Matt Tombs / Monday 6th January 2014 / 12:00
There’s something romantic about a mare taking on and beating the top geldings, and Annie Power looks a rare example of one capable of doing it – having made it 9/9 by demolishing Zarkandar (who gave 7lb) at Cheltenham, (extended 2m4f, soft.) Nothing’s really tested her yet so it’s hard to evaluate how good she might be, or what her ideal trip is. She’s 14/1 for the Champion Hurdle and 6/1 for the World Hurdle. She’s 6/1 for the Mares Hurdle and would probably have too much toe for Quevega, but it’s highly unlikely Willie Mullins will let her spoil Quevega’s attempt at a 6 timer.
I’d thought the World Hurdle was the most likely option, but Ruby Walsh said she was getting useful experience of Cheltenham “albeit on the new course” – which suggests connections are planning on running her on the old course at the Festival. Assuming she doesn’t run in the Mares race, that means the Champion Hurdle and taking on Hurricane Fly.
Willie Mullins described Boston Bob as the best novice hurdler he’d ever bought to the Festival – though he could only finish 2l 2nd to the ill fated Brindisi Breeze. He was apparently never right last season, but still might have won the RSA if he hadn’t fallen at the last. Willie found an ideal minor conditions race for his return to hurdles at Punchestown, (2m4f, heavy,) and he duly bolted up. Hills are a stand out 14/1 for the World Hurdle, which in such an open race is tempting. The big issue is the ground – he looked ill at ease on a sound surface in the Albert Bartlett so I’m holding fire.
Marito had been going well in the Jewson when tipping up 2 out. He’d finished a good 2nd to a half fit Hurricane Fly in the Morgiana Hurdle and jumped pretty well (hasn’t always been fluent), on his first race back over fences when beating Roi Du Mee (who gave 3lb) comfortably by 3¼l at Tramore, (2m5f, heavy.) Roi Du Mee had won a Grade 1 at Down Royal and this was a high class performance on ground that probably didn’t suit. 20/1 for the Ryanair looks tempting, though he’s owned by Rich Ricci who also has Arvika Ligeonniere – presumably one will be aimed at the Champion Chase and the other the Ryanair. I think both are a bit underrated, but it’s a watching brief for now.
Oscar Whisky notched up his 6th win at Cheltenham by reversing form with Taquin Du Seuil from the November meeting here in a Grade 2 novice chase, (2m5f, soft.) He’s been a specialist at intermediate trips and has had to run at 2m or 3m at the Festival for the last 3 years – so it’s pretty likely that he’ll contest the Jewson, (10/1).
Mendip Express made it 3 out of 3 over regulation fences, (and 9 wins in a row including points,) when winning a handicap at Cheltenham, (extended 3m2f, soft). He clearly stays well and having been ridden by capable amateur Will Biddick, (who already has a Festival success against the pros in what was traditionally called the Mildmay of Flete,) the 4 miler looks the obvious race. He’s 10/1 favourite and having won this competitive event off 139, would go there with strong claims, for all the 4 miler is a much stronger race now. However, the RSA (20/1) is also under consideration so at the prices it’s a watching brief for now.
The other handicap on Cheltenham’s new year’s day card drew a disappointing field of 8, (one of which was scratched) for a £50,000 race. Double Ross had won the big December handicap off 133 but probably didn’t need to improve to win this off 140, beating Cedre Bleu by 4½l, (2m5f, soft). It’ll be interesting to see how much he goes up for this but he might just be too high in the handicap to win one at the Festival and not quite good enough for the Jewson.
Venetia Williams and Aidan Coleman teamed up to win the first 4 races at Plumpton on Sunday and look to have an interesting novice chaser in Brick Red who easily won the novice chase, (2m1f, heavy.) His canny trainer is now looking at the £60,000 bonus for a horse that wins one of certain novice chases at Plumpton and wins a race at the Festival. His breeding suggests he’ll be a 2 miler and rated 140 over hurdles, he might, with good placing, get a nice mark for the Grand Annual.
