"...at least we know Faugheen once had it." Lydia Hislop's Road to Cheltenham series is back with a bang and a recommended bet in the Unibet Champion Hurdle.
In a move cunningly calculated to coincide with this polar hiatus, The Road To Cheltenham returns this week in two parts. This edition concentrates on the six championship Grade Ones; the Festival’s novices’ events will then be covered in the second installment.
Before we get going, it’s time to discuss the thorny matter of the likely going. I will endeavour to conduct this discussion in the infantile language required in order for us all to understand the baffling concept of wintery weather – that is, until sh*t got serious in the past 24 hours.
Simon Claisse, Cheltenham’s clerk ofF the course, and his team were busy lifting frost covers earlier this week even as The Beast From The East still holds the country in its frozen grip.
The theory is that further snow forecast to arrive with Storm Emma will insulate the ground instead of those covers and then irrigate as it (hopefully) thaws. At this stage, a Shower Of Power is also forecast for late next week.
Soft ground is now widely anticipated for the opening day of the 2018 Festival but to my mind all this spells the risk of gluey, sparsely turfed going. The usual “better on better ground” considerations might be academic all week.
If that's the case, Claisse may wish to adopt the mental brace position for another unearned Slagging For The Clagging.
It falls to the considerable talents of Willie Mullins to conjure a horserace from the mismatch that currently masquerades as the Unibet Champion Hurdle.
Although Elgin has recently made a modest bid for consideration via winning the Kingwell, the evidence of the past three weeks suggests only former champion Faugheen could even get Buveur D'Air vaguely off the bridle. And even that idea requires a huge leap of faith.
Prior to my winter break, I was preparing myself for news of Faugheen’s retirement subsequent to another tame effort in the Irish Champion Hurdle. Instead, he produced a much better performance in defeat against a fitter horse whose season has thus far gone more straightforwardly.
Evidently, this was nothing like Faugheen’s 2016 career apogee in the same race but at least he put up a fight – or “ran half a race”, as his trainer phrased it in the immediate aftermath. “He just seems to have lost his spark,” Mullins added, thus perhaps contributing to what I believe has been an overly negative reaction to the defeat.
Faugheen routinely out-jumped ultimate winner Supasundae and you even fleetingly hoped, as he rounded the home turn, that he might hold his pursuers at bay. Yet he was ultimately out-stayed after the last, albeit maintaining his advantage to the line over third-placed Mick Jazz – the horse who’d triumphed when the old king pulled up in the Ryanair Hurdle over Christmas.
“He’ll have to up his game to win at Cheltenham,” a fatalistic Mullins admitted in his pre-Festival stable tour earlier this week. “I still think he can be competitive. He certainly hasn’t gone downhill in his work at home since then but maybe he has been a bit slower to improve than we hoped so far.
“We know he loves Cheltenham and it has sparked him up before, so all we do is hope that it will reignite him again. He was what he was and hopefully he can come back to that but age isn’t on his side, so if it isn’t to be, it isn’t to be.”
It’s pretty much inconceivable that Faugheen will ever return to the form that saw him hand out a 15-length thrashing to Arctic Fire, the subsequent County Hurdle winner off a [British] mark of 158. But clearly that form implies some scope for restoration next time we see him. Put baldly: at least we know Faugheen once had it; the others, bar Buveur D’Air, never had or will.
It’s possible to view Faugheen’s season to date via Mullins’ prism that he’s “been a bit slower to improve than we hoped”. The comeback win last October was an emotional occasion but withstands scrutiny from a time-analysis perspective and is actually a stronger item of form than anything Buveur D’Air has to offer this season (even if he’s always looked capable of better).
It’s conceivable the sheer effort of that after a 665-day absence may account for Fagheen’s retrograde step next time – the nebulous Bounce Factor in action. In that context, his latest performance was a sizeable recovery.
Mullins’ words imply more hope than confidence of an improved display but his record amply demonstrates that if there is progress to be made between Leopardstown and Cheltenham, his is the training operation to fashion it.
Faugheen is also likely to have the benefit of Ruby Walsh back in the saddle. This is potentially a double-edged sword but probably a net positive: Faugheen jumps better for Walsh – needed against so slick a hurdler as Buveur D’Air – but there is a risk this positively minded jockey will ride him like the exceptional force he once was rather than the very good horse he now is and thereby burst him from the front. Walsh will have had plenty of time to gauge at home eactly what remains of the old fire come Tuesday week, however.
Being able to back the horse with both the best form this season and the highest career peak each-way at 5/1 or better is a reasonable proposition. I would argue Faugheen is priced now as if blowing out is still a large possibility when in fact the last run implies that scenario has greatly diminished. 5/4 a place is long; he should be a shade of odds-on to hit the frame. Therefore, I’m recommending we back him.
It’s worth noting Mick Jazz was withdrawn from his subsequent target, the Red Mills Hurdle, due to running a temperature. That left the mare Forge Meadow to beat Identity Thief – form about a stone below the latter’s 2015/16 best that still wasn’t good enough even to play a sustained minor role in that season’s Champion Hurdle.
Minutes before Faugheen staged his half-revival at Leopardstown, Buveur D’Air had continued his serene progress towards retaining his crown via a ready defeat of John Constable in Sandown’s Contenders Hurdle.
He had to make his own running, gifted more than two lengths at the start, but eased clear approaching the last. The only minor tremor was caused by Barry Geraghty briefly fearing he’d taken it too easy too soon as the line approached and his only credible rival was being ridden out for it. That the winner instantly responded was convincing.
Everything we know about John Constable says he’s a better horse on a sounder surface whereas Buveur D’Air is very comfortable in deep ground. Even had John Constable produced his best form – given he was potentially flattered by a slow pace in the International Hurdle – Faugheen had the harder task in accounting for Mick Jazz by four-and-three-quarter lengths than Buveur D’Air did in winning by a length and three quarters, even if the latter margin could palpably have been much greater.
(To finish off his Festival preparations, Henderson's titleholder has since taken part in the dispiritingly popular modern phenomenon of the racecourse gallop, appearing at Kempton alongside Gold Cup-bidding stablemate Might Bite and Theinval. That’ll get da kidz’ blood pumping for this sport.)
I had been toying with the scenario of John Constable, on better ground and given a pick-up-the-pieces ride (as he surely will be), being a credible each-way option at 20/1 BOG NRNB in the ‘betting without Buveur D’Air’ market, but the weather is deterring me from believing enough would be in his favour to achieve what would surely need to be a career best on paper. Scrap that.
Call Me Lord had been starting to shape like the left-field contender of the season but Elgin, another improved performer, halted his ascendency at Wincanton when winning that Grade Two despite conceding weight all round and wandering before and after the final flight.
Trainer Alan King has indicated his intention to supplement the winner for the Champion Hurdle at a cost of £20,000. Elgin was only a distant seventh in last year’s Supreme but now the proud possessor of greater gumption.
It’s possible this Wincanton form is a tad over-rated but Elgin is proven on the Old Course and the soft ground that’s probably crucial to his chances is now more likely to materialise.
It looks like Kingwell runner-up Ch’Tibello has at least plateaued, if not dropped below last season’s standard, and the first-time tongue-tie here made no difference. However, I would strongly argue Call Me Lord is better than this bare form after sticking religiously to an inside line throughout while his main rivals raced wider, particularly in the straight.
The inside has been the very last place you want to be at Wincanton of late and, even though the hurdles were set on their outermost line on Kingwell day, the first-race result suggested a bias was still at play.
Of course we’re none the wiser about Call Me Lord’s left-handed capabilities as far as any Cheltenham target is concerned but 14/1 for the Imperial Cup at Sandown looks generous.
