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Social Discourse – 5th February

A weekend with so much action that even this bumper edition struggling to fit it all in, writes William Kedjanyi. We like a challenge here, however, so here goes with a round up of all the latest movers and shakers on the bumpy highway to the Cotswolds next month…

 

  1. How’d you like them Apple's?

She’s going: The brilliant Apple’s Jade, a wide margin winner of the Irish Champion Hurdle, is now more likely to head to the Festival’s first-day showpiece than not. In the aftermath of her brilliant performance at Leopardstown, where she stole the headlines on the first day of the Dublin Racing Festival, Eddie O’Leary, speaking on behalf of owner Michael, had suggested that she would still go the Mares' Hurdle route in lieu of a tilt at the bigger race.

"We'll go to the Champion Hurdle if you can run a gelding in the Mares'. Did she win the Mares' Hurdle last year? No." – Eddie O’Leary, speaking to Nick Luck on Racing TV in the aftermath of Apple’s Jade’s stunning win.

But overnight, trainer Gordon Elliott and owner Michael O’Leary appeared to have a change of heart.

 

Gordon Elliott, trainer, speaking to Luck On Sunday:  "Buveur D'Air is obviously a very good horse and just does what he has to do every day, but we’ll take him on. Nothing is concrete, but I'd say it's likely."

Michael O’Leary, owner: "If you are going to lose, I’d rather lose trying to win a Champion Hurdle than a Mares’ Hurdle, now that we know she can run a fast two miles."

Looking ahead: If she stays sound, then a delicious clash between Apple’s Jade and Buveur D’Air will be the highlight of the first day at Cheltenham.

Best of the rest: Supasundae ran well once again to be second, although his connections are between a rock and a hard place regarding Festival targets: he would be unlikely to reverse form with Apple’s Jade but the emergence of Paisley Park in the staying division makes life difficult there also.

 

  1. Anything you can do….

Dual Champion Hurdler Buveur D’Air responded in kind with victory in a hack canter in the Contenders Hurdle at Sandown, having to make some of his own running before easing clear of Vision Des Flos and winning the race for a third time.

Nicky Henderson’s charge has been following the same route as last season, albeit with a defeat in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton, and aside from that sprint to the line where Verdana Blue beat him, he’s looked as dominant as ever. Slicker through the latter stages of the race this time than at the Sunbury venue last, he briefly looked under pressure before finding top gear and putting the race to bed.

However, we know he is likely to face perhaps his biggest challenge since becoming the Champion Hurdler in the shape of Apple’s Jade, and we didn’t learn much about him here aside from his wellbeing.

Nicky Henderson, speaking to Sky Sports Racing: “It was a muddling old race. He led down the back and then Barry took a pull and let another horse take a lead. I thought he jumped a bit slicker than at Kempton where he made one howler, but I'm not saying that as an excuse. I'm very happy as he did need this race and the timing was perfect. I was very nervous when I thought it might be off and I had Kelso as an alternative.”

Battle lines are now drawn - Britain vs Ireland, girls vs boys, Henderson vs Elliott, champ vs contender - for a Tuesday in mid-March: bring on the show!

 

  1. Joseph and his Multi-Coloured Triumph Brigade
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Joseph O’Brien has quickly established himself as one of the leading National Hunt trainers in the game – on either side of the Irish Sea – and using his high-class resources, he has emerged with a fine team of juvenile hurdlers.

Sir Erec, strongly fancied for the race beforehand, was an impressive winner of the Spring Juvenile Hurdle at Leopardstown over the weekend when beating stablemate Gardens of Babylon by five lengths. In so doing, he launched himself to the head of the Triumph Hurdle betting, where he’s now 9/4 generally, from 7/1 before Sunday.

Joseph O’Brien, speaking to the Racing Post: "Making the running with Sir Erec wasn't ideal but he's very straightforward and he did it very well. Stamina is probably his forte but he quickened well from the second last. It was only his second run over hurdles, whereas Fakir D'Oudairies has more experience, if not quite the same engine as this fellow."

 

In winning convincingly here, he displaced the wildly impressive Cheltenham trial winner, Fakir D’Doudaries, from the top of the market. That was the second 1-2 for the stable in major Triumph trials, as Fine Brunello was a 13 length second at Cheltenham on Trials Day.

Be smart: Given his incredibly close proximity to high-class flat horses, O’Brien could have much success in this sphere, including with horses making their jumping debut. Also, with so many options – and the backing of JP McManus to help – we could still see some targets being switched.

 

  1. Defi-nitely Maybe

Onlookers at Sandown were treated to a thrilling tale of revenge, as Defi Du Seuil reversed Cheltenham form with Lostintranslation in a battling victory to take the Scilly Isles Novices' Chase.

 

https://twitter.com/TheJockeyClub/status/1091789376663838725

 

Flashback: Only ten weeks ago, Defi was being trashed by Lalor in the Racing Post Arkle Trial, ballooning each fence and looking like he’d confound Phillip Hobbs once again after his great juvenile hurdling season two campaigns ago.

But Hobbs has managed to coax the required fencing improvement from him on each run since that clumsy display, and he battled back determinedly under a fine Barry Geraghty drive. In so doing, he cast aside any lingering apprehensions about his finishing effort after Lostintranslation worried him out of the Dipper on New Year’s Day, albeit with a 3lbs weight turnaround.

Favourite Vinndication didn’t travel with any zest at all and stayed on fairly well to finish third, beaten just a couple of lengths. Kim Bailey reported that he didn’t like the ground – which was sticky 'holding' turf – so he adds further intrigue should the three re-engage in the JLT.

Philip Hobbs, after unsaddling Defi Du Seuil: “Barry was delighted with him, particularly with the way he jumped and coped with the ground. Where we go from here, a lot will depend on the ground, but he certainly saw the trip out well.”

 

  1. Here’s what else happened
  • Bellshill took a thrilling Irish Gold Cup, albeit in a decimated field, as he was driven home by a short head to beat Road To Respect under a great Ruby Walsh drive. He was cut to cut to a general 12-1 (from 16) for the Gold Cup at the Cheltenham Festival.

  • Walsh was just as good aboard Klassical Dream, who is now as short as 8-1 for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle after a dramatic Grade 1 success in the Chanelle Pharma Novice Hurdle, just touching off his stablemate and past Grade 1 winner, Aramon.

 

  • La Bague Au Roi struck a notable success for Britain with a gritty front-running success in the Flogas Novice Chase, holding off 33/1 outsider Kaiser Black after Delta Work was withdrawn. It’s probable she’ll miss Cheltenham for Aintree, and it is also to be hoped that Winter Escape will bounce back after bursting a blood vessel.

  • Envoi Allen booked his Cheltenham ticket on Saturday, winning the Matheson (C&G) I.N.H. Flat Race at Leopardstown. The favourite stuck his neck right out to the line and beat the closing Meticulous, owned by Michael Tabour and trained by Joesph O’Brien, and is now being aimed at the Festival Bumper.

 

  • Commander Of Fleet proved himself a promising stayer with a battling victory over Rhinestone in the the Nathaniel Lacy & Partners Solicitors 50,000 Cheltenham Bonus For Stable Staff Novice Hurdle. He relished the step up in trip and might go further in the Albert Bartlett as Battleoverdoyen looks set for the Ballymore. Champion Bumper winner Relegate finished with a wet sail to take fifth but she must learn to jump better.

  • Min repeated his 2018 win in the Ladbrokes Dublin Chase at Leopardstown but the race was marred by a fatal injury to Special Tiara.

 

  • Le Richebourg cemented his claims as a leading player for what is now a very competitive looking Arkle with a smooth win in the Frank Ward Solicitors Arkle Novice Chase

 

  1. The Fast Show

The Dublin Racing Festival will mostly be remembered for performances on the track – as it should be – but the track itself was the subject of much attention as firm ground in places on the chase course led to a glut of non-runners on Sunday. 22 of the 26 non-runners with were withdrawn because of the ground, unusually quick for a jumps meeting, especially at this time of year.

The Irish Gold Cup was decimated, with Al Boum Photo, Balko Des Flos, Monalee, Edwulf, Noble Endeavor and Anibale Fly all withdrawn, leaving a four-runner heat that somehow still served up a fine duel, albeit a diminished one.

https://twitter.com/ODDSbibleRacing/status/1092007571341393920

 

Be smart: This was a perfect storm of weather conditions. Below average rainfall had led to quicker underfoot already, and then low temperatures trapped the ground staff with nowhere to go. This might continue to be the case in future, with higher average temperatures leading to drier and drier winters. However, we could still be in for a nasty shock when the spring comes, as wet weather could make for very soft ground at Cheltenham and Aintree, just as it did last year.

Lorcan Wyer, Leopardstown’s Clerk of the Course, speaking to the Racing Post’s Richard Forristal: "In the lead into this meeting, ten days before this fixture, we were given a forecast by Met Eireann of 40-50mm of rainfall. We got maybe 20mm of that, and we started off on the Monday of this week with a forecast of 20mm to 40mm of rain, sleet or snow, and sub-zero temperatures all week. Watering with that forecast, particularly with the sub-zero aspect, would be alien to me. I'm not sure any other track would go along those lines."

Being Sensible; Noel Meade, trainer of Irish Gold Cup runner up Road To Respect: "It's a Catch-22 situation. You're damned if you do and damned if you don't. The way it's turned out today, you would have loved if they had watered, but hindsight is a fine thing. They were in an impossible situation."

