Lydia Hislop's Road to Cheltenham updated with all the 2019 action

Check out the latest Road To Cheltenham update
Check out the latest Road To Cheltenham update

Lydia Hislop's unmissable column is brought up to date with reflections on all the key action from New Year's Eve onwards - including Laurina at Sandown.

This Road addresses the action from New Year’s Eve onwards, getting us finally back into its more usual rhythm.

This week, entries for the Magners Gold Cup, Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase and Ryanair were published – attracting 43, 22 and 44 entries respectively. Any news emanating from those engagements will follow next week.

Ryanair Chase

There’s a good chance Al Boum Photo may yet come to be remembered more for his achievements than for that infamous occasion last April when Paul Townend had a rush of blood to the head and mistakenly steered his mount off the track when poised to win the Grade One Champion Novice Chase at Punchestown.

Ruby Walsh was on board for this horse’s seasonal debut at Tramore on New Year’s Day and, once he injected some badly needed pace into the final circuit on that dizzying carousel of a racecourse, this partnership was able to take this Listed event in some style.

Bar for one mistake, Al Boum Photo jumped well; in fact, he sealed the deal with a ground-gaining leap at the third last just as his main two rivals, Total Recall and Invitation Only – both stablemates at Willie Mullins’ yard – made mistakes.

Walsh was assertive at the last and Al Boum Photo briefly unbalanced on landing but it forced an error from Total Recall, their nearest pursuer, to whom they ultimately gave 10lbs and a six-lengths beating – a career best from the winner.

“If he can build on his potential, we hope he will climb the ladder a bit,” said David Casey, Mullins’ assistant trainer. “I’d say the Gold Cup will be his aim. The extra couple of furlongs would be right up his alley and hopefully he’ll make it there, with a bit of luck.”

Al Boum Photo
Al Boum Photo - impressive win

The sharp-eyed among you will have noticed that Casey’s comments are rather at odds with where I’ve positioned discussion of this horse but I’m stubbornly sticking to my position that Al Boum Photo is a Ryanair type.

He took a tired fall when in third place at the penultimate flight behind Presenting Percy in last year’s RSA Chase and I reckon there’s a good chance he would have actually finished only fourth, behind eventual third Elegant Escape had he stood up.

Tramore is all about speed and agility, even if the pace here was sedate until Walsh cranked it up and Punchestown’s three-mile event that Al Boum Photo should have won was conducted funereally and advertised his pace. Admittedly, there’s plenty of stamina in his wider pedigree so perhaps I’m wrong.

Invitation Only was ultimately beaten 22 lengths here, having clung onto the winner until after the second last. He looked uncomfortable on this tight track and should do better elsewhere. The Gigginstown trio of Alpha Des Obeaux, Valseur Lido and Sub Lieutenant are no longer of this class.

With the likes of front-running Foxtail Hill ranged against him at Cheltenham that same day, Aso didn’t get to boss his field in the feature handicap but the result was unchanged. It was only at the start of the final circuit that he took over at the fore but he wasn’t for heading thereafter.

Jockey Charlie Deutsch snuck a peak behind him at the top of the hill and dangers were seemingly queueing up from the third last but his mount saw them off readily with a series of good jumps and despite idling a shade up the final hill.

This was a best-yet performance from a horse who finished third to Un De Sceaux in the 2017 Ryanair and whose sights are now more firmly set on that same target this year. He’s still got about 5lbs to find on such an ultra-consistent top-class rival but he’s young enough to do so.

Aso jumps for fun on his way to victory at Cheltenham
Aso jumps for fun on his way to victory at Cheltenham

I suggested last week that an early exit from the King George, when brought down, greatly diminished the likelihood that connections of Waiting Patiently would consider the Magners Gold Cup rather than the Ryanair and he has not been entered in the longer event.

"We're certainly not writing off the Gold Cup in future, we just didn't learn enough at Kempton to go down that route this season,” said trainer Ruth Jefferson. “He was absolutely fine after Boxing Day. I haven't had a moment's worry with him, he came home, ate up and was moving around. His legs are fine, his back is fine – we were worried because it was one of those falls that can cause an injury, but thankfully we've avoided that."

Waiting Patiently could return to Kempton this Saturday for the Listed Chase he won last season, although he would have to wield a Grade One penalty this time against the likes of Charbel, Black Corton and Mister Whitaker. However, the ground there is currently good and, with no rain forecast, that counts him an unlikely starter.

When hearing of Jefferson’s plans for Waiting Patiently, however, we must not of course indulge in the collective amnesia that overlooks the fistful of objections she raised against running in the Ryanair last season, when the horse was thriving.

Back then she was concerned about Cheltenham’s undulating track, whether the ground would be sufficiently testing, his propensity for novicey errors and his need for greater time between races than recovery from winning the Grade One Ascot Chase in mid-February would have permitted.

As the clock ticks on this season – which started belatedly for him due to a slow recovery from a setback but while the ground was unsuitably quick anyway – the worry is that at least two of those four objections risk being equally valid this time around and one of them, the going, perhaps a bigger issue.

The ground was unusually soft at last year’s Festival. As I suggested in the first Road of this series, if connections were ever going to run at Cheltenham on their professed terms, that “may have been the gift horse” they looked squarely at.

Waiting Patiently features among nine entries for Saturday week’s Grade One Clarence House Chase at Ascot, as does 2017 Champion Chase runner-up Fox Norton. The Ryanair was his target last season until injury intervened and trainer Colin Tizzard reports him ready to run, with the plan to get one prep into him prior to Cheltenham, Native River-styley. Tizzard could get used to this.

Magners Gold Cup

It was a highly encouraging debut success from Al Boum Photo at Tramore on New Year’s Day, as already discussed in the Ryanair section above, and connections have spoken of him as a Gold Cup possible. With Willie Mullins remarkably yet to win this race, the stable cat would be entered if he hinted at sufficient alacrity – the trainer is responsible for nine of this year’s 43 entries.

Runner-up and stable companion Total Recall made critical errors each time the winner attacked. Jumping frailties also undermined him last season when falling in the Gold Cup and making multiple errors in the Grand National.

