Lydia Hislop's Road to Cheltenham with a look at the hurdlers who starred over Christmas

Buveur D'Air's defeat features in the latest Road to Cheltenham

Lydia Hislop reflects on the work of the hurdlers over a busy festive period in the latest instalment of the Road to Cheltenham.

Here’s the second of the Christmas wrap editions of the Road to Cheltenham, focusing on the hurdles action from that frantic period. As the accompaniment to the chasing edition published earlier this week, it addresses results up to and including Saturday December 29 with the addition of an initial take on Laurina’s victory at Sandown.

Subsequent racing, up to and including this weekend’s fixtures, will be addressed in this coming week’s update and structured in the more usual way.

Apologies for the late-running of this column. There have been some, shall we say, frustrating obstacles placed in the way of analysing Ireland’s Christmas fare. You may have encountered them, too…

Unibet Champion Hurdle

Just as the halls were being decked at The Lambourn Centre to celebrate Buveur D’Air as the sixth triple winner of the Champion Hurdle, he goes and gets beaten in an actual horse race. And by his stable companion, who’s reputedly going to duck the Cheltenham Festival in favour of the All-Weather Championships at Lingfield!

Don’t knock it – this may be the future of all of our lives if arguments in favour of perception, rather than evidence, continue to shape future policy for this sport. The road to hell is paved with good intentions and all that. But I digress…

At least the finish was entertaining. Verdana Blue was blissfully unaware of the faux pas she was making in the Christmas Hurdle when responding so positively to both of Nico de Boinville’s sparing reminders after the last and then deciding to finish the job narrowly herself for mere hands and heels.

It wasn’t as if Buveur D’Air was idling, either. Taking the winning margin literally, you might argue his blunder at the third last cost him – when you hurdle as low and fast as him, you always risk making the odd major error – but that underestimates what the mare was capable of on this day, aided by her 7lb allowance.

Although trainer Nicky Henderson might have fleetingly regretted shooting down his own with friendly fire, it’s not as if he’s been hiding this mare’s light under a bushel. He’s long deemed her Champion Hurdle quality, only withdrawing her on the morning of last season’s event on account of the heavy ground.

The Festival’s likely underfoot conditions have even inspired a winter Flat campaign, which began with winning a Chelmsford novice in September and went up several gears when running the smart Spark Plug to just over a length in a Kempton all-weather Listed event last month.

Winning the AW Championships Marathon carries a very similar pot to finishing second in the Champion Hurdle – the info pack suggests Lingfield’s prize fund for that race is £150,000 rather than £200,000 as widely reported. But now their mare has floored the Cheltenham titleholder once, surely owners Crimbourne Stud will at least seriously entertain taking him on again?

"Unless they promised to give us good-to-firm, it would be a waste of time going for the Champion Hurdle," Henderson said afterwards, over-stating the nub of his case for emphasis.

Under the industry’s 2006 welfare directives, Cheltenham is obliged to "ensure that the Festival begins on ground slower than Good" and even if the actuality has sometimes been a touch faster than the official description, fast ground is a no-no. This directive has only been reinforced by the BHA’s report into the fatalities at last year’s Festival.

Yet Kempton’s Boxing Day ground was accurately described as good-to-soft, so clearly there is some flex in what connections are prepared to contemplate for Verdana Blue. Her 7lb gender allowance – as Annie Power and Apple’s Jade have underlined with greater authority before her – is a potent weapon for a high-class mare in graded company. She’s best priced at 12/1, or 8/1 NRNB BOG with bet365.

Notwithstanding her reputation within Henderson’s Seven Barrows yard, Verdana Blue’s victory combined with Samcro’s whimpering defeat in Ireland three days later – of which more in a moment – requires us to reflect on whether Buveur D’Air’s Fighting Fifth success has been overestimated.

At the time, I wrote: "Some analysts have even argued that Buveur D’Air’s success is a career high and I can’t entirely dismiss this, albeit the race was a steadily run affair in which at least one key rival was clearly below his best."

Insofar as judging the Fighting Fifth victory a career best, I think the evidence of the Christmas Hurdle further tempers that likelihood. Yet sectional comparisons with Newcastle’s other two hurdle events that day still indicate that Buveur D’Air was, at a minimum, not far below his apex form. It was certainly much better than Kempton.

Yet jockey Barry Geraghty averred to Henderson that "the horse ran his race" here. True, if "his race" is the mildly vulnerable form Buveur D’Air was in last season rather than the more imperious heights he hit in the latter half of the 2016/17 season and which Newcastle suggested, post wind-operation, he might reach again.

Of course, Kempton was always going to suit a nippy type like Verdana Blue much more than Buveur D’Air, who’s a strong stayer at two miles. Stiff Newcastle and 2m4f at Aintree, for example, are right up his street, as was the 2017 Champion Hurdle when a substantial rival in Petit Mouchoir set the race up ideally for him when making the running at a strong pace.

The moral of this story is that owner JP McManus needs to run a relevant pacemaker in March to ensure another strong pace because otherwise Buveur D’Air is rendered vulnerable. "Relevant" means several steps up on Charli Parcs, present to keep Faugheen honest last year and then ignored by the field when his job was done.

Yet whichever way you unpick it, the Christmas Hurdle looked like good news for Willie Mullins. It again suggested he might just need a neck’s improvement from 2018 Champion Hurdle runner-up Melon rather than finding a whole new horse. Such calculations would have lasted until the weekend, when Melon flopped in the Ryanair Hurdle and his trainer found a whole new horse.

To be fair, Sharjah has been hiding in plain sight. Mullins really rated him as a novice but testing ground perhaps tipped the balance against him all last season; it also may have taken him time to get over falling at the final flight when (to my eye) coming to win Leopardstown’s Future Champions Novices’ Hurdle last December.

This season, he’s been busy and (if we ignore two underwhelming Flat starts) making steady gains since July, culminating in an uncelebrated defeat of stablemate Faugheen in the Morgiana Hurdle.

On that day, Mullins played a part in deflecting attention from the winner by suggesting Ruby Walsh had been beguiled into going too fast on the former Champion Hurdler and had set it up for Paul Townend to pick up the pieces on Sharjah. This column was #teamwalsh on that subject, even if the accused himself drew on hitherto unexplored reserves of tact to ultimately agree with Mullins’ analysis.

Now it seems both men have completely changed their position, Statler and Waldorf style, because Mullins was declaring in the aftermath of this race that "people were maybe surprised that he beat Faugheen in the Morgiana but when you went back and looked at that form, it gave him a chance". Quite so.

While the Morgiana was a well-run race, the Ryanair Hurdle wasn’t but it made no difference to Sharjah. He watched proceedings from towards the rear, travelling strongly under Patrick Mullins, and then rounded the still-bunched field to lead approaching the final flight. He then responded positively to each reminder he received, bounding further clear.