**

The countdown to Cheltenham's Festival continues apace, and next weekend the focus will be on Newbury, where the Betfair Hurdle, Denman Chase and Game Spirit Chase all offer Festival aspirants the chance to rehearse ahead of the big week in March. Join us early next week for another thrilling instalment of Social Discourse!

- William Kedjanyi

 

Tizzard Strikes Gold at thrilling Cheltenham Festival

There were many outstanding performances during last week’s Cheltenham Festival, though there’s no doubting testing conditions proved a gamechanger for some.

Summerville Boy and Kalashnikov had fought through the mud in the Tolworth Hurdle back in January and were well suited by the heavy ground encountered in the Festival opener. As at Sandown, it was Tom George’s six-year-old that came off best, though he needed every yard to get his head in front. A haphazard jumping display almost cost him, but he stayed on powerfully up the famous hill to deny Kalashnikov by a neck.

Mengli Khan travelled powerfully and on better ground may well have finished ahead of the front two. There’s plenty more to come from Gordon Elliott’s youngster, and he may be the one to take out of the race. Getabird was a major disappointment, having pulled his way to the front he travelled far too keenly and faded out of contention after the second-last. He’s not been the easiest to train, and I’m convinced that he’s far better than he showed here. It would come as no surprise should he bounce back to form at Punchestown in April, where he’ll likely clash again with Mengli Khan.

Ground conditions were also ideal for Footpad as he romped to victory in the Arkle Chase. His task was made far easier by a rare poor riding performance from Davy Russell aboard Petit Mouchoir and an inspired one from Ruby Walsh. De Bromhead’s chaser had little chance of seeing out the trip having set-off like an equine Usain Bolt, whilst the Mullins-trained favourite was ridden with restraint and delivered with a perfectly timed challenge. This isn’t to say that Footpad was a lucky winner. He’s a class act and looks capable of mixing-it with all bar Altior at the minimum trip. Though I’d be surprised if Mullins didn’t move him up in distance next season. He looks a natural successor to Un De Sceaux.

Buveur D’Air clung on to his crown and fought off Melon to win the Champion Hurdle. Conditions wouldn’t have favoured the favourite. Slick jumping at pace has proved his forte, along with a potent finishing kick. On this occasion he was forced into a slug-fest with a Mullins youngster who clearly has more to offer than many had anticipated. Melon is no mug, though I fancy on better ground the Champ would have too many gears for the youngster. It’s hard to assess how the pair will match-up in a year’s time. There’s the possibility of further progress from the Closutton inmate, though the team may also consider sending him over fences. He has the size and scope to make a chaser and could easily become an Arkle contender.

Another that could be heading for next season’s Arkle Chase is the wonderfully talented Samcro. Second-guessing future targets for this fella won’t be easy. Seemingly blessed with the speed that would make him a realistic Champion Hurdle contender, connections seemingly insist that his future lies as a staying chaser. There’s certainly plenty of stamina on the dam’s side, though his sire, Germany, was responsible for the mighty Faugheen.

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Samcro proved far too quick for the opposition in the Ballymore. Having powered through the race, he swept past the field turning for home, with only Black Op capable of putting up any sort of resistance. The Tom George-trained seven-year-old managed to get within three-lengths at the finish, though never looked like landing a serious blow. The runner-up looks a cracking prospect and should improve plenty for fences. Next Destination was badly outpaced coming downhill towards the second-last, yet flew up the hill to finish third. He’s likely to be sent chasing and looks an RSA type.

Presenting Percy was next to impress, though I’ll reserve judgment as to his potential as a serious player in next year’s Gold Cup. Monalee finished second though looked a non-stayer. Al Boum Photo came down at the second-last when looking to lay down a challenge, though I doubt he’d have got to the winner. Nevertheless, Presenting Percy has now to step into the ring against top-level experienced chasers. Our Duke’s performance later in the week illustrated the unique demands of a high-class Gold Cup. Presenting P has been installed as a 6/1 joint-favourite for next year’s ‘blue riband’ and I fancy that’s a slight over-reaction to his RSA romp. Native River remains available at 8s.

Wednesday’s Champion Chase finally delivered the Douvan/Altior clash that so many Jump racing fans had been waiting for. Mullins also threw Min into the mix, attempting to wrestle the prize away from Nicky Henderson’s stable star. For much of the race Douvan looked back to his sublime best, jumping like a stag at the head of affairs. But just as we started to get excited he guessed at the fourth-last and was down.

Altior was struggling in the testing ground and turning for home looked in trouble, with Min travelling much the stronger. But rarely has a horse surged up the famous hill like Altior. He put seven-lengths between himself and the runner-up in a simply astounding finishing burst. Min wasn’t stopping, but the winner is a freak. That he should arrive on the scene so soon after the glorious Sprinter Sacre must be a dream come true for Nicky Henderson.

Gordon Elliott had a sensational Festival, as did owner’s Gigginstown House Stud. Day three proved a cracker for both, with a talented mare, Shattered Love, landing the opening JLT Novices’ Chase. She’s regally bred, being by Yeats out of a Bustino mare, yet has the perfect physique for this game. She’s a huge beast, and powered clear up the final hill, despite taking a chunk of the final fence with her. Now five from six over the larger obstacles, she did fiddle a few, but given this type of testing ground is clearly hugely talented.

Gigginstown supremo, Michael O’Leary, then landed his own race, the Ryanair Chase. Balko Des Flos travelled supremely well throughout and proved far too hot to handle. The seven-year-old drew clear of last year’s winner, Un De Sceaux, to win by a little over four-lengths. There’d been concerns over the suitability of the ground, but in the event, he simply cruised his way through the mud. This was a power-packed performance from a horse on a steep upward curve.

Many had hoped for a similar display from Sam Spinner in the Stayers’ Hurdle, but a pedestrian pace played to those with a finishing kick and it was Penhill that found more than Supasundae. The winner is without doubt a talented horse, but this was a disappointing race for those that had hoped for a pulsating battle.

Elliott and Gigginstown were at it again at the start of day four, when Farclas landed the Triumph Hurdle. He toughed it out to beat fellow Irish raider Mr Adjudicator. Apple’s Shakira ran well but was probably undone by the testing conditions. Stormy Ireland was another that ran with huge credit, before tiring and coming down at the last. She could take some catching on better ground.

Colin Tizzard’s Kilbricken Storm caused an upset to win the Albert Bartlett, though the lightly raced Santini looks the horse to take out of the race. Henderson’s six-year-old should make a terrific chaser next season.

It became a day to remember for Tizzard and his team, when Native River pulled out all the stops to defeat Might Bite in the Gold Cup. The pair proved a class apart as they duelled throughout the race. Turning for home, Henderson’s King George winner appeared to be travelling the better. But it was Richard Johnson who managed to get a little extra from the gutsy Native River up the final climb to the finish. The runner-up lost little in defeat and, on a better surface, may well have come out on top. Nevertheless, this was Tizzard’s day, and in Johnson and Native River he’s uncovered a match made in heaven.

In a Festival where Mullins and Elliott proved dominant, the Brits turned to Henderson and Tizzard for a small piece of solace. There were grounds for concern throughout, but once again Cheltenham delivered.

Cheltenham Festival Halftime ‘Pep Talk’ required

We’ve reached the halfway point in this year’s Cheltenham Festival, and from a personal point of view, I’m in need of a much-improved second half performance.

I’ve taken on far too many favourites for my own good, and whilst many punters will be dancing with joy, I’m left wishing I’d played the obvious, rather than over-complicating matters.

The usual suspects have proved dominant, with Mullins, Elliott and Henderson capturing nine of the 14 races thus far. Mullins landed an opening day hat-trick, though Getabird proved disappointing in the opener. The team made amends, when Footpad cruised to victory in the Arkle Chase. Ruby rode an intelligent race, sitting some way off the crazy pace set by Davy Russell on Petit Mouchoir. Aidan Coleman kept him company aboard Saint Calvados, and the pair were cooked some way from the finish. Footpad is without doubt a classy chaser, though his task in winning this was made that much easier by the inept tactics of others.

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It was inevitable that Ruby would side with Faugheen in the Champion Hurdle, hopeful of one last hurrah from the great champion. Sadly, time waits for no man, or horse, and the ex-champ faded turning for home. Stable companion Melon was left to tackle the new champion Buveur D’Air, and the pair locked horns in a thrilling duel from the second-last to the line. Henderson’s returning hero was headed just after the last but rallied bravely to wrestle the prize away from the young pretender. The Gordon Elliott-trained Mick Jazz filled the frame, though he was three-lengths adrift of the main protagonists.

Gordon Elliott’s classy mare, Apple’s Jade, was surprisingly beaten into third in the Mares’ Hurdle, with the Mullins-trained Benie Des Dieux staying on powerfully for the win. But there was no such shock in the opener on day two, when Elliott’s latest stable-star, Samcro, lived up to the hype in landing the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle. Travelling powerfully throughout, the six-year-old cruised to the front on the turn for home, quickly putting distance between himself and the field. Only the Tom George-trained Black Op put up any kind of resistance, finishing just shy of three-lengths off the favourite.

Samcro is likely to be sent chasing next term yet appears to have the tactical speed to become an elite hurdler. Numerous Ballymore winners have dropped back in trip to become Champion Hurdle contenders. Several have been successful. From the same sire as Faugheen, Samcro cruised through this race, as he had when winning at two miles in the Deloitte Novice Hurdle a month earlier. He’s owned by Gigginstown, who tend to target the Gold Cup with their most talented horses. Nevertheless, a conversation will be had in the close-season and it will be interesting to see what path is taken in the short term.

