Lydia Hislop: Road to Cheltenham | Festival Trials Day reflections

Al Boum Photo
Al Boum Photo

Lydia Hislop reflects on Festival Trials Day at Cheltenham and more in the latest edition of 'Road', with Paisley Park laying down the strongest of markers for the Festival.


Recommended bets

Al Boum Photo e.w. at 12/1 (NRNB, BOG Sky Bet, bet365) in Ryanair Chase


Sun Bets Stayers’ Hurdle

There was a rare beast indeed at Cheltenham last Saturday; in fact, it turned out there were two. The first was a strongly run hurdle race over three miles. The second was the 12-length winner Paisley Park.

That good pace was ensured in the galliardhomes.com Cleeve Hurdle via Lil Rockerfeller – enthusiastic in facing more suitable obstacles than the fences he’d been struggling over so far this season – and a partly revivified Sam Spinner, who this time betrayed no intent to decant rider Joe Colliver onto the turf.

Between them, they ensured this Grade Two event was conducted at an unusually good clip. It suited the winner no end, revealing that the steady pace of the Grade One Long Walk Hurdle, for which success he carried a 6lb penalty here, had only suppressed his ability.

In fact, it’s clear that a crawl back here in March would be the likeliest means to defeating him because the only brief doubt jockey Aidan Coleman might have held was when Paisley Park was outpaced for a few strides at the top of the hill after the third last. But in hindsight that appears reminiscent of the flat spots staying doyens Big Buck’s and Inglis Drever used to hit.

For Coleman’s mount responded purposefully to his urgings: back on the bridle after the penultimate flight, stalking eventual runner-up West Approach menacingly on the home turn, switching readily left to surge between horses entering the straight and leading approaching the last. On hitting the front, he pulled further clear on the rise to the line. It’s hard to imagine any of the Cleeve vanquished turning this form round with the winner.

It’s worth mentioning that Paisley Park also jumped assuredly and, with this victory, put paid to any tentative notion he might not enjoy Cheltenham. Trainer Emma Lavelle had been inclined to write off his Albert Bartlett performance last season, when pulled up in a first-time visor he disliked, as the deeds of a horse still recovering from a serious health setback the previous spring. He’s certainly a very different animal now.

“That was quite impressive wasn't it?” Lavelle rightly observed at Cheltenham. “Paisley Park has such a great way of going in that he doesn't use any energy he doesn't need to use and when Aidan picks him up, he just responds. Aidan said he got there two furlongs too soon and that's the first hurdle he's jumped in front as at home he has a lead at home.

“He looked pretty special out there. I hope we have the same preparation for the Festival. He's getting more streetwise and full credit to my husband, Barry, who rides him every day. He's a professional now and the important thing for us was bringing him here and know the Albert Bartlett last year was a complete non-event for him. He's a different horse now.”

There’s little to quibble with Paisley Park except the price, the 4/1 or 7/2 available immediately after the Cleeve now shrivelled to 9/4 at best. It’s an accurate reflection of the fact we haven’t seen a staying-hurdling performance as smart as this since Thistlecrack’s dominance three seasons ago.

It’s comfortably better than the best that titleholder Penhill has achieved in either of his two terms engaged in this discipline, albeit that comes with the caveat of him having raced only twice in open company and neither time encountering a decent pace. It’s entirely possible that the extent of his ability has also been concealed by races not well designed to showcase it.

Of course, we’re now accustomed to not reading anything into Penhill’s reclusive Quevega-esque campaign, contracted as he is only to appear at the Cheltenham and Punchestown Festivals, but it does require us to take his wellbeing on trust. What could possibly go wrong? Trainer Willie Mullins must be hoping Penhill’s ascetic contemplations, cloistered away at Closutton, will inspire him to be better than ever because Paisley Park represents clearly his toughest opponent yet.

Penhill and Supasundae do battle at Cheltenham
Penhill: Has a new target to aim at in the Stayers' Hurdle

West Approach again chased the winner home, just as he did at Ascot. Despite two significant errors, he is clearly a much better hurdler than chaser and even looked briefly menacing when brought to the stands’ rail off the home turn yet Paisley Park dispensed with him contemptuously.

This remains the right race for the runner-up in March, however, and he could bag a place but his overall form suggests a sound surface, such as that he encountered when pulling up in the 2017 Stayers’ Hurdle, would be a negative. Either way, though, 33/1 or 25/1 is too big for the clear second-best horse from Saturday’s race.

Trainer Tom George had opted to draw stumps on third-placed Black Op’s chasing campaign on the basis that he couldn’t afford the time out of training for the intensive schooling he will need, thus leaving his novice status intact for next season and picking up the thread of his promising novice-hurdling campaign of last term.

Despite winning a Grade One at Aintree and finishing second to Samcro in the Ballymore back then, Black Op was also a clumsy hurdler and he plunged through the sixth here for no good reason, under no pressure and with no rival upsides to interfere. That’s his key frailty, even if he does narrow the disparity between himself and Paisley Park – as I expect him to, this three-mile experience under his belt – in March.

We should note that, as with Summerville Boy’s non-appearance among the Champion Hurdle entries, George was true to his word and did not engage Black Op in any of the Festival’s graded novice-chasing events. Of course, the handicaps – hurdles and jumps – have not yet closed.

At one stage, Lil Rockerfeller and Sam Spinner were up to ten lengths clear but their opponents, led by the chasing Black Op, were comfortably able to take closer order early on the second circuit. Nonetheless, this was far more encouraging from both – even if dreams of Stayers’ Hurdle gold look beyond both their reach and their main function is likely to be setting up the race for Paisley Park’s benefit.

Sam Spinner was mildly outpaced at the top of the hill after the third last but responded to rise jointly in the lead with Black Op two out, only to stumble on landing and surrender to his smoother-travelling rival. He stuck to his task well enough afterwards but was left behind from approaching the last.

Trainer Jedd O’Keeffe said he’d done “a lot of schooling since Ascot” with Sam Spinner but made no mention of any physical problem that might have caused him to appear so disinclined to take off on his previous two starts. It was good to see him on happier terms with himself but this form remains at least 10lbs below his best of last season.

On paper, Bryony Frost looked a good jockey-booking for Lil Rockerfeller and she got him motoring more enthusiastically than can be the case. He wasn’t the cleanest at his hurdles, mind, and was still characteristically on and off the bridle but at least I didn’t have to hold my breath at every flight, as had been the case when he tackled fences. He remains more than a stone shy of his peak, however, when second in the 2017 Stayers’ Hurdle.

Such aspirations for Aux Ptits Soins were surely punctured here because he did nothing wrong except lack the class to get involved. Ditto The Mighty Don, who endured an unsettling start after jumping awkwardly right at the first, and Agrapart, beaten even as the field began its final circuit.

Others had excuses to some degree. Wholestone lost both hind legs on landing two out and was not persisted with thereafter, albeit he’d been niggled briefly at the top of the hill and had jumped characteristically scrappily throughout. I have an open mind on how well he was going at the time of this stilling error. It certainly ensured he finished out of the frame at Cheltenham for the first time in ten career starts there.

