In the first of two quickfire editions of Road to Cheltenham, Lydia Hislop reflects on the work of the chasers over a busy festive period.
This is the first of two quick-fire columns addressing the frenetic Christmas period, encompassing all action up to and including Saturday 29 December. I say “all” but in truth it will be “as much as I have time to cover at this juncture”.
What is undeniably true is that this edition focuses exclusively on the chasers whereas the next edition, in a couple of days' time, will major on the hurdlers. Whether or not I manage to get through all the novices' events – thousands of them – is a matter of some doubt. If I fail, they will be included in next week's full round-up that addresses racing from Sunday December 30, including the busy New Year's Day action from both sides of the Irish Sea.
It is for the sake of sanity and familial relations that I've had to draw the line somewhere. And my line was drawn both there and at a fourth bottle of tawny port. (Although I am open to negotiation on one of those strictures.)
Before we get cracking, a reminder that you can see all previous editions of Road here, and of course a very happy New Year to you all.
Magners Gold Cup
Even though both Christmas Grade Ones went the way of rising stars in the staying firmament, Presenting Percy enters the new year as Gold Cup favourite despite not having left his box to race and missing at least three planned engagements. Owner Philip Reynolds voiced those plans; trainer Pat Kelly not so much.
Reynolds' words are beginning to read quite plaintively at this distance. Anyone would think Kelly has all along planned not to run the RSA Chase winner again until 2019, merely extending his vow of silence on all subjects to include the bill-payer.
"It's desperately frustrating," a frustrated Reynolds said, after Kelly didn’t declare Presenting Percy for the Savills Chase due to, as warned (presumably via semaphore), insufficient rain falling beforehand.
"Pat is fairly philosophical about it. He keeps reminding me there's one day for this horse this season and that's Gold Cup day. We don't want to leave it somewhere else, so what can we do? The horse is ready to run but we just have to be patient."
Kelly’s route to Cheltenham was deemed idiosyncratic last season when, after winning the Porterstown Handicap Chase, Presenting Percy triumphed in the Galmoy Hurdle and then finished second to Our Duke in the Red Mills Chase. Of course, Colin Tizzard won the 2018 Gold Cup with a horse who'd had just the one prep but, for pity's sake, break that to Reynolds gently.
"I wouldn't be surprised if we went back for the Galmoy Hurdle now, and then the Red Mills Chase,” Reynolds said, perhaps pleadingly. “He has to run over fences and it would be nice to get two runs into him, so that would be my preference at the moment. It's either that or come back here in February for the [Irish] Gold Cup, and just give him that one run."
What’s that Kelly’s saying about it, over there, with his flags, now? Oh, nothing.
Meanwhile, it’s also been as slow a slow-burning project as Paul Nicholls gets in developing Clan Des Obeaux into a Grade One-winning chaser in his third season over the larger obstacles. In doing so, it cemented his trainer’s record as the most successful in King George VI Chase history with a tenth victory in Kempton’s showpiece event.
Nicholls had said after Clan Des Obeaux produced a career-best fourth in the Betfair Chase previously that he was prepared to wait another season for this plan to come to fruition because, despite the horse’s experience over fences, he was still only six years of age in 2018.
But Nicholls rolled the big dice a year sooner in the race he’d identified as ideal and reaped the rewards. The right-handed track, for a horse who has adjusted in that direction since his Newbury hurdles debut more than four years ago, proved perfect for a horse who also boasts the required blend of speed and stamina for Kempton.
Clan Des Obeaux, whose odds contracted eight points into 12/1 in the two minutes prior to the off-time, could always be spotted travelling strongly and jumping well in mid-division behind a good pace. He slipstreamed runner-up Thistlecrack on the home turn and then tackled him at jockey Harry Cobden’s command in the straight, leading at the last on the bridle and then idling on hitting the front.
“I thought he ran a marvellous race in the Betfair, he just got a little bit tired – he's a six-year-old and improving all the time,” Cobden said afterwards. “He could be a serious Gold Cup contender looking at that.
"I knew as soon as I got to the front, he wouldn't do anything so I tried setting him up for the last and he outjumped Thistlecrack and scooted away brilliantly. All I was thinking is: I hope there's not one flying home because he might come past me, I'm idling so much."
Clan Des Obeaux is clearly blossoming as a staying chaser – this was only his third start over three miles (and his fourth right-handed in the UK) – so it would be folly entirely to dismiss him for the Gold Cup. Yet Nicholls' comments about right-handed tracks plus that tendency to idle are negatives for Cheltenham and its pitiless final hill.
It’s not as straightforward as him needing a flat track – he has some decent form on the New Course and at Exeter in the context of his contemporaneous achievements – but he would need to do better again. I repeat: that’s not impossible given his current trajectory so, while I can’t bring myself to fancy him, I’m wary of him, too.
This was Thistlecrack’s best performance since winning the 2016 King George as a novice and running the ill-fated Many Clouds so close in Cheltenham’s Cotswold Chase the following month. In fact, you might even want to mark him up a shade for sitting closer to the pace than the patiently ridden winner.
His usual jumping hesitancy was entirely absent (albeit he jumped slightly right once, at the first, and predominately left otherwise) despite being broadsided on landing by Bristol De Mai at that initial fence and the winner travelling all over him upsides at the final three flights.
Quite rightly, this will have put paid to any high-falutin‘ideas about reverting to hurdles for the Stayers’ event at the Festival but, even if he jumps this well on a very different track, he will still need to prove he stays the 3m2.5f Gold Cup trip as well as – to give the prime example – stablemate and titleholder Native River.
Back in a dogged third, that doughty opponent gave as good as he was able at a track that has before been proven not to suit him at all. He needed nudging to hold his position from an early stage and was again jumping left (as he did in the 2015 Kauto Star) until finally losing his pitch six out.
He then rallied steadily under pressure all the way to the line, in doing so passing Politologue, who was shaping third-best in these circumstances until his stamina gave out and is therefore discussed at more length for the Ryanair.