This speed test was all against him, however, so it was a respectable start to his season and he wasn’t necessarily done with when hitting the deck at the Cue Card fence in the Gold Cup – albeit it would have been a tough ask to get on terms with the duelling Native River and Might Bite on that occasion.

Nicky Henderson has already sent the latter for a second operation to correct his breathing yet he has also implied this is more out of hope than judgement.

"We cannot find anything wrong with him,” he told the Racing Post. “When you can't find a problem, eight times out of ten, it's respiratory. He's sound and healthy. This is the only conclusion we can come to.

“We don't know that we've got to the bottom of it, as it is not something we can categorically prove, but in our opinion it's the most likely solution.”

Might Bite had his palate cauterised in 2016, along with a hobday operation which remains in place. Henderson added: "Cauterising doesn't last forever and you have to redo it with a lot of horses. We put our heads together with a number of experts and it's the conclusion we've come to.”

He added on his Unibet blog: “While Might Bite appeared to bleed last time [he was reported to have broken a blood vessel in the King George], I’m not sure it was quite enough to stop him. But if there is any shortage of oxygen getting to a horse, you are obviously putting pressure on the lungs which can cause bleeding. Therefore, it’s perfectly reasonable to expect the two issues to tie in together.”

Might Bite will miss less than two weeks’ work which Henderson said “shouldn’t hold him back too much as he’s already race-fit, but it would almost certainly rule him out of running in anything before the Gold Cup”. Of course, the horse went straight to Cheltenham after Kempton last year but that was in happier times.

Fans will cling onto the Post’s snapshot of Henderson’s recent way-above-average strike-rate with horses returning from wind surgery but I can’t have Might Bite on my mind for the Gold Cup. Now, were he entered in the Ryanair, things might have got interesting… but he hasn’t been.

Might Bite in action at Haydock
Might Bite - wind procedure after Kempton flop

Nigel Twiston-Davies has issued a more upbeat report on the other of the King George fallen, Bristol De Mai, who failed to finish for the first time in his entire career but was already emitting signs of struggle.

His trainer is eyeing a variation on a theme known to suit the grey: namely, the venue of all his best form. (All notions of him needing to be fresh have disappeared, you’ll notice – the lamppost, the twine and duffel-coat… well perhaps not that… .long forgotten.)

"He’s fine. He was a bit bruised afterwards but nothing too bad. He’s cantering away now, so onwards and upwards," he said. "There’s plenty of time for him to show his best again this season.

“He might go back to Haydock and actually we might run him over hurdles in the Rendlesham next, that’s a possibility, and then the Gold Cup. The Rendlesham was a plan we were trying to hatch the other day when I was talking to Anthony [Bromley, racing manager to owners Simon Munir and Isaac Souede]…

“You can either go to Cheltenham Trials Day, which would probably come a bit quick, or the Denman, but then you’re taking on the likes of Thistlecrack and the other King George horses. It could possibly be a Cheltenham before Cheltenham, whereas the Rendlesham could just be a nice canter round for him."

Obviously, Bristol De Mai is going to have to do rather more than nicely canter round to satisfy the rules of racing but we get the gist. While he came into his own as a chaser, he was a decent juvenile hurdler and won the Grade One Finale on his UK debut for this yard back in 2014. He’s more than skilled enough to get properly involved in that Haydock Grade Two event.

Despite departing at the ninth at Kempton, Bristol De Mai emerges from the King George with an official rating 4lb higher than he lined up with. BHA handicapper Martin Greenwood has made the collateral adjustment on the basis of the Kempton 1-2, Clan Des Obeaux and Thistlecrack, having previously finished fourth and third respectively behind the Twiston-Davies grey in the Betfair Chase.

That means three horses currently top the British staying-chaser tree on 173: Gold Cup winner Native River, Haydock king Bristol De Mai and upstart Clan Des Obeaux, who has been raised a whopping 13lbs. Greenwood has lopped 3lbs off Native River to reflect the lesser form he has thus far shown this term, albeit at non-ideal tracks.

Bristol De Mai is out on his own at Haydock
Bristol De Mai - could head back to Haydock over hurdles

Incidentally, contrary to Twiston-Davies’s expectations, Thistlecrack won’t be running in Cheltenham’s Cotswold Chase at the end of the month but instead heads straight to the Gold Cup. Stable companion and doughty Welsh Grand National winner Elegant Escape is also heading straight there.

This prompts the obvious question: who is this race-shy imposter and what has he done with the real Colin Tizzard?

“Elegant Escape is now rated 158 and is only about 7lbs away from being a Gold Cup horse. He might make a Grand National horse as well because he’s a tough stayer,” the unconvincing clone added.

“I think his next race will be the Gold Cup because he has had three hard races and we are only around two months away… If he had only had one run, we would have gone again.”

Aintree looks a better fit than the Gold Cup for Elegant Escape but, granted thoroughly testing conditions, he could stay on into a place. Although 11-year-old Thistlecrack was back to his best last time, he is still unproven at the longer Gold Cup trip and his occasionally sketchy jumping will be placed under greater pressure.

I can confirm Mullins has not been replicated by aliens because Savills Chase winner Kemboy won’t be detained by the Dublin Racing Festival but instead heads straight to Cheltenham.

But 2017 Gold Cup hero Sizing John is set to miss yet another mooted engagement. I’ve lost count of the number of comeback vehicles trainer Jessica Harrington has pinpointed to date but the latest non-starter is the Kinloch Brae at Thurles later this month.

Jockey Robbie Power spoke for everyone, in many different ways, when saying in his BoyleSports blog (#yetanother #fkn #ad) that “it’s getting a bit frustrating at this stage”.

“I’m nearly 20 years riding now and I’ve never known the ground to be this good in January,” Power said. “There’s one thing we can’t control though and that’s the weather, so we’re just going to have to be patient. It is Ireland we live in, after all, so at some stage we are going to get rain!”

Unless these are the first signs of the Burren turning into the Wadi Rum Desert – and only Donald Trump and those paid by the traditional energy companies would dismiss this out of hand – then we can probably expect Sizing John to pitch up at the Red Mills Chase at Gowran Park next month. It’s the stepping-stone Harrington used to the Gold Cup for the ill-fated Our Duke last season.

