It seems like an age since last I wrote to you here, dear reader, and I have to tell you that - whilst some look forward to returning to work like they look forward to their own funeral - I'm delighted to be back in the chair.
Before we look forward to what's to follow... and actually with that in mind... let's take a look back at what I believe may be twelve key races from the Christmas period, starting with that monster Boxing Day card from Kempton. This is part one of a two part post, the second part coming tomorrow.
Feltham Novices' Chase, Kempton Park, 26th December
Grands Crus added further to his credentials for a tilt at a big pot at Cheltenham in March, with a commanding enough win here. Despite the authority of the win, and the fast time of the race, I would have grave reservations about a novice running in the Gold Cup... even in a year with as little apparent strength in depth as this.
Grands Crus is likely now to have a rating of around 165 (up from 159) when the revised marks appear tomorrow. But that is fully a stone behind Long Run, and about the same as the likes of Pandorama, Tidal Bay and Midnight Chase.
Of course, I accept that Grands Crus has further potential. But he's yet to run in a big field chase where they go an end to end gallop (although he did win a fixed brush hurdle in a field of 18).
And another thing... no winner of the Feltham has gone on to win the RSA Chase at the Festival. This is one of those stats that on first glance appears counter-intuitive. But I don't believe it is. Quite simply, they are completely contrasting tests of a beast.
The Feltham is all about speed and class, whereas the RSA is an attritional affair where guts and stamina are as important as speed and class. Even Long Run was beaten in the RSA after winning the Feltham.
I hope they run Grands Crus in the RSA, for two reasons. 1) Gloria Victis (google it if that means nothing, I don't want to dwell on it here), and 2) he'll make the market for anything else you fancy.
Which leads me onto my horse to take from the race. Whilst I think Silviniaco Conti is a thoroughly tough, genuine and consistent animal, I also believe he's half a notch below top class. He's the sort that I could envisage running well in Nationals in a couple of years time, if/when his handicap mark comes down a bit.
So my horse for Cheltenham from here is the third placed finisher, Bobs Worth. He's all about guts and stamina, and this speed test wouldn't have suited him one bit. To run to five lengths of faster, flimsier (in my opinion) sorts was a very good effort, and Bobs will be far better suited to the undulations and relentless gallop of the RSA Chase.
Bobs Worth is three from three around Cheltenham, including in last year's Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle, and his jumping looks pretty smart. Connections must have been delighted with this effort, and the price has been shortening all week on him. He's currently a best priced 7/1. In truth, that looks sensible and offers little value, unless GC does go for the GC (Grands Crus for the Gold Cup, that is).
But I think he's as likely a winner of the RSA as any I've seen so far this term. Onwards...
Christmas Hurdle, Kempton Park, 26th December
Would the real Binocular please step forward? Ah, there you are. Yes, Binocular is back. Well, he'd not really been away, had he? I mean, seasoned Bin watchers (and readers of this blog) would have known that he always gets beaten early in the season and is a different horse from Christmas onwards.
So it was that he was turned over by Overturn in the Fighting Fifth (his third defeat in that race as favourite, and never bigger than 5/4!), before overturning the deficit with, erm, Overturn here.
In the event, it was Rock On Ruby that gave Binocular most to do, matching him by all but a neck at the jam stick. ROR is clearly on the upgrade, and could improve past Binocular potentially.
But I just suspect that Binocular also has something to work with, and I think he'll be a better horse in the Spring again. Certainly I'm happy with the ante post ticket at 16's, about a horse who is now a best priced 12's and a general 8 or 10/1 chance. With the participation of Hurricane Fly remaining under at least a degree of uncertainty, there is plenty of each way burglary to be entertained here.
Saying that, it's looking a wide open contest this time, and I'd not be confident about anything - even the Fly - dominating.
Overturn is best in small fields against a single class horse. Under such conditions he is able to dominate from the front, and is tough for one horse to pass. Here, and at Cheltenham if he goes there, he'll have more than one Grade 1 brute to bully, and I just feel it will be beyond him. An amazing horse to own, I can't have him for the Champion Hurdle and never have done. Next!
King George VI Chase, Kempton Park, 26th December
A small field for the big one, and the bookies were evens about Long Run and 3/1 Kauto Star. Master Minded, my fancy, was 11/2 with Captain Chris an 8/1 poke. The rest were any price.
In the event, it was another masterclass of jumping from the old boy, who showed the pretenders who the real king of Kempton is. Long Run was closing a bit to the line, but there could be a number of reasons for that: fatigue in the winner, idling, eased down.
The rest were led home by Captain Chris at a respectful and - to my eye at least - unbridgeable at Cheltenham gap of seventeen lengths and more. Master Minded suffered an injury, and a nasty one at that. He is unlikely to race again. 🙁
So what of this with the Gold Cup in mind? Well, the first thing to say is that I believe both Kauto Star and Long Run to be some way clear of everyone else. This is hardly a revelation, and is in line with the odds makers who 11/4 and 9/2 about KS and LR respectively.
Grands Crus is then 9's in a place, and it's double figures bar those.
