Lydia Hislop: Road to Cheltenham including reaction to Un De Sceaux, First Flow and The New One

La Bague Au Roi wins at Ascot
La Bague Au Roi wins at Ascot

Lydia Hislop ponders the most suitable Festival target for La Bague Au Roi and reflects on yet another remarkable victory for The New One in the latest edition of the fabulous Road to Cheltenham series.

This week's Road To Cheltenham division-by-division

Ryanair Chase
Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase
Unibet Champion Hurdle
Sun Bets Stayers' Hurdle
Novice chasers
Novice hurdlers
Juvenile hurdlers

This week, a reformed tear-away slapped down an upstart novice in comprehensive fashion and two less-considered Stayers’ Hurdle hopefuls advanced their case.

Ryanair Chase

Un De Sceaux laughed at the idea that the novice Brain Power might in any way give him a fright at Ascot. Confidently ridden by Paul Townend, he permitted Speredek yards of rope before effortlessly reeling him in approaching two out.

Settling beautifully in his sensible old age, this much-loved horse jumped immaculately and was oblivious to the troubles of Brain Power in his wake. Merely shaken up at the last to deliver another metronomic leap, he won the Grade One Royal Salute Whisky Clarence House Chase by an un-exerted seven lengths.

The family and friends of owner Edward O'Connell were typically – and rightly – giving it large in the paddock before, during and after this success. It was a hat-trick of triumphs in this race and an eighth Grade One to date in his enduring and illustrious career.

"He's an iron horse and takes his training very seriously every morning," said trainer Willie Mullins in tribute. He plans to again target the Ryanair Chase, in which Un De Sceaux was so impressive last year, but did warn: "Let’s see what happens with all the other horses first."

In his two starts this season, Un De Sceaux has appeared as good as ever but both have ended up one-sided contests, not just because the winner was too good, and have been staged on the very testing ground that holds back many a horse other than him.

He'll need still to be operating at his peak for Cheltenham because (as mentioned before) although he was probably value for a bit more than the bare length-and-a-half verdict over Sub Lieutenant in last year's Ryanair, given the exuberance and power of his mid-race effort, this year's race is likely to be an altogether tougher affair.

It's usually harder to predict the depth of this Festival contest with much accuracy but with Top Notch certainly and Fox Norton probably headed in this direction, we have a credible measure. Un De Sceaux won't be able to afford the slightest inefficiency this time around. 5/2 NRNB? No, thanks.

Malcolm Jefferson has not done what it says on the tin and instead has moved immediately to declare Waiting Patiently a non-runner for the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase.

That means it's the Ryanair or nothing at all for the recent impressive Kempton winner, in all likelihood via a clash with Cue Card and Top Notch in next month's Ascot Chase.

Un De Sceaux: Heading back to Ascot
Un De Sceaux was brilliant again at Ascot

The following day at Thurles, the Kinloch Brae was staged, as expected, without the participation of Un De Sceaux’s stable companion Killultagh Vic, who heads for the Irish Gold Cup. Instead it was still billed as a showdown between fellow Mullins' inmate American Tom and the Gordon Elliott-trained A Toi Phil.

As it turned out, lightly raced American Tom sabotaged himself with an unforced error when still clear at the eighth – he'd been granted an uncontested lead of at least three lengths from the outset – and a sudden nervy short one when asked to respond to A Toi Phil's challenge two out. That was game over, if ever there was much of a match.

A Toi Phil is a good operator at this level but has failed to cut the mustard in Grade One company seven times to date in his career; he was thumped by the Mullins-trained Bachasson at Tramore last time out and finished a 14-length fourth behind Sizing John in that potentially discredited John Durkan.

If he does make the cut for Gigginstown's Ryanair squad, it will surely be as a supporting act.

Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase

A deluge would be required between now and March to shift Un De Sceaux from the Ryanair to this race, given both his need for a test at two miles these days and the presence of stablemates Yorkhill, Min and Douvan – perhaps in that order of probability – in this field.

Clarence House runner-up Speredek is not entered at Cheltenham and believed (with some form justification) to be better going right-handed – albeit trainer Nigel Hawke is disinclined to wait until April for targets at Sandown or Punchestown only to find his favoured soft ground is gone. He therefore may give the horse an exploratory spin at left-handed Warwick next month.

