Lydia Hislop Road To Cheltenham: The chasers

Balko Des Flos: An early shout for the Gold Cup
Balko Des Flos: An early shout for the Gold Cup

The Road To Cheltenham is back with Lydia Hislop bringing us up to date on the chasing division - plus a 40/1 tip for the Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup.

Welcome back to the Road To Cheltenham – a slightly belated return this season, apologies, but to make it up to you there will be two editions this week.

This, the first, tackles the significant chase happenings to date – from the Betfair Chase through to the emerging novices. The second part will address the hurdlers in a similar vein.

First, some notices:

It will come to your attention that, beyond this sentence, there is no mention of Yorkhill in this article. Can we dare to dream we’re free of his noises-off tyranny at last? In that, at least, I think we can all acknowledge he was top class. I fully expect his next career move to be Strictly, the Jungle or eating the Margate mega breakfast inside 20 minutes. (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-kent-45264871)

On the other hand, I am proud to report that I’ve managed to shoe-horn an entirely gratuitous mention of the now-retired Djakadam into this copy. Think of it as my final salute. (Final-ish.)


Road To Cheltenham - recommended bet:

Balko Des Flos each-way at 40/1 with Sky Bet or Bet365 for the Gold Cup


Magners Gold Cup

We start with an easy one: the Betfair Chase. The duellers from last season’s Gold Cup, winner Native River and beaten favourite Might Bite, threw a gauntlet down on Bristol De Mai’s manor last Saturday and were put to the sword. The temptation is to jump to some premature conclusions: Bristol De Mai – Haydock specialist, Native River – very encouraging, Might Bite – gone.

I remain certain that flat tracks – and nippy Haydock in particular – play to Bristol De Mai’s absolute strengths, albeit his novice Cheltenham and Aintree Festival form told you (as argued many times here in the past) he doesn’t need deep ground to deliver a high-class effort. It’s just that he’s even more effective in the mud while otherwise superior opponents are utterly nullified by it.

Last Saturday, this bonny grey was a picture of reliability – getting in close to the fourth was the only hint he gave that Haydock’s fences had been slipped a cheeky stiffener prior to their opening jumps meeting…

(Punting on racing is such fun, isn’t it? It’s just one surprise after another! Last year – wow! – we found out a fortnight beforehand that the Betfair Chase distance had been extended by 1f 125yards and the brush-hurdles event wouldn’t be staged over brush hurdles!

Two weekends ago, we stumbled over the discovery that Cheltenham’s staying handicap hurdle was over a new trip – ta-daa! Then last Saturday, we were tickled by Haydock unexpectedly reprising its reputation for stiff fences but on its sharper, realigned track where horses have previously been able to walk through most obstacles, their strides virtually unchecked.

That’s on top of the ever-popular guess-the-ground-before-the-first competition at certain diverse venues – clue: it’s often unconnected with the prevailing weather. This keeps us on our toes all year long. What larks!)

2018 Betfair Chase - Bristol De Mai - Racing UK

… Those fences got the blame for Might Bite’s lifeless effort after he trailed home last of the five runners, 29 lengths adrift of the winner. Trainer Nicky Henderson – who, like jockey Nico de Boinville, had beforehand radiated confidence for a big run with underfoot conditions set to suit – was moved to inspect the fences after stablemate River Wylde’s fall in Haydock’s earlier graduation chase. Afterwards, he contended that once Might Bite had “rubbed” the first, he “gave himself a fright” and “lost his own belief”.

Speaking via phone on Racing UK’s Luck On Sunday show, Henderson said he would work with the yard’s jumping consultant Yogi Breisner, former performance manager to the British eventing team, to “put [Might Bite’s] confidence back together”.

This despite last year’s King George winner schooling “brilliantly” in the preceding week – “he literally took my breath away!” Henderson had testified on his Unibet blog (#ad) – albeit this was in the yard’s all-weather schooling ground because the unseasonal lack of rain has prevented the team from as yet using its turf facilities, no doubt akin to many other stables.

(This is yak, the impact of which I’m filing under *potentially not bunkum* in my mind palace; it may contribute to some odd or muted early performances or marked improvements later this season. How I’ll know that for sure is another matter…)

The fences may also have magnified third-placed Thistlecrack’s tendency towards scruffy jumping but the flaw in using them as your sole excuse is, of course, that they made little or no material difference to the winner and the runner-up. They adjusted and got on with it. To my mind, there was more to Might Bite’s defeat than taller, stiffer birch.

Watching the Gold Cup again reminds you that Native River outjumped him at most fences there, too. At the time, I put that – and his defeat – down to the unexpectedly testing ground but now I’m not so sure. I wonder whether Might Bite needs to be ridden aggressively or else his mojo is neutered, thus making him a less multi-dimensional horse than I had come to give him credit for?

When I consider Might Bite at his most spectacular, it’s until he fell in the 2016 Kauto Star Chase, when he turned the pace up to eleven in the 2017 RSA Chase (prior to pondering a quick one in the Guinness Village on the run-in) and when he was allowed to go toe-to-toe with Bristol De Mai on the second circuit of last year’s King George, until that rival broke.

You may recall I was underwhelmed by his reappearance at Sandown last season but, after his success in the King George, came to the conclusion that Henderson had succeeded in smoothing out this horse’s mental kinks without dampening the fire within. Now I’m not so sure. Given Might Bite was reported to have returned “perfectly sound and bright”, the way he held his head under pressure from the third last at Haydock was unappealing.

