CHELTENHAM, Saturday January 25th
Going: SOFT – Over the New Course
With a dry couple of days the ground had dried out for a busy Festival Trials day at Cheltenham, a crowd of 20,245 looking for clues with March in mind. Either that or the next pint, or glass of wine.
Up first the JCB Triumph Hurdle Trial; it was probably the connections behind Monte Cristo, rather than the horse’s form, that led to late support in the betting, and the way he performed suggests that he has little to offer at the moment – the same for the race as a whole, with my rating for the winner a mere 108. The key moment in the race was coming off the home turn, when second favourite Rowland Ward had his run blocked on the stands’ side rail.
Galahad Quest brought ordinary form to the table, only 91 with me for his second place to Buzz at Taunton on January 7th, and though he improved over a stone, this wouldn’t be good enough for the Fred Winter most years, let alone the Triumph; he stayed on well after going on approaching the last.
Night Edition was the least impressive of these in the paddock (even for a juvenile hurdle), leggy and narrow framed. Produced after the second last, having been held up, he had his chance until he was unable to find more in the last 150 yards.
Gerolamo Cardano (medium height, leggy) was one I had ahead of the first two on form coming in to this after his 11-length win at Hereford on hurdling debut but, having been on his toes in the paddock beforehand, couldn’t find more after holding every chance at the second last, while Monte Cristo (about medium height, 5/4 to 10/11) probably did too much on his first run for Nicky Henderson, going to the front and clear at the fourth, weakening approaching the last.
The Kempton winner Rowland Ward, who drifted late to 7/2 in the face of good support for Monte Cristo, is only smallish on looks but was the clear pick on form after his Kempton win, however things didn’t go his way. Having been held up, he was produced to challenge on the stands’ side rail after the home turn, but had his ground taken and stumbled, setting him back a couple of lengths from which he couldn’t recover.
A competitive running of the two-mile five-furlong novices’ handicap chase next, seen by some as a trial for the equivalent race at the Festival but, as that is a 0-145, connections of the first two might end up looking for other targets.
Simply The Betts (lengthy, looked well, 15/2 to 11/2) went nowhere throughout the race at Kempton last time, when splitting Commanche Red and one of his rivals here On The Slopes, but is much more comfortable when going left-handed, and put in a solid performance here, always in the first two and jumping soundly, chasing down the latter from the second last and finding plenty up the hill. Novices have done well in the Plate (ex Mildmay Of Flete) in recent years and that would be a suitable target, if he doesn’t get in the novices’ handicap (there’s always the JLT as well of course). Wherever he goes, there’s more to come – and extra kudos too for being up there throughout..
Imperial Aura (medium height, well made, didn’t walk well in the paddock) looked worth dropping in trip after his run behind Pym here over 3m1f and seemed to prove it, whilst suggesting that he would be effective at the longer trip another time; not always foot perfect, slow at the second and in close to the tenth, he was outpaced as On The Slopes went on from the third last and stayed on well under pressure from the second last, chasing the winner hard in the last 150 yards.
On The Slopes (well made, deep girthed) confirmed the form of his second to stablemate Commanche Red at Kempton and gave the impression he might have done better if his effort had been delayed, tracking the leaders with four to jump and sent to the front going to the third last, arguably moving best on the home turn but ridden and headed between the last two. He does look the type who’s best produced late, but there’s a win in him.
Garo De Juilley is only medium height and leggy, and can’t jump steeplechase fences, yet significant errors at the eighth, ninth and 11th didn’t prevent him from taking fourth, running on strongly from the bend – all the same he’s not for me over fences; Champagne Court (well made) came here on the hattrick but probably found the company too hot, ridden and unable to find more after the third last; Sully D’Oc AA (tallish, workmanlike) looks a two-miler and couldn’t sustain a move into a prominent position after the fourth last – Grand Annual for him – while Court Master (tallish, workmanlike, 20/1 to 11/1) probably paid a price for disputing the lead with Simply The Betts, dropping away with four to jump, having been in a good rhythm up front.