Back in fourth, Flying Tiger appeared to register a career best after a 63-day break. Last year’s Fred Winter winner looks fairly weighted for the County Hurdle on a reasonable mark of 140, especially if you side with a more positive view of this form.
I‘ve seen it mooted somewhere that Charli Parcs could play the role of pacemaker for stablemate Buveur D’Air despite never having raced on the pace in his whole professional life and being far from certain to possess the ability to mix it up front even with a sub-optimal Faugheen.
You can argue he ran better than the bare form when 14th in the Betfair Hurdle last time, having attended an overly strong pace on the heavy ground he dislikes prior to fading, but he still hasn’t proved he sees out his races under any conditions. Nonetheless, for the second Festival running Henderson intends to keep the faith in his perception of the horse’s talent.
Stable companion Verdana Blue apparently heads here at the behest of her owner, Henderson reportedly stressed this at his pre-Festival open day while also asserting that she works at home as if up to this class.
Having been relatively well positioned, she went from travelling strongly to stopping in an instant in the Betfair Hurdle. Earlier comments made about her going preferences by previous rider Nico de Boinville, since echoed by Henderson, suggest the ground could have been to blame. I’m giving her the benefit of the doubt that she may well yet be better than that, if not up to this.
A likely quartet of Henderson-trained Champion Hurdle contenders is completed by triple runner-up My Tent Or Yours, who worked at Kempton earlier this week with Stayers’ Hurdle fancy L’Ami Serge and Fred Winter possible Style De Garde.
“Tent was good. He had a good blow and has another bit of work to do,” his trainer commented.
The significant absentees from this race are Irish Champion Hurdle flop Defi De Seuil, all-round flop Campeador, Stayers’ Hurdle-bound The New One (despite showing better form than his last four seasons at this trip) and Betfair Hurdle disappointment Moon Racer, who contested this race as a big-noise novice last term but suffered colic over the summer.
Pingshou is again sidelined due to picking up a splint problem to top off a torrid season. Gigginstown’s Michael O’Leary insists Apple’s Jade will contest only the Mares’ Hurdle.
That leaves Mullins to bolster the field with the likes of slow-starting Wicklow Brave, outclassed Bapaume, unexposed nascent chaser Melon (whom his trainer believes resented the hood in the Irish Champion Hurdle and won’t wear it at Cheltenham) and – drum roll – Yorkhill.
The latest lesson in the miseducation of Yorkhill took place in the 2m1f Dublin Chase. Having undergone an operation for a chipped bone in his knee since finishing well beaten in the Christmas Chase over three miles, he jumped left into the fences' uprights as usual, plunged through the fourth last and simply looked incapable of staying in touch with such a strong pace.
Mullins’ latest thinking is: “Maybe there is a chance he just needed the run on his return in the Leopardstown Christmas Chase and we judged him too harshly on that and were too quick to drop him in trip…
“The choice with him would seem to be the Champion Hurdle or the Ryanair Chase. I think he would be a lot easier to ride in a Champion Hurdle than a Ryanair. I’ve always thought that he would be worth a crack at the Champion Hurdle but he would be a nice one to have alongside Un De Sceaux in the Ryanair.
“I’m not going to make that decision until much closer to the time but right now I’d say it’s 60/40 in favour of the Champion Hurdle.”
It would be a supreme irony if, after having to be so enforcedly obsessed with this horse looming over every Festival race for which he was eligible for the past three seasons, he turns out to be an utter irrelevance in championship terms regardless of the discipline or distance. But I’m afraid that’s how I’m viewing Yorkhill these days.
If – as Mullins has stated more than once now, with partial revisionism – he’s “always thought” the Champion Hurdle “would be worth a crack”, it’s at best curious that he hasn’t campaigned this horse over the smaller obstacles for approaching two whole seasons now.
Yorkhill was a clumsy hurdler as a novice and looked plain awkward at Leopardstown last time. He would benefit from the attentions of Walsh, who has always got him going more sweetly but that reunion would entail the forsaking of Faugheen.
If Walsh sided with this nutcase, he’d surely need his own head examining.
Two of last year’s headliners now look more likely than not to reconvene for this year’s follow-up hit. But the chances of this column’s selection Let’s Dance playing Jackie O’Sullivan to Limini’s Siobhan Fahey are starting to look shaky.
That said, this event at one stage threatened to lapse more into Sugababes than Bananarama territory with at best only one of the original line-up from its strongest edition yet sticking around 12 months later. But the Mares’ Hurdle remains the unambiguous target for titleholder Apple's Jade.
ITV and At The Races presenter Matt Chapman’s plea to campaign her more daringly for “the good of the game” got a (reputedly old-style) Ryanair customer response. “I don’t care about the Stayers’ Hurdle and she’s not fast enough for the Champion Hurdle,” Gigginstown’s Michael O’Leary told him.
And now it seems last year’s runner-up and 2016 winner Vroum Vroum Mag will join her. The defining moment of this race’s brief history – with apologies to six-times winner Quevega – came when both these mares jumped the last upsides Limini before Apple’s Jade determinedly forced her head back in front up the final hill.
There had been some doubt about Vroum Vroum Mag’s participation last year after she was deemed to have caught The Famous Mullins Ferry-Borne Chill en route to an underwhelming success at Doncaster. But in the event she ran well to be beaten by just a length and a half despite being steered wide throughout. You could easily argue a case for better.
Yet her prospects this year seemed all but buried after finishing lame at the end of last season, missing her intended November comeback due to further lameness and since being declared more likely to retire for breeding purposes by owner Rich Ricci.
Then she was entered in two recent races – a positive sign in this context, despite not actually reaching the declaration stage in either case. Now it has emerged that, at the risk of provoking a Daily Mail editorial, connections are indeed playing fast and loose with Vroum Vroum Mag’s biological clock.
“She will run in the Mares’ Hurdle,” Mullins asserted. “She’s in great shape. I didn’t think we’d get her back. She hasn’t been covered yet but we have plenty of time and she could well be later in the year.”
At nine years of age, Vroum Vroum Mag is no spring chicken but The Quevega Precedent dictates that Mullins is more than capable of producing his leading mare to give of her best first time out at the Festival – he achieved that feat five times out of six with the queen of this race.
However, Quevega never faced any rival of the calibre of Apple’s Jade – an improved model this season and three years the junior of Vroum Vroum Mag. Even so, the 7/1 widely available – in many books, the longest priced of Mullins’ primary trio from a total of nine remaining entries – is a fair each-way price and will only shorten if the vibes continue to be good.
By contrast, Let’s Dance still troubles her trainer to some extent – and he threw in a Stayers’ Hurdle curveball this week.
“She will run in either the Mares’ Hurdle or the Stayers’ Hurdle but I really don’t know which one at the minute,” he said. “She hasn’t really fired at all this season but she is showing a little bit more at home, so hopefully she’s starting to come right.”
The longer-distance race being apparently under consideration means both that Mullins fears he’s short-stacked in the Stayers’ Hurdle and can’t believe a lack stamina contributed to her tame display behind Presenting Percy in the Galmoy. Therefore her issue is purely wellbeing and so I’d be willing to bet that if she runs in the Festival at all, it will be in this race.
We learned last year that Ricci is no longer averse to pitching his horses against each other even if they have alternative options and that, having been similarly displeased with Vroum Vroum Mag heading into Cheltenham last year, Mullins was deterred from attempting with her anything more ambitious than racing against her own gender.
So I’m far from tearing up my 12/1 ticket yet. After all, Forge Meadow’s defeat of Identity Thief at Gowran Park last month was the best performance of her career to date. Remember Forge Meadow was thumped eight lengths by a ‘non-firing’ Let’s Dance at Leopardstown in December.