Native River will be much better suited by the more searching test of stamina and galloping nature of the Gold Cup. He’s likely to head there after trying to make it a straight hat-trick of successes in Newbury’s Grade Two Denman Chase in February.
It's an obvious argument that 5/1 about this largely consistent horse is the most solid ante-post option but it niggles me that he had a hard race after a light campaign in last year’s Gold Cup and will face a hard race after a tough campaign in the 2019 renewal. Perhaps it will just roll off his back? We’re unlikely to find out until the day.
Neither Double Shuffle nor Tea For Two – at a track that suits them and on ground you couldn’t say grievously disadvantaged them – could make any impact this year. The former looks grossly flattered (even more so than it seemed at the time) by last year’s second, when the latter was optimally ridden to the max in third.
The gallant Coneygree took the field along at a good pace but his problem-riddled legs simply can’t sustain that tempo of gallop for long enough these days. The 2015 Gold Cup hero was bang there until the home turn but faded badly in the straight. Although he retains enough ability to raise a shout in a lesser grade, the Bradstocks may prefer to opt for a highly honourable retirement.
As I (and other cynical types) suspected, stiffer fences at Haydock were clearly not the main cause of Might Bite's lifeless display in the Betfair Chase because this was even worse. It was no surprise to read, after jockey Nico de Boinville eased down from the home turn for a 37-length defeat, that the veterinary officer reported last year’s winner had bled from the nose.
Might Bite had looked happy enough for much of the race, if still lacking that fizz that made him famous, and closely attended Coneygree. But he jumped occasionally left and, on doing that six out and making a mistake, he was immediately done with. De Boinville asked him to rally for two fences before sensing something was wrong.
It’s clearly a physical issue – or perhaps a psychosomatic problem, borne of being dragged to the dark side by Native River in last season's Gold Cup. His Aintree Bowl victory in the interim was the decoy but he's had the whole summer, after he was let down, to reflect. He’s always presented as one of the sport’s deeper thinkers and maybe he’s reached a binding conclusion.
So have I and it’s option (3) posed in Road 1 in response to the Betfair Chase: that the fire simply burns less brightly. I can’t have him on my mind. Add a zero to his current best Gold Cup odds of 16/1.
Emphatic Betfair Chase winner Bristol De Mai still has to prove he’s anything other than the King Of Haydock. Having started exuberantly, he ballooned the first out to his left and pin-balled off right-adjusting Thistlecrack on landing, causing him to lose his balance for a couple of strides.
After that he remained keen and showed signs of starting to lose his pitch even prior to the ninth, where he took a crashing fall and brought down the luckless Waiting Patiently in cold blood. More on the latter horse, whose name seems deterministic, in the Ryanair section.
In contrast to the King George, Ireland’s chief staying prize of the Christmas period was staged at a crawl until, with the entire field in contention on the turn for home, it became a one-fence sprint.
The race-clinching move took place before halfway, however, when David Mullins took Kemboy from the rear into the lead in front of the stands first time round with minimal expenditure of energy. There the partnership stayed, until dashing away approaching the last and then pulling further clear for an resounding success.
“I couldn’t really see Kemboy winning,” Mullins admitted afterwards. “I said to David, try and get as much money as you can and we actually looked up in the racecard to see if the money was down to sixth.
"It was very brave of [David] to do what he did, but he rides like that, with gut feeling and instinct, and that’s good. I was as surprised as anyone. I thought [Kemboy would] fold back into the field but he was as fresh coming into the straight as he was going round first time.
"It was an extraordinary ride from David. When he flew past them passing the stands, I was thinking, ‘can I get enough cross words in one sentence, the guy is mad’, but David knew what he had.
"They had slowed down the pace from the front and he said [Kemboy] was taking a hold, so he just let him go and let him jump. I thought he’d capsize halfway down the back but he didn’t [and] to sprint away from them like that is the sign of an improving horse and he can improve the whole way to March, I think."
Kemboy has always been a likeable sort, having twice shaped well at the Festival over shorter trips – including when better than the bare form in fourth in last term’s JLT after making an error forced by a rival braking in front of him.
Until this self-promotional success, he had struggled to make the premiership squad at his mighty yard, meaning he hasn’t once been ridden by Ruby Walsh since his hurdling debut in December 2016.
Mistakes have, generally speaking, held him back over fences. At Leopardstown, though, he was almost foot perfect – albeit, admittedly, he was able to dictate his own jumping pace from the eighth onwards when taking over on the lead.
He missed the Ladbrokes Trophy due to travel problems and Mullins said he’d been given a break since winning his seasonal debut at Clonmel, prompting him to muse that "we might just let him have a break the whole way to Cheltenham and just bank on going there with a fresh horse".
The Gold Cup – which his trainer has, famously, never yet won – is the plan but this breakthrough success was more about speed than stamina so the naturally exuberant Kemboy – who, like Clan Des Obeaux, is a six-year-old rising seven – falls into the same category as the King George winner for me. At 8/1, I’m neither a buyer nor a seller.
Monalee, who was well-positioned throughout, plugged on steadily for the runner-up spot in a race that was not run to suit a stayer like him. Yet it should be noted from his pre-race remarks that trainer Henry de Bromhead clearly views the horse differently and now regrets running him in the RSA rather than the JLT last term.
That might suggest a positive ride in the Ryanair could be in the offing, if the trainer can persuade his owners to endorse his interpretation. Whatever, this was one of Monalee’s sounder rounds of jumping – forward tactics certainly help him in this regard – and he’s a consistent, if not evidently progressive, type.
In a rough race borne of the steady pace Road To Respect was hugely unlucky not to finish second. Having stuck to the inside, he ran out of room after the fourth last and was squeezed out, only to rally and then to slip badly approaching the second last, dropping out to the rear as a result.
That he rallied to finish only a head behind Monalee is testament both to his spirit and his turn of foot, running into a quickening-from-funereal pace. It’s credible that testing ground didn’t suit him when finishing fourth, more than 12 lengths behind Native River, in the 2018 Gold Cup but it’s also possible the trip stretched him.
