my mind – although, admittedly, I’ve never thought he’s vacated it. As I mentioned at the start of this series, this is the horse who’s pushed Altior to his biggest performance on the figures and, I felt at the time, might have asked a larger question had he been asked to go on when the winner looked in trouble. I’m not saying he’d have won, obv, but the battle might have lasted longer.

Min is also a bang two-miler whereas Altior is a staying two-miler, so the Old Course is far from ideal for the latter and the ground could well be quicker this year. Somebody has got to be second and it’s a race, not a coronation, after all.

So it’s partly due to a process of elimination, admittedly, and I know I did this last year… and I also swear it’s my sister who only backs horses if their jockeys wear pink… but I do think it’s time to take the remaining 12/1 each-way about Min for the Champion Chase or the 10/1 you can find more widely. I’m proposing this bet on ante-post terms, not NRNB, because I’m comfortable with that risk. If you’re not, 8/1 NRNB is by no means bad.

Altior faces just two rivals on his bid for a 17th successive victory in the Grade One Clarence House Chase this Saturday after Mullins decided Ascot’s good-to-soft ground, with no appreciable rain forecast and the complication of a possible frost, would have been the wrong choice for triple previous winner Un De Sceaux.

Newbury’s Game Spirit – an unexpected avenue that Altior’s differing campaign has left open for Mullins-style plundering – is now an option, as well as the Ascot Chase over 2m5f and the Dublin Chase at Leopardstown next month, where he would have to take on at least one stablemate.

Part-owner Colm O’Connell commented: "That’s racing and it’s a brave call from Willie. But that’s why, in my opinion, he is the best in the business – because he makes calls the rest if us don’t have the courage to make.

"He did the same when Un De Sceaux was a young horse regarding the Champion Hurdle. If he’d run him, I doubt very much we’d still be here talking about him as a Grade One horse as an 11-year-old."

The Tizzards had earlier raised doubts about whether the ground would be suitable for Fox Norton to take on Altior, raising the prospect of a Grade One match, but assistant trainer Joe has made the commitment.

"We haven’t been able to run him as he pulled a bit of a tendon off the back of his knee in the King George last season," he told Sky Sports Racing. "We were never going to run him until after the new year but, thinking of Cheltenham, we need to get a run or two into him beforehand.

"He’s taking a lot of work but he still looks a little burly, so we’re keen to run. There’s rain around so it will be safe and he’ll take his chance. On his best form, he’s a really good horse."

Referring to Altior’s campaign of three races within six weeks, Nicky Henderson said: "We'll be going one-two-three quite quickly, which was the plan this season as there's nothing much else apart from the Game Spirit.

"So, to that end a very small field this weekend is not bad news. I thought we could do this as it's a Grade One and then he's got a nice break until Cheltenham. He doesn't need a race, it's just he's there for racing and there's a Grade One race there."

The third contender is Diego Du Charmil, well beaten by Altior in the Desert Orchid Chase over Christmas. Assistant trainer Harry Derham has also indicated the Game Spirit remains a possible stepping-stone to the Champion Chase even though this horse "goes well fresh". He also indicated that Politologue only received a Queen Mum entry "in case it came up testing" at Cheltenham. "Altior last year looked a good way better than him," he acknowledged.

Alan King has reiterated that Sceau Royal goes straight to Cheltenham but Tom George was less definitive about God’s Own, saying: "The plan is to go for the Queen Mother and he'll more than likely go straight there." It probably amounts to the same thing.

After all that yak about going up in trip, Harry Whittington is now saying Tingle Creek third Saint Calvados will "stick to two miles this season as he's only just turned six". Next stop either the Dublin Chase or Game Spirit.

"I think we're leaning towards the Dublin as it's been upgraded to a Grade One and we've been to Ireland and won this season" he said. "After the Tingle Creek, I wanted to give him a bit of a break as he'd had two tough races. He's strengthened up and is on the fresh side, he's got to improve to show he can win at this level but he's open to that and going left-handed will be a plus."

At Leopardstown, he is likely to encounter Min, Simply Ned, Sizing John, Special Tiara and Ordinary World but Pat Fahy has indicated that Castlegrace Paddy – who’s entered here and in the Ryanair – would need rain in order to run.

"Davy [Russell] said he wasn't letting himself down on the ground at Leopardstown over Christmas," Fahy said, of his horse’s fourth behind Simply Ned. "So, I was thrilled with how he ran when you take that into consideration."