Sizing John: Set for tests
Sizing John - yet to be sighted this season

Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase

Nothing to see here – not even any yak – apart from to observe that eight horses have been entered against Altior in the Grade One Matchbook Clarence House on Saturday week at Ascot.

Unibet Champion Hurdle

There is little to add to my previous comments about Laurina, which you can read in the previous edition of the Road [LINK HERE]. However, it would be worth your while reading Simon Rowlands’ interesting article in his Sectional Spotlight column for At The Races:

“The details that most interest me are those striding figures for Laurina,” Simon wrote. “She had easily the longest stride [of winners at Sandown that day] – something which is closely linked to ability – in the closing stages of a race on soft ground up a hill, and she had easily the slowest stride turnover at the same time.

“The latter is strongly correlated with stamina, and by way of further illustration Laurina was turning over not much quicker in the last half-mile at Cheltenham, at 2.08 and 2.09 strides/second. Those are figures associated with elite two-and-a-half milers more than two-milers according to my research.”

So Laurina is likely to need a strong pace and – as repeatedly stressed by trainer Willie Mullins and underpinned by her pounding action – soft ground to be effective in the Champion Hurdle.

Mullins and/or JP McManus, in whose interests it is to ensure a good gallop for hat-trick-seeking Buveur D’Air, have the extended firepower to ensure this. But, as Ms Jackson discovered, you can plan a pretty picnic but you can’t predict the weather.

Asked by the assembled media at Sandown to compare Laurina with the top-class mares he has trained in the past – such as 2016 Champion Hurdle winner Annie Power and six-times Festival heroine Quevega – Mullins said: “At this stage of her career she must be as good as, if not better than, any of them.”

That’s Grade One yak all right. To repeat, Laurina’s wide-margin Trull House Stud Dawn Run Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle success marked her out – to the eye and on the stopwatch – as a high-class horse, but she is as yet untried (at least for Mullins) against any horses of comparable ability or in adverse conditions.

Having shortened to 4/1, plenty are prepared to assume answers to those rather large questions and must wait until Cheltenham for the answers because in all likelihood she heads straight there.

“We would have liked more competition, but winning races is what racing is about,” Mullins said. “We could possibly get another run and more practice into her but I’m happy. She’s a natural jumper and a good jumper and getting to Cheltenham sound is my priority now.”

Laurina skips over the final flight
Laurina skips over the final flight at Sandown

Most owners can resist everything except the Cheltenham Festival and those behind recent surprise Christmas Hurdle winner, Verdana Blue, are now targeting the Champion despite trainer Nicky Henderson adamantly arguing the ground would be too soft.

However, in order to facilitate a Plan B – originally the primary target of the All Weather Championships Marathon Final at Lingfield on Good Friday – the mare’s stepping-stone to either target will be Kempton’s fast-track qualifier over two miles of polytrack next month.

"The plan is to target the Champion Hurdle," Crimbourne Stud's Charlie Parker told the Racing Post. "We were going for it last year but the ground went heavy and we swerved it. Providing it's normal opening-day ground, we're definitely going to have a go. If it was soft, we'd wait and go to Lingfield.

"We ran her at Chelmsford three weeks before she won a Listed race over hurdles at Kempton and it worked out perfectly."

Parker also mounted a staunch defence of her credentials. “I think people might be discounting her and saying Buveur D'Air didn't run his true race or there was something wrong, but you can only beat what's in front of you and we did," he said.

"According to the stats she's won more money on good-to-soft than any other ground condition, but if it were nearer good ground at Cheltenham we'd be very excited. Nobody thought she would beat Buveur D'Air other than us and she seems to be improving all the time, and that's what's so exciting.

"The first two times she ran at Cheltenham it looked like she maybe didn't quite get home up the hill, but her performance in the Greatwood, when she didn't get the best of passages before staying on really well up the hill, has given us encouragement that she's a stronger mare."

Verdana Blue (right) caused arguably the Grade One upset of the year in beating Buveur D'Air
Verdana Blue (right) caused arguably the Grade One upset of the year in beating Buveur D'Air

While Verdana Blue is clearly effective on good-to-soft ground – her best form is both on that surface last time and when winning the Elite on faster – the Cheltenham point is unproven. It was such a steadily run Greatwood that any horse as talented but disadvantageously positioned as her would have been finishing with running left.

In last week’s hurdling edition of the Road’s Christmas updates, I forgot to mention why Bedrock missed a re-match with Samcro in the Ryanair Hurdle – the fallout from which means there is no longer any hope of him being aimed for the Champion Hurdle.

Trainer Iain Jardine submitted Bedrock for an elective drugs test and found the horse would have tested positive for legitimate in-training medication, for the treatment of joints, that is deemed a prohibited substance if found in a horse’s system when racing. He therefore withdrew him.

This provoked irritation from across the Atlantic, expressed to The Sun by Bedrock’s new American owner Irvin Naylor’s wife Diane. "It seems as if the steroid they gave him for his last injury did not get out of his system. It’s maddening,” she said.

“So, the horse is coming to the States and hopefully will get to a race here. We felt he could have won on Saturday [in the Ryanair]. He is headed to trainer Leslie Young and pointed for the Iroquois Races in May.”

Maddening it might have been but it certainly wouldn’t have been done on purpose and it was a highly responsible course of action by Jardine to check rather than risk it. Goodbye, Bedrock and best of luck in your new home.

Bedrock leads Samcro over the last
Bedrock leads Samcro over the last

Talking of Samcro, tests have uncovered that he’s been carrying a heavy lung infection this season. Eddie O’Leary, speaking on behalf of owners Gigginstown House Stud, told the Racing Post that a ten-day course of antibiotics had been prescribed.

However, it should be noted that he rowed back on earlier, more categoric pronouncements that the horse wouldn’t run again this season.

"Samcro won't be able to run at the Dublin Racing Festival early next month and I'd say it's very doubtful he'll go to Cheltenham,” said O’Leary. “As far as the big meetings after Cheltenham are concerned, we'll let the horse tell us if he's ready to run. Otherwise, we'll leave him alone until next season when he will go novice chasing."