All this suggests Sharjah is coming of age as a hurdler and is versatile in terms of pace, yet can show more of what he’s capable of when granted a strong one. Soft ground would be a negative, however. On his best form, he has little to find on Buveur D’Air’s Christmas Hurdle effort and his profile suggests he’s still improving whereas the titleholder has, at best, plateaued.

Sharjah must be taken seriously. More seriously than 10/1 admits. His tepid reception in the ante-post market is probably attributable to the usual his-other-car-is-a-Porsche scenario that backing a Mullins-trained horse presents. At the start of the season, it was all Melon and Laurina (of whom more later), so who’s this upstart? But I like horses who muscle their way forward by dint of actually racing rather than being yakked about.

Melon had "come back a lot stronger" this season according to Mullins but that didn’t stop him blundering around Leopardstown over Christmas. He made a mistake at the fourth and second last, landing flat-footed at exactly the wrong time in the latter case, then rallied into a quickening pace before being hampered and shuffled back by horses going better than him in the straight. He then stayed on again belatedly, under sympathetic handling.

All in all, it was a flat effort in a race that wasn’t run to suit. But we saw in last year’s Champion Hurdle what Melon can do granted a good pace so I won’t be writing him off on the basis of this muted seasonal debut, especially after he missed his earlier intended start due to failing to please his trainer with his homework. That said, it might also be that Sharjah has improved past him – or can do.

Both are likely to be entered in the Irish Champion Hurdle (along with Laurina) back at Leopardstown next month but Melon is presumably the likeliest starter, with Sharjah perhaps being given a break prior to Cheltenham in recognition of the early start to his current campaign and the race perhaps coming too soon for the mare according to Mullins.

Yes, after many a false dawn the Closutton Goldilocks actually showed up in the Unibet Mares’ Listed Hurdle on Saturday – Sandown’s soft ground deemed to be just right. I’ll address in more detail what she did in that riveting match in this space next week.

But in the meantime, a wide-margin Trull House Stud Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle success and the advantage of her 7lb mare’s allowance are the best arguments for Laurina. Apparently, that justifies her being 9/2 second favourite – trimmed half a point for beating a horse 18lbs inferior in a match! Cuckoo! – or even 7/2 if you’re going NRNB.

Laurina's Sandown performance, such as it was, will be analysed in full in the next edition

No, thanks. That price assumes she’s definitely already found the improvement needed, that she knows how to battle against horses of comparable ability rather than trounce inferiors and – contrary to the Three Bears’ evidence and that of her pounding knees – that she doesn’t need properly testing ground to be at her best. If it’s good-to-soft at the Festival (as it usually is), surely she’ll be heading for the OLBG David Nicholson Mares’ Hurdle over 2m4f instead?

Aside over: the Ryanair Hurdle was also, of course, notable for the nailing of Brian. The messiah was sent off the 6/4 favourite and it looked as though he’d risen again when moving into contention approaching the second last and jumping it best of the three leaders, going well. But then Samcro sought to hang left when asked to pass front-running Tombstone before the last and immediately found nil, fading to finish an ignominious fifth.

"Ah there’s something wrong with him – sure, he can’t beat Tombstone, for God’s sake," was the frank reaction of Michael O’Leary immediately afterwards. "He didn’t battle. No bottle, no battle. Unless we can find something, he won’t run again this year and we’d put him away until next season and go chasing with him."

His brother Eddie, Gigginstown’s racing manager, confirmed that position a few days later. Although Samcro had reportedly shown no ill effects from last Saturday’s race on returning to trainer Gordon Elliott’s yard, he will be tested to rigorously to try to uncover the problem that’s surely ailing him.

"We’re going to give him a couple of days and then he’ll go to the vets for a full MOT," Eddie O’Leary told the Racing Post. "I’d say this year will pass us by unfortunately. We just need to try and get him right.

"We’ll probably give him a gallop with a scope on him and do a few other things. We’ll leave that to the vets, that’s their job. Touch wood, he seems fine this morning.

"The Samcro of this year compared to the Samcro of last year is a vastly different animal. We’ll go through him with a fine-tooth comb but nothing will show up for a week or more because you can’t rush these things."

While the lessons of Binocular and Kicking King tell us a non-runner ain’t definitively a non-runner until flag-fall, we must remove Samcro from all calculations. The same applies to Summerville Boy who, it turns out, did indeed have something fundamentally wrong with him, just as I feared. Turns out he’s been carrying a hairline fracture to his off-hind femur. No wonder he couldn’t run and jump.

The issue was uncovered when trainer Tom George sent his 2018 Supreme winner to Newmarket’s equine hospital after two disappointing runs this season, in the Fighting Fifth and International Hurdles.

"It’s a bit of a mystery how he picked it up but fortunately it seems the healing process is well under way," said George, who plans to send Summerville Boy for further tests before indicating when he might return to action.

"It's a testament to the horse's toughness as he has not taken a lame step in life, but he has not been anywhere near his best in two runs at Newcastle and Cheltenham," he said. "It is too early to say too much else. We will know a lot more when he has undergone more scans and x-rays in a month to six weeks' time."

Summerville Boy

Among those still standing, we must address the remaining horses in this division who ran over the Christmas period.

Supasundae was relatively well positioned in the Ryanair Hurdle but, as a horse who’s effective up to three miles, a crawl-then-sprint was never going to suit him – and he compounded the problem with one of his sloppy jumps at exactly the wrong time, when Samcro and Tombstone were either side of him two out.

Having been unbalanced on landing, he lost his position and then got boxed in the crowd chasing Sharjah in the straight. Without those issues, he would have finished a closer second.

Trainer Jessica Harrington opted to run him here rather than in Leopardstown’s Christmas Hurdle over three miles, which may or may not indicate that the Champion Hurdle is his Festival target rather than the Stayers’ Hurdle. In the short term, the aim will surely be the Irish Champion Hurdle, which he won last year.

There must be an outside possibility that Petit Mouchoir – who, as mentioned, made the running in the 2017 Champion Hurdle and finished a very good third – could remain hurdling rather than revert to chasing. He is yet to match his best hurdling form over fences.

Admittedly he was ridden daftly in the 2018 Arkle, self-defeatingly taking on Saint Calvados for the lead from an early stage; there was a stark contrast in the tactics adopted in the steadily-run Ryanair Hurdle when held up in a disinterested last throughout. This term’s Champion Hurdle pool is quite shallow and Gigginstown might be minded to plunder it, as they did with Identity Thief last season, and especially if this grey responds to a more versatile way of racing.

In Kempton’s Christmas Hurdle, both If The Cap Fits and Global Citizen were exposed as lacking in this division. The former doesn’t have the pace and the latter the ability to take a seat at the top two-mile table.

A sharp track like Kempton should have suited Global Citizen but he didn’t jump well enough to pull off his trademark aggressive tactics at this level.