Hell’s Kitchen is likely to head to the Game Spirit, which trainer Harry Fry hopes will determine his Festival target. "We've given ourselves the option of two races," he said. "He hasn't proved he's any better than a handicapper as of yet, but that's why we want to give him the chance to show whether the Ryanair or Queen Mother will be more suitable." Something of a non-sequitur.

Finally, Philip Kirby is keen to try this grade with fast-progressive Lady Buttons, via a Listed mares’ chase at Huntingdon at the end of the month. While I wholeheartedly agree with him that she’s better at two miles than further, I had expected the Grand Annual to be more her Festival scene. That said, as discussed above, there isn’t much strength in depth here so it might well be worth an each-way shot.

Unibet Champion Hurdle

As predicted last week, Samcro has indeed been entered for the Unibet Champion Hurdle following news that he was suffering from "a heavy lung infection" for which he’s been prescribed a ten-day course of antibiotics.

Yet trainer Gordon Elliott has urged caution on the part of any prospective punters, indicating that he would prefer discretion over valour this season with a horse of such talent.

Last year’s Ballymore winner was entered alongside 26 others for the Festival’s first-day showpiece, including stablemate Apple’s Jade. This meant her trainer – who also entered last term’s Triumph winner Farclas and Tombstone – had to repeat that her target remains the mares’ event.

Buveur D’Air, chasing a record-equalling third consecutive success in the race, was entered alongside five stablemates: recent International winner Brain Power, supposed right-hander Call Me Lord, inadequate pacemaker Charli Parcs, champion-scalping Verdana Blue and disappointing We Have A Dream. With seven victories already to his name, trainer Nicky Henderson is already the most successful in the race’s history.

As well as the titleholder and Charli Parcs, owner JP McManus also has recent Limerick winner Espoir D’Allen, trained by Gavin Cromwell, in the potential line-up.

Willie Mullins has triumphed in this contest on four occasions and could field up to five players this time: last year’s runner-up Melon, recent thruster Sharjah, Laurina of the pile-driving knees, Punchestown Grade One juvenile hurdle winner Saldier – going better than Espoir D’Allen when falling at the last at Naas in November – and the year-absent Cilaos Emery. Notably, Mullins has not entered 2015 hero Faugheen.

The reappearance run of Gigginstown’s Petit Mouchoir in the Ryanair Hurdle did indeed presage a switch to hurdles – in the short term, at the very least, because trainer Henry de Bromhead has asserted his next target will be the Irish Champion Hurdle.

As mentioned two editions ago, the same owner-trainer combination switched Identity Thief back to hurdles with positive results last season after he had similarly not wholly taken to the discipline of chasing. After all, there are reasons why none of Gigginstown’s Elliott-trained quartet might turn up here.

Petit Mouchoir was third to Buveur D’Air after making most of the running in the 2017 edition but got embroiled in a self-defeating duel in last season’s Arkle. The hold-up tactics employed at Leopardstown over Christmas suggest de Bromhead would like to make this smart grey a shade more versatile and, although he finished stone-cold last, he wasn’t asked a question either.

He’s available across the board at 33/1, as well as at 40/1 with William Hill, and that looks too long for a horse of his ability.

Finally, at Haydock this Saturday Brain Power is set to re-oppose two horses he beat at Cheltenham last time, Silver Streak and Western Ryder, both of whom are also entered in the Champion Hurdle. Other similarly-entered potential rivals are Global Citizen, Mohaayed, Vision Des Flos and – a refugee from novice chasing – Pingshou.

This Grade Two event, The New One Unibet Hurdle, is named in honour of its four-times winner and it’s interesting to note that trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies is not without a Champion Hurdle entry this year. Last year’s Stayers’ Hurdle third Wholestone has for the first time been handed an entry – it’s wholly unsuitable, but it’s an entry nonetheless.

Sun Bets Stayers’ Hurdle

Little to note here except Willie Mullins has suggested that, following his scary fall at Leopardstown over Christmas, Faugheen could reappear over three miles in the Grade Two Galmoy Hurdle at Gowran Park next Thursday. I wonder if he’ll meet Presenting Percy there?

Following his three-length success in Warwick’s Pertemps qualifier last Saturday causing him to be raised 5lbs to a mark of 144, Keeper Hill has received a cautious entry in the Stayers’ Hurdle.

