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Power and the Glory – Mullins, Henderson and Cracksman are Weekend Wonders

The curtain came down on another Jumps season with familiar trainers crowned King on either side of the Irish Sea.

There’s no doubting that Gordon Elliott has made great strides and is now a serious threat to the Mullins dominance. He does, however, still lack the quality that will finally see him fulfilling the dream of a trainers’ title. He needs several more Samcro’s if he is to wrestle the title from his rival. This was blindingly evident at Punchestown, as Mullins monopolised Grade One events thanks to the likes of Un De Sceaux, Bellshill, Faugheen and Footpad.

The Closutton master was clearly relieved, saying: “It’s nice to do it. It’s tough, as I feel for Gordon. He’s had a fantastic year and he was hoping this year would be his year. Certainly coming out of here on Tuesday evening I thought our chance was totally gone. It’s a little bit cruel, but I suppose Gordon has ended the year with over 200 winners and over 5 million euro in prize-money, so it’s probably not too bad! I’m happy to win it and I’m very happy for my staff. It’s great competition and great for racing. It’s been a huge narrative throughout the year and it’s better for the game.”

Whilst the Elliott/Mullins battle went down to the wire, over here in the UK Nicky Henderson has surged clear of the pack. Buveur D’Air, Might Bite and the phenomenon that is Altior, ensured that Henderson scooped the major pots. Paul Nicholls was again, best of the rest, though he continues to struggle in his search for new stars. Politologue was impressive at times, though lacks the X-factor. Clan Des Obeaux is a horse of huge potential and may be one for the King George at Christmas.

Henderson was thrilled to land the title and said of his powerful battalion: “They have delivered. Like always, you have your ups and downs and it started with downs before ups when we had to stop with Altior. That was a pity, really, as it took him out of the first half the season and it was a rush to get him ready for Cheltenham, but it has been good. It has been a long, wet winter and it has been hard work, but I’ve got a great team that has in some ways swam their way through it and we are now out at the other end.

“Everything was good, the horses have been good across the board. Might Bite, Altior and Buveur D’Air had to show up again and they did, within reason. It’s not been easy (winning the title once more). Cheltenham was good and that put us at a bit of an advantage and plenty more came in at Aintree. It wasn’t until the Scottish National was over, that is when we thought we were safe.”

Of the big three he said: “I think Might Bite’s performance at Aintree was the outstanding moment as he came back from such a battle at Cheltenham (runner-up in the Gold Cup) and to come back from that was a great performance. Altior (Champion Chase) and Buveur D’Air (Champion Hurdle) were great at Cheltenham and if picking other moments, they would be two other highlights.”

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The concern for the chasing pack is the strength in depth of the Seven Barrows squad. Henderson added: “They (Altior, Buveur D’Air and Might Bite) have to deliver on the big stage and if you have got them you are the guy that is under pressure, but they have been great. They are still young and some pretty good ones have come through with them, like Santini, We Have A Dream and Terrefort. There is plenty to back them up. I think Santini could be a very exciting novice chaser and I think he could be a very exciting horse.”

With the Jumps season proper, now closed for the Summer, we can look forward to the first Classics at Newmarket, less than a week away. And yesterday at Longchamp we were reminded of just how thrilling the latest Flat season could be, as Cracksman made a stunning return in landing the Group One Prix Ganay.

Sent off a short-priced favourite, Gosden’s four-year-old powered clear in the latter stages of the race, with Cloth Of Stars and Rhododendron among those swept aside.

Gosden spoke to At The Races immediately after the victory, saying: “He’s a stronger horse this year and is still growing. It was a nice pace, without being anyway near crazy. Frankie knew he was going to use the pacemaker and I particularly liked standing over a furlong down and seeing how he stretched past me. It’s a lovely run. There’s Cloth Of Stars and Rhododendron in there and we’ve shown them a clean pair of heels and the race will bring him on a lot.”

Conversation turned to the inevitable clash with Gosden’s wonder-filly Enable. The trainer confirmed that she was on target to run in the Coronation Cup at Epsom, and that the stable stars will likely meet, assuming all is well with both, in the Arc at Longchamp. For Cracksman, a trip to Royal Ascot now appears likely, with the Prince Of Wales’s Stakes a short-term target.

Might just may on opening day- If Gold Cup hasn’t left mark

There’s no fewer than four Grade One’s on the opening day of the Grand National meeting, with the Bowl Chase and the Aintree Hurdle the feature events.

Might Bite will be a short-priced favourite for the Betway Bowl, following his runner-up finish in the Gold Cup at Cheltenham and victory in the King George over Christmas. He’s without doubt the class act in a field of eight, though his performance will surely hinge on how he has recovered from those Festival exertions. It’s less than a month since he had that prolonged battle with Native River in testing ground, although his campaign had been light prior to that.

Might Bite landed the Mildmay Novices’ Chase at the corresponding meeting a year ago, following up on his success in the RSA. Both track and trip look ideal for this talented young chaser, and Henderson isn’t one for taking risks with his horses. The Seven Barrows handler must believe that the nine-year-old is fighting fit. If so, he’ll take all the beating.

Last year’s surprise winner, Tea For Two, looks to emulate Silviniaco Conti in achieving back to back victories. Cheltenham doesn’t appear to suit this fella, and he looks more at home on a flatter track. He ran well when third to Might Bite in the King George, and though I don’t fancy him to beat Henderson’s charge, he should run a decent race.

