Allmankind will head to Ayr

Allmankind is set to head to Ayr for the Jordan Electrics Ltd Future Champion Novices’ Chase over two and a half miles.

Dan Skelton has decided to step the five-year-old up in trip, following his first defeat over fences in the Arkle at Cheltenham.

Hassled for the lead throughout by Captain Guinness, his effort had petered out by the home straight as Shishkin breezed to an impressive win.

“I think we got put in our place quite unanimously by Shishkin, so I’m going to try him up in trip actually,” Skelton told Racing TV.

“I think we might even go to Ayr, over two and a half, and it gives him a little longer (to get over Cheltenham). He did put everything into that race.

“We’re not afraid to run him. He’s only a novice once, and that is why we’ll get him out once more.”

Skelton endured a frustrating Cheltenham Festival, with several horses placed and none getting closer than Nube Negra in the Champion Chase.

“Nube Negra will go for the Celebration Chase at Sandown,” said the Warwickshire trainer.

“At the moment that is where he’s going, touch wood.”

Another to claim the silver medal at Prestbury Park was stablemate Langer Dan in the Martin Pipe, just five days after he had won the Imperial Cup, but Skelton feels he may have faced a stiff task in any case against the winner Galopin Des Champs.

“Langer Dan won’t run again (this season). He ran only five days later, and you’ve got to congratulate him on a good end of his season,” said Skelton.

“He bumped into one. I think we’ll be seeing that one in some Grade Ones – he looks very good.”

Mullins looking to Chacun to end his Champion Chase wait

Chacun Pour Soi faces a critical Cheltenham mission as he bids to complete master trainer Willie Mullins’ full set of Festival titles in the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase.

The short-priced favourite will be joined by stablemate Cilaos Emery against eight other heavyweight contenders on Wednesday.

But there is no doubt the hopes of Closutton will be centred chiefly on Chacun Pour Soi to deliver the one Cheltenham championship event that has as yet eluded the Festival’s all-time most successful trainer.

Among his record-breaking tally of victories, at the start of business this week Mullins could count two Gold Cups – after Al Boum Photo conquered that Everest for him in each of the last two years – four Champion Hurdles, two Stayers’ crowns and three Ryanair Chase successes.

He has suffered only disappointment, though, in the top two-mile chasing division – including with his brilliant but fragile favourite Douvan in 2017 and 12 months ago when Chacun Pour Soi had to miss the race because of a last-minute stone bruise.

Since then, the lightly-raced nine-year-old has been imperious in three dominant victories on home soil against the best of his compatriots.

At the prospect of winning the great race for the first time, Mullins said: “It would be huge for the stable and everyone here to get that win and have all the championship races at the Cheltenham Festival.

“I hope he will give us a chance to try to put that away. He’s in great form since Leopardstown (in last month’s Dublin Chase) and does everything right at home, so fingers crossed.”

Mullins is not inclined to dwell on last year’s mishap – and neither was he at the time, because there were a string of other major races he needed to concentrate on.

Willie Mullins and Paul Townend have their sights on the Champion Chase
Willie Mullins and Paul Townend have their sights on the Champion Chase (David Davies/PA)

He added: “It hurts – but at Cheltenham, every 35 minutes it’s a new page, and you don’t really get to think about it or for it to sink in.

“Thankfully we had a good Cheltenham last year – so it’s history.

“It’s different if you had one horse – you would probably wallow in it – but as I said to the lads ‘just put it behind us and get on to the next race’.”

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Chacun Pour Soi, who will be ridden by Paul Townend for owner Rich Ricci, developed a reputation for susceptibility to injury as well as brilliance on the track as he managed just four appearances in his first two campaigns for Mullins.

There has been no sign of any problems this season, however, and Mullins understandably has high hopes he can rise to his biggest challenge yet on his first attempt at Cheltenham.

He said: “He had his troubles early on in his career – but now everything has settled down, he just goes up the gallop every morning and does his work.