That leaves only first-in-trouble San Benedeto as a possible participant in this event from last Saturday’s Ascot crew. He ran abysmally, even if the ground was mostly at fault.

Meanwhile, Henderson was in precise mood when questioned by the press at that meeting about Altior’s progress. He’d previously stated in his Unibet blog that the Champion Chase ante-post favourite would be “stepping up” that weekend to the extent it would to some degree test whether the horse’s breathing operation had been successful.

"It definitely wasn't work in my language – he’s not ready to gallop yet – but what he did today was different to what he’s been doing and he didn’t make any noises," Henderson explained. "Today was quite an important part of his build-up and I’d say that by the end of next week he will be galloping, as far as I’m concerned.

"What we call work is when we put three horses together and they gallop. He did not do that, nor did he do that the day I first heard his noise. He had a full exercise, which is what he’s been doing for the last month, but this was a step up and he got a big tick.

"What he did today he did very easily, which pleased us. It wasn’t far short of what he did the morning he made a noise and I can say 100% categorically he did not make a noise. Everything was good."

Got that? I said: got that? Good. That the chances of Altior running in the Game Spirit are "now 50/50" won't surprise keen observers of the Seven Barrows modus operandi. Yet is there a shade less confidence in the phrase "If he doesn’t run in the Game Spirit itself, I’d like to think that he still will appear at Newbury that weekend for a racecourse gallop"? Well, if Mullins is going to get the full Freud, it’s only fair Henderson does too!

"He could step on a stone, like any other horse, but if we get a clean run we’ll get to Cheltenham," Henderson concluded. For the record, nobody attempted to tell him what they’re calling the Game Spirit now.

Altior
Will Altior be ready for Cheltenham? He's building up in his work

Timico Gold Cup

This coming week will be the opportunity for hitherto fringe Gold Cup players to make any increased bids known, with the likes of 2015 hero Coneygree (returning from a wind operation), Tea For Two, Definitly Red and Alpha Des Obeaux variously engaged.

With Daryl Jacob now seemingly required to ride for owners Simon Munir and Isaac Souede at Cheltenham rather than Doncaster this weekend, he'll be on Bristol De Mai in the Cotswold Chase potentially against some or all of those rivals.

But Whisper misses this Saturday's Grade Two in favour of waiting for the Randox Health Grand National, trainer Henderson having put him back in the running for that race despite previously despairing that the handicapper had scuppered those plans. Those 2lbs he's been dropped since the King George clearly made all the difference.

Unibet Champion Hurdle

Despite having a better prospect of hitting the frame than for years, The New One misses this event in favour of the Stayers' Hurdle – as all but confirmed by trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies last Saturday, honouring the bargain he struck with his son Sam last season.

It's the bold play – of course it is, this is Team Twiston-Davies – given the Champion Hurdle appears a one-sided affair unless or until Faugheen proves he's fit to take on titleholder Buveur D'Air. Those champions aside, there's everything to play for.

In winning his fourth straight Champion Hurdle Trial at Haydock last Saturday, The New One characteristically jumped right and got himself bang in trouble as a result at the final flight, where smoother-travelling Ch'Tibello managed to get his head in front.

But, as Twiston-Davies Senior proudly put it on Racing UK: "They try to play cat and mouse – oh we'll stalk him, we'll overtake him – no, they can't. He's much too tough. The other horse went past him – gave him something to aim at. And there you go: lovely."

Lovely it was indeed to see this ten-year-old millionaire – deemed by many to be under- or over-loved, depending on the hardness of their hearts – knuckle down for his 20th career success, even if he has never looked at his best at that track.

"Four times The New One has won this race and he's never done it well," continued Twiston-Davies. "He’s not the best on heavy ground but he's tough. He appears better than ever this season. He'll go straight for the Stayers' now. He's still got the entry in the Champion if the wheels fall off the other wagons."

His early-season form was much superior to this but, as his trainer says, he's better suited to Cheltenham. Whether that will apply to longer trip is a leap into the unknown – more on which in the Stayers' Hurdle section.