A below-par Unowhatimeanharry bled, perhaps a function of him not being quite ready for battle. Trainer Harry Fry had confessed beforehand that “ideally” he’d have wanted another week to prepare after the horse had time off for the haematoma he incurred when falling for the first time in his career at Ascot last month. This unhelpful preparation is a compounding factor for a target that was already looking out of reach.

Recent Relkeel winner Midnight Shadow still appeared to be in the game at the top of the hill but had no response to the principals’ surge on the home turn. He was already well held when Unowhatimeanharry lurched across him at the last flight and brought him to a standstill on landing. This told us he doesn’t have the requisite stamina to take up his Stayers’ Hurdle engagement. If trainer Sue Smith wishes to fly this high, the Aintree Hurdle looks a more suitable ambition.

Earlier in the week, the Galmoy Hurdle was mesmerising. This was not just for the straightforward dominance of Presenting Percy, who’s not entered in the Stayers’ Hurdle despite owner Philip Reynolds and – however seriously – jockey Davy Russell naming it as an “option”.

It’s £405 to enter this race in January, plus an extra £1,215 if you run, or £16,250 to supplement seven days beforehand. Either way, you can be sure the joke’s not on trainer Pat Kelly.

(When I’m fruitlessly chasing Kelly for a single word at Cheltenham in March, I will comfort myself that this communications black-hole extends to the bill-payer. I’ll have brushed up on my semaphore by then, I warn you, Pat. I will even bring two set of flags.)

The other compulsive elements in the Galmoy were: the screaming disadvantage of racing towards the inside and just how disengaged with proceedings Paul Townend was on Bapaume until playing catch-up into a quickening pace in the straight. He gave a superior horse a start and, d’ya know, he wasn’t able to beat him? Perhaps connections remain unconvinced by Bapaume’s stamina for three miles; if so, they learned nothing more but successfully pot-hunted second.

Third-placed stablemate Killultagh Vic, who led the ascendant wide-racing group and was therefore better positioned than most, jumped more cleanly than usual. This may be the most he’s capable of these days; he was receiving 5lbs from the winner and runner-up.

Back in fourth, there was more encouragement from fellow Mullins-trained mare Limini than has been the case this season, causing me to wonder whether she now needs a trip rather than being best around two miles. I can’t quite bring myself to believe that, though, and it’s hard to draw any firm conclusion from this deceptive evidence.

Darasso regressed on his promising Irish debut second to Bachasson last month, although he did race closest to the sirens of the inside line at Gowran Park. That or the fact he was attempting three miles for the first time – or both – may account for him losing touch with the main players after two out and clambering tiredly over the last.

Whatever chance Shaneshill, Don Poli, Coquin Mans, Mala Beach and Bleu Berry might have held was wrecked by where they raced. Shaneshill and Don Poli, the former of whom was surely fit, were pulled up. On his first start for 249 days, Coquin Mans was tailed off.

On fellow returner Bleu Berry, jockey Brian Hayes must have heard the sirens’ sweet music late because he switched from the favoured outer group to join the damned at around halfway. Totally discard this voyage when assessing the form of all these five unhappy sailors in future.

On the basis of this theory and for your wider betting reference, you’ll also want to upgrade the performances of Spare Brakes and Sil Ver Klass the first race, Voix Des Tiep in the second and Kellyiscool in the fourth.

Unibet Champion Hurdle

Trainer Gavin Cromwell isn’t yet convinced that Espoir D’Allen should take his chance in the Champion Hurdle and it’s not difficult to see why. Not only do five-year-olds famously have a poor record in the event but this horse’s patchy jumping would sharply contrast with the slick agility of titleholder Buveur D’Air, who’d be wearing their fellow owner JP McManus’s first colours.

Nonetheless, Espoir D’Allen continues to develop in this discipline and he won a steadily run edition of Naas’s Grade Three Limestone Lad Hurdle last Sunday in authoritative fashion, conceding 7lbs all round – and he’d have won by further but for diving at four out and utterly bungling the last.

You wouldn’t want to delve too deeply into this form, however. He wouldn’t have needed to draw upon his full capabilities to win.

Ten-year-old Wicklow Brave, keen for much of the early stages, chased him home after Ruby Walsh belatedly awoke him from his last-place slumbers. Initially, he hung left into that quickening pace but jumped the last like a horse with plenty left and responded positively to pressure to cut down the winner’s advantage as the line approached. The bonus? A 2lb drop from the handicapper. County Hurdle ahoy.

Espoir D'Allen on his way to an impressive win
Espoir D'Allen: His trainer isn't convinced Cheltenham would be the right call

Tombstone – sure, Espoir D’Allen could beat a well-positioned Tombstone, for God’s sake – took third with front-running Forge Meadow fourth and Glenfarclas Cross-Country Chase prospect Jarob unnervingly close at hand in fifth. For this, Irish handicapper Andrew Shaw raised the winner by 4lbs to 159 which makes him just under a stone shy of Buveur D’Air’s standard.

"If a 100 per cent Buveur D’Air showed up, I don’t know how keen I would be to take him on. It would be very hard for a five-year-old to beat him, I reckon,” admitted Cromwell, who is clearly ambivalent about the idea of targeting the Festival this season. Although it will be McManus’s call, the trainer mentioned Aintree and Fairyhouse as prime alternatives.

“He’s the best I’ve ever trained and I would have no problem running him in a Champion Hurdle, in fact I think he could run very well in the race, but it is a big ask,” Cromwell added. “He would have to jump a lot better than that if we were thinking about winning a Champion Hurdle.”

Meanwhile, the object of Cromwell’s caution runs at Sandown this Saturday, if the meeting survives the weather. “He takes plenty of work which is why I want to run him this weekend,” Henderson commented. “The timing is good and I just hope the weather holds out.” Oh dear.

Meanwhile, Mullins has selected Melon from his basketful of options for Saturday’s BHP Insurance Irish Champion Hurdle, with Sharjah presumably going straight to Cheltenham after a busy first-half to his season and Laurina unlikely to have been suited by the track – plus would it have been soft enough for Goldilocks?

The indomitable Apple’s Jade will be Melon’s chief obstacle, with Supasundae and Petit Mouchoir also in the Grade One line-up.

Finally, Wholestone’s nebulous effort in the Cleeve, the worth of which was obscured by that chance-ending error at the penultimate flight, could yet inspire connections to try something completely different in the form of this race.

More probably, the exploits of other horses in their remaining Festival preps for same ownership of Simon Munir and Isaac Souede – Top Notch in the Ascot Chase, Bristol De Mai in the Rendlesham and Call Me Lord in the Kingwell – will greatly determine his destiny.

OLBG Mares’ Hurdle

This has been a singularly uncompelling season in this division, with the only horses able to hold a candle to Apple’s Jade having either not yet run, underperformed or committed to other targets.

The top-class ante-post favourite herself takes on the boys again in this Saturday’s BHP Insurance Irish Champion Hurdle and victory could turn up the non-existent heat felt by her connections on the matter of her running elsewhere at Cheltenham.

The shorter she gets in this market, the more tempting her chief opponent will ultimately be – whoever the hell she is – come March, at a venue where Apple’s Jade has underperformed in the past, even in victory.

