Lydia Hislop Road to Cheltenham: Altior in the spotlight after jumping left

Altior won again but was the manner of his triumph a concern?
Altior won again but was the manner of his triumph a concern?

Is Altior jumping to his left a concern following his Clarence House Chase win at Ascot? Lydia Hislop dissects the matter in this week's edition of Road To Cheltenham.



Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase

There’s rather more than anticipated to mull over as a result of last Saturday’s Clarence House Chase – and how much time you’ll spend doing that probably betrays how trusting a soul you are. Stand by for a 15-day public inquiry from me, then.

It ended up that Altior had only two rivals to beat, after Willie Mullins predictably declined to ferry over Un De Sceaux for another likely defeat – especially when the route usually taken by this division’s champion, the Game Spirit Chase, is now tantalisingly vulnerable to plundering. You never know, it might even have rained once by then.

So only a returning Fox Norton and the already thrashed Diego Du Charmil faced the best horse in training. Neither got competitive at any stage. This was mainly due to Nico de Boinville’s very sensible decision to make his own running from the outset on Altior: why risk being unable to make your own luck?

That this was Fox Norton’s first start since “pull[ing] a bit of tendon off the back of his knee” in the 2017 King George, according to assistant trainer Joe Tizzard, was another factor. He was clearly raring to go after so long on the sidelines and was pulling at Robbie Power’s arm sockets for a sustained period early on.

It then appeared that his rider had been holding him together in the latter stages because when he was belatedly shaken up after the second last, he immediately hung right and looked tired. He’s discussed more fully in the Ryanair section because this evidence seems to have rotated Colin Tizzard 360 degrees on an Altior rematch. “I don’t think we can beat him,” he said. Newsflash.

Third-placed Diego Du Charmil was unable to get involved, judging by Harry Cobden’s odd shake of the reins, even if he wasn’t asked that rigorously to do so. Trainer Paul Nicholls will have been delighted to learn handicapper Chris Nash has dropped the horse 1lb to a mark of 155 – still a tough ask in a Grand Annual but that’s the only race for him at Cheltenham and every little helps.

So, all this added up to a straightforward seven-length success for Altior – his 17th on the bounce, 18th overall and eighth in Grade One company. He remains unbeaten over obstacles. What’s the issue? That matter of repeatedly jumping left, from the very first fence until the last and violently so at some obstacles.

It bothered de Boinville enough to prompt two backwards glances in-running. However, after weighing in he asserted that this was a consequence of Altior getting bored with making his own running – an interpretation soon echoed by trainer Nicky Henderson – and later suggested his mount had learned the trick from watching Special Tiara do the same thing at Kempton.

Henderson has been categoric: calling this blemish “of no consequence whatsoever” and asserting, when I asked him in the post-race interview on Racing TV, that there would be no need to have Altior checked over.

That leaves the objective observer with a choice. Do we: (a) trust this assessment blindly, on the basis that this is a champion trainer who has provided detailed insight on the physical issues of horses like Sprinter Sacre and is prepared to call out a problem such as, to cite a recent example, shortly after Terrefort crossed the line at Sandown in November?

Do we happily accept his view that Altior’s marked adjustment was indeed a one-off prompted by a lack of competition and at a track, in Ascot (as admittedly I’ve argued many times in this column previously), that ruthlessly aggravates any tendency to adjust left? Most of us have far less first-hand experience than Henderson and de Boinville on these subjects, after all.

Or do we (b) fret that easy victory has masked the need for concern, reflecting that it is not unknown for racing people to tell us ‘nothing to see here’ when it turns out – perhaps to the real surprise of those insiders – that there was.

Well, truth be told, it’s up to you. But with a horse best-priced at 4/7 – or 4/9 NRNB – it’s a question you should be asking yourself. Put it this way: having suggested Min each-way at 12/1 (in one place, or 10/1 with various other firms) last week, those still-available prices strike me as better value this week for two reasons.

First, the evidence if the Clarence House cannot be construed as an improved argument for Altior by even his most ardent fan and you can reasonably make the case that it might have detracted from it. Second, the drip-drip news on Min’s stablemate Footpad – priced the shorter of the Mullins-trained pair in most books – continues to be a slight negative, much like his form this season.

