Mark Howard reflects on a big weekend on both sides of the Irish Sea with Champion Hurdle clues aplenty - check out his weekend review here.
With the reigning champion hurdler Espoir D’Allen sadly no longer with us and the previous dual winner Buveur D’Air likely to be sidelined for the remainder of the campaign following his shock defeat at Newcastle on Saturday, hurdling’s Blue Riband looks up for grabs.
Nicky Henderson’s eight year old was bidding to win the Fighting Fifth Hurdle for a third consecutive year and the ninth Grade 1 victory of his career. However, the Micky Hammond trained Cornerstone Lad, ridden by Henry Brooke, failed to read the script beforehand and, having built up a sizeable early advantage, fended off the late thrust of Barry Geraghty’s mount to prevail by a short head.
It transpired the runner-up was found to have a splinter of wood in his foot following a mistake at the second last hurdle. This ‘freak’ incident will almost certainly cut short Buveur D’Air’s season and leaves the Champion Hurdle picture wide open.
Fair play to Micky Hammond who purchased the winner for only £9,000 at the Doncaster Breeze-ups in April 2016. The Delegator gelding has won twice on the Flat and his burgeoning CV over jumps now reads 6 wins from 13 starts with his victory on Saturday coming off a mark of 148. The Middleham trainer, who enjoyed plenty of big race success as a jockey, must be tempted to use his Flat rating of 71 one day.
As regards the hurdling crown, the 12/1 on offer about the unbeaten Honeysuckle makes plenty of appeal following her devastating performance in the Hattons Grace Hurdle at Fairyhouse on Sunday. The former winning pointer was unbeaten in five starts over hurdles beforehand and was already a Grade 1 winner having scored at the Fairyhouse Easter Festival last spring.
Following a facile success at the same track on her reappearance last month, Henry De Bromhead’s mare faced her stiffest test to date at the weekend and passed it with flying colours. The daughter of Sulamani has formed a formidable partnership with Rachel Blackmore and the pair made Grade 1 winners Bacardys, Apple’s Jade and Penhill look ordinary as she bounded away on the home turn. A nine-length winner, she handles any ground and has shown her versatility in terms of trips, winning over two and two and a half miles, plus a point-to-point over three.
It is worth noting all six of her wins under Rules have been gained on right handed tracks but her fifteen lengths point success was achieved going the other way round. Forced to miss the Cheltenham Festival last year, she will be a massive threat to Benie Des Dieux in the mares’ hurdle if her connections are tempted to follow that route but the Champion Hurdle looks mighty tempting. A trip to Leopardstown either over Christmas or, indeed, the Irish Champion Hurdle towards the end of January will tell us more but Honeysuckle looks an exceptional mare.
As regards the other two Grade 1 events on Fairyhouse’s stellar card, Envoi Allen, rather like Honeysuckle, extended his unbeaten record to seven with another commanding performance in the Royal Bond Novices’ Hurdle. Gordon Elliott was winning the two miles event for a second time and last season’s Cheltenham Festival bumper victor made virtually all the running before staying on too strongly for stablemate Abacadabras.
A length and a half separated the pair and it is the third time he has finished in front of the Gigginstown owned runner-up. Envoi Allen’s jumping was good, especially at the second last, and while he will have no trouble staying further, the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle looks his most likely target at this stage.
Like-A-Butterfly was the last horse to complete the Royal Bond/Supreme double in 2001/2002. His performance was all the more noteworthy because the Joseph O’Brien trained Embittered ensured the five-year-old didn’t enjoy a soft time of it early on, either racing upsides or sitting on his tail. Like Honeysuckle, he is one of the most exciting horses in National Hunt racing at present.
Talking of Joseph O’Brien, the dual Epsom Derby winning rider enjoyed a tremendous afternoon on Sunday with three winners. Fakir D’Oudairies provided the highlight with a twenty two-length success in the Grade 1 Drinmore Novices’ Chase, making it two out of two over fences this term.