Long Run was expected to jump better and reverse the placings with Kauto Star here. And he didn't do either. He was beaten a length and a quarter, but Sam Waley-Cohen was getting stuck into the runner-up whereas Ruby Walsh coddled Kauto to the finish. I just watched the closing stages again, and I'd say the pair would be pretty evenly matched around Cheltenham on this performance.
I've already made my Gold Cup ante post bed - more on that shortly - and I will have to lie in it, but suffice it to say that I'm hoping for a resurgent performance to have any realistic chance...
Captain Chris didn't stay and will surely head for the Ryanair Chase now, despite being the fifth favourite in most books for the Gold Cup.
Novices' Hurdle, Kempton Park, 26th December
I appreciate this might feel to some like going from the sublime to the ridiculous, but there is good reason to believe that this was an exceptional novice hurdle, and that a Cheltenham winner may have been in its midst.
It featured Tetlami, a horse with robust form figures (stacks of winners coming out of his previous wins), and Vulcanite, a high class flat horse bought for a lot of money by the Pearl Bloodstock Qatari's - their first foray into National Hunt waters.
Despite there only being five runners, this was a monster performance on the clock, rivalling that of the Christmas Hurdle runners according to Nick Mordin. As such, both of these deserve serious consideration for the Supreme Novices', the opening Festival race.
Tetlami is available at a standout 25/1 with sportingbet, and I think this is worth a couple of quid. Vulcanite is a 33/1 chance and, given Charlie Longsdon's contention that he'd surely beat Tetlami next time (which I don't necessarily agree with), that is also too big.
I'm adding both of these to my book today.
Dial-A-Bet Chase, Leopardstown, 27th December
A hot Grade 1 two mile chase, featuring the best of Irish, except Sizing Europe. Big Zeb was favoured and odds on, and he was pretty much all out to hold off Noble Prince, who continues to run well but not quite well enough to beat Big Zeb.
Big Zeb has an obvious chance in the Champion Chase at the Festival, for which he is second favourite, at around 5/1.
In behind, Noble Prince has a 16/1 quote for the Champion Chase, a race in which I believe his stamina would make him competitive. But he's far more likely to head for the Ryanair Chase, for which he's the 6/1 favourite. I can see why he is that price, but I wouldn't be tempted to back him right now at it.
Further back, Forpadydeplasterer ran his usual game race. Not sure where he'll head at the Festival, but it wouldn't surprise me if he turned up in the Grand Annual, a high class handicap chase which rounds out the four day meeting these days. He's 50/1 for the Champion Chase or the Ryanair, and that holds no appeal to me. I'll wait and see what entries he gets nearer the time.
Bringing home the quartet of finishers, though only beaten 6.5 lengths, was good old Scotsirish. Connections will have been delighted that the old boy could run so well in Grade 1 company over such a short trip, and he remains my biggest ante-post bet for the Festival so far. The 5/1 I took about his Cross Country Chase chance has long gone, and the best now is 4/1, with 7/2 the general show.
In a race that is traditionally short on logical contenders, he's probably still value.
Finally on this race, I'm very sorry to report that Golden Silver took a fatal fall. An excellent horse, he was in my ten to follow this term, and I'm gutted for connections. 🙁
Welsh Grand National, Chepstow, 27th December
Rounding out the first part of the twelve key races is the Coral Welsh National, held at Chepstow. Three miles and six furlongs in heavy ground marked this out as a day for confirmed staying mudlarks. Step forward one of the best of those, Le Beau Bai.
Richard Lee's slugger, who has only just turned nine incredibly, has eleven wins to his name now, and eight of them have come on soft or heavy ground. His new front running style is ideally suited to a tilt at the Aintree Grand National and, were it to get boggy at Liverpool in April, he'd have a decent chance... IF he can go up enough in the weights to get a run.
A rating of 138 was enough to get into the Aintree showpiece last year, and Le Beau Bai could easily go up the required seven pounds from his current 131 after a seven length beating of Giles Cross, another confirmed stayer. The rest, headed by Cappa Bleu, were fifteen lengths-plus back.
Against that, he is a French bred (one winner in the last 100 years) and has a tendency to run the occasional clunker. But 124 is available on Betfair, which might tempt a cursory couple of quid from the geegeez wallet.
Giles Cross and Cappa Bleau are both also soft ground plodders unsurprisingly, and they both have a bit to find on class with the winner, despite being more highly rated prior to the race.
Any Currency and Galaxy Rock both ran reasonably well before pulling up on ground that wouldn't have suited, and Hey Big Spender was still in with a shout until tumbling (he always makes mistakes and I call him Hey Big Blunder, which might be a little harsh..!).
Galaxy Rock might be a touch of value for the National after this, if the ground is firmer there than here. I've had another tenner on him, topping up the £19 I placed earlier at a shorter price. Good money after bad? Probably...
And that's it for part one of my review of the Christmas and New Year racing action. I'll be back tomorrow with a look at the remainder of the Leopardstown meeting, as well as the pick of the pile from Newbury and Cheltenham.