This was runner-up Ch'Tibello’s second start since being withdrawn on the morning of last year’s Champion Hurdle with an infected foot, having in the interim again finished behind The New One in last December’s International Hurdle – the Bula to all right-minded people – won by My Tent Or Yours.

Here, Ch'Tibello travelled smoothly before delivering his challenge, jumping alongside The New One at the final obstacle and getting away from it the more swiftly. However, he could never get rid of the older horse and in sapping conditions he was worn down by the stronger stayer near the line. He's not quite yet regained his peak form of last term.

"For a few strides, I thought I'd got him but what a legend of a horse The New One is. I wish we had one like him," jockey Harry Skelton said generously. "We were delighted with Ch'Tibello, particularly on that ground and he has stepped up on his run at Cheltenham. The best horse won today, no mistake, but our horse deserves his day in the sun and that may come in the Kingwell."

He's now set to meet Call Me Lord in that Wincanton Grade Two after his trainer Henderson opted against a left-handed test-drive in the Betfair Hurdle prior to Cheltenham next month.

"After his win at Sandown, some people said it very much merited an entry in the Unibet Champion Hurdle and I suppose we'll know a lot more about whether he is up to that grade after Wincanton," he said in last week's Unibet blog.

"Obviously, Cheltenham is left-handed and up until now he's been very dependent on going the other way and we will have to go anti-clockwise at some stage. And while one of the reasons to run at Newbury would have been to go left-handed, I didn't want him carrying all that weight so he’s not going."

I've read unconfirmed reports that stablemate Charli Parcs was entered in the Champion Hurdle as a pacemaker for Buveur D'Air but Henderson's only mention of the horse last week in his Unibet blog was to confirm him a likely runner for next month's Betfair Hurdle along with fellow entry Verdana Blue.

"If Charli is going to be up to Champion Hurdle standard, he'll have to win the Betfair, won’t he?" Henderson commented, rhetorically.

Finally, if Henderson fears Call Me Lord would carry top-weight were he to contest the Betfair Hurdle, that suggests he expects Charli Parc's owner JP McManus to redirect the Phillip Hobbs-trained Defi Du Seuil to next month's Irish Champion Hurdle.

Last year's Triumph Hurdle winner flopped on his comeback at Ascot last November and hasn't been seen since but remains with greater potential for his owner in that Grade One Leopardstown contest than either the veteran Jezki or underwhelming Campeador.

Charli Parcs
Charli Parcs looks like heading for the Betfair Hurdle

Sun Bets Stayers’ Hurdle

"The Stayers' looks the easier option this time," trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies asserted when comparing it to the Champion Hurdle. I suppose that depends on whether you think he can win either race with The New One. Of the two as things currently stand, I'd say he would be more likely to add the greater amount to his millionaire earnings by contesting the shorter race.

"If he stays and has that sort of power at the end, we'll be all right wouldn't we?" Twiston-Davies concluded. Stamina is the nub of it, of course, and I couldn't be confident that a horse with a tendency to adjust or jump right would still be in there pitching at the last.

Warren Greatrex is still debating the right Cheltenham target for the scopey La Bague Au Roi, although I detect he he is currently leaning marginally towards the longer race rather than the 2m4f OLBG David Nicholson Mares' Hurdle.

You can appreciate the predicament: race at a less suitable distance against mares whom she mostly outclasses or tackle the much deeper race but over the three-mile trip which has allowed her to display her best form and with a 7lbs mares' allowance? The fact that the brilliant Apple's Jade could yet run in either race, too, is another complicating factor.

"La Bague Au Roi is high class and she's in the mares' race, which she could easily drop down to as she's not slow," Greatrex said, after watching her demolish a mares' Grade Two at Ascot by 16 lengths with a faultless round of jumping.

"But on better ground with the 7lb allowance, she'd also be in the mix for the Stayers'. She's a relentless galloper with a huge stride and she could do whatever.

"It's just lovely seeing her now fulfilling what I always thought she was capable of. She's been that size since she was a four-year-old and she's just been weak. She's become much more professional and she jumped fantastic. Noel said that the ground was plenty soft enough and she'll be even better on better ground."