You might argue Might Bite saw the dark side when Native River took him to places he’d never been before in that Gold Cup slog but his subsequent Melling Chase success at Aintree says it’s not as simple as that.

On that occasion, in a shallow field compared with the Gold Cup, he quelled by seven lengths an upbeat Bristol De Mai – who was crucially a fresh horse after a 75-day break for an operation to correct his wind, therefore having missed the white heat of Cheltenham, and competing on his favoured flat track.

Might Bite in action at Haydock
Might Bite in action at Haydock

That was a classy performance, no doubt, but it wasn’t scintillating. Does Might Bite have to be in full-on attack mode in order to scintillate, particularly in terms of his jumping? Is he only at his brilliant best under a swashbuckling ride, winding up the pace from halfway and torching his opposition from a long way out?

Should that be de Boinville’s game plan at Kempton next month? And should connections therefore target *adopts mental brace position* the Ryanair rather than the Gold Cup at the 2019 Cheltenham Festival? Yup. That’s what I’m thinking. It’s a free country. (Currently.)

Whether or not this whimsy is valid – and it could turn out that connections’ fence-dominated analysis turns out to have more substance than I’m ceding it or it might just be that the fire simply burns less brightly, whatever the chosen tactics – I suspect Might Bite would have to get thumped in the King George to divert connections from a Gold Cup campaign, so this argument may well be academic.

There was some talk of Bristol De Mai perhaps needing to be fresh to be at his best, a thought very much against trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies’s religion. But he saw fellow front-footer Colin Tizzard do it with Native River last term...

I’d recommend trussing yourself to a lamppost six miles away at declaration time for Newbury in February, Nigel, to prevent your finger reflexively pressing the ‘declare’ button. (Whether you’re clothed or not is very much up to you. Perhaps the duffel-coat at least, given the time of year?)

“I don’t think it’s the track,” Twiston-Davies said to those who reduced Bristol De Mai’s triumph to that of a Haydock specialist – even though the horse is unbeaten in four starts there with the spikes in his form exactly correlating.

“He’s one of the best horses in the country,” he added, to no argument. “But he’s very fragile and keeping him 100 per cent is the problem.” Fragile in Twister terms means only five starts last season, six the season before and eight the one before that.

So the King George is the next stop – with Jockey Club Racecourses’ £1m bonus for winning the Betfair, King George and Gold Cup the dream – and were Might Bite not there or this time unable to bully him at his fences, Kempton is sufficiently flat to suit Bristol De Mai. He appeared perfectly happy racing right-handed as a novice. I can’t dismiss him but I can’t quite bring myself to fancy him either.

The ground at Kempton is unlikely to be that testing – it rarely is, hence *tape 1 side 1 rant 1* (obscure retro reference, kids) why it would be an act of wilful vandalism for Jockey Club Racecourses to rob us of this mid-winter oasis where speed horses can operate and instead move the King George to Sandown’s sluggers’ quagmire – so his key rivals probably won’t be at a disadvantage.

Everyone agrees Native River ran well – and that unsettles me. I’m much more comfortable when holding an outlying opinion. Synced co-pilot Richard Johnson’s view, in his Betway blog (#ad) (Are you going to do this every time – Ed? Yes, for the foreseeable future; it amuses me – Author) is typical: “He travelled well but I don’t think the ground really suited him. It was still a very encouraging start to the season… it bodes well going forward, especially on softer ground and stiffer tracks.”

Even if it rained apocalyptically between now and then – as President Trump knows it won’t – I still can’t see Kempton suiting Native River enough, much as part-owner Garth Broom has raised some well-argued points in his favour.

Broom still prefers Kempton as the next target over the Christmas Chase, even though Leopardstown is more likely to provide testing ground and despite the £1 million bonus already being lost.

Native River makes an encouraging return at Haydock
Native River makes an encouraging return at Haydock

Referring to Native River’s comfortable defeat by Tea For Two in Kempton’s Kauto Star Chase as a novice, Broom said: “He wasn’t the horse he is now and it was partly human error that day because we held him up – we ride him a lot differently now.

“I think you’ve still got to be a fair stayer to win the King George. Because they tend to get racing a long way out, it brings stamina into play. It also tends to suit those who race prominently.

“Obviously Kempton might not play to his strengths as much as Cheltenham but if he goes there and puts up a similar performance [to his Betfair Chase second] as we build up to the Gold Cup, we’ll be happy.”

I fear Native River may not be able to retain his prominent position at this sharp, flat track in a race that rarely offers any breathing space but I can see him hanging on in there by dint of his top-class attitude and excellent jumping, then rallying to good effect in the straight to finish in the places at the very least.

Regarding the Gold Cup, the only observation I’d make at this stage is: besides his innate ability and the unusually advantageous ground, his edge last March might have been the fact it was only his second start. He won’t be as fresh in 2019, clearly. That might be no problem – he had a heavy campaign and may have pressed on a shade too soon when third in 2017 (and arguably second on merit), after all – but it is a difference to bear in mind while we’re all assuming he’ll peak again at Cheltenham.

Tizzard believes Thistlecrack “ought to be right up there with Native River in the betting for the King George”. He added: “You forget what a bloody good horse he was 18 months ago – a World (Stayers) Hurdle winner going on to win the King George the following season – and he’s not finished yet, by no stretch of the imagination.”

The Betfair Chase was his return to action after being ruled out of the Gold Cup for a successive year with a stress fracture – and it was relatively encouraging, better than his King George fourth last year and vastly superior to his much-heralded reappearance in last season’s Long Distance Hurdle.