Three of Road To Respect’s Gigginstown team-mates under-performed and the fourth, star-crossed Disko, sadly lost his life in a thumping fall at the last fence. What a devastating end for all those who took such good care of this injury-plagued grey at trainer Noel Meade’s yard.
Outlander, who saves his best for this track and won this Grade One in 2016, again ran flat while both Balko Des Flos and Shattered Love were disappointing.
I fancied both horses to run well in the 2019 Gold Cup but, even if a slowly run race wouldn’t have suited either of them, they’ve got to earn their place in the O’Leary estimation rather than heading to the Ryanair by default. We will have to rely on the Dublin Racing Festival for redemption.
Balko Des Flos – who hitherto had the look of a horse being brought steadily back to his peak – was the better positioned of the pair but wasn’t travelling well enough to hold his pitch when muscled out entering the straight. He was quickly eased.
Shattered Love probably made her move, as a stayer into a quickening pace, at exactly the wrong time and was also soon not persisted with once beaten. Despite having won at this meeting last year (under a far more positive ride), she may not be ideally suited by Leopardstown.
Best of the rest was fourth-placed Bellshill, who was making his seasonal debut and ran respectably in unsuitable circumstances. He’s a dour stayer but not necessarily one suited by the demands of Cheltenham, although switching to the New Course after his ten-length never-in-the-hunt third to Might Bite in the 2017 RSA will help.
The Storyteller, Coney Island and Edwulf made little impact and – the last-named horse’s surprise Irish Gold Cup triumph aside – aren’t up to this class.
Returning to the UK for the final update in this section, Elegant Escape found the stiff requirements of the Welsh Grand National much more to his liking than the Ladbrokes Trophy, in which he had been a ten-length second to stable companion Sizing Tennessee. The opposition at Chepstow was a grade easier, too, but the gallop took no prisoners.
Native River won this race two years earlier from a 4lbs higher mark, having already bagged the Ladbrokes Trophy – superior form – prior to finishing third in the 2017 Gold Cup. Elegant Escape finished 14 lengths behind Presenting Percy in last term’s RSA but the Gold Cup course and distance will suit him better. Nonetheless, he’ll need to find at least a stone of improvement by March.
Ruth Jefferson and owner Richard Collins thought they were exercising free will when sidestepping last season’s Cheltenham Festival but in fact the gods had already decided to cast their roles in a demonstration of futility.
Therefore, Waiting Patiently missed Aintree due to a setback, recovered slowly and – with the autumn ground unsuitably quick anyway – was predestined to make his seasonal debut in the King George VI Chase and be brought down at the ninth by the first fall in Bristol De Mai’s entire career.
Jockey Brian Hughes beat the turf with frustration after his mount, minding his own business at the back of the field, had his legs taken from underneath him, giving the partnership no chance of remaining intact.
Jefferson’s reaction was phlegmatic. “Not the plan,” she tweeted later that day, in response to racecourse photographer Michael Harris’s picture of the incident. The new plan is to head back to Ascot, scene of Waiting Patiently’s career-best triumph in a 2m5f Grade One last February, for the 2m1f Clarence House Chase.
That sets up a clash not only with 2017 Ryanair winner Un De Sceaux but perhaps also with Nicky Henderson’s triple Festival hero Altior – a prospect not lost on Jefferson. She fears Kempton’s Listed Chase in January, won by Waiting Patiently last term, will provide insufficiently soft ground for her charge, thus forcing her into a clash with at least one big gun.
“Kempton was just all right for him [on Boxing Day]. If it dried out, we wouldn’t go,” she told The Guardian. “Ascot isn’t far from Kempton but would probably hold the water a little bit better. But we’ve just got that rather large problem of Altior.
“I could do with Mr Henderson being very kind and leaving Altior at home. He’s leagues above at two miles, head and shoulders above everything else in that division.”
Jokingly, she added: “Can’t he go back to Newbury next, like he normally does?”
The latest answer appears to be no. And Mullins might not blink, either, given the balance of Un De Sceaux’s record suggests he’d stand a better (albeit probably still minimal) chance against Altior at Ascot and the yard has other fish to fry in domestic two-mile targets.
It was far too early to say whether Waiting Patiently would have played a significant role in the King George, on his first attempt at three miles, but what came to pass does mean the Gold Cup can probably be discounted as a potential target. If indeed, given Jefferson’s thinking on various counts last season, this horse goes anywhere near the Festival at all.
After his creditable but non-staying fourth in the King George, Politologue is not the horse that owner John Hales has been looking for to win his first Gold Cup. If he heads to Cheltenham at all (given the track doesn’t suit him in my book), it will surely now be for this race – for which he is 14/1 under ante-post terms with Sky Bet and 8/1 NRNB BOG with bet365 (who, as of last week, were offering these concessions on all five of the Festival’s championship races).
They have Altior as a precautionary evens favourite for the Ryanair and then a sea of Willie Mullins-trained possibilities: Min next in at 4/1, Un De Sceaux at 5/1, Footpad – following his latest defeat – and Kemboy both at 6/1. Waiting Patiently is also 6/1. In short, the front of this market consists of smoke and mirrors.
The problem – as ever with this Plan B Event – is finding a viable alternative with a good chance of actually lining up. My wild design on an aggressively ridden Might Bite switching to the Ryanair, for example, is likely to prove academic for as long as the 2017 King George winner continues as a ghost of his former self.
Yet the Savills Chase has kept the Gigginstown's massive potential perm for this race up in the air, with Ryanair titleholder Balko Des Flos and JLT heroine Shattered Love both underwhelming and course-and-distance winner (in the 2017 Stable Plate) Road To Respect again flaunting his pace in an unlucky third.
This is where I’d run Road To Respect and he's 5/1 NRNB BOG with bet365, if you’re interested. Are they, though?
Prior to Christmas there were also a couple of performances to note at Ascot with this target in mind. First, Top Notch – who was fancied for last year’s Ryanair until disappointing behind Waiting Patiently in the Ascot Chase and then missing the Festival – made his return to action over hurdles.
