Matt Tombs / Monday 7th January 2013 / 11:20
The minor conditions hurdle (2m4f, heavy) at Punchestown on Monday drew a field worthy of a Grade 1. It was great to see six time Grade 1 winner Solwhit back after 2 years off and he showed plenty of promise in a clear 2nd, well ahead of 3 horses rated in the 140s. He's 20/1 for the World Hurdle and if he runs he’ll be a fascinating contender.
He was comfortably out-pointed though by Bog Warrior who’s another fragile type. He's 9 now and it's gun-to-head time to see if he's up to championship standard. It'll be fascinating to see whether they stay over hurdles, (14/1 for the World Hurdle and based on an RPR of 164 here he hasn’t much to find) or go down the Gold Cup route, (66/1).
It’d be great to see him take in the Irish Hennessy next which, with Flemenstar and perhaps Sir Des Champs in opposition, will tell connections where they stand. If they wanted to be bolder, then bringing him over for the Argento and getting some course experience is another option. The ground may have gone against him by March but he's as talented as anything in the field and 66/1 is a crazy price. The step up in trip could well bring about further improvement so, whether it’s over hurdles or fences, let’s hope this brilliant horse gets the chance to fulfill his potential.
There was actual Grade 1 action in Britain with the 32 Red Hurdle Hurdle, (the Tolworth to the rest of us, and an early contender for silliest race name of the year). Melodic Rendezvous hadn’t been suited by the crawl when beating Royal Boy at Cheltenham and even though he’d the benefit of a run there, it was surprising he wasn’t favourite for this, (extended 2m, heavy). He stamped his authority on the race in the straight and is 14/1 for the Supreme, his likely target, though I’d be concerned he’d be better off in the Neptune (16/1). Jeremy Scott sounded confident he’d handle good ground.
The 2m chase division is crying out for new blood and one horse very much on the upgrade is William’s Wishes, who stretched his unbeaten record over fences to 5 at Sandown, (2m, soft.) He won by 2l off 144 here and having lost a lot of momentum when stumbling 2 out it’s hard to know just how much further he might have won by otherwise. He’ll get another hike for this but it’s arguable that the Grand Annual (12/1) will still provide him a better opportunity at the Festival than the Champion Chase, (20/1). He’d raced exclusively on a sound surface until this season so he could improve again once the ground dries out. He may head to Fairyhouse next.
Tap Night beat a couple of fair rivals on the bridle at Ayr (2m, heavy) on his chasing debut on Wednesday. He’d won 4 of his last 5 over hurdles, (only defeat when failing to stay 3m,) including a defeat of Captain Conan. He’s rated 146 over hurdles and looks a smart recruit to fences, jumping well in the main here. He’s got a lot of fast ground form from the flat so a sound surface at Cheltenham should suit. Lucinda Russell thinks 2½m is his trip and he's 25/1 for the Jewson. He’s one to follow.
Salden Licht was a high class hurdler 2 seasons ago, beaten only 2¼l in the County Hurdle off 153. Returning from 20 months off, he was just outpointed by the useful (and race fit) Vulcanite on his debut over fences last month. They re-opposed at Plumpton (2m1f, soft) and Salden Licht (who received 6lb) came out on top, beating Vino Griego 2l, with Vulcanite 2¾l away 3rd. The runner up is a talented but frustrating maiden (after 16 chase starts) and the 3rd might not have got home so it’s hard to know what he achieved here. It’s doubtful he’s up to contesting the level weights events at the Festival but he’s the sort of horse who could end up with a handicap mark significantly below his hurdle rating, which would make him interesting.
I’m always on the lookout for horses for the 4 miler and Vesper Bell looked the right sort as he ground out his first victory over fences at Punchestown, (3m, heavy.) Willie Mullins looks to be aiming him at the race (12/1) but there’s a question mark over his ability to handle good ground. The odds-on favourite here, You Must Know Me, was totally unexposed and Mullins must have had mixed feelings as he saw Vesper Bell power clear, as You Must Know Me had bustled up Boston Bob on his previous outing. He was beaten 22l here but finished lame so the jury is still out on Boston Bob, who was backed into 8/1 for the RSA this week.
Another likely runner in the 4 miler is Keppols Hill who, after a couple of mishaps at the final fence on his first 2 chase starts, got off the mark at Chepstow, (3m, heavy.) He looks like the trip will suit but what had looked like greenness is now beginning to look like idleness, as first time cheekpieces didn’t stop him having to be driven from a long way out. He won’t have the benefit of Ruby Walsh in the 4 miler and he’d need a top amateur to have a chance of reproducing his form there. 12/1 doesn’t appeal.
The Grade 2 novice hurdle at Naas, (2m4f, soft,) was supposedly a penalty kick for Champagne Fever, but he was never travelling that well and went out like a light when asked for his effort. He had a respiratory tract infection so a line can be put through this but it’s far from ideal at this stage of the season. He’s out to 12/1 for the Neptune and given he’ll be chasing next season, it’s possible he might miss the Festival this time around. That might impact the same connections Pont Alexandre who might then contest the Neptune rather than the Albert Bartlett.
The winner, Rule The World, is hard to weigh up. He was edged out over 3m by the useful Our Vinnie and then was workmanlike in beating Joncol over 2m4f at Navan. He won this very easily but 2nd home Minsk (who received 3lb) has been a talking horse over hurdles. Rule The World is described as a big raw horse by Mouse Morris and it might be this is a year too early for the Festival. He’s not one to backing at the moment, (14/1 for the Albert Bartlett & 12/1 for the Neptune,) but he is one to keep an eye on especially as, with Don Cossack flopping at Navan, Gigginstown don’t have anything obvious for the novice hurdles.
The sharp trainers keep an eye on the handicap marks given to their best novices. Given the difficulty of assessing really unexposed horses, a few will end up chucked in and that certainly looked the case before and after Gevrey Chambertin’s facile victory in a handicap hurdle off 130 at Wincanton, (2m4f, soft.) Grands Crus’ full brother looks as if he might improve for another step up in trip and would be an interesting contender for the Albert Bartlett (12/1) or if the ground came up soft, the Neptune (16/1).
The home team is struggling to produce a plausible rival for Quevega in the Mares Hurdle. Une Artiste is as likely as any as she took the step up to 2m4f at Sandown in her stride to hold off Alasi by 1¾l, with Kentford Grey Lady (who received 8lb) another 1l away 3rd, (heavy). The winner is 8/1 for the Mares Hurdle now with the 3rd 10/1 and the runner-up 25/1. Alasi is 9 so doesn’t have the scope for improvement of the other two but she is much better on good ground. Given it’s highly unlikely that any of them could trouble an in form Quevega, it’s their relative form that really matters - Alasi’s a big each way price, having been 4th in the race for the last 2 years.
Finally, it'll be a while before its clear whether the new IMG Channel 4 coverage is better, worse or broadly the same as its predecessor. That said it only took one episode for me to find the 'touch screen' feature annoying. Decades ago, technology developed so clips of previous races could be shown, with the horse the presenters wish to focus on being highlighted. Quite why it's seen as an advancement for time to be wasted as the presenters, rather than the edit team, try and make it work is a mystery. Let's hope for more emphasis on substance not gizmos going forward.