Matt Tombs / Monday 16th December 2013 / 12:45
Year in, year out, small field, conditions hurdles around 2m prove almost the opposite test to the Champion Hurdle itself. That often makes it the hardest of the 4 championship races to evaluate the form. The Bula (International) at Cheltenham, (2m1f, good) was a classic example. The New One beat good yardstick Zarkandar 6l, but the proximity of no-hoper Jumps Road (who received 8lb) in theory holds down the form. A fast run Champion Hurdle may well suit him as he didn't accelerate quickly here when asked for his effort, shaping more like a stayer at the trip. He was clipped in to 7/2 but that's not tempting given he could be vulnerable to a rival with a better turn of foot. It's great that he'll take on the other leading British contender My Tent Or Yours in the Christmas Hurdle. Many trainers would duck the issue and find a soft race in January / February, especially as Kempton would look to suit My Tent Or Yours better. If more trainers had Nigel Twiston-Davies' approach, it would hugely improve racing over the winter.
The Twiston-Davies team also won the other big race as Double Ross took the open handicap chase, (2m5f, good,) off 133. He was 5lb lower than his hurdles mark but his chase form looked a fair way short of what was required here. He was backed in from 12/1 to 7/1 and looked set for a decisive win before seeming to idle in the closing stages, (hard to think he was tiring, even given the strong gallop, as he's proven over much further.) He probably rates value for a bit further but, as his trainer says, he's no better than a smart handicapper. With so many of the main protagonists from the Paddy Power lining up this was always going to be a good test of the form and, as suspected, it's looking a weak renewal.
The Relkeel Hurdle (extended 2m4f, good) was a fascinating affair with interesting runners from Ireland and France. Both were disappointing and the finish was fought out by 2 British horses with the highly progressive More Of That beating 153 rated Salubrious by 2 1/4l. Assuming the runner up ran his race, then this was a terrific performance from More Of That on just the 4th run of his life, as he only had to be shaken up to assert. He should get further but is in the same ownership as At Fishers Cross and is seen as a chasing prospect for next season. For those thinking about backing him ante-post, the right option looks to be to see how At Fishers Cross fares in the Long Walk on Saturday - if he were disappointing, More Of That could easily go for the World Hurdle (12/1). He's not a betting proposition now, as if At Fishers Cross wins the Long Walk and gets to the Festival, I'd be surprised if More Of That ran too.
It's important that there are some top races during the week, and the Peterborough Chase is a great example. Arguably run too close to the King George, it still attracted a cracking field and Riverside Theatre bounced back to form, (extended 2m4f, good to soft.) The 2012 Ryanair winner had shown little in the mud last season but goes well fresh and, unpenalised, had an obvious chance on ratings. The trip looked too sharp and, like his Ryanair win, he was off the bridle for much of the race before staying on well late on to land the spoils. He'll be stepped up in trip now but Cheltenham doesn't suit and, with 3m looking ideal, he might run in the Denman at Newbury. Headgear is being mooted for his next run and he could easily be underestimated against Gold Cup contenders.
The 2m5f novice chase at Cheltenham, (good,) was effectively a match between Wonderful Charm, who was 3/3 over fences, and high class hurdler Oscar Whisky (who received 8lb,) who had been beaten by Taquin Du Seuil in a crawl here last month. With no pace likely again, Barry Geraghty took the initiative on Oscar Whisky and he had the run of the race out front. It looked turning in as if Wonderful Charm might get to him but the weight concession proved too much and he went down by 1/2l. The winner is a late recruit to chasing, rising 9, and the suspicion is one or two novices will have improved past him come March. Both are likely to head for the Jewson with Wonderful Charm 10/1 and Oscar Whisky 12/1. Both are contenders but I wouldn't be rushing to back either at this stage.
With stablemate Wonderful Charm heading towards the Jewson, Black Thunder might be the Nicholls horse for the RSA after making it 3 from 3 over fences when taking a Grade 2 at Lingfield, (3m soft.) He'd beaten Shotgun Paddy (who received 3lb) a lot further last time than the 2 3/4l here, but the suspicion was that Shotgun Paddy didn't run his race then, and this still rates a smart effort. He's 20/1 for the RSA which looks about right. It'll be interesting to see if he contests any of the top staying novice chases in the interim.
The extended 3m1f novice chase at Cheltenham, (good,) was won by Sam Winner who jumped well out front and showed plenty of stamina to hold Le Bec, (who was giving 8lb,) by 4l. The suspicion is that neither will be quite good enough for the RSA, though both stay well, so the 4 miler could be an option, (both are 12/1 for the latter.)
