Matt Tombs / Wednesday 23rd October 2013 / 12:40
I often mention the importance of being on top of the early season form in the novice divisions. 2 of the 4 level weights novice chases at this year’s Festival, were won by horses that made their debuts over fences during September, (Benefficient and Back In Focus). They had won Grade 1 and Grade 2 events respectively as novice hurdlers so it wasn’t as if they were obscure types. With almost 50% of the winners of those 4 races in the last decade having run over fences by the end of October, there should be loads of Festival clues.
One of the best rounds of jumping from a good novice I’ve seen so far was by Claret Cloak at Towcester, (extended 2m, good to firm,) when easily brushing aside ordinary opposition. 2m and a sound surface look ideal. That said, Arkle winners invariably were either high class hurdlers the previous season (RPR over 160) or unexposed, classy novices (mark of 140+). As a second season hurdler rated only 140, (RPR 141,) last season, Claret Cloak might lack the class normally needed. However, Emma Lavelle’s yard was shockingly out of form for much of last season (first winner in 2013 in April), so he might not have shown his best then. I’m keeping an open mind for now – especially as the 2m novice chase division may lack stars this season, (25/1 for the Arkle).
The Lavelle yard is in cracking form now and has another good novice chase prospect in Le Bec, who was a comfortable winner of what, on paper, was a hot beginners chase, at Uttoxeter (2m4f, good to soft.) In theory beating 152 rated hurdler Bear’s Affair and 140 rated chaser Tony Star by 6l and ¾l ought to rate high class novice form. However, Bear’s Affair is probably flattered by his hurdles mark and had been beaten in 3 chases last season and Tony Star is now 0/8 over fences and may not be a reliable yardstick either. Le Bec is clearly promising though and is best judged after another run.
Horses who run up sequences in novice chases over the summer are often dismissed as not being Grade 1 performers on principle. Baily Green almost won the Arkle last season after winning 7 the previous summer, and 155 rated hurdler Rebel Fitz wouldn’t be without a chance in Grade 1 company at the Festival either. He won 5 in a row in Ireland, his victories being marked by some superb jumping, (sweated up badly on occasions). If ever there looked a case of the benefit of getting some experience at Cheltenham this was it, as Rebel Fitz ballooned several fences and went through the top of others, failing by 1¼l to give 8lb to the talented but enigmatic Third Intention, (2m4f, good), in a match. He’s unlikely to run over the winter and is the type to be forgotten come March - if he jumps as he has in Ireland, he’s a realistic contender for the Jewson (25/1).
Third Intention ran in 6 races at Grade 1 or 2 level last season after being beaten on debut at this meeting last year. He’d looked a professional loser, in particular when throwing away the Scilly Isles at Sandown by ducking the issue late on. He was rated 151 though and so getting 8lb was entitled to win on the figures. A match against a rival who didn’t jump well enough to land a real blow was ideal and it’s hard to see him being tough enough for the Grade 1s at the Festival (50/1 for the Jewson).
Balder Succes had been a good winner of what is often a hot novice chase at Chepstow at the Free Hurdle meeting, and had to carry an 8lb penalty when lining up the following week at Cheltenham. He again travelled well in what looked a strongly run affair and, having hardly put a foot wrong in either contest, took off too far from the 2nd last and suffered a heavy fall. That left 148 rated hurdler Dark Lover, (3l down at the time and looking to be getting the worst of it), well clear.
Given how well he goes fresh and that he was getting 8lb here, Dark Lover doesn’t look good enough for the Festival Grade 1s at this stage, (40/1 for the Arkle). Balder Succes isn’t a straightforward type, (Alan King ran him on the flat as he seemed to be losing interest over hurdles), and might well remember a heavy fall - but if he goes the right way he could still line up in the Arkle (33/1) or Jewson (20/1). It’s a watching brief for now.
One of the highest rated hurdlers (154) to enter the 2m novice chasing division this season is Dodging Bullets, though he really lost his way in the spring after a fine 7¼l 3rd to Darlan in the Christmas Hurdle. He made a winning debut at Kempton, (2m, good) beating 129 rated hurdler Turn Over Sivola by 4l. Had the runner up not nearly unseated Choc Thornton 2 out and made a mistake at the last, the result may have been different. The winner didn’t travel that well given how much he had in hand on the hurdles ratings and whilst he jumped well at the business end, he might be one to take on at a short price in better company. 25/1 for the Arkle makes no appeal.
Felix Yonger was a fair 2nd to Simonsig in the Neptune 2 seasons ago but missed last season with a splint problem. He returned from a year off in May at Punchestown, (2m4f, yielding,) jumping better as the race went on and won a shade cosily by 1¾l from White Star Line, who was a talented but frustrating maiden after 11 runs over fences at that point, but has since bolted up off 130 in the valuable Kerry National. 3rd placed Operating (beaten 10l) is highly regarded by Jessica Harrington so the form is probably strong. He’s probably at his best on a sound surface and could run in either the Jewson or RSA (not quoted for either) depending on how the rest of the Mullins/Wylie horses shape up.
As a 5 year old who had had only 6 races before embarking on a chasing career, Art Of Logistics could be expected to be a progressive type this season. He’s started with 2 good wins over fences, the 2nd in a Grade 3 at Punchestown (2m2f, good). It was interesting to hear Dessie Hughes say afterwards that he saw him as a 2miler as that division looks open. This was his first run on decent ground and it seemed to suit. He’ll have to progress a fair bit further to be a realistic contender for the Arkle, (20/1,) but he could easily be the type for the Grand Annual.
An important distinction between British and Irish beginners/novice chases at this time of year is that most British trained horses are pretty straight first time out these days. By contrast, many Irish trainers seem to take a more traditional approach causing their horses to come on a ton for their first run. The fact that the beginners & novice chases are generally much more competitive in Ireland might be a factor as trainers won’t want to give their horses too hard a race first time, especially early season when they haven’t had that much work. Of the 3 Irish trained winners of the 4 level weights novice chases at the Festival – Benefficient was beaten first time by the now 119 rated Miradane and Lord Windermere was beaten by Dylan Ross who’s now rated 18lb below him. Both Miradane and Dylan Ross were fit from previous runs.
They’re obviously tough to spot but here are two possible such eye-catchers. Clonbanan Lad was highly tried on occasions last season after winning a maiden hurdle at Punchestown. You get the impression that after being beaten in a Grade 1 by Jezki on his 2nd run last season, he wasn’t hard trained with his future chasing career in mind, (rated 130 over timber). He was a good 4¼l 2nd to the 136 rated hurdler Owega Star, (who was fit from a summer campaign and has won again since), in a beginners chase at Listowel, (2m6f, soft). Clonbanan Lad should come on a lot for that as he looked the winner turning in but faded, (slight mistake at the last not helping).
Seefood won a maiden and a novice hurdle last autumn and then ran in 2 Grade 1s and 4 Grade 2s. They were mainly on desperate ground which doesn’t suit, but he did run well the one time he encountered a decent surface, finishing 16¾l 3rd to Ubak at Aintree. That run stuck in my mind as he looked as if he might win coming to 2 out and was then given a really easy time once Ubak had got away. It was impossible not to be a bit disappointed with Seefood’s 8½l 3rd to Pass The Hat in a beginners chase at Limerick (extended 2m3f, good) as it was an ordinary race. He jumped pretty well but was off the bridle a fair way out. Assuming that was a lack of fitness rather than class telling, (ran 9 times last season so may take plenty of work), he may still make his mark in top novice events.