Limini shaped better than had so far been the case this season when fourth in the crawl-sprint of last Thursday’s Galmoy Hurdle but that odd race could disguise a multitude of sins. I remain unconvinced by her but that effort nonetheless puts her back in play here whereas that had previously started to look doubtful.

Up at Doncaster, Lady Buttons clearly considered her task demeaning when hitting the front at the last in the Grade Two Yorkshire Rose Mares’ Hurdle because she was pulling herself up on the run-in, enabling the rallying novice Indefatigable to get to within a neck. The winner serenely ignored the increasingly frantic urgings of her first-time rider Tommy Dowson, deputising for injured sidekick Adam Nicol.

Lady Buttons is having a fine season
Lady Buttons is having a fine season

“Adam told me how to ride her and he told me not to hit the front too soon,” Dowson admitted. “I definitely did that but as soon as you give her a squeeze, she gets there. It's hard not to. She's probably a different class to them. I was a bit gutted we might have got caught... She's a clever horse, she knows what she's doing; she's not going to over-exert herself.”

The 2m4f of this Festival event has in the past clearly stretched Lady Buttons, hence it made sense that trainer Phil Kirby preferred the Queen Mother Champion Chase even if that meant a head-on encounter with the best horse in training. But now it seems he might change his mind.

"I've got no preference at the moment,” he told the Racing Post earlier this week. “The original plan was to go for the Champion Chase but she’s almost half the price for the Mares' Hurdle, so it has to come into the reckoning. She's relaxing a bit more in her races and I think she’d stay 2m4f up the hill, particularly on better ground.

"We know Altior would be seriously hard to beat, but there's no easy race at the Festival and she deserves to take her chance in one of them."

Kirby’s reflections are understandable because, as reading between those lines confirms, neither option is ideal. I wonder if she’ll get an entry in the Grand Annual after all?

Meanwhile, in the Limestone Lad Hurdle, Forge Meadow delivered a better on-paper performance than anything she’d achieved earlier this season but she was flattered by controlling a steadily run race from the front. Her best form has also tended to come over two miles on testing ground.

Tintangle is still a novice but she shaped as if in sore need of a step up in trip when a distant third behind Honeysuckle in Fairyhouse’s Grade Three mares’ novices’ hurdle over 2m2f last Saturday. Trainer Gordon Elliott has entered her in this event but it appears to be flying too high.

Magners Gold Cup Magners Gold Cup

At last, the myth that had come to be Presenting Percy was made flesh in his belated seasonal debut in the Galmoy Hurdle – the race he also won en route to emphatic RSA Chase victory last season. Next stop now, as then, will be a return trip to Gowran Park for the Red Mills Chase. We know this because trainer Pat Kelly flagged a single sentence in the winner’s enclosure.

“You'd have to be delighted with that and Presenting Percy will come back here for the Red Mills Chase,” he signalled. Thus owner Philip Reynolds was once again compelled to leave another racecourse with the feeling he’d talked only to fill the vacuum.

“There’s been a lot of ‘what ifs’ this year because of the ground,” Reynolds said. “It’s not that he doesn’t like good ground, as a matter of fact, I could argue that he could be better on it and we haven’t really seen him on it yet. We haven’t run him because we didn’t want to start him off on that sort of ground and this is real soft ground here.”

Given the ground has come to be such an issue regarding Presenting Percy – by admission for Reynolds and by omission for Kelly, who’s declined a series of potential targets for the horse – I’m going to have to consider it myself.

It’s true that a sound surface didn’t bother him when winning the 2017 Pertemps Final at the Festival but that was from a mark of 146. It’s inarguable that his best form has been recorded on soft ground or worse but that could just have been a developmental coincidence. His sire is an influence for fast ground and there are sound-surface indicators in the dam’s family.

Presenting Percy on his way to victory in the Galmoy Hurdle
Presenting Percy on his way to victory in the Galmoy Hurdle

In short, there are few stones to throw at this 3/1 shot bar that unpalatable price: he jumps well, has sufficient experience, stays suitably and handles the track. His form requires some improvement but, for a second-season chaser, it’s well within the required ball-park to challenge titleholder Native River. Yet for me, apart from fleetingly after the 2018 RSA, he’s never been an appropriate price.

At least Presenting Percy has now made it to the track and won a competitive, if somewhat odd, race. 2017 Gold Cup hero Sizing John will be sidestepping yet another intended engagement at this weekend’s Dublin Racing Festival, extending his period on the sidelines to 13 straight months.

"I don’t think there’s going to be enough rain and if I leave him in, I’d only be tempted to run. I must be sensible because, at the end of the day, we’d only do more damage," said trainer Jessica Harrington.

The clock is ticking on any feasible Cheltenham ambitions. You have to wonder whether the Ryanair might start to look the more attractive option, if he gets to the church at all.

Meanwhile, Frodon may have forced his way into Gold Cup considerations as a result of last Saturday’s popular success in the Grade Two BetBright Trial Cotswold Chase, giving upwards of 2lbs away to all comers. This performance gave further ballast to the fact he’s blossomed into a top-class chaser this season.

Jockey Bryony Frost had a tighter hold of his head than usual on the first circuit, meaning his jumping was slightly syncopated from the metronomic rhythm we’ve come to expect of him at Cheltenham. He was also keen, as if determined to find the beat, while his partner was intent on conserving that energy for his return to the longer trip of three miles.

Yet in the end, he again ultimately won it with his jumping: when allowed to find his flow on the second circuit, he soon had most of his rivals in trouble.

Valtor, who missed an engagement the previous weekend with the sniffles, was chanced in this company to determine whether his target should be (a) the Gold Cup or (b) the Grand National. He was the first in trouble, producing the answer (c) neither, because he appears to need to race right-handed on this evidence – and that of his sudden stand-out success on his 32nd chase start at Ascot last December.

2017 Gold Cup runner-up Minella Rocco, who also beat Native River in the 2016 NH Chase, was the next to crack. Given he would have watched the race from the weighing-room, it appeared Barry Geraghty had ceded the task of riding to Richie McLernon in acknowledgement that he’s rarely extracted the best from this high-class clutz.

Not uncharacteristically, Minella Rocco’s jumping was sketchy and only became sketchier as he was put under pressure early on the final circuit. Quickly having lost his place, he was soon tailed off. This was his first start since a second operation to correct his breathing – intended to put him right for last term’s National until soft ground caused his withdrawal. Even though this was his first run for almost a year, it might be that the wear and tear of racing has shaved his ability.

Patiently ridden Terrefort, on a comeback mission from his disappointing seasonal debut at Sandown, travelled and jumped well enough but – try as he might – he could make no material impact in the straight so his Festival prospects are discussed in the Ryanair section. In fact, it was rank outsider Allysson Monterg who was able to mix it for longest with Frodon until getting very tired from two out.

It was more predictable that eventual runner-up Elegant Escape would become outpaced as the race began in earnest, just as he had been prior to inheriting third behind Presenting Percy in last year’s RSA Chase and bearing in mind he’d just won a Welsh Grand National. He rallied determinedly, however, from fourth place on landing two out to a mere three-quarter length deficit at the line.