Double Shuffle was runner-up in the Kempton showpiece and will arrive here fresher than most. Tom George had a terrific Cheltenham Festival and this eight-year-old looks a rapidly improving sort. He’s another that has his work cut out to reverse King George form with Might Bite, though missing that arduous encounter in the Gold Cup should work in his favour.

Definitly Red appeared slightly outclassed at Cheltenham, and I’d be surprised if he wins this. Nevertheless, he has course form and if the ground is testing enough, he has the guts to run into a place. Brian Ellison was insistent that better ground would suit his horse, but I struggle to believe it.

Clan Des Obeaux could prove the surprise package. Paul Nicholls has captured three of the last eight renewals, and I can see this young chaser running a cracker. He looks a King George sort to me, and this race should suit. The six-year-old is taking on more experienced rivals but looks hugely talented. This step up in trip appears the main concern, though he didn’t appear to be stopping last time at Cheltenham over 2m5f.

Bristol De Mai is back on a flat left-handed track in testing conditions. He probably needs the ground to be bottomless, nevertheless, we can probably expect an improved performance from the seven-year-old. Nigel Twiston-Davies has also given him a wind-op and, should his jumping hold together, he could prove a serious challenger.

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Might Bite is a cut above these, and as long as the Gold Cup hasn’t left a mark, I’m confident he’ll win. If it has, then Clan Des Obeaux is the one I fancy to take advantage.

Sadly, we will not be seeing Buveur D’Air in the Aintree Hurdle. His absence leaves Jess Harrington’s Supasundae a short-priced favourite. Runner-up in the Stayers’ Hurdle at Cheltenham, the eight-year-old had previously landed the Irish Champion Hurdle at two miles. This trip ought to prove ideal for this grand looking son of Galileo.

Henderson sends 11-year-old My Tent Or Yours into battle. Runner-up in the last pair of renewals, he looked as good as ever when winning the International Hurdle at Cheltenham back in December. He was no match for Buveur D’Air in last year’s race, though I fancy Harrington’s fella is not in that league. This could be his final race and he rarely disappoints. It’s a tough ask at 11, though this race looks more open than the odds suggest.

The New One was a place behind My Tent in last year’s race. This appears his optimum trip, though he is undoubtedly a better horse going right-handed. The soft ground should suit him, and he looks a leading contender. He’s likely to be jumping out to his right all the way up the straight, and that must be a huge concern.

L’Ami Serge is sure to go well for much of the race and may well look a huge player approaching the last. However, he’ll need to battle at some stage, especially against the likes of The New One and Supasundae. And that will surely be his undoing.

Supasundae is progressive and should win, though his odds (currently evens) look a little skinny to me. On this ground I’d probably risk a punt on The New One.

Festival Fever – Decisions to be made

With the Cheltenham Festival now less than three weeks away, news on intended targets for the leading contenders will likely be released daily.

Yesterday, it was several of Colin Tizzard’s team that came under the microscope. A decision on Cue Card is yet to be made, with the trainer saying: “Whether he goes for the Ryanair or Gold Cup, if you read Monday's paper it was all decided but it is not. We will let that run for a while. Jean (Bishop, owner) is coming down for three days to have a little holiday with the family and we will make a decision then for sure. There is no reason why we shouldn't go for the biggest one. Is that harder to win than the Ryanair? Possibly, yes.”

Of another Gold Cup contender, Native River, the Dorset handler said: “We are a lot stronger this time round. He has just had the one run, but we had him ready at Christmas to run. He was equally as good (at Newbury) as he had ever been. He has got a wonderful chance. I think at the moment we have got it dead right with him. We've had a little skirmish round Newbury and sprinted for half a mile up the run-in over the last three fences, and that should put him spot on. He was ready to run first time, but he is bound to improve, as every horse does. How much he has got to improve, we will find out.”

Though not quite certain, Tizzard appears to be favouring the Ryanair Chase for Fox Norton. Last year’s Champion Chase runner-up has been absent since a disappointing performance in the King George. The trainer explained: “After he ran in the Game Spirit last year he was lame in his back and we had to give him a few injections for a kissing spine. He had that after this year's King George. That is why he didn't jump at all. He is absolutely fine now. We missed the Game Spirit with pus in his foot.

“I expect we will go for the two-and-a-half-miler, unless Altior frightens everyone off, then we might take him on. He does look the business, but we must not run away from one horse.”

The trainer looks likely to send Elegant Escape to the RSA Chase, though the four-miler is still under consideration. Tizzard said: “This is a beautiful young horse. Black Corton is a very good horse, but he beat him at Newbury and we were closing on him fast at Kempton as well. I think Cheltenham will be right for him. At the moment we are definitely leaning towards the RSA, but if a top Irish jockey (amateur) became available, that might change it.”

Nicky Henderson has also been mulling over the fact that he has favourites for three of the championship races. The Seven Barrows handler said: “I think of the three, Might Bite probably has the most to prove, whereas the other boys are proven. He has got to stay and make sure no funny quirks develop.”