"We’ll look at the open handicap at Sandown [on February 2]," Greatrex said in his column. "That will tell me a lot more as if he won that, he’d be in the mix for the Stayers’ and if not then we’ll still be OK for the [Pertemps] Final. From February last year, it was a nightmare so it’s great that he’s rediscovered his form."

Entries for the Stayers’ Hurdle were published this week and unsurprisingly, given its relatively open ante-post betting, they amount to the largest number of potential contenders since 2013. There was a record Irish entry, accounting for 23 of the 51 engaged horses.

I’ll look more deeply into those entries next week but, in the meantime, noteworthy names include Samcro, Top Notch, Mia’s Storm, Petit Mouchoir, last year’s Albert Bartlett winner Kilbricken Storm and – he lives, breathes but probably still cares little for the human pursuit of horseracing – Yanworth. Three of Willie Mullins’ 11 entries – count ‘em – present (but of course) scenarios hitherto unconsidered; they are Melon and the mares Benie Des Dieux and Limini.

OLBG Mares’ Hurdle

This race has attracted its smallest number of entries in five years, with almost half of the 30 mares trained in Ireland. All the big names are present – previous winner Apple’s Jade, titleholder Benie Des Dieux, Laurina and (if she still counts) Limini. Mia’s Storm is also entered along with blossoming chaser Lady Buttons, for whom the longer trip would be a negative.

Novice chasers

Booking professional amateur Derek O’Connor to ride your three-mile novice chaser in January rather telegraphs your Festival intentions – and that’s what Nicky Henderson and JP McManus did with OK Corral at Warwick last Saturday. The only trouble was they surely won too well for the NH Chase to remain the only potential target in their sights.

As O’Connor said afterwards, his mount was "under no pressure… jumped well and won handily" – in fact he was pretty much foot-perfect – and this was a performance that again shouted RSA Chase. Little more than an hour later, Impulsive Star – whom OK Corral had previously brushed aside at Plumpton, thus setting up the £60,000 bonus should he go on to win at the Festival – drove the point home when winning Warwick’s feature Classic Handicap Chase.

OK Corral is now best priced at 4/1 for the NH Chase – 3/1 if you want NRNB terms – whereas he’s 16/1 for the RSA but half that if you want NRNB. Wary of the old switcheroo, Sky Bet – the only firm going NRNB on these races currently – has OK Corral’s stablemate Santini, the rallying Kauto Star third, 3/1 favourite or joint-favourite NRNB for both races.

Of course, OK Corral finished a place in front of his more vaunted stablemate when second in last season’s Albert Bartlett – both of them behind the more advantageously ridden Kilbricken Storm, who has not taken to fences with the same verve.

Dare I say it, OK Corral exhibited superior pace to Santini at Cheltenham and it was noticeable how well he travelled around tight Warwick compared with how his stablemate found Kempton too sharp (admittedly in Grade One company). Yet Henderson was not inclined to deviate from the four-mile plan immediately after this success, citing the difficulties in training a horse who’s already nine years of age.

Although Henderson likes to keep his runners separate whenever possible, these horses represent different owners and were permitted to clash at last year’s Festival. It might be time for a re-think. McManus has a good clutch of novice chasers this year, but as yet no better RSA prospect than this horse.

That said, he’s a big supporter of amateur races and the NH Chase can sometimes prove the superior event – such as when O’Connor partnered McManus’s Minella Rocco beat a certain Native River in the 2016 edition.

There’s no need to rush this decision and the next run Henderson has planned for OK Corral could prove more significant than he intended. Jockeys bookings will be interesting! In the meantime, I’d expect both of the trainer’s leading staying novice-chasers to be entered in both Festival races this time next week. It wouldn’t even be outlandish to enter OK Corral in the JLT, too…

Back at Warwick, Secret Investor put up the staunchest fight despite making two significant errors – at the 11th, after which he recovered to lead four fences later, and when the winner was taking his measure at the last. This was a step up on his second to Bags Groove in a Grade Two novices’ chase at Wincanton last November – a tough enough ask for his chase debut.

He kept on stolidly to the line at Warwick, proved himself left-handed (given he hadn’t been much tested on that track orientation) and could well eclipse stable companion Ibis De Rheu as Paul Nicholls’ intended for the NH Chase. There’s just the small matter of the winner, mind…

Back in third, Rocky’s Treasure was disappointing. He looked uncomfortable on the tight track and was never jumping with any fluency, appearing distracted at several obstacles. He made multiple errors and frequently adjusted right, away from the inside rail.

