No sooner had you digested part one then part two arrives - and we have another bet, a 12/1 chance in the Unibet Champion Hurdle.
Welcome to the second part of Road To Cheltenham: The 2018/19 Comeback. This edition deals with the hurdlers before we hit our stride again with weekly updates from next week.
I’m amazed to find it also includes a second ante-post bet in as many instalments. I hope I’m not setting off too fast, setting unsustainable early fractions…
Unibet Champion Hurdle
“He’s not the messiah; he’s a very naughty boy.” More likely, of course, Samcro is neither but that doesn’t mean he couldn’t win an Arkle. At the time of writing, however, he’s second favourite for the Champion Hurdle and due to clash heads with the holder of that crown, Buveur D’Air, in Saturday’s Fighting Fifth.
Not only that but Supreme winner Summerville Boy and Samcro’s recent destroyer Bedrock are also in the line-up. It’s the most exciting renewal of the Newcastle Grade One that I can recall for some time.
Samcro was weak in the market prior to his opening Down Royal defeat – “for the first time when he stays on his feet”, said the commentator, stretching a point. For he’d also been beaten when falling alongside but independently of Melon at the third last in the Punchestown Champion Hurdle won by Supasundae.
On that occasion, he’d moved menacingly into the slipstream of pace-setting Wicklow Brave whereas Melon had hurdled less fluently and worked a shade harder from a touch further back to get upsides. The race appeared poised to develop into a duel between them when they both departed.
Samcro’s return was anticipated to be a 4/9 slam-dunk but there were flickers of anxiety even as far as three out when he was niggled along to match strides with front-running Sharjah. The pair got duelling from that stage and Samcro had dispensed with the leader by the next hurdle but was immediately joined and then headed by Bedrock, who had been ridden a small way off the front two by Rachael Blackmore.
Samcro then rallied but was held at the last when, for good measure, Blackmore allowed Bedrock to drift across him to the rail. All in all, it was a stuffy performance from a horse expected to come on for the run but still to be comfortably good enough to beat a winner rated 11lbs his inferior.
Now, with none of the connections having blinked at an early-season battle in the Fighting Fifth, a distinctly less godlike Samcro faces a distinctly less invincible Buveur D’Air – because that horse only scrambled home against Melon when winning his second Champion Hurdle last March.
In doing so, he became the first horse to claim a second success in this hurdling pinnacle since Hurricane Fly regained his crown in 2013 and the first since Hardy Eustace in 2005 to win back-to-back editions. This term he aims to emulate Istaqbraq’s third successive win in 2000, a feat only matched by four other horses in history – Hatton’s Grace, Sir Ken, Persian War and See You Then.
It’s hard to cite any reason why Buveur D’Air wasn’t as impressive last season as his odds of 4/6 presaged except for the merit of the opposition – he’d had a trouble-free preparation, the race was designed to suit due to front-running stablemate Charli Parcs and he was proven on testing ground. (Yet perhaps he is, in fact, better on a sounder surface?)
Clearly, Willie Mullins believes he can find at least a neck of improvement in Melon because that tall horse, surely designed for chasing, is being kept over hurdles this season. The sailing should be plainer with him this time around, now that connections can be sure that a strongly run race and no hood are required to bring out the best in him.
Melon may reappear in the Hatton’s Grace on Sunday, having missed the Morgiana due to working “poorly” according to his trainer. He was replaced by Faugheen, the once-peerless 2015 Champion Hurdle winner, who underlined once and for all that he’s no longer quick or talented enough for this event. And that’s whichever side of the “they-cut-each-others’-throats” debate you’re on – #teamWalsh, as discussed in the Stayers’ Hurdle section.
The Mullins yard also has Dawn Run winner Laurina, one of the best novice hurdlers of last season but who missed her intended comeback in the Coral Hurdle last Saturday due to her trainer judging the ground to be too fast. She’s also entered in the Hatton’s Grace and will be a potent force, in receipt of an advantageous mare’s allowance, wherever she goes all season. Of course, that could be – sigh – the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle.
