Matt Tombs / Monday 17th November 2014 / 15:20
The incredible Hurricane Fly defied ageing legs to win a 20th Grade 1 and beat his successor as Champion, Jezki, by 2¼l in the Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown, (2m, soft.) He'd never run to his best in this race but it looks as if Willie Mullins is training him for an autumn / winter campaign this time, rather than to peak in March. If the going is testing in the two Grade 1s at Leopardstown he'll take all the beating, but I couldn't see him winning another Champion Hurdle (16/1) on decent ground aged 11.
Jezki was apparently fairly straight for this and I'd thought he'd get through the ground well enough to win. He made a mistake at the last but wouldn’t have won anyway. He might have needed the run but equally he may be a horse who needs decent ground, ideally on a left-handed track. He's out to 6/1 for the Champion, which is tempting.
The Paddy Power Gold Cup, (extended 2m4f, soft,) has been a great race for talented 2nd season chasers that hadn't had the chance to show their abilities in their novice season. Caid Du Berlais fitted that profile perfectly. He was 8lb lower than his hurdles mark on 143 and the talent he'd shown as a 5 year old in finishing 5¾l 3rd in the Martin Pipe off 143 and then ¼l 2nd off 145 at Aintree, suggested he ought to be well in if transferring his ability to chasing. He’d only had 3 chase starts and, perhaps because of that inexperience, was taken very wide throughout and left plenty to do on the run in - but showed a real turn of foot to get up close home.
Paul Nicholls is adamant that he's much better on a sound surface and he looks on a strong upward curve. Given that they went so steadily and finished in a heap, he'll be hard for the handicapper to assess and might remain on an attractive mark for the equivalent handicap here next month. The only other horse this century to win this after just 3 chase runs was Imperial Commander, (who won off 4lb lower). He won that seasons Ryanair and 25/1 looks much too big for Caid Du Berlais to emulate him.
I'd thought Johns Spirit faced a tough task off his revised mark of 156 but he ran another blinder and was only caught close home. He's clearly improved again and this puts him in the mix for the Ryanair, (14/1,) although he has shown his best form in the autumn so far.
Even without Sire De Grugy it was a fascinating Shloer Chase at Cheltenham, (2m, soft,) though the ground had got really bad by this stage. Uxizandre was the imponderable, having raced at around 2m4f in all his 6 chases. With the seemingly all important cheekpieces back on he forced the pace again, jumped superbly and got first run. Uxizandre has to go left handed so races like the Tingle Creek and Clarence House are out – he might go to Leopardstown. Alan King has Balder Success for Champion Chase and I suspect Uxizandre will step back up in trip for the Ryanair (12/1) rather than contest the Champion Chase (20/1).
I'd put Simply Ned up each-way at 33/1 for the Champion Chase and he ran a sound race in 2nd, beaten 1¾l, receiving 1lb. He seemed to handle the track but made a mistake 3 out and a smaller error at the last. Paul Nicholls had been very bullish about Dodging Bullets chances even if Sire De Grugy had run, so with Champion Chase 3rd Module well beaten off you could take a positive view of the form - I'm taking a watching brief. That said, if Simply Ned keeps progressing he could still be a player in the Champion Chase (33/1) back on a sound surface, (breeding suggests this bad ground wouldn’t have suited.)
There was a belting field for the Grade 2 Clonmel Oil Chase, (2m4f, heavy.) 6 Grade 1 winners, including two dual Festival winners, lined up – but Champagne Fever took advantage of the race conditions, (received between 4lb and 11lb from the others), and destroyed the field, (helped by Realt Mor blundering 2 out when still in contention). Willie Mullins had mooted a change of tactics but Champagne Fever was pretty keen early on and Paul Townend wisely gave him his head. He should improve plenty for the run and heads to the King George (7/1). He’s got stamina to prove there but I think he’s got a good chance of staying and he has strong claims. Mullins is aiming him at the Gold Cup. Given how weak the division is, 12/1 looks generous. He’s been an inconsistent type so far – it’ll be interesting to see if he can hold his form all season.
The Grade 2 Florida Pearl novice chase at Punchestown, (2m6f, soft,) looked a strong event and was won going away by Shanahans Turn. Ruby Walsh had made it clear that he didn't view runner up Indevan, (who gave 3lb,) as a Grade 1 horse. Given he got within 4¾l here, (giving 3lb), that might suggest this wasn't as strong a race as it appeared, (Lots of Memories broke a blood vessel and Very Wood was disappointing). Shanahans Turn made a mistake at the last and lost momentum, but once he’d regained it, he sprinted away close home. He's 33/1 for the RSA and 20/1 for the JLT. If he proves he gets 3m in the Grade 1 at Leopardstown at Christmas, his turn of foot would be a potent weapon in the RSA.