There’s no doubting the future target for the impressive RSA winner, Presenting Percy. Not unlike Samcro, this fella cruised through the race, before being unleashed by Davy Russell approaching the penultimate fence. The race was quickly put to bed and by the time he hit the line he’d stretched seven lengths clear of Monalee. Prior to this victory he’d found Our Duke a little too hot to handle at Gowran Park, suggesting Jess Harrington’s chaser will play a huge part in the Gold Cup on Friday. Nevertheless, this fella looks a powerful stayer and is sure to be aimed at the 2019 ‘Blue Riband’. Sadly, Ruby Walsh was again injured in a fall from Al Boum Photo, and may well have ridden for the last time this season.

Later in the afternoon, Nicky Henderson made it two from two in the Championship races, when Altior followed Buveur D’Air into the winners’ enclosure. Douvan was returning from a year off the track, and looked exceptionally well, jumping beautifully at the head of affairs. Much to everyone’s disappointment, he came down in the back straight, seemingly leaving Min and Altior to play out the finish. Henderson’s charge needed to be urged along at various times during the race and turning for home Min looked a huge danger. But rarely have I seen a horse more impressive from the last at Cheltenham. This fella simply devours the infamous hill, and he powered clear of his Irish rival to win by seven lengths. Altior is peerless at the minimum trip and I got to wondering how he would do if targeted at next year’s Gold Cup. He’ll possibly take in the Melling Chase at Aintree next (at 2m4f), a race won by Sprinter Sacre in 2013. Should Might Bite fail in his bid to capture the Gold Cup this week, Mr Henderson may be tempted to move this awesome racehorse up in distance.

Gordon Elliott took two of the last three, making it a treble on the day. Tiger Roll was an impressive winner of the Cross Country, further enhancing his Festival reputation. Cause Of Causes had been sent off favourite but floundered in testing conditions. It was no surprise to see Willie Mullins capture the Bumper, taking the Closutton team to five winners for the Festival thus far.

Mullins and Elliott have the favourite in five of today’s races as they look to press home the Irish dominance.

Cheltenham Festival Shorties – Thrash or Crash

For today’s piece I’ve decided to take a closer look at the Cheltenham Festival ‘shorties’ and assess whether they will thrash the opposition or unexpectedly crash and burn in the cauldron of Prestbury Park.

Year after year horses arrive at the Cotswolds in March with a huge reputation. They’ve often impressed in slowly run affairs, with small fields and usually in deep winter ground. Some duly arrive and conquer, confirming their status as potential stars. But others find Cheltenham an inhospitable place. The ground proves too quick and the opponents run too fast. They feel crowded in the larger fields and the fences are much trickier than those they have encountered before.

You only need to look back to last year’s Festival to see how Cheltenham in March can prove an immense assignment.

Yanworth lined-up as the 2/1 favourite for the Champion Hurdle having won three from three during the winter. Nevertheless, he came-up short when it mattered. Never slick enough over the obstacles, he was then badly outpaced coming downhill. By the time the field had turned for home his race was run.

Douvan was injured during his attempt to land the Champion Chase, but was he also a victim of a soft campaign? He arrived at Cheltenham having defeated 138-rated Realt Mor in a Grade Two at Punchestown. Thrown in at the deep end, in arguably the most intense National Hunt race of the calendar, the 2/9 favourite was forced to go a yard or two faster than at any time during the winter. He stood off way too far at the third and fourth fence, before putting in a short one at the fifth. Those early errors may have caused the physical damage which ultimately led to his demise, though there can be little doubt that chasing Special Tiara on Spring ground played a significant part.

Death Duty looked a non-stayer before coming down at the last in the Albert Bartlett, though during a dominant winter campaign in Ireland had looked sure to appreciate a step-up in trip. He’d ‘kept on well’ to thump Monalee at Navan in December, yet at Cheltenham, when sent-off a 13/8 ‘sure thing’, was run off his feet and had nothing left when faced with the infamous hill. His pedigree shouts stayer! Yet quicker ground and the inevitable stronger pace of a Grade One at The Festival proved insurmountable for the talented young hurdler.

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Unowhatimeanharry had swept all aside en-route to last year’s Festival. He’d looked hugely impressive in taking the Long Distance at Newbury, the Long Walk at Ascot and then the Cleeve at Cheltenham. A 5/6 favourite for the Stayers’ at the off, Harry Fry’s hurdler did little wrong, travelling powerfully through the race, but lacked gears on the livelier ground and was beaten into third.

Each year these stories are repeated and without doubt there’ll be several ‘shorties’ turned over in March. The difficulty comes in predicting which of the ‘Festival bankers’ will fail to deliver.

Getabird is already a 7/4 shot for the opening Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. If Samcro heads to the Ballydoyle as anticipated, the Mullins-trained six-year-old will be hugely popular with punters, especially of an Irish persuasion. He’s arguably the sort that we should be taking on. His pair of hurdles victories have come in heavy ground, and as a point-to-point winner, we know he’ll stay much further in time. He could be tapped for toe in a quick-fire Supreme. Nevertheless, at this moment in time I’m a believer rather than a doubter. He’s looked slick and destructively quick in winning those two races. The Mullins/Ricci combo have a tremendous record in the opener and with no Nicky Henderson contender to beat, I’m taking this fella to thrash the opposition much to the delight of the Irish contingent.

The Mullins team have another short-priced favourite for the second race of the meeting - the Arkle Chase. Owned by Simon Munir and Isaac Souede, Footpad has been brilliant over the winter, winning all three chase starts and taking to fences like a duck to water. An even-money favourite with most bookies, he’s earned the right to top the market and will be many punters banker of the opening day. Despite a faultless campaign to date, I’m taking Footpad to crash in a renewal that looks hugely competitive.

Petit Mouchoir, Sceau Royal and Saint Calvados could ensure that this is the race of the festival. A strong pace is guaranteed, and the winner will need to travel powerfully before staying on strongly up the famous hill. You could argue that Sceau Royal’s performance in winning the Henry VIII at Sandown was the most impressive by any novice this winter. I just have a slight concern as to whether he’ll be strong enough when faced with Cheltenham’s stiff finish. Saint Calvados was devastatingly good at Warwick last time, though needs to prove himself on a sounder surface. But it’s Petit Mouchoir that I fancy can turn the tables on Footpad. He should improve a ton for the run at Leopardstown last time. And producing two-mile chasers is Henry De Bromhead’s speciality.

Buveur D’Air is a certainty in the Champion Hurdle. Sure to thrash his challengers, those with plenty of cash can still get on at around 4/9.

I’m taking a huge risk with the next ‘Festival banker’. Samcro will look to maintain his perfect record under rules, with plenty believing that he cannot be beaten. Hugely impressive last time in the Deloitte Novice Hurdle, he’s odds-on to take the Ballymore. Spring-heeled at his obstacles, he has gears and is bred to appreciate this trip. Those winter wins have come on heavy ground, but he’s by Germany, a stallion that has produced previous festival winners Faugheen and Captain Cee Bee. He has the credentials, but in On The Blind Side and Next Destination, the opposition looks strong.

The former is trained by Nicky Henderson and is also unbeaten under rules. He was mightily impressive at Sandown in December and is highly thought of by his trainer. The Willie Mullins-trained Next Destination is unbeaten over hurdles and ran well in last year’s Champion Bumper at Cheltenham. He’s accounted for some decent sorts over the winter and looks sure to run a huge race. Samcro has looked awesome thus far, but I fancy the opposition is strong enough for him to be vulnerable here. Despite a huge amount of talent and a colossal reputation, he’s a crash rather than a thrash.

Like Buveur D’Air, Altior cannot be defeated. A two-time Festival winner, he’s in a different league to the rest. Min may be challenging approaching the last, but Altior will no doubt surge clear approaching the line. This fella is sure to thrash all-comers in the Champion Chase.

Though I’m stretching it a little in calling him a ‘shortie’, Might Bite has dominated the Gold Cup market since his King George success at Christmas. Hugely talented, though undoubtedly quirky, Henderson’s young chaser will face by far his toughest assignment at Cheltenham and I fear the infamous hill will prove his downfall. Almost chinned late-on in last year’s RSA, he faces better horses in March and arguably stronger stayers.

Sizing John needs to bounce back to form, but last year’s winner will probably do so. Native River has been aimed at this one race and looks sure to go close. Road To Respect is a Festival winner and has improved a ton during the winter. And there’s no doubting that Minella Rocco will be charging up the hill as others cry ‘enough’. I wouldn’t be at all upset if Might Bite proved me wrong, but for me he’s likely to crash when challenged by talented and more proven stayers.

So there you have it. Some will leave the Cotswolds with huge reputations intact, whilst others head home having found Cheltenham a place where dreams fail to come true.

Repeat Offenders – Festival Favourites Aim To Be Back On Track

We may well see Altior back on a racecourse this weekend, with Nicky Henderson targeting The Game Spirit Chase at Newbury.

His imminent comeback is perfectly timed, following on as it does from a terrific performance in Ireland from his chief two-mile rival Min. It’s easy to forget how brilliant Altior is, but look again at his Supreme Novices’ victory of 2016, or last year’s Game Spirit romp. Some were less impressed by the Arkle Chase success, despite him storming clear from the last fence. And he was again at his destructive best when powering clear of Special Tiara in the Celebration Chase at Sandown.