Cloudy Glen (medium height, 13/2 to 15/2) is one who could be best watched going forward as he clearly has quirks – not for the first time he was led in at the start, and ran out at the first when at the very back.
Over the same course and distance, next up was a good renewal of the Grade 3 handicap chase, bring together the principals from the Caspian Caviar Gold Cup in December and a couple from the equivalent race here on New Year’s Day. Sadly it was marred by the injury sustained by the Caspian Caviar-winner Warthog, who had to be put down after going wrong on landing at the first.
Cepage (two handlers), in close to the odd one but mainly sound at his fences, was never worse than second throughout and pulled out plenty from the second last, always holding on from the last and getting his first win since March 2018, off a mark of 154 to boot, which could mean that he ends up in the Ryanair Chase in March – connections had the runner-up in 2019 with Aso and at the time of writing it’s not looking like the 2020 renewal will be a vintage one – if you’ve read a story from a trainer saying ‘we’re going for the Ryanair’, that’s one more than me .
Spiritofthegames arguably curled up on the run-in when beaten by Warthog in the Caspian Caviar in December but there was no obvious sign of that this time; he was ridden cold, Harry Skelton not getting after him after he made a mistake at the fourth last, gradually edging closer and making up all but half a length of the four lengths he had to find at the second last. He goes to the Festival in form, but being dropped out in a bigger field is likely to prove a disadvantage.
Lalor (medium height, well made) strung two good races together after his stormer on New Year’s Day, up with the pace throughout and having his chance on the home turn, finishing ahead of the veteran Garde La Victoire, who’s now 11, but ran his best race for a while, nudged along from the 11th but holding a chance till between the last two fences, fading up the hill.
Militarian (well made) made mistakes and was off the bit from the sixth, while My Way (tallish, workmanlike, 9/2 to 6/1), not for the first time, checked out tamely when ridden after the third last.
Two who disappointed were Highway One O One (well made, close-coupled), who weakened quickly after racing first or second to the 13th, pulled up before three out, and Count Meribel (leggy, looked well), who checked out quickly as early as the eighth, tailed off when pulled up before the 12th – you’ll probably have to wait till next season for him to win again, as he’s never won after November.
The build-up to this year’s Cotswold Chase, over the Cheltenham Gold Cup trip less a furlong, revolved around Bristol De Mai and Santini, as did the race itself, those two in the first two positions throughout (surprisingly eventual third Top Ville Ben was kept away from the early lead); they really pressed on from the 12th, taking out the rest of the field by the second last in the process, and everyone had hard races – they may have left their Gold Cups behind in the process. The other two to complete were laboured coming up the hill and can’t have been anywhere near their best.
Santini (2/1 to 13/8), well made, looked as though the run would bring him on, but still put in a career best to land this – that said, I don’t make it Gold Cup-winning form. Niggled along on the final circuit, which is normal for him, he headed Bristol De Mai at the third last when getting the better jump, but after a mistake at the next was narrowly headed at the last, only to pull out more up the hill against a rival who wasn’t racing at his best track.
Things seem to be changing, and after Native River in 2018 it seems to be no longer the case that a horse needs to be a class act to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup. If it comes up soft on the day, the grinding stamina of Santini could well be to the fore, but if it’s good to soft or faster it won’t be happening.
Bristol De Mai has always lagged his best form when running at Cheltenham and, although there’s little to measure it against with the other two finishers off their game, that’s probably the case again. Looking the pick of the paddock, he pressed on in front from the 12th, and having been made a lot of use of the game looked up at the third last, but when presented with a chance by Santini’s mistake at the second last he rallied, and led narrowly jumping the last , but was unable to pull out more up the hill, going down by three and a half lengths.
If this had been a Betfair Chase you fancy they’d have finished the other way round, but as it is it’s another placed effort for Bristol De Mai at Cheltenham. Granted soft going he’s likely to come off second best against Santini again in March, the only way he’ll better last year’s third being if the Gold Cup is moved to Haydock.