Karinga Dancer had been a progressive hurdler this year, rattling up a 4 timer, culminating with an easy win off 135, (before finding things too hot in the Elite when 11l 5th to Melodic Rendezvous.) Switched to fences he was a comfortable winner of a 2m3f novice at Doncaster, (good.) This didn't tell us much more than he can jump fences. 25/1 for the Jewson looks about right and we'll know more when he tackles better company.
Mozoltov was the latest of Willie Mullins big guns to be unleashed over fences at Fairyhouse, (2m, yielding to soft.) It looked a strong beginners chase but he easily disposed of useful sorts Mallowney and Mount Colah. He was described as a stayer by his trainer at the start of the season but he showed plenty of pace here and looks another good prospect. Having to fit in with both the top Mullins novices and the top Gigginstown novices, means it's hard to know which race he might contest at the Festival as he looks pretty flexible tripwise. He's 33/1 for the Arkle, 20/1 for the Jewson but not quoted for the RSA.
Sizing Gold was a fair novice hurdler last season and made a good start over fences when an easy 4l winner of a beginners at Navan, (2m4f, yielding to soft.) On this early evidence, jumping is his strong point and it will be interesting to see how he fares in better company. He's 25/1 for the RSA.
Open Hearted had an abortive novice chase campaign last season when beaten by Fago and the decision to keep him a novice looked a good one when he got off the mark at Bangor, (extended 2m1f, soft). He jumped better as he warmed up and readily accounted for a 147 rated hurdler. He bossed the race but didn't really quicken when challenged and might be a stayer. He's 25/1 for the Jewson and we'll know more after his next run, (it'll be interesting to see how he jumps in a better race.)
Probably the best bumper run last winter was that won by Red Sherlock, (The Skyfarmer, Captain Cutter and Shantou Magic following him home.) He hosed up in a maiden hurdle at Southwell, (extended 2m4f,) and whilst it was an ordinary field, he clearly has an engine. He's 20/1 for the Neptune. It's too early to evaluate his likely Festival target, but from an ability point of view, that looks a big price.
The 2m1f novice hurdle at Cheltenham looked a red hot contest and Ballyalton showed his defeat of the hugely promising Oscar Rock no fluke, by beating Garde La Victoire a neck, the pair clear, (good.) Ballyalton is seen as a chaser in the making but he's up the with the best novice hurdlers we've seen in Britain so far, beating smart prospects in his last 2 races. He's now 10/1 favourite for the Neptune. That looks the right race and 10/1 might be generous. This was a qualifier for the EBF final but it looked as if Ian Williams is eyeing the Grade 1 route, and Ballyalton looks up to it. He rates an exciting prospect.
The 3m novice hurdle didn't look as strong in terms of proven form, but did contain some interesting unexposed types. As often happens in these sorts of events we got a really impressive winner in Kings Palace who jumped superbly and coasted home by 14l. He's a smart prospect but 5/1 for the Albert Bartlett looks very short given he might not have beaten much here. It'll be interesting to see how the beaten horses fare.
The Grade 1 novice hurdle at Navan, (2m4f, yielding to soft,) has been a graveyard for hot pots in recent years, whilst the winners have proved classy types. It ended up a match and Champion Bumper winner Briar Hill broke the trend of losing odds on favourites by comfortably beat Azorian by 4 3/4l. He doesn't look to have a great turn of foot but looks a high class galloper, so the Albert Bartlett is the obvious race at the Festival. 10/1 looks good value as Kings Palace is pretty short and few of the others quoted at the front of the market look likely runners.
Sizing Tennessee started only 10/1 in Briar Hill's Champion Bumper but was far too keen. He made a good start over hurdles at Navan, (2m yielding,) beating Rock The World by 3 3/4l. The runner up had chased useful types Gilt Shadow and Bishops Road home in his previous two runs, so the form feels solid. Willie Mullins reported that he would come on a lot for the run so he looks a decent prospect. He's 33/1 for the Neptune and 20/1 for the Albert Bartlett. He may not yet have the profile of some of the stables novice hurdlers but he's very much in the mix at this early stage - we'll know more about him after another run.
Finally, the unseasonably quick ground might be playing a part, but the ridiculously tiny fields for so many conditions events is worrying. After a match in a Grade 2 chase at Ascot a couple of weeks ago, there was another in the Grade 1 novice hurdle at Navan won by Briar Hill. Whilst both ended up matches because horses were late scratches, the concern is mounting that the existing programme is unviable. It's too early to draw conclusions yet, but it might be that a radical pruning of the number of conditions races for top horses is needed. If you were surprised by the howls of anguish from trainers in Britain over the revised novice chase programme, the painful process of making top conditions races at least a bit competitive will lead to an even higher decibel reading.