Two from two at The Festival, he’ll hopefully return to Prestbury Park in March, and if back to his best, will make it a trio of victories at Jump racing’s most celebrated gathering.

Altior’s return got me thinking of others that will travel to Cheltenham in search of further Festival glory. Course form, especially a victory or prominent finish in a previous March gathering, is often a useful reference point for punters hoping to make a few quid during the four-day extravaganza.

Many horses find it difficult to handle Cheltenham’s undulations and that punishing uphill finish. The chase courses are especially testing with tricky downhill fences encountered as the tempo of a race intensifies. Cue Card’s ‘Groundhog Day’ moment at the third last in the past two Gold Cup’s is testament to the challenging nature of the track.

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An ability to cope with the course is certainly essential, but returning heroes are often those that enjoy the spring conditions and a touch of sun on their backs. Some can slip off the radar after a winter toiling through the mud. Yet given a sounder surface they return rejuvenated to their happy hunting ground.

Cause Of Causes epitomises the phenomenon and must be followed whatever the target in March. Following his win in last year’s Cross Country Chase (his third Festival success), a thrilled Gordon Elliott said of his equine warrior: “He seems to come well at Cheltenham every year. He's an absolute superstar and we love him to bits.” It’s possible Elliott will send him in search of a repeat success in the ‘country’ before another crack at his main target, the Grand National.

Elliott has another Festival favourite in the yard, that may also line-up in the Cross Country. Tiger Roll was mightily impressive in winning last year’s National Hunt Chase (four-miler), three years after landing the Triumph Hurdle. The race will be remembered more for the drama surrounding Edwulf, though the way Tiger Roll ‘tanked’ his way through the marathon event was unforgettable. Hugely talented when in the mood, he clearly enjoys springtime in the Cotswolds.

Though yet to taste Festival success, I had to give a mention to the Tom George-trained Singlefarmpayment. Favourite to take last year’s Ultima Handicap Chase, he was chinned on the line by Un Temps Pour Tout (himself a dual-Festival winner). He’s likely to return for another crack and usually puts in a bold display at the Gloucestershire course. His six visits have gleaned two victories and a pair of second-place finishes. His handicap mark is just a touch higher than 12 months ago, and everything points to another productive Prestbury Park performance.

Several elite horses are simply so talented that they will inevitably become multi-festival winners, assuming they stay fit and well. Altior has already achieved ‘Cheltenham Star’ status, with Buveur D’Air and Apple’s Jade more than likely to add their names to the list of dual-Cheltenham Festival heroes in March. Un De Sceaux is another among that elite group that has already proved himself repeatedly at Jump racing’s Olympics.

Less flamboyant yet still likely to put their best foot forward in search of another Festival victory are Willoughby Court, Presenting Percy and Minella Rocco.

It was something of a surprise to see him defeat the ill-fated Neon Wolf in last year’s Neptune Novices’ Hurdle (now Ballymore), but Willoughby Court has maintained that form over fences and is now favourite for the JLT at the festival. Slightly disappointing last time when trying to give Yanworth 5lbs in testing conditions, he’d previously defeated the same rival on level terms on a sounder surface. Ben Pauling’s yard have just started firing again after a lean spell, and this fella looks sure to go close in March.

Presenting Percy landed the Pertemps Final a year ago and will return to Prestbury Park as a leading contender for the RSA Chase. He’s two from three over fences this term and proved his well-being last time when impressive over hurdles at Gowran Park. He’ll have tough opposition to overcome, including the likes of Monalee, Yanworth and Al Boum Photo. Nevertheless, this talented stayer showed his love of the track last year and should go close again.

Jonjo’s Minella Rocco will again arrive at Cheltenham as a relatively unconsidered contender for the Gold Cup. Yet punters should surely take note of his previous Festival outings and act accordingly. He took the National Hunt Chase in 2016, defeating Native River. And in last year’s Gold Cup he was a fast-finishing runner-up to an in-form Sizing John. He proved to be my only antepost success, having had a few quid on him each-way at 33s. With better ground and that stamina-sapping hill playing to his strengths, I see no reason why this year’s renewal should be any different. If anything, the race looks more open this time around. He’s currently available at 25/1.

Finally, I need to mention the Nigel Twiston-Davies trained Blaklion. I’m not on my own in fancying this fella for the Gold Cup (Twitter’s @TenEmbassy a huge fan), but the yard is yet to commit. I doubt he has the talent to win, but like Minella R, he’ll be charging up the famous hill and could be one for a place at a tasty price. He’s an RSA winner, and I’m reminded of Lord Windermere’s success some years back when an unconsidered outsider. I’m on at fancy odds, so let’s just hope that Big Nige takes the plunge.

A winter of discontent is not always a sign of decline. For those punters hoping to make money from the Cheltenham Festival, blinkers should be removed, and full consideration given to previous festival performances. Spring ground and the ability to act on a unique racecourse can often spark a return to form.

A Clarence House Cruise – Un De Sceaux Easy

Un De Sceaux cruised to victory in the Clarence House on Saturday and remains at the head of the market for the Ryanair Chase at the Cheltenham Festival.

The Willie Mullins-trained chaser was completing a hat-trick of victories, though will rarely find it easier to win at the highest level. The opposition for such a prestigious event was mediocre at best. Decent handicapper Speredek chased him home, whilst Nicky Henderson’s novice, Brain Power, once again failed to spark over the larger obstacles, before coming down two-out. The victor is without doubt an outstanding chaser, but it’s a shame that the record-breaking achievement should come in such a poor renewal.

Speredek did his best to make a race of it. Ridden boldly from the front by Sean Bowen, he maintained a lead until turning for home. Un De Sceaux swept past approaching the second-last, with Brain Power driven to get involved. The latter had jumped erratically throughout, and hit the fence hard, crumpling on landing. The favourite gradually pulled clear for a seven-length success.

Paul Townend was aboard the winner, in the absence of injured Ruby Walsh, and said of the victory: “I rode my horse to suit him, and the further we went the more confident I was getting. It was hard work, but it was job done today. It's great to get the opportunity to ride these horses. I spoke to Ruby (Walsh) this morning. He's always helpful when he's on the sidelines and I'm grateful to Willie and all the owners. He has a massive heart.”

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Mullins looked on from Navan and added: “It looks like he's racing a lot more relaxed nowadays which means we can ride him differently. I was very happy with his jumping. I'd be happy enough to go back for the Ryanair Chase after what he did last year. But let’s see what happens with all the other horses first.”

Nico de Boinville felt Brain Power was struggling with his breathing, and the horse will be tested before further plans are made. Connections were made to sweat, as the horse took some time to rise from the tired looking fall. Henderson has said that he thought the horse ‘jumped and travelled great’, but having watched the race again, I find it hard to concur.

Despite having the size and scope for fences, he’s no natural. At times he makes an ugly shape over the obstacle, and though he remains a novice, and should therefore be judged as such, he has a long way to go if he’s to become competitive at the highest level.

The winner will head to Cheltenham and attempt to defend his crown in the Ryanair, though he’ll have a hell of a lot more on his plate with the likes of Top Notch, Fox Norton and Waiting Patiently in the line-up.

As Un De Sceaux completed a famous trio of victories in the Clarence House, so The New One was landing a stunning four-in-a-row at Haydock, with yet another gutsy success in the Champion Hurdle Trial. The popular hurdler has made this race his own in recent times, and though victory looked unlikely as Ch’Tibello cruised alongside, the Twiston-Davies stable star refused to accept defeat. He’ll now head for the Stayers’ Hurdle in March, whilst I still give the runner-up an each-way chance in the Champion Hurdle. Skelton’s seven-year-old jumped and travelled beautifully throughout before being ‘out-slugged’ by the ultimate slugger. He’ll be no match for Buveur D’Air, but a place finish is up for grabs.

As ever, the winning trainer was full of praise for a horse he so clearly adores, saying: “We know he's not at his best here in heavy ground, but that is the fourth time he's won it now - surely they must name the race after him. He carried a 6lb penalty too, so if they were off level weights he'd have done it comfortably. He appears to be better than ever at the age of 10, which tells you all you need to know about him.

“He's just so tough, we love him and while he'll get an entry in the Champion Hurdle in case the wheels fall off the others, it will be straight to the Stayers' now. He's never been that impressive in this race, in a way that's probably his best win. I've certainly never won the same race four times, never mind a Grade Two. Quite simply he's the horse of a lifetime.”

Champion Hurdle Preview, Trends, Tips: Cheltenham Festival 2018

Champion Hurdle Preview, Trends, Tips: Cheltenham Festival 2018

It's now just two months until the tapes rise on the 2018 Cheltenham Festival, so it's high time we had a look for some betting value in the antepost markets. The feature race on Day One, Tuesday, is the Unibet Champion Hurdle, a Grade 1 run over just beyond two miles. Lasy year's Champion Hurdler, Buveur D'Air, is a strong favourite to retain his crown, but is his odds-on quote justified? Let's take a look...

Champion Hurdle 2018 Trends

Age

Five-year-old Katchit in 2008 was the first of his age group to win this race since See You Then in 1985. None has won since, from 27 to try, though Celestial Halo and Binocular did round out the trifecta behind Punjabi the following year. Another year later, Zaynar ran third for the five-year-olds but, since 2010, just Countrywide Flame has hit the board.

Defi De Seuil, sixth in the betting, is the most high profile five-year-old in the antepost lists, though his participation is subject to an improved performance after flopping on his sole start this season (stable was in poor form at the time).