Owners Simon Munir and Isaac Souede must not be permitted behind the monastery walls at Closutton because their racing manager Anthony Bromley was seemingly working on barely more information from Mullins than the rest of us when giving an update on Footpad’s condition in an interview for Racing TV at Ascot last Saturday.

“He’s had the same thing again after his last run,” Bromley said of Footpad. “The feeling was when he got caught on the run-in that he slightly blew up because they’d had a trouble preparation to get him to the Christmas race. Willie [Mullins] is not saying he’s a definite runner at the Dublin Festival; he’s just said he’s hopeful of getting there.

“It may be that he has to go straight to Cheltenham without a run but we’ll wait and see how the next two weeks go. The over-reach wasn’t as bad as the first one he had but it is a bore. It’s not helping Willie, it’s definitely not helping Willie at all.

“He’s entered in the Ryanair and in the Queen Mother Champion Chase. I imagine Willie won’t make a decision until the weekend before – that’s his normal style.”

When pressed on which Festival race might be more likely, Bromley couldn’t say. “We’ll wait and see what we’re told,” he concluded, with a wry smile.

You can see the whole of Bromley’s very helpful interview – in which he provides detailed intended running plans for as many horses owned by Munir and Souede, and not trained by the Cistercian Order, as he’s able instantly to recall within the time restraints of the interview – here: https://www.racingtv.com/videos/watch/ondemand/26015

It’s true that in his Racing Post column, Mullins himself was a shade more positive: “We’re very happy with the way he is progressing since he met with a little setback… It was the same leg but it was a lesser injury and nowhere near as sore as the first one. We’ll see how things go over the next ten days or so but, all going well, he should make the line-up for Leopardstown.”

But to summarise: it’s a possibility that Footpad lines up at Cheltenham this season having run just twice – falling when about to be beaten by Saint Calvados and second to the now 11-year-old Simply Ned, both 33/1 shots for the Champion Chase. Yet apparently this adds up to Footpad being second favourite. No, thanks.

That said, missing the Dublin Festival would perhaps increase his chances of running here rather than in the Ryanair because an interrupted preparation might make Mullins less inclined to choose that moment to try a new trip with a horse hitherto considered at the fore of his Cheltenham squad. Then again, Mullins is often a law unto himself in such instances.

It would probably need a big performance from Min at the Dublin Festival to prompt Ruby Walsh to jump ship from Footpad, however, as his modus operandi is to prefer taking on a known target like Altior with a horse who’s yet to run against him rather than a horse like Min, who’s twice suffered a seven-length defeat at the champion’s hand. No worries: Min’s three career-best performances were registered by other jockeys – Paul Townend or David Mullins – anyway.

Ryanair Chase

Cyrname dismantled what should have been a competitive handicap chase at Ascot last Saturday in the manner of a Grade One horse. At one point, even rider Harry Cobden worried he might have gone off too fast, so long was their lead, but as their rivals’ jumping started to unravel in their wake, it soon became apparent that they would win. They did so, unchallenged by 21 lengths.

Trainer Paul Nicholls hadn’t even entered Cyrname in the Ryanair, or indeed anything else at Cheltenham, because he was of the firm view that this horse must race on right-handed tracks. Cobden questioned whether that preference held, suggesting that if anything his mount wanted to adjust left at Ascot. (Yet Cyrname has never raced against Special Tiara! Go figure.)

Nicholls’ conclusion is based on two items of public evidence: an underwhelming seasonal debut in a Chepstow handicap hurdle and his defeat by Bigmartre at Newbury on his second chase start when persistently jumping left. That Cyrname’s form then took off as a novice, earning him two Grade Two victories, was partly then ascribed to a right-handed campaign.

Since Saturday’s coming-of-age performance, Nicholls’ assistant trainer Harry Derham has reiterated that view but introduced a caveat. "Stepping back up in trip and with the hood off, he did what we hoped he was always capable of on Saturday," he said then. "I'd imagine he'll take a fair hike in the handicap but he deserves his chance in graded company and, all being well, we'll go to the Ascot Chase.