Yet in those final strides he was making no further inroads on Frodon, suggesting the winner may have idled to some degree after being exhorted to settle proceedings by Frost on entering the straight. Certainly, Frodon’s jumping over the final two obstacles (and particularly at the last) was not that of a tired horse. Connections had billed this race as the deciding factor for his Festival target and trainer Paul Nicholls delivered a vehement post-race argument.

“Frodon loves the track and he's already rated 169, which would have put him second in last year's Gold Cup,” he said. “In a year that I think is quite open, I'm dead keen to go. He's had six or seven weeks off and when I looked at him in the paddock, I thought he will improve for today. Look at his other races, he always idles a bit like that and then stays on again. He was giving away weight as well and I still think there's improvement there.”

Bryony Frost celebrates her win on Frodon
Bryony Frost celebrates her win on Frodon

Nicholls’ ratings comparison is too linear, taking as it does Might Bite’s figure on lining up in last year’s Gold Cup and not allowing for the differences in profile. Last year’s runner-up was having his tenth chase start whereas, wherever he runs, the Festival will play host to Frodon’s 23rd. (Yes, it really has been that many.)

It’s also true that this was not as impressive, on crunching the numbers, as his Caspian Caviar success over the Ryanair course and distance last month. Only Bristol De Mai’s Betfair Chase and stablemate Clan Des Obeaux’s King George match up with that performance this season (betting without Altior, obv).

So, I suspect an aggressive ride in the Ryanair would be the best fit for Frodon rather than having to conserve his energy alongside the more subtly ruthless rhythm of a thorough stayer like Native River… And yet, at the same time, I can’t blame connections for rolling the big dice. 2019 will surely be Frodon’s best chance of ever winning a Gold Cup.

Elegant Escape must have also booked his ticket to the Friday of Cheltenham, alongside stablemates Native River and Thistlecrack for trainer Colin Tizzard’s yard – but they won’t be joined by Sizing Tennessee, who had the Welsh National hero ten lengths adrift in the Ladbrokes Trophy, because he wasn’t entered here.

Meanwhile at Gowran Park last Thursday, Invitation Only extended trainer Willie Mullins’ recent dominance of the Thyestes Chase, taking his tally to seven with a career-best effort. Looking far more comfortable at this track than when thumped by stablemate Al Boum Photo at Tramore earlier this month.

It’s also reasonable to infer Invitation Only would have needed the run on that occasion and that stepping back up to three miles last week enabled him to blossom. He travelled well and wore down Alpha Des Obeaux after the last – that horse rejuvenated by first-time blinkers – the pair well clear. Most pertinently, he jumped better in these circumstances – that issue having been the root cause of what turned out to be a mildly underachieving novice season.

A positive ride, enabling him to meet fences in his own time, was the key last term: when ridden more patiently he tended to make a chance-ending error, as in the Flogas, or deliver a litany of mistakes, as from the eighth in the JLT until slipping on landing four out and being pulled up.

He was straight-up unlucky on his final start at Punchestown, his only previous attempt at this trip, when disputing the lead readily enough only to have his legs taken from under him by the two-out fall of Monalee. It was a positive sign in the Thyestes that Invitation Only was both able to keep his jumping together and accept a lead. However, his trainer raised a potential concern for the Festival.

“It was a good performance,” said Mullins. “I just thought he might be ahead of the handicapper going out to three miles and so it's turned out. I declared [this horse the previous] weekend, hoping we might get a bit of rain that never came. It was fast enough ground and I thought we'd skip that and come here today, as there was a bit of rain in the forecast and we got that. All his form was soft or yielding ground or heavy ground.”

Nonetheless, Invitation Only has risen in the Closutton Gold Cup pecking order as a result of this conquest and is very likely to line up in this event. For that reason alone, the 40/1 knocking around is too long, more so when you consider the more exposed chasers who are shorter than him. Having won this from a mark of 152 and earned a rise of 10lbs, the Randox Health Grand National is also understandably on his agenda.

On paper, the Thyestes paid a massive compliment to Al Boum Photo with the 1-2 having finished 22 lengths and upwards adrift in third and fourth behind him at Tramore. However, this staying form only serves to underline how much that duo was unfavoured in such speed-favouring circumstances. So, I’ll stubbornly pick up this thread of argument in the Ryanair section.

Ryanair Chase

If the BetBright Trial Cotswold Chase provided no definitive answer about Frodon’s stamina for the longer Gold Cup trip, it certainly made his participation in the Ryanair far less likely and – I think – answered any latent queries about Terrefort’s likely destination.

If you can afford to lock up some money on an off-chance for six weeks, the 8/1 NRNB BOG offered by bet365 about Frodon for this race underestimates his ability comparative to the lesser horses or unlikely runners who are shorter than him or comparably priced in the ante-post market.

You can envisage Bryony Frost being more freely able to force the agenda and utilise her mount’s key asset – jumping – in the Ryanair than is likely to be the case in a Gold Cup. But, to adapt one of Ted Walsh’s remarks, nobody ever dreamed of breeding a Ryanair winner.

Terrefort could never quite land a blow on Frodon and, having fleetingly suggested he might have been the main danger, he was swallowed up by the superior stamina of Elegant Escape in the straight. Yet there was also something nebulously lacklustre about him, even if considering him for a shorter trip.

He travelled better than at Sandown but was still holding his tail at an awkward angle – something of a habit, admittedly, but it seems more marked this season. Worryingly, that fits in with trainer Nicky Henderson’s pre-race comment that “something was obviously wrong but I can’t say we ever really identified it”. Whatever, Terrefort hasn’t yet built on his promising novice campaign.

Owners Simon Munir and Isaac Souede could have another potential Ryanair outsider in stable companion Janika, who on the same Cheltenham card failed by only a head to concede 19lbs (including winning rider Lizzie Kelly’s claim) to the bold-jumping Siruh Du Luc in a handicap chase staged over the course and distance of this Festival contest.

The runner-up is a neat jumper but doesn’t have the rangiest frame and so might find Grade One company at this track a shade taxing. The curl of his knee also suggests that some cut in the ground will always be important to him.

Yet he has undoubtedly taken to racing in Britain and is on the up. The Plate is probably the way to go, if the Festival is on connections’ minds. Positive tactics were his trademark in France, so it will be interesting to see when they might be applied over here.

Waiting Patiently beats Cue Card in an epic finish
Waiting Patiently: Doesn't go to Ireland

You will not be surprised to learn that Waiting Patiently is a non-runner in Ireland this weekend. Trainer Ruth Jefferson, who should have negotiated a by-the-word deal when providing the reasons for her stable star’s serial non-appearances, is worried both by the prospect of – as ever – unsuitably quick ground but also whether snow and freezing temperatures could cause disruption either to the Dublin Racing Festival or those contenders travelling over from Britain for the fixture.

“It’s going to predominantly be good, which isn’t really what we want, so I don’t see much point in shipping him out there,” she said, citing a defence of his Ascot Chase crown as perhaps the only remaining option prior to the Festival itself.