It will be interesting to see whether Samcro is entered in the Champion Hurdle next week. Taking those comments on face value, you wouldn’t be surprised if he was even if the likelihood of him lining up remains small.

Sun Bets Stayers’ Hurdle

Midnight Shadow won last year’s Scottish Champion Hurdle and has this season mostly progressed further, bar for perhaps getting outpaced in an unsatisfying edition of the Greatwood. There was no fluke about his latest career-best success in the Relkeel Hurdle at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day, either.

One or other of Wholestone and Clyne made the running, the former bouncing back from a woeful effort in Newbury’s Long Distance Hurdle for the second year running. While he was able to win this Grade Two last season, on a track at which the excels, he had to settled for second here.

While Clyne was beaten by the second last, perhaps finding the ground a degree too quick, Old Guard also put up a fight, leading approaching the last but swamped on both sides by Wholestone and the winner. Having travelled strongly into the race, Midnight Shadow then settled it decisively by more than two lengths from the last.

“He's got a touch of class and has got a very big engine,” said trainer Sue Smith. “He's on the improve – long may it last – and he'll make a great chaser in time. We were disappointed with his run here last time and we couldn't find a reason for it because he was healthy at home. Maybe it was the bigger field or quicker ground.

“The owner is keen on the Champion Hurdle, but I don't think you can go back in trip, so there's a possibility he could go for the Stayers' Hurdle, but it will all be discussed and the ground would have to be on the easier side. I don't know if he'll run before.”

That suggests he’ll get an entry for both Festival Grade One hurdles when those engagements are made next week. He’s as yet untried at three miles so it will be interesting to see whether Smith fancies finding out whether he’s got the stamina for such a target in something like the Cleeve at the end of this month.

Midnight Shadow (left) beats Old Guard and Wholestone
Midnight Shadow (left) beats Old Guard and Wholestone

Wholestone will surely again return to Cheltenham for the Cleeve – a race in which he was second to Agrapart last season – and then have a second crack at this Festival Grade One. He got outpaced in last year’s steadily run edition and, given his record at this track, he remains a leading place player. As suggested at the time, pushing him out to 33/1 after Newbury was an overreaction and the existing 25/1 NRNB with Bet365 is a legacy of that.

Old Guard has been running consistently and with honour this season; this third the latest example of his durability. He may not have won for more than a year now but he must nonetheless be a joy to own. Back in fourth Thomas Campbell immediately posted a better effort than his preceding chase outings on reverting to hurdles. You’d imagine he might be targeted at the Pertemps Final.

The preceding race on New Year’s Day was won by Aux Ptits Soins, building greatly on his highly auspicious return from a 601-day break at Newbury previously when making his debut for Dan Skelton.

When trained by Skelton’s former mentor Paul Nicholls, this horse won the 2015 Coral Cup on his UK debut from a mark of 139 and wasn’t seen again until fifth, 12 months later, in a deep edition of the Stayers’ (then World) Hurdle.

That was the year Thistlecrack won, beating Alpha Des Obeaux, Bobs Worth and Cole Harden in that order. Only the first two were truly ever in the game – classy form at the time. Aux Ptits Soins, on his first attempt at the trip, shaped like the third-best horse in the race until after the penultimate flight when his stamina gave out.

He was tried over fences the following season but never really took to it, ending up reverting to hurdles and then went missing. Now he’s back in no uncertain terms, winning by seven emphatic lengths and proving he now possesses the stamina for the task at the age of nine.

“It has taken a long time, but that was Aux Ptits Soins’ best performance since he won the Coral Cup. He has been a fragile horse, difficult to train and now he is really back. I hope I have convinced the trainer to have a crack at the Stayers’ Hurdle. The horse has still got the class,” asserted owner John Hales.

Aux Ptits Soins streaks clear at Cheltenham
Aux Ptits Soins streaks clear at Cheltenham

Aux Ptits Soins would need to improve again – at least 8lbs, perhaps twice that on his and titleholder Penhill’s peak form according to official handicapper Andrew Mealor – but he’s unexposed at three miles and it’s no great leap to imagine him hitting the frame at the Festival.

Two factors temper enthusiasm. First: his fragility, although NRNB caters for that to some degree – albeit you’d have to take 16/1 rather than 33/1 or 25/1. Second: is it credible that a horse who was mixing it with the previous generation of staying hurdlers can really find the necessary improvement at this stage of his career, lightly raced though he is?

A third race at Cheltenham turned out to be relevant to the Stayers’ Hurdle and that was the Dipper Novices’ Chase in which Black Op was remarkably still in contention at the second last despite stuttering over almost every fence. Having jumped a shade stickily on his chase debut at Exeter, he seemingly lost confidence after belting the first here.

Connections have therefore decided to re-route him over hurdles for the remainder of the season and starting with the Cleeve at the end of the month, back at Cheltenham.

Trainer Tom George explained on his website: “Following discussions with his owner Roger Brookhouse, Noel Fehily and jumping expert Yogi Breisner, we have decided that [Black Op] should revert back to hurdles for the remainder of the season.

“Yogi, who has had a couple of sessions with him recently, would like to have him for a spell over the summer months to do some extensive schooling before a decision is made regarding his chasing career.”

Black Op was a smart novice hurdler, winning the Grade One Mersey over 2m4f on his final start after finishing second to Samcro in the Ballymore. It was a very willing performance at the Festival, having been chased along to hold his position after three out but then rallying in the straight, only to barely raise a leg at the last. Otherwise, he’d have finished closer than just under three lengths away.

He’s as yet untested at three miles so his immediate target will be a good pointer to his aptitude but his pedigree would encourage you. He’s currently trading at a maximum of 16/1 on ante-post terms or 12/1 NRNB for the Stayers’ Hurdle and is an interesting contender.

Black Op
Black Op - interesting contender for Stayers' Hurdle

On New Year’s Eve, Bachasson made a successful return to action after picking up what trainer Willie Mullins described as “a nasty injury” when falling the second in last year’s Gold Cup. A bonny and willing athlete who runs in the Un De Sceaux silks of the likeable O’Connell family, this horse has always lacked the scope for chasing at the highest level.