“If he went and won at Ascot by ten lengths, maybe you'd think about the Ryanair, but he's a little dependent on going right-handed and his owner [Johnny de la Hey] likes to run his horses where they can run their best races."

The yard is likely to be double-handed, therefore, in the Ascot Chase with Politologue also due to line up alongside fellow Ryanair candidates, Waiting Patiently and Top Notch (who could yet switch to hurdles). A convincing win in such company is a lofty pass-mark but should Cyrname earn the right to be supplemented in the minds of Team Ditcheat, the deed would be done at noon on 8 March. Cyrname is currently quoted only by Boylesports at 10/1 on ante-post terms.

A Cheltenham Festival Grade One is arguably not the best place to test-drive whether Cyrname’s predilections are binding but there’s no doubt he’s worthy of a place in the line-up. Handicapper Michael Harris has justifiably raised him 15lbs for this success to a mark of 165 and that places him just 3lbs behind the ultra-consistent Un De Sceaux.

Back in fourth at Ascot, 21 lengths adrift of Cyrname, Mister Whitaker’s ambitious Ryanair – or even Gold Cup! – ambitions were exposed as exactly that, so his Festival appearance will most likely take place in the Ultima or the Plate. The former 3m1f option looked more suitable on this evidence.

As discussed in the Champion Chase section, Altior’s comprehensive defeat of Fox Norton has caused trainer Colin Tizzard to pirouette – hold that mental image… a bit longer… longer… and relax – on his thoughts that the Ryanair should only be the backstop option in case a horse who’s essentially a two-miler has “lost a yard of pace”. There’s been a tentative change of priorities.

But the Tizzards were “delighted” with Fox Norton’s stuffy reappearance, having previously stated the horse was burly and would need one or two runs before the Festival. This Ascot performance was not that of a horse who’ll be ready next time, so taking in the Game Spirit en route makes utter sense.

“I think most of his ability is still there, but we've got to get him racing again,” Tizzard said. "He's entered in the Champion Chase and Ryanair and I suppose Altior will decide which way we go. I don't think we can beat him and on all known form we won't. But if he frightens everyone else away, we might decide to go for it."

The following day, Tout Est Permis won the Grade Two Jockey & Hotel Chase at Thurles by a mere short-head from a rejuvenated Sub Lieutenant to make it a Gigginstown 1-2. The runner-up controlled the race from the front but went at a decent enough clip nonetheless, especially via a building pace on the final circuit, and had he been a shade more fluent at the last he might have held on.

But Tout Est Permis gamely ran him down – and that was despite a sizeable blunder four out when he got in too close and crashed through the fence, yet without losing that much momentum. He responded positively with a good jump at the next flight and despite being outpaced after that, rallied relentlessly to wear down a not-stopping leader.

“I haven't enjoyed a winner as much in a long time, because I was down at the final fence and I was sure he was beaten. I couldn't believe he got up,” trainer Noel Meade admitted to Gary O’Brien in a Racing TV interview.

"He wants further and softer ground as it was plenty quick for him. What will happen next, I don't know, but he could well run in the Ryanair. He is improving and is putting on weight and getting stronger all the time.”

Meade is now inclined to miss next month’s Red Mills Chase at Gowran “as it could empty him out” and favours heading straight to Cheltenham. Although he didn’t exactly rule out the Gold Cup – he’s trained for Gigginstown too long to make such a schoolboy error – he hinted that while the longer race would suit this last-gasp winner, it might be asking too much too soon.

“While he'd love the Gold Cup trip, he is only six so we'll see,” Meade added. “If the ground was soft maybe the Ryanair; if it wasn't, maybe the other one."

On ten-year-old Sub Lieutenant, JJ Slevin was deputising for Rachael Blackmore, who’d been stood down after two falls earlier on the card, and delivered his mount’s best effort since last October. However, the overall balance of his form means it’s hard to imagine the 2017 Ryanair runner-up proving a major Festival force.

This was still a good 10lbs below what used to be his consistent best and indicates how much Tout Est Permis also must find in order to get involved, even if he has youth on his side. Neither appears quick enough.

