Sandy Thomson and Robert Walford travelled from opposite ends of the UK in hope of a bright start to the New Year.
Their destination was the home of jump racing, and both arrived dreaming of exciting times ahead with their stable stars. Thomson’s Seeyouatmidnight has always looked a horse with a huge future. By Midnight Legend, it comes as no surprise that he performs at his best in testing conditions.
Though the Dipper Novices’ Chase is run over a trip plenty short enough at 2m 5f, the heavy ground looked certain to play to the eight-year-olds strengths. And so it proved as he led from pillar to post, seeing off the persistent threat of Blaklion to win by more than three lengths, with a yawning 20 lengths back to third.
He looks sure to return to Cheltenham in March and probably contest the RSA Chase for which he is now widely available at 14/1. He’d proved to be a talented staying hurdler when running well for a long way in last year’s World Hurdle on unsuitably lively ground. However, he always had the physical attributes to jump a fence.
Though Thomson appeared non-committal as regards targets, jockey Brian Hughes clearly sees the horse as a stayer, when after the win he said: “He loves that ground. It's a bold shout by Sandy coming here. Three miles is what he wants so dropping back by half a mile was a risk. He's a fair horse and he did it the hard way. He picked up coming to the second last and then got a bit lonely in front. I'd say good, good to soft ground would be fine for him but three miles is what he wants.”
He looks a player in the RSA, though a wet start to March would surely enhance his chances. Thomson spoke of his dreams remaining intact, and the same can be said for Robert Walford who has always thought plenty of his French import Camping Ground.
His victory in the Relkeel Hurdle came as a surprise to many, though it shouldn’t have. Weighted favourably, on ground he looked sure to appreciate, and a trip that looked ideal, the stars truly aligned as he shone brightly on Cheltenham’s hallowed turf. That’s not to say that he isn’t capable of going on from here, but I have a feeling that he’ll never again have so many vital factors in his favour.
His impressive win was aided by the lamentable performance of many in opposition. Top Notch underperformed and was possibly a non-stayer; Cole Harden is a different horse on better ground; Bobs Worth is a long way past his best, and Whisper is a shadow of his former self. It was left to the fast improving Lil Rockerfeller to chase home the winner, though his jockey Trevor Whelan would have needed binoculars to spot the rampaging French gelding as he scooted up the hill and far away.
“He's a special horse, he's fast and stays,” said Walford after the win. “We've always thought he was really good. He was fourth in the Imperial Cup off top weight, and last time out (unseated in Peterborough Chase) was a bit of a blip. There's the Cleeve Hurdle at the end of the month then the World Hurdle. We consider him a chaser but we'll stick to hurdles this season.”
He clearly is a talented horse, and has to be considered as a realistic contender for the Festival in March. However, he’s likely to encounter better ground and has to travel an extra half mile. The Relkeel is a pretty poor pointer to the main event in March, with only More Of That following up in recent times.
We’ll be all the wiser after the Cleeve Hurdle, and I’d be happy to hang on until then before believing he has what it takes to get the better of Thistlecrack.
Nevertheless, for Robert Walford and Sandy Thomson, New Year’s Day delivered the hope of glorious days to come, and just maybe a famous victory at Jump racing’s premier festival.