He added: “It’s a nice position to be in, of course it is, and I’m a lucky boy. I’m fortunate these horses have come around at the same time.” Nevertheless, having such a powerful team heading to the Festival puts a huge amount of pressure on him and the team. He went on: “I’d rather have the pressure, or the responsibility of minding these guys, to get them there and get it right, than having nice peaceful nights and not worrying about it all.”

Alan King will be hoping for a better Festival than 12 months ago. Messire Des Obeaux, Who Dares Wins and Dusky Legend all managed third place finishes, but this year’s team looks stronger. The Barbury Castle handler has confirmed that Yanworth will line up in the Stayers’ Hurdle. He’d won a couple of races over fences during the winter and the RSA had looked likely. But having defeated Supasundae (currently favourite for Stayers’) at Aintree in April the team can’t resist another crack at the Irish raider in March.

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The team have also announced that Who Dares Wins is being aimed at the Pertemps Final. Third at 33/1 in last year’s Coral Cup behind Supasundae, the six-year-old filled the same spot in a qualifier at Kempton in November. He ran a cracker in the Ascot Stakes during the summer and is sure to be suited by decent ground at Cheltenham. Expect him to be available at a tasty each-way price.

King is also set to parachute Elgin into the Champion Hurdle. This vastly improved six-year-old took the Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton last week and has won three of his five starts this term. He’s no Buveur D’Air, but in a very open looking Champion, he’s possibly an each-way player.

One of the team’s most exciting Cheltenham prospects is the unbeaten juvenile hurdler Redicean. An easy winner of his two starts to date, he’ll be running this Saturday in the Adonis Hurdle at Kempton. It’s a recognised Triumph Hurdle trial, and this fella has huge potential.

All doubt over Samcro’s Festival target was removed on Monday when Gigginstown racing manager Eddie O’Leary confirmed the horse would head for the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle. “He runs in the Ballymore and that’s final,” said O’Leary. “We think he will be a nice chaser over three miles for next season so, even though he won the Deloitte over two miles, he won’t be running in the Supreme.” Now odds-on across the board, the undefeated six-year-old is seen by many as the banker of the meeting.

Another well-fancied festival contender is the Jed O’Keeffe-trained Sam Spinner. As short as 4s for the Stayers’, he was taken to Newcastle on Tuesday for a spin. The trainer remains pleased with his preparation, saying: “It was a strong canter really, just to get him away for the day and do something different. We were really happy with him. It wasn't a serious workout. He's very fit already. It was just to stretch his legs and go somewhere a bit different.”

The trainer added: “It's fairly straightforward what we'll do between now and Cheltenham. He'll have a few easy days after being away and then just one or two easy pieces of work at home. He'll have a school, maybe two, as we get closer to the Festival. He's basically ready now. I'm counting down the days - nervously and anxiously.”

The main event is coming around fast. Plans for many will no doubt change and then change again. We’ll do our best to keep Geegeez readers updated as the opening day draws near.

Jefferson’s Waiting Patiently has Star Potential in Ascot Chase

In its short history, the Ascot Chase has been won by numerous outstanding chasers.

Martha’s Son took the first during a sparkling campaign in 1995. He suffered an injury the following season which kept him off the track for 15 months. Returning to the track at the age 10, he produced two stunning performances to win the Champion Chase and then the Melling at Aintree.

One Man won the renewal of 1998 and a month later he too landed the Champion Chase at Cheltenham. A truly wonderful chaser, he’d already won a string of prestigious races including the Hennessy Gold Cup, the King George and the Charlie Hall. Tragically, One Man was to die that season, after a shocking fall in the Melling at Aintree.

The following year another grey, Teeton Mill, took the Ascot Chase. Like One Man, he won this after success in the Hennessy and the King George. Those three victories were scintillating, as he tore the fields apart in devastating fashion. Sadly, he suffered an injury during the Gold Cup later that campaign and never returned to the track.

Monet’s Garden (yes, another grey) and Kauto Star won in 2007 and 2008, with Monet’s winning again in 2010. Cue Card captured the race for the second-time last year, and will look to surpass Tiutchev, Monet’s and Riverside Theatre in becoming the first to win the prestigious event on three occasions.

Tizzard’s stable star returns to Ascot having had a decent break since a slightly disappointing display behind Bristol De Mai in the Betfair Chase. Stable talk suggests he’s working as well as ever, though it’s inevitably a concern that the old warrior is now 12. Trip and track look ideal, but the odds are stacked against the old favourite as he takes on several talented youngsters.

Top Notch heads the betting following a strong winter campaign. He was impressive at the track in November when easily accounting for Double Shuffle and Frodon. That form has been boosted since. In December he landed the Grade Two Peterborough Chase, defeating stable companion Josses Hill. The diminutive chaser is neat at his fences and is not short of speed. He’s reliable rather than spectacular, though is without doubt progressive.

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Waiting Patiently is five from five over fences and put in a career best performance last time at Kempton, when thrashing a decent field which included God’s Own and Josses Hill. He’s arguably the horse in the field with star potential. Thought to need soft or heavy ground to perform at his best (by Flemensfirth), he had no problem with good to soft last time. Ascot looks sure to suit and the trip is ideal. This is another step up the ladder for the young chaser, but he looks capable of handling it.