(In that same Gowran contest, another Mullins-trained Mares’ Hurdle entry Lagostovegas finished the beaten favourite in third, having travelled well until making a hash of the third last. She was returning from a 104-day absence.)
Lady Buttons, who shaped in need of two miles behind Let’s Dance back then, has also since complimented the form by winning the second chase of her career, dropped back to the minimum trip. Trainer Phil Kirby rightly plans to duck this event, however.
Despite these paper arguments for Let’s Dance, it’s hard to construe Mullins’ current thinking as a positive – especially as he’s backing up tepid words with confirmation that stable companion Benie Des Dieux – a third mare in the ownership of Ricci – is likely to line up here, too.
“She’s also entered in the Ryanair but the mares’ races looks to be the one for her,” he said. “She has plenty of experience over hurdles in France and we are happy with how she jumps them here at home. Everything we ask her to do, she does – though I was expecting her to win a bit easier than she did at Naas the last day.”
That Naas triumph was a two-and-a-half length defeat of stablemate and fellow Mares’ Hurdle entry Asthuria; the winner always looked just about in control and also as though a step back up to 2m4f would be of benefit. Perhaps the pulled muscle that caused her to miss her Christmas engagement also have impinged, meaning she could come on quite a bit for that run.
It’s a fact that Benie Des Dieux best form has come over fences but equally you could argue it’s more significant that those three performances have also been as a result of joining Mullins’ yard. She’s certainly more experienced over hurdles than fences, albeit in France.
Given he’s won eight of this event’s ten editions, if her trainer deems her a worthy contender then he’s probably right. Yet statistically speaking – as Tony Keenan (@RacingTrends) pointed out last season – switching from fences to hurdles directly into Grade One company is rarely successful immediately.
Whereas Augusta Kate appears bound for the Stayers’ Hurdle, Merie Devie’s defeat of Alletrix at Punchestown last month also earned her a spot in Team Mullins for this race. That was a comprehensive turnaround of her Leopardstown handicap hurdle defeat by that same mare.
That previous race had also witnessed last year’s Dawn Run runner-up Barra returning to form in second. Yet even Merie Devie has got about a stone-and-a-half to find with Apple’s Jade.
The Midnights Tour and Jazz were beaten by Woolstone One – not entered here – at Warwick last month and again look set for also-ran roles. But the former’s stable companion Dusky Legend, twice placed in the Dawn Run, is bound for the Coral Cup according to trainer Alan King.
Kayf Grace lost her position on the home turn in the Betfair Hurdle and was by no means knocked about in testing conditions. Perhaps she, too, could be handicap-bound next albeit she’s only been eased 2lbs?
Jer’s Girl – a faller at the third last when yet to play her hand in this race last year – has returned from the sidelines according to trainer Gavin Cromwell. She’s entered in this and the Stayers’ Hurdle but has also been allotted 11-2 in the Coral Cup.
Finally, Colin’s Sister definitely runs in the Stayers’ Hurdle after trainer Fergal O’Brien opted to duck the National Spirit in favour of heading straight to the Festival and what he believes to be her optimum trip.
But Warren Greatrex is still dithering about the similarly straight-up, hands-down three-miler La Bague Au Roi after suddenly realising there’s “more depth” to the Stayers’ Hurdle. Zowie: why did nobody mention this before?
The biggest surprise of this period – to me, at least – was not that Altior came back and trounced Politologue, one-time second favourite for the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase, but that last year’s Arkle winner took part in a race at all. It spoke louder than blogs for Nicky Henderson’s confidence in the horse’s recovery.
I suspect Paul Nicholls had also assumed Henderson would take the line of least resistance by preferring a racecourse gallop with his returning hero, hence getting his excuses in early by warning pre-race that Politologue, rather than his more absent rival, would be (deliberately) lacking in fitness.
That’s not to say the excuse wasn’t valid – it’s well known that Nicholls’ modus operandi is to inoculate his yard in January with the target of then winding his team back up to peak activity for the important spring festivals, starting with Cheltenham. But it was telling.
Even factoring in reasonable improvement for this outing, it’s now hard to fancy Politologue to make more of an impact on the long-time ante-post favourite come Cheltenham – let alone to reverse the form.
To my mind, he was ridden to best advantage in the Betfair Exchange Chase – valued as the historic Game Spirit by everyone bar its own host racecourse – by making the running, using his (usually) excellent jumping and attempting to get his rivals on the stretch behind him.
It worked on Valdez, gooseberry in this match and himself returning from a spell on the sidelines spanning more than three years. He took off too far out for the fourth last in a willing attempt to mix it with Politologue and stumbled several strides after landing from the headlong impetus of his effort. (He’d been keen and wasn’t persisted with after this incident, adding up to a decent comeback for future handicap purposes.)
Trouble was, Politologue couldn’t perturb Altior in the slightest. Head bowed low in his own world, after a less fluent jump at the water (the third) he was mostly faultless; there was a slight ballooning of the second last after being switched right to begin his challenge but he was mostly measured, calm and accurate. He needed only shaking up to draw alongside a rousted-along leader at the last and pulled clear for hands and heels on the run-in.
Politologue has jumped more cleanly than this in his career but, as a flat track without the concern of Cheltenham’s final climb, Newbury should have suited him ideally. The testing ground should have also played to his strengths. It’s hard to imagine what his trainer can do to change this grey’s act, aside from hope but at least Nicholls made hay with him while this division’s big-hitters were in the sick bay this season.
Yet while acknowledging he’s “not sure he can beat Altior”, Nicholls has since asserted that front-running tactics are “not ideal” for Politologue.
“He will improve for that run and we have got to live in hope it’s a different day on a different track,” he said. “He is better in a real fast-run race where he can get a tow into it and use his jumping to keep him in the race. They should go flat out in the Champion Chase and that will suit him much better and hopefully help us close the gap with Altior.”
For his part, Henderson admitted that “Newbury was as good as you could possibly have dared hope for” and has since issued an upbeat report on how Altior has reacted to his first public exertions since last April. You don’t need me to remind you that a breathing problem then counted him out of last December’s Tingle Creek and required surgery.
“Altior has been very good since Newbury…The timing of the race was fantastic. We’ve just got to keep him in one piece now,” he reported, adding that the horse would undergo three bits of work and two schooling sessions prior to Cheltenham.
“From a weight point of view, he wasn’t far off when he ran at Newbury but he’d had a month off and to his credit he held onto his condition,” he said. “Very often horses can fall to pieces on you and lose all the muscle and then you have a long build-up. Luckily, he was very good to us and kept very well and looked great.”
Interestingly, Timeform has noted that, of the last 106 horses to run at Cheltenham after returning to action as late in the season as did Altior, only one has won. Comfortingly for his supporters, that horse was the Henderson-trained Riverside Theatre prior to his 2012 Ryanair triumph.
It’s also worth remembering – particularly when considering a best-priced 8/11 favourite – that Altior was not at his best over this course and distance in the Arkle last year. An aggressive ride from Charbel got him on the stretch and, although Altior would have certainly beaten that horse had he not departed at the second last, the winner’s performances either side of that outing (at Newbury and Sandown) were much better.
I suppose that offers Nicholls further hope regarding the best-case scenario he envisages for Politologue but more pertinently it gives Min’s supporters – of which this column is one – reason to believe he could yet bridge the seven-length disparity that separated him from Altior in the 2016 Supreme.
Trainer Willie Mullins regards him as “unbeaten this season”, having clearly dismissed from his mind the stewards’ reversal of his narrow defeat of Simply Ned at Leopardstown in December. As mentioned at the time, this was still stronger form than Politologue’s Kempton success that same day.
