Philip Hobbs is favouring the Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase over the shorter Marsh Novices’ Chase for Sporting John at the Cheltenham Festival.
The lightly-raced six-year-old came from way off the pace to win the Grade One Scilly Isles at Sandown this month, on just his second start over fences.
That form looks strong, with previous Grade One winner Shan Blue in second, and Hobbs is left with a choice of taking on Monkfish over three miles or Envoi Allen over two miles and five furlongs next month.
“I think it’s far more likely that he will run in the three-miler (Brown Advisory) – although we still have the option of the Marsh,” said the Somerset trainer.
“But I think unless it is very deep ground he will go for the longer race.
“He got better and better as the race went on at Sandown – and as it was only his second run over fences, you can understand that a lot of it was through greenness. But in the end he won quite comfortably.”
Hobbs’ stable star Thyme Hill was slightly unlucky in last year’s Albert Bartlett behind Monkfish and was beaten only narrowly by Paisley Park last time out, having got the better of Emma Lavelle’s popular hurdler at Newbury earlier in the season.
The pair are set for another mouth-watering clash in the Paddy Power Stayers’ Hurdle.
Hobbs said: “With Thyme Hill, he is bang on course for the Stayers’ Hurdle and won’t run before it.
“He’s in good form – and ground-wise with him, it really doesn’t make any difference.”
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Philip Hobbs feels youth will be on Thyme Hill’s side when the seven-year-old bids to exact revenge on Paisley Park in the Paddy Power Stayers’ Hurdle at Cheltenham.
Paisley Park collared Thyme Hill in the closing strides to claim the Long Walk Hurdle by a neck at Ascot in December, when the pair met at level weights.
That made the score between them one each as Thyme Hill had beaten Emma Lavelle’s nine-year-old by one and a half lengths at Newbury the previous month, in receipt of 3lb.
“You’d have to say Paisley Park didn’t have the best of runs and he did well to win the race, but Thyme Hill ran an extremely good race and hopefully he is still an improver. That would be the plus,” Hobbs told Sky Sports Racing.
“He’s not had that much racing and our biggest hope really is he could still be an improver and is still going in the right direction, whereas Paisley Park you imagine at his age shouldn’t be.
“He (Paisley Park) is a formidable horse and is not going to be easy to beat whatever happens.
“Thyme Hill was particularly well this (Wednesday) morning. Having a canter, he had a buck at the top of the gallop and is in really good nick. We are at the stage of thinking about a few gallops to wind him up before Cheltenham.
“He’s not a horse that needs a lot of work anyway. We’re very much looking forward to it.”
Whatever the going at Cheltenham would not worry the Minehead trainer.
“I don’t think the ground really matters to him,” he said.
“I suppose you probably don’t want heavy. Anything else would be fine and he is the kind of horse who could cope with quick ground. The ground is the least important thing.”
Hobbs has named the Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase (formerly the RSA) over an extended three miles as Sporting John’s likely Cheltenham target, following his Grade One triumph at Sandown on Saturday.
The two-and-a-half-mile Marsh Novices’ Chase would be second choice, with Hobbs all but ruling the Sporting Life Arkle Trophy over two miles.
“He’s in the Festival Novices’ Chase. I think we can probably discard the Arkle with it being two miles, but he’s in the three-mile race which is more likely to suit him on the likely better ground,” he said.
“If it was soft at Cheltenham you might consider the Marsh, but I’d say the Festival Novices’ Chase is more likely.”
Sporting John booked his place at the Festival when landing a first success over fences in the Scilly Novices’ Chase, after being beaten at odds-on on his only other start over the bigger obstacles at Exeter in November.
“We were delighted with him. At his best, he is very good,” said Hobbs.
“He’s a most lovely-looking horse and has also got a fantastic temperament. He’s just a really nice horse to have about.
“He’s had the six races. He obviously won’t run again before Cheltenham. I feel he’s probably got enough experience. If we’d been able to run him through the winter and he’d had another run that would be better, but I think he has enough experience and he’d have learnt a lot from Sandown the other day.
