Simon Munir and Isaac Souede landed another major prize when their talented mare Gitane Du Berlais romped to victory in the Scilly Isles Novices’ Chase at Sandown.
Trained by Willie Mullins and ridden by their principal jockey Daryl Jacob, the five-year-old rarely looked in danger as she led from start to finish, comfortably fending off Irish Saint by eight lengths. It was only her second race over fences and apart from an awkward leap at the first she jumped impeccably throughout. Champagne West had tipped up in the back-straight following a patchy round of jumping, whilst Splash Of Ginge and Grumeti appeared outclassed from the off.
The winner looks more than likely to head for the JLT Novices’ Chase at Cheltenham, with the owners racing manager Anthony Bromley saying after Saturday’s race: “I thought we might be going for the novice handicap as I thought she might get beat today. We'll speak to Mr Mullins once she's home and see. The idea was to see if she was a Grade 1 horse for Cheltenham, I wasn't quite sure she was, but that was good wasn't it?"
It is now a strong possibility that Mullins will have three horses in the JLT representing three major forces of jump racing in the Ricci’s, Gigginstown and Munir-Souede. It’s a truly mouth-watering prospect especially when you add the Paul Nicholls trained Ptit Zig to the mix.
Vautour remains favourite for the race at around 3/1 and now looks sure to run in this rather than the Arkle after the recent stunning performance of stablemate Un De Sceaux. He was last seen winning a Grade 2 at Leopardstown, though admittedly not the strongest of contests, it at least allowed him further practice over fences. Quick enough to power to victory in last year’s Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, Ruby Walsh still insists that staying is his game, and therefore the step-up in trip should not inconvenience him.
Gigginstown have a wealth of talent at their disposal, but the horse most likely to run in this is Valseur Lido. He won over the trip at Punchestown and then at Fairyhouse, the latter when beating Apache Stronghold comfortably in the Drinmore Novices’ Chase. A big scopey sort, he was rated around 15lbs lower than Vautour over hurdles, but was always likely to make a far better chaser. He looks a powerful stayer and though he may lack the toe of some of his rivals, he’s likely to be charging up the hill when it matters.
Champion trainer Paul Nicholls has not saddled a Cheltenham Festival chase winner since 2009. That year Master Minded, Chapoturgeon and Kauto Star were all successful for the man renowned for producing great chasers. It’s hard to believe that he’s had such a barren spell, but that could all change in March with several from Ditcheat expected to go well. None more so than Ptit Zig in this, especially after looking so impressive when slamming Champagne West at the track in January.
Rated higher than Vautour over hurdles, the six-year-old has already won four times over fences this winter. One of those victories came when he soundly thrashed Josses Hill and Dunraven Storm at Ascot. He jumps well, has plenty of speed but also clearly stays well as he proved last time. There’s a chance he’ll have a prep-run before March and then head to the JLT as one of the most experienced contenders. Taquin Du Seuil had run five times over fences before winning last year’s race, as had Benefficient the year before.
Of the other contenders, Gilgamboa remains prominent in the betting after his thumping at the hoofs of Un De Sceaux. The Arkle Chase had looked a possibility prior to that defeat, but the JLT now appears the target. He’d looked classy prior to Leopardstown and this extended trip should suit. Whether he has quite enough class to beat the likes of Vautour and Ptit Zig now looks questionable. He’s sure to need some give in the ground to be seen at his best.
Apache Stronghold remains an interesting challenger despite that defeat to Valseur Lido. He was involved in a battle upfront with Real Steel that day, and it would have been interesting to see the result had he been ridden with more restraint. Tried in the Topaz Novice Chase over Christmas he seemed to be outstayed by Don Poli on that occasion, though the ground would have been plenty soft enough. Should he turn up in the JLT a combination of better ground and hold up tactics could see him run a huge race. He can still be backed at 16’s in places.
Finally at a bigger price Rule The World cannot be discounted. He ran well for a long way in last year’s World Hurdle and chased home The New One in the Neptune of 2013. He didn’t appear to get home over three miles last time at Naas, and back at Cheltenham in March on a sounder surface he could well play a major part in the finish. William Hill has him priced up at 40’s for this race.
It’s fair to say that the JLT Novices’ Chase is often looked upon as the weaker sibling to the RSA and the Arkle. That certainly doesn’t appear to be the case this year; in fact it looks an absolute cracker.