Saturday proved to be a day to remember for Wiltshire trainer Alan King.
Cheltenham Trials Day had been in doubt until mid-morning thanks to an overnight deluge. But much to everyone’s relief the meeting was given the green light and the team from Barbury Castle took full advantage.
Annacotty won his second Grade 3 of the winter campaign when successful in the freebets.com Trophy Chase. Freshened up since finishing sixth in the Caspian Caviar Gold Cup in December, he got the better of a prolonged duel with Tenor Nivernais, despite idling late on. He clearly appreciated the testing ground, and looks a horse with scope for further improvement.
He took this same event last year, before returning for the Festival and disappointing when stepped up in trip. He’s proving to be a horse that performs best on the back of a break, and this two and half mile trip has proven key to his success.
King has been left with more food for thought after a stunning performance from Smad Place. The trainer would have arrived at Cheltenham more in hope than confidence of a victory for his classy grey in the BetBright Trial Chase. Nevertheless, his Hennessy hero ran out a hugely impressive winner after another bold front running display.
Djakadam had been sent off a short-priced favourite, but last year’s Gold Cup runner-up came to grief early on the second circuit. That fall muddies the waters when analysing the form of the race, but the way King’s charge put Many Clouds firmly in his place gives credence to the view that this is a much improved Smad Place.
Back to the more aggressive tactics that proved so successful at Newbury, the grey had the field on the stretch from some way out. With only Sherwood’s Grand National winner for company turning for home, he found another gear to pull clear up the punishing final hill.
“If I was confused before, I'm even more confused now,” Said King. “It certainly doesn't do his chances in the Gold Cup any harm.” He added: “That was a joy to watch. He just keeps up a relentless gallop. I was blown away by the Hennessy and I'm slightly blown away again today.”
A decision on whether to go Ryanair or Gold Cup is likely to be left as long as possible. Whether Smad Place can dictate with the likes of Vautour and Road To Riches in opposition is hard to say. And there’s a chance he could face either or both in whichever race King decides to take on.
If the flying grey was a joy to watch, then the trainer will have been blown away by his stable companion Yanworth. The youngster was simply outstanding in winning the Neptune Investment Management Novices’ Hurdle. The experiment in stepping up in trip proved a complete success. He travelled like a dream throughout before sweeping clear of Shantou Village after the final flight. It’s likely the runner-up will improve for the run, and may well be a better horse on a sounder surface. But the winner looked a class apart.
A thrilled trainer was full of praise after the win, saying: “We were testing him at the trip today, but he just came back on the bridle. We always thought he was crying out for two and a half but he has definitely got quicker this season. Two and a half (at Cheltenham) would give him more time with his jumping, especially on quicker ground. I don't know how good he is - he's never come off the bridle in four runs this season. I don't think I've trained anything like it.”
Yanworth was installed as favourite for the Neptune in March ahead of the Mullins duo Bellshill and Yorkhill. He’ll take all the beating at the Festival if this display is anything to go by.
While King was having a day to remember, it quickly became one to forget for Mullins. Djakadam’s failure at Cheltenham was followed by lacklustre performances at Doncaster for Shaneshill, Up For Review and Morning Run. The all-conquering Irish trainer would have hoped for more from the trio, especially his undefeated novice chaser. However, Shaneshill was taken out of his comfort zone by the aggressively ridden Arzal and classy Vanituex. Mullins’ fella needs further, and his lack of size and scope may prove his downfall over these larger obstacles.
But Mullins aside, the day belonged to Alan King and his Barbury Castle team. He remains one of Jump racing’s outstanding trainers and has an equine team capable of making quite an impact when the Festival comes round in March.