He did win three times over fences, however, including two Listed events and four times on the bounce as a novice hurdler. Yet whenever he’s been elevated to Grade One company in the past, he’s mostly come up well short: a narrow second in the Royal Bond was followed by a trouncing at Leopardstown and then unseating in the 2016 Albert Bartlett behind Unowhatimeanharry.

He was staying on under hard pressure in sixth when stepping at the last and unseating Patrick Mullins on that day – his only attempt at three miles and beyond except his abortive part in the Gold Cup. That’s got to be the doubt if he heads here, albeit he saw out strongly Punchestown’s 2m4f last time.

De Plotting Shed had tried to kick away from the second last, just after first Scarpeta and then Killultagh Vic – both stablemates of the winner – made critical errors at successive hurdles. But the cavalry was soon in pursuit and the fleetest of them was Bachasson, who went away by more than two lengths despite landing flat-footed at the last.

After getting briefly outpaced after the second last and being unable to match the pace of the winner, Darasso nonetheless finished an encouraging second on his debut for Joseph O’Brien. He’s been recruited from Guy Cherel’s yard, runs for JP McManus and has prior experience over both hurdles and fences.

Last year’s Ballymore fifth Scarpeta was sent off the beaten favourite here but was already being niggled to hold his position when blundering at the third last. He did keep on well in the straight, however, and may seek to return to a longer trip. His jumping needs improving.

Clumsy Killultagh Vic wasn’t really persisted with after making a lesser mistake two out, having earlier jumped airily. That may be a legacy of having been chasing, a discipline for which he showed limited comprehension. He was unable to get involved and ultimately pulled up in last year’s Gold Cup.

In the aftermath, Mullins reportedly indicated that both Bachasson and Killultagh Vic – the latter having won the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle at the 2015 Festival – would be sticking to hurdling this season. But he later partly revised this stance in his Racing Post column.

“I have to say I was a bit surprised he was ready enough to win,” he said. “he did the job nicely, though, and while my initial reaction was to say that he’d be kept to hurdles for the immediate future, that could change if I see a suitable race coming up for him over fences. He’s a smart horse.”

OLBG Mares’ Hurdle

Nothing to add here except to reiterate that Laurina could easily end up here if the ground is deemed too quick for her to take on the boys in the Champion Hurdle – if she runs at Cheltenham at all in such circumstances, you might surmise, given trainer Willie Mullins’ comments about needing “safe” ground. An arresting and potentially problematic word, that.

Of course, Mullins also trains this race’s titleholder Benie Des Dieux, for a different owner but one who will represented by Sharjah in the Champion Hurdle.

In being beaten 48 lengths by Laurina, Sensulano’s progress came to a halt; in fact, she was well below her best. She needs to find further improvement to even stand a chance of hitting the frame in this Festival event.

Novice chasers

Master Dino’s tenure at the forefront of the JLT Novcies’ Chase market lasted less than 48 hours, from his electric success at Plumpton last Sunday to the sad news two days later that he’d sustained a hairline fracture of a hind leg.

“Master Dino has been operated on… and has had three screws inserted,” reported Anthony Bromley, racing manager to owners Simon Munir and Isaac Souede.

“He will definitely miss Cheltenham. He's come out of the surgery fine. He won’t be racing in 2019 but hopefully, with proper recovery, he could be racing in 2020. As of this week he has only just turned five and hopefully we’ll see him back as a six-year-old in France."

Acclaimed French trainer Guillaume Macaire had made his first sortie to Britain in three seasons with this horse – a proven high-class performer over hurdles, with two of his eight victories in that discipline at Grade One level. After a wide-margin opening debut success over fences, this was tougher but he negotiated the task in some style.

Master Dino wins at Plumpton
Master Dino wins at Plumpton

Impressive Newbury winner Knocknanuss made the running but with more controlled aggression than last time. Still, he soon had his five opponents well strung out in trainer Gary Moore’s attempt to initiate Plumpton’s £60,000 bonus for any horse taking one of five specified novice chases there and going on to win at Cheltenham. If it wasn’t for that meddling Macaire…

Master Dino took closer order behind the bold-jumping leader at the start of the final circuit and moved menacingly closer when the latter made his only mistake of the round, at the fourth last. By two out, he was upsides and before the last it was all over for a comfortable seven-length success.

The plan was then to tackle the Grade One Scilly Isles Novices’ Chase over 2m4f at Sandown – “a different test which I feel he’ll be much more suited by [than tight Plumpton],” observed winning rider Daryl Jacob at the time – but injury was to intervene. What a blow for connections. Like all race fans, I very much hope to see Master Dino back on a racecourse as soon as possible, his large ability unimpaired.

There was no disgrace to Knocknanuss’s defeat, especially as he was attempting to concede 5lbs to the winner. He was the only horse able to mix it with the French raider to any degree, even if resistance was brief between the final two fences.

Good Man Pat, Slate House and Glencoe were in deep for their chase debuts. The first-named shaped with a great deal of promise in the circumstances and the last-named, first string of a McManus brace, was well in rear from the outset and made errors.

Glencoe would probably have beaten Delta Work in last season’s Pertemps bar for blundering badly at the last and so would have found this speed test wholly unsuitable.

At Cheltenham on New Year’s Day, Lostintranslation rallied from the last fence to win the Grade Two Dipper Novices’ Chase and reclaim Defi Du Seuil, who’d headed him at the previous obstacle. As a result of Master Dino’s injury, that winner is now ante-post favourite for the JLT – or, significantly, joint-favourite with Kalashnikov at 5/1 in Sky Bet’s NRNB market.

Yet surely the seven-and-a-quarter-length proximity of third-placed Black Op, after errors or a lack of fluency at almost every fence, brings down this form as a whole? After that horse blundered at the opening fence and until the runner-up joined him two out, Lostintranslation was also allowed to approach his fences unhassled for the lead.

His jumping had previously undone him at Newbury, when beaten for a second time there by subsequent Kauto Star heroine La Bague Au Roi and hitting the third last so hard that he broke the fence. Interestingly, rider Robbie Power and trainer Colin Tizzard were afterwards at variance as to the winner’s distance requirements.