It would have been worth discussing whether If The Cap Fits is a potential Stayers’ Hurdle candidate but owners Paul and Clare Rooney have instructed their trainers not to enter their horses at Cheltenham for the foreseeable future due to concerns about safety at that track.

That’s absolutely their prerogative, of course, but it’s unfortunate – and surely inevitable – it did not remain a private matter because it’s generated a great deal of negative publicity, both for that racecourse and the sport of racing, at a highly sensitive time.

It would be helpful if all interested parties – the Rooneys, Cheltenham and the British Horseracing Authority – could get together to discuss those concerns and share some robust data on the subject. But to repeat: they pay the bills, they make the decisions.

Espoir D’Allen has now won twice at Grade Three company this season, following up his Naas win in November with an eight-length success over Stormy Ireland at Limerick. He was unbeaten as a novice until finishing fourth, at odds-on, in the Tattersalls Ireland Spring Juvenile Hurdle where Farclas, who’s made a muted seasonal debut and got no further than the third with a crunching fall here (in doing so, injuring Jamie Codd), was second to Mr Adjudicator.

Front-running Stormy Ireland hit the deck at the final flight in the subsequent Triumph Hurdle, won by Farclas, having just been relegated to third, and jumping wasn’t as asset at Limerick. While she didn’t make any notable mistake, she frequently got in too close to her obstacles despite being able to dictate her own tempo. It was then too easy for Espoir D’Allen to outpace her as the field bypassed what would have been the second last to avoid the prone Codd.

This was a career best from the winner but he’ll need to continue this trajectory to make up into a Champion Hurdle contender and trainer Gavin Cromwell seemed to indicate that this would be the target next season, rather than more immediately.

And finally, Mohaayed has earned an entry in the Champion Hurdle after winning another valuable handicap for Team Skelton. This time Harry was on board rather than Bridget Andrews, who had registered her first Cheltenham Festival success with this horse last March. At Ascot on this occasion, Mohaayed was well positioned towards the fore of the gallop throughout and registered a career-best performance from a mark of 145. Clearly, more would be required.

Sun Bets Stayers’ Hurdle

It was hard to concentrate on Apple’s Jade winning her ninth Grade One and second successive Christmas Hurdle at Leopardstown when Faugheen had taken such a hideous fall at the second last.

Reaching for the obstacle a shade, he clipped the top and was catapulted head first into the turf, his momentum causing him to slither and scramble for some distance after first hitting the ground. There were cheers of relief from more people than just those gathered at the racecourse when it was announced he’d got to his feet.

Trainer Willie Mullins reported at the time: "He was just unlucky. He’d done everything right and I was pleased with the way he was running up to that point. Everything seemed to be going to plan. John Codd, who looks after him, says he is walking perfectly, so that’s good."

Apple's Jade clears the last

It’s impossible to judge what sort of challenge Faugheen might have posed to Gigginstown’s brilliant mare had he kept his feet. Certainly, he was the only one of her rivals that was placed in a competitive enough position to raise a bid.

He had jumped and raced entirely straightforwardly until that juncture, looking more comfortable at this three-mile trip as his rider Ruby Walsh had argued after his defeat by stablemate Sharjah over two miles previously. Walsh hadn’t asked Faugheen for his effort when he took his tumble.

Apple’s Jade was trying to stretch away at the time, having also travelled and jumped generously with an easy lead. She also found plenty between there and the line, finishing with plenty of running left, so equally it’s possible Faugheen might not have been able to make much of an impact.

The rest stood no chance. Conceding to the mare on both ratings and weight was not enough for the riders of all rivals (other than Walsh) in this contest; they opted to concede on tactical soundness, too. Bapaume made an effort to emerge from the pack and that, combined with a last-flight blunder, cost him second to late-closing Early Doors. But they were in a separate race.

In the same silks as the winner, Cracking Smart was having his first start for almost a year after being sidelined when ante-post favourite for the 2018 Albert Bartlett. Wearing the tongue-tie-and-cheekpieces combination he wore for his Grade One novices’ hurdle success at Naas last term, he walked across the line in last.

But his illustrious stablemate is surely better than ever this season, even if she has dominated two of her three races from the front (and again repeatedly adjusted right here). However, trainer Gordon Elliott continues to insist that Apple’s Jade will be targeted at the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle – although he did recognise that the Stayers’ Hurdle, rather than the Champion, was her only other feasible Festival option.

At Ascot just before Christmas, Paisley Park consolidated his reputation as an improving stayer, taking the Sam Spinner route to Long Walk Hurdle victory in the same race in which that rival disgraced himself.

Paisley Park had previously won the same Grade Three handicap hurdle at Haydock in which Sam Spinner had romped home last year. It had represented an improvement in form at three miles, which he’d hinted would be likely last season but failed to deliver in the Albert Bartlett.

Trainer Emma Lavelle – who, along with jockey Aidan Coleman, was enjoying her first Grade One success – put that Festival flop (a tailed-off 13th) down to him racing too keenly in a first-time visor. She also believes the horse was knocked sideways by a setback early in his career.

"Paisley Park has always had a lot of ability but he has just taken some time to come together," she said. "He was second in his bumper but he was then very sick and spent five weeks at the vets.

"We never really found out what was wrong with him and we were very worried we were never really going to get him back. Last season was just a case of him coming back and showing he had something. This season he has been a different animal."

Owner Andrew Gemmell was already counting down the days until the Stayers’ Hurdle in the Ascot winner’s enclosure. So, we have an improver who’s definitely running, in a shallow contest, going straight to the Festival and capable fresh – and currently priced at 12/1. Not at all unreasonable. The ability of titleholder Penhill (provided he doesn’t improve for a strongly run race) is within Paisley Park’s reach, although you would think the latter certainly wouldn’t want a crawl, like last year’s edition.

Trainer Colin Tizzard believes "going back over hurdles made all the difference" to West Approach, who finished a two-length runner-up in the Long Walk. The horse condemned to be known as Thistlecrack’s half-brother, and last seen when a remote fifth in the Ladbrokes Trophy, is now likely to keep to the smaller obstacles in the Cleeve at the end of this month and then the Stayers’ Hurdle.

That was the exact route he took two seasons ago, having unseated his rider in this race at the last when in the process of a then career-best before bettering it when third in Cheltenham’s January three-miler. This was his best effort since then. However, back in 2017 he was then pulled up at the Festival and also at Aintree, both occasions on a sounder surface. He’s plain not good enough for me.

Top Notch ran encouragingly on his seasonal debut, having probably not quite got home on his first attempt at the trip and first outing over hurdles since the start of last season. It would be no surprise if owners Simon Munir and Isaac Souede considered a back-up entry in this Festival event as well as for the Ryanair.