It could have been a different story, though, had former Festival winner Samcro stayed on his feet at the penultimate fence. Around half a length separated the pair at the second last with Jack Kennedy yet to play his hand on Gordon Elliott’s charge. Unfortunately, Samcro came down which left the way clear for the four-year-old to saunter away.
The winner, who raced twice over fences in France when handled by Guy Cherel, had won decisively over two miles at Navan on his reappearance. The pair are both top-class novices but it remains to be seen whether they clash again in the near future. It will be no surprise to see Fakir D’Oudairies revert back to the minimum trip at Leopardstown on Boxing Day in an attempt to emulate stablemate Le Richebourg in the Grade 1 Racing Post Novice Chase, while one would expect Samcro to be kept over two and a half miles plus. Given the fact the JLT Novice Chase at Cheltenham is run on the more stamina sapping New course, the Arkle Trophy may be the favoured route for the winner come March. Time will tell.
As regards the domestic action over the weekend, there were two horses who won handicaps at Newbury’s Winter Carnival off a mark of 137 which are expected to more than make an impact in Graded events sooner rather than later.
Venetia Williams' French import Fanion D’Estruval made a mockery of such a rating on his UK debut in the two miles handicap chase on Friday. Twice a winner over fences for Guillaume Macaire, the four-year-old breezed to the front approaching the third last before powering away to register a six-length win.
The handicapper will undoubtedly have his say but that isn’t an immediate concern for his connections because the Enrique gelding can run in novice company for the remainder of this season. Quick and low over his fences, he would take some stopping in something like the Grade 2 Wayward Lad Novices’ Chase at Kempton on the 27th December or the Grade 2 Lightning Novices’ Chase at Doncaster in late January.
Looking further ahead, Charlie Deutsch’s mount would relish the likely strong early gallop in the Arkle Trophy, especially with the aforementioned Fakir D’Oudairies in the line up.
If Fanion D’Estruval was very good on Friday then compatriot Epatante wasn’t bad twenty four hours later over the same course and distance, albeit over hurdles.
One of the biggest disappointments of last March’s Cheltenham Festival when she failed to fire in the Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle, Nicky Henderson’s five year old returned to form with a vengeance, providing the former champion trainer with his seventh win in the Listed Gerry Feilden Hurdle.
The No Risk At All filly, who won a Grade 1 APQS bumper in her native country before being snapped up by J.P.McManus, was ridden for the first time by Aidan Coleman. With the hood discarded, she settled much better and her jumping was slicker than last winter. Sprinting away after the last, she won hard held by six lengths with a couple of her stablemates trailing in her wake.
While the Betfair Hurdle may be an option over the same course and distance in February, her connections must be tempted to give her an entry in the Grade 1 Christmas Hurdle. Admittedly, it represents a significant step up in class and the Seven Barrows team are due to aim Elite Hurdle winner Fusil Raffles at the same contest, but Epatante is already a course victor and she looks very much at home on flat tracks. Still lightly raced and unexposed, she won’t disgrace herself in such company.
Finally, Nicky Richards won the Rehearsal Chase at Newcastle on Saturday with his Scottish National winner Taking Risks. The Greystoke handler is keen to run the ten-year-old in the English version in April but still needs to convince the owner that it is a good idea.
The Cheltenham Festival could be on stablemate Ribble Valley’s agenda if he continues to progress. A dual bumper winner last season, the six-year-old was a nine-length winner on his hurdles bow at Hexham last month and had no trouble shouldering a penalty at Wetherby last week. Brian Hughes’ mount led at the third last and the race as a contest was over soon afterwards.
An eleven-length victor, the Westerner gelding had the likes of Sir Valentine and Proschema trailing in his wake and is clearly well above average. Perhaps his mettle will be tested in something like the Grade 2 Sky Bet Rossington Main Novices’ Hurdle at Haydock in mid January.
Alternatively, the Grade 2 Sky Bet Kennel Gate Novices’ Hurdle at Ascot before Christmas is another option. Cornerstone Lad is seemingly not the only smart two-mile hurdler trained in the north.