While his third to Paisley Park was not comparable with his best form over timber from three seasons ago, it was an entirely creditable start and suggested he’s lost none of his admirable application. He must still prove his ability for the highest grade, however, and with the Stayers’ Hurdle currently looking thin, he might also be entered there.
Earlier that same day, the mercurial Hell’s Kitchen was in butter-wouldn’t-melt mood when winning a 2m3f handicap chase quite readily from a mark of 143. Having typically travelled like an angry bull throughout, he jumped into the lead at the tenth and was then always going to hold on despite abruptly coming to the end of his tether from approaching the last.
This was one of the big horse’s superior rounds of jumping and, on paper, makes him worthy of academic mention for the Ryanair were he to keep improving. He’s an unfettered talent on his day but his inherent lack of professionalism and consistency has always held him back from realising his full potential. I can’t see that changing.
Finally, Mullins reported in one of his Christmas columns for the Racing Post that he’s waiting for soft ground to launch Al Boum Photo’s season. That may finally happen – up against stablemates Invitation Only and Total Recall – in the Listed Savills Chase at Tramore on January 1.
Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase
The best horse in training keeps on underlining that point. Yes, as the 1/8 favourite Altior was entitled to win the Grade Two Desert Orchid Chase readily but the manner of his success – merely shaken up to triumph by 19 lengths, conceding weight all round – was utterly flawless.
Special Tiara good-naturedly played patsy by embarking at an honest pace – he knows no other way – and that set up the race ideally for the unbeaten champion. Jumping efficiently, Altior moved into contention exiting the back straight, led at the third last and pulled happily further clear after each subsequent fence.
This was a thoroughly convincing performance just three weeks after he accounted for superior opposition, headed by Un De Sceaux, in testing conditions in the Tingle Creek. Clearly that encounter had left no mark and, in stark contrast to last year, Altior is very much on schedule.
“Last season Altior was still in bed with a sore throat at this time,” remarked trainer Nicky Henderson. “Now he is fit and we are doing things a different way around. The idea was to come here quite quickly after the Tingle Creek and, all being well again, quite quickly to the Clarence House at Ascot and then freshen him up for Cheltenham, with no need for the Game Spirit this season.”
That’s bad news for Willie Mullins, who might have hoped he’d get a clear shot at Ascot’s 2m1f Grade One in January with Un De Sceaux, last year’s winner. It does, however, open up the less orthodox possibility of that horse – or one of his stable companions – running in Newbury’s Grade Two in February in Altior’s absence.
Altior is now best priced at 1/2 for the Queen Mum (or 2/5 NRNB BOG) and it’s hard to argue with that. I suppose if he scares off even more of his potential opposition, he might have to deal with a crawl but he’s managed in such circumstances before. As things stand, he is peerless. (It’s always a race, mind, not a coronation.)
Even though the more adroitly ridden (because he could be) Diego Du Charmil shouldered Special Tiara out of second, this was a much more heartening effort from the 2017 Champion Chase winner than his despondent debut in the Hilly Way.
Better ground will have helped but going right-handed is never ideal for Special Tiara; and lo, he jumped left but not as wildly as has been the case at Kempton. It’s not cheer enough for the big one in March, however.
The runner-up was only receiving 3lbs (to the others’ 5lbs) from the winner and improved on a disappointing seasonal debut in the Haldon Gold Cup. Speed-favouring tracks such as Kempton show Diego Du Charmil to best effect but it’s still a long way off Champion Chase class. A good 19 lengths off it.
Committed front-runners Speredek and Diakali couldn’t get anywhere near the lead with Special Tiara in town and neither did they try; both underperformed.
Meanwhile, over in Ireland the supposed young gun of this division again fluffed his lines, leaving it to a veteran actor to receive a standing ovation. Simply Ned was winning the Leopardstown Grade One Paddy Power 2m1f Chase for the second year running – this time, at the age of 11, without the intervention of the stewards.
Afterwards, Mullins was inclined to blame the setback caused by Footpad’s seasonal debut fall (when already beaten) behind Saint Calvados at Naas for this half-length defeat here.
Having jumped better than on that occasion – more like the best we saw of his technique last season – Footpad appeared to have the race sewn up as Ruby Walsh eased him into the lead at the last, but he was reeled in near the line.
“Ruby thought he blew up and it could be that the little hold-up he had after suffering an over-reach at Naas meant he wasn’t quite as fit as we thought,” Mullins said.
It’s entirely credible that Footpad will come on appreciably in fitness terms for this outing but he still has a good 10lbs to find with Altior on their respective best form – and the champion is currently performing much nearer to that personal best than this horse.
There remains the possibility that Footpad – described by more than one member of the Closutton team as a “future Gold Cup horse” – could move up in trip for the Ryanair. Counting against that would be Walsh’s likely disaffection with having to face Altior in the Champion Chase on Min, a horse twice vanquished by that rival, rather than the comparatively unknown quantity of Footpad.
You can get 7/1 NRNB BOG with bet365 about either of them. One of them is likely to be Altior’s main opposition.
Simply Ned – a bang two-miler – downed Footpad with a spirited and well-judged charge from jockey Mark Walsh. He’s ridden this horse on all three occasions he’s lined up at Leopardstown and has clearly honed his tactics to the inch. This horse must be delivered with a single late challenge, well-suited to this track but less so to Cheltenham.
For a highly consistent performer at graded level, the senior citizen’s starting-price of 16/1 was somewhat insulting – only last time out, he’d made young Sceau Royal work for his Shloer success. Perhaps the market took that horse’s Tingle Creek defeat too literally?
"He ran a grand race at Cheltenham but now that he's getting on in age, he takes a bit more getting fit than before. We thought that just put him bang on for today," observed his proud trainer Nicky Richards.
"Coming down over the third-last, [Mark Walsh] was full of horse and they all had a chance down over it, so they probably didn't go as hard as everybody thought they would. [Simply Ned] loves a good fast pace but anyway he finished it out well. I'd say he'll come back here in February if he's in grand fettle."
That potentially sets up a re-match with a fitter Footpad in the Grade Two Dublin Chase over the same course and distance, much as it did between Simply Ned and Min last season.