“He is one of the ones if you had to pick the top five or six travelling over, you’d say he is one that you are really hoping can bring his ‘A’ game there.”

Politologue had his deserved moment in the spotlight 12 months ago
Politologue had his deserved moment in the spotlight 12 months ago (Simon Cooper/PA)

He faces a clutch of top-class contenders – even in the absence of dual winner Altior, pulled out of the race for the second year running because of a late setback.

The challengers are headed by Paul Nicholls’ title-holder Politologue and Dan Skelton’s Nube Negra.

Festival stalwart Politologue had already finished fourth and second to Altior in the previous two Queen Mothers when he won emphatically last year.

The grey – who will be running at the meeting for the sixth time – started this season with a Tingle Creek triumph at Sandown, before finishing second to the vastly-improved and reopposing First Flow at Ascot in January.

“I think it was a good run in the Clarence House,” Nicholls said of Politologue’s most recent effort.

“The ground was probably testing enough for him that day, and he might be slightly better on spring ground – which is why Cheltenham suits him very well.

“He always gives his all. There was no excuse at Ascot – he got beaten by a better horse on the day. (But) he still ran to a very high level, which he’ll do in this race.

“He’s solid and jumps well and will give you a good run for your money.

“Being realistic, we’ve got a nice chance, but it will be hard.”

First Flow was a revelation at Ascot
First Flow was a revelation at Ascot (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

Kim Bailey’s First Flow is unbeaten in his last six races, during which he has risen 25lb – often showing a liking for very soft ground.

His Cotswolds trainer reports jockey David Bass has great faith in his ability to compete at this highest level.

“David totally believes in the horse, and we both know that the horse stays well,” said Bailey.

“We’ve been arguing all season whether we ought to be running over two and a half miles rather than two, but David has been adamant two miles is the right trip – and he’s proved himself right so far.

“He probably just goes through soft ground better than everybody else. I think his last performance probably gave the horse confidence and the jockey confidence that he can handle better ground better than we thought.”

Nube Negra shocked Altior at Christmas
Nube Negra shocked Altior at Christmas (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

Nube Negra has run just once this season – but that is by design, and his surprise Kempton victory over Altior at Christmas was a revelation.

Skelton said: “We come here fresh and well. He had a little gallop round Warwick three weeks ago, and I was happy with how that went.

“Nice ground will suit him, and we’re just really looking forward to it.”

Henry de Bromhead supplies two more Irish hopefuls, last year’s Arkle favourite and winner respectively, Notebook and Put The Kettle On.

He said of the former: “The first year he ran (at Cheltenham), he ran in the Ballymore, and he’s never looked as good over a trip as he has since we dropped him back to two miles.

“Last year, yes, he was disappointing – having set off favourite.

“He’s coming here off the back of one less run than last year, so hopefully that will stand to him. He’s a bit fresher, and I would say the better the ground, the better his chance.”

Put The Kettle On has a definite liking for Cheltenham
Put The Kettle On has a definite liking for Cheltenham (Andrew Matthews/PA)

While Notebook fluffed his Festival lines, finishing sixth and last, stablemate Put The Kettle On emphatically did not – at 16-1.

The mare won again at Cheltenham in November, before having to settle for third behind Chacun Pour Soi – and Notebook – at Leopardstown a month later.

De Bromhead said: “She was brilliant in the Shloer obviously, and then she ran very well at Leopardstown.

“We were planning to go to Kempton – but obviously with Covid we weren’t allowed to travel, so we were never convinced Leopardstown was going to be ideal for her. But she still ran really well.

“As we all know, she just loves Cheltenham, so hopefully that’ll improve her a couple of pounds as well.”

The remainder of the 10-strong field features Harry Whittington’s Rouge Vif, third in last year’s Arkle, the admirable Sceau Royal for Alan King and Nicholls’ second-string Greaneteen.

Skelton relaxed on Allmankind preparation for Cheltenham

Dan Skelton would not be worried about the timescale before Cheltenham for Allmankind should the Agetur UK Kingmaker Chase have to be rescheduled.