Magners Gold Cup

Total Recall would have finished a much closer third behind fellow Gold Cup entrant Tout Est Permis in a Thurles Grade Two Chase last Sunday had he not been brought to his knees when pitching forward on landing at the last.

I hope he didn’t do himself damage because in trying to recover, his back legs did the splits and that makes me worry he could have injured himself. He’d made a lesser mistake earlier in the round but, having been outpaced, was staying on over an inadequate trip at the time.

You could take the view that errors are starting to become a theme for Total Recall or that he is very much unsuited by a right-handed track. He frequently jumped left here, all of his best form is left-handed (bar his Limerick debut for Willie Mullins last season, when outrageously well handicapped) and four of his six career non-completions have been right-handed, the others being in the Gold Cup and Grand National.

It’s probably a mixture of both factors but it’s surely time to give right-handed tracks a rest. He’s now been dropped 1lb to 155 and the Grand National weights are published next month.

At Taunton last Saturday, Tea For Two had his first start outside of graded company since February 2017 but the sharp drop in class from the King George and an ease of 4lbs in his rating – 11lbs below his peak – were of no help. He was never travelling in the Weatherbys Portman Cup and was pulled up before the fourth-last fence.

It was a marginal call to miss last Saturday’s Grade Two Peter Marsh Handicap Chase with Valtor according to Anthony Bromley, racing manager to owners Simon Munir and Isaac Souede. So the plan was to make it to Haydock at the second attempt for the BetFred Grand National Trial next month – albeit he is entered in Saturday’s BetBright Trial Cotswold Chase at Cheltenham, too.

“It was only borderline – he wasn’t too bad,” Bromley said last Saturday, referring to the sniffles that caused trainer Nicky Henderson to keep Valtor at home. “So, he probably goes for the BetFred… he’s top-weight there. Just to see if he’s National or if he’s Gold Cup. If you win there off 160, you’re Gold Cup, aren’t you?”

Terrefort, representing the same owners, remains the more likely Trials Day candidate, where he is likely to meet Frodon. Other possible runners at Cheltenham this Saturday include Elegant Escape – of whom Colin Tizzard has spoken of sending straight to the Festival – and Minella Rocco, who’s also top-weight for the Sky Bet Chase that same day.

Meanwhile, it should be noted Bristol De Mai – who also runs for Munir and Souede – was given an arresting entry in the Stayers’ Hurdle last week, on which more in that section.

Elegant Escape winning the Welsh National
Elegant Escape: Will he run on Trials Day at Cheltenham?

Unibet Champion Hurdle

Different tactics were initially employed on Global Citizen in Haydock’s The New One Unibet Trial last Saturday and they inspired an improved performance, putting Ben Pauling’s representative back in the running for the Festival’s main hurdling event.

This horse had gone haring off on both previous starts this season and while it worked in the Gerry Feilden, his jumping wasn’t accurate enough to sustain his advantage when upped in grade for the Christmas Hurdle last time out. There, he was beaten 13 lengths by Verdana Blue.

On this occasion, rider David Bass asked Global Citizen initially to accept a lead and only allowed him to tug on through to the front after the third flight. Although his mount was more than enthusiastic, he was never out of control and straightforwardly cracked his rivals one by one – aided by some particularly slick jumping in the straight.

“We'd let Global Citizen roll from the front in his last couple of starts and he was on it too much the whole way. We jumped him off in second rank today and he was good. David said he was a different horse and settled lovely, down the back he was able to ride a race on him rather than just restrain him,” Pauling reported afterwards.

“His hurdling was incredible again, which is the main key to his success. He has a big future. I kept him in this division because I thought he could be near enough a Champion Hurdle type and today he's proved that he could be. He'll go there with a chance; the track will suit because he stays.”

Having made a chance-ending blunder three out, Silver Streak inexorably narrowed the winning margin all the way to the line. This niggles, as does the fact that aside from one start at Ascot – a defeat, though admittedly on his seasonal debut – Global Power has been campaigned on flat tracks. I suspect Cheltenham won’t be ideal for him but he certainly merits his place.