The shambles of chases with half the fences bypassed due to the low sun resurfaced at Cheltenham on Friday, which was a particular shame given the cracking field assembled, (extended 2m4f, soft.) The form isn’t worth much but Champagne West looked a classy recruit when easily fending off the increasingly quirky Colour Squadron by 3¼l. He was a decent 9½l 4th in the Albert Bartlett and looks a good prospect. He’s 20/1 for the RSA and is best judged after running in a chase where the fences are jumped.
Sometimes when you underestimate a horse and they put in a good performance you remain unconvinced. That certainly wasn't the case with Kings Palace who jumped for fun in the novice chase over an extended 3m at Cheltenham, (soft,) and easily beat a good horse in Sausalito Sunrise, (who gave 5lb,) by 4l. He should improve for the experience and may be even better on a sound surface. He's 12/1 for the RSA, which looks fair.
Ptit Zig was a classy hurdler, finishing 2nd in the Ladbroke off 151 and a respectable 14½l 6th in the Champion Hurdle, ending up rated 157. Switched to fences he was found a weak beginners at Exeter, (extended 2m1f, soft.) Paul Nicholls had said he hadn’t schooled that well at home, adding that he’d been a slow learner over hurdles but that his technique over timber had improved considerably with experience. He jumped well early on here and might have been a bit lonely in the straight when running down his fences. He’s best judged after another run – he’s 16/1 for the Arkle but the JLT (16/1) is an equally likely option.
Valseur Lido was a fair 10th in the Supreme and a distant 2nd to Faugheen in the 2m Grade 1 at Punchestown. He already looks a better chaser, jumping like an old hand when an easy 11l winner of a beginners at Punchestown, (2m4f, yielding). His main 2 opponents fell so it’s hard to evaluate the form but visually he was impressive. This was his first run beyond 2m and he heads for the Drinmore next. He’s 20/1 for the JLT – where he’ll fit into the Mullins and Gigginstown teams is hard to guess at this stage, (also looks suited by plenty of cut).
John Ferguson’s El Namoose never ran on the flat for Godolphin but won 3 of his 4 bumpers easily, (much too keen in the Champion Bumper at the Festival.) He jumped pretty well on his debut over hurdles at Huntingdon, (extended 2m, soft). He dived at the 2nd last but was clever and quickly found a leg. He didn’t beat much, but clearly has an engine, (33/1 for the Supreme and Neptune.)
The Willie Mullins novice battalions are starting to come out in force and I was impressed with Champion Bumper 4th Black Hercules, who won a weak maiden on the bridle at Cork, (2m, heavy.) He jumped pretty well, (if in the style of the chaser he looks,) before a mistake at the last. He showed plenty of pace for a stayer - the Albert Bartlett is the likely target (10/1). The vibes from Closutton are that their novice hurdlers are even stronger than last season’s all conquering bunch. I’ll be trying to work out a pecking order over the next few weeks before looking at backing any of them.
Sempre Medici won another weak maiden at 1/4 at Cork, (2m, heavy,) but put in a terrible round of jumping. He still won on the bridle and looks to have the engine of a Grade 1 horse. He’ll be written off by some as a flat horse who can’t jump, but some horses are just slow learners and he’ll presumably be given more experience in small races. He’s one to keep an eye on, (25/1 for the Supreme.)
Champion Bumper 6th Killultagh Vic also had a simple task (1/4) on his hurdling debut at Clonmel, (2m4f, heavy). He outclassed his opposition, but he tended to bunny-hop his hurdles and looks the sort who’d benefit from more experience before taking on top novices. Willie Mullins sees him as a stayer and the Albert Bartlett (25/1) might be his Festival target. He’s well suited by testing ground and you’d ideally want to leave backing until you had an idea of the ground conditions.
Finally, this should have been the week for making Ten To Follow entries. I’d been entering for 20 years and had a huge amount of enjoyment out of it, (especially when leading going into the Gold Cup in 2006 and finishing 6th.) The competition relies massively on marketing and it’s been pretty clear that Betfred haven’t been interested – rather that if they didn’t market it, the pool would reduce sufficiently that they could shut the competition down. When the Tote was sold off, a commitment to a minimum prize fund for (say) 5 years should have been obtained. With the right marketing it could still be a money-spinner for organisers – hopefully another firm will step in for next season.