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Champagne And Caviar For Hobbs

Jonjo's Exotic Dancer

Jonjo's Exotic Dancer

Whether it proves a stepping stone towards a tilt at the Ryanair Chase in March or further handicap success during the winter, the Caspian Caviar Gold Cup is often won by an upwardly mobile young chaser.

Established in 1963, it has gone to numerous classy types over the years, but in 2006 one trainer in particular uncovered a gem that so nearly hit the very top of the sport.

Exotic Dancer had already swept to victory in the Paddy Power Gold Cup before lining up as an 8/1 shot for the race then known as the Boylesport.com Gold Cup. Adopting exaggerated hold-up tactics, he again sliced through the field late on, before storming up the famous Cheltenham hill to victory. Back in third that day was a Paul Nicholls trained five-year-old called Taranis. Three months later he would win the Ryanair Chase at the Cheltenham Festival.

Jonjo’s young chaser was to take a different path. His winter wins at Cheltenham had shown him to be a powerful stayer, and connections decided a shot at the King George was in order. Unfortunately he was to bump in to one of the all-time greats at the peak of his powers. Kauto Star lay in wait at Kempton, and when the two met again in the Gold Cup at Cheltenham, it was Nicholls’ superstar that once again gained the upper hand, beating Exotic Dancer in a memorable renewal.

Nevertheless, it had been a meteoric rise for O’Neill’s horse having won the Paddy Power off a handicap mark of 139 and ending the season rated a whopping thirty pounds higher.

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Only three horses have managed to complete Cheltenham’s November-December Gold Cup double. Exotic Dancer was the last to win both and tomorrow’s renewal will see the Alan King trained Annacotty attempt to add his name to a rather select list. He won a thrilling Paddy Power Gold Cup on his first appearance for King and has to withstand a 5lb rise in the handicap. He renews rivalry with Evan Williams’ runner-up Buywise and third home Sound Investment.

Notoriously frustrating, Williams’ eight-year-old is sure to go close once again. Despite finding it difficult to win one of these big winter handicaps at Cheltenham, he is nevertheless ultra-consistent. Those who decide to keep the faith are likely to get a good run for their money.

Sound Investment hauled top-weight to a creditable third place last month and is burdened with the same task once again. Should Paul Nicholls manage to squeeze a little more improvement out of his seven-year-old, he looks sure to go close again. I remain firm in the belief that he will develop into a Ryanair contender. Tomorrow will likely tell us for sure.

Champagne West is one of the most intriguing contenders as he returns from a spell on the ‘easy list’. His last completed finish was a fine effort in defeat to Ptit Zig at Cheltenham back in January. That form now looks pretty strong, with Nicholls’ young chaser having impressed already this winter. With such a favourable profile it is therefore noteworthy that Richard Johnson has chosen to ride Philip Hobbs’ other runner, Village Vic.

He sits at the bottom of the handicap, and has been progressing steadily since missing the 2013/14 season through injury. This son of Old Vic out of a Garde Royale mare looked impressive last time at Musselburgh, tanking along up front and having the field on the stretch from a long way out. This will of course be a much tougher proposition and he lacks that all important track experience having never jumped a fence at Cheltenham.

I remain a fan of Art Mauresque who finished sixth in the Paddy Power in November having faded late on. He was given a positive ride that day, and probably paid the price at the death. Still only a five-year-old, if he settles well enough and is ridden with slightly more restraint, I can see him going close.

It’s a hugely competitive event as always, full of promising young chasers likely to continue on an upward curve over the coming months.

King George Contenders Form An Orderly Cue

Cue Card's Crushing Betfair Chase Victory

Cue Card's Crushing Betfair Chase Victory

Another thrilling weekend brought success for the past, present and future of National Hunt racing.

At Haydock it was Colin Tizzard’s wonderful chaser Cue Card that again stole the show. He added the Betfair Chase to his Charlie Hall success achieved three weeks earlier, as he continues his incredible return to the Premier League of staying chasers.

