Matt Tombs / Monday 27th January 2014 / 15:00
Nothing lasts forever. Not even the unbeaten run of the great Big Buck’s. After 18 consecutive hurdles wins, the great champion was a close 3rd to 66/1 shot Knockara Beau, (who received 8lb,) in the Cleeve Hurdle at Cheltenham, with At Fishers Cross, (who received 4lb,) splitting them, (3m, soft). It was an extraordinary result, a classic illustration that any horse can win a race. Knockara Beau could line up in the Gold Cup (66/1.)
Much was made of the fact Sam Twiston-Davies chased what was a good gallop in the conditions, sitting well in front of the other principles. However, with Knockara Beau up there too, it can hardly be suggested that Big Buck’s was at a huge disadvantage. Given how far out he led when winning his 4th World Hurdle, that shouldn’t be an excuse here either.
The reality is that although Big Buck’s comes out the best horse at the weights and is the one who should improve most, this run looked about 20lb below his best form. He could still win the World Hurdle (5/2) but he’s opposable now.
Given that he was beaten by Knockara Beau, it’s hard to suggest At Fishers Cross came back to form here, but he did at least get a confidence booster by jumping round. This was his ground and, on a likely sound surface, it’s hard to imagine him winning a World Hurdle (7/1).
Boston Bob bombing here left only Annie Power as a realistic World Hurdle (7/2) horse for Willie Mullins. However, having bolted up over an extended 2m at Doncaster in a mares Grade 2, (good to soft,) it looks more likely that she’s going the Champion Hurdle route. The race lost interest from the point of view of assessing Annie Power when Cockney Sparrow came down, but Ruby Walsh was very positive about her afterwards. She was buzzy here, so running her in the Champion Hurdle, (10/1,) might help her settle.
One wonderful record that got extended was Hurricane Fly’s, who made it 19 Grade 1s and 14 in a row in Ireland when winning the Irish Champion Hurdle, (2m soft to heavy.) With 149 rated teenager Captain Cee Bee beaten only 2¾l, this is hardly top class form, but whatever happens Hurricane Fly keeps winning. He’d be a very short price if the Champion Hurdle were transferred to Leopardstown and its only concerns about the track that makes him backable at 3/1. On pure form he’s clearly the one to beat.
Our Conor again travelled really well but didn’t quicken, (beaten 1½l). He’s looking more and more like a top class galloper. A stronger run race should suit at Cheltenham, but it may be he’ll be better over further. He’s 7/1. Exaggerated waiting tactics were employed on Jezki and he was too keen. He was beaten 3¼l and a fast run race on good ground will be much more up his street, (Un De Sceaux running would help his cause.) His stable is going through a quiet spell and 14/1 is too big.
The Argento Chase, (extended 3m1f, heavy) has had no bearing on the Gold Cup for some years, and it’s hard to imagine The Giant Bolster improving on his 2nd in the big race two years ago. He’s 33/1, and whilst better ground should help him come March, this was probably a weak race he was winning, getting weight from his rivals.
The Irish Arkle (2m1f) was run on officially heavy ground, (didn’t look that bad,) which favoured Defy Logic, but he burst a blood vessel. It was very much against Felix Yonger, who was an ordinary second behind impressive winner Trifolium. The winner had been beaten easily by the other 2 and bad ground hadn’t looked to help his cause. It may have been a case that he handled it and Felix Yonger didn’t, but Trifolium might just be improving rapidly. If the latter, 10/1 is big for the Arkle as he goes on a sound surface.
It had been going swimmingly for the Festival Portfolio, with no non-runners and some nice shorteners. The results at Leopardstown weren’t great but I wasn’t expecting Jezki or Felix Yonger to be seen to best effect, so I wasn’t too downhearted. Until Willie Mullins suggested that Felix Yonger would go up in trip now. He didn’t like the soft ground here, and performed worse when stepped up in trip, so I’m not sure I can see the logic. With Champagne Fever, Ballycasey, Mozoltov and Djakadam all shaping as if they’ll be better at further, I’m hoping he’ll change his mind once the dust settles. That hope does have a feeling of clutching at straws though.