However, while acknowledging that overly stiff fences may have contributed, the balance of evidence suggests his jumping is simply not enough of an asset to threaten horses of the calibre of his Gold Cup-winning stablemate, two years his junior. It’s not enough to rev the still-high-class motor between obstacles.

It's entirely credible that Clan Des Obeaux recorded a career best in finishing fourth, 21lbs wrong at the weights with Native River according to official ratings, and this steadily maturing six-year-old has always been deemed a nascent class act by trainer Paul Nicholls.

“He is in the King George as well and you would have to consider it because he does like going right-handed,” he said. In fact, he adjusted right on several occasions in the Betfair Chase – not for the first time in his career.

Yet Nicholls added: “I don’t want to over-face him because he is only six – but next year in that race, he will be seven and he will be much more mature.” This is a project demanding patience.

Stablemate Politologue is definitely Kempton-bound after winning the Christy 1965 Chase at Ascot last Saturday. The plus points were, as ever, his dead-aim jumping and, these days, his tractability. Gone is his unfettered exuberance, exacerbating his latent vulnerability at the finish.

The rising ground of Ascot’s straight exaggerated that still-present habit of idling when the job seems done. (I’ll address the purported counter argument of his Aintree defeat of Min in the Ryanair section.) On Saturday he held on by a diminishing half-length – albeit he was conceding 6lbs to a revivified Charbel, who’d previously beaten subsequent BetVictor Gold Cup winner Baron Alco at Chepstow.

Nicholls is as confident as owner John Hales that Politologue will stay three miles at Kempton and indeed that pancake-flat track should combine with the horse’s other key assets to make him a very realistic place contender when stepping up to three miles for the first time.

If he were to get that involved, Hales would likely insist this grey ran in the Gold Cup as it’s the only major chasing trophy that hasn’t yet graced his mantlepiece. Nicholls may feel differently if the sentence, “I said to John: ‘Let’s just worry about one race’” is anything to go by. Whatever, I just can’t have Politologue at Cheltenham, in any race, at any price.

Politologue on his way to victory at Ascot
Politologue on his way to victory at Ascot

Definitly Red is likely Gold Cup-bound, according to trainer Brian Ellison who blames the ground for his well-held sixth last year. Having not needed to be at his best to win an imploded Charlie Hall Chase on his seasonal debut, this horse heads to Aintree next in an attempt to repeat his triumph in the Grade Two Many Clouds Chase. Super horse though he is, that’s his level.

Meanwhile, Noel Meade says recent Down Royal Champion Chase winner and Gold Cup fourth Road To Respect will skip the King George in favour of the Christmas Chase at Leopardstown – the race in which he beat subsequent Ryanair winner Balko Des Flos last year.

Road To Respect also thrashed that horse at Down Royal earlier this month when the maroon-and-white-stars outnumbered the opposition 2:1 in a six-runner race and no rival was prepared or able to put up a fight. Balko Des Flos was ridden as if very much needing the run and essentially coasted home after the third last.

The winner would prefer a sounder surface than he encountered in last year’s Gold Cup and yet of that Gigginstown pair it’s the vanquished who interests me more – for the reasons I argued, with utter futility, last year. I think Balko Des Flos would relish the longer trip and now we know he possesses both the class and pace required to augment that stamina.

Following his decidedly underwhelming seasonal debut, he’s currently an extraordinarily long 40/1 for the Gold Cup with Skybet and Bet365 when you consider the profile of most horses offered at shorter.

Whereas I think there are a number of horses in these silks who are likely contenders for the Ryanair, it wouldn’t surprise me to see Balko Des Flos wind up as their first string for the main event. The Gold Cup is the race they prioritise, after all. I’m even tempted enough to suggest an early speculative punt.

After the fallout from the Betfair Chase, the de facto Gold Cup favourite is last season’s accomplished RSA Chase winner Presenting Percy but 5/1 doesn’t tempt at this stage, highly though I regard him.

Unfavoured at the weights, JLT heroine Shattered Love and RSA runner-up Monalee were both beaten by recent Kerry National winner Snow Falcon on their seasonal debuts at Down Royal – form I’m regarding as equivalent to an early-season friendly until proved otherwise.

Shattered Love and Snow Falcon are both entered in the King George whereas Monalee – also a stayer in my book but far too prone to an unforced error – currently holds no entries.

The mare is another highly credible Gigginstown contender for the Gold Cup, having pulled right away from her Festival vanquished by seven lengths – a margin that would have been greater bar for her belting the last. Wherever Shattered Love sails this season, she will be aided by her gender allowance that, for mares this good, distortedly tips the balance their way.

Al Boum Photo, who might have been third to Presenting Percy at Cheltenham but for taking a tired fall at the second last, and Elegant Escape, who was bequeathed third, could both feature in this Saturday’s Ladbrokes Trophy at Newbury.

Al Boum Photo would have subsequently won Grade Ones at both Fairyhouse and Punchestown last season had jockey Paul Townend not suffered his infamous brain-freeze at the latter track. But the former was over 2m4f and the latter a funereally conducted, terminally messy affair in which he showed pace. In short, I think he’s more of a Ryanair proposition.

Elegant Escape is a galloper and has already beaten the progressive Thomas Patrick at Sandown this term in the intermediate chase won by Might Bite last.

Of last year’s Gold Cup also-rans, Anibale Fly looks an marathon performer who’d be disadvantaged by the usual Festival ground, Total Recall was under pressure before falling three out, Edwulf isn’t good enough and Killultagh Vic doesn't jump well enough – never has.