This causes me again to recall two of Jefferson’s objections to last term’s gift-horse Ryanair project when not only was she concerned about whether Cheltenham’s undulations would be suitable (rightly, in my opinion) but also about the less-than-four-week turnaround between targets for a horse who is reputed to need time between his races. Careful: amnesia can be contagious.

My doubts about him and others at the fore of the Ryanair market impel me to take a small risk with Al Boum Photo. I must stress I’m advising this each-way punt strictly on NRNB terms – specifically at 12/1 BOG with bet365 and Sky Bet – because of the risk that a bold showing in a steadily run Unibet Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown this Sunday is likely to convince trainer Willie Mullins to target Cheltenham’s version instead of the Ryanair. He’s got nine shots at getting the monkey from his back by winning that elusive race and he’s damn well likely to use them.

However, Al Boum Photo has shown more than once that speed, rather than stamina, is his chief asset: when starting to paddle two out in last year’s RSA Chase, when winning a Grade One over 2m4f at Fairyhouse and when about to out-foot his rivals in Punchestown’s steadily run Champion Novices’ Chase until rider Paul Townend suffered his infamous brain-freeze.

I realise this idea won’t be for everyone, because it runs contrary to the perceived thinking on where Mullins is likely to deploy his key assets at the Festival. Plus Al Boum Photo needs to find a handful of pounds of improvement to take the major honours and this bet puts money out of action until mid-March if the horse is a non-runner. But it’s been on my mind for a while and now is the moment.

Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase

Nothing to see here except that those who fancy Lady Buttons each-way should note: whereas her participation here had hitherto been likely, trainer Phil Kirby has since raised doubts.

The next explosion in this division comes in Saturday’s Dublin Chase at Leopardstown, in which Willie Mullins will be represented by Min rather than Footpad. Perhaps the latter has lost his race against time to recover from that second overreach injury he sustained on his latest start. His profile is looking kinda shaky, not that you’d know it from the ante-post betting.

The good news for Min is that Special Tiara is also participating, so that will ensure the good pace he needs. Harry Whittington has declared Saint Calvados, who’s joined by fellow British raider, the veteran Simply Ned. He’s been in superb form this season and likes this track.

Novice chasers

Paul Nicholls continues to campaign Dynamite Dollars like a short-term project and there might yet be further evidence to consider prior to his Arkle bid. The Ditcheat trainer could yet ask his star two-mile novice to take in next month’s Kingmaker at Warwick.

In beating three rivals in Doncaster’s Lightning Chase last Saturday, Dynamite Dollars didn’t need to be at his best – and he wasn’t. He even seemed in a vaguely distracted mood, whipping round at the start and running about approaching the first.

His jumping lacked its usual fluency and chief rival Ballywood – receiving 8lbs and now perhaps a Grand Annual contender – briefly looked threatening until the second last, which the winner negotiated less well and yet still got the runner-up under pressure soon after.

Assistant trainer Harry Derham averred: "Paul hasn't ruled out either [running or not, before the Arkle] for Dynamite Dollars. You can tell he hasn't had a hard race there, but he wouldn't have been fully revved up for that and it's all about getting him ready for one day in March.”

It very much doesn’t look “all about” that (happily, for fans of actual racing) and it’s valuable experience – something one of his putative chief rivals, Lalor, will lack. The annual Ditcheat routine also means we shouldn’t take its representatives’ January form too literally: its Festivals crew are all returning from a couple of weeks on the sofa after their flu jabs.

The right-hand adjustments that Dynamite Dollars at Doncaster have drawn some comment, paradoxically from many observers who saw nothing to analyse about Altior’s more marked proclivities at Ascot. Just as the latter course tends ruthlessly to expose a chaser who prefers to race left-handed, I think Doncaster is one of the most forgiving courses for the opposite tendency.

There’s no doubt Dynamite Dollars has a favoured direction of modification and his peak form to date is right-handed, when winning graded events at Sandown and Kempton, but I’m less inclined to edge towards that conclusion as yet. The balance of his bumper and hurdling form suggests it might not be the case.

Whereas Nicholls’ campaign strategy used to be one of the more obvious tells in training, you could have levelled the same accusation at Frodon’s novice season – I suspect I did! – and that doesn’t prevent a horse still being better than his available opposition at the time. Dynamite Dollars is in the ascendancy and it will take a smart rival to better his professionalism.

Lalor of course holds that November course-and-distance verdict over him but the Arkle ante-post favourite looks set to line up in March with merely two chase starts under his belt. You'd ideally want more than that, even if it's possible to win this race with only one run to your name – if you’re brilliant (Well Chief) or the race briefly ruptures the space-time continuum (Western Warhorse).

Look out, Laurina! There’s another Goldilocks in town and this one likes neither soft going at Sandown nor watered good ground at Doncaster.

“We went up to Doncaster for the sales on Wednesday and I wanted to see what the track was like for myself,” trainer Kayley Woollacott had reported prior to last Saturday in her Betway blog. “It was frozen in places… They’ve been watering it for quite a while just to maintain it and we don’t really want to be running Lalor on watered ground in the middle of winter. It’s just not the same as good ground at Cheltenham in the spring, for example.

“I had a good chat with Dickie [Richard Johnson] and his owner David Staddon on the way home from Doncaster and we all agreed that the best plan is to go straight to Cheltenham. As I’ve said before, we know he goes well fresh and his form in the spring has always been very good… We’ll now just focus on training him for the Arkle and hope he gets there in one piece and in great form.”

Dynamite Dollars scores at Sandown
Dynamite Dollars scoring at Sandown

Amid the murk of Gowran Park last Thursday, Cilaos Emery made a belated winning debut over fences. It was by no means a shallow beginners’ chase, the overall time stood up comparatively and Ruby Walsh’s mount jumped well, lacking fluency only as he took control at the penultimate flight (if we’re quibbling).

He now settles much better than had been a case in his novice hurdling days, when finishing fifth to Labaik in the 2017 Supreme and turning that form around to beat Melon at Punchestown. Trainer Willie Mullins might be hoping Cilaos Emery can do a Well Chief because there isn’t much time to get a second sighter under his belt.

Impact Factor chased him home, having been inconvenienced by the winner approaching the second last; he finished third behind Paloma Blue over Christmas and remains a maiden after six chase starts. The winner’s stablemate Duc Du Genievres was outpaced in third – failing to build on his debut behind A Plus Tard and needing to step back up in trip – but Ex Patriot is steadily going the right way.

“My two jockeys came in and said they went down over the first three fences as fast as they'd go in any Arkle Chase, or Champion Chase I think Paul said. They flew over the first three and I was happy with the way my two jumped,” Mullins said. “It sounded like a really good test so it was good for Cilaos Emery to come out and be able to win starting off like that. I'm very pleased.”

The yard will be represented by Voix Du Reve in the Irish Arkle this Saturday, where he is notably set to face the likes of JP McManus’s Le Richebourg and British raider Knocknanuss. That’ll sort a few of them out.

Mullins was also successful with Real Steel in Fairyhouse’s opening beginners’ chase last Saturday. That horse had hit the deck when likely booked for second behind Paloma Blue at Leopardstown but he jumped soundly here, bar for getting in close and unbalanced on landing at the second last.