“It’s going to be the most important novice chase of the season, so why not?”
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Never has a Sandown Park card taken place in such testing conditions, with the GoingStick reading at a record-low 3.7, but the desperate ground proved no hindrance to Sporting John, whose stamina kicked in as he strode away up the hill to land the feature Virgin Bet Scilly Isles Novices’ Chase.
The Philip Hobbs-trained 14-1 chance looked all at sea early on in the two-and-a-half-mile contest and was all but tailed off on the first circuit, but Richard Johnson’s mount, who had been beaten 33 lengths on his seasonal bow at Exeter, gradually warmed to the task and crept into contention at the Railway fences.
Unbeaten over the bigger obstacles going into this was Dan Skelton’s Shan Blue (2-1 joint-favourite), who had been very impressive in three outings, including when beating The Big Breakaway in the Kauto Star Novices’ Chase at Kempton last time out.
When the other joint-favourite Hitman departed at the sixth-last when a close-up third, Harry Skelton’s mount looked the likeliest winner, and had the dogged Paint The Dream struggling in pursuit.
A great leap at the last appeared to give Shan Bleu the momentum, but Johnson’s mount kept responding to pressure and the six-year-old, who had winning point form over three miles in Ireland, wore down his rival to score by three and three-quarter lengths.
Paint The Dream stayed on to be third, a further nine and a half lengths back.
Johnson said: “They have gone a good, strong gallop and he has had only one run over fences at Exeter. He was disappointing there. Before Christmas a lot of the horses were not finishing their races, but owner JP McManus is very good. There is no rush and he said to wait until the horse is right.
“Philip thought he was in good form the last couple of weeks and he’s come here today and proved it. It has taken him a good mile to just get him into that rhythm and start to operate. With the ground, the race has come back to me a bit from the Pond Fence and it worked out really well.
“He is probably a three-miler as such, but with conditions as they are at the moment, that is probably what you need. It is fantastic today and it’s great to get a Grade One winner.”
Plans are fluid for Shan Blue according to his trainer, who felt there were no excuses and the Marsh Novices’ Chase at the Cheltenham Festival is still an option.
Skelton said: “The third horse stays well, so it gives a solid look to the form and there are no excuses. He is in the Mash and handled the ground, of course he has.
“But I think every horse is going to be a bit better on better ground. The ground is what it is. You either want to run on it or you don’t. We’re happy with it. We’ll talk to owner Colm Donlon about Cheltenham. We’ll worry about tomorrow rather than what happens in six weeks. There is always Aintree and that is exactly what we need to talk to Colm about.
“At the end of the day, he is a very good novice chaser and we have the option to go three miles or not.”
Four-time champion jockey Johnson may have conceded defeat in chasing the title this term, yet his experience shone through in testing conditions, as the 43-year-old recorded a 1,067-1 treble, which included the two feature events.
Having landed Scilly Isles with Sporting John and the Grade Two Cotswold Chase with Native River (13-2), he was at his brilliant best making all aboard Deise Aba (17-2) in the Virgin Bet Masters Handicap Chase – securing a double for trainer Hobbs.
Deise Aba, who had been pulled up on his last two starts before Christmas, proved a hugely game winner in conditions that were far from ideal.
With hat-trick-seeking Ask Me Early never travelling and pulled up before six out, the eight-year-old made all to win the race for the second year in succession, fending off the persistent challenge of Coo Star Silvola to score by four and a quarter lengths.
Johnson said: “It is always lovely to get a hat-trick. To be fair, Philip’s horses we not quite firing before Christmas. We won this race last year and we put the cheekpieces on today. He’s a bit one-paced, but he’s a good, strong stayer and it suited him well. The horses are hitting that bit of form again.”
He added: “It is very frustrating not to be up there fighting for the championship, but again, when you have nice horses to ride and work for good people, and are having a lovely time…it beats working for a living!”
