At the Cheltenham Festival just 12 months ago, he put up arguably the performance of the week and looked set to be a dominant force for years to come.
Sadly More Of That appears to have been ill-named and his absence is a major blow to the World Hurdle. The greatest Jumps Festival needs the outstanding horses and although Jonjo’s star is still in the fledgling stage of his career, the signs were there that he would become a huge presence in the sport. Hopefully he’ll be back fit and well sooner rather than later. His omission certainly opens up the race with many of the field having a realistic chance of winning.
Champion trainer Paul Nicholls will be hopeful that he can add to his successful record in the event, which was thanks to Big Buck’s making the World Hurdle his own for almost half a decade. He is double-handed in the race with both duelling for favouritism. Saphir Du Rheu will carry the famous Stewart family silks with connections looking for lightning to strike twice.
Stable jockey Sam Twiston-Davies has opted to ride Saphir rather than Zarkandar who came fourth in last year’s contest. Nicholls spoke yesterday of their chances: “Saphir Du Rheu is still a young horse. He won the Cleeve Hurdle and stayed on really strongly up the hill and his jumping was very sharp. There is a lot of improvement to come and we are very pleased with him. Sam has decided to ride him and that was a close call."
He certainly ‘toughed it out’ in the Cleeve, and the World Hurdle has often gone to an improving six-year-old; Inglis Drever, My Way de Solzen, Big Buck’s and More Of That being recent examples. The switch from fences to hurdles has every chance of paying dividends.
Of Zarkandar Nicholls appeared bullish: “I think he's got a fantastic chance as the more competitive race will give him a better lead into it, so we do not have to hit the front too soon. He's a talented horse who is in good order."
His last run ended in frustration when nabbed in the shadow of the post by Reve De Sivola in the Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot. He was all-over the winner that day before idling after the last. That would have to be a concern at a place like Cheltenham where victory often goes to the most talented and tenacious. Nicholls seems very confident of a huge run, and he should know. But I’d be a little surprised and frankly disappointed if there wasn’t a classier type lurking amongst the entrants capable of beating him.
Rock On Ruby certainly has the class, but can he stay the trip? His profile is not dissimilar from that of Solwhit, who benefitted from Big Buck’s’ absence in 2013. He arrived at Cheltenham having never run over the trip, but simply out-classed the opposition. Harry Fry’s star will similarly attempt the trip for the first time at the Festival. He has impressed this winter with two victories over 2m4f, on both occasions at Cheltenham. He travels so powerfully through a race, that it’s just possible he could do it. He will benefit from a sounder surface, which he is likely to get.
The Irish challenge is headed by another that flirted with fences before reverting to hurdles. Lieutenant Colonel would be a popular winner after the loss of Dessie Hughes over the winter. With the Gigginstown novice chaser cabinet full to bursting, he was allowed to have another season over the smaller obstacles, and the decision has paid off. Two Grade 1 victories have seen this talented youngster leap to the top of the Irish staying hurdlers pile. He has a bit to find on ratings but is unexposed and should run a huge race.
Monksland and Briar Hill come from the powerful stables of Meade and Mullins. Both have returned from injuries with the former having spent two years off the track. His return has shown a great deal of promise. Indeed he was only just touched-off by Dedigout in his last run at Gowran Park. After that defeat in January Meade spoke of his plans for the horse: “He was good after it. It was disappointing he didn't win. We've had to train him very tenderly and take it slowly but he's run two solid races now. If he stays right we'll have a crack at it. He hated that ground as well and I'd imagine he'll be better on better ground."
Briar Hill is proving just as frustrating for Willie Mullins having now fallen twice in his last four starts. His first two runs this winter had been lacklustre affairs, but he was laying down a fair old challenge last time at Navan when coming down at the last. The Cheltenham Festival Bumper winner of 2013, he undoubtedly has the talent to go close. His odds have tumbled since his last run, but he will have to kick the habit of doing likewise if he is to land a blow in March.
Of the remainder, Dedigout has his fans and has been in great form since also returning from a spell on the side-lines. Chances are that he will need heavy ground to be seen at his best; indeed he’s unlikely to run should conditions be unfavourable.
Un Temps Pour Tout ran well in the Cleeve Hurdle behind Saphir Du Rheu on his seasonal bow, and is expected to improve for the run. It’s clear that David Pipe thinks a lot of him, but he’s another that may be suited by testing conditions. He’s certainly classy, and is yet another six-year-old with untapped potential.
And finally a mention for two contenders from Nicky Henderson’s yard. Whisper won at the Festival last March, when just prevailing in the Coral Cup. Yet another to have aborted his chasing career, he looked very progressive throughout last season, and is a horse with guts to match his talent. He was beaten by Saphir Du Rheu last year at Ffos Las when receiving plenty of weight from Ditcheat’s horse. Taken literally, that form leaves him a little short, but this is a different trip, and more than likely on totally different ground. He’s two from three at Cheltenham.
Blue Fashion has only run twice since arriving from France in June 2013. He was last seen chasing home Faugheen in the Ascot Hurdle, having finished a good second to More Of That a year earlier at Haydock. His trainer believes he goes best fresh and seems happy with his preparation. He’s a tough one to get a handle on and 16’s is probably a fair price on what he’s shown on the racecourse to date.
I could easily have put up several others with a realistic each-way chance, which only goes to prove the open nature of this year’s renewal. I didn’t even mention a certain mare from Ireland who still holds an entry and could yet be allowed to take her chance. Now that really would be something.