Back then, Mullins’ cryptic post-race mutterings were widely interpreted as criticism of a no-hoper lighting up Min in the early stages and causing him to run away with Paul Townend. This contributed to his vulnerability at the business end – that, and the fact Townend took his tactical eye off the ball by allowing a rival room to challenge on his inner.
Of course, if a chaser with championship ambitions can’t handle a little heat from vastly inferior opponents then he probably won’t cut it at the top table. It may therefore have been significant after all that Townend was given the task of managing Yorkhill in the Dublin Chase.
While he was unsurprisingly powerless to prevent his mount’s trademark left-handed bias while struggling to keep up – resulting in yet another recalibration of target – David Mullins was granted the ride on Min.
Obviously, this can be read differently in that his trainer’s most pressing need was for his chief jockey (in the absence of Ruby Walsh) to play shrink to the stable’s prized lunatic. But Min was hugely impressive in establishing his relative merit with the horse promoted ahead of him when they last met. On this occasion, there were 12 lengths back to Simply Ned.
David Mullins was undoubtedly aided in his task by how this race was run: fully paid-up pace-setters Special Tiara and (initially) Alisier D’Irlande headed off hard in front from the outset. But Min was also more tractable in Mullins’ hands and accepted the former’s lengthy lead, travelling comfortably until bearing down with intent from the second last.
Some have argued that Ordinary World – 15 lengths behind Altior when third in last term’s Arkle – might have given Min a race had he not blundered and all but unseated his rider, having worked his way into second, at the final fence.
But this interpretation fails to account for how he’d been under pressure to get on terms whereas Min breezed into the lead, that his mistake was borne of that pressure and how far clear Min pulled from both Special Tiara and Simply Ned, who were also (under differing tactics) in close quarters at the last. In short, Ordinary World was in the process of being flattered.
Of course, Special Tiara had gone off too fast but the Champion Chase titleholder still shaped like the second best horse in the race – encouraging to see after his uncharacteristic left-veering round of jumping that ended in him crashing out behind Politologue at Kempton. The ground may not be as much in his favour as anticipated come Cheltenham, however.
Ridden more patiently – probably by necessity as much as design – both Simply Ned and Ordinary World had their chances optimised; Min raced much closer to the frenzied pace and challenged much sooner, yet he still had plenty left at the finish. It’s clear that granted a lead, he’s a top-drawer chaser.
He’s likely to get one in the Champion Chase given Special Tiara will be defending his crown and Charbel – who ran a shade more encouragingly in first-time cheekpieces in the Tingle Creek last time – will surely also seek to replicate his Arkle tactics for as long as he’s able. (I don’t anticipate he’ll be quick enough to match strides with even an 11-year-old Special Tiara, mind.)
Ar Mad would be another front-running candidate if lining up here rather than in the Ryanair (albeit he’d need to prove he’s effective racing left-handed). But Min’s stable companion, the headlong Great Field, is an unlikely participant because he’s “in good order but not in Cheltenham order” and will instead stay at home.
Thankfully, Mullins seems to have put to bed the extraordinary post-race reaction from owner Rich Ricci at Leopardstown when, despite having watched at least some of Min’s Dublin Chase romp, he suggested the winner could yet be asked to step aside and into the Ryanair to make way for a returning Douvan. You what?
“I couldn’t see him running anywhere other than the Champion Chase,” said Mullins, succinctly. “He… looked very good at Leopardstown last time.”
By contrast Mullins spoke at length about Douvan whose chances of making it to Cheltenham he now rates as “much better than 50/50”. If that’s the case, “all being well with him, I’d imagine he will go for the Champion Chase” but he also warned that “it’s a day-to-day thing with him”.
“He has been pleasing me and is doing everything right,” he said of the horse who fractured his pelvis in this race last year, missed his intended return in the Tingle Creek, has been “intermittently lame” this season and was at one stage counted out until next term.
“We were thrilled with him before he went lame earlier this season. In fact, the day he went lame he did what was probably the fastest piece of work I’ve ever seen him do,” asserted Mullins. “Thankfully what caused the lameness didn’t prove to be as bad as initially feared and we’ve been bringing him back steadily since then.”
Referring to the entry last month at Gowran Park that Douvan ultimately didn’t take up – a negative in most cases but actually a positive here – he added: “If it had been anywhere other than on our doorstep, he wouldn’t have been entered.
“I wanted him in there just in case the race cut up but, as it turned out with the ground being as bad as it was, I felt I could train him better at home than by running him there. He has a few important bits of work to do this week but it’s a case of so far, so good.”
If Douvan does indeed make it to Cheltenham, he’ll obviously be in a more vulnerable state than ideal for a Grade One Festival race – let alone opposition of the calibre of Altior and Min – and that’s before you examine what injury might have detracted from a horse whose lofty reputation relies on multiple beatings of Sizing John at a trip far short of that horse’s optimum.
Startlngly, the first fence in the 2018 Champion Chase could be the first Douvan has faced perhaps in more than a year. “He might have schooled once in the autumn but that has been the only schooling he will have done since Cheltenham last year and he probably won’t school before Cheltenham this year as I wouldn’t want to risk him,” Mullins admitted. “I think he’s fine in that regard.”
Douvan has always been a good jumper but this information betrays the fragility of his current state of recovery. 9/2 just ain’t big enough. With Min headed for the same target, he's also far from assured the services of Walsh who will make a hard-headed decision about which horse he prefers.
For all Douvan’s towering reputation, it would be easy to explain opting for Min in the context of that horse’s smoother preparation. For Walsh to jump the other way is a bolder call than many are suggesting; in that scenario, I’d be hopeful that David Mullins retained the partnership with Min and happily take my chances.
In other news, trainer Tom George has reported triple Grade One winner God’s Own sidesteps the Ryanair in an attempt to make it third time lucky in this event. He was fourth to Sprinter Sacre in 2016 and fifth behind Special Tiara last year, a sizeable error at the second last exaggerating his margin of defeat. (Unlike some analysts, I read it no more positively than that.)
When third in a Kempton Listed event in January, God’s Own was returning from an absence – trusted paddock observers attest he was far from fit – and surely pressed on too early over a trip that stretches him in some conditions.
“He’s had a stop-start campaign but ran well behind Waiting Patiently at Kempton last time and that will have blown the cobwebs away,” George said. “Last year could easily have been his year but he made two horrendous mistakes that cost him the race. He’s ten but not lacking in enthusiasm and his record speaks for itself in these Grade Ones.”
Finally, although Doctor Phoenix stood his ground at the forfeit stage for this event and had fellow entrants American Tom, Tell Us More and Ball D’Arc (the last-named stablemate finishing lame as the beaten favourite) in his wake when winning a Naas Grade Three last week, trainer Gordon Elliott maintains he will miss Cheltenham.
Instead, Elliott has pinpointed a Grade Two at Navan next month. There’s the Irish trainers’ championship to consider, after all. Progressive though Doctor Phoenix has undoubtedly been since joining this yard, it’s hard to consider him a match for the likes of Altior, Min and even Douvan.
Barring last-minute switcheroos – and don’t think this can’t happen in 2018 due to the new 48-hour stage rules preventing double declarations because they don’t apply to non-novice Grade Ones – the Ryanair picture appears unusually clear. Shurely shome mishtake? There’s still almost a fortnight to go!
To my mind, this is a four-horse (perhaps even three- or two-horse) race: titleholder Un De Sceaux, rising force Waiting Patiently (if he runs), evergreen veteran Cue Card (if he runs) and the underestimated Balko Des Flos. That’s all, folks.