Also towards the head of the betting is the Irish raider Coney Island. Another son of Flemensfirth, this fella is touted as a serious Gold Cup contender. Trainer Eddie Harty remains undecided as to the Cheltenham target and this race should tell us whether he has the speed for a tilt at the Ryanair. He impressed on his return from injury when winning at Ascot in December and should strip fitter this time. His profile suggests he’ll be finishing the race strongly. The question is whether he can keep tabs on quicker horses like Top Notch and Waiting Patiently?

Frodon deserves a shot at this after a demolition job at Cheltenham last time. The softer the better for this six-year-old, though it’s hard to see him reversing the 10-length thumping that Top Notch served up back in November. That race followed on quickly from a terrific run behind Might Bite and his trainer, Paul Nicholls, will be hopeful that the youngster can get closer this time.

Speredek put in a huge performance from the front last time in the Clarence House, before finally giving way to the outstanding Un De Sceaux. That was at two miles and it’s hard to imagine this free-running sort will be suited by a step-up in trip. He’s likely to put in another solid round, but I can only see him setting the race up for the top three in the betting.

Of those, I’m siding with Waiting Patiently. I’m a huge fan of Top Notch, but my Dad always told me to take ‘a good big-un over a good little-un every time’. Coney Island will be doing his best work late-on, but I fancy the other pair have the gears to give him the slip.

Best of luck to those having a punt. It should prove a cracker.

Henderson Holds The Aces

Though tough viewing for Jess Harrington and Willie Mullins, it would have been far more palatable for Nicky Henderson, as Sizing John and Yorkhill failed to land a blow in the Leopardstown Christmas Chase.

Road To Respect led home a trio of Gigginstown runners, causing something of an upset in the process. Harrington’s Gold Cup winner had been sent off a short-priced favourite, but he never looked comfortable, jumping erratically before fading for a seventh-place finish. Distressed post-race, he’ll have tests to see if an explanation can be found, and hopefully will return to his best later in the season.

Yorkhill refused to settle, pulling his way to the front, and had little chance of lasting home. He’ll be dropped back in trip, though Mullins clearly has some thinking to do before choosing future targets.

As for Road To Respect, he continues on an upward curve that now sees him third best in the betting for Cheltenham’s Blue Riband. A Festival winner in March, he’s a realistic contender, and only a fool would dismiss him out-of-hand.

But it’s Henderson that would have been the most satisfied of all onlookers, and his King George winner, Might Bite, now stands alone as favourite for the Gold Cup in March. The team at Seven Barrows are going through a purple patch, and Henderson has plenty of firepower at his disposal. He now has the favourite for the Gold Cup, the Champion Hurdle and the Champion Chase. But along with those established performers he also has a battalion of talented youngsters waiting to make their mark at the highest level.

Many have already displayed their potential, and look capable of playing a major part in the spring festivals.

On The Blind Side is currently third in the market for the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham, having impressed at Sandown earlier in the month. He has an attractive pedigree, being by Stowaway out of a Supreme Leader mare, and has already won at Cheltenham. Out with a slight injury at present, he should be back in time for a prep-run, before heading to Prestbury Park. Though Samcro looks likely to oppose come March, this fella looks the real deal and will prove a match for anyone.

Claimantakinforgan is another talented young hurdler who is two from two this term, having been a leading bumper performer during the last campaign. He’s not flashy but he gets the job done. He took the Grade Two Supreme Trial at Ascot last week, staying on well from the last flight. Cheltenham’s stiff finish should suit.

Henderson often sends his most talented newcomers to Newbury, and at the beginning of December he had the first and second home in a 2m4f novices’ hurdle. Santini and Chef Des Obeaux looked hugely promising with the former slightly more accurate over the obstacles. He’s a big scopey sort, that should make into a nice chaser in time. He’s set to run at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day, and may well have the ability to become a Ballymore contender.

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Chef Des Obeaux followed the Newbury run with a victory at Uttoxeter last week. He’s another from the Saddler Maker production line (Apple’s Jade), and as such could have plenty more to offer.

Pacific De Baune is another that showcased his talent at Newbury. Runner-up in an Irish point, he’d strengthened up over the summer, and romped to a seven-length success from Alan King’s Potterman. It took a while for the grey to get going, but when the penny finally dropped he powered clear of the field. He’s another Henderson youngster with tons of potential.

And talking of youngsters, the yard, as ever, has a talented bunch of juveniles likely to take high order with the Triumph Hurdle as a major target.

Apple’s Shakira (another Saddler Maker) has looked a potential star in her two victories at Cheltenham. She’s currently favourite for the Triumph in March, and few would argue that she deserves her place at the head of the market. But Henderson has other leading hopes, not least We Have A Dream.

Owned by Simon Munir and Isaac Souede, this French import was sensational last time at Doncaster. The gelding has won both his UK starts by 10 lengths, doing his best work at the end of the races. He looks a very exciting prospect.

Henderson also has Style De Garde amongst his ranks. This French recruit finished ahead of We Have A Dream in France, and is owned by the Highclere Thoroughbred team. Yet another Newbury winner, he thrashed a field of 12 under a penalty. He’s a Kapgarde gelding, and yet another with a bright future.

It seems crazy to say it, especially after such a dominant campaign last season, but this could prove to be Henderson’s most powerful team ever assembled. That may sound somewhat fanciful, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such depth of talent at Seven Barrows.

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.

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.”

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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.

