Matt Tombs / Monday 9th February 2015 / 16:15
It was a bold decision to pitch novice Coneygree into the Grade 2 Denman Chase at Newbury, on just his 3rd chase start, but it paid off as he gave more experienced rivals a jumping lesson, making all to beat Houblon Des Obeaux, (who gave 1lb,) by 7l, (3m, soft). The runner up is a solid yardstick (rated 161) and this looked RSA (5/1) winning form, although the Gold Cup (16/1 ante-post and 12/1 NRNB,) is understandably under consideration. Quick ground would be a concern, but otherwise he’s a worthy favourite for the RSA if connections stick to the novice route.
One factor that might impact that decision is that Coneygree is a front runner. Whilst the likes of Road To Riches and Holywell might want to make it in the Gold Cup, Kings Palace would definitely be taking him on up front in the RSA. Kings Palace won a match at 2/13 at Newbury, (3m, soft). He blundered at the last ditch 3 from home, but is generally an excellent jumper and should have learnt from that mistake. However he got another soft lead here and looked to do too much too soon when folding tamely after being taken on in the Albert Bartlett last season. I’m also not sure how tough he’ll be in a battle. He’s 11/2 for the RSA but you’d want to see the likelihood of him getting his own way out front before backing him – I suspect I’ll be taking him on again.
The Game Spirit Chase at Newbury, (2m, soft,) was an extraordinary spectacle. The quirky Mr Mole wheeled round and lost at least 10l at the start. Surprisingly Barry Geraghty didn’t take the initiative on Uxizandre and they went steadily, allowing Mr Mole to get back into the race without using too much energy. He looked to be going best when left clear, and cruised home. Paul Nicholls has once again worked the oracle with an apparent dodgepot and better ground ought to suit Mr Mole, but I can’t yet get my head round him winning even a weak Champion Chase, (10/1).
Sire De Grugy, (who gave 4lb,) was a bit keen early on, but looked as if he might be in trouble when getting 4 out all wrong, before crashing out at the next. We don’t know how much of his ability he retains, but it’s a big ask to win a Champion Chase off this preparation and 7/1 doesn’t appeal.
I’d had Vibrato Valtat down as one to take on in top company as I expected him to curl up when the going gets tough. However, he’s looking better with every race and bolted up in the Grade 2 Kingmaker at Warwick, (2m, soft), beating 153 rated Top Gamble, (who received 3lb,) by 4½l. Perhaps, despite being stoutly bred, he’s only now really seeing out the 2m trip. He faces a huge obstacle in Un De Sceaux in the Arkle, (7/1) but its great that at least one leading novice is going to take him on. He looks the most likely winner if Un De Sceaux fluffs his lines, though I wouldn’t be backing him each-way as I can see Un De Sceaux running him into the ground, and outsiders running on past him up the hill.
The other main British hope for the Arkle, Josses Hill, failed to impress with his jumping for the 3rd time running when beaten ¾l by Third Intention, (who gave 11lb,) in a graduation chase at Kempton, (extended 2m4f, good to soft.) Josses Hill clearly has a good engine but might benefit from missing the spring festivals and getting more experience in calmer waters with next season in mind. He’s 14/1 for the Arkle and 25/1 for the JLT – neither appeal. Third Intention has been called plenty of names but has looked a better horse this season. He’s 100/1 for the Ryanair and is just the sort to run into a place at a huge price, without winning.
I’d been taken by Southfield Theatre’s form in the autumn, but he was a bit disappointing when beaten on unsuitably testing ground at Newbury last time. He regained the winning thread in a novice at Exeter beating Melodic Rendezvous by 2¾l, (extended 2m3f, good to soft). I wasn’t hugely impressed as the runner-up came from a yard out of form and might not have finished his race, and newcomer Val De Law might have won but for falling at the last. Southfield Theatre will be much better suited by a step back up to 3m, but I wonder if he’s quite good enough for the RSA (16/1).