However, Evan Williams has almost entirely discounted the notion of sending Silver Streak there as a result of this three-length defeat at level weights.

“Silver Streak won't go for the Champion Hurdle,” Williams said. “His jumping isn't good enough in that grade. There's no point in being dreamers, we've lived the dream. If we go anywhere, we'll go to Wincanton for the Kingwell. We'll leave him in the Champion in case everything else falls by the wayside.”

Third-placed Western Ryder was the first of the three principals to come under pressure in the straight, moments before the runner-up made his blunder at the third last. He would only be making up numbers in a Champion Hurdle and a County entry would seem more appropriate.

Last year’s County winner Mohaayed was beaten exiting the back straight and just isn’t suited by these small-field graded events. Pingshou was never really going; he’s built for chasing but didn’t seem to take to it in two attempts this term.

International Hurdle winner Brain Power wasn’t declared for this contest, one of three horses from Nicky Henderson’s yard to miss their engagements at Haydock due to a case of the sniffles and a low blood count. Brain Power beat Silver Streak by less than two lengths when in receipt of 4lbs yet his Champion Hurdle odds are less than half those of Global Citizen.

“Unfortunately, it’s a case of there being a bit of this sort of thing around and we cannot afford to be taking a chance with horses we know are not 100 per cent right in themselves,” Henderson said. “The weather has been particularly unhelpful to us really. It’s been so mild through the winter there are bugs and bits and pieces that are around and the horses are susceptible to them.”

Stablemate Call Me Lord also produced a mucky scope when under consideration for this same race – which would have been a sensible way of testing the water of a left-handed track – but he now heads to the Kingwell at right-handed Wincanton instead.

“We may have to have a roll at the Champion Hurdle,” said Anthony Bromley, racing manager to Call Me Lord’s owners, Simon Munir and Isaac Souede, in his Racing TV interview last Saturday.

Bromley also said Wholestone’s Champion Hurdle entry is not for the birds. Trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies suggested it and Bromley has always deemed the horse more suited by 2m4f than three miles. “In an open-looking Champion Hurdle, it might be a thought,” he added.

But five-year-old We Have A Dream – also in the same ownership – is more likely to go the way of the Betfair and County Hurdles.

Finally, Paul and Clare Rooney have been true to their word and not entered If The Cap Fits either here or anywhere else at the Festival, nor do they have entries at Cheltenham this Saturday. However, talks are being held between the couple and representatives of the racecourse which is good to know. Even if the decision remains the same, dialogue can only be constructive.

Sun Bets Stayers’ Hurdle

Straightforward Ballymoy would need to be supplemented if he’s going to contest the Sun Bets Stayers’ Hurdle but his latest Ascot success in a decent handicap from a mark of 147 testified that he’s ready for his first step into graded company. That brought his strike rate to six from eight starts over hurdles.

Although he used to pull hard in his early days, he’s now highly professional and continues to make steady progress through the hurdling ranks. Connections had intended to run him in Haydock’s Champion Hurdle Trial last Saturday but Carl Llewellyn, assistant trainer to Nigel Twiston-Davies, reportedly didn’t press the right button at entry time. All’s well that ends well.

Ballymoy’s next stop will be Fontwell’s National Spirit – as a Grade Two over 2m3f, an ideal next step – but Anthony Bromley, racing manager to owners Simon Munir and Isaac Souede, thinks that three miles will ultimately suit best. However, he suggested that might be more likely to happen in Aintree’s Liverpool Hurdle rather than at Cheltenham.

Munir and Souede are responsible for two of the more arresting entries for this Festival event, however, in Top Notch and Bristol De Mai. Those two horses, better known these days for their chasing exploits, were engaged along with last year’s third Wholestone and any of that trio could yet represent these owners.

“[Top Notch] ran well in the Long Walk here,” Bromley explained after Ballymoy won at Ascot. “The division doesn’t look an amazing division. That entry went in in case he got thumped in the Ascot Chase next time. If he goes first or second, then yes we’ll go Ryanair but if he’s put in his place… it gives us the option of another Grade One… to consider.”