His trainer Nicky Henderson also concluded that favourite – and briefly the chief British-based hope for the Stayers’ Hurdle – Call Me Lord failed to stay on his first attempt at the trip, finishing only seventh, which limits the options yet further for a horse already perceived to need a right-handed track.

He was quite badly hampered by the out-of-the-blue fall of Unowhatimeanharry at the eighth and carried right approaching the second last in the straight, neither of which incidents would have helped, but it soon became apparent jockey Daryl Jacob was holding onto nothing.

There was some subsequent good news about Call Me Lord’s stablemate Soul Emotion from his trainer’s Twitter feed, given that horse collapsed after crossing the line and required urgent veterinary treatment. "He is perfectly sound and happy," Henderson tweeted. "Amazingly, they [the vets] think he suffered a bout of heatstroke! (On a cold December afternoon!)"

You can argue The Mighty Don brings the whole Long Walk form down and I think I would – not because he hasn’t improved this season but because he made so many errors and yet was beaten only seven-and-a-half lengths in fourth. He’s a strong stayer and his stamina kicked in late; he lacks the gears for Cheltenham.

It was a shock to see Unowhatimeanharry hit the deck for the first time in his long and distinguished career, just after he’d posted his best form in 12 months at Newbury. Hopefully, this won’t knock him back at all but this would have been one of his better chances of bagging a Grade One this season.

It also grieves me to see Sam Spinner, who exuded enthusiasm for hurdling last season, palpably not wishing to leave the ground at all. After his hesitant round of jumping at Newbury, I suggested something needed to change and trainer Jedd O’Keeffe reached for first-time cheekpieces here. However, the problem became far worse.

Despite being unchallenged for the lead, Sam Spinner slammed on the brakes approaching the first hurdle, making it awkward to negotiate. Jockey Joe Colliver reacted by chivying him into the second but his mount this time did a better job of trying to refuse and decanted him. The horse then ran loose, hurdling riderless on herd instinct until he could find a way out.

There must be something physically wrong because he ran as if it somehow pains him to jump. Let’s hope his trainer can find the problem and get him enjoying the athletic challenge of jumping once again.

To round up what now seems distant pre-Christmas Ascot action, it must be possible that 2017 Stayers’ Hurdle runner-up Lil Rockerfeller will revert to the smaller obstacles given the dearth of opposition in this division and his ineptitude for chasing, albeit he could only finish 13th in this Festival contest last year.

By contrast, Thistlecrack’s revivified second in the King George VI Chase will probably have ensured that he won’t even be entered.

OLBG David Nicholson Mares’ Hurdle

Even if I stick with my view that Apple’s Jade is less suited by Cheltenham than other tracks, it’s still going to require a brilliant performance to beat her at the Festival. She seems to have improved again, even if her sole credible rival departed at the second last in Leopardstown’s Christmas Hurdle and none of the remainder were able or placed to challenge.

It’s worth noting when considering her one-and-a-half-length defeat by Benie Des Dieux in the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle last year that trainer Gordon Elliot has learned from that setback and will be doing at least two things differently.

The first is a *crosses legs again* procedure to prevent her from coming into season and the second is not to leave it so long between drinks. Both responses are highly sensible, the latter being easier to assess for an observer: certainly, Apple’s Jade has not tended to give of her best form when fresh.

"I think I gave her too much time between her last run and Cheltenham last year," Elliott mused. "She likes running. We'll see how she is but I wouldn't mind coming back and running her here over two miles."

That would be for the Irish Champion Hurdle at the Dublin Racing Festival, in which she would probably encounter last year’s winner Supasundae, last term’s Champion Hurdle runner-up Melon and/or up-and-coming Sharjah. But Elliott again stressed that did not mean the Festival’s two-mile event was under any sort of consideration, despite Samcro’s demise from the Gigginstown calculations.

The Mares’ Hurdle titleholder is yet to make her reappearance but trainer Willie Mullins has issued a positive bulletin. Benie Des Dieux is merely being held back for suitable ground.

"I don't know what I'm going to do with her, just wait," Mullins admitted. "I'm happy enough that I've sound horses at home and when the rain comes, it comes. After the rain we had last year, I'm never going to give out about rain again!"

As mentioned earlier, there’s got to be a major chance that stablemate Laurina ends up here – certainly Sky Bet punters, availing themselves of the NRNB facility, think so because she’s 5/4 with that firm compared with 5/1 elsewhere.

Yet if she does run here, it might mean Cheltenham’s ground hasn’t come up soft enough for her to tackle the Champion Hurdle and therefore she’d be facing, at a disadvantage, an opponent as talented as Apple’s Jade without even having proved she has the appetite for such a battle.

Back at Leopardstown the following day and presented with an easier task than her Hatton’s Grace third to Apple’s Jade, 2017 Mares’ Hurdle third Limini – whom, like Benie Des Dieux, Mullins trains for owner Rich Ricci – flunked again.

She was the 8/11 favourite to win the Grade Three mares’ hurdle but lacked fluency in her jumping and was quickly beaten when making the last of her errors at the penultimate flight.

Ultimately, she finished six lengths behind her assertively-ridden stable companion Good Thyne Tara, who was also conceding 6lbs to that more vaunted stablemate and rated 9lbs lower than her. Instead, it was then-four-year-old Elimay, also trained by Mullins, who emerged from the pack as the chief danger and gamely tried to reel in the gutsy winner.

The winner is now nine years of age and still a novice. "It was a bit of a surprise that she could win a race like this giving weight to most of her rivals," admitted Mullins. "But, not for the first time, she gave everything. We'll keep her to staying novice races. She's been kept busy and the more she does, the more she improves."

Elimay is more interesting, given she was probably a shade too far out of her ground against a winner who made most of the running. Returning from an absence of more than a year on debut for her new yard, she was surely achieving more than she had previously in France and is open to further improvement. 25/1 might be a shade large.

Limini is now 16/1 for the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle and has earned every point of that drift. The evidence of her last two starts for me underline the point that she’s not as effective over 2m4f as over shorter but, in truth, she’s not currently shaping as though she’s still top class at any trip.

My immediate reaction was that I wouldn’t be surprised if she either retired to the paddocks or reverted to the Flat but her trainer has since reported that Ruby Walsh said "she wasn’t letting herself down on the ground". "We’re hoping that when she gets softer conditions, she will do better," Mullins said in his Racing Post column.

Salsaretta – another Mullins-trained mare to race in the Ricci silks – was a comfortable winner at Limerick on Boxing Day. She made her debut for the yard in last year’s Trull House Stud Dawn Run Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle, plugging on in sixth when falling at the last behind Laurina.

Walsh regards her as a stayer. "Salsaretta kept going well and the leader fell into a hole between the last two. She stays well," he said.

