Matt Tombs / Friday 14th December 2012 / 13:35
1pt Cristal Bonus to win the December Gold Cup @ 13/2
1pt Grandouet to win the International Hurdle @ 5/2
The first question when looking at the December Gold Cup is whether Walkon will be able to build on his fine 3l 2nd in the Paddy Power. He’s only up 5lb to 148 and still looks well handicapped. However, for the last 2 seasons his first run has been by far his best and there has to be a concern that, after a hard race just 28 days ago, this may come too soon. Having backed Quantitativeeasing at 20/1 for the Paddy Power last season when he finished 2nd, and then seeing him win this, it’ll be galling if history repeats itself. He’s only 9/2 though and that’s no value given the doubts.
Unioniste (11/2) is rated 137 but as a 4 year old gets a 7lb allowance which takes him to 9-8 in the long handicap. He won a moderate race at Aintree and then was run over by Dynaste (levels) at Cheltenham (extended 2m4f, good to soft.) It’s hard to know whether he’s well handicapped but he hasn’t shortened in the manner of something that’s chucked in so I’m happy to oppose such an inexperienced type.
Cristal Bonus (13/2) is rated 157 after winning a 2nd season chasers Grade 2 at Down Royal. He had the brilliant but fragile Bog Warrior (who gave 2lb) beaten when he came down at the last. It was a weak race otherwise so the form depends on what level Bog Warrior was capable of running to. He subsequently bolted up off a low mark back over hurdles but we missed the chance to get a handle on his chasing form when he was a late withdrawal from the Durkan. That leaves Cristal Bonus the big imponderable in the race but if there’s a Grade 1 horse in this, it’s likely to be him.
Astracad (8/1) has been competing mainly at 2m and isn’t certain to get the trip if the ground is testing. He won a 2m handicap at this meeting off 138 last year but is 6lb higher now and has been well beaten in 3 handicaps off this sort of mark. He needs to improve again to take this but has been well supported in the market during the week.
Notus De La Tour (8/1) was my other original fancy for the Paddy Power but given the expectations for Grands Crus, he understandably was saved for this. His form ties up with plenty of the last season’s vintage crop of novice chasers, (placed in two 2m1f Grade 1s in Ireland.) He was well backed into 8/1 for the handicap over course and distance over the Festival but fell early on. He’s still on 144 and whilst not all of last season’s novices will be well handicapped, I thought he was on a good mark even before the exploits of the second season chasers.
Nadiya De La Vega was a fair 3rd in the Paddy Power and is 5lb better off for the 12l she was behind Walkon. Whilst the very soft ground meant there were only 6 finishers and they were really strung out, she still doesn’t look obviously well handicapped and 10/1 is easy to pass over.
Of the outsiders, I like Kingsmere (33/1) most. He looked set to win a decent novice chase when tipping up here 2 out in October. The only time he’s encountered really soft ground he travelled well for a long way in the Paddy Power before dropping away quickly. If the ground rides only good to soft, he might be well handicapped off 137.
I started looking at the race guessing I’d be backing Notus De La Tour, who looks well handicapped. I think he’ll go well but I have a slight concern about him seeing out the trip if it gets very testing. Slight preference is therefore for Cristal Bonus. If you take a positive view of his race at Down Royal he might be very well in here. He stays the trip well and would handle the ground if it gets very soft.
The Bula (International) Hurdle (2m1f) is a 3 horse race and my initial reaction was Zarkandar (11/8) was too short. Whilst he’s getting 4lb from the other two, he probably has the least good form. He looked a fortunate winner of the Betfair Hurdle off 151 as Darlan fell when going really well and impeded Get Me Out Of Here who was beaten only 1¼l at levels. Get Me Out Of Here may have finished ahead of Zarkandar with a clear run and he’d be a double figure price at the weights here.
I can forgive Zarkandar his runs in the Champion and at Aintree as he clearly wasn’t right. On his return, in the Elite off 163, he beat Prospect Wells (who looks poorly handicapped) a neck, giving him 17lb. It’s a fair effort to win any handicap hurdle off 163 but that’s often an ordinary race, (Celestial Halo won off 160 & 165 only to cut no ice in conditions events like this). He’s a very feasible winner but is priced up on the basis he’s going to improve substantially as many of the Nicholls horses are doing this season. To back a horse at 11/8 his real chance has to be a shade of odds-on, and it isn’t.
Rock On Ruby (2/1) obviously has the best form having won the Champion by 3¾l. There was no doubting his superiority on the day but with Hurricane Fly perhaps boiling over and both he and Binocular set plenty to do, it’s been easy to crib the form. I’m not worried about him being beaten at Aintree as I think Oscar Whisky and Thousand Stars are top class at 2m4f. The fact that he showed form at that distance as a novice doesn’t mean he isn’t much better suited by 2m, but he does look the type who wants a fast run race.
The problem with these small field conditions races is that they often dawdle round and the results are very different from the Champion itself – sprinting off a crawl is a different skillset to quickening off a fast gallop. Some horses like Istabraq can do both, but Rock On Ruby was running in fast run races last season (largely due to Overturn being in the field) and I doubt he’d be suited by a slowly run affair. The tactics, with both the front two in the market wanting a strongly run race but neither wanting to make it, will be fascinating.
Grandouet (5/2) is the hardest of the 3 to assess. He’d not looked to be getting the trip in his early races, (odds-on in running in Zarkandar’s Triumph only to fade and finish 5l 3rd.) His only really meaningful bit of form is his 4l beating of Overturn (who gave 4lb) in this last season. I think Overturn is better on flat tracks, (and possibly over further,) but he obviously did finish 2nd in the Champion Hurdle and on literal lines of form he has a clear chance.
The key thing about him is that he’s a speed horse who travels powerfully. I can make different arguments for which one of them is the most likely Champion Hurdle winner, but given there must a strong chance of a steadily run race, Grandouet looks best suited to this. He’s been off a year and it’s hard to know from his record how well he goes fresh, but the vibes are he’s easy to get fit. The risk is Nicky Henderson will have him undercooked for this with a clear round the aim, and one option is to wait and see what Nicky says on the day. Having to make a call now, he’s just the type that wins these sorts of races and 5/2 is too big.
In the novice chase at Cheltenham on Saturday (extended 3m1f) Our Father is likely to start pretty short after his romp here at the Open meeting. The last 2 seasons he’s bombed on his 2nd run after winning impressively and might be worth taking on if odds-on. I’m interested in Court in Motion who was 8 1/4l 3rd to Bobs Worth in the Albert Bartlett 2 seasons ago and, after 18 months off, has run well twice in novice chases at around 2½m. Emma Lavelle’s horses are starting to hit form and he should improve substantially for the big step up in trip. He gets 8lb from the favourite and might go off an attractive price.