It did cross my mind – and those of others, I note – that he might have been concentrating more on the camera-car (providing close-up shots from the inside of the track) than on jumping. If so, that’s a doubly futile state of affairs, given overly tight framing obliterates context when viewers are trying to race-read – especially for jump racing, I find.

Yet trainer Kim Bailey did not make excuses. On his blog, he wrote that Rocky’s Treasure was "found out in that company". "I can make all sorts of excuses, like the track was too tight, but he was under pressure too early and his jumping, which has been so good in his previous races, was not quite as slick this time," he added.

Back in fourth, White Moon was unable to get involved. He’d got off the mark over fences 11 days earlier when able to dominate and take fences in his own time. Even a stutter-jumping Rocky’s Treasure was enough to intimidate him, however, and while you couldn’t single out a particular error that did for him, he simply doesn’t seem to possess the technique or confidence for the job.

Second-season novice Impulsive Star is now a 14/1 shot for the NH Chase – a race in which he finished fourth last year, 24 lengths adrift of Rathvinden. He’d failed to travel behind OK Corral at Plumpton but, with cheekpieces reapplied, snuck into the Classic on bottom-weight from a mark of 133 and broke his duck over fences with a thorough staying performance.

Trainer Neil Mulholland confirmed afterwards that Cheltenham’s four-miler definitely remains the plan and it’s hard to imagine any other Festival target suiting this horse, who also has the advantage of retaining his regular rider Sam Waley-Cohen for that event. He should run creditably, even if likely to find some opponents out of his league at level weights.

At Kempton that same day, another novice won by a rather more emphatic margin in open company when Glen Rocco took the three-mile handicap chase against exposed opposition by 23 lengths. He’s been raised 13lbs by BHA handicapper Martin Greenwood, which he thoroughly deserved, but is thriving at the moment and connections should strike again while this iron is hot.

However, plans for this horse are inspired by part-owner Jeremy Kyle’s ambition to have a Grand National contender so trainer Nick Gifford has indicated this season’s aim is the Topham, over a short course of the Aintree fences, perhaps via the Cheltenham Festival.

This success and that of Dell Oro at Huntingdon the previous day paid a large compliment to the form of Glen Forsa’s Boxing Day success at Kempton. Trainer Mick Channon is keen to replicate the winning formula he employed with Mister Whitaker last season, given that horse finished second in that same Christmas event before winning at Cheltenham on Trials Day and then narrowly triumphing in the Close Brothers Novices’ Handicap Chase at the Festival.

Mister Whitaker was rated 137 going into Cheltenham but Glen Forsa is already 1lb higher so it’s likely we won’t see him again until D-day. Dell Oro, an eight-length fourth behind Glen Forsa at Kempton, is also being targeted at the same Festival race according to trainer Gary Moore but has been reassessed to 139. This owner-trainer combination could be double-handed there, now that recent seven-length Sandown winner Larry has been raised to a mark of 137.

On Sunday, there was another smart performance from the green-and-gold silks when Winter Escape took Punchestown’s Grade Three 2m4f novices’ chase. The winner was conceding upwards of 7lbs all round and making it three on the bounce for his new(-ish) trainer Aidan Howard and long-time owner McManus.

Beyond The Law ultimately set a good pace: jumping to the front at the second, moving into a clear lead soon after and not headed until three out. Initial leader Jetz, racing without his usual hood but taking no more than an enthusiastic hold, then briefly took over but was himself soon outpaced by the next flight.

The race was then a match between A Plus Tard – who’d previously defeated the likeable Duc De Genievres at Naas and was receiving Ireland’s generous allowance for five-year-olds here – and Winter Escape.

A Plus Tard travelled smoothly into the lead and railed like a bunny into the straight but the winner was able to cover that move with minimal fuss, jumping into the lead at the last (if out to his left) and then staying on well to win by more than two lengths. He hadn’t jumped with the greatest of fluency early on but was sound enough at the business end.

Winter Escape was formerly trained by Alan King in Britain and initially shaped like a smart prospect, winning his first three novice hurdle starts in the 2015/16 season. But he didn’t then contest any of the Festivals and was mostly disappointing the following season, bar for a standout fifth in the 2017 County Hurdle from a mark of 140. After finishing tailed off on his chase debut for that yard in November 2017, he wasn’t sighted again until his debut for Howard the following July.