Bristol De Mai is set to run in Haydock’s Grade Two Rendlesham next month and it was that engagement that inspired this further off-piste entry. “It’s probably a bit unnecessary,” admitted Bromley. “But if he went and won [the Rendlesham] very well… It was an angle to think about. It’s better to have him in than not in.”

Very much so – and 33/1 NRNB is far, far too long for a horse of his ability. This is the joint-highest-rated chaser in training. Yes, he’s appreciably better at Haydock than anywhere else and has blossomed as a chaser but he’s also finished second in a JLT at the Festival and won a Grade One hurdle as a juvenile.

Finally, Willie Mullins has accounted for Faugheen not standing his ground at the forfeit stage for this week’s Galmoy Hurdle in his Racing Post column on the grounds that “we’re bringing him along gradually” since his gasp-inducing fall at Leopardstown. Instead, he might revert to two miles for the Irish Champion Hurdle – a trip the yard had come to deem unsuitable.

Faugheen's victory lit up the Punchestown Festival
Faugheen: Misses the Galmoy

OLBG Mares’ Hurdle

The Grade Two Warfield Mares’ Hurdle offered nothing of relevance for this Festival race but it did inspire a canny piece of placing from Jessica Harrington, who rerouted Magic Of Light to Ascot rather than tackling the Thyestes Chase as planned prior to her 12lb rise for winning a Newbury Listed Chase in December.

This mare had vastly improved on her hurdle form over fences and didn’t need anything like her best to despatch the best available British mares, Jester Jet (who was conceding 4lbs) and the singularly misnamed If You Say Run. That latter, the only competitor entered in the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle, only wants to hang left instead.

Magic Of Light stays in Britain to contest a mares’ chase at Huntingdon this Friday and will be entered in the Irish Grand National.

Novice chasers

All the cards may have fallen in Castafiore’s favour in Haydock’s Grade Two novices’ chase last Saturday, but the 28/1 outsider of five seized her opportunity without hesitation. Compared with her nearest pursuer Jerrysback, she jumped more nimbly and possessed the superior toe required for this tight, flat track. Yet two of her rivals, third-placed Crucial Role and last-placed Slate House (whose jumping deteriorated) broke blood vessels so the form is not robust.

Trainer Charlie Longsdon had not expected Castafiore to win but to “outrun her odds massively”. She was the most exposed horse in the field – at least in hurdling terms, having had almost twice as many starts in that discipline than the more experienced of her rivals – and yet she had seemed to show much-improved form when winning a mares’ novices’ chase last time at Wincanton.

She’s clearly taken to her new task well. It’s worth noting that Longsdon has mostly campaigned her on flat tracks so Aintree or Ayr, rather than Cheltenham, might be on his mind for the mare’s second-half of the season. Ayr might be more her

Jerrysback didn’t really jump out to his right, as he had at Cheltenham and Bangor, but Barry Geraghty did keep him on the outside of his field and his mount didn’t look entirely comfortable, flicking off and on the bridle throughout. His jumping was also a bit too unwieldy for 2m4f at this track. He clearly needs to step up in trip.

Given JP McManus’s NH Chase intended OK Corral over-performed at Warwick earlier this month, it wouldn’t be surprising for Jerrysback to appear among those entries, as well as for the RSA, when they’re published this week. While he certainly didn’t build on his improved showing when second to Vinndication at Ascot last month, neither did he exactly let the form down either.

Le Breuil was below his best back in fourth; he did rally late on to almost reel in Crucial Role for third – albeit that horse finished with a problem – and this right-adjusting horse continues to shape as if he needs to go back up in trip. Viewed that way, he ran perfectly well for something like the Ultima (adjustments not withstanding).

At Thurles last Sunday, Camelia De Cotte clocked a very similar time to that of Tout Est Permis, carrying an identical weight over the same course and distance. She had soon established a long lead and won by 20 lengths on the bridle, jumping soundly if slightly left.

She’s improved more than a stone since going chasing and has only been beaten when facing geldings in a Grade Three at Tipperary last October, won by Le Richebourg. Her jumping may have become more reliable since then.

