Neil Mulholland will have been thrilled with Saturday’s trip to the Cotswolds, thanks to excellent performances from stable stars, Fox Norton and Shantou Village.
Both were sent off favourite for their respective events, and neither let the punters down. Fox Norton romped to victory in the Randox Health Handicap Chase. Travelling well throughout the two-mile contest, he was allowed to stride on fully four fences from home. Stretching clear down the hill, he met the second-last with a 10-length advantage, and never looked in any danger.
Third in the Arkle, Mulholland has always thought plenty of the gelding: “We felt there was marked improvement in him through the summer and he'd been working particularly well. It was his first run in a handicap but I sense it could be the last and we're going to have to raise his sights now, possibly towards the Shloer back here. He wears a hood because he can be a bit of a handful until you get him ‘jocked-up’, but touch-wood, it's all good now.”
Later in the day Shantou Village was a heavily backed favourite, and though pushed all the way by Colin Tizzard’s newcomer, Mick Thonic, he proved too strong at the finish, pulling four lengths clear at the line. His jumping was solid in the main, bar an error at the 12th, and though he’s not short of speed, the way he finished off the race suggests a step-up in trip is likely.
Speaking of the winner, Mulholland said: “He was struck into in the Albert Bartlett at the Festival but we have always known fences would bring out the best in him. Apart from that one blip, I was pleased with his jumping, and in the end he's done it really well. Noel was delighted and so am I. It's been a good day.”
Arguably the best performance of the meeting came in the Masterson Holdings Hurdle, where Sceau Royal ran-out a stunning winner, completely out-classing his opponents. Alan King’s four-year-old travelled like a dream throughout, and swept to the front approaching the last. Asked to go and win his race, he stormed up the famous hill, to win by 11 lengths. This was a huge step forward on anything he’d produced as a juvenile. And it will be interesting to see where King sends him next.
The trainer said of the performance: “He's always been a very good horse but he wasn't right at both the Festival and Aintree. Last year he used to pull up in front and that's why Daryl held on to him for as long as possible. I was thankful they went a good gallop up front because it enabled him to settle. I'm not getting carried away at this stage but we will certainly get together and discuss the big handicap at Ascot next Saturday, because normally he doesn't take long to get over his races.”
Over in Ireland, Identity Thief proved a natural over fences when winning the two-mile beginners chase at Punchestown. Last year’s Fighting Fifth winner was a high-class hurdler, and looks sure to make a huge impact now switched to the larger obstacles. Henry de Bromhead has had a terrific start to the campaign, and knows a thing or two about classy two-mile chasers. He trained Sizing Europe to become one of the best in the business, winning the Arkle in 2010, and capturing the Champion Chase 12 months later.
At Aintree yesterday Team Tizzard struck in the Monet’s Garden Old Roan Chase, thanks to their unpredictable talent, Third Intention. Taking over from Vibrato Valtat approaching the last, he held off a late charge from God’s Own. The runner-up was perhaps a little unfortunate, having been stopped in his tracks at the third last, when Royal Regatta decided to up-root the fence. The winner is set to head for the Hennessy, though it was the runner-up who left the impression that plenty more exciting days lie ahead.
Though Tizzard took main honours, it was Dan Skelton’s novice hurdler Robin Roe, that produced the most eye-catching performance at Aintree. The gorgeous looking son of Robin Des Champs, out of a Flemensfirth mare, moved stylishly through the pack before storming clear from the last, for a 12 length success. It was a mightily impressive display, and Skelton was more than satisfied when saying: “We're obviously very happy with him. I hoped he'd win, but I can't say I expected him to win like that. He's a very talented horse and the plan now is to go straight to the Challow. We're lucky to have him.”
We must remember that we are still in October, and it’s easy to get carried away by eye-catching performances. Nevertheless, I’ll allow myself to get a little carried away by Robin Roe.