The current cold snap could cause problems for Saturday’s meeting at Warwick, but Skelton feels there is still enough of a gap before the Sporting Life Arkle Trophy at the Festival on March 16.

“Even if you looked a week down the line you’ve still then got three and a half weeks before the Festival,” the Alcester trainer told Nick Luck’s Daily Podcast.

“I’m not worried about that, and Allmankind is not the type of horse who you’d be complaining about ground or track.

“He is just a simple horse. He just loves to run. Any opportunity you give him to run, he grasps it with both hands and gets on with it and loves it.”

The Arkle is one of the most eagerly-awaited races of the Festival, with Nicky Henderson’s Shishkin and the Willie Mullins-trained Energumene in the line-up.

“At Cheltenham, things can happen. It’s a horse race at the end of the day. They are three very talented, very genuine horses. We always knew Shishkin was going to be a shorter price than us going into the Festival,” said Skelton.

“He won the Supreme and as long as he can jump fences economically he is going to be the favourite or near favourite based on last year’s performances.

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Energumene promises to be threat to all in the Arkle at Cheltenham
Energumene promises to be threat to all in the Arkle at Cheltenham (Niall Carson/PA)

“Energumene is obviously a much better chaser than he was a hurdler. He’s an attacking chasing type and has looked very good. He has looked unbeatable on what he has done so far, but Cheltenham is a different track and things can happen.”

One of Skelton’s main hopes at the Festival is Nube Negra in the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase.

The seven-year-old leapt into the picture when comfortably accounting for Altior at Kempton in December.

“Nothing frightens me with the way the race is going to be run with Nube Negra, because I’ve got a confident feeling we’re the fastest horse in the race,” said Skelton.

“He travels so well and however fast they go, I think our horse will be in his comfort zone.

“I feel if we get a good round of jumping to the back of three out we’ve probably got as much in the tank as we possibly can to go up the hill. And I think it’s game on then. We’re going to ride Nube Negra for speed.”

Nube Negra was too good for Altior at Kempton
Nube Negra was too good for Altior at Kempton (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

Skelton has no qualms about facing the short-priced favourite Chacun Pour Soi, from the Mullins stable.

“I’m not frightened of taking Chacun Pour Soi on with Nube Negra because I know we will be in our comfort zone,” he said.

“I have no concerns about Cheltenham as he went there as a juvenile twice.

“We’ve got to take lots of positives out of Kempton. We know Chacun is going to be hard to beat, we know Politologue is going to put up a struggle and we know Altior is not done with.

“I go there thinking we have a right chance because this horse will not be under pressure at any point in the race.”

Energumene and Chacun Pour Soi were among nine winners for Mullins at the two-day Dublin Racing Festival at Leopardstown.

Skelton believes the lack of strong opposition gives the Closutton trainer’s Cheltenham contingent an easier path to the Festival.

Chacun Pour Soi looms large for Willie Mullins at Cheltenham
Chacun Pour Soi looms large for Willie Mullins at Cheltenham (Niall Carson/PA)

“It is frustrating watching it. The lack of resistance means you are getting prep races in Grade Ones that aren’t taking anything out of his horses,” he said.

“That is the thing that makes him (Mullins) difficult to beat at Cheltenham, that his prep is easier than everybody else because his horses don’t have to go into the red in their prep races.

“Who is taking the easier route to the biggest day? This is where I think the magnification of Cheltenham is a potential downfall because people know they are going to get a hard race there. They are avoiding hard races en route because they want to go there with their biggest chance.

“That is why I think some races outside of Cheltenham Festival aren’t as supported as they should be because they (trainers and connections) know they are going to get a hard race. If they have a hard race, it’s going to be harder to get over.

“When Willie has a horse in a race he’s basically getting a freebie around the track in Ireland.

“I actually think preparation makes champions. The less you take out of the tank, the more is in there when you need it.”

