Matt Tombs / Monday 9th December 2013 / 12:25
The Tingle Creek was obviously overshadowed by the late defection of the mighty Sprinter Sacre and there was no suggestion of anything to worry him in the race itself, as Sire De Grugy ran out a comfortable 4l winner, (2m, good.) He doesn't seem at his best at Cheltenham, although time may show he had a tough tasking trying to give 10lb to Kid Cassidy last time. He's 16/1 for the Champion Chase but seems likely to bypass the Festival.
The open Grade 1 action in Ireland was the John Durkan at Punchestown, (2m4f, good to yielding.) Sadly Flemenstar was scratched with a knocked joint and Sir Des Champs took a crashing fall early on, which left Arvika Ligeonniere with a fairly simple task. He jumped really straight here and on this evidence you wouldn't have known he had a problem going left handed previously. Ruby Walsh thought dropping down to 2m would suit and it makes sense to go left handed at Leopardstown at Christmas over 2m and see how he fares. He may yet emerge as the main threat to Sprinter Sacre in the Champion Chase. 25/1 would be great each way value if he was an intended runner, though after his previous win at Clonmel, Willie Mullins was talking about stepping him up in trip, so it's a watching brief for now.
Willie Mullins might have another live Champion Chase outsider in Twinlight who scored a bloodless victory in the Grade 2 Hilly Way Chase at Cork, (2m, soft.) This race fell apart for him but he's a pure 2 miler and is really unexposed. It's fanciful to imaging him beating Sprinter Sacre but he could easily beat the remainder and the champion hasn't managed to make it to the racecourse yet. Given some of the no hopers quoted in the Champion Chase market it's hard to see why he isn't.
The Arkle market had desperately needed some life breathing into it and there were classy performances this week on both sides of the Irish Sea. My fancy Felix Yonger blew the useful Trifolium away at Navan, (2m1f, good to yielding.) Ruby Walsh said that he thought the Jewson might be his race as he was flat out early on. He was 2nd to Simonsig in the Neptune but was ridden as if stamina was an issue there and disappointed on his other two tries at 2 1/2m, so he'd want to be running in something like the Moriarty at Leopardstown to prove his stamina, if the Jewson is to come under consideration. Much will presumably depend on Champagne Fever as Mullins will want to keep them apart. He's 12/1 for both and, whilst I've nailed my colours to the Arkle route, Hills 8/1 about him winning at the Festival looks good value at the moment as he looks like a top prospect for either race.
The purpose of Grade 1s and the pattern more widely is to encourage the best horses in the division to take each other on in those races. Until last season there hadn't been a Grade 1 for 2m novice chasers until the Festival. The Henry VIII at Sandown, (2m, good), now has that status and it was great to see plenty of the best British novices line up. It turned into a duel with Hinterland just holding the fast finishing Grandouet by a neck. Hinterland is a young horse who's improved out of all recognition compared to his unsuccessful novice chase campaign last season. He has a turn of foot and at this stage deserves to be rated the most likely British winner of the Arkle but he's 14/1 and the runner up is 12/1. There's likely to be little between them again in March but whether they're up to beating the best of the Irish novices isn't clear.
Bright New Dawn had good placed form in Grade 1 novice hurdles behind Champagne Fever and Jezki last season but always looked a chaser and he made a good start in a beginners at Punchestown, (2m4f, good to yielding), giving 12lb to Dogora and beating him 1/2l, finding plenty for pressure. The runner up was a good juvenile hurdler last season (rated 132) so this was probably smart form. Bright New Dawn jumped left on occasions here but looks to stay well. He's not run beyond 2m4f yet but heads for the 3m Grade 1 at Leopardstown next where he shouldn't be underestimated. He's 20/1 for the RSA and that looks a realistic target, (owned by Gigginstown so his Cheltenheam target will be influenced by their other novices.)
At Exeter, Caid Du Berlais made a successful debut over fences when routing an ordinary field, jumping soundly, (extended 2m3f, good.) He was flattered to get within 3 1/4l of Jezki (who gave 11lb) at Down Royal on his final hurdles run last month but that had still been a smart effort. He now heads to Leopardstown at Christmas for a likely clash with Champagne Fever where he'll get the 4 year olds allowance. He's 25/1 for the Arkle but its worth remembering the 5 year olds weight for age allowance has gone, which makes a huge difference.