Granted, I can acknowledge outside chances for Cloudy Dream if you think trip has been his only issue, Top Notch if he bounces back from Ascot to find his usual Festival form, last year’s runner-up Sub Lieutenant if he’s still in the game at all and Yorkhill, hoving into view from the lunatic fringe (and jumping left, natch).
The rest? For one reason or another: forget about it. Sometimes it can just mean: forget about it.
Calls for Cue Card’s retirement – not in this parish – proved to be predictably misguided when he roared back to form last month to go down all guns blazing behind the progressive Waiting Patiently in a race that had it all.
Conducted from the outset at a pace that tolerated no dogs nor children, Coney Island’s jumping was instantly put under pressure and Traffic Fluide was driven from after the first fence. It was Cue Card who most consistently injected that speed into proceedings, initially accompanied by Frodon and intermittently headed by a reckless Speredek.
It’s easy to argue Waiting Patiently, ridden like the name suggests, benefitted from the more advantageous tactics under Brian Hughes. He travelled strongly, (mostly) deliberately off the pace, and made smooth headway to challenge. Hughes even delayed his pounce, his mount going better than Cue Card from the penultimate flight.
Leading approaching the last, however, Hughes saw a better stride than did Waiting Patiently and they more than brushed through it. Yet the impetus for victory was already theirs and although Cue Card (reunited with jockey Paddy Brennan) characteristically never gave up, the winner maintained his advantage to the line – at least, once he’d wandered over to the inside rail.
Trainer Colin Tizzard has subsequently argued that Cue Card “definitely got interfered with” when the winner drifted across him after the last. He did, but it made no difference to the result.
This was, quite rightly, an emotional result with Waiting Patiently’s trainer, the late Malcolm Jefferson, having been buried only the previous day and with his daughter Ruth now in charge of his legacy. “Dad would have loved to be here,” she reflected. “And he’d have loved nothing more than to see this horse remain unbeaten.”
Asked about whether her plans included the Ryanair, there was more than a modicum of her dad in evidence, however. “There are plenty other races bar Cheltenham,” she said. “Everyone else is obsessed, except us. We’re not that fussed.”
Jefferson insists Waiting Patiently must have soft ground and time between his races. The first requirement, Britain’s recent snow and forecast rain may resolve; the second is perhaps somewhat belied by the three quick, progressive starts her father gave him as a novice last season.
More appositely perhaps, Jefferson also mentioned this unbeaten chaser is still learning his craft and capable of making the odd mistake – in evidence at Ascot, albeit nothing serious – and that Cheltenham’s sharp but undulating track might not suit.
You could bank on her dad not to get carried away by having the second favourite for a Grade One; we will learn more about whether Ruth is an exact chip off the old block over the next few days.
Were she to go for the Ryanair, Waiting Patiently’s form would undoubtedly justify it. Some felt his previous Kempton success had been over-rated but not in this column; this horse is classy. I would, however, share Jefferson’s doubts about the suitability of the track.
This was 12-year-old Cue Card’s best effort since winning the same race last year – although admittedly his Aintree Bowl second to Tea For Two last April was not far removed. Not long ago, huh? Two starts – one in bottomless ground – is a bit precipitate to start writing off a horse who’s performed consistently at the highest level since the age of four.
I don’t doubt he’s not as brilliant as he was when winning the 2015 Betfair Chase and King George, nor even when chasing home Sprinter Sacre in the 2013 Melling Chase, but he palpably remains a force in Grade One races. It will be interesting to see whether connections still choose to retire him after Aintree.
In the meantime, trainer Colin Tizzard has indicated that owner Jean Bishop was misinterpreted in reports claiming that Cue Card’s Cheltenham target had been decided.
“I’ve spoken to Jean and it wasn’t what she really wanted to say. We will let that run for a while,” revealed Tizzard. “There is no reason why we shouldn’t go for the Gold Cup. Is that any harder to win than the Ryanair? Possibly, yes.”
You’re darntootin‘ it is, Colin. For my money, attempting to regain the Ryanair crown he won in 2013 – beating First Lieutenant by an imperious nine lengths – rather than having a third crack at the Gold Cup would be the right decision. Cue Card can be ridden more positively in that scenario, rather than being held onto in order to see out the trip against a larger, superior set of rivals.
Frodon was beaten 18 lengths in third and that’s more in tune with the overall balance of his form than the spike of his flattering Trials Day handicap success; even if he too closely attended the pace at Ascot, Cue Card did the same with bells on so that’s no excuse for Grade One designs.
Two lengths further back in fourth, Top Notch was disappointing – he was beaten by the fourth last, having never once got on terms with Cue Card. His trainer Nicky Henderson has since acknowledged that he “ran a bit flat” but a scope has revealed no issues, suggesting he just might not have been good enough.
He was adjusting left at some fences – and Ascot ruthlessly exposes this tendency more than any other UK track – but he’d won round there before, not to mention at Taunton and Sandown, so this can’t be solely proffered as a mitigating factor.
His case relies on reclaiming the level of form that saw him finish second in the 2015 Triumph, fifth in the 2016 Champion Hurdle and second in last year’s JLT. He was also returning from a (short) break at Ascot and it’s fair to say he’s been at his best when busy in the past.
Set against those arguments is my long-held view that, when faced with genuine Grade One chasers, this bonny little trier would come up short. I’m hardly going to desert that opinion now.
Neither Un De Sceaux nor Balko Des Flos have raced since the last Road was written, albeit only the latter had the option. As it turned out, Gigginstown opted to duck the Irish Gold Cup with this seven-year-old and Eddie O’Leary has announced this race to be his Festival target rather than the Timico Gold Cup.
I have mixed feelings about this: Balko Des Flos’s improved form in the Christmas Chase seemed intimately linked with stepping back up to three miles yet he looks capable of again being ridden positively here and seeing out the race very strongly. I do not regard his latest effort as a fluke.
I’ve been arguing since the first Road of this series that Un De Sceaux would this year need to be better than he was when winning this race 12 months ago. That’s probably still true but not as emphatically as it was prior to Fox Norton being scratched with a suspensory injury, Road To Respect defecting to the Gold Cup and neither Min nor Douvan being likely to show up.
Unexpectedly soft ground won’t bother Un De Sceaux per se, although it will place an extra accent on stamina, and he will surely have the services of Ruby Walsh. That would be a huge disadvantage for Yorkhill, whom Walsh rode so adroitly when winning last year’s JLT, should Willie Mullins opt to run him here rather than in the Champion Hurdle.
It’s worth repeating that the Ryanair is the fourth 2018 Festival race this season to be identified as a potential target for Yorkhill, now that the Gold Cup and Champion Chase have been dismissed. If he’s supposedly so adaptable, perhaps he just lacks the star quality to dominate any one discipline? (If so, to be fair, this could be the race for him!)
It’s not impossible that Djakadam could be re-routed here, albeit Mullins seems tepid about this prospect. He’d have to be given a positive ride and risks getting burst as a stayer. Stable companion Bellshill – recent winner of the Bobbyjo Chase – is another unlikely contender from this quarter; he’s another stayer, just a less talented one.
In the last few weeks, the likes of A Toi Phil and Valseur Lido (the latter regressive with each start this term) have been exposed as not good enough whereas others – such as Bachasson, Benie Des Dieux, God’s Own, Killultagh Vic, L’Ami Serge and Outlander – are bound for different targets.
Gold Present missed his intended start at Ascot last month due to a bruised foot and trainer Nicky Henderson has seemingly suggested he misses the Festival (in which he’s still favourite for the Ultima) in favour of the Grand National. There are doubts about Ar Mad racing left handed and Le Prezien’s form isn’t yet good enough.
Quite literally, that leaves only Sub Lieutenant and Cloudy Dream to consider.