Tizzard Star to Shine at Kempton

The King George VI Chase from Kempton is the highlight of the Christmas period, and one of the most prestigious events of the winter.

Its roll of honour is the stuff of legends, simply oozing quality, jam-packed with steeplechasing heroes. Jumping goliaths, Mill House and Arkle, won the race in the 60’s. In the 1970’s Pendil and Captain Christy were simply sensational. In the early 80’s the Kempton masses were thrilled by Silver Buck, Wayward Lad and Burrough Hill Lad. It was then the turn of the glorious grey Dessie.

Desert Orchid dominated the Kempton Christmas cracker in the latter part of the eighties, with four victories. Only in 1987 did the bold front-runner find one too good, when beaten by the Francois Doumen-trained Nupsala. He was taken-on for the lead for much of that renewal, and arguably set the race up for the French raider.

Doumen was back again at the start of the 90’s with The Fellow, followed closely by a quick-fire double from another wonderful grey, One Man. Best Mate added his name to the wondrous list with victory in 2002, and Kicking King struck for Ireland in 2004 and 2005. Then came Kempton’s greatest, Kauto Star. Five victories from 2006 to 2011 saw him surpass the achievements of Dessie. He truly is Kempton’s King George King.

Last year’s race went to Thistlecrack, a horse with the potential to emulate some of those former greats. A novice at the time, he was scintillating throughout the three-mile contest. It was a display of pace and authority that left his talented opponents powerless. The rigours of a King George aren’t for every staying chaser, but it proved ideal for Thistlecrack. Injury cut short his first season over fences, and his return over hurdles at Newbury proved underwhelming. Nevertheless, the sounds from Team Tizzard are positive, and if he’s back to the form of 12 months ago, he’ll prove hard to beat.

The favourite for Boxing Day’s showpiece is the Nicky Henderson-trained Might Bite. He too looked sensational at Kempton 12 months ago. That is, until a final-fence blunder sent him crashing to the turf when clear of the field in the Kauto Star Novices’ Chase. He put that mishap behind him when winning at Cheltenham and Aintree, and returned to action in November with a comfortable victory at Sandown.

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He looks hugely talented, though this is by far his toughest test to date. He got the better of Whisper as a novice chaser, and you’d fancy he has the potential to maintain that advantage. Whisper was beaten 30-lengths and 46-lengths by Thistlecrack over hurdles, and though comparison of codes isn’t always reliable, I’d fancy Might Bite needs to improve a ton to beat a match-fit Tizzard stable-star.

Bristol De Mai is second-best in the betting, having demolished the opposition in the Betfair Chase at Haydock. In testing ground he absolutely rocks, but can he prove as dominant on a sounder surface? There’s also a feeling that Haydock brings out the best in the Twiston-Davies chaser, and his record at the track certainly supports that theory. He came up short in the Gold Cup back in March, and again failed to spark at Aintree the following month. He may be a vastly improved horse after a summer in the field, but I’m not convinced. I also have issues with his jumping, which will be severely tested in a ‘full-throttle’ King George. Unless we get a substantial amount of rain over the weekend, he’s not for me.

I’m anticipating a huge run from Fox Norton. He was runner-up in the Champion Chase and filled the same spot in the Tingle Creek earlier this month. The tempo of this race should prove ideal, though whether his stamina will last into the latter stages is the crucial question. He’s never looked a true two-miler, always running-on strongly at the end of such events. Arguably his best performance to-date came in the Melling Chase at Aintree over 2m4f, when running away from Sub Lieutenant. He’d looked out-paced in that until getting on top in the latter stages. He certainly wasn’t stopping at the line.

Though Whisper ran a cracker in the Ladbrokes Trophy (Hennessy), I cannot see him turning the tables on Might Bite. He was clearly second-best to his stable companion last season, and I cannot see that changing. I’ve always thought that Whisper, though clearly a talented horse, is just shy of the very best. He may well run admirably, but I’d be shocked if he wins.

Repeat victories are common in the King George, and I’m convinced that a back-to-his-best Thistlecrack will be too hot to handle. Might Bite is a chaser of huge potential and may well pick up the pieces should Tizzard’s star fail to shine. Of the remainder, I fancy Fox Norton to run a huge race at a trip that should be to his liking.
Enjoy this Christmas cracker. And best of luck to those having a punt.

A Thrilling Kempton Christmas Gathering

I went out and bought the Christmas TV magazine yesterday, and have started circling all the programmes that will excite me during the holiday period.

The Great Gatsby with Leonardo DiCaprio and Shrek 2, instantly caught the eye. However, there’s no doubting the highlight at this time of year, and I don’t mean Christmas Top Of The Pops.

The channel may have changed, but Boxing Day racing from Kempton remains my ‘numero uno’ (The Wizard Of Oz is a close runner-up). The King George VI Chase is one of the most thrilling races of the winter with a truly wondrous roll of honour. Last year’s renewal was truly ‘Joyful and Triumphant’ for Team Tizzard, as Thistlecrack swept far more experienced chasers aside, to win in the style of a superstar. Things haven’t gone to plan since, but one of Jump racing’s major player’s is back for more, with his jockey at Kempton hopeful of a repeat performance.