Exuberant jumper Moonlighter (13-2) can be a bit hit and miss, as his supporters found to their cost last time when he fell at Newbury.
But he found the ground ideal in bouncing back to land the extended Virgin Bet Handicap Chase, thus booking his ticket for the Grand Annual Chase at Cheltenham next month.
Having survived an early mistake, David Bass gave the Nick Williams-trained eight-year-old his head early on and he revelled in the mud, setting a sensible pace, despite over-jumping at a couple of fences.
Dolos, seeking to win the race for a third year in succession, made good headway and was almost upsides at the Pond fence, but a slight blunder two out meant the momentum was lost and Harry Cobden’s mount struggled to wrest it back up the hill, going down by a length.
Williams was one of the few who felt the conditions would suit his charge and admitted: “He is a pretty scary ride and, if you look at his record, there have been quite a few unseats and issues over the jumps.
“David (Bass) said he was much happier when he got to the front. He settled in front. He just doesn’t like being behind. I was confident of a big run, because the shape of the handicap was very much in our favour.
“At Newbury, when he fell, the ground was so quick, he was going so fast and he just over-jumped. This ground was going to suit him better. Going left-handed would suit him better, so it was always the plan to come here and go to the Grand Annual at the Festival – provided the ground isn’t too fast.”
Jumping is the name of the game and the aptly-named High Up In The Air (11-8 favourite) jumped his rivals into submission in the Virgin Bet Novices’ Limited Handicap Chase in the hands of Joshua Moore, for his father, Gary.
While out of luck with Shan Blue, the Skelton yard is in tremendous form and got on the scoresheet when Alnadam (3-1 favourite) made it three wins in his last five runs with a facile success in the Virgin Bet Warriors Handicap.
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Robbie Power expects Fiddlerontheroof to strip fitter than for his seasonal debut when he takes on Sporting John in what looks sure to be an informative Racing TV HD On Sky 426 Beginners’ Chase at Exeter.
Fiddlerontheroof was a Grade One winner last season in the Tolworth Hurdle, but Colin Tizzard wasted no time in sending him over fences after he disappointed at the Cheltenham Festival.
He jumped well in the main when beaten by If The Cap Fits on his chasing debut at Ffos Las – but like many from the yard in the early stages of the campaign, Power feels sure he will be a different proposition this time around.
“You like to think he’d have come forward a good bit for his first run,” said the jockey.
“Touch wood, he jumped very well at Ffos Las and ran with plenty of promise, but our horses have been coming forward for a run this season.
“It’s early in the season, and most have been needing a run. But there were plenty of positives at Ffos Las, so I’m looking forward to getting back on him.
“Good to soft ground is fine for him, but any rain that falls between now and the race will be in his favour.
“This is when the season really gets going – it’s a big weekend this weekend, so hopefully we can kick on from here.”
Philip Hobbs’ Sporting John created a huge impression in winning his first three over timber last season, before finishing seventh in the Ballymore at Cheltenham behind Envoi Allen.
Hobbs has always viewed him as a chaser, though, and he did have a minor excuse for his Cheltenham display.
Richard Johnson replaces the now-retired Barry Geraghty in the saddle on Wednesday.
“His work has been going very well, and he has schooled well, so we are very happy with him,” said Hobbs.
“Colin Tizzard’s horse is obviously very good as well, but we will see how we get on.
“He had a fantastic campaign until Cheltenham, then he disappointed. He was slightly lame on a hind leg straight after the race, although it was okay in a few hours. Quite what that was we don’t know, but he has been fine since.
“We’ve always liked him from day one – he won easily at Exeter and he continued to do so until Cheltenham. Even before he got to the racecourse, he was a good-looking horse that worked and schooled well.
“Chasing should definitely be his job, so that was very much the plan to go that route. I think he has plenty of speed for shorter trips, but he could go further, and it is all flexible at the moment.
“He has had plenty of experience around there – and a good, galloping track suits him well. We were happy with his work, so an away day wasn’t necessary.”
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