Sizing John, who won the 2017 Gold Cup during what was subsequently widely adjudged an arduous campaign, wasn’t sighted last term after a lifeless display in the Christmas Chase. He holds an entry in the John Durkan on Sunday week – the race in which this time last year all fleetingly appeared well, when he beat Djakadam.

Bellshill missed the first half of last season but ended up winning a Punchestown Grade One after throwing away, perhaps through exhaustion, the Irish Grand National. He finished ten lengths behind Might Bite in the 2017 RSA Chase and has undoubtedly improved since but I am yet to be convinced Cheltenham is his bag.

Nonetheless, he seems to be regarded as Mullins’ chief Gold Cup hope. This may not be the trainer’s last word on the subject, mind.

Ryanair Chase

As ever, it’s impossible to be certain whether any of those horses towards the forefront of this market will actually pitch up here. Therefore it may follow that I fancy the Ryanair second favourite and titleholder Balko Des Flos for the Gold Cup and the Gold Cup third favourite and runner-up last term, Might Bite, for this.

In both cases, the market laughs at my presumption with Might Bite not quoted anywhere for this race. It’s even too crackpot to register on Betfair’s exchange. (Go on, I dare you.)

As for the titleholder, he travelled silkily throughout when dismissing his predecessor Un De Sceaux in March prior to idling on the run-in when the job was long done. The manner in which the runner-up was brushed aside means the standout 14/1, even for so superb a chaser as him, doesn’t appeal – let alone quotes of half that.

Yet Un De Sceaux’s win-to-run strike rate continues to be phenomenal and, well placed as he will no doubt again be, he’s going to be hard to beat outside of the championship contests until age withers him.

Un De Sceaux wins at Punchestown
Un De Sceaux wins at Punchestown

Of course, Balko Des Flos would be a major force if turning up here again but I can’t help but feel his overly aggressively ridden flop against intrinsically swifter horses of the calibre of Politologue and Min in Aintree’s Melling Chase served to underline that his future should lie over a longer trip.

My reading of that race, by the way, is that it’s irrelevant in Ryanair terms. Strong-travelling Politologue holds more essential stamina than hard-pulling Min and so outstayed him, the illusion of a tussle to the line created entirely by the winner’s tendency to idle. As discussed above, the grey is ill-suited to Cheltenham and Min’s best chance is in the Champion Chase, as further argued in that section.

His trainer Willie Mullins is a key complicating factor for this division, plus ça change, because of the strength in depth of his yard. (Of course, Gordon Elliott must be coming up hard on his heels in this regard, but it’s less prevalent at this stage.) Hence the Mullins-trained Footpad is favourite for the Ryanair and second favourite for the Champion Chase behind Altior. He was eased for the two-mile event after falling, already beaten at the time, on his seasonal debut. The logic behind this was presumably: why would you take on the best horse in training next March when your case is already weaker?

It’s worth noting that Ted Walsh was suggesting Footpad was a Gold Cup horse even before his son Ruby had got back to the winner’s enclosure after last term’s Arkle procession. Mullins has also spoken in a similar vein, so it’s far from unlikely that he’ll end up in the Ryanair as a staging post en route to the 2020 Gold Cup.

It’s also worth mentioning that Mullins cited the Ryanair as a potential target for OLBG Mares’ Hurdle winner Benie Des Dieux after he’d lifted that trophy, too. Of his other Ryanair lurkers, as already mentioned, I’m most interested in Al Boum Photo.

However, I can’t entirely dismiss the notion that Altior could pitch up here and he’s 16/1 for this race currently. Clearly, if he runs in the Ryanair that puts the kybosh on my Might Bite whimsy but Altior has long shaped like rather more than a bang two-miler and I suspect that, were it not for his stablemate, Henderson might be having a go at the King George. He holds an entry.

Were he – gasp – beaten by Sceau Royal in the Tingle Creek next week (and I’ll argue that case in the next section), might his trainer be tempted to do what Paul Nicholls did with Kauto Star in 2006 – admittedly, having won at Sandown – and head to Kempton? Granted, it rather depends on how Might Bite’s remedial schooling fares but I would argue that a possibility now exists where little or none previously did.

Back on Earth, there is only a smattering of actual form to go on so far this season. Shattered Love and Monalee have been mentioned in the Gold Cup section after finishing second and third respectively to Snow Falcon in a Grade Two at Down Royal earlier this month.

The former pair raised themselves to join in with the race-fit winner on the dancefloor, even if the trip and conceding a penalty to the winner wasn’t quite their scene. I prefer both over staying distances.

However, The Storyteller – who outclassed his opponents off a mark of 147 in last season’s Festival Plate prior to inheriting a bizarrely unfolding Punchestown Grade One – accepted the Down Royal invitation only to spend the entire time chatting in the kitchen.

Ignore his contribution for form purposes. It’s worth recalling he hung fire for the whip at Cheltenham, however, running on only once Davy Russell switched to hands-and-heels riding.

JLT runner-up Terrefort – readily dismissed at Cheltenham by Shattered Love – returned in a small but perfectly formed edition of Sandown’s intermediate chase, won by Might Bite last year and Elegant Escape this. He was in trouble from an early stage, holding his tail at an uncomfortable angle, and was all but pulled up in last place.

Trainer Henderson has since reported on his Unibet blog (#ad) (OK, last time) that “he pulled his muscles quite badly” during the race and this week withdrew him from Saturday’s Ladbrokes Trophy.