Lostintranslation on his way to victory
Lostintranslation on his way to victory

“It was interesting listening to what Robbie was saying that he might be a JLT horse and not an RSA one. For me it looked like stamina had kicked in,” he said. “I couldn't believe he got beat at Newbury first time when he jumped so immaculately but then we know who beat him. The form stacks up.

“The owners think we should be going to Leopardstown next, which is a new one on me, but it's a long time until the Festival so I'd think we'd run again. It can't hurt him to have another run. We'll probably stay 2m5f, but will digest this – he finished up that run-in like a real stayer.

“Hopefully he'll run in a Gold Cup one day because he's got pace, he stays and he jumps. He's got everything, but just has to improve about 30lb.”

This was pure, distilled Essence Of Tizzard: he claims not to know of the existence of Leopardstown’s Grade One Flogas Chase but just happened to pluck from the air the near-exact figure Lostintranslation needs to win a Gold Cup. Members of the unsuspecting public: do not be fooled. Under that disarming ex-dairy-farmer bumble hides a mind as sharp as a tack.

A lack of stamina was not the answer to Defi Du Seuil’s defeat to my mind – at least, not to the extent that he’s an Arkle candidate waiting to be discovered. Either he actually wants to go up in trip or he’s not a force at this grade, even though he conceded 3lbs all round here. It was such a steadily run race he won at Exeter that Topofthegame was able to squander 20 lengths at the start and still get involved,

After this defeat and that of disappointing Campeador – to whom I’ll return – it’s all but certain that recent Racing Post Novices’ Chase winner Le Richebourg will represent JP McManus in the Festival’s two-mile Grade One.

Weirdly On The Blind Side was sent off favourite, well-backed near the off in this four-runner Dipper, despite making his chase debut against experienced rivals and flopping behind Black Op and Lostintranslation when last seen in Liverpool’s Mersey Novices’ Hurdle.

A “few niggly problems” had caused him to miss both the Challow Hurdle and Cheltenham last season and trainer Nicky Henderson has since reflected in his Unibet blog that he “rushed him back a little bit for Aintree”.

Prior to this return, he’d reported On The Blind Side was “showing plenty of sparkle at home” and “his schooling has been excellent”. But he jumped slowly at the first and, soon detached in last, was lifeless thereafter. Beforehand Henderson said that whatever he did, he’d improve for it. He will very much need to. Indeed, it must be quite likely he’ll be entered over hurdles at the Festival.

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Campeador was beaten at odds-on in a three-horse contest at Naas last Sunday. Articulum made the running and the favourite sat second as the race proceeded in processional style until Mark Walsh nudged his mount to move upsides at the second last. But the leader pulled away for minimal urging on landing and his grey rival found nil and held his head awkwardly.

Articulum had previously made a highly encouraging chase debut behind Getabird at Punchestown and trainer Terence O’Brien believes there is further improvement to come. He’s considering taking on “the big boys” in the Grade One Irish Arkle at next month’s Dublin Racing Festival.

“We always hoped he’d be a very good horse but he had wind problems,” O’Brien said. “We’ve been training him differently this season.”

Campeador was attempting to concede 6lbs to the winner but that doesn’t by any means explain away the defeat. He’s a frequent faller and here displayed a suspect attitude, whether as a result of those experiences it’s hard to say. He may be destined to underachieve in comparison to his reputation.

Back at Exeter on New Year’s Day, the much-vaunted White Moon finally got off the mark over fences. He jumped better than on either of his previous starts – when probably ultimately coming to win and falling at the last behind Count Meribel at Cheltenham and when well beaten behind Defi Du Seuil at this track last time.
However, he was unhurried on the lead and able to measure each obstacle at his own pace – bar from the fourth last, when a loose horse threatened to intervene and he had to be agile – so his jumping really should have been schooling-session sound. He’ll need to build a great deal on this.

Runner-up The Last Day was returning from a last-fence fall when set to be a good second to Knocknanuss at Newbury and he shaped better than the literal form here. His mark is highly feasible.

Shady Operator won the opening 3m1f novices’ chase at Punchestown on New Year’s Eve because he was more straightforward than Ballyward and because he ultimately had more tools to deal with a slowly run race than C’est Jersey. He was also luckier than the last-named horse.

C’est Jersey largely made the running but it took time for his jumping to warm up; he slowed into the first two fences and that hesitancy also showed up when rider David Mullins increased the pace in the latter stages.

Of the three principals, he was the most experienced over fences, having been tried over the larger obstacles twice last season before reverting to hurdles; it was the McManus-owned winner’s second chase start and Ballyward’s debut.

Shady Operator’s jumping lacked fluency at times and he became outpaced three out as Mullins wound it up but responded well to pressure in the straight, getting to the heels of the other two as they took the last upsides. Ballyward had also rallied, despite hanging right.

When Ballyward took the lead soon after landing and C’est Jersey stumbled badly, the race appeared settled even though Shady Operator was staying on but the leader appeared reluctant to go forward and threw the race away. He’d already hung badly right across C’est Jersey, causing interference the stewards ruled accidental.

Winning trainer Joseph O’Brien said after this seemingly much improved effort from Shady Operator – beaten favourite behind Chris’s Dream on his chase debut at Navan – that he would next go up in grade. Ballyward boasted the best hurdles form, having finished fourth in last year’s Albert Bartlett; perhaps something was ailing him.

Wincanton’s first fixture of 2019 saw McManus’s Kapcorse switched back to novice hurdling after his impressive Newbury success in early December. It was a two-for-the-price-of-one move from trainer Paul Nicholls: inputting further experience to a still-immature horse and protecting his chase handicap mark of 141 with – one suspects – the Close Brothers Novices’ Handicap Chase in mind.

The chosen race was perfect in one respect as the standard of opposition was comparatively low, but awkward in another given a total lack of pace. But Bryony Frost, who has got the best out of this horse (and that’s something to bear in mind if jockey bookings change at the Festival), was able to get him settled and then take control from two out.

Bryony Frost in perfect harmony with a mud-splattered Kapcorse
Bryony Frost in perfect harmony with a mud-splattered Kapcorse

Finally for this section, a round-up on the easy list – including my apologies for overlooking on horse whose setback has been known for some time. Claimantakinforgan – third to Lalor at Cheltenham when he last race in November – was announced via Twitter by his owners, Grech & Parkin to have “suffered a leg problem and may be out for the rest of the season”. That’s a great shame and, belatedly, I wish him a speedy recovery.

