Mark Howard reflects on a recent batch of winners for Nick Henderson, while nominating 'a future Grade One winner in waiting' plus his weekend eyecatcher.
While Grade 1-winning novice hurdler Champ made the perfect start to his fencing career at Newbury on Thursday, stablemates Fusil Raffles and Santini weren’t quite so convincing despite also making winning starts to their campaign over the weekend.
The former developed into one of the best juvenile hurdlers last season winning the Grade 2 Adonis Hurdle at Kempton before scoring at the highest level at Punchestown in early May.
Rated 152, Nicky Henderson’s ex-French gelding made heavy weather of beating race-fit rival Grand Sancy in receipt of three pounds. Three parts of a length separated the pair with a further 15 lengths back to the 140-rated third Beat The Judge.
Even allowing for the fact that the runner-up is a dual course winner and he chased home Elixir De Nutz in the Grade 1 Tolworth Hurdle at Sandown last January, Fusil Raffles needs to improve appreciably on what he achieved on Saturday to develop into a leading Champion Hurdle contender. His next run will hopefully tell us more.
Similarly, Santini produced a laboured effort in the Listed Future Stars Intermediate Chase at Sandown 24 hours later.
A Grade 2-winning novice chaser last winter, he came within half a length of providing Nicky Henderson with his fourth win in the RSA Chase at Cheltenham last spring following a far from fluent preparation.
However, the Milan gelding didn’t run to anything like the same level of form on Sunday being all out to repel the challenge of Stuart Edmunds’ Now McGinty, who had finished around 28 lengths behind him in March.
In contrast to Lostintranslation’s reappearance at Carlisle the previous weekend, the seven-year-old looked anything but a Gold Cup contender in the making.
While I wonder whether the former English pointer possesses the speed to win steeplechasing’s Blue Riband, I suspect he is a far superior horse when racing left-handed.
Santini has raced right-handed twice and on both occasions he hasn’t travelled with his usual fluency. Either the Cotswold Chase at Cheltenham in late-January or the Denman Chase at Newbury a few weeks later is likely to be his third run of this season but the former champion trainer is keen to get another run into him before then.
Having only had four runs over fences, he lacks chasing experience due to his truncated season as a novice.
Talking of novice chasers, Reserve Tank atoned for his defeat on his chasing debut at Chepstow last month by collecting the Grade 2 Rising Stars Novice Chase at Wincanton by nearly four lengths.
While there is no doubt Colin Tizzard has some tremendous equine talent at his disposal, one of the other reasons why the West Country trainer has become such a major force in National Hunt racing in recent years has been his association with Robbie Power.
The Irishman was content to sit off the front-running Solomon Grey and in behind the prominent racer If You Say Run for the majority of the two and a half miles event. Taking charge at the third last, the Jeremy gelding wasn’t hard pressed to win with something in hand.
Tizzard was keen to stress afterwards that the five-year-old will be kept to the intermediate trip for the time being.
With that in mind, races such as the Grade 2 Dipper Novice Chase at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day and the Grade 1 Scilly Isles at Sandown in early February appear likely to feature on his agenda – stablemate Lostintranslation contested both events before heading to the Festival in March for the JLT Novices’ Chase.
Rated 151 and a dual Grade 1 winner over hurdles, there is little doubt he will aspire to a higher mark over fences but, at the moment, he needs to achieve more before he can be considered a top-class novice chaser. I suspect Saturday’s race was a Grade 2 in name only.
There was some terrific prize-money on offer at Aintree on Saturday where The Last Day was an emphatic five lengths of the two miles handicap chase.
An eight lengths winner at Carlisle last March, Evan Williams’ Oscar gelding was granted an opening mark of 131 as a result.
Such a rating underestimated his ability though as he beat seven rivals with consummate ease under Adam Wedge. Jumping and travelling well throughout, he went to the front approaching the penultimate fence before drawing clear.
Given the fact it was only his fifth run over fences, he is open to considerable improvement.
Entered in another valuable handicap at Ascot in a couple of weeks' time, he looks tailor-made for something like the Castleford Chase at Wetherby over Christmas. All five of his career wins have been gained on soft or heavy ground and conditions are invariably testing at the West Yorkshire venue for that fixture.
A little over half an hour later, Riders Onthe Storm nearly recouped his purchase price when beating Cepage in the two and a half mile handicap chase. Formerly trained by Tom Taaffe in Ireland, he was acquired for £50,000 at the Doncaster Spring Sales before joining Nigel Twiston-Davies.
The Scorpion gelding, who was an early casualty in the novices’ handicap chase at the Festival in March, raced off a mark of 140 here and, having led towards the end of the back straight, maintained the gallop to win by a length and three quarters and scoop £49,520 in the process.
The Caspian Caviar Gold Cup at Cheltenham next month was nominated as his next port of call, a race his new trainer won six years ago with Double Ross.
There have been some smart novice hurdle performances over the last seven days.
Sporting John looked an exciting recruit to Philip Hobbs’ yard, displaying a potent turn of foot on the run-in to win going away at Exeter on Tuesday, Silver Hallmark is a high-class horse in the making, judged on his four lengths victory at Chepstow on Wednesday, while dual bumper winner Ribble Valley could be one of the leading novices in the north this term having demolished his opponents at Hexham on Friday.
However, it is Andy Dufresne who tops the list following his 11-length win at Navan on Sunday.
By the same sire as stablemate Battleoverdoyen, the former point and bumper winner jumped brilliantly before drawing clear of his 17 opponents. Trainer Gordon Elliott has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to novice hurdlers with Abacadabras, Envoi Allen and Fury Road to name but a few.
Andy Dufresne wasn’t cheap at £330,000 but you get what you pay for and it is only a matter of time before the Doyen gelding wins a Grade 1.
As regards my eyecatcher of the week, Tower Bridge remains a novice over fences having only finished fourth in the two miles three beginners' chase at Naas on Saturday.
However, with the trip very much on the sharp side, there was no disgrace in being beaten five lengths by Willie Mullins’ Tornado Flyer.
Runner-up behind top flight novices’ Duc Des Genieveres and A Plus Tard last winter, he is a Grade 1-winning novice hurdler and wasn’t beaten far in either the Albert Bartlett and Sefton Novice Hurdles at Cheltenham and Aintree respectively a couple of seasons ago.
Rated 141 over fences, he looks an ideal type for the Paddy Power Chase at Leopardstown over the Festive period.