The former was only a staying-on length and a half behind Un De Sceaux 12 months ago but well below his best on his first two starts this season.
Yet he wasn’t flattered when getting involved in the John Durkan with Sizing John and Djakadam before ultimately being beaten almost ten lengths. However, that was back in December and I haven’t seen any mention of him since he missed his intended start in the Kinloch Brae back in January. Trainer Henry de Bromhead was also then talking about how he was “crying out” for (a return to) three miles back then, too.
He is also entered in the Gold Cup and Gigginstown will decide which, if either, option he takes up but he would be a player here if all is well. 20/1 NRNB rather underestimates him.
Waiting Patiently’s stablemate Cloudy Dream has failed to get home over three miles in testing ground against Gold Cup candidates Native River and Definitly Red on his last two starts.
There was no disgrace in either performance but the fact remains he’s finished second on eight of his 11 starts over fences. It’s always taken a good horse to beat him but that’s the company he still keeps and there’s something unnerving about how he’s often gone from travelling to paddling in a stride or two.
I’ve often wondered whether the seemingly counter-intuitive suggestion of making the running with him would help but this probably isn’t the race to be experimenting with that notion.
What was envisaged as a sharpener in the Irish Champion for this column’s Sun Bets Stayers’ Hurdle selection turned into the scalping of a former star and fleetingly raised the spectre of Supasundae being supplemented for the more prestigious Festival event.
Not that either trainer Jessica Harrington or jockey Robbie Power appeared more than remotely tempted after his two-and-a-quarter-length out-staying defeat of Faugheen. They were just chuffed by what they described as his best round of jumping yet – an assertion that may remain demonstrably true even if the runner-up half-lengthed him at most flights.
The latter point means connections have indubitably made the correct call to keep their sights on the stayers’ crown; a quick replay of his Coral Cup success last year underlines their point about scrappy tendencies in his jumping. He’s a better all-round package now.
“Last season you’d have to cajole him down to the gallop,” Harrington has admitted. “You just had to make him do everything. But this season he’s doing everything more willingly at home and he’s travelling and jumping much better in his races. Whether he has just got more confidence, I’m not sure but he seems to be a lot better this season.”
In fact, the blend of speed and stamina Supasundae displays is just the ticket for a race that requires you not to lose your pitch and then roll your sleeves up between the long run from the penultimate flight and the last.
Admittedly, he is yet to be tested in a strongly run three-mile event and the potential for softer ground than envisaged at Cheltenham is not ideal, but you can’t have everything in life – particularly at 20/1.
Perhaps most pertinently, it should be easy for him to get a good lead here because, as I argued at the time, he looked ill at ease making the running when beaten by Apple’s Jade and also had to be ridden forcefully over an inadequate trip last time. Harrington agrees.
“One thing I’m looking forward to with him at Cheltenham is not having to make the running or be very handy as he has been in his last two starts, as I don’t think that really suits him,” she said. “He dosses and makes it hard work for himself when he’s in front.”
Supasundae’s latest success was doubtless the final temptation for connections of one of his recent conquerors to switch targets and re-oppose him here; for another, not so much. Of course, it’s the O’Learys who are not for turning with Apple’s Jade but Yanworth is now taking the path outlined by so-called experts back in November.
“He has won twice over fences this season but I spoke to [Yanworth’s owner] JP McManus and [racing manager] Frank Berry and we decided that would be the plan,” trainer Alan King announced. “To avoid any confusion, I’ve taken him out of everything else so he holds no other entries at the Festival.”
Of course, what happened to alter King’s original course was a perfect storm of foreseeable and unforeseeable factors: the increased purse for the Stayers’ Hurdle as compared with the Festival’s novice chases, Yanworth’s own unconvincing chasing style, an underwhelming season to date from McManus’s intended Stayers’ Hurdle representative Unowhatimeanharry and the increasingly striking fact that Yanworth boasts a victory over the horse who has risen to be favourite for this event.
You can argue Yanworth outstayed Supasundae when winning the Grade One Liverpool Hurdle last April. However, you can also counter that the runner-up was uncharacteristically on and off the bridle from as early as the first circuit and may not have been at his best just three weeks after what was then the performance of his career to date at Cheltenham.
Harrington’s comments this week lend further substance to that interpretation. “I’d be hopeful that he can reverse form with Yanworth,” she said. “When he went to Aintree last season, he was after having some hard races and a tough schedule. I think he was just a tired horse and did well to run as well as he did.”
And let’s get down to brass tacks: would you trust Yanworth with your hard-earned? At 5/1? It would be palpably unfair to dismiss the horse as a raving hound – he’s found for pressure in victory and defeat in the past – but nonetheless there’s something of the night about him. Freud would blame his father.
Of course, Barry Geraghty will have to choose between Yanworth and Unowhatimeanharry. Despite a more upbeat recent report from trainer Harry Fry about last year’s third, I suspect Geraghty will choose the former – not just because he’s the more fancied of the pair but also because he favoured Yanworth over Buveur D’Air in last year’s Champion Hurdle before a fall rendered his preference academic. He rates the horse; someone has to.
Joking aside, a strongly run race such as last year’s edition would set things up nicely for Yanworth to be delivered with quirk-minimising lateness but that scenario is now less guaranteed than it appeared three weeks ago with the notable withdrawal of front-runners Beer Goggles, Cole Harden and Barters Hill.
Nigel Twiston-Davies has also stated that The New One, trying three miles for the first time in his illustrious career, will be ridden with more restraint than usual.
That leaves the task of forcing the pace most probably to this season’s most upwardly mobile stayer Sam Spinner and last year’s runner-up Lil Rockerfeller.
The latter travelled better than has been the case of late in first-time blinkers in the National Spirit last time out but was still quite readily overhauled at level weights by Old Guard.
That winner has cut a more consistent jib this season – bar when bogged down in the mud he hates on New Year’s Day – and has earned his place in this line-up even though his stamina for the task is unproven. I think he’ll run with credit, even if the ground proves softer than absolutely ideal.
Lil Rockerfeller’s Ascot defeat of L’Ami Serge – who himself galloped at Kempton this week – now seems much longer ago than November and it might be that seasons of being scrubbed along to hold his position – as consistently feared in these columns – may finally have left their mark on his enthusiasm. He did take a large step forward the second time he wore cheekpieces, mind – if that’s not clutching at straws about his blinkers.
The overarching point is: should that straw be beyond his grasp, there’s potential for Sam Spinner to pretty much make all in the style of Cole Harden in 2015. He can go hard or more restrainedly from the front, as his victories at Haydock and Ascot demonstrated this season.
Sam Spinner’s rider Joe Colliver might prefer the hard Haydock option in an attempt to run the finish out of Supasundae and then take his chances on his gutsy mount defying any late challenge Yanworth might muster.
It will need to be finely judged so it’s worth noting Colliver has only had three rides in his entire career at Cheltenham and none were even placed. It’s also fair to acknowledge the same young rider made all on this horse to win the Grade One Long Walk Hurdle on his first-ever visit to Ascot.
Willie Mullins won this race last year with the much-missed Nichols Canyon and might field a trio of substitutes for this year’s renewal, having withdrawn Shaneshill at the latest forfeit stage.
Bacardys is a predictable switcher after tipping up over fences at Christmas and Augusta Kate, who looked better suited by a return to this trip when second to Presenting Percy in the Galmoy last time out and made a chance-ending mistake in last year’s Albert Bartlett,.
Penhill, stablemate and last year’s winner of that Festival novices’ event – a relative speed test as it panned out – completes the Closutton squad but his billing for this specific target has been hardly resounding.