Tom Scudamore told At The Races: “It felt like he had all his old spark, but just got tired from going to the second last (Newbury Long Distance Hurdle). He'd suffered an injury at Cheltenham and had plenty of time off the track. He'd been showing everyone the right signs at home. Joe and Colin (Tizzard) were happy with him, but unfortunately the time he had off just got the better of him at Newbury. Colin and Joe tell me he's been going very well at home, but the proof in the pudding will be on Boxing Day.”

Ruby Walsh knows a thing or two about Kempton’s showpiece, having ridden Kauto Star to a record-breaking five victories. Still recovering from injury, he believes that Nicky Henderson has the leading contender. Speaking to Racing UK he said: “Strictly going on novice form and the performance he was putting up in last year's Feltham, I'd be leaning towards Might Bite. I rode in his RSA and the gallop he went was phenomenal. Kempton will suit him, going right-handed. I think he'll be very hard to beat.”

Walsh also spoke of the Betfair Chase winner, Bristol De Mai, saying: “If we were to get a drop of rain and the track was to get a bit slower, then Bristol De Mai would have a chance. I would say he is an unbelievably strong stayer and that’s why, on testing ground, he just goes the same speed as he would on good ground and it kills off the opposition. I’m not saying he won’t go on good ground, it’s just can he burn the opposition off to the same effect as he does on soft ground?"

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Should trainers and connections hold their nerve, this looks to be a thrilling renewal, with a feel of the ‘changing of the guard’. We have a pair of six-year-olds in Bristol De Mai and Disko. The former fresh from that stunning success at Haydock, and the latter highly regarded by his trainer Noel Meade, and talked of as a Gold Cup prospect. There’s a trio of seven-year-old's, including Tizzard’s classy Tingle Creek runner-up Fox Norton, who steps-up in trip having come-up just short at two-miles. The race favourite; Henderson’s Might Bite, is just eight, and though Thistlecrack and Whisper are both nine, they have very few chase outings to their name.

The decision not to send Sizing John over for the prestigious event came as no surprise. But arguably the biggest name lacking from this year’s line-up is that of trainer Paul Nicholls. He’s won the race seven times in the past 11 years, with Kauto Star and Silviniaco Conti proving Kempton heroes.

Politologue’s win in the Tingle Creek at Sandown would have come as a huge relief to the Ditcheat handler, but the lack of a quality staying chaser in the yard will be hugely frustrating. The performance of Clan Des Obeaux last week at Cheltenham, will give hope of a Nicholls renaissance in this division. By next Christmas, he could be the one making his presence felt in the Christmas showpiece.

Colin Tizzard and Nicky Henderson have shared four of the last seven renewals and both have a pair of strong contenders this time around. Nigel Twiston-Davies will hope to spoil the party, but there’s no doubting that the staying chase landscape, and to some extent the Grade One picture, continues to change, with Team Ditcheat rarely invited to the gathering.

Hendo sunk by Mullins Magic

A dash of Mullins Magic has transformed Total Recall, triggering astonishing improvement which brought about success in the Ladbrokes Trophy at Newbury.

This is a race often won by a second-season chaser, and a move to the Closutton yard has certainly done the trick for the eight-year-old. One win from six last term has become two from two this, and there’s now talk of a tilt at the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

In truth, winning this race off a handicap mark of 147 is light years away from lifting the ‘Blue Riband’ in March, though there’s no doubting he was impressive on Saturday. He travelled beautifully throughout and shadowed the move made by Whisper at the third last fence. Nicky Henderson’s chaser was giving the winner a stone, and despite a couple of great leaps at the last two obstacles was overhauled, with Total Recall staying on powerfully approaching the line to win by a neck.

Mullins said of the victory: “The horse was very cool, and Paul was very cool. We all thought he was going well until the second-last and it fell apart a bit. It wasn't until the final 150 yards that I thought 'we have a life here'. It is a race that any jumps trainer wants to win. It's a fantastic race and we have just got to hold on to it this time.”

Mullins was referring to the Be My Royal victory of 2002, which ended in disqualification after the horse tested positive for a banned substance post-race.

The trainer added: “I think a lot of the credit must go to Sandra Hughes, who used her father's (Dessie Hughes) training methods and let this horse progress very slowly. Sandra retired, we just got the benefit of it. We will look at more handicaps, but we will have to look if he is better than that. He’ll definitely get an entry in the Gold Cup. I imagine the entries will close before he runs again.”

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Nicky Henderson was full of praise for the runner-up, saying: “It’s a bit cruel to get done like that. I shouldn’t have got that penalty at Kempton! Davy always had him in the right place, he jumped beautifully, and has still only had a few runs over fences.” Of targets, Henderson added: “He didn't stop, the other one went faster. We will have to sit down and think. Something like a Cotswold Chase could be fun.”

Whisper lost little in defeat (bar around £90,000) and looks the one to take from the race from a Gold Cup perspective. Still relatively inexperienced over fences, a rating in the low 160s leaves him around five or six pounds shy of what is required for the ‘big one’. He’s arguably a better horse at Aintree, though does have a couple of chase victories at Cheltenham to his name. He’ll likely meet stablemate Might Bite in March, and has yet to get the better of his fellow Seven Barrows inmate.