Min went too hard from the front in this race last year and then wandered across Simply Ned’s inside late challenge sufficiently to merit disqualification. Having been deposed, he subsequently got the fast-paced lead he needs and reversed the form in emphatic style in February. It will be interesting see whom Mullins places where this time.
The solid but unexceptional Ordinary World finished a comfortably held third at Leopardstown; he has recorded most of his better efforts at this track.
Meanwhile, Castlegrace Paddy ran respectably on his first spin in open Grade One company without suggesting he is quite yet up to this grade. Softer ground would have helped, however.
As stated previously, Great Field has a cog missing and it’s looking ever more likely he won’t be able to cut it at the top table. He didn’t hare off untrammelled in front this time but did plunge to the ground the moment he had to jump under pressure. He’s now fallen on both starts this season. This flake is a danger to himself.
The one throw-out performance from this race, to be ignored in future calculations, was that of Ballyoisin. He lined up after racking up a sequence of four wins, three of them over fences, and was also trying open Grade One company for the first time.
Nothing really went to plan. He fought for his head early and then started jumping left; rider Barry Geraghty reacted by organising him into every fence but they had at least one miscommunication, when Ballyoisin snuck in an extra stride.
Then he slipped and lost his footing after three out and recovered only for his jockey to lose his balance after two out. Whether this was due to some tack failure or something else, I can’t tell – nothing was reported to the clerk of the scales – but Geraghty pretty much drew stumps from that point onwards.
I can’t judge whether Ballyoisin would have played a part in the finish but this literal form is no reflection of his actual merit.
Finally, it was interesting to see Petit Mouchoir – runner-up on his best form to Footpad in the Irish Arkle and to Diego Du Charmil in the Maghull Novices’ Chase at Aintree – make his return over hurdles.
More patient tactics were being trialled, with Rachael Blackmore holding the grey up in last of the six runners for the Grade One Ryanair Hurdle won by Sharjah. In a steadily run race, he didn’t make any impact from his disadvantageous position and yet nor did it seem that he was expected to. Instead, it looked as though getting him to accept a more tractable run style was plan A, B and C.
Certainly, more variation was required after he and Saint Calvados cut each other’s throats in a mutually kamikaze approach to last term’s Arkle. From TV pictures, Petit Mouchoir also didn’t appear to get into his characteristic tizz at Leopardstown, as has often been the case – although eye-witnesses will have seen more than me.
Dynamite Dollars is a doer. Just as he’d downed previous Arkle favourite Lalor at Sandown earlier in the month, over Christmas at Kempton he did for Kalashnikov. You can still back him at longer odds than either of those rivals for that Festival Grade One, however.
We didn’t get to see exactly how Dynamite Dollars did it because the Grade Two Wayward Lad Novices’ Chase took place under a shroud of fog. Somewhere out there – at the seventh, we’re told – Maria’s Benefit unseated Ciaran Gethings as she was pressing for the lead and when the camera eventually picked up the two remaining principals, Kalashnikov was off the bridle.
Indeed whenever we sighted them, it seemed Dynamite Dollars was always going a stride too quickly for a determined runner-up on a speed-favouring track. He readily held him at bay until the dying strides, where Kalashnikov clawed back the deficit to just a length and a quarter. Yet the winner was even conceding 5lbs as a result of his previous Grade One Henry VIII Novices’ Chase victory.
As winning trainer Paul Nicholls put it, Dynamite Dollars “is obviously now a serious Arkle horse” – encouraging words for anyone who might have been worried that his trainer was campaigning him like a ‘now horse’ rather than strategically developing a class act.
He’s also a bang two-miler, removing any ambiguity about his likely Festival target. It must be the Arkle, on the tighter Old Course, and not the JLT, on the more galloping New Course. That alone makes 8/1 a fair price.
“When these young horses start improving and going forward, anything is possible,” said Nicholls. “He is progressing all the time and he jumps slick. He is going the right way.
“That was a mighty performance – particularly to do it at Kempton, as a stiffer track will suit him much better. The first time we ran him at Cheltenham, we should have made way more use of him. It's all a learning curve.”
It remains significant, however, that Dynamite Dollars was readily beaten by Lalor on that occasion and that horse will again pose a greater threat than Kalashnikov over two miles. Lalor’s win in November was impressive and his Sandown defeat probably excusable, with some positives (such as his jumping in adversity) to take out of it. His current best price of 7/1 for the Arkle is also fair.
Kalshnikov, however, would be better aimed at the JLT – and he’s a long-looking 14/1 at best for that 2m4f contest. He made at least one clear-cut error here, at a track and on ground that would not have suited him ideally – an experience in defeat that, like Lalor’s, should actually enable him to grow as a chaser.
“Kalashnikov has run very well and after the back of the last was his best half-furlong,” observed trainer Amy Murphy. “Jack [Quinlan, jockey] said he took a while to warm up today, which isn't like him, but the track was always going to be a bit sharp for him.
“With his big stride those galloping tracks will always suit him better, so I'm delighted with the way he has run. Last season he was beaten at Sandown but then won the Betfair Hurdle. He is one of those horses who can take the full season to get into top gear. He will get an entry in both the Arkle and the JLT. We'll keep all options open.”
In drying conditions, the ground on the third day (the first day of New Course usage at the Festival) traditionally tends to be a shade slower than days two or four, so the going shouldn’t be the deciding factor between those two targets – unless the ground is heavy, which would advantage him and perhaps tend Murphy towards the Arkle.
To round off the Wayward Lad, it was curious to see Gethings riding Maria’s Benefit patiently at Kempton, of all tracks. This mare’s fast-attacking style in full cry is a joy to watch and not letting her stride on was to neuter her main asset.
Over in Ireland, the Arkle pretensions of Mengli Khan took a far more serious blow when he was beaten in the Grade One Racing Post Novices’ Chase. He was all stalk and no pounce, not jumping fluently enough and then only finding the one pace from the last as Le Richebourg strode clear.