Jockey Paul Townend afterwards questioned whether the winner prefers racing right-handed because both of his career wins came that way but Real Steel’s hurdling form doesn’t bear that out. He was unable to get involved at any stage in last year’s Albert Bartlett, however, although his stamina for that far was questionable. Mullins must agree – he’s only entered him in the Arkle and JLT Chases this year.

Having taken the well-strung-out field along and frequently jumped left, Beyond The Law rallied after being headed by the winner two out. The reapplied tongue-tie might have helped him to record his best effort yet over fences. Although he made mistakes at both final flights and then hung right in between, he got back up for second from the consistent Burgas, who jumped or hung right himself amid plenty of fiddly errors.

Plenty was made about the promise of Glenloe’s inexorably staying-on fourth – he’d have been second with a few strides more – but Carter McKay caught my eye just as much. The former will doubtless improve for stepping up in trip (he’s in the NH Chase), having finished an unlucky second to Delta Work in last term’s Pertemps, and the latter, who was too far out of his ground and largely unhurried here, once handicapped.

Ballyward and Discorama had Naas’s Grade Three novices’ chase between them last Sunday when the latter took a crashing fall at the last. Given how much the former found from the last to the line, I suspect he would have won anyway. He shaped like a NH Chase horse, rather than anything quicker – an impression shared by rider Ruby Walsh and bookmakers, who now make him 6/1 second favourite behind OK Corral.

“He is a strong stayer and the further he goes in a race, the better it seems to suit him,” Walsh said in his Racing TV column. “Although he does not have as much experience compared to previous winners of the National Hunt Chase, he may have another run and we will get as much schooling into him as we can before March. His style of running suggests four miles will suit him.”

This was a very different Ballyward to the one who hung right and threw away his chase debut against Shady Operator, who underlined the point by finishing 30 lengths adrift here. Maybe it was fitness or rawness that told last time because this was the performance of a talented young chaser.

The Cheltenham Festival is also not an unknown for him, having finished fourth at big odds in last year’s Potato Race. Remarkably, he is Mullins’ only entry in the four-miler but Walsh is right to highlight that he lacks the rugged experience that is so often underestimated by the market in this race.

Walsh had allowed Ballyward to drift right towards Discorama approaching the last, having identified that horse as his chief danger, and the latter may have been put off by the winner jumping slightly right there. He was in the process of improving on his previous fifth behind Delta Work in the Drinmore, having rallied to challenge after getting outpaced.

Discorama finished second to Blow By Blow – pulled up here and seemingly continuing to be out of sorts – in last year’s Martin Pipe and handicaps might again be the best option at the Festival, provided he’s unaffected by this tumble. You’d rather not head to Cheltenham on a fall.

It was a solid if unimproved run from Chris’s Dream in third, after attempting to make all and jumping soundly. He doesn’t look quick enough for the JLT nor good enough for the RSA. Oddly, he’s not in the NH Chase.

Champagne Classic shaped very well on his first start for 641 days and chase debut. He hadn’t been sighted since his progressive novice-hurdling season, which included success in the 2017 Martin Pipe and culminated in the defeat of the likes of Penhill, Monalee, Al Boum Photo and Presenting Percy in a Grade One at Punchestown. He’s got entries in all of Cheltenham’s graded novices bar the Arkle.

Returning to the UK, On The Blind Side got off the mark over fences at the second attempt and looked far more comfortable upped to three miles than he had when making his debut – tough ask – in the Grade To Dipper Novices’ Chase on New Year’s Day at Cheltenham. There, he took the first slowly and could never get involved but at Kempton on Monday he jumped well, bar for guessing at one on the far side.

He was already mastering Talkischeap when that horse jumped the last less fluently but the runner-up was conceding 6lbs for his recent Doncaster success. It will be interesting to see how the handicapper reacts for the latter, with the Ultima in mind, but winning trainer Nicky Henderson was determined to schedule more match practice for the winner prior to considering his RSA entry – for which he’s 20/1.

“On The Blind Side nudged the first at Cheltenham on his first start and he was never at the races after that,” he said. “Cheltenham does test them first time over fences and they were going a bit quicker than he wanted to go. He obviously wants three miles. That's got his confidence up again and he enjoyed today. He wants to do it again before we even think about going anywhere serious.”

Despite again looking like he enjoys a good breakfast, Kildisart won the novices’ handicap chase on Trials Day at Cheltenham for which he’s been raised 2lbs above the Close Brothers Novices’ Chase ceiling of 145 for beating front-running Highway One O One by two lengths. This will have come as a surpise and disappointment for trainer Ben Pauling.

“Kildisart produced a good performance, but is by no means the finished article,” he said. “He's an amazing horse who looked flat out early doors but was then came there travelling, which is nice to see. He's going the right way and I'm hopeful there is more to come. He's a work in progress. They went an end-to-end gallop and we're delighted.

“We'll probably see him back here in March. He's rated 141 and I wouldn't have thought he'd go up more than 4lb so there's the novice handicap chase and he's also in the JLT.”

Perhaps Pauling should also consider option 3 and look towards the Plate instead? Chris Gordon will surely land a decent handicap with the runner-up in circumstances that fully exploit his accurate-jumping front-running style. Perhaps the Red Rum Handicap Chase at Aintree?

Later that day and over the same course and distance, Siruh Du Luc gamely got the better of Janika to land the handicap that trainer Nick Williams used to launch Festival ambitions last year, when Ultima winner Coo Star Sivola finished fourth to a certain Frodon. This horse jumped brilliantly – if anything, giving the last too much oomph – so it wasn’t surprising that Aintree’s short-course race over the National fences got a mention afterwards even if Williams isn’t keen.

“Siruh Du Lac doesn't take a lot of racing so he could have one more race this season,” Williams said. “The Plate at the Festival is an option, as is the Greatwood Gold Cup at Newbury. Young horses have gone to the Topham but have tended to run out of petrol and not had long careers, so that puts me off.”

Other potential Close Brothers players to mention from the past week are improving Clondaw Castle, who took advantage of favourite Burbank’s stuttering jumping to get off the mark over fences at Leicester, and the latter’s stablemate Lough Derg Spirit, who wore first-time cheekpieces and jumped left when winning at Ludlow, further enhancing the form of Glen Forsa’s Boxing Day success at Kempton.

Kildisart goes on to win
Kildisart goes on to win

Novice hurdlers

We will never know whether Brewin’Upastorm would have been able to repel Birchdale up the final Cheltenham hill last Saturday because he took a plunging fall when narrowly in the lead at the last flight. Having watched the race repeatedly, I’m not confident of awarding a pools-panel victory either way.

Richard Johnson had controlled the tempo from the front on Brewin’Upastorm and he’d been able to get his rivals in a spot of bother when increasing the beat at the top of the hill. Birchdale had been nudged along to hold his position by Barry Geraghty but responded generously and the duo appeared to be biding their time at the last when taking off a fraction behind the leader.

Johnson was niggling away at Brewin’Upastorm all the way to that final flight but had not yet asked for his full effort. He did ask for a good jump, however, and instead his mount tried to fiddle it in a fashion he had exhibited at many previous hurdles. Having been left in the lead, Birchdale then found quite a bit for hands and heels to record an 18-length success.