Monday Musings: Christmas Racing Roundup

Yes, it was brilliant stuff for the first two days of Christmas at Kempton, Wetherby and Leopardstown, not to mention the other venues that none of us could go to, writes Tony Stafford. Shock results abounded in the big races and over two days at Kempton, Dan and Harry Skelton had the type of magical 48 hours that professional racing people can normally only dream about.

Five big wins from only nine runners including the convincing Nube Negra, who started out life as a non-achieving Spanish-bred (nought from seven) at Madrid’s La Zarzuela racecourse and now easily humbled an admittedly sluggish Altior in the Desert Orchid Chase.

What with Nicky Henderson also left to try to explain to himself and presumably owner JP McManus (and for that matter me!) how Epatante could be beaten so emphatically in the Christmas Hurdle, not this time by a Skelton runner but Evan Williams’ Silver Streak, a hard-working seven-year-old, it was a rum old do for Team Seven Barrows.

Epatante, in winning this race a year ago, had Silver Streak five lengths behind and that margin had swelled to a dozen lengths in the Champion Hurdle in which Silver Streak was only sixth.

Williams’ runner met another classy Henderson mare in Verdana Blue on his reappearance over Saturday’s track back in October and was not troubled to overturn that odds-on chance. Then his third meeting with Epatante, in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle, ended abruptly when Not So Sleepy jinked himself out of the race at the first flight and carried out Silver Streak at the next.

Evan quickly salved his frustration at a wasted 655-mile round trip from his stables in the Vale Of Glamorgan by taking him to Cheltenham a fortnight later when he was only a neck behind another improver, Song For Someone.

Then it was Kempton and another big step forward although whether he can win a Champion Hurdle will depend on further progress from the son of Dark Angel.

Obviously the biggest excitement was Bryony Frost doing over Kempton’s fences what Hollie Doyle has been achieving on racecourses everywhere throughout 2020 by becoming the first female rider to win the King George Chase on her inseparable partner, Frodon.

She already has a Cheltenham Festival win – a fair exchange for Hollie’s Royal Ascot success in the summer - and now on yet another rag, not just a 20-1 shot but Paul Nicholls’ third string, she humbled his dual previous winner Clan Des Obeaux into third, while much-vaunted Cyrname (my fancy) was out of petrol by halfway and pulled up a long way out.

It was left to Waiting Patiently to finish second but Bryony controlled the pace from the start on Frodon and the tried and trusted partnership never looked remotely in trouble.

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Who’s to say that Frodon, always a great jumper, could not stretch out to the full distance of the Gold Cup? Many of its winners have gone there with the question of stamina unresolved. It usually comes down to the quality of the jumping and Frodon has few peers in that regard. The only difference from the Thursday two years ago is that if he goes there, it will not be a repeat same-day dream double with Paisley Park.

Looking further afield, I would not be surprised if another Skelton horse, Shan Blue, who saw off The Big Breakaway in the Kauto Star Novices Chase, didn’t one day win a Gold Cup. He had been very impressive in his first two chases, both at Wetherby, in the second of them outclassing the very tough and talented staying mare Snow Leopardess by 16 easy lengths.

Again on Saturday he was always in control against main market rival The Big Breakaway whose jumping of fences was far less secure. The pair had met before when in fourth and sixth respectively behind the still-unbeaten Envoi Allen in the Ballymore Novice Hurdle at Cheltenham in March when Shan Blue was the loser of their private battle.

It’s great to see the Skeltons doing what Dan, and for that matter Harry and their extraordinary father Nick, had always planned. The dozens of summer jumping winners have been sacrificed for the development of horses that can challenge for the top prizes from a showpiece training facility. It’s just a pity we couldn’t all be there to enjoy their move into the very top echelon of the profession.

As ever, Christmas racing in Ireland provided some brilliant sport and high-class winners, again with the top names to the fore. Willie Mullins is far more accustomed to multiple wins at major fixtures and he matched Skelton’s feat with his own quintet over the first two days of the Leopardstown meeting, but from many more runners – he needed 21 to reach the landmark.