After a wide-margin success in September, McManus’s racing manager Frank Berry said Winter Escape had suffered from "training issues and has not been straightforward". "But Aidan [Howard] has done a good job of keeping him sound," he added. "Aidan does a good bit of pre-training for us as well, so it’s nice to have a horse like this to win a race for him."

Howard has only done a better job since and at one time held hopes of running this horse in the Drinmore – a race in which Le Richebourg instead represented McManus but finished second to Delta Work. Instead, Winter Escape ran here after a 70-day break and surprised his trainer, who wasn’t expecting him to be capable of conceding the weight.

His next stop is likely to be the Dublin Racing Festival next month, either in the Irish Arkle over 2m1f or the Flogas over 2m5f. Howard believes Winter Escape has the speed for the shorter trip – although you might worry his jumping would be put under greater pressure – but, as ever with McManus, wider battle plans for his fleet will dictate the target, not the will of individual trainers.

Back in fourth, Gun Digger seemingly had his limitations exposed while Ben Dundee was already being niggled along when making a heart-stopping blunder at the second last.

It’s worth mentioning the two non-runners: putative Gigginstown first string Blow By Blow – last seen when third to Delta Work at Leopardstown over Christmas – was withdrawn due to running a temperature while Cubomania, his stablemate at Gordon Elliott’s, had raced the previous day when a creditable second on his tenth chase start in an open Fairyhouse handicap.

Another Elliott-trained novice Duca De Thaix won that race and, while Cubomania is mostly consistent when getting his jumping right and was running the winner down near the line, his conqueror is progressive.

This latest success propels him to a mark of 151 but the way in which he travelled through this race and the nimbleness of his jumping suggests he should be equal to that rise. However, he flopped utterly in the County Hurdle last season so that would play on your mind for the Grand Annual. You might prefer the runner-up for that task were it not for his at-times-sketchy jumping.

Finally for this section, trainer Kayley Woollacott has indicated that she’d be happy to go straight to the Festival with Lalor if the ground for the Grade Two Lightning Novices’ Chase on Saturday week proves too quick.

"Lalor is in really good form – he’s done some lovely pieces of work recently. He’s ticking along, looks great and has been squealing and bucking every day," she said in her Betway blog."As long as it’s genuinely good ground, he’ll be fine [at Doncaster]. If it’s too quick, he’ll go straight to Cheltenham and I wouldn’t be worried about the gap between races. He’s always gone well fresh."

By contrast, I would be worried if he pitched up in the Arkle having not raced since early December and having only had the educational benefit of two chase starts. Plus, goldilocks alert! Last time the problem was the ground being too testing…

Novice hurdlers

A change of tactics and dropping back to two miles enabled Felix Desjy to turn the Grade Two Moscow Flyer into an entirely one-sided affair at Punchestown last Saturday. Sent into the lead from the outset and soon establishing a clear advantage, after ballooning the second he never looked likely to be caught on this tighter inside track that suits nippy types.

He’d previously been disappointing trainer Gordon Elliott, having been sent off favourite for a Grade Three at Naas in November but finishing last of seven behind Aramon. He was also beaten at the same track and grade behind Easy Game and then by Salsaretta at Limerick over Christmas.

That last occasion, when only headed after the last in testing ground over 2m4f, had hinted that a positive ride improves his jumping and getting him to settle better over a shorter trip would also help. That’s what jockey Sean Flanagan delivered here: Felix Desjy won unchallenged but clocked a good comparative time.

"Felix Desjy disappointed us a few times but maybe we were riding him the wrong way," Elliott commented. "He seems to like striding along and jumps well... He might go to Leopardstown and then the Supreme."

He’ll find more competition for the lead at Cheltenham, of course, notably from the slick Elixir De Nutz who’ll put this fella’s jumping under pressure. Here, nothing chose to live with him nor, in all likelihood, were they able to.

Recent Leopardstown handicap hurdle winner Jetez was settled in mid-division and gave sustained chase from approaching three out but could never get on terms. Harrie lost her relatively prominent position when outpaced, prior to rallying late, and clearly needs to step back up in trip. Fellow Willie Mullins-trained mare and beaten favourite Buildmeupbuttercup made zero impact and was reported to be "blowing hard" after the race.

Half an hour later, Elliott also won the maiden hurdle over the same course and distance with Vision D’Honneur, who’d previously made his debut over obstacles and for the yard when fourth – sent off favourite – behind Klassical Dream at Leopardstown on Boxing Day.