“He’s good – all his work has been good and the aim all season has been to get him back for the spring festivals,” Mullins said. “We knew from a while ago that we were unlikely to have the time to get a run into him before Christmas and it’s a tough ask to go for a race like the Stayers’ Hurdle without a run.
“If he runs well there and comes out of it sound, that will be good enough for us and we can go on to Punchestown with him from there.”
Tom George has confirmed The Worlds End will take his chance in this event, although his hoped-for good-to-soft ground is less guaranteed that it would usually be. “He’s been struggling in the ground all winter,” he said. That’s certainly a reasonable excuse for a retrograde step in heavy going at Cheltenham last time, following a more encouraging effort at Ascot (even if George himself believes the horse has “improved with each run”).
Finally, soft ground would be ideal for Colin’s Sister and this is her confirmed target – unlike as yet La Bague Au Roi whose trainer Warren Greatrex is still toying with re-routing her to a less suitable trip in the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle.
Native River has finally given some timely substantiation for his ever-shortening price in this market, hitherto fuelled only by dint of his rivals actually racing and performing below perceived expectations.
Everything was clearly set up for a big run in the Denman Chase – a race in which he was also impressive last season and at a track that particularly suits. He was also facing another horse that hadn’t raced since last year’s Timico Gold Cup in Saphir Du Rheu and a horse in Cloudy Dream whose stamina capabilities for three miles were already in some doubt.
Under these conditions, Richard Johnson was always going to be able to execute the chivvyingly positive ride that suits Native River so well. Having been urged along into the straight, he had the race sewn up barring accidents by the second last and won by 12 lengths, conceding weight all round. Put succinctly: he beat little but in fine style.
Trainer Colin Tizzard hadn’t left much room for manoeuvre had Native River come up palpably short of fitness, as (arguably) happened on a couple of occasions with this yard. I’m thinking of Cue Card’s seasonal debut last term and that of Thistlecrack this.
Tizzard has been crystal clear that, far from being sidelined with a setback, Native River returned to some degree of training last August and has been deliberately withheld for a one-race pre-Gold Cup campaign. The thinking was to offset his relentless 2016/17 season – something I incorrectly interpreted as having the secondary function of managing a Grand National bid. But he wasn’t even entered.
In fact, Tizzard recently expanded on his motivation. “We were running into the Gold Cup not in the best of form and he still ran well to finish third,” he asserted. I can’t wear that because no such concerns were mentioned at the time and his Gold Cup third was a roaring run.
Still, that’s what Tizzard clearly now believes. “We are a lot stronger this time around…I think at the moment we have got it dead right with him,” he added.
Heading to Cheltenham a fresh, fit and confident horse is undisputedly a powerful position to hold – especially given you can argue Native River probably could have finished second in last year’s edition. To my mind, he lost the runner-up spot to a hitherto outpaced but rallying Minella Rocco only due to pressing on too far out with eventual fourth Djakadam.
They even briefly outpaced the winner Sizing John with that move. Interestingly, his hard-knocking campaign may have come to haunt him this term with a soon-beaten blowout in the Christmas Chase. What might have been an overly draining seasonal debut against Djakadam – and was surely too quick a reappearance after that duel – didn’t help.
“They [vets] called him clinically abnormal after Leopardstown,” trainer Jessica Harrington said. “That term covers a range of things but I think he just overheated a bit.
“Looking back at it, the race probably just came a bit too soon for him after the John Durkan without us realising it. Maybe both him and Djakadam had a harder race than either of us realised at the time and paid for it at Leopardstown.
“We let him right down after that and have been building him back up since. He did very well during his break [trainer-speak for: got fat] but his weight is coming down to where we want it to be now. We were never going to rush him back for the Irish Gold Cup and have been training him for the Cheltenham Gold Cup since then.”
The plan is to gallop or school him at a racecourse before making the trip over to Britain to defend his title. “All we can do is get him there in one piece and we’ll hope for the best after that,” Harrington concluded. Hardly a ringing endorsement for a horse some bookmakers rate as second favourite.
If you’re looking for a solid each-way bet in the race, there is no comparison between the current credentials of last year’s 1-2. It’s Native River at around 6/1 all the way.
Behind him, Saphir Du Rheu failed to impress, quickly beaten after the first fence in the straight. He’d performed with credit after a wide trip (presumably to grant him a good sight of his obstacles) when fifth in the race last year but hadn’t been sighted this season due to twisting his ankle in last year’s Grand National.
“He travelled well until three out and then just ran out of petrol and he just needed the run,” trainer Paul Nicholls has plausibly explained. “He went to [gallop at] Kempton on Tuesday and I think you will see a completely different horse in the Gold Cup on better ground with that run under his belt.”
However, Nicholls has also conceded he’d have preferred “one more race before Cheltenham”. The trouble is Saphir Du Rheu needs not merely to improve massively on “the bare form at Newbury” but also on the best form he’s ever produced. The first-time tongue-tie was also mildly disconcerting.
A week prior to the Denman, the Irish Gold Cup performed its usual open-brain surgery on everything you were thinking before flag-fall. Therefore it was perfectly logical that victory should go to unconsidered 66/1 shot Edwulf – a horse whose primary miracle was to return to racing at all, let alone register the biggest success of his career to date.
When he collapsed in spasms soon after jumping the final flight in the 2017 NH Chase, the best most of us were hoping for was that he could be saved for a happy retirement.
He had to be dragged off the track in order to be attended to, took 70 minutes to load into the horse ambulance and subsequently appeared to be suffering from blindness. That he recovered to this degree is a remarkable tribute to the skill and dedication of all who cared for him. Bravo.
The worth of his latest form is equally baffling. Had Killultagh Vic stood up at the final fence, I am almost certain he would have won. Outgoing BHA Head Of Handicapping Phil Smith – among others – disagrees, believing Edwulf was bearing down inexorably at the time.
Yet it took virtually all of the run-in for Edwulf to overhaul Outlander – a horse who’s much harder to beat at Leopardstown than anywhere else – whereas Killultagh Vic had already smoothly headed that rival when taking off for his abortive final jump of the race. He lay winded and prone for some time before getting to his feet.
Mullins is a man desperately in search of a Gold Cup contender this season – a race he is yet to win despite his remarkable CV. Hence he tossed Killultagh Vic into this Grade One, despite the horse having just two previous starts over fences – at a shorter trip and two seasons ago, the latest of which all but ended in a fall. His remarkable recovery to win that race caused the tendon injury that counted him out for 714 days prior to this season.
It’s clear this horse retains a great deal of the ability that was blossoming in his novice-chasing days but this latest fall was by no means surprising. He’d put in a sloppy round of jumping throughout the Irish Gold Cup and it’s hard to imagine him getting away with that technique at Cheltenham.
Mullins in undeterred, however. “He was fine after his fall,” he asserted. “The best angle I have seen of the fall was when I went into the stewards’ room afterwards and watched the reverse angle from behind the horses. You can see that he realises he is wrong going into the fence and is being so careful that he threw his legs out to his left to whip his legs over it.
“That just unbalanced him and led to the fall. I felt at the time that he would have won. I wouldn’t have been betting against him had he got over the last safely. I wouldn’t have any stamina worries for him in the Gold Cup. That would be the last thing I’d be worried about with him.”
On that point, we find some common ground. There are exactly 22 things I’d worry about with Killultagh Vic before stamina in the Gold Cup. They’re called fences. Perhaps Ruby Walsh – who’s surely likeliest to choose this vessel of those available to him – can make a big difference. He’ll need to.
Killultagh Vic’s presence at Leopardstown spelled bad news for stablemate Djakadam, suggesting Mullins was no longer convinced in his Gold Cup capabilities. He had previously produced the worst performance of his entire chasing career when pulling up in the Christmas Chase.