At the other end of the spectrum, those aged in double digits are 0 from 21 since 1997, though venerable veterans Hurricane Fly and My Tent Or Yours made the frame since 2015. The last double-digit aged winner was Sea Pigeon, whose second victory, aged eleven, came in 1981. That was 37 years ago, which is hardly a boon if you like either Faugheen, the second favourite, or My Tent Or Yours, fifth market choice.

A focus on six- to nine-year-olds would have found all bar one of the winners in the last thirty years, but is a statistic which eliminates three of the top six in the current betting.

 

Last Time Out

Champion Hurdlers tend to be winners. Obvious, right? Indeed, 16 of the last 20 winners also triumphed on their previous racecourse appearance, from 106 runners. There were 269 horses line up in those twenty renewals, meaning 39.4% of all runners won last time. And yet they accounted for 80% of the winners, and 60% of the placed horses.

If you want to go off road a little, look also to those who finished second last time. They accounted for two of the remaining four victories since 1997 (10% of the wins) from 20% of the runners. Not so hot, but the winning pair were 11/1 Rock On Ruby and 33/1 Hardy Eustace, which would have squirreled the bank out even at Betfair Starting Price.

Still, it's best to focus exclusively on last day winners. As things stand, of the remaining three in the top six of the betting, only Buveur D'Air won last time. This can, and probably will, change between now and March, so tread carefully.

 

Key Trials

The Ryanair Hurdle, run over Christmas at Leopardstown, has been a key trial in recent seasons, seven Champion Hurdle winners emerging from the race since 2000 to take Festival honours at Cheltenham. This season, with Faugheen pulling up, it was left to Mick Jazz to see off Cilaos Emery.

Kempton's Christmas Hurdle has been a solid pointer too, with this season's festive showpiece falling to Buveur D'air who saw off The New One.

The other kingmaker race is the Irish Champion Hurdle, which will be run at the beginning of next month. Most of that race's Champion Hurdle highlighting lustre comes from Brave Inca and especially Hurricane Fly in recent times.  Faugheen is slated for a bid to redeem his reputation in the race so it will make for interesting viewing and can be expected to have a bearing on the Champion Hurdle market.

 

Champion Hurdle 2018 Form Preview

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So much for the trends, which seem to put a line through all of Buveur D'air's main market rivals leaving him home free on paper. But, of course, the Champion Hurdle isn't run on paper, and thank the moon and the stars for that. Still, let's consider the compelling case for the jolly before engaging in the potential folly of trying to get him beaten.

Buveur D'Air is unbeaten in most of two years, since running third to Altior and Min in the 2016 Supreme Novices' Hurdle. He's won eight on the bounce now, including last year's Champion Hurdle, and he's not been seriously tested. His official mark of 169 is clear of all bar the historical perch of Faugheen, a figure that one hasn't run to for two years. The seven year old is in the prime of his life, has seemingly had an uninterrupted preparation and, while a mooted trip to Ireland for the Irish Champion Hurdle at the beginning of February may be wide of the mark, he could have another spin before the Festival.

Trying to find reasons to oppose Buveur D'Air is tricky, still more so if taking slightly shorter with the Non Runner No Bet (NRNB) concession. If he gets to the starting line without a hiccup, he is by far the most likely winner. If I was picking holes - or trying to, at least - you could argue his rider asked for a very bold leap at the last in the Christmas Hurdle, a risky tactic. The converse is that the horse responded gamely and cruised away from standing dish, The New One.

It is probably unfair to measure Nicky Henderson's hotpot by the horses in his immediate aftermath - you can only beat what shows up, after all. And B d'Air has mocked not just The New One but also My Tent Or Yours (twice) and Irving in four back-to-back Grade 1 wins. That trio are all card-carrying veterans and are surely susceptible to a younger, more upwardly mobile racer albeit that such a type would be mobilizing from a lower ability base.

I want to be against Faugheen. Another of the double-digit brigade, he's been seen on the track just twice in the last two years, most recently when pulling up for no obvious reason. True, prior to that he hinted at the retention of the terrific talent he formerly possessed; but that was in duffing up a couple of 155 horses, both of whose marks may be considered slightly dubious at that level.

He just has a heck of a lot to prove, and at a top price of 5/1 is no value to do so. It would be genuinely fantastic to see him back to his best but it is very hard to imagine that he's a tight single figure chance of winning the Champion Hurdle in two months time. 3/1 NRNB could be excusable, depending on what shows up for the Leopardstown race. If it's a decent field and Faugheen wins, he'll be shorter and deservedly so. If he gets beaten, that will very likely be that and money back. Although it's hardly romantic, I fear the latter outcome. Either way, he's too risky a proposition at the price at this stage.

A couple of Mullins subs are next in the market. Melon is a weird one. I can only imagine he works like an absolute tank at home, because his form simply does nothing to vindicate a quote of 8/1 best. The only race he's won since a maiden hurdle this time last year was a weak Grade 2 at Down Royal, where he was roughly the same distance in front of Coquin Mans as Jezki was the time before. And he was in receipt of three pounds!

In three defeats around that hollow triumph he's run behind Labaik, Cilaos Emery and My Tent Or Yours (and The New One). I genuinely honestly for the life of me cannot fathom how that is possibly the profile of a single figure chance in a Champion Hurdle, even as shallow a heat as this looks.

If he dots up, fair enough, but it would have to be a major step forward from a rating of 159, which looks generous already.

More interesting, much more interesting, is Yorkhill. 12/1 in the all in run or not books, he's as short as 4/1 NRNB. That differential is explained by the fact he's been chasing for the last season and a bit. As unconvincing over a fence as he can be, he's still managed to win the JLT Novices' Chase at last year's Cheltenham Festival and, before that, the Neptune at the previous year's Festival.

If Faugheen was withdrawn from consideration, Yorkhill is a rock solid deputy, assuming he can still make a hurdling shape. Actually, thinking about it, that's what he's done over plenty of the steeplechase fences he's traversed! Again here, NRNB is the only route in. 5/1 with that money back concession is as close to an each way bet to nothing as is conceivable. Unsexy in the extreme, and probably the sort of play that gets your account restricted, it is very difficult to see him out of the frame if he turns up. But do not be suckered into the 12/1 on offer. He's more likely than not to run in a different race: 12/1 on an un-refunded non-runner won't get the pulse racing!

My Tent Or Yours is 16/1, 12/1 NRNB, and to be honest that's fair enough. Now eleven, he can't possibly win the race, but it's such a weak field that he could sneak into the frame. His form is closely tied in with The New One, another whose overall profile is the same: cannot win, probably runs with merit in defeat. Nigel Twiston-Davies' unfairly maligned warrior - he is a millionaire, after all - may take a different path this term in any case.

A horse I took a punt on in the early part of the season, before he flunked badly, was Defi De Seuil. He was the lad whose form lines were not already demonstrably below those of Buveur D'Air, and who could have conceivably developed into a genuine contender. But then he ran as flat as a pancake on his first and only run so far this season. Very little has come to light since, except the poor form of the Philip Hobbs yard during that part of the season.

He'd probably need to win the Irish Champion Hurdle to book his Chelto ticket and, assuming Buveur D'Air no shows, he has his chance. I've not given up all hope yet. Just most of it!

Wicklow Brave was only seventh in last year's Champion and has been globetrotting on the flat largely since, though his final hurdle run was a defeat of My Tent Or Yours in the Punchestown Champion Hurdle last April. He won't be winning at Cheltenham first time up though, and hasn't got any entries at this stage.

Min is quite interesting. As big a Supreme hype horse as Melon a year before, he ran a better race than that one to split the peerless Altior and Buveur D'air. He's won three of his four chase starts since then, but it was a big shock when he got turned over by Simply Ned at Leopardstown at Christmas. In the same ownership as Faugheen, he's another Mullins horse that could be diverted to this race. As such, he's another where the 16/1 NRNB is disproportionately more attractive than the 25/1 all in quote. After all, he's one of only two horses to beat Buveur D'Air. Moreover, the reverting from fences to hurdles route has been taken by both Rock On Ruby and Buveur D'Air himself since 2012.

Apple's Jade would be interesting if she came this route, but is far more likely for the Mares' Hurdle; Mick Jazz was the main beneficiary of Faugheen's flop last time but his overall form isn't in the same parish; Ch'Tibello wasn't too far behind My Tent but gets a bit outpaced on quicker ground; and before you know it, it's 50/1 your choice.

 

Champion Hurdle 2018 Tips

There are still a number of trials to be run, time enough for horses to shine a light on their credentials. But, as things stand, it is very (very!) hard to see past BUVEUR D'AIR. I can also confirm that night should follow day later, and that it will be February after January... So far, so bleedin' obvious.

Where, then, is the leftfield play? Well, this looks a superb 'without the favourite' race, and I'll be paying close heed to that market when it's eventually priced up. For now, however, we can do no better than muck about with the the Non Runner No Bet concessions.

In that context, Yorkhill is bombproof each way. He is unlikely to show up here if either Faugheen or Min do, in which case it's cash back in time for some 'without the fav' action. In the same vein, Min looks over-priced NRNB. Again, the likelihood is that we'll merely get our quids back; but, should he get the go ahead, he'll surely be a single figure price on the day.