In a likely reverse scenario to Kalashnikov, Le Richebourg looks a far better animal dropped to the minimum trip. He had no trouble sitting behind the pace in a well-run affair and, but for a mistake at the third last from which he swiftly recovered, he jumped nimbly and accurately. His four-and-a-half-length success was also recorded in a fast time on the day at Leopardstown.
There’s a lot to like, including as clear an indication as you could hope to get with this team that the Arkle is the likeliest target. “The two-mile pace probably suits him better,” said trainer Joseph O’Brien, who also saddled runner-up Us And Them to a seeming career best.
That would lead you to think that fellow JP McManus-owned novice chaser Defi Du Seuil will now be targeted at the JLT – the right race for him and he’s 14/1 – while oft-clumsy Campeador remains in the running for the Arkle and perhaps the Grand Annual.
O’Brien indicated the Irish Arkle at the Dublin Racing Festival in February would be Le Richebourg’s next target. From a Cheltenham perspective, this horse was a no-impact 15th from a harsh-looking mark in last season’s County Hurdle but he’s already a much more complete package as a chaser.
Us And Them was partly responsible for the good pace, taken on at times for the lead by the Willie Mullins-trained favourite Voix Du Reve and frequently out-jumping him. The latter adjusted repeatedly to his right but the chance-ending incident came when he lost his back legs on landing at the third last. He rallied briefly afterwards but what hope he had was essentially gone.
Ruby Walsh had accompanied Getabird to Limerick, riding at that track rather than at Leopardstown on St Stephen’s Day for the first time in 22 years – which lends some insight on where his mount sits compared with Voix Du Reve in the Closutton pecking order. Even that wasn’t enough on the day, however.
It surely would have been, though, had Getabird not tanked into the last, got in too close, hit it halfway up and then lost his footing as his momentum took him to the other side. That handed the Matchbook Betting Exchange Novices’ Chase – Limerick’s first-ever Grade One – to Gigginstown’s Hardline.
As mentioned previously, the winner had shaped as though a step up in trip would suit when taking a Navan Grade Three in straightforward fashion, but he was surely the fortunate victor of a sedately-run affair here – even if winning rider Keith Donoghue claimed he’d have won it anyway.
Nonetheless, Hardline is more of an outside JLT candidate than Getabird is a Festival horse; the latter’s jumping suggested Limerick was not quite right-handed enough.
Despite the final-fence blemish, this was an improved performance from the runner-up, mind, and he will be a potent threat for Mullins in his inevitable end-of-season championship tussle with Gordon Elliott at Punchestown and Fairyhouse. But Cheltenham? Forget about it.
In third, free-going Riders Onthe Storm caught the eye for handicaps, even though he was admittedly well positioned, but fourth-placed Jetz again didn’t jump fluently enough.
Back at Leopardstown the following day, last year’s Supreme fourth Paloma Blue improved on his Navan debut – yet without entirely convincing – to win the 2m1f beginners’ chase for which the Mullins-trained Real Steel was sent off as favourite.
The latter horse was having his first start over fences and probably getting the worst of it against his taller rival, but was responding to pressure when asked at the last and plunging through it instead. That left Paloma Blue to carefully negotiate it alone, adjusting right as he had – sometimes markedly – throughout.
Winning trainer Henry de Bromhead put it frankly and perhaps hinted that some gentle headgear might hone this talent. “His jumping is still a bit dodgy but he's getting there,” he said. “I'm not sure making it was ideal but we had to on the day because he needs a good even gallop. He seemed to be looking around a lot.
“He's classy. He was doing a lot of looking around early on in the race as well and even when he hit the front, he was pricking his ears coming down to the last. He has schooled a lot better than he's shown on the racecourse.”
Moon Over Germany inherited the runner-up spot, six-and-a-half lengths behind his winning stablemate, on his second start back from a long absence. Once again, he shaped as though capable of a fair bit better than he showed. I’m thinking Grand Annual, although he’ll need to win something first to make the cut.
The next day at the same track, Gun Digger triumphed in a dramatic edition of the 2m5f beginners’ chase. The winner had probably just come to claim long-time leader Borderline Chatho when that horse clipped the top of the last and fell; meanwhile, Walsh had galvanised Bacardys from a lot further back to make his challenge at the same obstacle, only to fall independently.
The left-clear winner had previously chased home Chris’s Dream at Navan and is a sound-jumping, consistent soul bound for handicaps. Borderline Chatho, a lightly raced seven-year-old, was all set to deliver his best performance yet on chase debut, but his fall was a fatal one. Condolences to all connected with him.
Bacardys was probably coming to win, having been nursed round off the pace and jumping defectively, when throwing himself to the ground at the last. This is the second season in a row that Team Mullins has tried to make a chaser of this undeniably talented horse and the signs are he’s not one. Indeed, his overall profile is getting a bit rickety.
Tower Bridge, winner of a Grade One novices’ hurdle at this track last season, finished in a distant third and he doesn’t convince as a chaser, either. That said, his level of form is currently so woeful that fences might not be the primary issue.
Bidding for the RSA Chase has very much heated up of late and yet pre-Christmas ante-post favourite Santini is still deemed to hold the nuts, thanks to what’s been interpreted as a temporary bad beat in the Kauto Star. Indeed, he could manage only third behind the lady and the camel at Kempton.
La Bague Au Roi was nimblest on the day, jumping swiftly in the vanguard from the outset and enjoying the nonstop emphasis on staying speed – not a contradiction but a winning conjunction – that this Grade One race (like the King George) can present.
Yet here, the mare was also aided by being in the right place in a contest that was not conducted at the searching gallop many had predicted. She also benefitted from the 7lb allowance for her gender, making her only third best strictly at the weights – but, of course, she’ll always have that joker up her sleeve in open company.
Her superior racing experience was surely also important on the day – she’s now raced twice as often under Rules than runner-up Topofthegame and three times more often than Santini. That streetwise knowledge stood her in good stead against her rawer key rivals.