Given there was palpably a physical problem, the extent to which he was eased for both this race and the Gold Cup was an act of uncharacteristic abandon by the bookmakers – albeit he may also want cut in the ground. Even so I wouldn’t be keen to write him off yet. He’s only a five-year-old and while weighty targets might be asking a shade much this season, even for a good-jumping precocious French-bred, he remains a promising horse.

We’ve also had a chaotic edition of the BetVictor Gold Cup in which the potential of unexposed Rather Be was left unexplored when he had his feet taken from under him by a rival’s fall at the fourth last. It was too far out to say for sure whether he’d have been involved but jockey Jerry McGrath’s frustration was palpable.

Rather Be was headed close home in last season’s Close Brothers Novices’ Handicap Chase at the Festival by Mister Whitaker, who had since progressed further by winning at Carlisle on his seasonal debut. However, he never seemed to be travelling in the BetVictor prior to ultimately plugging into a distant fourth behind Baron Alco and was seemingly unable to attain the prominent position favoured by the circumstances of this race.

The ravine between high-class handicapper and Ryanair winner is perhaps exemplified by Frodon although he was only six when relegated to the stragglers in the 2018 edition, ultimately finishing 37 lengths adrift of Balko Des Flos. Yet he was second in the BetVictor from a mark of 161; Rather Be continues to be rated 149 and Mister Whitaker 152.

Baron Alco on his way to victory in the BetVictor Gold Cup
Baron Alco on his way to victory in the BetVictor Gold Cup

Charbel has returned to his best this season with a prior defeat of Baron Alco and a rapidly gaining second to the idling Politologue at Ascot last Saturday. However, I’m not convinced there’s much more improvement in him, even though he’s lightly raced at the trip – and there needs to be. He’s also fallen on both of his starts over fences at Cheltenham.

Others to mention in this division are (best available prices quoted) 14/1 shot Waiting Patiently, 16/1 Fox Norton, 25/1 Top Notch and Disko, 16/1 in one place, all of whom missed Cheltenham last season.

Waiting Patiently is presciently named. Trainer Ruth Jefferson consciously uncoupled from Cheltenham due to combined concerns about the undulating track, his propensity for novicey errors and a theory that he’s best with more time between his races.

This despite the weather providing the suitably testing ground you don’t usually get for the Festival. If he’s ever going to run there – and I also tend to think the track won’t suit him – last season may have been the gift horse.

He was then ruled out of Aintree with a setback that has also prevented an early-season return to action – although, to be fair, the prevailing going would likely have had the same effect. The King George, on the site of his final success for the late Malcolm Jefferson, Ruth’s dad, is now the aim… if indeed he makes that.

“The King George is the main target at the moment, but if we don’t make it we could always drop back to two miles and he’ll run in the Clarence House,” owner Richard Collins, who’s also eying an option in Ireland, told Attheraces.

“He summered very well, we’ve taken our time with him to get him freshened up. We’ve picked him up the last week or so, but being ground dependent, we’ll take it one step at a time.”

Fox Norton was second favourite behind Un De Sceaux in the Ryanair market when ruled out with “a slight suspensory injury” in late February. However, he’d last been seen jumping repeatedly left and pulled up in the King George, having previously been downed by Politologue in the Tingle Creek.

It’s just about possible he’s better going left-handed and he’s unexposed over the Ryanair trip but he’ll need to prove he retains his ability. He currently holds no entries.

Henderson ruled out Top Notch from the Ryanair because “Sarah Shreeve, who rides him every single day and knows the horse inside out, said she felt he’d been a bit too quiet and isn’t his usual perky self”. This followed a dull effort behind Waiting Patiently at Ascot.

However, this likeable horse bounced back to his best at Sandown in April when conceding weight and a beating to a fair field. He then bypassed a talked-of target in France over the summer and is yet to prove himself equal to open Grade One company.

The assertive ride Disko received to defeat Our Duke in the 2017 Flogas Chase lingers longer in my mind than the baffling reversion to patient tactics in that term’s JLT, when finishing a place behind Top Notch. We saw him just once last season, winning a Grade Two in Down Royal in November. Afterwards, it has now emerged that he fractured his skull and a wither in his box in a freak accident.

“We feared the worst, but he has actually healed well, and we are happy with how he's going,” reported trainer Noel Meade late last month. "We didn't think he'd be ready before Christmas, but he's coming along nicely and he will be ready in about a month.”

Disko won't be at Kempton on Boxing Day
Disko - missed his spring engagements last term

Disko is some bad-luck doll. Here’s what I wrote in January after speaking directly to Meade about the horse’s no-show for intended targets in December 2017:


… [Meade] told me: “Disko had a little bit of a problem with his hock, so we had to stand him for a couple of weeks and were unable to train him for the Irish Gold Cup.”

Asked whether it was the same problem that caused Disko to miss the King George, Meade said: “It was and it wasn’t. He went lame on me for a couple of days before the John Durkan and we thought it was his foot but nothing was identified.

“He then went back into work up on the run up to Christmas but Theresa Maguire [sister of ex-jockey Jason], who rides him all the time, said he wasn’t 100% right when going left-handed but he was fine when going right-handed. So we investigated and we found a problem with his hock.”

Meade said he’s “hopeful” that he’ll be able to train Disko for the Cheltenham Gold Cup but would know more after a week’s progress. Failing that, the horse will head to Liverpool or Punchestown.”


In actuality, Disko kept none of those engagements. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he is not entered anywhere now either. You have to wonder whether, if he makes it back to the track, he will be anything like as good as he was – and even that needed improvement for the Ryanair. While I wish this star-crossed seven-year-old well, you’d need 116/1 to even have him on your mind in betting terms.

Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase

Let’s start with some important action in this division: namely, Sceau Royal accounting for Simply Ned more readily than the disparity and weight terms suggest in the Grade Two Shloer Chase earlier this month.

Yes, he was receiving 3lbs from the veteran runner-up but he went through the race – his first chase outside novice company – on autopilot despite having not been sighted on a racecourse since January. He was also returning to the scene of his sole defeat over fences as a novice.

Sceau Royal isn’t the scopiest chaser you’ll see – possibly not even in the next at Exeter, let alone at the Festival – but he’s catlike in his accuracy and efficient at the leap. He also travels strongly, settles tractably and tries hard.

He may be unfortunate to be blossoming in the deepest division currently going in British jump racing but, for reasons outlined in the Ryanair section, this assumes we know how Altior and Footpad will ultimately be campaigned this season. With Sceau Royal, there’s no argument: he’s a bang two-miler so, for that reason alone, 14/1 for the Champion Chase is very reasonable.

Trainer Alan King has confirmed that Sceau Royal’s next start will be in the Tingle Creek, Altior’s intended comeback vehicle – and possibly also a target for Un De Sceaux, who won this Sandown Grade One two years ago. If all three turn up, it will be a sight to behold but I can’t help but feel the Grade Two Hilly Way will be calling Mullins’ name instead.

Sceau Royal and Simply Ned do battle at Cheltenham
Sceau Royal and Simply Ned do battle at Cheltenham

Yet although Altior is a three-times course winner, the evidence of April’s Celebration Chase suggests he could well be vulnerable first time out to a race-fit Sceau Royal. He had to get down and dirty until after the last to see off the likes of San Benedeto then, shaping ever more clearly like a horse who’d prefer more of a trip these days.

The caveat is, of course, that he’d had a far-from-straightforward season with a breathing issue and corrective operation keeping him off games until February. His Champion Chase win in that context, given the depth of talent amassed against him, was a monstrous effort. He could be forgiven a recoil.

Returning to the Shloer, Simply Ned recorded his third runner-up spot in that event in five successive years. He’s no pushover on a going day, such as when promoted in the stewards’ room to a Grade One victory last December after a disadvantageously ridden Min had blocked his challenge.

Trainer Nicky Richards has indicated that 11-year-old Simply Ned’s fine Cheltenham effort had “booked his ticket” for a return trip to Ireland next month.

Back in fourth, Brain Power was never able to get involved in the Shloer at any stage – much like his stumbling-into-second in the Arkle. While his aptitude for racing left-handed remains in question, so do his capabilities as a chaser.

In his Paddy Power column (#ad) (so I lied), it read as though Ruby Walsh was characteristically trying to manoeuvre Min towards the Ryanair rather than the Champion Chase. “If he’d have settled in Aintree, he’d have won so there’s no doubt he gets 2m4f,” he asserted.

I beg to differ. I think Paul Townend was holding onto nothing in the latter stages that day, hence an idler like Politologue – admittedly on a flat track that suits him – was able to get past Min after travelling less well. The runner-up then only appeared to rally because the winner had, to my eye, pretty much downed tools.

If we learned one thing about Min last season, fortheloveofgod, it’s that his optimum circumstances are a strongly run two-mile race in which he can take a lead. We saw that when he won the Grade One Dublin Chase by 12 lengths from Simply Ned.

The other thing we learned, sadly for his connections (and this column’s ante-post book!), is that even in those circumstances, he’s still not as good as Altior. Therefore, I understand that Mullins will surely seek to play a different card against that rival.

That said, at the time I did wonder out loud at the big screen – as you do, if you’re in inoperable obsessive – whether Townend should have kicked on when he saw Altior was travelling less well on his inside after the third last.

Now, given the amount Altior typically found when switched right around his main rivals, the result would probably have been no different. But it was no good hanging around, setting him an easier bridge to build. I would have liked to have found out.

Of course, stuff can happen. If we’re approaching Cheltenham with an Altior-free Champion Chase, we shouldn’t forget it was Min who exerted him to record his biggest figure yet (11 lengths clear of third-placed God’s Own) in his unbeaten record over obstacles.


Sky Bet's latest Festival Fever
Sky Bet's latest Festival Fever


The new ace in Mullins’ two-mile pack was obviously going to be Footpad. Yet having earned plaudits for the surefootedness of his jumping in his early chasing career, he’s been distinctly shakier in two of his last three starts.

On his seasonal debut, chasing a fair pace set by ultimate winner Saint Calvados, he blundered through the third despite not being hassled. He jumped carefully or awkwardly after that, perhaps having already incurred the overreach he returned with, prior to clipping the top of the last and slitheringly losing his footing on landing.

It was therefore a relief to hear from Walsh, in interview with Oli Bell on Racing UK last week, that nothing more serious had emerged from Footpad’s tumble and he’s on target to appear at Leopardstown over Christmas.

However, Footpad also made a sizeable error when chasing the nothing-short-of-daft pace contested between Saint Calvados and Petit Mouchoir in last term’s Arkle. Again, he wasn’t being pressed by rivals jumping upsides and yet he crashed through the sixth and then jumped carefully at the next.

His jumping became more assured as the leaders inevitably unravelled but it made me question how he might jump in an open Grade One field at championship two-mile pace. In short, I don’t think it’s impossible that he’ll be upped in trip sooner rather than later. And if Bellshill is Mullins’ best Gold Cup shot… Just saying…

The Leopardstown success of Saint Calvados should in no way be underestimated. It also should have been no surprise, given going into the Arkle his on-paper form was comparable with that of Footpad – although admittedly it had been achieved by bossing opposition inferior to that which his rival had encountered.