Back at Down Royal, Scottish trainer Iain Jardine was justly rewarded for his enterprise in taking on Samcro with the race-fit Bedrock, who seemed to record a performance around 10lbs superior to the best of his previous 10 starts. Such improvement is by no means impossible from this young horse but I’m sceptical about how his small-field success panned out until it’s proved otherwise.
Talk of scepticism brings me back to Samcro, about whom I was predisposed to be underwhelmed – such was the relentless volume of cheerleading – when clapping eyes on him for the first time in March.
Then he swaggered into the paddock ahead of the Ballymore and I recalibrated. It looked like he’d scared off much of the substance of his opposition, however, and he won the race readily, travelling strongly.
However, I’m not convinced he’s a Champion Hurdler and I wonder whether the significance of trainer Gordon Elliott electing to take on slick-jumping Buveur D’Air this early in the season indicates that he wants to find out the answer to that question soon enough to divert this horse towards an Arkle if need be?
Owners, the Gigginstown Stud, are known for seeking future chasing stars rather than top hurdlers and if he isn’t going to go to the very top over hurdles, why would they waste time trying? Of course, Samcro will have a race-fitness edge over Buveur D’Air so it’s going to be interesting.
To my mind, this unexpected match-up presents a great opportunity for a bet right now. I wouldn’t normally get so involved so early but the market is offering a now-or-never moment with Summerville Boy.
Road To Cheltenham Recommended bet:
Back Summerville each-way for Unibet Champion Hurdle at 12/1
(Click here to back now with Sky Bet at above price)
That he is also declared for this hot Fighting Fifth can be interpreted as fighting talk from in-form trainer Tom George and, not surprisingly, his horse was widely trimmed by bookmakers from 14/1 in a couple of places and to 10/1 in some when he was confirmed for Newcastle. Let’s take the 12/1 that broadly remains.
To be clear, I could see him beaten on Saturday – his seasonal debut and first start outside of novice company – and yet still fancy him strongly for the Champion Hurdle. All I’d need to see are flashes of the mature article – think Looks Like Trouble hunting up reigning Gold Cup champion See More Business in the 1999 Charlie Hall. (Sigh, those were the days at Wetherby, a long time gone.)
I don’t know why that example sprang to mind but it’s a lovely bit of nostalgia and, if you take a look at it...
...I think it encapsulates what you’re looking for in the autumn of a second-season campaigner who’s looking to transition into a champion by March. Flashes, rather than the whole of the moon, are quite acceptable at this stage.
Of course, defeat risks bookmakers pushing out Summerville Boy in the betting. Or, at least, it used to do, when ante-post betting was king and men were allowed to bet like men. I’m prepared to risk that because 12/1 is simply wrong; each way because he’s such a strong stayer at the trip.
He was by far the best horse in the Sky Bet Supreme. That he lost his position, dropping from a readily advancing third to seventh at the second last when unbalanced and stumbling in an attempt to manoeuvre around persistently right-jumping Getabird, and that he also made a hash of the last but yet still ran down a not-stopping horse of the calibre of Kalashnikov is incredibly auspicious. He clocked an identical time to Buveur D’Air, carrying 3lbs less, despite all that.
Newcastle will suit him, as a strong stayer at two miles; he handles soft ground and connections expected him to mature a great deal from his profile as a novice hurdler to the extent that Noel Fehily wondered whether he’d be ready for a Supreme.
On Saturday, he could do with Bleu Et Rouge, on his first start for Ben Haslam but still running in JP McManus’s silks, engaging new tactics to ensure a strongly run race for his owner’s first string… but Cheltenham in March is the main thing. Let’s see flashes.
For the second year running, Henderson is talking in terms of the Champion Hurdle for the mare Verdana Blue, who was withdrawn from the 2018 renewal due to the unfavourably testing ground and has since posted a career-best victory against the boys in Wincanton’s Elite Hurdle.