One of the fascinations of working out the form in novice chases is where a classy hurdler gets beaten - has he not taken to fences or is the winner much better than thought? Hi George's head defeat of Holywell in a beginners at Catterick, (2m3f, good) is a typical example. Holywell had won the Pertemps at the Festival and then been 3l 2nd to Solwhit in a Grade 1 at Aintree, earning a rating of 157 over timber, 38lb higher than his conqueror here. Holywell hadn't jumped well on his fencing debut and was running over too shorter a trip this time, so the conclusion here might be that he's in the process of getting well handicapped for something like the 3m open handicap chase on the opening day of the Festival.
The Grade 2 novice hurdle at Sandown (2m4f, good to soft) is often a good race and some interesting types lined up with Killala Quay bouncing back to form to beat Beat That (who gave 3lb) by 2 1/2l. The winner had looked a really useful prospect when winning 2 decent early season novices but had been unlucky in running when pitched into handicap company at Cheltenham last time. He might have lacked experience for that and certainly looked more streetwise here, finding plenty up the straight. He's 25/1 for the Neptune which looks about right - if he keeps progressing he could be a realistic contender. Stamina looked to win him the day here so the Albert Bartlett (25/1) might be another option. Beat That would have been closer but for fluffing the last - given this was just his 2nd run over hurdles he has every right to improve and he's also 25/1 for the Neptune. If 3rd home Saint Roque (beaten 8 1/2l) is worth his 146 rating then this is Neptune form.
Captain Cutter has looked a good prospect and duly completed a simple task at 1/7 at Leicester, (2m3f, good to soft). He didn't jump well but he has an engine and is one to keep an eye on as he could be a Grade 1 horse if he gets his jumping together, or he could go the wrong way. He's 25/1 for the Neptune but he's bred to stay and he might be better off in the Albert Bartlett, (not quoted), where he'd have more time to get organised at his hurdles.
He was probably lower down Nicky Henderson's pecking order but Stand To Reason made a nice hurdling debut at Wincanton (2m, good.) He'd been off for over a year but was rated 93 on the flat and jumped decently for a debutant from off the level. It'll be intresting to see if he goes on, but with all the big guns in the stable he is the sort to be forgotten, (not quoted for the Supreme.)
Faugheen had a simple task at 1/9 in a novice hurdle at Navan, (2m4f, good to yielding). He duly delivered without yet looking the finished article over his hurdles. He ran here to get more experience before taking on the better Irish novices. He'll be the classic conundrum when he does - both the vibes and his racecourse appearances suggest he has a real engine but at what level will his jumping enable him to exploit it? If he does get slick at the obstacles he looks Festival material. It will depend on how he fits into the Mullins A Team - given he has speed and stamina, but may need time at his hurdles - the Neptune (16/1) might be his race. He's not an ante post proposition now but he might well be after Christmas.
The Mullins / Ricci team have another interesting novice hurdle prospect in Vautour who was an easy winner of a maiden at Navan, (2m, good to yielding.) He showed plenty of toe and jumped efficiently (had the benefit of a couple of hurdles runs in France last season). He's 33/1 for the Supreme and we'll know more about him once he takes on better opposition.
The intermediate chase at Sandown, (extended 3m, good) only attracted 3 runners but was an interesting race. A couple of bubbles were burst as Rolling Aces and Harry Topper were put in their place by Vino Griego, (who received 4lb.) The winner is quirky and so isn't an easy yardstick to judge by, but it marks the beaten horses down as below Grade 1 standard. Harry Topper looks to need proper soft ground but off 153 life won't be easy for him in big staying handicaps. He might get extereme distances and be the type to win some big pots by outclassing ordinary horses in marathons, (as the likes of Hey Big Spender have done.) None of them look Festival horses at this stage.
Finally, I'm getting a little tired of British trainers bellyaching about there not being enough opportunities for their horses. The main division that is causing them angst is the novice chase division, despite the fact so many races are uncompetitive even under the new programme. Of course we want a system that allows horses to develop their chasing careers, but the Irish beginners chases are much more competitive with big fields over stiffer fences, yet you rarely hear Irish trainers moan. Given the Irish have a great recent record in the Festival novice chases it doesn't seem to be causing them a problem. One practical step might be for the BHA to take soundings about which courses are and aren't good for beginners / novice chases. Obviously there are a whole spectrum of trainers to accommodate, but it makes sense to try and run the beginners chases in particular, at courses trainers feel will give horses a good introduction. If the National fences get much softer we might be using those for beginners chases shortly.