Although his trainer shares Harrington’s view about that race coming too soon after a punishing John Durkan clash, he’s started to give headroom to an anathema.
“He has been a bit disappointing this season and his form hasn’t matched what he’s been doing in previous seasons,” Mullins rightly said. “There is some feeling that he should run in the Ryanair rather than in the Gold Cup and that could happen, but I feel he should go for the Gold Cup.”
Regular readers of the Road will know I have zero time for the Ryanair argument. Djakadam is a stayer and unlikely to be seen to best effect on a relative speed-favouring track like Leopardstown, even when ridden from the front as he was when third behind Edwulf.
You can argue Djakadam was the third-best (or, at more of a push, even second-best) horse in last year’s Gold Cup, having pressed on too hard and soon with Native River and reportedly belting the second last so hard that he broke the fence.
Numerologists may cite The Fellow’s precedent of Gold Cup form figures 2-2-4 prior to his 1994 success, but it’s inarguable that Djakadam has been below his best this season – even if odds of 33/1 NRNB rather insult his place prospects.
Back in fourth in the Irish Gold Cup, Our Duke ran a far better race on his comeback from an operation to correct a kissing spine than he was given credit for at the time.
He has since convinced many more observers with a doughty defeat of ascendant novice Presenting Percy, conceding weight and over a trip shy of either of their optimum, in a Grade Two at Gowran Park. At just 13 days after his Leopardstown run, that was a swift turnaround and an unusually busy February diary for a Gold Cup candidate.
Trainer Harrington has explained: “He wouldn’t have run at Gowran Park last time if he hadn’t made a mistake in the Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown. After he made that mistake, Robert [Power, his usual jockey] gave him a chance to recover from it and he avoided a hard race as a result.
“Because of that, the decision to go to Gowran was easy as I knew he hand’t had a hard race and I really needed him to run again for the benefit of both his jumping and his conditioning. He hasn’t had a lot of chasing experience, so each race at this stage is going to be of benefit to him.
“I was happy with him at Gowran. He decided to bulldoze one fence out of the way but once he had done that he jumped the last three very well and when it mattered most. He seems to lack a bit of concentration when he’s not going as quick as he’d like.”
Harrington pinpoints the major concern with Our Duke right there: his habit of making a mistake at a crucial stage and often not for a good enough reason – a trait he displayed in his novice-chasing days.
It will be interesting to see how new jockey Noel Fehily responds to this flaw - Power having found it understandably impossible to desert defending champion Sizing John in the Gold Cup – because otherwise there’s a lot to like about Our Duke’s credentials.
He moved smoothly through to challenge for the lead three out in the Irish Gold Cup but appeared to blow up approaching the next, losing his position even before making a mistake and slipping on landing. He then looked booked for seventh rounding the home turn before finding a second wind even before two of his rivals departed at the final fence.
He did well to stamp his authority over Presenting Percy last time, conceding 7lbs over a two-and-a-half-mile trip, but that blunder at the fourth last came out of nowhere. He can’t afford to lose concentration in the Gold Cup.
To return to the actual Irish Gold Cup winner, Edwulf has clearly earned his place. He handles Cheltenham, will be suited by returning to a stiffer test of stamina and is unexposed as a chaser, having taken a while to learn his craft as an error-prone novice.
A month ago, it would have been hard to pick Edwulf as JP McManus’s prime Gold Cup candidate but both Minella Rocco and Anibale Fly hit the deck behind him at Leopardstown while Coney Island flopped at Ascot.
Rocco had been outpaced and booked for something like fifth when taking a tired fall at the last in the Irish Gold Cup. It might be that Cheltenham enables him to recover his form, given he won the strong 2016 edition of the NH Chase and finished second in last year’s Gold Cup after failing to complete in this same prep race. He had a harder race this year, mind.
Fly was stepping up in grade and already struggling, his jumping having lacked fluency, when taking a crunching fall two out. He’ll surely stay at home now?
Coney Island’s unearned prominence in this market was ruthlessly undermined when he was taken out of his comfort zone from flag-fall in the Ascot Chase. Never travelling or able to get into a rhythm, Barry Geraghty pulled him up after the worst of a series of errors at the tenth.
He’s clearly no Ryanair horse on this evidence and needs a longer trip but he’s not good enough for a Gold Cup either.
Irish Gold Cup runner-up Outlander could manage only tenth in last year’s Gold Cup; he also fell (when going OK) in the previous year’s JLT and was sixth in the 2015 Neptune (now Ballymore). It’s fair to say he boasts better form elsewhere.
Nonetheless, he has again made the Gigginstown Gold Cup squad alongside the Noel Meade-trained Road To Respect – last year’s Plate winner who made a smooth transition to Grade One company when winning the Christmas Chase. This progressive horse has stamina to prove and must ensure his jumping is slicker from the outset than it was at last year’s Festival.
Fellow maroon marcher Balko Des Flos heads to the Ryanair and Disko is now confirmed as missing Cheltenham altogether due to a tress fracture. He was among some significant forfeit-stage withdrawals including Bristol De Mai (Aintree-bound), Coneygree yet (another setback, a stress fracture of a tibia) and Whisper (injured).
Contrary to immediate post-Ascot reports, the joyously revivified Cue Card is not definitely Ryanair-bound – although Tizzard appears to be edging that way.
Nigel Twiston-Davies might come to regret going against the grain with Aintree hope Blaklion by contesting the lesser target of the BetFred Grand National Trial rather than the Gold Cup as a stepping-stone. The horse was exhausted when clambering over the final fence to finish a wide-margin runner-up in Haydock’s inevitable quagmire.
All four of Mullins’ remaining entries could yet stand their ground if his pre-Cheltenham stable tour is anything to go by. In this scenario, Bachasson and Total Recall would join Killultagh Vic and Djakadam in bidding to improve on the haul of six frustrating seconds their trainer has amassed in this race.
Of Bachasson, Mullins noted: “His connections are keen to go to Cheltenham. He’s a fantastic jumper and while it will be a stiff task for him in the Gold Cup, the intention is to go there with him.”
This also avoids a Ryanair clash with Un De Sceaux, who’s in the same ownership. However, likeable Bachasson isn’t the biggest unit and although his jumping is quick, it’s also low. He’s also unproven at the trip. I can’t see this race suiting him.
Mullins had been intent on going straight to the National with Ladbrokes Trophy runner-up Total Recall, but there are four weeks between Cheltenham and Aintree this year and this horse continues to impress since joining the Closutton yard. On the Irish Gold Cup card, he won a handicap hurdle from a mark fully 31lbs lower than his (British) chase rating.
“We were going to go to the Bobbyjo Chase but it was just coming too soon after his last run and going for the Gold Cup instead just gives us a nicer gap in between his last run and the Grand National,” Mullins explained.
“He is a relaxed horse that jumps economically and that will stand him in good stead in the Gold Cup. He got very free last time over hurdles but he just jumped the first few too well and ended up getting much handier than we would have liked. It will be much easier to hide him away and get him settled in a race like the Gold Cup.”
Clearly, Total Recall needs to find about a stone of improvement to play a significant role at Cheltenham and he will be returning to the fray rather more quickly than his well-spaced starts for the stable so far. But he’s clearly thriving so it makes sense to press on.
Finally, Nicky Henderson reverted both to type and his original post-King George instinct by ducking the Denman Chase with Gold Cup ante-post favourite, Might Bite, in favour of a racecourse gallop at Kempton.
It might well have been the correct decision for that individual horse but racecourses can’t fret about field sizes and the inequitable dominance of the Cheltenham Festival at the same time as playing host to these opaque pastiches of this sport.
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