Back in Britain, Momella was rerouted from open Grade One company in the Long Walk Hurdle just before Christmas to instead tackle the decidedly easier task of handicap class and her own gender. Still, she failed to build on her vaguely promising pre-fall effort in the Long Distance Hurdle and pulled up, the beaten favourite, two out. She hadn’t jumped with any confidence.

Culture De Sivola won Kempton’s mares’ handicap hurdle with a best-yet success from a mark of 135 and heads next to a Grade Two event at Ascot. She shapes as a thorough stayer whereas fourth-placed Chilli Filli ran better than it seems, having failed to see out the three-mile trip.

Novice hurdlers

Kempton’s Boxing Day two-mile novice hurdle is usually a competitive affair and the line-up for the latest edition was no different, but the race itself was compromised to a degree by its lack of pace. Eventual runner-up Rouge Vif led the field unchallenged until two out and the order of play behind changed little, bar for Mister Fisher passing readily by.

The winner was well positioned, never far from the heels of the leader, plus he jumped well and travelled comfortably. Kempton had also been the scene of his debut bumper success prior to him flopping behind (notably, at this stage) Portrush Ted, Kateson and Al Dancer in Aintree’s Grade Two bumper and then being outbattled on his seasonal debut over hurdles by the far more experienced Ecu De La Noverie at Newbury.

Mister Fisher therefore had shaped, at best, like a slow learner and so this was a significant step forward in his education. Trainer Nicky Henderson said he would find another race for him at the end of this month.

It’s far too early in the horse’s development to hold any set theories but worth provisionally bearing in mind that Mister Fisher has only been asked to race on flat tracks, has better form right-handed and has underperformed on testing ground. He does look a bang two-miler, however.

Rouge Vif lined up having been rated 140 by handicapper David Dickinson for his ten-length success in a first-time hood at Southwell and, although he was advantaged by the controlling tactics adopted by Gavin Sheehan here, he’s clearly a talented and improving horse. He did adjust left at a number of his hurdles.

Third-placed Thomas Derby was unlikely to be suited by the speed test that Kempton’s sharp two miles presents, so racing keenly in mid-division behind a slow pace compounded these problems; corkscrewing the second-last also didn’t help. In that context, he ran with credit and again indicated his proud head carriage does not betray a lack of gumption. A step up in trip is needed.

However, his narrow Ascot conqueror – on 3lbs worse terms for a head’s disparity here – Didtheyleaveuoutto ran flat, unable to make any sort of impact when asked. Trainer Nick Gifford had sidestepped the previous week’s Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Trial (Kennel Gate) at Ascot – a race from which Thomas Derby was withdrawn on the day due to testing ground – because of an unclean scope, so perhaps there was a residual problem. The ground wasn’t soft enough to be used as an excuse if his connections want him to play with the big boys.

His lassitude meant The Big Bite, despite a number of early mistakes, was able to rally past him in the straight; that horse will do better stepped up in trip. Fly To Mars’ jumping was the least convincing of the field so, although Richard Johnson had placed him more advantageously by the third obstacle, he was unable to hold that position. He may prove more of a chaser.

Henderson had announced Mister Fisher as his likely Kempton representative after Angels Breath made his belated but successful Rules debut in the depleted Grade Two Kennel Gate. This formed part of a flurry of good winners in this division for the yard, starting with pre-Christmas stars Champ and Rathhill (the latter of whom will be analysed in the next edition, following his Tolworth defeat at the weekend.)

Angels Breath had ducked the Cheltenham contest won by Elixir De Nutz (whose profile will also be updated next time) due to overly quick ground and Henderson fleetingly had a bout of the Laurinas when wondering whether Ascot’s ground was too testing. In the end, owners Dai Walters and Ronnie Bartlett convinced him to roll the dice and they scored a very taking success.

Granted, the contest was impoverished not only by those horses who didn’t participate but also by the absence of any hurdles in the straight. A strong headwind was catching those lighter, new-style obstacles and causing them to stand dangerously upright, making them a hazard to jump. That meant the number of jumps was halved, from eight to four.

At the start the field eyed each other for some seconds before Harry Cobden broke ranks and made the running on ultimate runner-up Danny Kirwan, thereby advantaging his mount positionally but giving him no opportunity of cover when racing into the teeth of the wind. Nico de Boinville was highly obliged to him, slipstreaming from the turn for home on Angels Breath until what would have been approaching the final flight.

His mount then settled it decisively, justifying the confidence his rider was exuding throughout, and displayed a good head carriage; the time was the best of the day.

Henderson was palpably impressed, giving me the sense Angels Breath was (at that point in time at least) considered to be at the top of Seven Barrows’ two-mile pecking order. He spoke of the horse’s "honest and straightforward" character and the "gear or two – or three" he’d demonstrated in winning.

"I have always thought he was special," Henderson added. "He looked very good in his Point and bringing him back to two miles might have looked strange but he is a two-miler and has always looked like that at home. There is a fair bit of improvement to come and even I thought he was impressive in that ground."

Both the rangy Danny Kirwan, who’d also flopped in Aintree’s Grade Two bumper last season, and third-placed Seddon, who was well backed here, shaped as though a more strongly run race or – perhaps better – a step up in trip is required. Both had also previously encountered tactical races – the former when beaten in a match at Kempton and the latter behind Elixir De Nutz at Cheltenham, when only five hurdles were jumped due to the low sun.

Soft ground is thought not to suit Danny Kirwan, in which case you might mark up this improved performance, and good-looking Seddon emerged with his reputation enhanced for me, having also displayed a determined head carriage when trying to bridge the gap to the leaders. Previous dual winner Thistle Do Nicely also merits mention, having done by far the best (in fourth) of those ridden towards the rear.

Henderson’s dominance continued at Newbury when Champ followed up his impressive handicap hurdle success at the Ladbrokes Winter Carnival from a mark of 139 with Grade One success over the same course and distance in the Challow Hurdle.

There was another silly we’ve-got-all-day-here start and that translated to a steadily run race, contributing to Champ’s characteristic keenness. Kateson led the stroll and, just as he distracted rider Tom Scudamore by shying right (perhaps from the starter’s flag), Paddy Brennan took a snap decision to shake Coolanly from his lethargy at the rear and purloined four free lengths.

But Coolanly had neither the essential pace nor the class to make use of this advantage. Although he tried to stay involved after being headed approaching two out and wandering, he was soon shaken off. He’s bred to prefer a greater test of stamina.

The mare Alsa Mix, a Grade Two winner in open novice company at Sandown last time, had been shaken off even earlier; she also jumped right a few times here and had shaped previously like a thorough stayer, so this crawl would not have suited. Keen Nestor Park raced wide, made a mistake in the back straight and was the first beaten.

The other four emerged with their reputations either intact or enhanced, pulling 12 lengths clear. Champ jumped smoothly, chucking in a super leap when going long three out, and was still on the bridle approaching the second-last when Geraghty was prepared to risk some traffic problems rather than press the button so soon. Coolanly’s weakening and wandering shuffled him back slightly but he recovered immediately to lead narrowly at the last.