Her stuck-in-traffic Greatwood fourth, when not as perspicaciously ridden as the winner, was at least as good as that. So she’s going the right way but with plenty still to find. Given she can’t stand testing ground, it’s possible we may not see her again until March.
Sun Bets Stayers’ Hurdle
Willie Mullins has won the last two editions of the Stayers’ Hurdle and titleholder Penhill is favourite to retain that crown. If connections stick to their customary M.O., we won’t get an opportunity to assess the titleholder’s wellbeing until he saunters into the paddock in the minutes prior to the race.
Why change a winning formula? It’s the one Mullins favoured with the outstanding (but frustratingly campaigned) Quevega, too, and she won six Mares’ Hurdles at the Festival that way. Penhill has made his seasonal debut there for the past two seasons, winning the Albert Bartlett and Stayers’ Hurdle successively, thank you very much.
On neither occasion were those Grade Ones strongly run – unexpectedly so, in the case of last season because the best chance for upwardly mobile stayer Sam Spinner had been thought to be by forcing a true pace. However, perhaps a concern about unusually testing ground, the withdrawal of other likely front runners and a misjudgement by his jockey Joe Colliver – riding for the first time at the track in that race – meant it didn’t pan out as many had envisaged, including me.
So Penhill remains untested over a truly run three miles at Cheltenham but that might never happen – unless Colliver gives it a better go in March. (The fact Sam Spinner finished a rallying fifth under disadvantageous tactics is a very good reason why 25/1 about his second chance is far too big, by the way. He returns in the Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury on Friday.)
Penhill was scalped by a resurgent Faugheen on his only other start last season, at the Punchestown Festival. On that occasion, David Mullins nicked several lengths at the start on the winner and was permitted an easy lead, the main body of the field (bar La Bague Au Roi and Bacardys) fatally letting him get on with it.
Before it became obvious that Mullins had sewn them all up tactically, Paul Townend and Penhill made an effort to get into a better position but that exertion told from after the penultimate flight and Faugheen wasn’t for stopping that day. Thus, a deep field on paper became a one-sided event with an end-of-term feel about it. It’s form not to be taken on face value but an entirely respectable run from Penhill nonetheless.
The once-invincible machine Faugheen had previously sputtered through last season’s two-mile engagements, bar for his clock-substantiated drubbing of a dimmed Jezki on his seasonal return.
This term he was beaten on debut in a manner that, initially at least, put his trainer and rider at variance prior to both seeming to agree on – I think – the wrong conclusion. Or perhaps the diplomatic conclusion, in Ruby Walsh’s case? (There’s a first time for everything…)
It all went down in an anti-climactic Morgiana Hurdle earlier this month, in which both Samcro and Supasundae were late non-runners and Faugheen was a late call-up replacement for Melon, who’d not pleased Mullins as much – in fact, he’d “worked poorly” – during his preparatory training.
Walsh set the pace on Faugheen but was closely attended and then pressed by a keen Tombstone while Townend shadowed them on Sharjah, who had himself flopped behind Bedrock previously. Tombstone made a mistake at the third last and began to struggle, leaving Sharjah to slipstream his stable companion and then run readily past him two furlongs out.
“I thought they went too fast in front and killed each other,” a half-taciturn Mullins told Gary O’Brien in an Attheraces interview that seemed to imply more than was literally said. “We’re lucky to have a guy like Paul [Townend], sitting behind and letting the two of them at it. He was just cool enough to sit there.”
He also mentioned: “Ruby said to me he’s [meaning Faugheen’s] too slow but I’m not buying that – he worked too well in the week.”
For his part, Walsh sort-of stuck to his guns in his role as – I kid you not – “columnist for Paddy Power News” (#mad) when saying: “His form is way better over three miles and that’s the way he rode on Sunday – like a horse who just wanted a trip.”
Littlejohn, I mean Walsh added: “You’re never going to get any better if you don’t realise you’re making mistakes. I set out on Faugheen doing what I thought was right on paper but it didn’t work out. You can’t live your life in hindsight and you can’t change what’s gone by. You can only go forward.