Furthermore, trainer Warren Greatrex had mentioned previously, after the second of her chase wins at Newbury, that he believes a flat track serves her best. This latest as-yet apex performance, allied with the overwhelming balance of her form, only serves to underpin his argument.
“La Bague Au Roi has developed physically, she's a big tall mare and it's only now she's got her strength. She jumps, that's the key, she's so quick from one fence to another,” Greatrex said. “Dicky [Johnson, jockey] said most of the way around she felt like she was in second gear just hacking along.
“We've never been sure Cheltenham's her track as she's better on a flat track. We may look at the Leopardstown meeting.”
I take this to mean the Grade One Flogas Chase over 2m5f at the Dublin Racing Festival in February, won by Monalee last season, and that’s the ideal target for a mare with her weapons.
It’s a fact that, even though she was in there pitching when blundering at the last in the 2018 OLBG David Nicholson Mares’ Hurdle, both of her Festival efforts have ultimately weighed in about 9lbs below the best form she was capable during each of those seasons. Much better to target Leopardstown and then Aintree. Forget about the RSA (or JLT).
Certainly, both the Kauto Star second and third should be better suited than the mare by the demands of Cheltenham so it’s easy to see why supporters of Santini are not one jot deterred by analysis of this rallying defeat.
But it’s less obvious why Topofthegame remains four times his price with Paddy Power. I urge you to take some of that, if you haven’t already bagged the 16/1 advised by this column before Christmas.
If you were in any doubt that the camel is a slow learner, his Kauto Star second surely sealed it? I do recognise I’m being uncharacteristically tolerant about a horse of whose talent I’ve been convinced from an early age (his, not mine) – and I remain open to the possibility his palpable gaucheness might always limit the realisation of his full ability – but at least I’m getting a good price for it when he runs.
As I had hoped, unlike his crablike beginning to his penultimate outing at Exeter, there were no signs of bashfulness at the start at Kempton. He jumped off normally and then travelled more strongly than most of his rivals; three out, he moved narrowly to the front and victory beckoned.
But suddenly communications between him and rider Harry Cobden started to get confused, causing him to reach for that fence and immediately start to paddle against a battle-hardened mare on landing. He then compounded the problem with less-than-fluent jumps at the final two obstacles. He tried to rally in between but had no extra near the line.
This was only Topofthegame’s second attempt at three miles – a trip that often demands some acclimatisation – and his first at that trip over fences. This was a large step forward from his Exeter seasonal debut and it’s easy to envisage him making further progress.
The speed he’s demonstrated this season will be an asset on Cheltenham’s turning Old Course, the stage for the RSA. In fact, it did cross my mind that he might end up in the JLT but the body of his work and the steadfastness to his schedule of trainer Paul Nicholls convinces me that the longer trip is what’s required.
“I'm thrilled with Topofthegame,” Nicholls said. “He tanked into the race but he then idled and wasn't great at the final two fences. He'll keep going forward and it will be the Reynoldstown [over three miles at Ascot in February] next before Cheltenham.”
Santini will obviously be a fearsome opponent in the RSA, given he finished with running left in the Kauto Star after lacking the gears of his two main rivals in a relatively slowly run affair from a good way before the home turn. He then stayed on relentlessly in the straight to fail by a diminishing three-and-a-half lengths at the line.
That his jumping was so sound in adversity is an excellent sign and, as predicted in Road 3 of this series, it was hardly a surprise that Kempton didn’t suit this thorough stayer ideally. Ultimately, he might even find the greater stamina test of the 2020 Gold Cup (16/1 via Sky Bet’s RequestABet, by the way) on the galloping New Course far more up his street than the 2019 RSA. Nonetheless, he will clearly be a major player in the novices’ event.
Back in fourth, Red Indian acquitted himself creditably – he was partly able to better himself via holding a tactically advantageous prominent position whereas Bags Groove could produce none of the recent spark he’d shown when dominating lesser horses. He looked out of his depth here, albeit he wasn’t asked to try to lead.
Worse was The Worlds End, who backed right out of proceedings after making a mistake at the second fence. He appeared to have frightened himself because he was deliberate at the next three obstacles and was never a factor thereafter. It may be relevant that this was just the second time in his career that he’s raced right-handed. He was also held up, having looked happiest making the running last time.
If La Bague Au Roi does head to Leopardstown, she is likely to encounter RSA second favourite Delta Work, who won the Grade One Neville Hotels Novices’ Chase last Saturday – a race in which Gigginstown representatives outnumbered other owners collectively by a ratio of 5:2.
Last season’s mildly fortunate Pertemps winner took time to warm up his jumping, lacking fluency at the first two obstacles, but pretty much settled things with an injection of pace and a flyer of a leap when taking over on the lead three out. Delta Work then pulled a bit further clear for each reminder Davy Russell administered from after the last.
Such observations were further elucidated by trainer Gordon Elliott’s subsequent comments. “Davy said the ground was as quick as [Delta Work] would want it. He is very idle and that's why he wears a hood,” he said. “He's won well and the RSA Chase would look the obvious race for him. Before then he'll probably come back here for Flogas in February.”
I like a begrudgingly emphatic winner – as distinct from a begrudging one – and suspect Delta Work is a fair bit better than this literal form. However, as a mid-season test – unnerving though it is to make such an assertion, given the strength in depth of Irish-trained jumpers – this race appeared nowhere near as demanding as the Kauto Star.
That’s despite the runner-up Mortal, who was less well-positioned than the eight-length winner, clearly being a much better chaser than he was a hurdler. (Caveat: Le Richebourg had already franked Delta Work’s earlier form.)
At Ascot just before Christmas, Vinndication continued his serene progress with his second win over fences in the Grade Two Noel Novices’ Chase over 2m5f, bringing his career tally to an unbeaten six.
He reached for the first obstacle and nodded slightly at another late on but was otherwise impressive at his fences – either responding with a good leap when asked by rider David Bass or else intelligently efficient and measured, whether alone or upsides. Trainer Kim Bailey felt the initial mistake had only served to sharpen Vinndication’s concentration.