If everything had been as intended, the score would have been six as the Irish Racing TV producers emphasised before the finale. “Imagine what the other trainers must be thinking. Willie’s had three winners already today and he says his one on the bumper is the banker”. And so it looked when son Patrick sent 4/11 shot Reality Cheque clear in the short straight.

But there are no certainties in racing and Patrick, Willie and the horse’s connections were left to mourn the loss of their exciting prospect who broke down a furlong from home.

Before I go on to my final offering, and as you can guess, yes there is a Raymond Tooth element to it, I must return to the Desert Orchid Chase and Nube Negra. The race was delayed for several minutes when Sceau Royal, the majority choice beforehand to challenge the favourite, needed to have some remedial work by the farrier and then made a summarily early exit from the race itself, falling at the fifth.

If you get a chance, try to watch the video of the race. If you scan back a long way behind the surviving runners as they enter the last half-mile of the race, you will pick out the riderless Sceau Royal miles behind.

Astonishingly, by the line he was bombing up the outside, powering past Altior and almost catching the winner – and Alan King’s superstar will have gone back to Barbary Castle thinking how unlucky he was to get up.  As he goes onto the gallop in the morning he’ll be telling his equine companions: “I was at least a furlong behind and would have got them in another stride. I’ll be a certainty wherever the boss takes me next time!” He probably will.

And, finally, to the opening race on yesterday’s Leopardstown card, an 18-runner juvenile hurdle. There were contenders from some of the best stables and, of those that finished in places from second to eighth inclusive, all bar two were at no longer odds than 6/1. As they say, all the right ones were there.

Coltor, 6-1 and rated 86 on the Flat and trained by Dermot Weld, who only ever bothers with nice horses over jumps, was second. Third was the Jessica Harrington-trained 9-2 shot Ilmig, a Galileo gelding who won his maiden second time out at Navan in late October for Aidan O’Brien. This was his third jumps run after a good debut second but an odds-on flop next time.

Henry De Bromhead introduced a well-regarded Golden Horn gelding they’d picked up from the summer sales for £34k, a little more than 10% of the 300 grand the Highclere Stud product fetched in Tattersalls Book 1 sale in October 2018. He was sufficiently well-fancied to go off at 5/1.

Joseph O’Brien usually has serious contenders in juvenile hurdles and he supplied the fifth, Flying Scotsman, the McManus-owned dual Galway winner from this summer. Rated 87, he’s another Galileo and was an 11/2 shot after a couple of okay tries over jumps.

Charlie Bassett, Noel Meade’s Lawman gelding, finished sixth. He is a non-winner in ten Flat races, but with four seconds and three thirds good enough to acquire a rating of 80. He was a 16-1 shot on his third jumps start having been fourth at Fairyhouse two weeks earlier. Seventh came the only true interloper, Denise Foster’s 125-1 chance Ahaziah who made the most of the experience gained from two previous runs.

He was ahead of the Willie Mullins-trained and 77-rated Dark Voyager, another 5/1 shot. The highest-rated of them all was a second Aidan O’Brien graduate, Iberia. This horse was still rated in the low 100’s by the time he left to join Coolmore’s main vet John Halley’s small but shrewd team. He ran in the Irish Derby this year and competed in high-class juvenile races in 2019. Naturally he is another son of Galileo.

Are you bored yet? Well I think if you make time for another look at the videos from yesterday, take note of another newcomer, French Aseel, a son of Raymond’s smart Group 1 winner, French Fifteen. Sold after his Group 1 success to Qatari interests but remaining in Nicolas Clement’s stable, he finished a close second to Camelot in the 2012 2000 Guineas.

French Aseel won once in nine starts in France for a minor stable, never racing beyond a mile and even concluding his career in a six and a half furlong race after which Paul Holden bought him for €62,000 at Arqana’s July horses in training sale in Deauville.

A 22-1 chance in yesterday’s Racing Post betting, word clearly got around and the Ellemarie Holden-trained gelding was down to 7-2 favourite by the off.