“Faugheen had been showing plenty of spark at home and I thought there would be more of a turn of foot. Maybe Willie is right – maybe we did too much for the first mile of the race.”
Here’s the thing: I don’t think they did. Granted, Faugheen and Tombstone were locked together and clear of the eventual winner but never more than five lengths, maximum, in front.
Comparative sectionals to the third hurdle – the fourth and fifth were omitted due to low sun – have Faugheen arriving there 9.5 seconds quicker than horses rated 40lbs inferior to him in the earlier two-mile handicap hurdle but that was steadily run, as the general bunching and overall time also informs us.
It was a good pace, in my opinion, but not a self-defeating one and – by his standards – Faugheen even jumped quite well. The ten-year-old former champion then just got outpaced by a quicker, younger horse. As Walsh had earlier said in a Racing UK interview: “It was disappointing how little pick-up there was in Faugheen.” He’d have eaten Sharjah for breakfast in the old days, no matter how fast he’d gone.
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Why Mullins was on-the-path-towards-critical, openly, about Walsh’s tactics is worth pondering. This is all speculation and cod-psychoanalysis but let’s kick on.
First, he’s very protective about Faugheen, as he was about Hurricane Fly before him – usually in response to people comparing Faugheen favourably to The Fly! And so Mullins should be. In his pomp, Faugheen was the best hurdler since the mighty Istabraq. His trainer also believes the light hasn’t yet gone out, but he’s also not objective on that point.
Second, he’s got mildly tetchy in the past when deeming his opponents’ – meaning Gordon Elliott and/or Gigginstown, obv – race tactics to have been framed around beating his horses, which they weren’t on this occasion (in my opinion). It’s always uncomfortable when someone else checks your privilege.
Third, it had been a turbulent week in the inevitably oscillating relationship of trainer and stable jockey, with Walsh having delivered his painful last-fence motif on both Footpad (beaten when) and Saldier (likely but not certain winner – a dreaded five-year-old, Champion Hurdle-bound) eight days earlier at Naas.
Fourth, like most powerful jockeys, Walsh likes to manoeuvre his most talented mounts into those races likeliest to provide him with the best spread of high-profile successes. Frankie Dettori does it all the time. For the trainer(s) involved, that must surely result in the odd power struggle.
That said, in this case Mullins did say: “It was always the plan regardless of what happened today to send him back up in trip and that will probably happen over Christmas.” So perhaps that last point doesn’t apply here.
Anyhow, say it out of hearing distance of Mullins but Faugheen has got to prove that he retains a Grade One game at any distance. His April success at Punchestown offered hope but, as I said, that was a funny old race in which absolutely everything went the winner’s way. 12/1 for the Stayers’ Hurdle – or 3/1 if you’ve been on the lash with BetVictor? No, thanks.
Let’s rattle through the other market principals before moving on to the one other recent item of form in this division. Last year’s second (and 20/1 ante-post tip for this column) Supasundae might reappear in a hot-looking edition of the Hatton’s Grace this Sunday.
Given Robbie Power felt he was “outstayed” by Penhill in a steadily run race last season and Supasundae went on to win an eventful Punchestown Champion Hurdle (having also downed Faugheen earlier in the season), it wouldn’t surprise me if Jessica Harrington aimed him for the Champion Hurdle this time around – for which I wouldn’t fancy him.
Apple’s Jade – also entered in the Hatton’s Grace, which she won last year – beat Supasundae on her sole sortie over three miles but her OLBG Mares’ Hurdle defeat last season has probably put the kybosh on her trying anything harder in 2019, even if she was in season then.
Owners Simon Munir and Isaac Souede have a host of almosts for the Stayers’ Hurdle, including last season’s solid third Wholestone – who’s already won on his reappearance at Aintree – and high-class bridle-horse L’Ami Serge, who beat Supasundae in the Grade One Aintree Hurdle but was unable to reprise his French Champion Hurdle victory in May. The former takes on Sam Spinner at Newbury on Friday.
