Matt Tombs / Wednesday 7th November 2012 / 12:00
Welcome back to The Road To Cheltenham, where over the next few months I’ll be analysing the best jumps racing in Britain & Ireland with a view to finding winners at the Cheltenham Festival, hopefully filling the Festival coffers on the way. The wet autumn has increased the proportion of good horses who’ve already run and I’m kicking off by summarising the best of the action so far. Today I’m looking at the top races in open company, tomorrow I’ll be turning to the novice events.
The most impressive performance over fences I’ve seen so far came from For Non Stop, who won the Old Roan Chase at Aintree by 23l with his head in his chest, off 151, (2m4f, good). With 9 runners rated 150 or more this may well make it theoretically the classiest handicap at this sort of trip all season. A lot of the field looked badly handicapped though and some would have really needed the run, so a runaway winner wasn’t a big surprise.
This looked to pay a handsome compliment to Cue Card (who beat him an easy 4l giving 7lb) and Sir Des Champs (who beat him 13l at levels) last season. Plenty of Nick Williams’ horses weren’t running well last season though and it might be that only now For Non Stop is showing his true form. He’s 10/1 for both the Ryanair and the Paddy Power with the former making much more appeal, as it would usually require a better performance to win the Paddy Power off 162 than to win the Ryanair. He looks a leading contender for the graded races at this sort of trip.
He might meet former Champion Chaser Sizing Europe in the Ryanair. He’d badly needed the run in the 2m4f Grade 2 at Gowran for the last 2 seasons, (beaten by China Rock in 2010 and miles behind when Rubi Light fell at the last, last year.) The ground was much better than last year which would have suited and he got plenty of plaudits after his victory, but I thought he ran a similar race to see off Forpadydeplasterer (on the downgrade) with 124 rated I Hear A Symphony beaten less than 12l (both received 7lb from the winner.)
With First Lieutenant flopping this was a penalty kick for Sizing Europe but it was a nice start to the season and he usually comes on a ton for a run. Connections are mulling over whether to take the 2m or 3m route – given the dearth of high class 2m chasers in Ireland at the moment there are easy pickings for him, but he’d be an intriguing contender for the King George (20/1) if it’s run on decent ground as the balance of his form suggests he’ll stay 3m on a sound surface. I can’t see him getting home in the Gold Cup though.
First Lieutenant was well backed suggesting he was pretty fit, and with ground and trip to suit he was disappointing. He was subsequently more competitive in the Grade 1 at Down Royal, (3m, yielding to soft,) but this looked a poor race for the grade. Paul Nicholls had said Kauto Stone was an autumn horse and he edged out First Lieutenant and Quito De La Roque. It’d be a surprise if this was a guide to Grade 1 form during the season.
At Down Royal Paul Nicholls recorded an amazing 5th consecutive winner of the 2m5f graded race for second season chasers with Cristal Bonus running out a ready winner. With the fragile Bog Warrior bombing this didn’t take much winning. 16/1 for the Ryanair doesn’t make any appeal but he should be a force in graded races around this trip, especially when the ground is soft.
The Charlie Hall at Wetherby has the dubious privilege of being just about the worst guide for future prospects, of any major British chase. In my time following racing no winner has gone on to lift the Gold Cup and only See More Business has won that season’s King George – most winners don’t win again during the season. Silviniaco Conti was an impressive winner against a moderate field, (3m1f, good to soft), and has a better chance than most of bucking the trend. He’s only 6 and looks really talented so hopefully he can progress from this, but don’t get carried away by this sort of early season form. 8/1 for the King George & 16/1 for the Gold Cup make no appeal.
The Grade 3 Chase at Naas, (2m, soft) saw the return to action of one of last season's most promising (and hyped) novices, Hidden Cyclone. There were plenty of negatives coming into the race - he'd been off since January, the yard had had over 100 consecutive losers, 2m looked too short and he was up against Foildubh (who gave 4lb), a race fit 144 rated horse much better suited by the trip. Hidden Cyclone showed plenty of class and looked likely to win easily until edging markedly left on the run in, (only 1½l ahead at the line.)
This was only his 3rd run over fences and he looks as if he’ll benefit from being brought on steadily - a winners of two next month at Gowran was suggested afterwards. Getting experience in such races worked for Quel Esprit who then won the Irish Hennessy last season and Hidden Cyclone could be a contender for that race this time. He's 33/1 for the Gold Cup which looks about right as he's talented but hasn't yet proved himself a Grade 1 horse.
One potential horse to follow who won’t be familiar to many is Down In Neworleans who had been off since running up a hat-trick in novice chases in the summer of last year. He faced some of the better novices from last season in a Grade 3 at Limerick (extended 2m3f, soft to heavy) in Knockfierna and Rathlin as well as the talented Rivage D’or. Given plenty of time, Down In Neworleans ran out an impressive winner in the end (might have been flattered as runner up Rivage D’or finds little). If Mags Mullins can keep him sound he’s worth a try in Grade 1 company given the lack bof established staying chasers in Ireland.
The most exciting prospect I’ve seen over hurdles is Dodging Bullets who must have been the best maiden hurdler in training at the start of the season (rated 148). He was beaten only 4l into 4th in the Triumph despite many of the Nicholls horses (especially the younger ones) disappointing at the meeting, and was then effectively taken out of the race at Aintree. He easily accounted for High Note and Baby Mix (4 year olds hurdle, extended 2m, good to soft) at Cheltenham. Whilst I’ve never had an ante-post bet for one of the novice hurdles at the Festival at this time of year as we’ve no idea what stars will emerge, 16/1 for the Supreme looks big for a horse who looks a pure two-miler and already has a level of form close to that required, (last ten winners of the Supreme rated 146-154 in consequence.)
Probably the best performance at Ascot’s first big meeting was from Raya Star who defied a mark of 149 to win the 2m handicap hurdle, (good to soft). He’ll get another hike before the Greatwood (now Racing Post) Hurdle at Cheltenham a week Sunday but keeps progressing. Most of the leading protagonists in the Champion Hurdle picture look to be headed elsewhere so he could make the step up to graded class in the Bula. He’s 33/1 for the Champion Hurdle, which looks about right.
The 2m conditions hurdle (good) at Kempton attracted two classy sorts in Get Me Out Of Here and Brampour with the former a ready winner. He’d previously needed his first run of the season and many thought he needs much further, (Tom Segal talked him up as a World Hurdle contender when previewing this race.) I’m not so sure and wouldn’t be surprised if an end-to-end gallop in the Champion Hurdle (33/1) brings out the best in him. Whilst it’s likely there’ll be a few too classy for him, it wouldn’t be the biggest surprise in the world if he emulated Rooster Booster by taking this en route to winning the Champion as a 9 year old.
Monksland was a distant 3rd to Simonsig in the Neptune (didn’t enjoy a clear run) and dropped back to 2m for the Grade 2 for second season hurdlers at Down Royal (yielding to soft.) He showed plenty of class to overcome a sloppy jump at the last and beat the back to form Joxer (who received 6lb) without having to be asked a serious question. Chasing’s been deferred and the Hatton’s Grace is understandably the next target where 2m4f and the likely testing ground should suit. It’ll be interesting to see whether he gets stepped up to 3m – he has a ton to find with Big Buck’s but if he goes the right way (hasn’t always looked straightforward) then the 33/1 for the World Hurdle could become interesting.