La Bague Au Roi was perhaps immature when only seventh in last term's Trull House Stud Dawn Run Novices' Hurdle over 2m1f but she still led until approaching the last in what is now evidently an inadequate trip.

I'd prefer the mare to run in the right race for her needs, rather than get slotted in around the decisions of others. I'm hoping that, having favourably compared her talent with his 2015 Stayers' Hurdle victor Cole Harden – also entered this year – Greatrex feels the same way.

Mares have a good record in the race: two, Rose Ravine in 1985 and Shuil Ar Aghaidh in 1993, have won and four - including subsequent Champion Hurdle heroine Annie Power - have finished second since 1990. If only there wasn't another pesky mare seemingly ahead of La Bague Au Roi in the queue...

There were 38 entries for the Sun Bets Stayers' Hurdle when announced last week, including eight from Willie Mullins and four from Gordon Elliott.

Mullins' haul includes Grade One-winning hurdler Bacardys and Shaneshill, four times placed at that level over hurdles but not seen since pulling up and reported to be coughing in the John Durkan Chase last month.

Elliott has entered Mala Beach - like the Kim Bailey-trained The Last Samuri, also entered in the Gold Cup. Notable other entries include Ballyoptic, whose jumping isn't cutting it in novices' chases, 2015 Champion Hurdler Faugheen and a clutch of mares mostly discussed in the next section.

But Colin's Sister - last seen when more than six lengths behind Wholestone in the Relkeel Hurdle on New Year's Day - gets a mention here. Trainer Fergal O'Brien has told gloucestershire.live.co.uk that she'll "take her chance" in the Stayers' Hurdle after contesting this Saturday's galliardhomes.com Cleeve Hurdle – of late, a contest pivotal to the outcome of the March event.

"We were a bit disappointed when she was third last time," O'Brien admitted. "When she came down the hill she was travelling so well we thought she was going to win. In hindsight, she had a quiet time after Newbury [when fourth in the Long Distance Hurdle in early December] and perhaps we didn't do enough work with her. She's not too far behind the best of them."

Ben Pauling has indeed entered 2017 Neptune (now Ballymore) Hurdle victor Willoughby Court along with Barters Hill, still not yet sighted since pulled up injured at Cheltenham two Novembers ago.

Henry de Bromhead has also taken the precaution of entering last term's Albert Bartlett runner-up Monalee after that horse's mother-and-father of a fall over fences at Leopardstown's Christmas meeting.

Finally, it was deeply saddening to hear of the tragic death this week of Richard Woollacott, the Devon trainer who gained the most high-profile success of his career when Beer Goggles won Newbury's Long Distance Hurdle last month. My deepest sympathies go out to his family and friends.

La Bague Au Roi
La Bague Au Roi would get a weight allowance in the Stayers'

OLBG Mares’ Hurdle

Six mares hold entries in both the Stayers' and Mares' Hurdles, headed of course by Apple's Jade. From Britain, La Bague Au Roi and Colin's Sister also merited dual engagements as did the Willie Mullins-trained pair, Let's Dance and Augusta Kate, and also Jer's Girl from Ireland.

Unnervingly for this column's porpoises, Let's Dance is also engaged in the Grade Two Galmoy Hurdle over three miles at Gowran Park this week. But trainer Willie Mullins is motivated primarily by current well-being rather than precision of trip when campaigning his horses in the trim Irish programme and, when push comes to shove, we can usually rely on him to take the line of least resistance at the Festival.

Mullins, who's won all bar two of the past ten editions of this race (six of them with Quevega, of course), holds nine entries this year - seven more than any other trainer. Those mares include last year's runner-up Vroum Vroum Mag, about whom Mullins has still not yet said whether babies will put her career on permanent hold, and Benie Des Dieux.

As expected, dual Dawn Run second Dusky Legend has been entered here but is yet to actually make the switch back to hurdles from fences. She was withdrawn for the second time in as many intended starts when a non-runner due to the testing ground at Ascot.

Novice chasers

As the rain continued to fall long past its putative deadline at Ascot last Saturday, my confidence in Brain Power's chances of eyeballing Un De Sceaux ebbed away rapidly. In the end, absolutely nothing went to plan.

