One bi-product of the weekend’s jump racing action was the continued confusion over the state of the juvenile hurdling scene.
With just five weeks to go before the famous ‘Festival Roar’ reverberates around Prestbury Park, we are no closer to unravelling the mystery that is the 2016 Triumph Hurdle. The downfall of Ivanovich Gorbatov at Leopardstown on Saturday merely served to show just how open this year’s renewal is.
He remains the bookies favourite for the Cheltenham juvenile showpiece, despite the crushing defeat. Better ground at The Festival may suit, though many horses by Montjeu operate at their best on soft ground. It’s some time since a Triumph Hurdle winner arrived off the back of a thumping, and trends strongly favour a winning prep.
The 2012 victor, Countrywide Flame, arrived having finished a three lengths third in the Spring Juvenile Hurdle at Leopardstown. Hope then for Let’s Dance who filled that identical spot on Saturday beaten the same distance by Footpad. Rich Ricci’s filly ran on again close home suggesting the famous Cheltenham finish will hold no fears.
Willie Mullins trained the winner at Leopardstown on Saturday, and in Footpad Messrs’ Munir and Souede strengthened their hand further for the Triumph Hurdle. Mullins’ fella looks a thorough stayer and clearly appreciated the testing conditions. His French form ties in very closely with two other contenders in Fix Le Kap and Connetable. He was ahead of both in a race at Auteuil last May, though was favoured by the weights on that occasion. Nevertheless, on that showing, the three are closely matched.
Connetable is trained by Paul Nicholls, and at Sandown on Saturday defeated older horses including Peace And Co. He probably ran to a handicap mark of around 140, and with likely improvement still to come, he would certainly be a player in an ordinary Triumph renewal. Whether this proves to be merely an ordinary renewal remains to be seen.
Fix Le Kap is another carrying the Munir-Souede silks, and is two from two since arriving from France. He romped to victory last time at Warwick, but his earlier success at Newbury was gained after a tough battle with another Nicholls Triumph Hurdle contender in Tommy Silver.
That Newbury race suggests the two are closely matched, with Nicholls’ youngster having come out and won impressively at Musselburgh on Sunday. The Newbury form will come under further scrutiny today when Kasakh Noir runs at Market Rasen. Skelton’s youngster was a dozen lengths behind the front two on that occasion, though carried a penalty due to a previous win at the track. He’s another smart juvenile to come from France, though has plenty on his plate today in the form of Wolfcatcher.
John Ferguson will be hoping that he has a major Triumph hurdle contender, in what is to be his last National Hunt campaign. The trainer has had a quiet spell of late though is still operating at a stunning strike rate. Wolfcatcher was an impressive winner at Market Rasen on his hurdles debut. He is a striking looking son of King’s Best, out of a Sadler’s Wells mare. He was pretty classy on the flat in France when trained by Andre Fabre. Should he win convincingly today, he becomes yet another realistic contender for the main event at Cheltenham.
Though Ivanovich Gorbatov remains favourite for the Triumph, many believe that trainer Alan King holds the aces and is set to win the March renewal for the first time since the wonderful Katchit back in 2007. Gibralfaro and Sceau Royal are owned by successful juvenile hurdle regulars the McNeill family and last year’s Triumph winning owners Simon Munir and Isaac Souede.
The latter pair own three of the top six in the betting for the Triumph and Sceau Royal is arguably their most promising challenger. A facile winner at Huntingdon last time, he had previously won at Cheltenham when out-gunning the useful Adrien Du Pont. He’s neat over his obstacles and travels strongly through a race. He also looks to have gears, and has proven his liking for Prestbury Park.
But King also has the Ascot winner Gibralfaro in the yard. He defeated Connetable on that occasion, though Nicholls’ gelding may well have been a little rusty having been off the track for seven months. The Adonis Hurdle at Kempton looks to be the next target for King’s youngster, with the trainer wishing to get a little more experience into the horse.
It’s pretty clear from the above that I have struggled to narrow down the likely leading contenders for this season’s Triumph Hurdle. It’s a race I love and have had a fair amount of success from a punting point of view in recent times. However, this year’s race looks to be one of the most competitive for many a year.
At this particular moment in time I have a feeling that Alan King along with owners Munir and Souede probably have the most potent contenders. The latter pairing continue to gather a mighty team, and look set to become a major force in the coming years.