Most likely winner (by a country mile) -

Buveur D'Air 8/13 NRNB Skybet

Best NRNB each way alternatives -

Yorkhill 5/1, Min 16/1 both Skybet (1/5 1-2-3)

 

Might Bite Delivers Killer Kempton Performance

Might Bite lived up to the hype, and today it’s the turn of Sizing John to consolidate his place at the head of the Cheltenham Gold Cup market.

Henderson’s classy chaser was sent off a short-priced favourite to land the King George on Boxing Day, and though pressed late-on, he had the race in safe keeping from some way out. Travelling powerfully towards the head of affairs, he comfortably brushed aside long-time leader Bristol De Mai as the contenders turned for home. He’d opened up a three-length gap at the last, and though Double Shuffle and Tea For Two both stayed on strongly, they never looked like getting to the winner.

Thistlecrack, ran gallantly in fourth, but never quite looked his old self. At no point was he taking Tom Scudamore into a challenging position. Indeed, Scu appeared to be half-niggling away to keep him in touch. He’d have a chance in Newbury’s Denman Chase in February, but it’s hard to believe he’d have a hope of winning the Gold Cup at Cheltenham.

Bristol De Mai needs Haydock and the mud. He ran well for a fair distance, but was unable to burn-off the field on this ground. His jumping is also an issue when the conditions are slightly livelier. He too may end up at Newbury, and in bottomless ground would have a chance. I can’t see him challenging the best in Cheltenham’s ‘Blue Riband’, and it’s possible Twiston-Davies may now have a rethink on targets for Blaklion. That horse has won three times at Prestbury Park, including the RSA of 2016.

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Of his latest star chaser, Henderson said: “He’s so exuberant. He has sex appeal, loves the showmanship that goes with it. He likes to boss it and says, ‘look at me’. He’s got a lot of presence and has so much charisma” Of the ‘big one’ in March he added: “We’ve got to behave ourselves at Cheltenham. I’m the first to admit it’s a different ball game and he will probably jump the last and want to go right. We will have to think of something. I already have but I don’t want to give it away.”

De Boinville appeared positive, when saying: “He was fantastic. Bristol De Mai was making a few mistakes and he’s took me to the lead. I think he will absolutely fine on it (Cheltenham) and there will be better ground on that Friday as long as the rain holds off. If he is as straightforward as that he has to have a live chance. I have no stamina concerns. He was taking me there the whole way today and doing it very easily. That makes it a lot easier as a jockey. I just had to hold on.”

Earlier in the day, Buveur D’Air looked mightily impressive when winning the Christmas Hurdle. The New One set a searching pace and kicked for home off the bend. Just for a fleeting moment the favourite appeared flat-footed, but in a flash, was up alongside and then sweeping past the Twiston-Davies trained stalwart. Should Altior return in time for The Festival, Henderson has a realistic chance of capturing three of the four Championship races (Champion Hurdle, Champion Chase and Gold Cup).

If Altior does make the March appointment, he’ll have Politologue to beat. Nicholls’ young chaser captured the Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton yesterday, and is now as short as 3/1 for the Champion Chase. Whilst he put in another solid performance, the Willie Mullins-trained Min was somewhat fluffing his lines in Ireland.

Though crossing the line first at Leopardstown, he’d caused interference with the runner-up Simply Ned on the run from the last, and was demoted to second spot. He’d finished half-a-length ahead of Nicky Richards’ runner, and that performance surely leaves him well short of a fighting fit Altior. It probably leaves him with more to find if he is to match Politologue.

Today’s Leopardstown action centres on the Grade One Christmas Chase, formerly the Lexus. It’s a cracker, with Sizing John facing Yorkhill, Djakadam and Road To Respect. Don’t discount Minella Rocco at 33/1, as he’s more than capable of running into a place. Should Sizing John prevail, as anticipated, he’ll probably shorten ahead of Might Bite in the Gold Cup betting.

Yorkhill is a fascinating contender in this thrilling looking renewal. He defeated Top Notch, Disko and Politologue at Cheltenham in March, and that’s beginning to look extremely strong form. His breeding suggests the trip will be ideal, and he’s a far better horse going left-handed.

Cheltenham Festival – The Power And The Glory

Like many others, I’m feeling slightly flat this morning, as I come to terms with the reality that another wonderful Cheltenham Festival is over for another year. The build-up and anticipation is quite extraordinary these days, but all too soon the final race is run, and feelings of hope, joy, desperation and frustration are replaced by a rather hollow sensation.

Those that love Aintree, Punchestown, Newmarket, Royal Ascot or Longchamp, will feel that I am overreacting somewhat. But I know many feel as I do, that nothing quite compares to those four glorious days at Prestbury Park. The setting itself, with Cleeve Hill as a stunning backdrop, along with the grandeur of the new stand, and the stunning structural improvements throughout the course, all combine to make Cheltenham an exceptional sporting venue. Around 250,000 racegoers can’t be wrong.

And so, to ease my pain I thought I’d reflect on the racing performances that, in my opinion, were the standouts during four days of top-class action. I could have chosen more, and there’s one or two omissions that will puzzle readers, but the following ‘magnificent seven’ stood out for me.

Despite Gordon Elliott having a sensational opening day, I have chosen a Nicky Henderson duo that oozed star-quality on Tuesday.

I’m of the opinion that Altior proved himself an exceptional talent, in winning the Arkle Chase. Many appeared less than impressed by his ‘workmanlike’ victory, yet he went from a length in-front at the last, to six-lengths clear at the line. He needs rousing to get into top gear, but when stoked-up he is a destructive force. He jumped beautifully throughout, and like in the Supreme a year earlier, was doing his best work at the finish. He may well become a Champion Chase winner, but it would come as no surprise to me, if he were to be stepped-up in trip, with the King George as a short-term target.

Just a short while after Altior’s victory, stable companion Buveur D’Air proved himself the class act in a decidedly average looking Champion Hurdle. Time may prove that he beat very little, but the style of his success may well place him in the same league as Annie Power and Faugheen. He was wonderfully slick over his hurdles, as he cruised through the race, waiting for his jockey to give the signal. And when Noel Fehily said go, the six-year-old quickly put the race to bed. My Tent Or Yours proved best of the rest, though was comfortably brushed aside by the winner.

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The winning time suggests the performance was a strong one, and Buveur D’Air looks capable of becoming a dominant force over the coming period. It’s worth remembering that this victory was only his second run of the season over hurdles, and there is certainly room for a fair amount of improvement.

I skip Wednesday despite solid performances from Willoughby Court, Might Bite and Special Tiara. An injury to Douvan probably robbed us of a dazzling performance, though I’m of the opinion that a rather circumspect preparation left him ill-prepared for this ‘true’ championship test. He defeated 12-year-old Realt Mor in his prep-race at Punchestown.

Willie Mullins had drawn a blank until Thursday, but then answered his critics with a stunning four-timer. The performance of Un De Sceaux in winning the Ryanair was as good as anything during the festival. Try as he might, Ruby Walsh was unable to apply the brakes on the free-going nine-year-old, and was pretty-much a passenger from the fifth fence. Onlookers waited for him to wilt as he turned for home, but Un De Sceaux kept-up the astounding gallop, and with a floorless round of jumping finished a comfortable length and a half ahead of the strong finishing Sub Lieutenant.

It was a cracking performance from the multiple Grade 1 winner, and reminiscent of his ‘all-guns-blazing’ Arkle success of 2015. This fella has been somewhat overlooked in recent years, with stable companions Annie Power, Faugheen, Vautour and Douvan creating the headlines. But there’s no doubting the star quality that Un De Sceaux possesses. He’s a true Champion in his own right.

I was also stunned by the performance of Nichols Canyon in the Stayers’ Hurdle later that day. Shaneshill had been my confident selection, having highlighted my doubts over the gears possessed by Unowhatimeanharry. I expected NC to be a little too keen to see out the three miles, but I was proved wrong. Not only did he storm up the famous hill to victory, but he looked capable of going around again. Beautifully ridden by Ruby Walsh, he was produced between the last two flights, and stayed-on powerfully to get the better of Lil Rockerfeller.

He’s no mug over two-miles, having finished third to Annie Power in last year’s Champion Hurdle. And it’s clear that he appreciates the better ground he encounters in the spring. His owner Graham Wylie was quick to compare him to his previous staying hero Inglis Drever. Similar in stature, and showing the same tenacious attitude up the final hill, there’s every chance that Nichols Canyon can become a multiple Stayer’s winner, assuming Mullins can keep him fit and well.

Friday’s action began with a stunning performance from Triumph Hurdle favourite Defi Du Seuil. He’s a tank of a horse, and he powered through the race like a potential star. There had been some concern over the drying ground, but in the end, nothing could stop the Philip Hobbs trained juvenile. Yet another dazzling hurdler for JP McManus, it will be interesting to see if he goes Champion Hurdle or Arkle Chase next year. Interviewed after the race, Hobbs spoke in glowing terms, hinting that this fella could achieve anything.

A little over half an hour later, Mullins completed another glorious piece of training, by saddling Arctic Fire to win the County Hurdle off top-weight. The eight-year-old had been off the track since January 2016, and it’s easy to forget that he had finished a close runner-up to Faugheen in the Champion Hurdle of 2015. Rated 169 at his peak, he’d been given a chance by the handicapper running off 158, and so it proved with a performance that was both classy and tenacious. If coming out of the race fit and well, he’ll possibly head to the Aintree Hurdle, with the likelihood of a clash with Buveur D’Air. That could prove a thorough examination for the new Champion hurdler.