Then there’s Call Me Lord, whose trainer Nicky Henderson is convinced must go right-handed (although he hasn’t yet tried him the other way around in public). But four-year-old We Have A Dream was seemingly exposed as not up to Grade One standard when a muted fourth behind If The Cap Fits at Ascot last Saturday.
That Coral Hurdle can often direct the undecided between the Champion or Stayers’ choices. In winning trainer Harry Fry’s case, his answer seemed to be: c) Aintree Hurdle. He was, however, also assimilating word that Sir Anthony McCoy and Mick Fitzgerald had reportedly branded the winner an ideal Stayers’ Hurdle type on ITV Racing.
If The Cap Fits got outpaced in a race Thomas Garner tried to steal on board hardy perennial Rayvin Black, before coming through under a drive to win for a palpably delighted Noel Fehily. Despite the flat spots he acknowledged his mount had hit, Fehily nominated Kempton’s speed-favouring Christmas Hurdle as the best next target.
Go figure. At the moment, a one-and-a-half-length defeat of exposed but consistent Old Guard when in receipt of 6lbs is not – as Fry openly acknowledged – yet up to the standard required anyway, although the horse may need more widely spaced outings to be at his best.
Fry runs Unowhatimeanharry and, for the first time for his yard, the mare Momella in the Long Distance Hurdle on Friday.
Finally, a left-field shout for this contest – as @PaulJonesRacing has already suggested to his readers – is Thistlecrack. And you can see why: the Betfair Chase tells you the 2016 Stayers’ Hurdle winner still has a high-capacity engine but he’s not a fluid jumper of a fence and past evidence has suggested the 2.5f extra of the Gold Cup trip stretches him. Horses shorter than his 25/1 have lesser chances.
OLBG Mares’ Hurdle
Benie Des Dieux thumped in a second clear-cut result against Apple’s Jade at Punchestown so it’s hard to fathom why she should be a shade longer than that mare in some ante-post markets for this race.
We’ve received the usual definitive plan for the winner’s season from trainer Willie Mullins – the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle “probably being the plan” – but he also mentioned the Ryanair for her in the winner’s enclosure at Cheltenham in March and Ruby Walsh has mentioned her mixing hurdling and chasing this season.
If the yard’s track record is anything to go by, expect her same time, same place next year I reckon. She’s entered in the Hatton’s Grace on Sunday.
Stablemate Laurina – talked of in terms of the Champion Hurdle, also – missed Ascot’s Coral Hurdle due to overly quick ground last week and holds the same engagement.
So does Limini, third to Apple’s Jade in the 2017 edition of this race and who was threatened to be returning to hurdling last season until the mission was aborted in mid-January. “It’s a constant battle to keep Limini right,” Mullins said than, at the same reiterating he was “keen” to run her on the Flat.
So, he did with some success, although she was below her best most recently in the Cesarewitch and Irish November Handicaps. Who’s to say she’ll revert to hurdling this term?
The yard also boasts four-year-old keen-goer Stormy Ireland, a faller at the last when held in third in last term’s Triumph Hurdle and who may always be best at two miles.
Apple’s Jade herself has already returned with an 11-length defeat of Jezki in a Navan Grade Two and trainer Gordon Elliott has stated that she “kept coming into season in the second half of last season and I think it held her back from showing her best at Cheltenham and Punchestown” – her defeats by Benie Des Dieux.
Elliott referred opaquely to having made “a few changes with her” but plans to go “much the same route as last season”, although he continues to tantalise us with mentions of the Stayers’ Hurdle.
Her half-sister Apple’s Shakira, trained by Nicky Henderson, saw her unbeaten status come to an end when too keen in the Triumph. Fitted with a hood, she was thumped even further at Aintree by We Have A Dream. Her return to action has been held up by “a little scuff on her hind joint” according to the trainer’s blog.
The British form we’ve seen this season isn’t yet good enough to figure. Wetherby Listed winner Lady Buttons is a smashing mare but best around the minimum trip.
Right now, everything is to play for because there has not yet been a novice-hurdling performance of evidently Festival-winning potential to date this season. Much of the British form so far is interwoven.