Given the way Saint Calvados was ridden at Cheltenham, we never got to find out whether he could reproduce his best form there but the fact he broke before Petit Mouchoir was perhaps telling. Whereas Saint Calvados elicited mistakes from his duellist early on, the head-to-head was having the opposite effect from the sixth fence onwards.

Yet neither horse might ultimately cut it at the very top table if they remain one-dimensional in their tactics, particularly in a division in which three of their key rivals – Altior, Sceau Royal and Min – like to have things set up for them to knock down.

Indeed, Saint Calvados could have competition for the role of front-runner in the Tingle Creek on Saturday week with Speredek potentially joining the party. The pace-setters will place each other at a disadvantage if they both bring a bottle and, again, the less experienced horse might crack first.

Speredek went hell for leather in a competitive two-mile chase at Ascot last Saturday, only reeled in by Caid Du Lin only as the line approached. Afterwards, his trainer Nigel Hawke was considering Sandown as his next assignment.

“He must go right-handed, so why not?” he asked, rhetorically. “Never be afraid of one horse?”

In fact, there are likely to be at least two of concern but the point stands nonetheless. That effort was at least as good as Speredek’s second to Un De Sceaux in the Clarence House.

Returning to Team Mullins, news broke earlier this month that former child star Douvan is out for the season with a leg injury… OR IS HE? Connections have earned the right to have such announcements treated with the utmost scepticism.

We thought he was out of Champion Chase last season but he rose from his sickbed to play a startlingly lead role… until taking off on a prayer at the fourth last – usually an inviting fence – and deploying no landing gear.

Let’s recap this six-time Grade One winner’s recent veterinary history: he fractured his pelvis in the 2017 Champion Chase and was “intermittently” lame for much of the first half of last season. Now he’s incurred a lesion on a tendon at the back of his pastern.

“It has turned out that the problem is with the same leg that troubled him a year ago,” revealed Mullins. “This time the injury is higher up on the leg.

“It’s an unusual injury, although Dawn Run [the mare whom Willie’s father Paddy trained, the only horse yet to win both the Champion Hurdle and Gold Cup] had a similar problem many years ago and it looks as if it’s going to be enough to keep Douvan on the sidelines this season.”

Even if the prognosis improves and he does a double-Lazarus, it’s hard to think Douvan’s massive talent has been anything other than thwarted by now. What a great shame if that proves to be the case.

Stablemate Great Field was also on the sidelines for much of last season prior to returning with a substantial defeat of Doctor Phoenix in a Navan Grade Two in late March.

Walsh also recently reported in his blog that Great Field has matured into less of a harem-scarem racer, saying: “He’s a horse with a huge amount of ability and he’s getting more settled as he gets older.”

He’s an interesting emergent talent in this division for owner JP McManus – as is the Enda Bolger-trained Ballyoisin, who readily dispensed with a below-par third Ordinary World in a four-runner Navan Grade Two earlier this month.

Novice chasers

The most notable novice-chasing performance to date wasn’t difficult to spot: Lalor’s almost foot-perfect debut at Cheltenham was an accomplished opening bid for the Arkle.

Beforehand, it was hard to say whether his peak performances to date were associated with Aintree’s very different track or the booking of Richard Johnson. After this early Grade Two success, evidence is mounting that the champion jockey is the clinching factor.

“Lalor's jumping has been good at home but to do it in public isn't as straightforward but he learned plenty and down the back straight it really clicked,” Johnson reported. “He's got scope but he's also quite nimble and clever as well, and the way he finished off the race was really pleasing. You have to think of him as an Arkle horse.

“After winning the bumper at Aintree, you'd think he'd want further but at the moment all his form is over two [miles] so I think the sensible thing is to stay at two.”

As Lalor bounded clear on the run-in, TV pictures showed trainer Kayley Woollacott’s cheers of encouragement become overwhelmed by the enormity of the moment. This was the success for which her husband Richard had built the foundations prior to taking his own life in January. He had long battled with mental health problems.

Kayley has since spoken bravely and openly about her husband’s depression issues. At the same time, she has shown unimaginable strength in taking over the family business and realising Richard’s legacy. Lalor is the embodiment of this spirit – the horse whom Kayley’s husband always maintained was the best they’d got.

You can check in with Lalor and his charmingly gentle relationship with Kayley’s three-year-old daughter Bella, “the small trainer”, via Kayley’s Twitter page:

In the race, there wasn’t much pace on, with Claimaintakinforgan and Pingshou swapping the lead. Lalor dived a little at the second but soon settled into a rhythm and the semblance of coming off the bridle approaching the third last soon proved to be merely that. By the next fence, he had the race won with a silky jump and was left in splendid isolation all the way home, flicking his big lugs perkily.

The Grade One Henry VIII Novices’ Chase at Sandown on Saturday week would be an obvious next step for Lalor. Although he has to date recorded far superior form when racing left-handed, at this stage in his career that is probably only a function of opportunity rather than a preference of orientation.

Behind him at Cheltenham, Dynamite Dollars came through for second after having previously won over fences at Market Rasen. This was a creditable effort that provided no reason why he should ever reverse form with the winner.

Trainer Nicholls had won this race ten times in the past, including with the likes of Azertyuiop and Al Ferof. It must be hoped, but not assumed, that he’s got better ammunition at home.

Claimantakinforgan looked badly in need of a step up in trip and Pingshou of the run, after 572 days on the sidelines. At the age of eight, the latter is a latecomer to fences in what has been a promising but disjointed career.