It’ll come as no surprise to see that Sizing John is the final member of my ‘Cheltenham Magnificent Seven’. He’s proved a sensation since being stepped-up in trip, having spent the early part of his career chasing Douvan around various racecourses, including Cheltenham. Never out of the first three over obstacles, this huge son of Midnight Legend won the Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown last time, though many questioned whether the steady pace that day had played to his strengths.

Nevertheless, trainer Jess Harrington remained confident that stamina would not be an issue, and she was proven right, with Sizing John seeing out the extended trip in fine style to win by almost three lengths, from the fast finishing Minella Rocco.

Robbie Power rode a beautifully cool and calm race, having the seven-year-old in mid-division throughout the early stages, with the horse always travelling supremely well. Moving onto the tail of the leaders coming downhill to the third last, only Djakadam appeared to be going as well, but by the second last Sizing John was on terms, and a fine leap saw him sweep to the front. Another superb jump at the last sealed the deal, with Minella Rocco getting up on the line to beat Native River for second spot. Djakadam faded late-on to finish fourth.

This was Jess Harrington’s first runner in the Gold Cup. The horse had formerly been trained by Henry De Bromhead, but was moved to Harrington by owners Ann and Alan Potts during the summer. He now stands at the head of the staying chase division, and with age on his side could well be there for some time to come.

And so the curtain came down on another terrific Cheltenham Festival. Once again, we’ve witnessed four days of sporting theatre, scattered with moments of elation and despair. Jump racing’s Olympics never fails to deliver on the most dramatic stage of all.

Henderson Holds the Aces as Mullins Draws A Blank

The opening day of the Cheltenham Festival 2017 went to Gordon Elliott and Nicky Henderson.

Altior landed the Arkle Chase for Seven Barrows, forging clear from the last fence for a six-length success. He jumped beautifully throughout, and was pressing Charbel for the lead, when Kim Bailey’s chaser came down at the second-last. The fall left Cloudy Dream and Ordinary World in hot pursuit, though neither could match the favourite up the famous hill. The victory was workmanlike rather than flashy, though there’s no doubting Altior’s class.

Just over an hour later, the form of his Supreme Novices’ win in 2016 was handsomely franked, when Buveur D’Air ran away with the Champion Hurdle. Henderson trained the first pair home, with My Tent Or Yours running a cracker to finish runner-up. But the winner proved to be in a class of his own. Petit Mouchoir had set the pace, and heading downhill had several of the field struggling, including the disappointing favourite Yanworth. The Henderson duo launched their challenge turning for home, with Buveur D’Air showing a clean pair of heels to lead at the last. He stretched four lengths clear at the finish.

Nicky Henderson was winning his sixth Champion Hurdle, and said after the race: “He won his two novice chases, but I just knew there was more there over hurdles. It was a very open race, but I knew he was a very talented horse. I wondered if I'd got it wrong (switching back to hurdles) but it's proved the right thing to do and it's worked on the day.”

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Willie Mullins could only manage fourth with Footpad, and his luck was no better throughout the opening day, with Gordon Elliott proving to be a thorn in his side. The pair are in the midst of a tense battle for the trainers’ crown in Ireland, and Elliott was once again on top, this time in an arena where Mullins has become virtually invincible.

Melon was all the rage for the Supreme Novices’ and ran a cracking race, looking the likely winner turning for home. But it was Labaik, so often the bad boy on the track, that having decided to join in, showed he had the talent to go with the attitude. Elliott’s fella had refused to take part in four of his last six, but when it mattered most he tagged on to the back of the pack, gradually working his way through the field, and launching his challenge turning for home. He cruised to the front before the last under an ultra-cool ride from talented young jockey Jack Kennedy, and though Melon battled on gamely he was a couple of lengths adrift at the finish.

Elliott joked after the victory: “He hasn't jumped off the last three times and I was wanting to go to Naas on Sunday to spare the embarrassment of him not jumping off at Cheltenham. The owners, who are friends, wanted to go. He has an engine, this horse, and there isn't another that can work with him in the yard. I don't know where he'll go next.”

A thrilled Jack Kennedy said: “Words can’t describe it - I’ve dreamed about this day for as long as I can remember. Everyone wants more, but I'll be going home a very happy lad at the end of the week now, however things go.”

Mullins would have been confident of landing the Mares’ Hurdle, but again it was Elliott that put a spanner in the works. Limini and Vroum Vroum Mag were strongly fancied, but Apple’s Jade proved a gutsy winner, out-battling the Ricci owned pair in a thrilling finish. VVM looked to be getting on top at the last, but the winner found more for Bryan Cooper, pulling more than a length clear. The winning trainer looked chuffed to bits when saying: “This was her Gold Cup. I put the tongue-strap on her and I thought it would work out. I knew she'd have to improve a good bit from her last run but she did. She'll stay three miles next year and will go to Punchestown now.”

Elliott made it three for the day when Tiger Roll stormed to victory in the four-miler. Despite the marathon trip, the seven-year-old was cantering turning for home under Lisa O’Neill, and won comfortably. Edwulf proved the only challenger, but appeared to suffer a seizure after the last. He was quickly pulled-up, and at the time of writing is back in the stable, hopefully on the road to recovery. The victory was the second of the day for owner Michael O’Leary, who said: “Tiger Roll loved it. He has his own way of doing things. I don’t know what to do now for the rest of the week. Normally I start to get nervous by Thursday when we can’t find a winner any way. Two-in on the first day, I think I should fly home, as it’s not going to get any better than this.”

It could get better for Elliott, with several outstanding horses still to launch their Festival challenge. Mullins will be praying that a blank opening day is not a sign of things to come. He has Douvan going to post tomorrow.

The Champion Hurdle – He Who D’Airs Wins

The showpiece on the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival is the Champion Hurdle.

Established in the late-1920s, it has possibly the most glittering roll of honour of all National Hunt races. The 1970s was a truly golden period for the race, with equine legends such as Comedy of Errors, Night Nurse, Monksfield and Sea Pigeon, battling for the coveted crown of Champion Hurdler.

The Nicky Henderson trained See You Then, won three-in-a-row during the 1980s, and the JP McManus owned Istabraq repeated the feat at the end of the 90s. In recent times, Henderson and Mullins have proved the dominant forces, often with horses carrying the famous green and gold silks of McManus, or the pink and green of Rich and Susannah Ricci.

It should come as little surprise then, to see those same connections and trainers prominent in this year’s betting for the race. Despite a particularly tough winter for Willie Mullins and the Ricci’s, with previous winners Faugheen and Annie Power both ruled out through injury, they still have a likely contender towards the head of the market, in Limini. JP McManus has the front two in the market with Henderson’s Buveur D’Air and the Alan King trained Yanworth.

I don’t wish to focus much on those that are missing from the line-up. That’s horse racing for you, and we must now look forward to an enthralling and ultra-competitive renewal, with a field that still contains horses with huge potential.

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Last year’s Supreme Novices’ third and the Neptune runner-up are currently vying for top spot in the betting. Both carrying the famous green and gold, Buveur D’Air was switched from his short spell over fences, and proved a comfortable winner of the Contenders Hurdle at Sandown last month. That was his third run of the winter, and he’ll arrive at Cheltenham fit and ready to go. His Supreme Novices’ third, coupled with his victory over Petit Mouchoir at Aintree last April (a race that saw Limini nine lengths back in third), leaves Henderson’s six-year-old rightly in my books, at the head of the betting.

That Aintree success showed that he has the necessary battling qualities, along with the ability to travel powerfully though a race.

Yanworth proved no match for Yorkhill in last year’s Neptune, but at the minimum trip over hurdles is yet to be defeated. He’s a tough one to judge, and it’s understandable that some have been left underwhelmed by his performances this winter. He struggled to get the better of Lil Rockerfeller at Ascot in November, and then was the first under pressure ion the Christmas Hurdle, before staying on best to win. His run in the Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton hardly sent shockwaves through the division, yet he continues to win, and will undoubtedly be doing his best work late-on when it matters at Prestbury Park.

The worry for Yanworth, is whether he’ll have the basic speed to keep tabs on the leaders, enabling him to land a telling blow up the final hill. He resembles The New One, and like him could find himself having to make up too much ground at a crucial stage.

Petit Mouchoir is next in the betting, and has been impressive through the winter. He’s looked the best of the Irish, thanks to victories in the Ryanair Hurdle and the Irish Champion, both at Leopardstown. Ridden boldly from the front, it’s likely that the tactics will continue at Cheltenham, and it will take a good one to pass him. The Irish have a terrific record in the race, having won five of the last six. He’s without doubt a leading contender.

Limini is yet to be supplemented by Team Mullins, though it looks likely after her stunning success on seasonal debut at Punchestown. The stable did the same with Annie Power last year, though I’m pretty sure that Limini is some way shy of Annie P. She certainly has a turn of foot, but at Aintree in April was unable to go with Buveur D’Air and Petit Mouchoir, when the guys put in a sustained effort along the length of the straight.

Nicky Henderson has another contender for the crown in Brain Power. Though he’s been winning handicaps this winter, he announced himself as a horse of substance when third as a novice in the Grade 1 at Punchestown last April, when four lengths adrift of Don’t Touch It and Petit Mouchoir. A strong traveller, he now appears to have matured both physically and mentally, and looks capable of a big performance on the main stage. He needs decent ground to be at his best. If he gets it, he could go very close.

Of the older brigade, you’d have to believe that My Tent Or Yours and The New One have had their chance, and despite several stars being missing, they will still find a few of these a bit too hot to handle. This is a race where six and seven-year-olds have the upper hand, and both look held by Yanworth on the Christmas Hurdle run.