It was a surprise that Top Ville Ben, the impressive Rowland Meyrick winner on Boxing Day, wasn’t asked to take up a prominent position, instead held up at the back; however he was keen and made his way through to track the first two from the eighth, and did okay until ridden at the third last, weakening from the turn and crawling up the hill, barely having enough left to hold off De Rasher Counter in the final stride. That’s probably it from him this season, such was the hard race he’s had here, all the more so after the official handicapper put him up to a stunningly over-inflated 164 after his Wetherby win (see it’s not just Marracudja’s rating that was done through rose-tinted specs).
De Rasher Counter (tall, leggy, looked well) took his chance following his Ladbrokes Trophy-win, but wasn’t at his best, taken out of his comfort zone when the pace lifted on the final circuit and a mistake at the 12th setting the tone, more errors finishing him off by the last and tailed off up the hill, nearly getting a poor third only through Top Ville Ben’s tiring. He was ahead of Mister Whitaker, who a couple of times has looked like this sort of trip would suit him, but like the other beaten ones couldn’t cope with this, jumping the last but too tired to make it up the hill.
The novice Slate House, winner of the Kauto Star at Kempton on Boxing Day, was short enough at 9/2 beforehand, but this wasn’t his running – he looked well but clearly wasn’t going anywhere with a circuit to run, Robbie Power already niggling along, and though he did get into contention at the third last he was all done from the home turn, dropping right away when pulled up before the last. Maybe something will come to light.
The Grade 2 Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle over two and a half miles, a trial for the race of the same name at the Festival, looked an okay renewal on paper, but was an unsatisfactory race from the start – there were around 15 lengths between first and last when the tape was released, then it boiled down to a sprint from the second last after they’d gone steady to that point, front-runner House Island not going as fast as his jockey wanted him to. Having said that, it was at least won by the best prospect on show.
If there is one future prospect to take away from this card for the next two seasons then Harry Senior is that prospect, a smashing chasing type who bossed this paddock. In the end he bossed the race as well, poised when things took shape at the second last, needing to be shaken up when King Roland made his move, but running on really well and in front jumping the last, sustaining his effort to draw clear up the hill. Such was the speed he showed here that a tilt at the Supreme Novices’ wouldn’t be unrealistic, for all that his pedigree suggests the Ballymore should be the target come March.
King Roland (medium height, leggy) was ridden for a turn of foot, held up last, closing up from the top of the hill and sent on from approaching the home turn, but Harry Senior had the move covered and he could do no more from the last. He looks worth stepping down to two miles and Aintree could suit him better than Cheltenham. His half-brother Make Me A Believer, incidentally, is with David Pipe and won a bumper in October.
Protektorat (close-coupled, two handlers), winner of the controversial race on New Year’s Day that he had taken off him by the stewards then given back on appeal, was for all intents and purposes ridden with exaggerated waiting tactics, which weren’t going to work in a race this steadily run; having made a mistake at the third, he was last of the main group and still on the bit after the second last, the jockey not shaking him up until Harry Senior had made his move, and his run flattening out in the last 150 yards. This one would be suited by one of the handicap hurdles at the Festival – the Coral Cup or the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ – although there is a doubt over what he’ll find off the bridle.
Most interesting of the rest was Rocket Lad, who shaped well to a point, making good, quick headway to lead two out moving well, but ridden and weakening quickly when headed, tailing off when pulled up before the last. His form in winning at Gowran Park in October is above average, but he’d been below form at Cork subsequently, and the way he moved to the second last this time illustrates that there’s a horse in there.
Paisley Park was a general 4/6 chance to land the Cleeve Hurdle for the second year running, and he duly won his seventh race in a row, this all the more commendable as it wasn’t run to suit him, the whole field within five lengths coming off the home turn at the end of a race run at a medium pace at best.
Paisley Park, jig-jogging round the paddock and looking well, overcame what ended up a test of speed to take the win. The steady pace probably led to his staying on the bridle for longer than he normally does, finally pushed along after the second last, and as is typical he found plenty when he was ridden, making up two lengths to lead approaching the last and staying on well up the hill.