Arbre De Vie recorded his 2nd wide margin novice hurdle win since joining Willie Mullins, at Warwick, (2m5f, soft.) He’s an unknown quantity who might slip below the radar with all Mullins’ high-profile novices. Given Willie has so many for the Neptune (33/1) but, relatively speaking, a weaker hand in the Albert Bartlett (25/1,) my guess is he’ll end up in the latter. He’s had only 2 hurdles though and such an inexperienced hurdler has never won the Albert Bartlett. A sound surface is an unknown.
Glens Melody was only ¾l behind Quevega in the Mares Hurdle last season and has been really consistent in 3 runs in open graded races since, (RPR of 142-144 each time.) Returned to mare’s company, she hosed up at Warwick, (2m5f, soft,) which was the perfect confidence booster. She’s more an each-way play for the Mares Hurdle this year (6/1) as she might be vulnerable to an improver even if Annie Power doesn’t show up.
Despite a host of withdrawls it was a cracking hunter chase at Bangor where Teaforthree beat Pacha Du Polder, (who gave 8lb,) by 2¾l, (extended 2m4f, soft.) The winner’s main target is the Grand National but the plan is to take in the Foxhunter (4/1) en route. As a 151 rated horse who’ll stay every yard, 4/1 is fair enough, but it’s hard to know how close to his peak he’ll be at Cheltenham, (assuming he gets qualified). Pacha Du Polder emerges as the best horse at the weights but this trip suited him much better than the winner, and I’d be doubtful of him getting home over 3m2½f in the Foxhunter, (12/1).
The quadruple Grade 1 card at Leopardstown should provide plenty of Festival clues, although the Hennessy, (3m, yielding,) hasn’t been a good guide to the Gold Cup in recent times. It would be a fairytale if AP McCoy could win it on his last Gold Cup ride on Carlingford Lough, who beat Foxrock by ¾l here. This was a fantastic training performance from John Kiely whose yard has been out of sorts this winter. He’s entitled to improve again and will relish every yard of the Gold Cup trip, but he didn’t jump well on his only run at Cheltenham in the RSA last year – 12/1 looks about right.
There was lots to like about Nichols Canyon’s win in a strong looking renewal of the Deloitte novice hurdle, beating Windsor Park, (who conceded 1lb,) by 3½l, (2m2f, yielding.) This was his 2nd Grade 1 after the 2m Royal Bond, but this was a much stronger event. He stayed 2m on the flat, (rated 111,) and looks to have the ideal blend of speed and stamina for the Neptune (8/1). Windsor Park wasn’t fluent early on and stayed on for 2nd, building on a good run here over 2f further here last month. He’s 14/1 for the Neptune but the Albert Bartlett (25/1) might suit him more.
The Flogas, (formerly Moriarty,) also looked a strong renewal of what’s almost always a good Grade 1 novice chase, (2m5f, yielding.) It turned into a re-match of the Drinmore with my JLT fancy Apache Stronghold turning the tables on Valseur Lido, winning by ½l. Apache Stronghold was a bit sticky down the back straight but showed a real turn of foot under a typically cool ride by Paul Carberry. A sound surface suits ideally and, given he didn’t jump as well as he can here, he looks a leading contender for the JLT. If you’re not already on, 8/1 looks generous. Valseur Lido jumped really well again but just got done for toe in the straight on this better ground. Willie Mullins is itching to step him up to 3m and the RSA (14/1) rather than the JLT (12/1) looks the more likely target – but you’d be taking his stamina on trust and genuinely good ground would also be a concern.
Finally, AP McCoy announced that he’s retiring towards the end of the season, after he completes his 20th championship. I mentioned here when he rode his 4,000th winner, that I thought the end of the 2014/15 season was his most likely time for retirement - its fantastic to see the great man going out on his own terms. You always believe when they retire that you’ll see another Kauto Star or another Istabraq – but I’ll be astonished if I ever see a rider match AP’s achievements. There’ll be a huge hole in the sport next season – not just a brilliant jockey, but also as a role model of how to conduct yourself.