The winner is unbeaten in two starts over hurdles for trainer Nicky Henderson, having previously won an Irish Point for Colin McKeever. His debut Warwick victory has worked out well, with three of his four closest pursuers having since won, including stablemate Clarendon Street.

But for the Festival, Birchdale presents the classic problem: he hints at further improvement for stepping up to three miles but lacks the rugged profile required for the Albert Bartlett. If he must run at Cheltenham, therefore, I’d favour the Ballymore but really the Grade One Sefton Novices’ Hurdle at Aintree’s Grand National meeting looks the right race for him.

Trainer Olly Murphy was relieved and frustrated immediately after the race, feeling that the switch to front-running tactics hadn’t worked for Brewin’Upastorm. These were a reaction to how the Challow had unfolded for him, when he wasn’t ever quite able to get on terms with Champ, Getaway Trump and Kateson.

He’ll now head to the Festival on the back of a fall – never a good thing – for either the Supreme or the Ballymore. This would have been an improved performance and he remains a horse of immense potential but he’s not quite put it all together yet. I might be tempted to miss Cheltenham this year, were he mine, but neither of those concepts is realistic.

Back in third, Buster Valentine’s unbeaten run came to an end but he continues to steadily develop in the right direction even if he was outclassed here. But Jarveys Plate was unable to build on his revelatory success over this course and distance on New Year’s Day and also looked out of his depth.

Second-season novice Aye Aye Charlie took on open company in the Grade Two Cleeve Hurdle that same day at Cheltenham and performed with credit on paper, if unable to get remotely involved in actuality. Always out the back, he made numerous errors and stayed on past beaten horses for sixth.

A first-time tongue-tie, replacing the cheekpieces he’d worn the previous twice, was clearly no negative and he’s starting to fashion the sort of gritty profile that goes well in the Potato Race. He may well out-run his likely odds. However, his jumping is going to hold him back and his strike rate isn’t the most convincing.

Sticking with the stayers, Nadaitak won a gruelling edition of the Grade Two River Don Novices’ Hurdle at Doncaster last Saturday and also possesses the right profile to have a pitch at the Albert Bartlett.

He tracked the pace set by previous course-and-distance winner Commodore Barry until joining him after the fourth last and then leaving him behind in the straight. That Truckers Lodge ultimately finished second after toiling badly when Nadaitak made his move is testament to a thorough test of stamina.

Nadaitak is progressing at this trip and clearly benefitted from the reapplication of the cheekpieces he wore on the Flat. In a seven-race campaign for Sir Michael Stoute, he reached a peak mark of 87 and stayed two miles. It’s that extra dimension of race experience that bolsters his chances at Cheltenham, so 25/1 underestimates him. The concern is whether he’ll take to those undulations.

Henderson was in the winner’s enclosure with two different novice hurdlers at Kempton on Monday. Precious Cargo was making his debut for the yard, having been trained for bumpers by Lucinda Russell. His handler sees him as a nascent chaser and has not entered him in any of Cheltenham’s graded novices’ hurdles.

Earlier, Pym had scrambled home from new Seven Barrows stablemate The Cashel Man. Having travelled well, the winner started to run about when hitting the front approaching the second last and looked desperately in need of some company. He then almost got too much of it because, had The Cashel Man jumped the last a bit better, he might have won.

It looks as though Pym might ideally need holding onto for longer and could be the type to thrive when moving out of novice company into the increased tempo of a big-field handicap. However, Henderson didn’t seem that keen on going to Cheltenham with him for something like the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle.

The Cashel Man was returning from 611 days on the sidelines, having previously raced on the Flat for David Simcock as a thorough stayer who even bagged a place in the 2016 Cesarewitch. He jumped most hurdles badly here but clearly retains plenty of ability and appetite for racing.

Two other Flat recruits of note from the past week are Erik The Red, a high-class handicapper at up to 12 furlongs for Kevin Ryan and who won on his hurdles debut at Kelso, and Scarlet Dragon, who was making a winning return to this discipline at Huntingdon after two decent attempts last season, most notably when second to Global Citizen in the Dovecote.

Scarlet Dragon had Daphne Du Clos just under ten lengths behind him in fifth. She was sent off the Evens favourite and connections must have had hopes she might develop into a Trull House Stud Dawn Run Mares’ Hurdle contender, but she was too fresh on her first start since winning a Newbury Listed bumper almost two years earlier.

Honeysuckle is the new ante-post favourite for the Dawn Run following her straightforward success in a Fairyhouse Grade Three last Saturday. She’s now unbeaten in three starts over hurdles, having previously won her Point. Trainer Henry de Bromhead has been targeting Cheltenham for a while and he looks fully justified.

“She just keeps progressing and is a really exciting mare,” he said. “I thought she jumped well but Rachael [Blackmore, jockey] felt she didn't jump as well as her last couple of runs. I will speak to the guys, but I wouldn't think she would have another run before Cheltenham.”

Yet she’s far from certain to contest the race the market expects because de Bromhead added that, although she’ll be entered in this contest, “I'll see what else we might enter in as I just have a thing that she'll possibly be better over further”. That suggested the Ballymore and she was indeed entered in that race this week.

Going into the Solerina Mares' Hurdle, the formbook said Robin De Carlow was at least Honeysuckle’s equal, if not her superior, for a race that her trainer Willie Mullins had used in the past to launch subsequent Dawn Run winners Limini and Laurina towards the Festival.

Yet Robin De Carlow markedly underperformed again in finishing a distant fourth, connections again citing her need for a sound surface. It was nowhere near as testing at Fairyhouse as it had been previously at Cork, when she was almost tailed off in a Grade Three staged on heavy ground, so this was more unnerving.

Indefatigable continues steadily to improve, even if she was flattered to reel in a markedly idling Lady Buttons to just a neck’s disparity in Doncaster’s open Grade Two mares’ event that same day. This was a further line of black type for Paul Webber’s mare, who’d previously at least put up a fight when receiving weight from Posh Trish in a Listed novices’ mares’ event at Taunton.

Finally, some quick flashes of news. Rathhill has “a bit of a problem and will, in all probability, sit out the rest of the season” according to Henderson’s Unibet blog. “He’s a lovely horse with a lot of ability so we may do the best thing and save him for next term,” he added.

Thomas Darby heads straight to Cheltenham for the Supreme (although he also holds a Ballymore entry) according to trainer Olly Murphy and Tom George has also indicated that The Big Bite, who flopped at Kempton on Boxing Day, is also still on course for the same target. Elixir De Nutz also holds that entry – and Colin Tizzard has seen fit to engage him in nothing else.

Nick Gifford has indeed entered Didtheyleaveuoutto in the Ballymore as well as the Supreme, as reported in this column last week, but Champ is engaged solely in the former race. Interestingly, Tom Lacey has entered Challow third Katesononly in the Albert Bartlett rather than providing the option of the Ballymore.