Henderson had chucked this novice into open Grade One company in the hope of getting a strong pace, enabling him to settle and not have to cut out his own running. But Speredek hared off and Un De Sceaux loftily ignored him, meaning Brain Power had to stick with the favourite, was too fresh and therefore restrained with little cover.

This was also the softest ground he'd yet encountered and, as he threw in a series of sticky leaps, I assumed he was having trouble jumping out of it. Barring the fall two out, the only other clear-cut mistake he made was at the seventh but he got in too close or was too upright at a handful of other fences and I never felt confident he would complete.

He was labouring by the fourth last but had nonetheless responded to new rider Nico de Boinville's urgings to grind his way into a narrow second when lunging at the penultimate flight, failing to get high enough and taking a heavy fall. He was winded for some time afterwards.

In the aftermath, neither de Boinville nor Henderson felt Brain Power had jumped poorly but that may have been because they were more occupied by the testing ground having exposed a hitherto unknown breathing problem.

Henderson tweeted the following morning: "Pleased to report Brain Power trotted up 100% sound this morning, ate up and is absolutely fine, thankfully. Nico did report that he made a noise four out and it could be that his soft palate is malfunctioning so we will look further into that."

The clock is ticking on those investigations and, given Brain Power has also now failed to complete on his last two starts, it wouldn't be surprising if his trainer didn't rush him back for the Arkle. The horse is still unproven left-handed so Punchestown could prove both more suitable and timely.

Whatever, even though it's a long way back from here for his reputation and he's yet to be proved worthy of consideration at the top table, I remain of the view that Brain Power has prospects over fences - just not this season.

On the same Ascot card, the confusingly named Acting Lass continued his progress through the handicap ranks when beating more exposed rivals comfortably by two-and-a-quarter lengths in the earlier 2m5f chase. This was despite running down his fences, or jumping, to the left at most of the obstacles - albeit he was mostly straighter on the final circuit.

In a six-race career to date, he's yet to run on a left-handed track but this success propelled him beyond the 145 ceiling for the Close Brothers Novices' Handicap Chase and into JLT territory on paper.

Trainer Harry Fry will reportedly test whether he's up to that level in a Grade Two next month - either the Pendil at Kempton or back here at Ascot over three miles for the Reynoldstown. The horse is also unproven on anything other than soft ground.

At Haydock that same day, Testify made short work of his one remaining rival in the Grade Two 2m4f event after main market threat Positively Dylan took a tumble at the second fence. By contrast, the winner's jumping was thoroughly convincing and although he hung left in very testing ground after the last, he kept on well for a seven-length success.

Trainer Donald McCain expects owner Trevor Hemmings to want to head to Cheltenham and indicated he'd enter the horse in both the JLT and RSA Chases this week. McCain leans towards the former target, reasoning that Testify is "too slick a jumper" not to utilise that asset at the shorter trip.

He'd also prefer to go straight to Cheltenham without interlude with this three-times chase winner, whom he described as "chilled out" in attitude. The big question is whether Testify needs testing ground to perform - he flopped on his only spin on a sound surface, when chucked into Grade One company at last term's Grand National meeting.

On Saturday, McCain argued "he doesn't move like he must have soft ground" but more dated quotes betray a greater preoccupation with the going for this horse than this latest assertion would suggest.

Earlier in the week, Saint Calvados derided a 4lbs rise for his impressive Newbury success over the New Year by returning to the track and reprising that bold-jumping all-the-way success in a two-mile handicap by ten lengths.

The Arkle is now on his horizon, via a detour to Warwick for the Grade Two Kingmaker Novices' Chase next month - the ideal target for such a good jumper.

"He's really exciting," said trainer Harry Whittington, who's only housed him since late last year. "Aidan [Coleman, his rider] felt he was sharper for the run and his jumping was tidier. Keeping him in a handicap tells us whether we're good enough for graded races and I think we're pretty set for the Kingmaker.

"He’s got loads of gears and I can't see any reason why we'd step him up in trip."

If Saint Calvados's talent is not in doubt, his ability to handle a sounder surface may be. He's got a curling knee action and seems very much at home in deep ground but it is an unknown rather than a negative at this stage and is unlikely to be relevant to his chances at Warwick.

