Nicky Henderson shuffled the pack before playing a pair of aces at Sandown on Saturday.
Early in the week, Buveur D’Air looked set to contest the Scilly Isles Novices’ Chase, before heading for a shot at the JLT at Cheltenham. But after a change of heart, he was switched to the smaller obstacles, and duly strolled to victory in the Contenders Hurdle. That left the Munir and Souede owned Top Notch to step in, and out-class the opposition in the Grade 1 showpiece.
He’s certainly not the biggest, but that hasn’t stopped Top Notch from being extremely slick and accurate at his fences. He made one mistake out the back, but otherwise put in an immaculate round of jumping. Always travelling powerfully, Daryl Jacob held on to his mount until the last, before sweeping past Baron Alco and pulling five lengths clear. The disappointment of the race was Clan Des Obeaux, who having been sent off a short-priced favourite, failed to cope with the intensity of the event. His jumping became ragged, and he ultimately faded tamely to finish last of the five runners.
Daryl Jacob and connections were winning the Scilly Isles for the third consecutive year, and the jockey said: “It was a great performance. That was a real test for him. He's not the biggest in the world but he makes up for it with his heart. He deserves it. He's very, very consistent and he always tries his heart out. This was a big step and it told us a lot.”
An emotional Nicky Henderson said of the winner: "This is a real favourite. He's nearer a pet than a racehorse. He came as a juvenile hurdler and I thought that was all he ever would be. He had a good year last year. He won the Morebattle (Kelso) and was fifth in the Champion, and had nowhere to go so we tried him over a fence. He was beaten first time out, and then we found him two lovely, easy races, and you could see him grow in stature and confidence. Daryl says the two and a half miles suits him well. It will probably be the JLT he'll go for at Cheltenham.”
Top Notch is now widely available at 7/1 for the JLT, with connections having finished second in the race 12 months ago, thanks to Bristol De Mai.
Earlier in the day Buveur D’Air had put his Champion Hurdle credentials to the test, and ran-out an easy winner of the Contenders Hurdle. In truth, only Irving looked to be any sort of meaningful opposition, and Nicholls’ hurdler is far from reliable. He had one of his off days, which left Rayvin Black alone in the task of stretching Henderson’s classy youngster. Oliver Sherwood’s eight-year-old did his best from the front, but Barry Geraghty cruised alongside just yards from the post, winning ‘hard-held’ by a length and a half.
Buveur D’Air was a classy novice hurdler, finishing third in the Supreme before beating Petit Mouchoir at Aintree. He forms part of a JP McManus double-act heading for the Champion Hurdle in March, along with Alan King’s Yanworth. Geraghty will have a tough decision to make as the opening day of the Festival draws near. Speaking to ITV Racing, he said: “He did it well. He was very slick over his hurdles. He was a bit sticky at the first, but after that he did it well. The ground is tough, but he obviously did it easily.” And when asked if the horse was a realistic Champion Hurdle contender, Geraghty added: “You'd like to think so.”
Henderson spoke of the winner, and of the switch to hurdles, saying: “I think that has earned him his (Cheltenham) ticket. He's done nothing wrong over fences, but he is very good at this and very talented. I thought it was worth a shot and he had to do what he did. We didn't learn a lot, I just think at this stage of his life he might just be a sharper hurdler than chaser.”
The trainer added: “Barry said he can make a length or two over hurdles with him but not so over fences. He is very quick, slick and pacey. He likes soft ground, but good ground will be fine. It was good enough ground in the Supreme last year, but they just all got first run on him. With a bit of luck, he would have finished second and anything that finishes second to Altior is a good horse.”
Henderson has an outstanding Cheltenham Festival record. Performances at Sandown show that Seven Barrows are assembling another powerful squad that will head to the Cotswolds in March.