Matt Tombs / Monday 24th February 2014 / 13:20
It’s easy to wonder whether horses like Holywell have been plotted up for a Festival handicap all season, rather than being the slow learners over fences it might appear. Holywell won the Pertemps Final off 140 last season, before finishing 2nd to Solwhit in the Grade 1 at Aintree, (ended up rated 157 over hurdles.) Having got off the mark over fences at the 4th time of asking at Catterick, he stepped up to a staying trip for the first time over fences and beat Victor Hewgo ¾l at Doncaster, (3m, good to soft.) He didn’t travel or jump well and it was a typically strong McCoy ride that got him home.
It’ll be fascinating to see what handicap mark he’s given on Thursday when the handicap weights are announced. If it is a lot lower than his hurdles mark then I imagine he’ll go for the open 3m handicap (20/1) on the first day, (in the 4 miler (14/1) but doesn’t look an amateur’s ride). The blinkers that were on when he won the Pertemps Final will probably be back on, (worn only cheekpieces over fences,) and if there’s some cut in the ground he could emulate Alderwood by winning handicaps over hurdles and fences at the Festival in consecutive seasons.
The star of the weekend’s action was Irving, who destroyed a good field in the Grade 2 Dovecote novices’ hurdle, (2m, soft) at Kempton. He has a big reputation at Ditcheat and deserves his place at the head of the betting for the Supreme, (7/2). He has loads of pace and promises to be much better suited by a sound surface. As Paul Nicholls said, he will come down the hill when the field really quickens – if there is a concern, it’ll be how well he comes up the other side, especially if the ground is soft. He looks all about speed and there’s a well touted theory that speed horses, like subsequent Champion Hurdle winner Sublimity, often get outstayed in the Supreme. He looks a class act and is probably the most likely winner at this stage.
I doubt Vieux Lion Rouge will be asked to take on Irving and co in the Supreme (33/1) but he might be in the process of getting himself into the right part of the handicap for the Festival. He’s now 3/3 over hurdles, (only defeat in 7 starts when 11th in the Bumper at the Festival.) He was rated 132 before an easy win in a weak race at Sedgefield and it’ll be worth seeing what mark he gets on Thursday, (he’s in the County, Coral and Martin Pipe.). Given he likes soft ground and is seen as a chaser for next season, he’s one I’d consider backing closer to the time.
Mosspark is another who is really a novice chaser for next season but he looked good when beating useful, 136 rated, Spirit Of Shankly, (who gave 4lb), 5l at Huntingdon, (extended 2m4f, soft.) He’s in the Albert Bartlett and 33/1 would look a big price if he gets the go ahead, (Emma Lavelle was non-committal,) as this was probably strong novice form, (16/1 NRNB).
It doesn’t look as if Balder Succes will run at the Festival, despite his good win in the Pendil at Kempton, (extended 2m4f, soft.) He’s in the Arkle (25/1) but not the JLT. Apparently his owners would prefer to go to Aintree – and 2m4f round a sharp track like that might suit this bold jumping type ideally. If Valdez were to miss the Arkle, Alan King might persuade the owners to change their mind. It’s therefore worth keeping an eye on the NRNB Arkle prices when more firms switch to NRNB this week, (only 12/1 at the moment) – as Balder Succes wouldn’t be out of place in the field.
I’d seen Mozoltov as one of the Mullins dark horses for the Festival, with the JLT looking a likely target. He’d been found one of the worst Grade 2 novice chases I’ve seen in Ireland at Naas (2m4f, heavy), but ploughed through the first and jumped indifferently throughout, before outclassing two moderate rivals. Willie Mullins had said he was on trial for Cheltenham here and he now has the classic conundrum – he showed again he has a real engine, but if he jumps like he did here he wouldn’t get round in the JLT (20/1).
The Foxhunter market remains murky, although Harbour Court won a point on Saturday to get back on track. The entries close on Tuesday, so it’s worth waiting to see them. It’ll be interesting to see whether Palypso De Creek (20/1) is entered. The vibes are he’ll miss the race again, but he is a classy hunter who goes really well on bad ground. If conditions are similar to last year he’d be a real contender, although Claire Hart won’t be able to claim her 7lb there.
Si C’etait Vrai had a big reputation as a novice hurdler a few seasons back. Switched to fences this season he’d come up against smart sorts Morning Assembly and Djakadam, before falling at the last when in a good dual with Suntiep. He easily won an ordinary beginners at Fairyhouse, (extended 2m5f, soft to heavy,) and apparently now heads for the 4 miler (25/1). Whilst he’s not a guaranteed stayer, that looks too big a price for a horse of his ability.
What had looked an easy Grade 2 opportunity for 165 rated Saphir Du Rheu in the National Spirit at Fontwell, (2m4f, heavy,) provided a big upset when Kayf Moss, (who’d won off 110 last time and was only getting 4lb), made all. Saphir Du Rheu might have been feeling the effects of hard races in the Lanzarote and Welsh Champion Hurdle since the turn of the year. He’ll presumably be roughed off now and, if none the worse, looks a top class novice chase prospect for the autumn. Kayf Moss is in the Coral Cup (25/1) and it’ll be interesting to see what mark he’s given on Thursday.
Finally, Nicky Henderson and Paul Nicholls have asked for jumpers bumpers to become a permanent part of the fixture list, which would cause exactly the problem I outlined last week, further eroding the competitiveness of January and February jumps racing. That’s far from the only concern about the health of jumps racing - Tom Segal explained some of the problems in Sunday’s Racing Post.
Here’s one more - I’ve been pretty sanguine about the concentration of the best horses in so few hands. If the best trainers have more of the best horses, those horses ought to last longer, so racegoers will get to enjoy them more. However, there’s going be a major problem if those trainers who dominate, fail to get the balance right between their own self-interest and the wider good of the sport. That’s never easy when you’re running a business, as the natural inclination is just to look after your own customers, staff etc.
Every owner, (often deferring to their trainer,) is entitled to run their horse where they like. Unless you’re on the inside you can’t know all the facts and it’s easy to end up looking silly when quoting specific examples. In that context - it seems to be becoming more and more clear that Annie Power and Un De Sceaux are deliberately being kept away from the Champion Hurdle to increase Hurricane Fly’s chances. The fact it’s such a strong renewal helps paper over the cracks but they’ll be evident another year if Willie Mullins has by far the best 2 horses in a Championship race and only runs 1.
Imagine if Paul Nicholls had said that because Kauto Star was ideally suited by 3m, and Denman by 3¼m, it would be unfair to risk bottoming Kauto out in the Gold Cup. He’d therefore run at Aintree in the Bowl and Denman would be his runner in the Gold Cup. Or that Kauto would run in the Gold Cup and Denman in the National. We’d have missed out on some of the best moments of jump racing in the modern era. The few mega trainers need to be careful – if the best horses don’t take each other on, even at Cheltenham, few will want to watch the sport and their businesses will wither in the longer term.