At a price, Ch’Tibello may be the one to take each-way. He’s been running consistently well throughout the winter, seemingly putting in his best effort in the Kingwell last time. I’d be stunned if he won, but Dan Skelton’s six-year-old is a progressive sort, and it’s surprising that he’s 40/1 in places.

Favourites have won four of the last six Champion Hurdles, and I fancy the betting has it about right. Petit Mouchoir is likely to have them stretched at some point, and he’ll take some passing. But I feel this will be Nicky Henderson’s year, and in Buveur D’Air and Brain Power he has two mighty contenders. I’m favouring the former to have both the class and the grit to prevail. Expect Yanworth and Ch’Tibello to be flying late-on as they battle for minor places. Best of luck to all those having a punt.

Lions run with pride at Haydock

A pair of lions roared at Haydock in the Grand National trial, but it was Vieux Lion Rouge that proved himself ‘King of the jungle’ on this occasion.

Prominent throughout, the winner and his main challenger Blaklion, moved to the head of affairs at the third last. The pair jumped impeccably over the final few fences, pulling well clear of the remainder. David Pipe’s Becher Chase winner came out on top, with the Twiston-Davies RSA winner finishing three lengths adrift. Vieux Lion Rouge was in receipt of a crucial 6lbs from the runner-up, and both will now be aimed at Aintree, where the weight differential is only 3lbs. Pipe’s eight-year-old shot to the head of the betting for the main event in April, whilst Blaklion, somewhat surprisingly to me, can still be backed at 25s.

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Pipe was thrilled with the victory, and especially the way the horse pulled out more when pressed over the latter stages. Tom Scudamore was just as thrilled with the win, when saying: “He never used to finish off his races, but running in the National as a novice made a man of him. He was foot-perfect in the Becher and was foot-perfect today. He wasn't the greatest jumper before he ran in the National last year. We can head there with confidence and a few pounds up our sleeves, we hope.”

Nigel Twiston-Davies had anticipated a huge run from Blaklion, and was not disappointed. Sent off favourite, the top weight lost little in defeat, and with his charge 3lbs better off next time, the trainer will be hopeful that positions can be reversed. He sounded bullish when saying: “We'll win the National and forget about being second today. His jumping was spot on at almost every fence and even when he was tired he put himself right, and that's what you need for Aintree.”

This looked a classy renewal, and the way the front pair pulled miles clear of the remainder, despite having plenty of weight to carry, suggests both will be serious players when Aintree comes around.

Age proved no barrier for Cue Card at Ascot, as he disposed of a bunch of handicappers in the Ascot Chase. Some had ‘crabbed’ his King George performance, despite him finishing second to the Gold Cup favourite Thistlecrack. There was nothing of that quality in opposition this time around, and he was rightly sent off a short-priced favourite. He demolished the field, and now heads to the Gold Cup at Cheltenham as part of a powerful Colin Tizzard trio. It’s a mouth-watering prospect.

At Wincanton, Yanworth captured the Kingwell Hurdle in workmanlike fashion. Many onlookers appeared unimpressed, and he drifted slightly in the Champion Hurdle market. Nevertheless, the main event at Cheltenham remains a wide-open affair, and Yanworth will be staying on strongly at the finish. His jumping may need to improve, though Petit Mouchoir looks the only horse likely to be stretching the field from the front. He remains a serious player in my eyes, and Barry Geraghty has a tough decision to make when choosing between him and race favourite Buveur D’Air.

Monday Musings: All Change at the Top Table

Last Good Friday I made my first visit to the Lambourn Open Day, not in the usual way of the racehorse and horseracing enthusiast, but specifically to catch up with the estimable Corky Brown at Nicky Henderson’s Seven Barrows stables, writes Tony Stafford.

From the centre of the village the cars formed an orderly crocodile, mostly set on the same venue, with recently revitalised Queen Mother Champion Chase hero Sprinter Sacre the object of everyone’s adulation.

I remember writing that weekend how amazed I was that the old, maybe not so old, horse had spent most of that morning standing dutifully still as repeated waves of admirers took selfies with the four-legged superstar, probably filching the odd hair from his mane.

Nicky said, as he and Corky looked on a shade anxiously, that you couldn’t do that with any other horse. I cannot recall whether the question of retirement had yet been addressed, but soon after, his exclusive role as paddock adornment for major races – as at Newbury on Saturday – was established.

A mutual friend, Sir Rupert Mackeson, proprietor of Marlborough Bookshop among more colourful achievements in a long sometimes military life, had arranged the connection with Corky, who had at least informally agreed to become the subject of a book, written by yours truly.

That it did not come about was almost entirely due to the, as Sir Rupert called it, “Pot Boiler” published by the Racing Post on Sprinter Sacre’s career. The heroic champion chaser was a big part of the latter years of Corky’s long career with Fred Winter and then Henderson, and I thought it would have made a competing one about Corky Brown difficult in the limited specialist marketplace.

That said, on Good Friday the auguries were good: Hendo seemingly approving the concept and also understandably not dissenting from my opinion that Altior must be the one to beat in the following year’s Champion Hurdle. In the old days I would have steamed in with a proper ante-post bet, but those days for me are long gone.

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So in a way it was something of a relief when a chasing career was decided for Altior, who, although seven lengths too good at the Festival for the otherwise flawless Min in his time with Willie Mullins, the trainer presumably still had in the back of his mind, the frustration of his inability to match the Irishman in recent seasons.

Since Binocular (2010) followed Punjabi as successive Champion Hurdle winners, Henderson has watched Mullins win four times with Hurricane Fly (2011 and 2013), and Faugheen and Annie Power, a late sub for her predecessor, in the last two runnings.

With both seemingly still at the top of their powers, Henderson must have been aware that Mullins would probably compile a team of top horses purely to stop Altior, but that worry would not have been so obvious if the gelding were to be switched to fences.

Three initial chase wins confirmed that the acceleration that took him unbeaten through his initial hurdling campaign was intact over fences. On Saturday in the Game Spirit Chase at Newbury he annihilated admittedly a small field, but three classy and more experienced opponents with a display that suggested he might have similar ability as Sprinter Sacre at his peak.

The Arkle must be at his mercy and, with stablemate Buveur D’Air now switched from his supremely-promising novice chase programme to the suddenly talent-denuded Champion Hurdle, all must be serene in the Seven Barrows firmament.

Buveur D’Air and Altior have already met twice despite being in the same stable. Two years ago, on the Betfair Hurdle undercard, they filled second and third places behind Barters Hill, trained by former Henderson assistant Ben Pauling, in the Listed bumper. Barters Hill, winning for the third time in the midst of a seven-race romp only halted behind Unowhatimeanharry in last season’s Albert Bartlett, made all that day. Altior, hot favourite stayed on for third without matching the first two.

Altior gained his revenge in the Supreme Novice Hurdle, with Buveur D’Air third behind Min in a race full of talent, much of it from the Mullins stable and several of them running unexpectedly poorly.

Min’s defection from the Arkle at the same time as Faugheen’s reported injury early last week, soon after Annie Power’s own problems were reported, would have made Altior a short-priced favourite had he gone the hurdling route. Instead he’s 1-3 for the Arkle, while Buveur D’Air after a classy display against sub-standard Sandown opposition switched back to hurdling, may well collect the big one for the JP McManus ownership powerhouse.

Chances abound for Seven Barrows in many of the other feature races and if you want to see them detailed fully, Peter Thomas had a marathon write up in yesterday’s supplement of the paper of his recent trip to the gallops and stable last week, complete with news of a deer attack on one of the horses.

The Barters Hill bumper of two years ago was prophetically described immediately afterwards by Pauling as probably a top-class affair and while lacking in the same depth, last year’s renewal was won by nine lengths by subsequent Cheltenham bumper hero and Saturday’s Betfair Hurdle winner Ballyandy.

Saturday’s bumper there could well be in the ballpark of its 2015 version as this time it was Henderson to the fore with French import Daphne Du Clos, taking advantage of the hefty combined filly (5lb) and four-year-old allowance (10lb) from her elders, along with a 4lb extra penalty for previous Listed winner, Western Ryder.

It is rare, even in relatively uncompetitive bumper events in this country, for a horse to come to the front under a double handful as Daphne Du Clos did at the two-furlong pole. Sean Bowen, having his first (and almost certainly not his last) ride for the stable in his fourth season as a jockey, waited until Western Ryder came alongside and then pushed his mount, a daughter of Spanish Moon, clear in the last furlong. She will probably go either to Sandown or Aintree rather than the Festival bumper, and the style of her win was totally in keeping with the feeling of goodwill emanating from her handler these days.

It seems the Willie Mullins and Rich Ricci disappointments are beginning almost to match the excessive good fortune and success of recent seasons, and a quick snapshot of recent racing in Ireland confirms the downswing. Mullins has sent out 33 runners in the past two weeks, 14 starting favourite, and has won with eight of them. Admittedly, with six in the Grade 1 novice hurdle at Leopardstown yesterday, the average had to drop, but it was one of the outsiders Bacardys that won with hot favourite Saturnas tailed off last.

Bacardys was third in last year’s Champion Bumper at Cheltenham behind Ballyandy and no doubt will be pointed at one of the staying novice hurdles next month by which time his trainer will hope for the fortunes to have turned.

He Who D’Airs – Henderson Switch Pays Off

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.”

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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.