Finian’s Oscar ran out a comfortable winner of the Grade 1 Tolworth Hurdle at Sandown.
In the absence of Nicky Henderson’s Kayf Grace, Saturday’s renewal looked to be a head-to-head between Tizzard’s exciting youngster, and the Paul Nicholls trained Capitaine. The pair battled for favouritism, and then continued the tussle on the track. In truth, the result rarely looked in doubt. Approaching two flights from home, Tom O’Brien made his move, and Finian’s Oscar swept clear. Capitaine tried to go with him, but a poor jump at the second last put paid to his chances.
Tizzard said of the impressive winner: “He’s a real professional horse. He's a gorgeous young horse, but we were worried we’d not done enough with him. He's only won a point to point and a novices' hurdle at Hereford, but the way he did it at Hereford, why waste him in a little race when you can have a go at this? He looked in control most of the way and he soon went five lengths clear. He stuttered into the last and I thought ‘is he going to stop’, but as soon as Tom got busy, he went on again.”
Of plans leading to The Festival in March, Tizzard added: “He probably will run again. I think the easiest option is to go two and a half, but he's got the speed for two and he stays.”
Bookies were taking no chances, and slashed his odds to 5/1 for the Neptune Novices’ Hurdle. He’s generally a 10/1 shot for the shorter Supreme Novices’. With the ground likely to run quicker at Cheltenham in March, the chances are that he will head for the Neptune. The trip should prove ideal, though whether his performance on Saturday warrants such euphoria is questionable.
Capitaine floundered somewhat in the ground, having previously run below par at Haydock in testing conditions. It was also a surprise to see Sam Twiston-Davies riding such a patient race, after the horse had performed so well from the front at Ascot the time before. He’s a gelding that lacks gears, and was caught short when O’Brien kicked for home on the winner. Messire Des Obeaux, and numerous runners from Ireland, are likely to prove a far more serious test for Tizzard’s young novice in March.
One that looks likely to swerve the clash is the impressive Irish hurdler, Death Duty. He was in action at Naas yesterday, taking the Grade 1 Lawlor’s Hotel Novice Hurdle. His task was made easier by the last flight fall of Augusta Kate. Willie Mullins’ mare was launching a strong challenge, and had every chance, when Ruby was forced to go long at the last. The mare crumpled on landing, leaving Death Duty in glorious isolation, galloping home to win by nine lengths.
Of the victory, Gordon Elliott said: “To be honest, I thought they didn't go fast enough. Our lad is just an out-and-out stayer. They were upsides when the mare fell, so it's hard to say but the one thing you know about our horse is that he would have kept pulling out. Jack thought he had it covered. He has his job done again and that will be it now until Cheltenham.”
Doubts remain over the festival target, though Elliott appeared to be favouring the longer race when saying: “There is a long way to go between now and Cheltenham, but if the race was tomorrow, I'd be saying the Albert Bartlett, definitely. He's a proper, big three-mile chaser. At this stage, of all the good horses I've had, none of them were ever as good as hurdlers, but that doesn't mean they'll do it as chasers. I'd say he's a fair one.”
Mullins was philosophical in defeat, when saying of Augusta Kate: “She trotted up fine. I'm sure she'll be a little bit sore in the morning. She was running a good race and Ruby felt he had a little bit left, but there was still a lot of racing to do. The winner is a fair machine, so we're just happy our mare was running a good race. Whether she'd have won or not is another day's work.”
Festival targets remain a mystery, with Mullins adding: “We'll see how she comes out of the race and go from there.”
There’s no doubt that she was running a huge race when coming down at the last, and is now generally a 5/1 chance for the Mares Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham. Mullins already has the favourite for that particular race in Airlie Beach, and it would come as no surprise should one of them take their chance against the boys in the Neptune.
For now, it’s Death Duty and Finian’s Oscar that have enhanced their reputation, with the Cheltenham Festival looming large on the horizon.