At Thurles last Sunday, Dinaria Des Obeaux happily bossed fellow mares by eight lengths in a Grade Two 2m4f event. She'd previously been all but brought down by the fall of Monalee in a Grade One against geldings at Leopardstown over Christmas.

However, her jumping had lacked fluency prior to that also and, even though she never once looked like falling, she wasn’t faultless here either. She might be best sticking to the enhanced mares’ chase programme rather than anything loftier.

Speaking of Monalee, as well as his Stayers' Hurdle engagement discussed above, he is entered in Sunday week's Grade One 2m5f Flogas Chase at the Dublin Festival rather than a putatively easier target over three miles at Naas this Sunday.

Finally, the good news for this column's 8/1 bet is that Presenting Percy's Festival target has reportedly been confirmed as the RSA Chase rather than the NH Chase. The same owner-trainer combination has the lurking Mall Dini for the longer event.

Interestingly, Presenting Percy is also declared to run over in the Grade Two Galmoy Hurdle for his unorthodox trainer Patrick Kelly at Gowran Park this week.

Saint Calvados in action at Newbury
Saint Calvados in action at Newbury

Novice hurdlers

Kim Bailey has a couple of smart novice hurdlers this season and both were in action last Saturday. First Flow, who'd impressed clock-watchers when winning at Newbury on his debut, won the Grade Two Sky Bet Supreme Trial Rossington Main at Haydock in good style but reportedly will not run at Cheltenham.

It was surprising to hear jockey David Bass confess afterwards that it had taken a lot of work to get First Flow to jump – "he wasn't great initially" – because on Saturday he was quick across his obstacles, especially when pressing his advantage three out.

Bass also said he had been worried his mount was doing too much early and that did tell late on when the horse made a tired guess at the last - but the race had been won long ago by then.

On Racing UK's Luck On Sunday, Bailey described First Flow as "an angular, thin and narrow horse with lots of guts" and you can clearly see what he means about this six-year-old's frame from TV pictures.

He added that he's more likely to rough the horse off for the season than participate in the Festival because he believes soft ground is a prerequisite. From his other post-race comments, Bass would clearly endorse this plan and both men clearly deem this horse, unbeaten now in three starts over hurdles, as a talent worth nurturing.

Donald McCain had won this race in the past with subsequent Supreme winner Cinders And Ashes but had to settle for fourth with Waterlord. That horse had led early on but was increasingly out-jumped by First Flow as the race warmed up.

He finished tired, having tried to put up a fight with the winner, and undeservingly lost two places late on. His breeding suggests he's worth a spin in good company on a sound surface, perhaps at Aintree.

Returning to Bailey, his other leading novice Vinndication got the better of promising hurdles debutant Champ in a good scrap for Ascot’s final event, also on Saturday.

The winner is unbeaten in three starts, two over hurdles, and showed great tenacity here to get back up near the line after sacrificing the lead with a less-than-fluent jump two out. He'd travelled strongly in the race and was conceding 6lbs to a decent rival, albeit he did have the advantage of experience.

Strikingly, given First Flow had won a Grade Two the same day and Charbel was none too shabby as a novice hurdler a couple of seasons ago, Bailey asserted that Vinndication "could be as good a novice as I've had in a while".

Although a horse deemed "very immature mentally" probably shouldn't head to Cheltenham, his trainer wasn't going to "close any doors" on imminent plans.

Champ is arrestingly named, given that's the moniker often applied to Sir Tony McCoy and this horse is in the ownership of his former retainer, JP McManus. He may just have lacked the race craft to quell Vinndication, with rider Aidan Coleman appearing to have been under instruction not to be too hard on a horse having his first start for almost a year and only his third overall. You can expect him to do better.

Henderson, his trainer, had earlier that week given an update on two of his other notable novice hurdlers in an interview with the Guardian – just joking: it was in his Unibet blog.

That blog - on which the newlywed trainer presumably had the banns read a few weeks ago - also contained the latest example of the trainer's perceived strong-arm tactics performed by the Amorphous Official Handicapper.

"In my opinion, it was a very humble race so the winning margin shouldn’t be taken too literally," Henderson asserted of Chef Des Obeaux's 19-length success. "He's been whacked up 16lbs in the weights which has almost forced us into going towards the Albert Bartlett.