After that, he drew further clear for the first three of Geraghty’s reminders with an authoritative demonstration of speed – albeit he also edged left, having threatened to hang that way earlier in the straight.

To my mind it posed a Festival dilemma, suggesting the Supreme – for which his trainer already has at least two prime candidates – rather than Ballymore. That said, the latter Festival contest can often perversely turn into more of a test of speed due to being run at a false pace; should that happen in March, this was an ideal dress rehearsal. Henderson certainly wasn’t bothered.

"I was impressed with Champ. I loved the turn of foot, especially as he pulled pretty hard all the way. A championship pace will help him settle," he said, prior to one of his trademark anthropomorphisms.

"It's funny because he's the most relaxed person you could have at home – you couldn't find a more relaxed horse. You'd have to say that's his trip and you can't see him coming back to two miles. He'll run before Cheltenham but what and where I don't know, although Cheltenham on Trials Day is a possibility."

Runner-up Getaway Trump was the revelation of the race, stepping up from wins at Plumpton and Exeter in some style. He travelled on the bridle longer than all bar the winner but reached a bit when coming under pressure at the last and was outpaced on landing, before knuckling down likeably to the line. He’s improving all the time.

I’m sure Kateson’s proud head carriage became higher once he got to the lead approaching the second last. To be clear, I’m not implying he didn’t try – clearly, he did – but it’s an unhelpful trait for photo-finishes. He might have finished closer bar for getting unbalanced on landing two out but it also looked like his stamina, at this stage in his development, was giving out near the line.

Fourth-placed Brewin’Upastorm had shadowed Champ into the straight and held onto the coat-tails of the leaders until unable to live with the pace of the first three approaching the last, but he stuck to the unequal battle with a great attitude. He was the least experienced of the principals and, though found wanting to the tune of four lengths this day, established himself as a horse of great promise for the future.

To round off Henderson’s festive haul, Champagne Platinum had also won the Introductory contest earlier on that same card and in the best time for the discipline that day. This improved performance was giving weight and a beating to an inferior and less experienced field, headed by hurdles debutant Percy’s Word, a 91-rated stayer from the Flat.

The grey travelled strongly and bounded clear when asked to pounce on the leaders from the last. In interview afterwards, rider Geraghty played his cards close to his chest – one of the key skills when retaining owner JP McManus published the job description – but described him as a "raw chasing type". Henderson, who’s now won this event eight times in the past 11 years, was taken by the turn of speed produced by his latest protege.

"Champagne Platinum is good and will be very good," he said. "They went a good gallop and he's gone away. I haven't been hard on him and we thought we'd keep it low, but there were some good Flat horses in there. Does he even want 2m4f? He learned a lot at Newcastle."

Champagne Platinum on his way to victory at Newbury

Not atypically, Willie Mullins seems to be almost as comfortable as Henderson in the two-mile division on the other side of the Irish Sea – even if you couldn’t ever call it dominant, with a certain Gordon Elliott around. However, Annamix – who holds the distinction of being autumn ante-post favourite for two successive Supremes – let him down in a Limerick maiden.

Rich Ricci’s grey was sent there for softer ground than he’d have encountered at Leopardstown and was having his first run for 830 days, having suffered from lameness prior to his intended debut for the yard last season. As a recruit from Guillaume Macaire and with a large reputation to his name, he was sent off the 4/6 favourite.

He always raced towards or at the fore and jumped fine, bar for a mistake the third, but he couldn’t shake off the strongly backed Press Conference, who’d been well held behind the runner-up’s stablemate Tornado Flyer at Punchestown on his hurdling debut.

Annamix looked like a galloper here – hardly Supreme material – but horses need to do plenty to gain stature at Mullins’ yard so it would be foolish to write him off in a broader sense. It could easily be that he very much needed the run after such an extremely long absence.

That same day, the pink-white-and-black silks of Press Conference’s owner, Robcour, were also triumphant in a Leopardstown maiden hurdle containing another disappointing Ricci-owned and Mullins-trained favourite.

Malinas Jack might have been a mildly fortunate winner, given he still had ground to make up on Diol Ker when that horse got in close and stumbled on landing, pecking badly, after the last. The latter rallied and wasn’t beaten that far in third. The winner had himself done well to recover from making a mistake and losing his position two out. Neither had prior hurdling experience

Ultimate runner-up Foxy Jacks was also an eye-catcher, however, having let the leaders get away from him approaching the home turn but then responding inexorably in the straight in a race dominated by those who held more prominent early positions. He was 20/1 but might have won with a different ride.

Sent off at 4/6, Elite Chaboniere was in trouble three out before responding to pressure fleetingly approaching the home turn but then fading again and being eased by Walsh. He hadn’t run in Ireland before and not at all for 313 days, when trained for bumpers in France by Patrice Quinton, so perhaps he needed the outing.

At least Aramon had upheld the Mullins’ stable honour with an authoritative victory in a good time in the Future Champions Novices’ Hurdle at Leopardstown the previous day. He’d previously been well held by stablemate Quick Grabim in a steadily run Royal Bond (having in turn beaten that horse previously) but, granted a strong pace in this Grade One, he was an entirely different horse.

The sweating Triplicate – who had twice previously beaten the winner – was sent off the 9/4 favourite and made the running in the second colours of McManus but he was swallowed up approaching the last, having seen off the earlier fleeting challenges of Gigginstown duo, Daly Tiger and Due Reward (the latter spent too much time in the air), when the pace had quickened.

At that stage, the Mullins-trained Sancta Simona was still going well in McManus’s first silks – although she had to be suddenly extricated from an imminent Gigginstown club sandwich against the rails as Tintangle came swinging round the outside in those owners’ maroon colours (plus blue distinguishing cap).

Walsh was content to watch these machinations develop ahead, deftly switching to the inside on the home turn and then slipstreaming Sancta Simona as that mare briefly led nearing the last. Aramon was in his element, however, and eased out to quickly take over at that flight where he got in close before storming clear on being asked by his rider, who was wearing the Supreme Horse Racing Club silks shared by Gold Cup hope Kemboy.

"I didn't honestly think on form he could win, I couldn't see how he could beat Triplicate," admitted Walsh afterwards. "You were riding him to run well and rob as much money as you can! It's great for the owners, a big team, and they get a great kick out of it. He jumped really well and they went a really good gallop, it suited him and he quickened really well from the back of the second last. He is getting better and it was a good performance."