In a steadily run affair here, in a time more than 18 seconds slower overall than Felix Desjy, Jack Kennedy always had his mount well positioned towards the fore and moved smoothly into the lead entering the home turn. Vision D’Honneur then maintained an authoritative advantage over Elixir D’Ainay, the latter having recovered from an ill-timed mistake at the penultimate flight to finish a clear second.

The pair had pulled clear of The Tartan Spartan, formerly smart on the Flat and who’d rallied after a chance-ending blunder at the third last in which he lost his hind legs. There was a smattering of promise for future handicaps from both the inexperienced Point recruit Maddenstown and Poseidon, who met some traffic problems prior to the last where he made a mistake.

Both the winner and runner-up are entitled to improve markedly as neither boasts much experience – indeed, Elixir D’Ainay was making his hurdling debut for Mullins and JP McManus, having previously won a French bumper for Emmanuel Clayeux. However, the most striking element was what the winning trainer had to say afterwards.

"Vision D'honneur is a very smart horse," Elliott said. "He was still a bit green and we think he'll come on a lot, we wouldn't mind stepping him up in trip.

"He might not look the quickest in the world, but I think he's an unassuming horse, he's always very relaxed... He learned a lot from his debut. He jumped very big that day and he was very green – it all happened very fast for him that day at Leopardstown. As much as I was disappointed on the day he got beat, it might not have been a bad thing."

Not surprisingly, therefore, Elliott is thinking big and the plan is to stick to two miles for the Chanelle Pharma Novice Hurdle at the Dublin Racing Festival next.

At Warwick on Saturday, Beakstown won the Grade Two Ballymore Leamington Novices’ Hurdle by almost four lengths to the palpable relief of trainer Dan Skelton. This horse had clearly arrived in his yard with a tall reputation so it came as a disappointment when he was beaten last time out at Newcastle, having previously won at Uttoxeter. Now Skelton believes he ran him again too quickly, trying to make a date with the Grade One Challow Hurdle.

Certainly, this near-four-length success goes some way towards meeting expectations. Always travelling strongly, Beakstown was content to press the more experienced but less scopey Cheltenham winner Rockpoint on the first circuit, helping to ensure a good pace.

He then eased into the lead three out and skipped away from his opponents on the turn for home; although he was scrappy over the last two hurdles and edged greenly left when clear, he never looked like being caught.

Owner Bryan Drew wants Skelton to make this horse into "the best novice chaser [he] can" but it sounds as though Cheltenham may yet lure them, most probably the Ballymore or Albert Bartlett novices’ hurdles. Beakstown is too raw for the Potato Race, however, and would be better contesting the shorter event – if indeed, he’s Cheltenham material at all, at this formative stage in his career.

Two major impediments were also removed from his path at Warwick: likely favourite, the Nicky Henderson-trained Birchdale, was withdrawn due to a respiratory infection and actual favourite Tidal Flow – a dual winner who’d beaten Seven Barrows’ Downtown Getaway in testing ground on his previous start – was never travelling or jumping with any fluency from an early stage and will be given a break.

Conceding 5lbs to all comers here, Rockpoint was never going to be suited by dropping back to 2m5f on a tight track like Warwick and he was done for speed entering the home turn. He’s been pushed out as far as 25/1 and that’s an overreaction for a horse proven at Cheltenham and with the ideal amount of gnarled experience for the Albert Bartlett.

Runner-up Stoney Mountain is likeable and consistent, sticking to his task well in the straight, whereas third-placed Finawn Bawn – who got outpaced before rallying stoutly – is improving fast. Much like the winner, however, he lacks the requisite experience for the Potato Race and might be too naive for a Pertemps Final, for which he’d need to qualify anyway. He definitely wants three miles, though, and is clearly a decent staying chaser in the making for trainer Olly Murphy.

At Kelso the previous day, Encore Champs beat Lord Yeats again – but this time at Kelso and more narrowly than he’d previously managed at Wetherby, albeit the market preferred the runner-up.

Trainer Warren Greatrex suggested Encore Champs – well held behind Angels Breath at Ascot – is "just one of those horses who knows how to win", after he got the second-last wrong but still managed to work his way back on terms after the last.

He thinks this "work-in-progress" needs a strongly run race but is leaning towards missing Cheltenham in favour of returning to Kelso for the Morebattle and then perhaps heading to Aintree.

Lord Yeats was a smart stayer on the Flat but his jumping is still scratchy and his handicap mark for hurdling looks a shade tough on this evidence.