Cheltenham’s Grade Two Sky Bet Supreme Trial suffered from a lack of hurdles due to the low sun and Harry Cobden rode Elixir De Nutz to absolute advantage, making all to defy Itchy Feet by a length and a quarter. The runner-up was attempting to concede 5lbs and a little bit of track position, emerging as the best at the weights.
Beaten favourite Seddon, twelfth in the Festival Bumper, had recorded a smooth success at Stratford on his hurdling debut but the form held little substance. Disadvantageously positioned, perhaps due to a tendency to pull, he was never able to land a blow on the front pair.
There’s less of the nut about Elixir De Nutz these days. He was unruly in the preliminaries and going to post prior to being withdrawn at Kempton in April. Having left Philip Hobbs and now with Colin Tizzard, but still owned by Terry Warner, he’s very much going the right way even if the form shouldn’t be taken literally.
He had been soundly beaten by Thomas Darby on his previous start at Cheltenham and that horse went down, all guns blazing, against Didtheyleaveyououtto in a farcically started introductory hurdle at Ascot last Friday.
The field raced in virtual single file from the outset, with the stragglers conceding about 15 lengths and accordingly any hope of getting materially involved against more proactively positioned, proven rivals. The visuals were terrible, as I believe executive types say, and it’s about time trainers and jockeys acknowledged such things impact not only on the good reputation of the sport but its actual income from betting turnover.
As a direct result, you can mark up fourth-placed mare Ratoute Yutty and sixth Rock Steady for when they are more realistically campaigned – at least in the case of the latter; the former might be up to this mark anyway. By counterpoint, front-running Commanche Red must be judged very disappointing.
Highest Sun, a tall good-looking French recruit for the Tizzards, travelled notably well until his tendency to hang left became magnified when distanced by the two principals in the straight.
Didtheyleaveyououtto got stuck in the mud when tried in the Festival bumper last term and trainer Nick Gifford believes he will always need a soundish surface to give of his best. Here, he stalked Thomas Darby until getting away more cleanly from the last and was then galvanised to lead on the run-in. The runner-up was rallying in the shadow of the post, however.
The winner currently shapes like a bang two-miler whereas Thomas Darby may do better for going up in trip. Gifford plans to run Didtheyleaveyououtto in the Grade Two Kennel Gate over the same course and distance next month, ground permitting, and interestingly also mentioned Aintree’s Top Novice Hurdle as a suitable long-term target.
Second-season novice hurdler Grand Sancy – pulled up in last term’s Fred Winter and operated on to address breathing issues – was comfortably beaten by Itchy Feet at Kempton last month. But he’s now won his last two starts, most recently running down free-going Cause Toujours approaching the line at Haydock last Saturday.
At Ascot that same day, Doux Pretender stayed on well to win the opening 2m5f novices’ hurdle, appearing to need all of the longer trip and wandering initially under pressure when asked to run down the hanging Stoney Mountain. He’s already packing in the experience needed to run well in an Albert Bartlett.
Third-placed Senior Citizen continues to improve with each start and it was a promising Rules debut from Irish point winner, Trevelyn’s Corn.
Stoney Mountain had previously beaten last term’s Ballymore seventh and Mersey fourth Aye Aye Charlie on his hurdling debut back at Aintree. That horse has since won in first-time cheekpieces at Kelso, not needing to be anywhere near his best.
Coolanly, his stablemate at Fergal O’Brien’s yard, is also a second-season novice hurdler and has clearly picked up where he left off last term when fifth to Lalor in a Grade One at Aintree. Having fallen on his seasonal debut in the Persian War, he readily beat Pym in a Cheltenham Grade Two earlier this month. His trainer has him on his short list for the Grade One Challow he won with Poetic Rhythm last season.
Pym had previously been second to hurdles debutant Anemoi, trained by Harry Whittington, at Ascot and that horse is entered at Doncaster on Saturday. Pym was also second to Danny Kirwan in a Kempton bumper in February but that horse was beaten, in receipt of 6lbs, in a match at that track by Crooks Peak earlier this week.