French Aseel set off behind a 150-1 outsider, racing easily in second until moving smoothly ahead coming to the end of the back straight. Denis O’Regan kept him to his narrow advantage all around the long bend and approaching the straight he started to edge further clear.

O’Regan gradually allowed his mount to stretch the margin as they approached the normal final hurdle which, owing to the low sun, would not be jumped on either circuit.

As they passed it, O’Regan still had a firm grip on the son of French Fifteen – there I said it again! – and soon after they went past the flight, still needing  only minimal encouragement, he had a look behind and could hardly have believed the gap. This had stretched to 22 lengths by the finish! Honestly you have to look to see it. I have a few times and still can’t believe it.

I wonder how long it will take before black and white hoops become green and yellow? For information purposes only, the extended distances were 22 lengths, 6, 3.5 and 5.5 (to Mr McManus’s Flying Scotsman).  If JP hasn’t bought French Aseel yet - he should!

- TS

Nube Negra shocks Altior in Desert Orchid heat

Nube Negra inflicted an emphatic defeat on Altior in the Ladbrokes Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton.

Nicky Henderson’s dual Champion Chase victor Altior, who was a late absentee from the Tingle Creek earlier in the season, ran in snatches throughout for Nico de Boinville, but ultimately had no answer to Dan Skelton’s impressive winner.

On the bridle throughout, Harry Skelton was at pains not to hit the front too soon on Nube Negra, who had not been seen since finishing second in the Kingmaker at Warwick in February.

Altior showed guts to keep in contention in the home straight and it briefly looked as if his famous turbo was going to kick in, but Nube Negra had plenty in reserve and was heavily eased, crossing the line three and a half lengths to the good.

The 20-1 winner was continuing a golden spell for the Skeltons, who have won Grade Ones with Allmankind and Shan Blue this season.

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With Willie Mullins’ Chacun Pour Soi impressing at Leopardstown, he is now 11-8 favourite for the Queen Mother Champion Chase with Altior out to 12-1 with Betfair. Nube Negra is also a 12-1 chance.

Harry Skelton and Nube Negra on the way to winning the Ladbrokes Desert Orchid Chase
Harry Skelton and Nube Negra on the way to winning the Ladbrokes Desert Orchid Chase (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

Skelton said: “It’s quite unbelievable. It’s taken me by surprise – you don’t expect necessarily to beat Altior. Nube Negra is not a horse that has thrived on really soft ground, but he has matured to the point now where he can handle that. I think that is the most taking part of today’s performance.

“I was amazed how hard he came back on the bridle turning in. He has always been a strong traveller for a horse that has threatened to be so good.

“I was so disappointed he got beaten in last year’s Henry VIII, but he is putting it right now. As a 16.3 (hands high) horse, I think he has just taken time. I’m just delighted with everything really.

“The owner has been very patient. We’ve always taken our time with him. He had a bit of an injury setback in the spring, but he couldn’t run because of Covid. We were never going to Cheltenham, we were going to Aintree, but he never got that chance.

“It was probably the best thing that ever happened to him as it gave him the chance to mature.

“He will definitely go to Cheltenham this year – the Champion Chase is his next stop. He is a horse that is very good fresh and the Clarence House will come way too soon and I think for a horse that has to be fresh, the Newbury race is just too close to Cheltenham for him.”

Nico de Boinville had no obvious excuse for Altior's defeat
Nico de Boinville had no obvious excuse for Altior’s defeat (Paul Harding/PA)

De Boinville felt Altior’s class had helped him make the frame, but was at a loss to explain his defeat as the evens favourite.

He said: “We will definitely get him home and give him a full MOT and see what has gone on.

“You don’t know whether something is wrong or if it is an age thing. We will get him home and see how he is. The good news is he looks safe and sound at the moment.

“I was in trouble a long way from home, but it probably shows what class he has got that he kept going all the way to the line.

“Full credit to Dan and Harry Skelton for having their horse in great condition for this.