"If you'd have said that race was on the cards at the beginning of the season, I'd be looking for the men in white coats to take you away. But he's won his last two and could quite possibly head straight to Cheltenham. He doesn’t need to learn any more."

Chef Des Obeaux shaped like a sturdy galloper but has only ever raced on soft ground and lacks the hard-bitten profile I have come to favour – through harsh experience – for the Potato Race.

At the time of writing his blog, Henderson was also looking forward to running stablemate Santini - the horse who beat Chef Des Obeaux by four-and-a-half lengths on their mutual hurdling debuts at Newbury last month - in Vinndication’s race at Ascot. But come the day he withdrew the horse because the rain had turned the ground to heavy by the final race.

Henderson also blogged that he was "extremely pleased" with the performance of Mr Whipped at Warwick but undecided about his Cheltenham target due to the presence of stablemate On The Blind Side in the Ballymore.

"He is a horse that is growing on me a lot," he said. "He’s quite laid back and doesn't do an awful lot when he hits the front but manages to get the job done, which I suppose is the main thing... He's taken the race very well and it's very likely that he'll also go direct to Cheltenham."

Meanwhile Warren Greatrex gave an update on his leading novices on Racing UK last Saturday. Western Ryder probably heads to the Sidney Banks next month at Huntingdon and Mulcahys Hill could be bound for Ireland as one of the too-scarce British-trained horses entered at Leopardstown's Dublin Festival. If lining up in that 2m6f Grade One, he could encounter the sainted Samcro.

Over in Ireland in the past week, Dortmund Park gave an impressive display of stamina when splashing through mud and standing water to win a Thurles novices' hurdle by 16 lengths last Sunday. This was a big step up on his previous form but there was no fluke and plenty to like about the verve with which he jumped into the lead at the second last. He's an Albert Bartlett type.

Back in fourth, Beyond The Law was disappointing in ground that should have suited so perhaps this race came too soon after his wide-margin Clonmel success earlier this month.

Articulum was the beaten favourite but ran dully before being pulled up on his first start since last November’s impressive Cork success. Perhaps there has been a problem?

Finally, returning to Britain, ex-pointer Scorpion Sid made a debut worth noting when coming clear by 15 lengths on his Rules debut at Chepstow last week. Described as "a big brute of a horse" by jockey Gavin Sheehan, he is an exciting prospect for trainer Jamie Snowden.

First Flow on his way to victory
First Flow on his way to victory

Juvenile hurdlers

Initially, I wasn't sure how to react to the eventful juvenile hurdle that Nayati was extremely fortunate to win at Ascot last Saturday. Given how the filly Harmonise had gone off so hard in front yet was still in there pitching at the last, I wondered whether - promising though the likely best horse Et Moi Alors undoubtedly was - the form didn't amount to much.

However, having viewed evidence from the rest of the day (and while acknowledging that it continued to rain steadily after this opening event) I'm inclined to side with trainer Gary Moore's positive pre-race assessment of this newcomer's ability.

It had been clear he held Et Moi Alors in some regard when he'd cited the unraced horse in discussion with Racing UK's Nick Luck the previous week, along with stablemate and Grade One runner-up Sussex Ranger and decent filly Aiguille Rouge. The market accordingly had some expectations at Ascot.

In the event, he was patiently ridden and keen in a strongly run race courtesy of Harmonise, a much-raced 71-rated horse on the Flat when trained by Mick Channon. Making her hurdling debut for Sheena West, she almost tripped over the second in her haste to pull clear of her field and her jumping remained scrappy.

Turning for home, with Nayati having already been nudged along prior to pecking badly at the sixth and receiving a reminder soon after, you would have expected Harmonise to fold tamely but she kept battling even when joined by Et Moi Alors two out and was sticking gamely to her task when going a length down at the last.

Then disaster struck as Et Moi Alors stepped at that hurdle and nosedived heavily into the turf, falling at Harmonise's feet and permitting her neither time nor space to make a diversion. Alarmingly, she was brought down and stayed on the turf – winded – for some time afterwards. Happily, like Et Moi Alors did more immediately, she eventually got to her feet.