Finally, two items of news pertinent to this division have been smuggled out of the Cistercian Order. Come To Me, who flopped for Mullins in a Naas Grade One novices’ hurdle last week, was found to be coughing and Grade One Royal Bond winner Quick Grabim – hitherto the shortest of the yard’s putative Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle contenders at around 14/1 – will miss Cheltenham.

"He’s picked up a stress fracture," his trainer revealed. "We’re taking the long-term approach and going to give him plenty of time to recover. He’s a promising horse."

Juvenile hurdlers

At Fairyhouse last Saturday, there was a quickfire rematch between Gardens Of Babylon and the filly Surin, who’d previously finished first and second on their respective debuts at Punchestown on New Year’s Eve. This time, the latter was receiving 12lbs and that was enough to enable her to triumph by a nose, the pair pulling well clear of the rest.

They’d last met in a steadily run affair of questionable literal merit in which they’d both shaped with great promise, the McManus-owned Gardens Of Babylon as a scarcely raced recruit from the yard of Aidan O’Brien and Gigginstown’s Surin the winner of her sole start in a junior bumper.

Having been placed on the outside of her field throughout, this time Surin led entering the home turn but immediately displayed signs of inexperience in the straight. Gawkily, she got in too close to the second last and that looked enough to swing the balance in favour of Gardens Of Babylon, who’d recovered from being briefly outpaced on the bend to threaten approaching the last.

Neither of them met that obstacle right and then it was an all-out duel to the line, Gardens Of Babylon appearing to perhaps hold the marginal upper hand until Jack Kennedy somehow managed to edge the filly back in front at the post.

"I think she's a nice mare, she's still very green," winning trainer Gordon Elliott said afterwards. "Jack said he was probably in front plenty soon enough but he had to because we know she stays. When she was there, she didn't know what to do and she ran around the place, she ran down the second last. I think there is still more improvement in her."

She heads next to the Grade One juvenile hurdle at next month’s Dublin Festival where Joseph O’Brien will surely also field the runner-up, who emerges as clearly the best horse at the weights on this day. However, both are improving fast and deserve their place in a division that’s only now beginning to take shape.

Well beaten in third and fourth were La Sorelita and Got Trumped, who had previously finished the other way around behind Rocky Blue in a funereally run Grade Two at Leopardstown over Christmas. The extent of their defeat here undermines the literal form of that contest – which probably would have been won by Coeur Sublime had he stood up – but, of course, a steady pace can suppress ability as well as winning margins.

Once again, La Sorelita – sent off favourite here after getting hampered last time – looked sorely in need of a strongly run race and, perhaps more pertinently, a step up in trip already.

O’Brien has a strong hand for the aforementioned Grade One Tattersalls Ireland Spring Juvenile Hurdle, with an entry of six horses headed by Gardens Of Babylon and fellow Ballydoyle graduate Sir Erec. Fakir D’Oudairies, who’d previously already been chasing in France and won comfortably on his debut for the yard at Cork earlier this month, is another potential player.

Willie Mullins’ quintet of Spring entries is probably headed by Sir Erec’s Leopardstown victim, Tiger Tap Tap, but last week’s ready Clonmel winner, the filly French Made, is among them.

Having snuck into that mares’ maiden as a reserve and facing older rivals on her hurdling debut and first start for her new yard, this French recruit always held a prominent position tracking the leaders. Her jumping warmed up but she showed signs of inexperience when sent to the front entering the straight and ran about on the approach to the last. However, she didn’t cease galloping and saw it out well by three-and-a-half lengths.

"The further they went the better she went," Mullins observed. "She might go up in trip or stay at this trip if we ever got winter ground."

Yet the most interesting newcomer of the week hails from the unlikely source of Fozzy Stack. Wide-margin Punchestown victor Carlo Biraghi was his first starter over jumps in his own name, although runners over timber had also become rare for the yard in the latter seasons that he was assisting his father, Tommy.

Carlo Biraghi is an exciting convert, deemed good enough to contest the Irish Derby on his third career start after winning his maiden comfortably and despite having flopped at Listed level in between. He ultimately finished tenth behind Latrobe at the Curragh, beaten more than nine lengths but not best positioned and perhaps unsuited by a steadily run race controlled from the front. He ended up with a Flat rating of 99.