More recently, Willie Mullins has revealed that Next Destination – as short as 10/1 third favourite for the RSA Chase without having jumped a fence in public at the time – is out until next term.

“While it isn’t a serious problem, we’ve decided to treat him and leave him alone until next season when he will go chasing,” Mullins said of last year’s Ballymore third, who afterwards wound up with a Grade One success at Punchestown.

Stuart Edmonds has also announced that super mare Maria’s Benefit is out for the season after fracturing a hock when unseating her rider in the Wayward Lad Chase at Kempton. What exactly happened is hard to say because the race was shrouded in mist but hopefully she’ll make a speedy and full recovery.

Novice hurdlers

Scopey Battleoverdoyen continues to beat whatever is placed in front of him, most recently a field of promising one-race winners – including two significant underperformers – in the Grade One Lawlor’s Of Naas Novices’ Hurdle.

He travelled comfortably in mid-division behind the pace, set by Magnium and pressed by smaller-scale Getareason, until urged to make his challenge exiting the home turn where he also closed the quarter-gap that ultimate main rival Sams Profile was trying to explore. Having jumped the second last well, he drew clear only to get in close and make a mistake at the last, but kept going powerfully to win by just under three lengths.

“He’s a nice horse – we really like him,” said trainer Gordon Elliott. “He’s big and is a chaser in the making. Jack [Kennedy, his jockey] said the horse is still learning and that he didn’t know what to do when he got to the front. Bar the last, he jumped very well and gave his hurdles loads of light.

“We’ll see how the ground comes up before any decision is made about Cheltenham – Jack said he’d prefer it easier than it was today. He’ll probably have another run before then.”

Battleoverdoyen wins at Naas
Battleoverdoyen wins at Naas

Sams Profile ran excellently in the circumstances and looks to have a bit more speed than I gave him credit for last time. The odd slow jump and lack of fluency cost him in a race that was being wound up from the front – most critically when he lost his position briefly four out.

Having recovered to the heels of the leaders, rider Bryan Cooper tried to angle him out of a pocket but was kept in by Kennedy, forcing him to switch round his rivals to the right just as the winner launched his attack. Sams Profile then stayed on strongly for second and would have finished much closer without his traffic issues.

The fact he was able to beat the rest and get so close to the winner after such a shoddy round of jumping holds the literal form down. However, he ultimately needs to step back up to three miles. It will be interesting to see where shrewd trainer Mouse Morris places him. Wherever that might be, he shouldn’t be underestimated.

Highly experienced pair Magnium and Getareason – who did best of a Willie Mullins-trained trio – were well-positioned; Lone Wolf was comfortably beaten, having been inclined to hang left in the straight and making a mistake at the last.

Mullins’ other two runners flunked. Wide-margin Cork winner Come To Me was unable to get involved and not persisted with from the home turn; perhaps he needs deep ground? There was clearly something wrong with highly regarded recent Punchestown victor Tornado Flyer, who drifted notably near the off and was quickly pulled up after making mistakes at the sixth and seventh hurdles when held up in last.

Another horse who’s now beating all comers is reformed tearaway Elixir De Nutz. This time he augmented his previous dual Cheltenham triumphs with victory at the highest level in Sandown’s Tolworth Hurdle, over a solid field and highly touted favourite.

Elixir De Nutz beats Grand Sancy in the Tolworth
Elixir De Nutz beats Grand Sancy in the Tolworth

Once again, he made all the running but this time with Tom O’Brien in the plate rather than Harry Cobden, his usual rider required by his retaining trainer Paul Nicholls on Southfield Stone. It must have been galling for Cobden, all the time knowing what the winner would do and being unable to respond to it.

Cobden had ensured he was never far away from the leader, niggling Southfield Stone as early as the third hurdle, but his mount simply couldn’t match Elizir De Nutz for slickness of jumping. A mistake three out compounded the problem and although they stuck to their guns until the last, the game had long been up.

Nicholls’ other runner Grand Sancy, fourth in a highly competitive open handicap hurdle last time and the mount of Sam Twiston-Davies, emerged as the main threat, even appearing to travel marginally better than the winner until the second last.

When Elixir De Nutz pulled out more so did still-improving Grand Sancy but although he was inching closer near the line, he never quite looked like getting on terms once coming under pressure.

The 6/5 favourite Rathhill was the big disappointment of the race, even though he was priced on reputation and the embarrassment of riches his trainer Nicky Henderson possesses in novice hurdlers this season rather than on the form of his Newbury success.

He trailed home a 12-length fourth, having been off the bridle on the home turn and beaten before jumping the penultimate hurdle slowly. In stark contrast to the efficient winner, he was also giving a few of his obstacles too much air.

That combination of slickness and being a strong stayer at the trip will stand the progressive Elixir De Nutz in good stead for the Sky Bet Supreme, for which he’s a generous looking 12/1. Trainer Colin Tizzard reconfirmed that target, despite purporting not to know its title in his post-race RacingTV interview with Nick Luck. If you buy that, beware giving your bank details to cold callers.

“I wouldn’t think there’s any chance of him running again between now and Cheltenham,” Tizzard said. “He’s had a tough old race today and… four runs already this season. It would be nice to save him for the three Festivals [Cheltenham, Aintree and Punchestown] later on.

“I think Cheltenham spring ground will be absolutely perfect for him… He’s not slow, is he? I think we’ll stay at two miles. All his races this year have been over two. We may put him in the two-and-a-half [Ballymore] but I don’t see why we would need to change at the moment…

“You need a lot of stamina in a two-mile race at Cheltenham so if we could jump off and do that… At the moment I’d say he stays as a two-miler.”

Prior to that, Elixir De Nutz’s form had already been boosted by the runaway success of Jarveys Plate on New Year’s Day at Cheltenham. In December, that horse had shadowed the pace-setting grey throughout in another steadily run race controlled from the front and could never quite lay a glove on him, despite receiving 10lbs.