The follow-up victory in the Stayers’ Hurdle, which will surely be run at a stronger pace which will suit him better than this did, looks as much a formality as a Cheltenham Festival-race possibly can – with the threat of If The Cap Fits seemingly brushed off in this race, it looks like Benie Des Dieux who’ll be the rival connections will worry about the most. Chasing types often make good staying hurdlers, and Paisley Park, surely National Hunt racing’s most popular horse right now, is a well-made chasing type in appearance – in the long term connections surely won’t change what works.
Summerville Boy, his chasing career seemingly put on hold, backed up his win in the Relkeel Hurdle on New Year’s Day with a cracking effort stepped up in trip, albeit in this less-than-strongly run contest, sent on from the start and arguably travelling best of the field starting the home turn, shaken up and staying on, only Paisley Park getting past from the last. This seemingly opens up more options for Summerville Boy, although it should be borne in mind that this wasn’t a proper test at three miles. He could of course yet return to novice chasing (he’s tall and leggy in appearance).
Lisnagar Oscar (tallish, looked well) ran his best race for a while, but he too had the run of it more than others, always up with the pace, turning for home upsides then unable to go with the first two approaching the last, while popular handicapper Tobefair was caught flat-footed when the pace increased and was last coming off the bend, hard ridden and passing beaten ones to take fourth up the hill.
If The Cap Fits, in Paisley Park’s absence the winner of the Liverpool Hurdle at Aintree last April, was the main danger as far as the betting was concerned, but he was seeing Cheltenham for the first time and it looks as though the track didn’t suit him, coming under a ride and disputing last on the home turn, jumping the last in last place before passing beaten ones.
To close the card a two-mile, one-furlong Class 2 handicap hurdle – some year’s it’s been a steer to the Betfair Hurdle at Newbury, but the most likely races this renewal will be a guide to will be midweek mid-grade handicaps, five of the first six home rated 125 or less. This result was affected by Ainchea‘s mistake two out and, to a greater extent, Lust For Glory being sent on too soon, playing into the winner’s hooves.
Back On The Lash (leggy, on toes, looked well) was ridden and outpaced when Lust For Glory went for home from the bend, but stayed on well under a ride approaching the last, led under pressure 175 yards out and was driven all out.
Lust For Glory (tallish, leggy, two handlers) should have won. Sam Waley-Cohen booted him three or four lengths clear approaching the home turn and it looked as though he’d take some catching, but he started to come back to the pursuers nearing the last and had his measure taken 175 yards out. Given that he held on for second, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that they’d have finished the other way round if Lust For Glory’s effort had been delayed.
En Meme Temps was also in front early enough, at the third last before the top of the hill, and was always playing catch-up once coming under pressure after two out, while the mare Northern Beau was in front earlier than anyone else – making most of the running – and after she rallied to lead again going to the second last, was all done when Lust For Glory took the lead off her going to the turn.
Ainchea is a tall chasing type in appearance, but he’s had his problems and was off for 700 days before an inauspicious comeback at Sandown behind Mill Green – it could be that the reason he’s not over fences yet is that connections feel they’ve run out of time for this season. It was open to question whether or not he’d have got into this, niggled along after some hurdles and not making a lot of ground when stumbling on landing over the second last, done with after that, and a watching brief is the advice next time.
Sofia’s Rock (angular, looked well, two handlers) is beating connections at the moment, and this habitual front-runner was held up on this occasion – tactics which didn’t work, as he pulled too hard in midfield to rear, and he was a spent force by the last. He’s best when allowed to stride on, but even then he’s more likely to check out than he is to win, like in the Swinton at Haydock back in May (ten lengths up turning for home, finished fifth).
British debutant We Run The Night, three times a winner in France, never got out of the rear, no impression after coming under a ride after the second last – he looks more like a sprinter than a jumper.
Horses to take out of the meeting
Simply The Betts
Sully Doc AA (over two miles)
Lust For Glory