Juvenile hurdlers

If Joseph O’Brien sent Fakir D’Oudairies to Cheltenham for a sighter, he must have liked what he observed because the recent Cork winner pulverised his rivals in the Grade Two JCB Finesse Hurdle. Stable companion Fine Brunello was his closest pursuer, fully 13 lengths adrift.

O’Brien already had a strong hand in this division, with Gardens Of Babylon and Sir Erec having already distinguished themselves as leading juveniles in Ireland. This performance set a new standard, however, ahead of what tends to be Ireland’s most informative pre-Cheltenham contest at Leopardstown this Sunday, the Tattersalls Ireland Spring Juvenile Hurdle.

In establishing himself as the leading juvenile to date here, Fakir D’Oudairies travelled strongly towards fore until taking over three out and striding further clear. He jumped well and handled the track readily. He does have the kind of action that is generally favoured by soft going, however.

So, the only concern would be drying ground at the Festival, bearing in mind the Triumph is on the last day and clerk of the course Simon Claisse prefers not to water during the meeting. Of course, this may not prove relevant because, apart from the requirement that the meeting must start on ground no faster than good-to-soft, we still don’t yet know what the going will be in March.

Rider JJ Slevin – who rightly received a two-day ban from the Cheltenham stewards for using his whip when clearly winning – played down the ground as an issue for his mount.

“We didn't hang around but Fakir D'Oudairies travelled very comfortably and jumped very well,” Slevin said. “He has a good cruising speed and I didn't realise I'd won quite as far. I'd say he's probably better with a bit of juice but it's a long way from being winter ground out there and he handled it fine, so back here in the spring I'm sure he'd be fine.”

Fakir D'Oudairies hoses up at Cheltenham
Fakir D'Oudairies hoses up at Cheltenham

Fine Brunello shaped well for the Fred Winter, if connections choose to go that way. Owner JP McManus has three entries in the Triumph – Gardens Of Babylon, Sir Erec and Warwick winner Laskadine, trained by Nicky Henderson – but he is also developing a strong hand for the Festival’s juvenile handicap. Recent Ascot winner Belargus would be another contender, if his rating is high enough to make the cut.

There should be no such doubts for Fine Brunello, who has more physical scope than many a juvenile hurdler and might have beaten his nearest rivals more convincingly had jockey Barry Geraghty not taken the view that there was no point giving his mount a hard race just to get closer to a winner who’d already flown. This was quite a taking performance for the right target.

Incidentally, McManus also has an interesting long-term prospect from Saturday’s race in the Jonjo O’Neill-trained Pagero, a lightly raced French Flat recruit who was making his hurdling debut. Despite making mistakes and ultimately finishing tailed off, he definitely showed flashes of ability.

The lofty 147 rating Adjali was ambitiously handed after winning at Market Rasen has had 2lbs lopped off. On this and other evidence, that’s still too high. He made a mistake as the winner headed him three out and was immediately unable to match him.

Rider Daryl Jacob was expecting better after his mount’s narrow defeat by Quel Destin in the Grade One Finale Hurdle at Chepstow but this race firmly suggests that the British juvenile hurdling form is leagues behind that of the Irish this season. Bear that in mind when approaching the Fred Winter as well.

Just to round off the Cheltenham race, Protektorat showed up well until cracking and seeking to hang left in the straight. He also looks a Fred Winter project but I’d fancy Fine Brunello far more. Our Power stuck to his guns in fourth but similar comments apply. Nelson River was outpaced and outclassed.

For good measure, O’Brien introduced another Triumph-bound juvenile at Naas last Sunday when Konitho won the maiden by five lengths. Having previously been trained in France by Guy Cherel, this was his Irish debut but fourth attempt over hurdles. You wouldn’t have known it, however, given how green he looked when asked to assert after the second last.

From what Slevin had to say afterwards, that rawness wouldn’t have come as a surprise to his yard. “He's a huge big horse. He had been working quite well but I'm a bit surprised that he's gone and won like that today,” he said. You have to suspect there is plenty of improvement in this horse.

Turning back to Britain, Petit Palais made a winning debut over hurdles at Ludlow on Monday. He’d had only three starts on the Flat for John Gosden, managing to win a maiden at Wolverhampton when first-time blinkers were applied. New trainer Tom George didn’t use any headgear and was rewarded with a straightforward success. There’s some room for improvement in his jumping but he’s got a Triumph entry.

He jumped better than Scaramanga, who was sent off the Evens favourite here on his debut for Paul Nicholls. At 85, he was ultimately rated one pound higher than Petit Palais on the Flat despite failing to get his head in front in five starts for James Fanshawe. His jumping was often ponderous and he was perhaps even reluctant at the second last. He was intimidated by the hanging left of scopier runner-up Zizaneur on the run-in and that might have cost him second. Might have.

At Doncaster last Friday, Giving Glances bounced back from her Aintree disappointment, when pulled up in soft ground behind Chica Buena. In fact, she didn’t need to be at her best to defeat Via Delle Volte in that Listed contest but she was proficient and could draw on her extensive Flat experience if trainer Alan King opts for a Cheltenham Festival target.

Knowing this filly well from the Flat, I can readily believe she totally failed to handle the ground at Aintree but owner David Holmes has raised an alternative view.

“Giving Glances was a bit disappointing last time,” Holmes said. “We put it down to the ground but [jockey] Wayne Hutchinson said she just didn't turn up. The trainer thinks quite a lot of her and I'd like to think she could go to Cheltenham, though whether that would be for the Triumph Hurdle or the Fred Winter I wouldn't know.”

She doesn’t look good enough for the Grade One so even though King has entered her there, he will surely prefer the handicap option.

Chica Buena herself was disappointing and quite some way below her best when taking on older mares in Doncaster’s Grade Two Yorkshire Rose Hurdle last Saturday. She has been on the go for a long time this season and it’s possible she’s in need of a break.

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

Recommended 01/02/19: Al Boum Photo e/w 12/1 {NRNB, BOG Sky Bet/bet365] Ryanair Chase


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Willie Mullins sends both Bachasson and Coquin Mans into battle for the Ladbrokes Ireland Boyne Hurdle at Navan on Sunday.

Next Race Off

11:30 Mumbai
5
(7)
Jetfire
J: A Sandesh
4
(4)
Myrcella
J: P S Chouhan
2
(1)
Officer In Command
J: Neeraj Rawal
3
(5)
Divine Power
J: N S Parmar
8
(3)
So Splendid
J: H Zeeshan
7
(6)
Chezza
J: S Zervan
6
(8)
Jaipar Honey
J: T S Jodha
1
(2)
Julio Cesaro
J: S A Amit

Racing Tips

Daily Nap: Follow the Leader

David Ord's last two Sporting Life Daily Nap selections have won at 3/1 and 5/1 - don't miss his Sunday tip that runs at Huntingdon.

There's a classy card at Wetherby on Friday

Sunday's racing preview

Queen's Magic is Keith Hamer's best Sunday bet and he has a tip for every race in the UK and Ireland.

Beauty Generation - one of the top milers in the world

Sha Tin Preview: You Beauty!

Fans of high-class Flat racing are in clover at Sha Tin on Sunday (live on Sky Sports Racing) with a ten-race card featuring Beauty Generation - we preview it here.