One that has landed the top prize in March is Coneygree. On Saturday his career took yet another turn for the worse. He appeared to be going well up until halfway, but a mistake early on the second circuit saw him back-peddling. Injuries and time on the sidelines appear to have taken their toll on the 2015 Gold Cup winner. His trainer Mark Bradstock said of the ex-champ: “Nico said he may need a wind-op, but other than that he's fine at the moment. We thought we had him on-song and jumping well, but we have to go back to the drawing board. He's been an absolute superstar and owes us nothing.”

A subplot of the Newbury feature is the continuing clash of training goliaths, Henderson and Mullins. The pair are set to lock horns throughout the winter, and especially during the high-profile Spring Festivals. Douvan versus Altior and Faugheen against Buveur D’Air are just a couple of contests that have Jump racing fans licking their lips in anticipation.

Nicholls and Henderson Jump to it

Present Man defied testing conditions to land the Badger Ales Trophy at Wincanton on Saturday.

Paul Nicholls has an outstanding record in the race, and had three fancied contenders. He finished with the first and fourth home, though his young novice Mr Mix disappointed. Concerns had been raised over the winner’s ability to cope with soft ground, but any worries were dispelled as the seven-year-old ‘tanked’ along under talented conditional jockey Bryony Frost.

Prominent throughout, Frost sent the winner on from the fifth-last, with only the David Dennis-trained Final Nudge for company. The pair fought out the finish, with Present Man’s bold jumping key to his success. He battled on bravely to hold-off the runner-up by a rapidly diminishing head.

Her father Jimmy had won the race 21 years earlier, and it was clear to everyone that Bryony was thrilled to mirror Dad’s achievement. Speaking to ITV Racing immediately after the win, she said: “He jumped, he travelled. He answers every question. He was pulling my arms out all the way round.”

Nicholls was winning his eighth Badger Ales, and said of the winner: “I was worried about the ground, but I must say I've never seen him look better. I knew he'd go in the ground, but it was whether he stayed in the ground. He's a great example of Rome not being built in a day. He’s took three years to get where he is today. It was a peach of a ride and it's great for the owners.”

Mark Woodhouse owns the winner, and happens to sponsor the race. Clearly emotional, he said of the victory: “We were always in it to win it. It went a bit soft for him, and he’d have had a better chance on good ground. I haven’t got much voice left. I used it up during the home straight.”

The Grand National at Aintree has now been named as a likely target for the winner. The way he jumps a fence will certainly be an asset, though he still has to prove that he can see-out a marathon trip.

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The victory completed a valuable double on the card for trainer Paul Nicholls, having earlier seen his exciting young chaser Modus take the Rising Stars in dominant fashion. Just three arrived at the start, though the race looked competitive enough. Ridden confidently by Sam Twiston-Davies, the favourite took up the running two fences from home. He quickened impressively, hitting the line with nine lengths to spare. Bigger tests lie ahead, but this was a decent performance.

Just 24 hours later, Paul Nicholls’ nemesis, Nicky Henderson, unleashed his potential star staying chaser Might Bite. Last year’s RSA winner made his seasonal debut at Sandown, and romped to an impressive victory in the Future Stars Intermediate Chase. In all honesty, this was a race that he had to win convincingly. At times like a showjumper over the fences, he was virtually foot-perfect throughout. Urged to pull clear by Nico de Boinville, he comfortably put 10 lengths between himself and the field, before being eased approaching the line.

“Job done. I'm happy with that,” said the jockey, speaking to Racing UK after the win. “He was very fresh and well going down to the first. I felt I had to take it (the running) up when I did, just because he was enjoying himself so much. He'll come on bundles for that. The big fences played to his strengths. He's got so much scope for improvement that I think he'll be even better than he was last year.”

Nicky Henderson looked chuffed and relieved, saying: “It was straightforward. His jumping was great. He just needed a run and I think he was running a bit fresh. He settled well, and he jumped beautifully. Our objective is the King George and most agreed the sensible thing was to come here (rather than the Betfair Chase at Haydock). He won't run again until then and he'll be miles straighter than he was today. That's part one done.”

The champion trainer added: “Our job is now to get him there on Boxing Day quite a lot fitter than he was today. I wouldn't say a racecourse gallop would go amiss. We'll try and win the King George and then make a second-half-of-the-season plan.”

Winning the King George is a mile away from landing an intermediate chase at Sandown. But there’s no doubting Henderson’s chaser is talented. He’s fluid in movement and beautifully athletic over his fences. He also looks to have plenty of untapped potential, though how he copes when challenged for the lead remains an unknown. Kempton’s Christmas showpiece is stacking up to be an absolute cracker.

Tony Stafford’s Extra Mince Pie…

So I ate an extra mince pie rather than keep to the schedule, writes Tony Stafford. If apologies are in order, then sorry, but I’m sure you had something better to do rather than read about horseracing, at least my sometimes oblique slant on it. It was probably also that I knew I would be having a bit of a rant.

A few hours’ sleep would mellow me a little, I thought, but all night long, visions of something I hadn’t fully believed at the time, intruded on some fitful slumber. It’s all too easy to criticise a jockey – in the country’s 8,809 (March 2016) betting shops, people who watch every day will show you how with a vengeance – but I rarely notice, which suggests they (jockeys) might be generally competent.