After winning a match last time, Briar Hill faced another tiny field (2 opponents) in a Grade 2 novice hurdle at Naas, (2m4f, soft.) He was only workmanlike, being ridden along before the straight, but always on top at the business end, winning by 2¼l from Apache Jack (who received 7lb.) He’s not an easy horse to assess (1/3 here is the longest he’s started over hurdles) but looked as if a step up in trip would suit here. On decent ground the Albert Bartlett (7/1) rather than Neptune, (out to 14/1), looks his race. Willie Mullins might have more than 3 leading novice hurdlers for the Festival so it might be he’ll take on Faugheen in the Albert Bartlett, but at this stage I wouldn’t be dogmatic about which race the two of them will run in.
I doubt there’ll be many stronger ungraded novice hurdles run than the one run at Cheltenham on new year’s day, (extended 2m4f, soft.) It may have been the ground but some bubbles were burst by Aubusson who ran out a ready winner under a 7lb claimer. He’s 25/1 for the Neptune but the Albert Bartlett (20/1) might be the right race, as stamina looked his strong suit here. He’s owned by Nick Williams’ wife Jane, who said she didn’t want to run Aubusson at the Festival this year, though daughter Jane (who rode him to victory here,) is confident of changing her mind. The proximity (2¼l) of Regal Diamond (who was giving 1lb) suggests this might be unreliable form. Racing Impulse, Ballyalton and Royal Regatta had all looked potential contenders for the Grade 1 novice hurdles at the Festival. It might be they’re best forgiven this but it’s also possible it’ll help them get decently handicapped.
Cheltenian had looked a top prospect when a 5l winner of the 2011 Festival Bumper. He returned from nearly 2 years off to split classy types in Minella Forfitness and Valdez in a hot novices’ hurdle at Doncaster last February, before finishing down the field in the Supreme. On his seasonal debut he faced a simple task at Doncaster and beat a 113 rated rival on the bridle, (2m, heavy). It’s hard to know how much ability he retains and he’s best judged after another run, (not quoted for the Supreme or Neptune at this stage).
Wicklow Brave had won 3 bumpers in a row (beating a subsequent duel winner on the last occasion,) and bolted up at 2/5 in a weak maiden hurdle at Cork, (2m, heavy.) He doesn’t have the profile of some of Willie Mullins’ novice hurdlers but looks a smart prospect. He apparently goes for a novice next but it shouldn’t be assumed that this low key approach means he won’t go to the Festival. Fiveforthree won the Neptune off just one run when winning a maiden and Ebaziyan won the Supreme after two runs, both in maidens. If Willie thinks he’s progressing well enough at home, he’ll be in the team, (33/1 for the Supreme but not quoted for the Neptune.) The same owner has Arctic Fire who looks a pure 2 miler so the Neptune could be Wicklow Brave’s race.
Finally, Bryan Cooper was confirmed this week as Gigginstown's retained rider following Davy Russell's sacking. I'm less surprised than many seem to be. Russell is a fine jockey - there are a few leading contenders for Festival races where if Russell were to replace the incumbent jockey, I might therefore back them at current odds. However, he's not an elite jockey. With the huge concentration of top horses into a small number of mega-owners in the last few years, it's not surprising such owners retain a top jockey where, like Gigginstown, they have their horses spread over many yards. If you're Rich Ricci with all your horses with Willie Mullins, then you get Ruby Walsh riding almost all of your best horses in the top races - so having your own jockey would be counter-productive.
Just as JP McManus wants an elite jockey in AP McCoy, Gigginstown, (the only other owner with the same sort of scale of investment in the game,) want an elite jockey. Bryan Cooper is widely tipped to be the next Ruby Walsh and has made a brilliant start, including a treble at the Festival last season. Whilst the timing might have been to do with a disagreement between Russell and the O'Leary's, I suspect it's more likely that the O'Leary's had identified Cooper as the next elite jockey and thought they might lose him to someone else if they didn't move quickly. Best of luck to Cooper, Russell and Gigginstown - my guess is we'll look back at this and wonder why anyone thought to question Gigginstown's logic.