Aramon is undoubtedly progressive and, although the two-mile pecking order appears somewhat jumbled so far in Ireland, there is no doubt this horse’s best chances lie in the Supreme. (Unless they fancy a swing at the County…)

Aramon comes in under Ruby Walsh

On the preceding day, Klassical Dream had made a winning debut for Mullins in a maiden of markedly mixed ability over the same course and distance. Hailing from France, he had more hurdling experience than many of his opponents – including when finishing only four-and-a-half lengths behind exciting chase prospect Master Dino (whose Plumpton novice-chase success for Macaire will be discussed next time).

Runner-up Entoucas, running for Joseph O’Brien in the McManus first silks, was only allowed to take part after rider Mark Walsh asked him to be vetted at the start; he again ran with promise.

In the following race, the Mullins-trained Defy De Mee couldn’t make it a quickfire double – having been in the van, he weakened after the second last and was eased markedly. But winner City Island, a maiden in name only after being retrospectively disqualified from first place at the Galway Festival for testing positive with traces of arsenic, is likely to be Ballymore-bound.

"His owner [property developer Sean Mulryan, although wife Bernadine is the horse’s registered owner] sponsors the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham and he could go there, depending on how things go in the next couple of months. He will probably go up in trip next time," said trainer Martin Brassil.

It would have been unfortunate had Dallas Des Pictons not rallied to finish second after getting boxed in behind third-placed Raya Time and the drifting winner approaching the last.

Eventual fourth Lucky Ranger grabbed the attention, though: held up in the rear of mid-division in a race dominated by the four at the front. A racecourse debutant, he reacted a shade confusedly when given a couple of reminders in the straight but had already long conceded the key tactical advantage.

Mullins was again in the winner’s enclosure after Leopardstown’s 2m4f maiden three days later when Castlebawn West narrowly beat The Big Dog, with beaten favourite Conti Flyer a good 11 lengths adrift in third. The last-named horse had previously finished six-and-a-half-lengths third behind Tornado Flyer at Punchestown.

The Big Dog’s form included a well-beaten fourth behind Derrinross in a Cork Grade Three and that horse followed up at a level higher at Limerick that same day, in a race in which Gigginstown outnumbered other individual owners by a ratio of 3:1.

This became a sore point for the Mullins-trained pair when entering the home turn in this steadily run affair: the mare Pleasure Dome got boxed in on the heels of the winner on the rail and favourite Dorrells Pierji ended up challenging almost five wide, with the Gigginstown trio next to each other on his inside.

To try to unpick this mess, the outpaced Cap York had tried to hold his position entering the bend and Pleasure Dome had moved up hopefully on his inside but Defi Bleu soon shut the door on both and held the mare in a pocket, one from which her rider Danny Mullins never exited in the whole two-flight straight. Had he managed to teleport her and challenge, she might well have at least finished second.

It’s hard to say whether the third Gigginstown representative, Monbeg Worldwide, and Dorrells Pierji were unsuited by how the race developed or didn’t stay on their first attempt at three miles; Cap York rallied past them both from the last for fourth.

None of this concerned Derrinross because the front was certainly the place to be. Jockey Luke Dempsey astutely controlled proceedings (although his mount didn’t jump as well as he can) and this was a good performance, conceding weight all round – even if the capers in behind, inspired by that lack of pace, helped. The winner is just the grizzled type to do well in an Albert Bartlett, although soft ground may be a necessity.

While in the realm of three-mile performances, Cuneo stepped up to that trip following his disappointing fifth behind Tornado Flyer at Punchestown and won a 23-runner Leopardstown handicap from a mark of 126 in a good time. It was a qualifier for the Pertemps Final, however, with all the jostling for long-term positions that implies.

Back in Britain, likeable Lord Yeats deserves a mention for his odds-on 16-length Boxing Day success at Sedgefield. A Listed winner over 12f on the Flat and deemed good enough to contest the Group Two Doncaster Cup on his final start, he’d previously finished second to well-beaten Kennel Gate seventh Encore Champs at Wetherby. Here, Lord Yeats’ jumping took some time to warm up, so he’ll need to brush up in that department.

Pre-Christmas Haydock Listed 2m3f mares’ novices’ hurdle winner Queenohearts shaped, on heavy ground, as though staying would be her forte more than the relative speed test of 2m1f at Cheltenham for the Trull House Stud Dawn Run.

Her jumping has been far from flawless to date, albeit her technique in the latter stages of this victory was compromised by jockey Ciaran Gethings’ saddle slipping. She had thrown in one or two impressive leaps early on, too.

It was similarly hard to say whether she was hanging left of her own accord, as on her Chepstow hurdling debut, or her latterly awkward gait was due to that tack failure. Either way, at level weights she was well on top of previous winner Danse Idol – who shaped as though she’d be better when returned to conditions playing to her speedier profile.

Winning trainer Stuart Edmonds was responsible for the exploits of Maria’s Benefit in this division last season – five wins on the bounce, culminating in a Doncaster Grade Two – and is alive to the possibility of plundering Ireland’s black-type mares’ events with Queenohearts, who was also good enough to win a Sandown Listed bumper in March.

Juvenile hurdlers

Quel Destin is one of life’s doers and he beat well-touted favourite Adjali in a ding-dong duel for the Grade One Finale Hurdle at Chepstow. Another thing the winner can do is hurdle swiftly and sharply. He’s improving with racing, which is convenient because he’s having a lot of it.

This was his seventh start this season as opposed to Adjali’s third but both juveniles benefit from a clutch of prior experience in their native France, for noted source trainers Guy Cherel and Guillaume Macaire respectively.

Sam Twiston-Davies nicked more than a couple of lengths at the start on Quel Destin and although Daryl Jacob quickly took closer order on Adjali, that partnership could never quite get past. A slight stumble on landing three out from the latter, while Quel Destin pinged it, didn’t help and Adjali was also mildly inconvenienced by the winner adjusting right at the last.

Quel Destin leads Adjali over the last

Neither horse fought shy of the battle, Adjali mounting a strong challenge from after the penultimate flight and never once giving in, despite one sensing he was always just going to get the worst of it. The time wasn’t spectacular, underpinning the sense that Twiston-Davies was constantly turning the screw at his own pace from the front.

"He's an amazing horse – he gallops, jumps well and just keeps going," said winning trainer Paul Nicholls. "He's improving, thrives on a battle and is hard and tough and that's the type you need to win a Triumph. If there's a bit of cut in the ground on the Friday of Cheltenham he'll go very well."

The going point is important because Quel Destin has quite a bit of knee; drying conditions at the Festival would be against him. Adjali also isn’t far off his standard and shares his positive mental attitude, so it’s not a given the winner will maintain superiority over Nicky Henderson’s charge.

This represents the best British juvenile form to date, whether or not you agree with the 7lbs improvement BHA handicapper David Dickinson deems Quel Destin to have found at Chepstow, based on his premise of Adjali’s incoming mark of 147 (earned via a very positive reading of his earlier Market Rasen success).