But once in a while a ride is so out of kilter with the norm that even my customary lethargy is disturbed. Such a ride was perpetrated at Kempton Park on Boxing Day by Daryl Jacob, and I’m sure that after Might Bite’s last-fence fall when as the Racing Post reported, he was 18 lengths clear, trainer Nicky Henderson and owners The Knot Again Partnership will have been looking for an explanation of the latter portion of the ride.

Lining up for the two and a half mile Grade 1 Kauto Star Novice Chase, Might Bite was rightly one of the leading contenders, having won four of his eight career starts over three seasons and one of his two novice chases, for each of which he’d started 2-1 on favourite.

Firstly on chase debut at Newbury in November he was rallying under Nico de Boinville, his hitherto regular partner, when a blunder at the last fence resulted in a half-length defeat. Then earlier this month at Doncaster, with Jacob replacing the injured de Boinville, he made all, was left clear at the tenth, hit two out and then allowed to coast home.

Yesterday, once again Might Bite was ridden prominently, and after some initial skirmishes, went clear readily from the fourth-last fence. By the straight it seemed only a fall would prevent connections from collecting the £40,000 first prize. At the second-last he was well clear, whereupon Jacob had a look round at his toiling rivals, but unlike at Doncaster, for some reason he decided to go for broke.

He could hardly have detected danger from behind, but he proceeded to administer three strong left-hand blows with the whip and as they stretched ever further clear, kept riding vigorously and hurled him at the final obstacle. I must say I fully expected the outcome, a heavy fall, and there has been nothing since to convince me that a more measured performance from two out would have given the team a more than adequate winning margin.

Had he got over the last, he’d have won by an official “distance”. Instead it was left to Royal Vacation, at 33-1, to collect the trophy and the accolades for the seemingly-blessed Colin Tizzard stable. While Henderson was in the process of enduring a most un-Henderson-like Kempton Boxing Day – he had two minor winners elsewhere – Tizzard was enjoying the benefits of unworldly stable riches. As he said later, once Thistlecrack – yes I’ve finally got round to him – was aimed at the King George and a clash with Cue Card, then he was looking around for “something for the novice” and the solid, dependable and now top-flight winner Royal Vacation fitted the bill.

You’ll read plenty about Thistlecrack elsewhere, and his exemplary performance in just his fourth chase, beating Cue Card and a rallying Silviniaco Conti – unwilling to adhere to his unflattering 20-1 odds - with great authority.

So he’s a general 5-4 shot for the Cheltenham Gold Cup with the likelihood of a second novice winner of the race in three runnings after a 41-year gap between Captain Christy, whose victory I’ve just reprised on the internet, remembering my winning bet, and Coneygree last year, who had previously run over fences only three times.

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In that regard Thistlecrack will have an experience edge on his predecessor, and will also, at nine next week, be a year older than the Bradstock family horse was when he won the Gold Cup. Coneygree missed Kempton, having chased home Cue Card at Haydock last month, but could well be in attendance at Prestbury Park in March having missed the race in 2016.

There might not seem, at first sight, to be too many similarities in the breeding of these two outstanding stayers. Coneygree, winner of nine of his 12 career starts, is by the multiple Group 3 winning miler/10 furlong performer Karinga Bay. John Oaksey, looking for a mate for Coneygree’s mother Plaid Maid settled on Karinga Bay because he was a son of the Noble Lord’s favourite horse, Ardross.

By contrast, Thistlecrack is a son of Kayf Tara, twice winner of both the Gold Cup at Ascot and the Irish St Leger and the perennial champion jumps stallion based in the UK. He is now 22 and will stand for a private fee at Overbury Stud next year.

But then the plot thickens. Ardross, also a dual Gold Cup winner, appears in Thistlecrack’s pedigree, as the maternal grand sire and father of the Tizzard champion’s dam, Ardstown. So they both have pedigrees packed with stamina. If anything, Thistlecrack carries a double dose of staying power and with 13 wins in 18 starts so far, it looks as though he’s just getting going.

For his first ten outings, he was beaten, then won, five times in a row, explaining perhaps why in his eighth start, in the long distance novice hurdle at Aintree in April last year, he started 25-1. The margin of success might have been less than the eventual 13 lengths had the weakening Alpha Des Obeaux not fallen late on. Beaten next time in Ireland, he has since won nine in a row in his last 19 months’ action.

It is interesting to delve further into the respective abilities of the two broodmares. Both raced over fences – Ardstown exclusively, collecting three pointing wins for the Knipes, who bred Thistlecrack, and four over fences from 23 career starts.

Plaid Maid won once over hurdles, and like her counterpart, four times over fences under rules in 19 career outings. She was a year younger than Ardstown, and eerily the pair met on the racecourse at Newbury on March 24 2001 in a decent 12-runner field which also included the former Champion Hurdler, Collier Bay.

The then 10-year-old Ardstown had been confined to hunter chases in both 2000 and the early part of 2001, but trainer Venetia Williams, considering the lightly-made mare unsuited hefting big weights, found her a suitable race over the three-mile trip. She was 4lb wrong in the weights, meaning her official 107 rating was swollen to 111 for the race.

Plaid Maid was conceding 7lb and at the finish Ardstown and Norman Williamson had a six-length margin over her and A P McCoy. That equates to an almost identical level of ability for the pair. Ardstown never won again, whereas Plaid Maid had one more payday next time out, before they both went on to their real purpose in life – producing jump racing legends.