Matt Tombs / Friday 10th January 2014 / 17:00
About 5 years ago Paul Nicholls was so dominant in Britain that he started having runners in big Irish races to keep his good horses apart. Now Willie Mullins, (even more dominant in Ireland,) is, at first sight, doing the equivalent. However, I think Mullins’ strategy is slightly different. He’s had 3 winners from 13 runners in Britain so far this season but, the brilliant Annie Power apart, he hasn’t been bringing his A team across.
I don’t think his main priority is plundering the British prizes, its more a fact-finding mission. His 2 runners at Kempton are good examples. His Tolworth runner, Upazo (3/1) is a talented second season novice hurdler who’s won a maiden and an ordinary conditions event this season. It’s hard to know the pecking order of Mullins’ novice hurdlers at this stage but, of those who might contest the Supreme, I reckon the likes of Vautour, Arctic Fire, Valseur Lido, Moyle Park, Lucky Bridle, Renetti and Wicklow Brave may all be ahead of Upazo in the pecking order. It doesn’t look like Willie is saying “It’s a Grade 1 so I’ll send one of my big guns.” I think the raids, especially in the novice divisions, are to assess the strength of the British team – which will all feed into his strategy for deploying his horses for the Festival.
In the new listed chase over an extended 2m4f, running Twinlight (5/2) looks a slight variation on that theme. Twinlight has looked a real 2 miler so far, (though having only just turned 7 he might get further as he matures). The vibes are that Mullins thinks he’s not quite good enough to win a Champion Chase, and so he wants to see if he gets the Ryanair trip, as he’d be a realistic contender for that. A sharp two and a half miles around flat Kempton is a good way to start testing that out, whilst getting a feel for the British form. Captain Chris and Champion Court are stayers at this trip so, assuming their jockeys won’t let this develop into a tactical affair, (Champion Court front runs), I doubt Twinlight will get home.
In the Tolworth, there look plenty of smart types taking Upazo on, but only 1 that looks to have the potential for the Supreme or Neptune at the Festival - The Liquidator (5/2). He was a good 9¼l 4th in the Festival Bumper last season, which placed a strong emphasis on stamina, before winning the equivalent at the Punchestown Festival. He’s 2/2 over hurdles, on the latter occasion destroying Sea Lord, (who gave 3lb,) by 15l in a Grade 2 at Cheltenham, (extended 2m, good.) Sea Lord was rated 113 on the flat and had rattled up a 6 timer over hurdles, winning at Perth off 146 and then bolting up in a listed novice.
That sort of early season form is often not worth the sort of ratings obtained, and the officially good ground was probably a bit dead for him, but even so it was good performance from The Liquidator. It’s the classic sort of race where you have to take a view whether Sea Lord bombed or The Liquidator was producing a top class novice performance that a good novice like Sea Lord just couldn’t live with. Visually I was very impressed with The Liquidator. He’s a straightforward enough type and if nothing wants to give him a lead he can make his own running.
Of the others, Royal Boy (9/1) and Creepy (20/1) look stayers, Garde La Victoire’s (6/1) form hasn’t worked out and if Josses Hill (11/2) can win this, we might as well forget the rest of the Festival from a betting point of view and put our entire betting bank on Faugheen. Prince Siegfried (10/1) was rated 106 on the flat and handled soft ground. He was running a fine race in the Kennel Gate but just looked to be getting the worst of it with top prospect Irving, (who gave 3lb,) when coming down at the last. If it turns into a tactical affair then his flat speed might come into play, but Tom Scudamore is unlikely to fall into that trap.
1pt The Liquidator to win the Tolworth Hurdle @ 5/2
In the listed chase, Ghizao (12/1) and Tataniano (50/1) don’t look good enough and Pepite Rose (8/1) is turned out quickly again after finishing pretty tired when winning a handicap 15 days ago. She was quite impressive there off 140 but that still leaves her with something to find at the weights and 2m chases at Wetherby can fall apart in soft ground. On the balance of her form she won’t be good enough to win this.
With the trip looking against Twinlight, that leaves Champion Court (7/2) and Captain Chris (2/1). They met in the Peterborough at Huntingdon, (extended 2m4, good to soft), on the same terms. Only a neck separated them, (in Champion Court’s favour), when they were both edged out by Riverside Theatre. Captain Chris travelled like much the best horse in the race on the day but, unlike Champion Court, he didn’t have the benefit of a run and it looked like lack of race fitness told at the business end.
Champion Court’s saddle apparently slipped in the straight, which may have evened things up. The reality though is after 16 and 15 chase starts respectively, Captain Chris has won 2 Grade 1s, including an Arkle, an open Grade 2 and finished a ¼l 2nd in a King George - Champion Court has won a Grade 2 novice chase and an end of season handicap. Champion Court is a really consistent, honest horse, but he’s just not good enough to beat a race fit Captain Chris getting only 4lb.
1pt Captain Chris to win the williamhill.com Chase @ 2/1
There’s other interesting action over the weekend, including the opportunity to see Mullins’ Champion Hurdle dark horse Un De Sceaux. With Flaxen Flare and Foildubh in opposition we ought to learn a bit more about him. He’s 16/1 for the Champion ante-post, but is 14/1 NRNB. The latter is tempting as if he doesn’t prove up the class then, with Hurricane Fly and probably Annie Power to represent him, Willie Mullins is unlikely to run Un De Sceaux. If he does run him then it’s only because he has a realistic chance of winning – in which case he’ll be a lot shorter than 14/1. If he spreadeagles a couple of 140+ horses he could be a single figure price by Sunday night.
Other interesting races over the weekend include the listed mares hurdle at Warwick. Mullins’ Glen’s Melody is likely to start favourite but faces some some good British mares. Mischevious Milly went off favourite off 137 for what looked a hot handicap at Newbury last time, won by Vendor. Previously, (on her first run for nearly a year,) she’d got within 8½l of subsequent Fighting Fifth runner up Cockney Sparrow at Wetherby, when giving her 8lb. Prima Porta finished ahead of her at Wetherby and both have decent prospects of turning Glen’s Melody over.
The hunter chase season is with us and there are some interesting dark horses going hunting this season. One is Always Right who won an open, listed contest in March and is rated 140. He’s a lightly raced 12 year old who returns to hunter chases at Kelso on Sunday. He’s had all sorts of problems but had plenty of ability and, if he retains it, could easily be a player in the Foxhunter come March.