That horse is a leading contender for the Arkle – the entries for which are published this week, along with the Festival’s three other graded novice chases. Trainer Gary Moore has said he will be double-handed in that race with Knocknanuss and Diakali while Amy Murphy has reported that fellow (likely) entry Kalashnikov is now back on song at home after having been a bit quiet following his Kempton defeat by Dynamite Dollars.

Novice hurdlers

Mister Fisher was deputising for stablemate Angels Breath when winning the Grade Two Sky Bet Supreme Trial (Rossington Main) at Haydock last Saturday. Blood tests had indicated the ante-post Supreme favourite was “not 100 per cent” and he became the third significant Seven Barrows entry to be off games last weekend.

Trainer Nicky Henderson remarked beforehand that he deemed Mister Fisher “a genuine two-mile horse” and, although the Kempton winner was carrying a penalty for that Christmas success, that he would need to win in order to justify consideration for the Supreme.

He did what was required in straightforward enough fashion, responding when galvanised to press the front-running Bright Forecast at the penultimate flight – albeit he snuck in an extra stride and made a mistake. Nonetheless, he moved into the lead approaching the last and remained in command thereafter, even if he appeared to idle somewhat after hitting the front.

Jockey James Bowen was impressed. “He's got an incredible engine,” he said. “He was dossing a bit when he got to the front but he's got a lot of talent. He's progressed with every run and hopefully he's going to get better again. He's still got a bit to learn but he's very good. He's fast, I'm sure this season he'll probably stick to this trip but I'd be confident he'll get further.”

Although this horse has presented as something of a slow learner, Henderson doesn’t think Mister Fisher now needs another outing prior to Cheltenham. We now know he goes left-handed but an undulating track remains an unknown. His trainer believes soft ground would be a negative, citing this as the reason for his heavy defeat in last term’s graded bumper at Aintree.

Beaten two-and-a-half lengths in receipt of 3lbs from the winner, Bright Forecast was unsuited by Haydock’s tight track and was inclined to hang right at the bends. However, there was more to his wayward course than mere discomfort as he led the field past the exit to the stables; there, he harboured some intent to head back to the comfort of his box.

That’s an unnerving sign but this was a big, raw ex-Pointer having only his third start under Rules. Everything he’s done so far has been on raw ability but now he’s operating in a tougher league. As trainer Ben Pauling foresaw when he won on his Rules debut, Bright Forecast doesn’t yet look ready for the mental demands of Cheltenham. Navigating calmer waters is likely to benefit his long-term development but he looks ready for a step up in trip now.

Later that same day, Downtown Getaway brought up Henderson’s fastest-ever century with a narrow success over Champagne Well in a decent enough NH novices’ hurdle at Ascot but his jumping lacked fluency and the time was slow. He’d need more to figure in a Ballymore.

Meanwhile, on the same day at Taunton, Thomas Darby got in some match practice for the Supreme when winning a novice hurdle by three lengths at odds of 1/5. Owner Diana Whateley indicated afterwards that she expects trainer Olly Murphy to send him straight to the Festival.

But that might not set up a rematch with Didtheyleaveuoutto, who narrowly beat Thomas Darby at Ascot earlier this season, because trainer Nick Gifford is starting to think that horse might need the Ballymore trip.

At Chepstow earlier this week, Lisnagar Oscar beat highly promising Rules debutant Dickie Diver by a head and was immediately targeted at the Albert Bartlett by connections. Trainer Rebecca Curtis won that Festival race with At Fishers Cross in 2013 but that horse was then having his ninth career start and his seventh over hurdles whereas her latest candidate is less battle-hardened.

By contrast, this was Lisnagar Oscar’s fourth race under Rules, having previously won an Irish point last March but he’d shaped with distinct promise when second to Rockpoint over the Potato Race course and distance last month.

Yet he undoubtedly needed all the experience he has thus far garnered to see off Dickie Diver because a stride – or maximum two – past the line, the runner-up was in front. Had the latter been able to go with Lisnagar Oscar and previous Ffos Las winner Truckin Away to get away after the third last and then not taken a bit of organising in pursuit, the more naïve horse might have won.