In winning his hurdling debut, Carlo Biraghi hinted he’s something of a left-footer by going out in that direction at a number of his hurdles. That tendency and the sense he’s lost none of his spirit, despite having been gelded since his last race, was on display when he hung left on hitting the front in the straight and jinked while being bundled over the final hurdle by Danny Mullins.

"I thought he was going to run out at the last but he jumped quite well up to that," Stack said. "We won’t go to the Dublin Racing Festival because it’s a bit too close and we’ll get another run into him before Cheltenham or Aintree or one of the Festivals.

"We will mix it over the summer with the Flat and he could go for something like a Chester Cup or the Ebor. He stays well and will gallop all day."

This was only the fourth start of Carlo Biraghi’s career, so he was entitled to display greenness but he’ll need to sharpen up fast if he’s going to be streetwise enough for the Triumph – albeit that race has become less of a bun-fight since the advent of the Fred Winter. The talent is certainly present – he won by seven-and-a-half lengths in the best time of the day here.

Runner-up Pienta, who wasn’t that much more experienced than the winner on the Flat but held a rating of just 76, stepped up quite a bit on his hurdling-debut seventh behind Sir Erec; he got outpaced when there was an injection of speed on the home turn but then stayed on well.

The filly Andalusa was twice hindered in running when fourth to Sir Erec and made the running under a change of tactics here. However, her jumping lacked the fluency to make the best of such a run style, most tellingly when she slipped in an extra stride at the second last and facilitated the winner’s challenge. She was also flat-footed at the last but kept on at the one pace.

Fenta Des Obeaux, her stablemate at Mullins’ yard, and Ingenuity – who finished fourth and sixth respectively – are both a shade better than the literal form, their riders both seemingly having sensed before the straight that their winning chance had gone.

The former had fallen at the first on her debut, when sent off favourite against Gardens Of Babylon, but was the choice of Ruby Walsh and wore a first-time hood here. She’d previously beaten French Made in a bumper in their native country, when both were trained by other handlers.

Having been held up further off the pace than the six initial principals, Ingenuity stumbled on landing after the third last, was pretty much not persisted with thereafter but stuck on well nonetheless. He’d previously been ninth in that same Sir Erec race and prior to that a 74-rated handicapper up to a mile for Jedd O’Keeffe. Yet he seems to have sufficient stamina for this discipline.

Back at Huntingdon, Prabeni beat Westbrook Bertie in a weak small-field edition of the Chatteris Fen. The runner-up had twice planted and engaged reverse before the start but became keen when making the running at a steady pace that probably didn’t suit him. He’d been a wide-margin winner at Fontwell on his second hurdles start but couldn’t put superior experience to good use.

Like Westbrook Bertie, Prabeni was a middle-distance handicapper on the Flat and rated 6lbs higher. Under a more suitably positive ride, he jumped better than on his mist-shrouded debut at Kempton – albeit he was not blemish-free – and had already taken control when his main rival blundered at the penultimate flight.

Prabeni’s overall profile suggests improvement but he’s going to have to progress sharply to make the cut for the Boodles Fred Winter at the Festival.

Back in third, Fret D’Estruval was again disappointing; he was instantly under pressure when the pace lifted from sedate exiting the back straight. Beat The Judge, who’d previously beaten Prabeni at Kempton, was unfortunately withdrawn due to travel problems but is entered at Ascot this weekend and Warwick next week.

It was a shabby lot who faced the starter for a Saturday event at Kempton the following day.

Chaparral Prince, who’d split Beat The Judge and Prabeni over Christmas, was sent off the odds-on favourite despite being a maiden under both codes and needing to be led in at the start. In the event, he jumped indifferently and looked reluctant in the straight.

But he may not be the only one to be wary of, however. 20/1 winner Vlannon hung left on the bends and ran about or hung on either side of the last when in front, yet still had more heart than the runner-up. This was victory at the 12th attempt and on his fifth start over hurdles but doesn’t amount to much. It’s worse news for the rest, none of whom appear to possess much application.


Recommended 28/11/18: Balko Des Flos e/w 40/1 [Skybet/Bet365] Gold Cup

Recommended 29/11/18: Summerville Boy e/w 12/1 [various] Champion Hurdle – [likely non-runner – injured]

Recommended 20/12/18: Shattered Love e/w 25/1 [various] Magners Gold Cup

Recommended 20/12/18: Topofthegame e/w 16/1 [Ladbrokes/Coral/Hills] RSA Chase

Back now: Min each-way at 12/1 with Betfair Sportsbook [or 10/1 with various other firms] for the Champion Chase

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