The Grade 2 Lightning Novice chase, (extended 2m, good to soft) is usually a good contest and it was fantastic to see Valdez win for Alan King after all the problems the yard has had. Things didn’t look good coming to 2 out, as Arnaud was clear and going well, but he hit that and tired visibly, with Valdez running him down after the last. The bare form doesn’t look up to Arkle standard but given the problems in the stable, Valdez could improve hugely for this. He’ll need to, as he couldn’t go the gallop here - 14/1 for the Arkle looks about right. Arnaud might be more of an Aintree horse but better ground at Cheltenham might help him get home better – he’s 25/1 for the Arkle.
The Grade 2 novice chase at Leopardstown boiled down to a match with Djakadam finding more than Bright New Dawn to win by 4l, (2m5f, soft). The winner was getting 11lb here but would only get 1lb in the JLT. Having not come out the best horse at the weights in either of his chases so far, you really have to believe in the accuracy of the weight for age scale to fancy him for the JLT – 16/1 isn’t tempting.
The Grade 2 novice hurdle over an extended 2m4f at Cheltenham has been a great guide to the Grade 1 novice hurdles at the Festival in recent years, with 5 winners coming out of it since 2007. Interestingly, all 3 Albert Bartlett winners (Wichita Lineman, Bob’s Worth & At Fishers Cross) won this, whereas the 2 Neptune winners (Massini’s Maguire & The New One) were beaten, both looking to be outstayed. That shows what a test of stamina this often is, especially when run on heavy ground like this year.
Red Sherlock is a tail swisher but has plenty of ability and took the big step up in class well to make it 6/6 by beating Rathvinden, (who gave 3lb,) 2½l. He’s 8/1 for the Neptune, but that will present a totally different test on the prevailing sound surface. Given he’s unbeaten it’s hard to know what his trip is. Normally this sort of performance would scream Albert Bartlett (10/1) but the Pipe team have ante-post favourite Kings Palace for that. I’m not sure how he’ll react to the white hot competition at the Festival and, with the doubts over his target, he’s not a betting proposition at this stage.
Rathvinden just about emerges the best horse at the weights and it might be that less of a test of stamina will show him in a better light. He’s 20/1 for the Neptune and Albert Bartlett. That’s more tempting than backing Red Sherlock, but he will need to improve his jumping if he’s to win at the Festival. He’s owned by Ronnie Bartlett, who would presumably love to win the race he sponsors.
The Grade 2 River Don novices hurdle at Doncaster, (extended 3m, soft,) produced a cracking finish with Urban Hymn all out to hold Blakemount by a short-head. The winner had looked set to score easily but didn’t find that much. He might benefit from a drop back in trip. He’s 25/1 for the Neptune and 20/1 for the Albert Bartlett, but might bypass the Festival as he’s seen as a chaser for next season. Blakemount looks a real stayer and could well improve on better ground. He looks a contender for the Albert Bartlett (20/1).
The Grade 2 at Leopardstown, (2m4f, soft to heavy), was a bit farcical and having been too keen and lost his place when the pace quickened, Sure Reef got up close home from a seemingly impossible position. The Albert Bartlett (16/1) looks the obvious race but the Wylie/Mullins team have Briar Hill in the mix for that too, which muddies the waters.
The Grade 2 Galmoy Hurdle at Gowran, (3m, soft) produced a good performance from Mala Beach, who took advantage of Zaidpour being below par, to run out a comfortable winner. He’s 50/1 for the World Hurdle but given he only runs if the ground is testing he’s not an ante-post proposition. However, Bet 365 are NRNB and there’d be much worse long shots to back as, if he gets his conditions and so lines up, he’ll be much shorter.
Finally, plenty of punters have been venting their frustration at connections keeping their options open regarding Festival targets – Annie Power being the biggest talking point. I’ve no problem with Willie Mullins wanting to leave decisions as late as possible. It’s trainers who don’t keep their options open I’d criticize. Having run all 12 races over jumps at between 2m3f and an extended 3m, Emma Lavelle only entered Fox Appeal for the Arkle, before running him over 2m for the first time in the Lightning. He got outpaced and stayed on well for 3rd, suggesting the JLT would have been the ideal target – if he’d been entered for it.