“He’s never going to be flashy,” Bailey said fondly of his rising star, who may head next to the Grade One Scilly Isles Chase over 2m4f at Sandown in February. However, the fact that race – like all those contested by Vinndication to date – is staged on a right-handed track is purely coincidental.
This straight-jumping horse would have run at Cheltenham the previous week had the rain arrived in time – for Bailey does believe he needs soft ground and says he’s prepared to sit out any faster stuff at the season’s end. He felt the same last term, when sore shins intervened to render academic any ideas the horse’s owners might have had about the Cheltenham Festival.
This time, the JLT or RSA Chase would be the dream and, while Bailey expressed no doubt that Vinndication would stay three miles when I spoke to him for Racing TV at Ascot, he implied that both entries would be made in the new year.
“I think he’ll get three miles without a blink, quite honestly” he said. “His style of racing will mean he’ll stay forever. He’s terribly laid back in everything he does… he’ll settle into a rhythm quite happily for three miles but I think he’s got enough speed to go a bit shorter, so I can sit on the fence for a little bit!”
In the case of Vinndication, these assets are self-evidently true. He is a palpably straightforward horse who does enough to get the job done with the minimum of fuss. Last season over hurdles, that included denying a certain Champ – of whom more next time – by a neck when conceding him 6lbs. Literal weights and measures continue to underestimate him. This horse is good.
I wouldn’t put anyone off backing him at 16/1 for the RSA – the better Festival target for him, in my opinion – with that price incorporating the unknown factor of a left-handed track. Given his trainer’s ground proviso, you might want to wait until NRNB rules extend to the novices’ events, however.
At Ascot Jerrysback chased Vinndication home with some purpose, having been more patiently ridden than the winner, until jockey Barry Geraghty accepted the struggle was unequal half a furlong out. Nonetheless, this was the best we’ve yet seen from the entertaining Bangor winner and, I’d guess, a fair bit better than the 148 of his official rating.
Going right-handed for the first time under Rules might have been a plus, though, given he had jumped out to his right when positioned on the outside of his field at left-handed Bangor and his jumping didn’t stand the test of Cheltenham (admittedly on his return from a long absence) on his chase debut. Something like the Irish Grand National might be interesting, though.
Lil Rockerfeller clambered into third but, once again, his manufactured chasing style just couldn’t cut it against superior technicians. Having been neither fluent nor (typically) smooth-travelling from an early stage, he simply didn’t get high enough at the tenth and plunged through the birch. That he tacked himself back onto the field – only to make a mistake at the 11th – is a tribute to his innate resilience.
Honestly, my heart is in my mouth every time he approaches a fence and I hope the chat washing around Ascot – that trainer Neil King will switch him back to hurdling – proves accurate. I couldn’t find a quote to confirm it, however. Certainly, any notion of asking Lil Rockerfeller to jump 25 fences in the hands of an amateur rider in the NH Chase would have me hiding behind the sofa. Please, no.
Unlike at Cheltenham previously (in a steadily-run race working out fairly well on paper but not to be taken literally), Count Meribel was unable to rally after another penultimate-flight error. This time, it finished off immediately his slender hold on contention. Prior to that, he’d been outjumped by the winner at almost every flight. This race seemed to expose his limitations – unless you buy the concept that he needs good ground.
Kildisart sidestepped the Noel in favour of the more valuable graduation chase the following day but may end up facing Vinndication on his next start. Had he not absolutely winged the last, Activial would surely have beaten him anyway.
Rider Daryl Jacob reported to trainer Ben Pauling that the winner had idled but it looked as though the runner-up’s habit of spending a shade more time in the air at his fences was the key point of difference.
Pauling also plans to target the Scilly Isles next, believing 2m4f to be the ideal trip currently for a horse he thinks will stay further in time; he also said Kildisart would “strip fitter again” for this run, which might key into Jacob’s comment about his finishing effort.
Beyond that, his form when racing right-handed is vastly superior to that recorded at left-handed tracks – the latter admittedly a very small sample. Nonetheless, the plan had been to run at the 2018 Festival had Kildisart made the cut for either the Coral Cup or Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle.
Non-novice Activial, who’s had three different trainers in the past four seasons, is now doing his best work for Tom George. In attempting to concede 11lbs to the winner at Ascot, it was a career best for a horse who makes greater appeal for the Ultima than win-shy stablemate Singlefarmpayment, the current ante-post favourite. The Scottish Grand National would be my preferred target, however.
While all this was going on, Next Destination has been binging on eggnog and Quality Street at Mullins’ yard. He still features as 10/1 third favourite for the RSA Chase despite not yet jumping a fence in public.
He was last sighted narrowly beating Delta Work in a Grade One Punchestown novices’ hurdle at the back end of last season, when the latter’s campaign had been longer and more arduous. With the new year dawning tomorrow, it’s going to be a late late show from him – if he makes it on-set at all.
Finally, I must mention Top Ville Ben, who won a three-mile novices’ chase at Wetherby with an object lesson in resolute galloping and adding to what was an excellent haul over the Christmas period for his talented trainer Phil Kirby.
“Top Ville Ben has always had plenty of ability but he's a bit more settled now. You can almost drop him in now whereas he was a bit one-dimensional before. He got a bit lax with hurdles but he has a look at fences,” he said.
Kirby had stipulated that Top Ville Ben would need to win what had looked to be a competitive enough event in order to earn a step up in grade. Given a 46-length thumping of Red Rising – who was struggling sooner than most – probably qualifies, the next stop will be the Grade Two Towton Chase in January over the same course and distance. After that, he could be a NH Chase type, if the Festival appeals.
- Recommended 28/11/18: Balko Des Flos e/w 40/1 [Sky Bet/Bet365] Gold Cup
- Recommended 29/11/18: Summerville Boy e/w 12/1 [various] Champion Hurdle [likely non-runner – injured]
- Recommended 20/12/18: Shattered Love e/w 25/1 [various] Magners Gold Cup
- Recommended 20/12/18: Topofthegame e/w 16/1 [Ladbrokes/Coral/Hills] RSA Chase
- Click here for 'Road To Cheltenham' archive