The style of victory was as startling as the achievement itself. The nine-year-old cruised through the race before moving alongside Silviniaco Conti four fences from home. Paddy Brennan hardly moved a muscle on top, as his horse swept to the front, pulling clear for a ‘hard-held’ seven length winning margin.

The breathing operation has clearly worked wonders and connections will be full of excitement at what may lie ahead. “Why would we run away from Kempton? There is no reason not to go there,” said Tizzard after the race. “If he is in the form he is in now he would run in the Gold Cup, that is the ultimate race and he has proved he stays. He did it easier today, it was always going to happen, I thought. We thought Wetherby was brilliant but we were getting the conditions of the race and today he was taking them all on and he has done it really well.”

Brennan could hardly contain himself after his second success aboard the classy chaser. He said: “Unbelievable. After Imperial Commander I never thought I would get the chance to sit on something as good or a Gold Cup horse. The way Cue Card went around there today he felt like a Gold Cup horse.”

A rather subdued Paul Nicholls, trainer of Silviniaco Conti, said: “Cue Card was very good and there are no excuses. He's run a nice race and they can't win every time. He jumped a little to the right and we might put the blinkers back on him next time as he races a bit lazily. I suppose we will go to Kempton next.”

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It’s hard to imagine Silviniaco Conti turning the tables on a rejuvenated Cue Card at Kempton, although as a guest on the Morning Line earlier, Nicholls had hinted that another couple of week’s preparation would have been ideal to have his charge 100% for the Haydock race. This being the case, it may be unwise to completely rule out the duel King George winner.

Whilst Cue Card was confirming his status as this winter’s ‘Golden Oldie’, down at Ascot Vautour was opening his account at senior level. His novice chase campaign was simply sensational and his return had been eagerly anticipated. The Stella Artois 1965 Chase appeared a perfect starting point with the King George in mind, but he was made to work for his win by another classy sort in Ptit Zig. Jumping slightly out to his left on occasion, Vautour was nevertheless impressive, only making one noticeable error when stepping at a fence midway down the back straight.

Mullins was more than happy, saying: “It's great to win. He jumped a little left, I haven't had a chance to chat with Ruby about it yet. Maybe it was just fitness, he was taking on race-fit horses and he had to travel to England and that's hard to do for your first run. He didn't look as good as people might have hoped that he could be, but I think he'll improve.”

The man on top was also pretty pleased with the day’s work, when after the race Ruby said: “He made a mistake at the bottom of the hill second time around and he was a bit fresh going to post and rusty in the race. Ptit Zig had that match fitness and our horse was big and rusty. He'll improve a hell of a lot for today. I like horses that can win like that when only half fit.”

Vautour will almost certainly head to Kempton for a clash with Cue Card and Don Cossack amongst others. Of the Christmas showpiece Mullins added: “It's going to be a cracker of a King George.”

Ptit Zig came close to causing a major upset, and may well have another crack at the Mullins star over Christmas. Part-owner Barry Fulton initially appeared indifferent to a possible re-match in Kempton's Christmas showpiece, but after sleeping on the matter seemed rather more enthusiastic on Sunday morning.

He said: “He ran really well. He obviously had a fitness advantage over Vautour, who looked like he needed the run, but we were delighted with our horse. For a moment I was getting excited two out, but Vautour was always in control. I'm not sure what we'll do now. Initially I thought we wouldn't go for the King George, but after watching it again, I wonder whether we might have a go. The Peterborough Chase is only a fortnight away and will probably come too soon, so what else can he go for?”

With Silviniaco having disappointed slightly in the Betfair Chase you can be pretty sure that Nicholls will be eager to throw another top-class chaser at the King George. Still only six, Ptit Zig has looked his best with plenty of juice in the ground and would surely be a major player if he took his chance at Christmas.

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