This drama left UK debutant Oistrakh Le Noir in the lead at the last, having been 15 lengths off the pace. But he was tired and soon started drifting leaden-footedly to the right. Nayati, who'd been distinctly fourth best entering the straight, was allowed to reel towards the stands' rail and that aid was enough to enable him to get his head in front at the line. It wasn't pretty.

Josh Moore, son of his trainer father, testified that "it felt like [Et Moi Alors] would have kept going" and it certainly looked that way. If all is well after his sizeable tumble, perhaps we might see this horse again in Kempton’s Adonis Hurdle next month – the likeliest vehicle for a late, late Triumph bid.

Harmonise, too, emerges with great credit in the circumstances, although she will need to learn to settle better. Marc Goldstein, her jockey, commented: "They were two tired horses going into the last but she’s up and hopefully we have a nice little horse on our hands. She was free enough over te first two or three and to be still raising a challenge over the last, she has run a blinder – win or lose."

Rider Wayne Hutchinson admitted to being disappointed in Nayati – the form of whose Newbury win had already been undermined. "Nayati still showed a great attitude and it was hopefully the ground to blame," he said. "The mistake three out finished him but there was no hiding place and he was already out on his head, which is why he made that mistake.

"He’ll have to step up in class now as he'll have a double penalty but I do think he’ll be better on better ground. He's probably a bit below Triumph Hurdle standard, though and might be more a Fred Winter type."

Stablemate Lisp could well join him in the Festival's juvenile handicap after following up last month's Plumpton success at Fontwell on Monday. He was sent off the 1/6 favourite but still won by seven lengths; Hutchinson described him as "well placed" to have won two races.

That means Alan King's Triumph horse is definitively emerging as recent wide-margin Kempton winner Redicean, whose thumping of Kapdad had previously suggested his superiority over Nayati.

Other operations are also sorting through their hierarchies. Over in Ireland, Pete So High ploughed through testing conditions for a comfortable success at Thurles last Sunday and paid a compliment to his previous wide-margin conqueror, the Willie Mullins-trained Mr Adjudicator.

As mentioned last week, that horse heads to a Leopardstown Grade One with stable companion Stormy Ireland next month, their trainer currently regarding the latter - a filly - as his first string.

Progressive Pete So High - who stayed 12f and was still improving on the Flat for Richard Hannon last autumn – idled and held his head awkwardly, perhaps hating the ground, but still got the job done by five lengths.

He's deemed a Fred Winter candidate by trainer Gordon Elliott, who has three possible representatives to face that Mullins duo in the Spring Juvenile Hurdle: once-raced Farclas, experienced but exposed Mitchouka and the still-raw Veneer Of Charm.

That contest promises to shake things up, even to the extent of perhaps deciding how owner JP McManus plays his two market leaders. Espoir D'Allen, who’s beaten both Farclas and Mitchouka, runs there and could be entered in the Supreme as well as the Triumph next week. The filly Apple's Shakira runs at Cheltenham this Saturday and is likely also to be entered in the Trull House Stud Dawn Run Novices' Hurdle, although trainer Henderson clearly favours the juvenile contest.

Selections:

Advised 30/11/17: Min 8/1 Champion Chase with Paddy Power/Betfair

Advised 06/12/17: Supasundae 20/1 Stayers’ Hurdle with Bet365 and Paddy Power/Betfair

Advised 06/12/17: Mengli Khan 15/2 for the Supreme with Betfair

Advised 13/12/17: On The Blind Side 10/1 each-way for the Ballymore with various firms

Advised 31/12/17: Let’s Dance 12/1 each-way for the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle with William Hill

Advised 31/12/17: Presenting Percy 8/1 for the RSA Chase with BetVictor, BetFred, Boylesports or Stan James

Advised 05/01/18: Apple’s Jade 100/30 NRNB for the Stayers’ Hurdle with Betfair Sportsbook

Advised 05/01/18: Poetic Rhythm 25/1 each-way for the Albert Bartlett with William Hill, Paddy Power or Betfair Sportsbook

Advised 09/01/18: Minella Rocco 20/1 each-way for the Gold Cup with various firms

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