Jarveys Plate wins at Cheltenham
Jarveys Plate wins at Cheltenham

Stepped up to 2m4f last time and on good-to-soft ground his jockey Paddy Brennan described as “dead and hard work”, Jarveys Plate progressed considerably. Leading on the bridle entering the home turn, he powered further clear in the straight and left behind the likes of odds-on favourite I Can’t Explain, dual winner Anemoi and still-improving Supremely Lucky by 13 lengths or more.

“Paddy said there was loads of horse under him,” trainer Fergal O’Brien said. “We've always loved him and believed in him. We could come back on Trials Day [at Cheltenham on 26 January].

“He loved that ground and Paddy said he wouldn't want to run him on heavy again. He's quite straightforward and it was impressive against some nice horses. He looks a lovely chaser, a big stamp of a horse.”

If he runs at the Festival, the Ballymore must be the race as he lacks the gnarled experience for an Albert Bartlett although his connections might consider the Coral Cup a viable alternative.

It would have been unfortunate had I Can’t Explain failed to snatch second place from Anemoi because he was brought to a virtual halt on landing when that horse jumped tiredly left across him at the last. But he stood no chance with the winner. The third faded from the last, suggesting the step up in trip stretched him.

Supremely Lucky found this trip more to his liking than three miles and stuck to his task but he’s not quite this grade and is probably a chaser in the making – as the winner is, mind. Back in fifth, Rocco was unsuited by dropping down in trip and sixth-placed Mr Pumblechook made too many errors.

The admirable Posh Trish won twice over the Christmas period. First, she put to the sword a relatively shallow field at Wincanton on Boxing Day – the best of them, the Henderson-trained hurdles debutante Dieu Benisse, tripped over when under pressure at the last, thus leaving the 1/4 favourite 12 lengths clear unextended.

Four days later, in the deeper waters of Taunton’s Listed Mares’ Hurdle, she again made all – this time under a galvanising ride from Harry Cobden rather than 5lb claimer Lorcan Williams – to quell the appropriately named Indefatigable by two lengths.

The latter occasion, inviolving a more speedily bred and proven chief rival at a sharp track, was always going to present the greater challenge for Posh Trish and she ultimately handled it with authority, especially given she was conceding 5lbs. She’s thriving and beat a regressive Passing Call much further here than she did at Newbury. Third-placed Oscar Rose got outpaced before rallying and needs to go back up in trip.

Provided she handles its undulations, 2m1f of Cheltenham’s New Course for the Trull House Stud Dawn Run Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle will suit Posh Trish better than either of these Christmas venues. But she will still require a positive ride and have a target on her back for (one would guess) a Mullins-trained mare.

Juvenile hurdlers

At Sandown last Saturday, a straightforward task for Torpillo was rendered even more uncompetitive when his main market rival Honorable – a French recruits making his hurdling debut for Gary Moore – stumbled on landing after making a mistake at the first and unseated his rider.

The winner then made all, again hooded and unchallenged, in a relentless near-replication of his opening success at the same track last month. Trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies doesn’t believe soft ground is “crucial” to Torpillo and (or should that be but?) likened him to a certain resident top-class chaser.

“Torpillo has a high cruising speed but he doesn’t need a high cruising speed in that ground. He’s a bit like Bristol [De Mai] – he has got lots of pace,” he said. “Time will tell what he develops into in time. We never thought he was that great until we got him to a racecourse. He was quite buzzy; he probably does quite a lot early on – that’s why we put the headgear on.”

Appropriately enough for the comparison given, Torpillo’s next stop is likely to be at Haydock for the opening juvenile hurdle at next month’s Grand National Trial fixture – meaning he’ll get to share a horsebox with his illustrious muse.

Torpillo jumps the last under Daryl Jacob
Torpillo jumps the last under Daryl Jacob

The filly Chica Buena attempted to follow up her wide-margin defeat of Liffeydale Dreamer last month at Aintree (and make it five wins on the bounce) by taking on older, more experienced geldings in a handicap hurdle at Musselburgh on New Year’s Day.

Although beaten into second, she probably wasn’t fully able to run her race due to another rival intentionally causing interference – as the stewards also ruled – and barging her off the inside line approaching the second last. The interference continued on the other side and when Chica Buena finally shook that trouble-maker off, she was vulnerable to the winner’s final challenge, rally though she did.

She’s a lovely little tough nut and will certainly be hardened for battle should trainer Keith Dalgleish fancy a crack at the Fred Winter, with eight starts under her belt. She’s still improving.

At Punchestown on New Year’s Eve, Gardens Of Babylon made a winning debut over hurdles for Joseph O’Brien and JP McManus in an eventful maiden. Although his margin of victory was only half a length, he was well on top at the finish.

However, the standard of form itself is somewhat questionable with a whole clutch of horses still in contention in the straight, a number of whom had made significant errors as the race developed in earnest.

The winner was briefly outpaced after the third last but soon got motoring and dashed to the inside rail to deliver a powerful challenge from the last. This was only his third career start, having raced once per season on the Flat, aged two and three, when trained by Aidan O’Brien. That raw profile and the fact he jumped well are the best arguments for his future.

Runner-up Surin was one of three opponents representing Gigginstown and had also got outpaced before finding his stride approaching the last, challenging on the outside of front-running Way Back Home – a well-positioned nine-race Flat maiden – while the winner nipped up his inner.

Surin then battled well until clearly being held near the line. But that Gordon Elliott-trained filly is also highly inexperienced, having previously only won a Market Rasen junior bumper for previous trainer Mario Hofer so she may do much better, too.

The Noel Meade-trained Lignou made a mistake at the last, the aforementioned filly Liffeydale Dreamer chewed turf two out, the horse who glories in the name Rip Rocks Paddy Ok blundered at the fourth last and Star Mix hit two of the last four obstacles, weakening quickly from the last.

That these horses weren’t beaten that far, even if the pace wasn’t that strong, holds the form right down. Two of them were no great shakes on the Flat, too. Add to that favourite Fenta Des Obeaux, who was keen and pitched too far forward on landing at the first: having failed to deploy any landing gear, she fell.

Selections:

Recommended 28/11/18: Balko Des Flos e/w 40/1 [Skybet/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


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