Both horses are worth following – the winner (whose dam is a sister to Whisper) because he’ll surely do better stepped back up in trip and the second (from the family of Merry Gale) because he threatens to improve markedly for this outing, even if the Festival will surely come too soon.

There were also a couple of Henderson-trained mares to note this week: Yellow Dockets won for the second time at Warwick whereas Elusive Belle made a winning debut for the yard at Wincanton.

The former is described as “quirky” and has Newbury’s Mares’ EBF Final as her primary target, so may well not run at Cheltenham, but the latter is more interesting for the Grade Two Trull House Stud. She beat a decent rival in Thistle Do Nicely by 19 lengths, albeit receiving 22lbs and not jumping that fluently. She’s a work in progress.

Finally, news belatedly reaches us from Willie Mullins’s yard that Blackbow, considered one of his foremost novice-hurdling prospects this season, is “recovering from a minor setback”. It takes a dickens of a time for ink to dry on vellum – you don’t want it smudging under your habit as you smuggle it through the Benedictine gates.

“He’s back in training but we’ve made no plans for him,” Mullins related in his Racing Post column. “Time is moving on and we’re well into the second half of the season, so we’ll have to see what we’ll do with him. Hopefully, we’ll have him ready to return at some stage in the coming weeks.”

The absence of stablemate Carefully Selected – also yet to race over hurdles in public – has not been similarly enforced, however. “We’re still waiting on soft ground,” Mullins said.

Juvenile hurdlers

The filly Laskadine made a winning British debut for Nicky Henderson and owner JP McManus on Monday at Warwick, despite being keen in the early stages and fluffing a few hurdles – markedly so when asked for a good leap at the penultimate flight.

Luckily, she supplied one at the last because Ian Williams’s new recruit Faldo was coming home strongly in pursuit and there was only a length and a half between them at the line. The winner had previous hurdling experience for Guy Cherel in France whereas the runner-up had winning Flat form in Germany for Peter Schiergen but had cut no ice in last autumn for Iain Jardine.

“Laskadine's jumping probably wasn't as slick as it needed to be,” said Toby Lawes, assistant to Henderson. “She travelled well but will just need a bit more experience to sharpen up her jumping a bit. We've still got a bit to learn about her and we'll get her onto the track again in a few weeks’ time.”

Fellow McManus recruit Belargus finally delivered on his good looks and the decent Flat form he’d shown for Pascal Bary when winning the opening juvenile hurdle at Ascot on his third attempt at the discipline. Patiently ridden be Leighton Aspell, he settled better than has been the case and was brought through steadily to lead after the second last.

At that point, he readily headed Zafar and although that rival battled back doughtily, the pair of them drawing clear of third-placed Beat The Judge by 15 lengths, he was always holding him on the run to the line. His jumping was quite slick at times, benefitting from some intensive summer schooling according to trainer Nick Gifford.

This much-improved performance put him in line for a shot at the Boodles Fred Winter and his resultant mark of 129 should be enough to gain him a place in the line-up – he would have comfortably made the cut in the last two renewals but there would have been some jitters for connections back in 2016.

Zafar’s attitude was impressive in defeat and it won’t be long before he gets off the mark over hurdles – and he might well find further improvement, too. Beat The Judge won an inferior edition of Kempton’s Christmas juvenile hurdle and was a miler on the Flat; he shaped here as if in need of a less testing track than Ascot.

Finally, Anthony Bromley has indicated that Adjali is most likely to represent owners Simon Munir and Isaac Souede at Cheltenham’s Finesse Hurdle this Saturday, with Torpillo instead bound for the Victor Ludorum at Haydock next month. But Bromley also let it slip that the owners “have got a couple of others still to run”.

One of these is definitely Fusil Raffles, who’s joined Nicky Henderson’s yard from that of Guillaume Macaire but is yet to race in Britain. He was due to contest the Chatteris Fen but got colic and then was set to run at Ascot last Saturday until returning a mucky scope. His latest target is Musselburgh’s Scottish Triumph Hurdle on Saturday week.

Selections:

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

Recommended 17/01/19: Min e/w 12/1 [Betfair Sportsbook] or 10/1 [various] Champion Chase


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