Defi Du Seuil jumped the first few fences as if on a pogo-stick, his aim being to get as much daylight between himself and the obstacle – cartoon-like – as possible. This naïve style wasn’t conducive to a competitive effort and his unbeaten 2016/17 juvenile season over hurdles now seems a very long time ago.

In the Arkle betting, Lalor trades about a point shorter than Kalashnikov, who also made a winning chase debut in a smaller and shallower field at tricky Warwick. The fences in the back straight there come thick and fast, especially for a beginner, and the Supreme runner-up responded with a novicey but satisfactory performance.

“Kalashnikov put it a safe round of jumping and it was job done,” commented trainer Amy Murphy. “It's all about learning a lot here and he was only about 85 per cent fit as we haven't been able to use the grass gallops that much.”


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Next stop may well be Plumpton on Monday because there is a £60,000 bonus for any winner of the track’s five nominated races who goes on to win at the Cheltenham Festival in the same season. This means Kalashnikov will be learning his trade in far calmer waters than Lalor – not an advantage in my book.

Over in Ireland, Supreme fourth Paloma Blue delivered an underwhelming chase debut when only fourth behind Jetz in a 2m1f beginners’ chase at Navan earlier this month. The winner, who raced like a stayer over hurdles last season, was reported to have suffered from back problems in the past.

Meanwhile, Voix Du Reve – still best remembered for falling at the last when perhaps coming to win the 2016 Fred Winter – has been busy all summer, running seven times already.

The last three starts have been over fences and his seven-length Grade Two defeat of Hardline at Punchestown earlier this month was his best yet, although rider Paul Townend testified that he didn’t jump as sharply over the larger-scale fences as he had previously at Galway.

Going up in distance, Count Meribel won an eventful 2m4f novices’ chase at Cheltenham in which cases for doing better can be made both for him and a number of his opponents. The gallop was not true, however, meaning that a length covered the first four home.

Count Meribel had to recover from clouting the second last just as he’d moved into a narrow lead and at the final fence, he was also inconvenienced by the latest of runner-up Le Breuil’s many leaps out to his right, so he did well to win.

The winner benefitted from previous chase experience but he is a far better version of himself over the larger obstacles than over hurdles. Having joined the Twiston-Davies team along with his former trainer Jim Old, Count Meribel has either the JLT or the RSA Chase as his ultimate target this season.

Mr Whipped is a thorough stayer, suited by the mud, and therefore made a highly encouraging start to his chasing career in fourth; had he not got in close and jumped so upright at the last, he’d have been breathing down the winner’s neck. However, I wonder whether the stop-start pace flattered stablemate Jenkins in third.

Yet it’s highly likely that White Moon, the highly regarded Tizzard-trained grey returning from wind surgery, would have won this race on his chase debut had he not fallen when unsighted and short of landing room at the last. His jumping had taken some time to warm up and it must be hoped his confidence isn’t dented by this experience.

Former Irish Point winner Jerrysback, who’d impressed in two unbeaten starts over hurdles two seasons ago but hadn’t been seen for 633 days, jumped too scruffily in rear to remain involved.

The following day at the same course, Ibis Du Rheu finally got off the mark in his third season over the larger obstacles with a proficient performance that had trainer Paul Nicholls talking of the NH Chase and Grand National.

Last year’s Topham third, the mare Theatre Territory, was a length back in second so the principals had a serious experience edge over The World’s End, who’d previously won a quiet little affair at Chepstow on his chase debut.

However, the 2017 Grade One Sefton winner – who failed to cut the mustard as a staying hurdler in open company last season – failed to enhance his reputation even if he emerged as the best horse at the weights. It was an effort more in keeping with the NH Chase, also, rather than any pretensions of the RSA.

We will learn a lot more about the relative merits within these divisions over the next six weeks in particular but some form already in the book to note includes the mare La Bague Au Roi’s defeat of Lostintranslation at Newbury earlier this month – both look as though they’ll make the grade over fences – and Albert Bartlett winner Kilbricken Storm’s laboured, right-jumping winning chase debut over three miles in heavy ground at Ffos Las.

Tough nut Lil Rockerfeller has already clocked up three wins over fences to augment his runaway triumph on the Flat at Goodwood this summer. The latest of them was a right-adjusting, workmanlike success at Exeter with the cheekpieces reapplied. I may be over-protective about this hard-knocking, versatile horse but I worry about him when targets such as the Kauto Star Chase are mentioned.

Delta Work, a mildly fortuitous winner of the Pertemps Final back in March, made harder work of winning his 4-runner Navan chase debut than the market predicted but he nonetheless did well to recover from a less-than-fluent leap at the last.

Third-placed stablemate Ben Dundee has since comfortably taken a Punchestown beginners’ chase with the likes of perennial novice Mall Dini and Grade One-winning novice hurdler Tower Bridge in the backwash.

Given Melon is sticking to hurdles, the two novice chasers I’m most eagerly anticipating are debutant Santini, third in the Albert Bartlett despite his inexperience and then triumphant in the Sefton last season, and the returning Topfthegame, who fell on his only start over fences last season. Both are built to excel at this discipline.

However, who’s to say good-lookin’ Ballymore hero Samcro won’t switch to fences if he pitches up in the Fighting Fifth against Champion Hurdler Buveur D’Air and again has his hurdling limitations exposed? But that’s a subject for the next Road…


Road To Cheltenham - recommended bet:

Balko Des Flos each-way at 40/1 with Sky Bet or Bet365 for the Gold Cup


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