Returning to last year’s Festival Champion Bumper as a likely rich source of future winners, the triumphant mare Relegate could manage only third past the post on her hurdling debut in an eventful race.
Gigginstown’s Cuneo crossed it first, having regained the lead after the penultimate flight but then hanging left and colliding at the last with Relegate, as she rallied from an indifferent round of jumping to challenge on the outside. That enabled the truer-running Satoshi to nip up their inside and join Cuneo in the lead until Rachael Blackmore galvanised the latter to edge in front once more.
The stewards disqualified Cuneo and placed him third, making the unaffected Satoshi a rather fortunate winner. However, Relegate can hardly be counted as just “unlucky”, as rider Ruby Walsh later asserted in an interview with Oli Bell on Racing UK. She needs to brush up her jumping and surely already requires a step up in trip.
Relegate was patiently ridden from the rear at Cheltenham whereas stablemate and runner-up Carefully Selected went from the front, admittedly nicking a few lengths at the start. Both were later beaten (into seventh and third respectively) by Cheltenham third Tornado Flyer in the Punchestown Champion Bumper with Blackbow, fifth at the Festival, in second.
None of this trio has yet made his hurdling debut but Walsh mentioned them all in that interview, suggesting that Carefully Selected and Tornado Flyer might prove to be stayers but that Blackbow is a “brilliant” jumper – “very quick and athletic”. Cheltenham seventh Colreevy also earned a namecheck. Mullins has also described Carefully Selected as a potentially “smart staying novice hurdler”; a Supreme contender, he ain’t.
Stablemate Annamix is currently 8/1 clear Sky Bet Supreme favourite, presumably as a result of the warm words he was garnering this time last year when holding the exact same position until he went lame.
Connections – the Supreme sirens of Mullins plus Rich Ricci – opted to give him the whole season off and, for what it’s worth, he’s the owner’s pick as his horse to follow for the season in Mark Howard’s always excellent book, One Jump Ahead.
Of those Mullins-trained horses already raced over hurdles, it’s worth mentioning quietly improving dual winner Aramon and consistent recent Navan Grade Three victor Easy Game, both of whom have beaten Jessica Harrington’s Killarney maiden hurdle winner, Magnium. Mullins’ fastest cars may still be garaged, however.
At this early stage, some other Gigginstown soldiers of interest are Commander Of Fleet, an easy Punchestown winner on debut and early favourite for the Ballymore, and second-season hurdler Defi Bleu, who got off the mark at Navan recently.
The most notable item of British form to date came in Cheltenham’s Grade Two Triumph Hurdle Trial earlier this month. Quel Destin avenged his previous Chepstow defeat by Montestrel, who regressed, and also accounted for four-time winner, the scopey Cracker Factory, by a length and a quarter.
That the filly Never Adapt essentially ran away with Barry Geraghty on her UK debut yet still rallied to finish third in this race has been marked up by many observers. For me, however, such behaviour actually brings the form down. Sure, if she learns to settle – hope she’s not presciently named, Nicky – she’s clearly got a huge engine but she’s going to need to buck up her ideas pretty quickly.
In Ireland, Coeur Sublime made a good impression when winning on debut at Down Royal earlier this month. He is entered in a Fairyhouse Grade Three this Saturday where he could face Chief Justice, a three-time-winning stablemate at Gordon Elliott’s yard but already twice beaten by Cracker Factory, and the Gavin Cromwell-trained Lever Du Soleil, a recent Gowran maiden winner.
Just in case you’re wondering about Jack Regan, whose shoddy hurdling on debut at Market Rasen was no barrier to victory against the more experienced Cracker Factory, he was sold for loadsamoney to race in Australia shortly afterwards.
Road To Cheltenam selections:
Back now: Summerville Boy each-way at 12/1 for the Champion Hurdle with various firms
Recommended 28/11/18: Balko Des Flos each-way 40/1 [Skybet/Bet365] Gold Cup