Ben Linfoot ranks the weekend performances of the big names in order of significance, from Champ to Cyrname.
Champ’s intriguing seasonal return over two miles in the Betfair Game Spirit Chase had the look of a jackpot or bust move from Nicky Henderson and it couldn’t have worked out any better. He emerges as the big winner of the weekend, even though he didn’t win.
Make no mistake, this was no soft option for Champ on the back of 347 days off the track and it could have easily had a negative impact on his WellChild Cheltenham Gold Cup chance. A fencing error or getting readily outpaced might well have put him backwards with just under a month to go until Gold Cup day, but he simply put in a superb run. His jumping didn’t just hold up, it was excellent, and this should put him spot on for Cheltenham now.
Nico De Boinville set his stall out early on by being aggressive on him – not something we’ve seen when Champ has tackled longer trips – and that determination to get him racing looked like it might even pay winning dividends four out where he was going along great guns in the lead.
In the end Sceau Royal, a genuine two-miler on his ideal good to soft conditions, had a little too much pace for him, but Champ went down fighting in a two-length second, proving beyond doubt that he’s not devoid of pace, an asset that is often a requirement of a Gold Cup winner.
The general consensus from the bookies was to cut him from 10/1 to 6/1 and that was a perfectly fair move. At last the UK looks to have a horse that is definitely going for the race that can put it up to Al Boum Photo and A Plus Tard. Eyebrows were raised, but this was a fine play from Henderson.
When a novice wins the Betfair Hurdle you immediately think Sky Bet Supreme. And while Soaring Glory took this off a relatively lowly mark of 133, it was the manner that he did it in the race that he did it in. He looks a player at Cheltenham.
They went quick here, but Soaring Glory travelled well within himself and Jonjo O’Neill Jr had barely moved a muscle ahead of the last, where it became obvious the race was between three horses.
Soaring Glory split Edwardstone and Fifty Ball, but as soon as O’Neill Jr got serious his horse pulled away and with just under a furlong to go it became a question of how far. Three lengths was the answer, with the well-handicapped (but-not-quite-as-well-handicapped-as-the-winner) Fifty Ball a clear second.
His defeat of Bravemansgame at Chepstow earlier in the season has obviously been well advertised and, while that promise was somewhat fulfilled on Sunday, there could be even more to come from him. A best of 12s for the Supreme, that could well disappear in the coming days as his pace and ability to travel off a strong gallop at two miles could be a potent weapon at Cheltenham.
Betfair Hurdle winners have failed to follow up in the Supreme in recent years, but Jonjo O’Neill’s Get Me Out Of Here went mighty close, as did My Tent Or Yours and Kalashnikov, and here he has another one that looks capable of mixing it with the best two-mile novices around.
Only one thing puts me off that 12/1 – a likely mark in the low 140s might tempt O’Neill to go for the County Hurdle and he’d have a mighty chance in that race as well.
While Clan Des Obeaux looks unlikely to go to Cheltenham, he did his Aintree Bowl prospects no harm despite a neck defeat to stablemate Secret Investor in the Betfair Denman Chase.
It won’t surprise anyone that watched the race that he traded at an in-running low of 1.27 on Betfair, as he looked the likely winner for much of the contest, including just after the last where he was travelling better than the front-running Secret Investor. He didn’t pick up as expected, though, the combination of the 6lb he was giving his stablemate and a fabulous dictating ride from Bryony Frost proving the crucial and race-defining factors.
It was interesting to hear Paul Nicholls say afterwards that he’s thinking about cheekpieces for him with Harry Cobden reporting that he was carrying his head a little high. The sheepskin headgear really turned around another Ditcheat staying chase stalwart in Silviniaco Conti, who won three Grade Ones in his first four races in a pair of cheekpieces - including the Bowl at Aintree.
Clan Des Obeaux has been beaten in the Liverpool race twice before, but one of those runs came following a Gold Cup fifth at Cheltenham and the other was after a three-month break. He should be pitch perfect for it this season.
In at four we have Goshen, who bounced back to winning form in the Grade 2 Betway Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton. Why not number higher, you might ask? Well, put simply, I wasn’t as blown away by Goshen as the market was as 5/1 for the Unibet Champion Hurdle seems crazily short on the back of winning a race that worked out perfectly for him on Saturday.
A sharp two miles on heavy ground going right-handed was ideal for him, as was getting a lead off Navajo Pass in a small field, as he looked just on the cusp of doing too much in the early stages, but Donald McCain’s front-runner helped him in that regard.
On top of this market rival Song For Someone, who was giving Goshen 6lb, looked ring rusty and was pushed along at an early stage, doing very little for his own Champion Hurdle prospects. Indeed, Tom Symonds has been reluctant to commit him to Cheltenham and I wonder if he’ll wait for the Aintree Hurdle over 2m4f now?
In contrast, all roads lead to the Champion for Goshen, but, while it was great to see him re-emerge as a contender, he still has questions to answer, including, still, if he can channel his energies in a positive way on the big day. This was a step in the right direction, but it says something about a pretty average two-mile hurdling division that he’s now as short as he is for the Champion Hurdle.
Even so, for me, he makes no appeal for that race at his revised odds.
We needed to see some sparkle from Tiger Roll ahead of his spring assignments and there was just enough there, only just, mind, to believe he might be capable of pulling out another big one at either Cheltenham or Aintree.
On the face of it a near 65-length defeat in last place might suggest retirement beckons, but it doesn’t tell the whole story as he looked well and raced with a bit of zest for much of the race. He was left behind from three out, but he’s a four-mile chaser, and he was just in freakish form that year he won this contest with the handbrake on before he did the Cross Country - Grand National double.
When he won the Boyne Hurdle in 2019 it came on yielding ground, too, with Sunday’s heavy conditions not to his liking. Gordon Elliott seemed happy enough afterwards, citing the ground as a good reason for his eventual finishing position, and he quickly confirmed afterwards that it’s ‘all systems go for Cheltenham’.
Pushed out to 9/1 by some layers for the Cross Country, there wasn’t enough there to get excited about prices like that. But there was a glimmer, no doubt, and if he gets better ground at Cheltenham the dream of a fifth Festival success is still on. But only just.
What on earth do we make of Cyrname? So good on his day that he became the highest-rated chaser in Britain, he now looks like a horse that buckles under the first signs of pressure and the only way you can see him winning a race at the moment is if he does so on the bridle or if he doesn’t see another rival at any stage.
It’s difficult to win any Grade 1 like that, never mind a competitive one at a spring Festival, and it’s hard to think of another horse rated so highly who would be less appealing as a betting proposition for a race at the Cheltenham Festival.
He won’t be going there on the back of this, but it’s a shame a horse of his ability has become such a source of frustration. Perhaps he’s had one too many hard battles. He’s in the right hands to make another off-the-canvas comeback, though, and Paul Nicholls cited a breathing problem straight after the race, so expect him to have some time off, wind surgery and another shot at glory somewhere after a good break.
It’s just a shame we’re unlikely to see an at-his-best Cyrname this spring. Even Nicholls is unlikely to have that trick up his sleeve.