When the pair met at Compiegne for their previous trainers on their second spin over hurdles last April, Adjali had conceded 5lbs and beaten Quel Destin seven-and-a-half lengths into fourth.

Back in a 22-length third at Chepstow, French raider and Auteuil winner Arverne – already racing in the silks of JP McManus – sat in mid-division and got outpaced after the third last, as the pace began to quicken in earnest.

Other domestic juvenile form during this period includes Beat The Judge’s debut success at Kempton, although poor visibility made it hard to assess key moments of the race in any detail.

The winner was a 68-rated Flat maiden up to ten furlongs and beat the Henderson-trained Chaparral Prince, himself rated 76 on the level, by a length and a half in an ordinary time.

"I didn't expect Beat The Judge to win but I thought he would run well as he is a good jumper and came here very fit," observed winning trainer Gary Moore. "He is a horse we like but we'll take it one step at a time."

That backed up the sense this form was more Fred Winter than Triumph Hurdle. Back in fourth was Nebuchadnezzar, who was unexposed as a stayer on the Flat and wouldn’t have been at all suited to a speed test like Kempton.

Two days later at Doncaster, Via Delle Volte won the maiden hurdle for juvenile fillies on her debut over obstacles in an ordinary time; she stayed well on the Flat.

At Newbury that same day, Song For Someone made all with an excellent round of jumping to beat a field of hurdling debutants. It was the winner’s third go at the discipline but his first since being gelded and probably represented an improvement in form. He beat Praeceps, a thorough stayer on the Flat for Sir Mark Prescott and now trained by Alan King, by nine lengths.

"Song For Someone always ran from the front in France, but you don't see that horse at home unless you put an obstacle in front of him," enthused winning trainer Tom Symonds. "In the paddock he was half asleep and on the gallops he's okay, but that [when he can measure his obstacles] is when you see him at his best.

"I was keen to come here for the track. He's lovely, but still a big frame of a horse. He will fill out a lot and still smacks of a weaker horse. I don't think we'll go near Cheltenham unless it really presented itself, but we could go for a handicap or a novice without a penalty with James [Nixon, his 7lb-claiming rider] on again."

At Leopardstown earlier that week, some big guns were at last wheeled out on the Irish side of this argument – not, I suspect, in the Grade Two juvenile on St Stephen’s Day but rather when Sir Erec narrowly bettered Tiger Tap Tap in the large-field three-year-old maiden hurdle less than 24 hours later.

The time didn’t compare well with the older Aramon’s later Grade One success over the same course and distance, but they did crawl early on and the two principals – a neck between them at the line – came home eight lengths clear of the rest.

When it comes to receiving raw material from the Flat for this division, few trainers are better positioned than Joseph O’Brien. Sir Erec finished last year rated 109 on the Flat after just five starts for Aidan O’Brien, culminating in a two-and-a-half-length third to Stradivarius in the Group Two Long Distance Cup.

Sir Erec strikes at Leopardstown

The Willie Mullins-trained Tiger Tap Tap was also making his hurdling debut with the benefit of even less experience on the Flat, having raced just twice in France for trainer Henk Grewe and only up to ten furlongs in trip.

They raced alongside or near each other at Leopardstown, keeping out of trouble towards the fore on the outside, with the runner-up perhaps jumping a shade more tidily than the winner. Both can, and surely will, sharpen up in that department.

Sir Erec made his move first, following a novicey jump at the penultimate flight, but Tiger Tap Tap had worked his way upsides as they were both left in a share of the lead at the last. Try as he might – tigerishly, even – Ruby Walsh’s mount could never quite overhaul Barry Geraghty’s determined partner but both emerged with great credit.

I recall being impressed with the strong Sir Erec in the Ascot paddock last October and here it was obvious how he out-scaled the nippier Tiger Tap Tap as they raced alongside each other in the straight. The runner-up in particular is bred to stay well; the winner’s pedigree is that bit speedier and he might have been better equipped to deal with a tactically run race.

"He was obviously a decent horse on the Flat and he jumped well,” winning trainer O’Brien said of Sir Erec afterwards. "His jumping will come on a nice bit for that. I was a bit nervous before the race because there was a really strong word for the second. I'm delighted to see him do that and he was tough from the back of the last when he had to be.

"He'll probably come back here next for the Grade One at the Dublin Racing Festival as that makes sense. He stays well and he'll have to come on from that."

Returning to the Grade Two Knight Frank Juvenile Hurdle on St Stephen’s Day, Rocky Blue was a 14/1 surprise and, I think, slightly fortunate winner of a steadily run, rough and eventful race. In steering a wide course and particularly by challenging early in the straight, winning rider David Mullins ensured his mount an uninterrupted run.

The pair fluffed the last, seeming to dither and then stutter into it, but their main danger and likely conqueror Coeur Sublime not only took a heavy tumble at that obstacle but also hampered the ultimate second Chief Justice and caused a knock-on incident of interference that further affected the placings.

Rocky Blue – who lacks the scope of many of his rivals here – had made a promising debut at Punchestown on his previous start when beaten by Got Trumped, with whom he readily reversed that form here.

Prior to that, he’d been steadily improving on the Flat, ultimately winning a 14-furlong Navan handicap by eight lengths from a mark of 62. He hails from a smart Flat family and has clearly long been well regarded by trainer Tom Mullins. He heads for the Dublin Racing Festival’s juvenile Grade One next.

At worst, he would have finished second had Coeur Sublime stood up. But that horse had already made up a length on the winner in generous response to pressure on the approach to the last, only to reach for it and crash out. Let’s hope there aren’t any lingering ill effects from this fall because this was set to be a performance more in line with his reputation.

Rocky Blue (right) clears the last in an eventful race

Chief Justice, who had beaten Coeur Sublime previously, travelled strongly into contention from a disadvantageous position in rear but his impact was undermined by him hanging markedly left approaching the last, even before he was hampered on landing by the faller. He did then stay on again near the line.

Got Trumped and the mare La Sorelita challenged for the lead either side of the outpaced Coco Beach (on his debut for Gigginstown and Gordon Elliott) on entering the straight, only to be out-sped themselves by Rocky Blue and Coeur Sublime.

Making her debut for Willie Mullins having previously been trained by Macaire, La Sorelita shaped better than her finishing position of fifth. Having been crowded out by Got Trumped hanging left before the last, she switched and then rallied, only to be more severely hampered by the schmozzle on the landing side. She was unfortunate not to finish fourth at least.

Her stablemate Maze Runner – another of those whose frame suggests less scope to progress – was also hampered on the home turn (as well as at the very first hurdle) but was already under pressure to make up ground from towards the rear at the time.

It’s highly unlikely that the relatively inexperienced pair of recent French recruits, La Sorelita and Coco Beach, would have been suited by this relative test of speed – the former especially might prove quite a bit better than this – but that’s probably true of Coeur Sublime, too.


  • 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

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