Matt Tombs / Monday 16th February 2015 / 13:58
Holywell was found an ideal confidence booster in a minor conditions event at Kelso, (3m2f, good to soft.) He’s never been a fluent jumper but was adequate here, making all with the all-important blinkers back on. AP McCoy has said that he enjoys being ridden aggressively, but he’ll have plenty of competition for the lead in the Gold Cup (11/1) – especially if Coneygree runs. On the plus side it looks like being a truly run renewal, which will help as he’s a real stayer. Its not out of the question he could complete a Festival hat-trick, but I just think he lacks a bit of class.
At Gowran, Champagne Fever faced a tougher task in the Grade 2 Red Mills Chase, but made light of it to beat Texas Jack easily by 4¼l, (2m4f, soft to heavy). This showed he’d suffered no ill-effects from his tumble at Thurles and was the perfect prep for the Festival. His best trip remains an enigma but, even though he took a lead here, he was keen - dropping him back to 2m looks the right call. With neither Western Warhorse nor Trifolium running this season and 4th home Dodging Bullets’ winning two open Grade 1s, last season’s Arkle might have been a better renewal than has been given credit for. Champagne Fever’s Festival record is excellent and if there’s give in the ground he has a decent chance in an open looking Champion Chase (6/1). He’s 10/1 for the Ryanair if connections decide to go that route.
Whilst there looks plenty of quality at the top of the Champion Hurdle market, there is a real lack of depth to the race, (Kingwell winner Blue Heron isn’t even entered.) The one obvious dark horse is Kitten Rock who made it 4/4 this season when winning the Red Mills Trial at Gowran, (2m, soft to heavy.) His task was made straightforward when Abbyssial, (who gave 2lb,) crashed out 2 from home, meaning we didn’t learn much more. Its worth noting that Plinth wasn’t able to go quickly enough as a pacemaker for Jezki in the Irish Champion and its possible the JP McManus owned Kitten Rock will be asked to make the running in the Champion Hurdle (40/1) if nothing else wants to.
The Grade 1 Ascot Chase, (extended 2m5f, soft,) looked competitive beforehand but rather fell apart. I’d had stamina doubts about Balder Succes, and I’m still not sure what he achieved here. He jumped well and it might just be that he enjoys going a stride slower and getting organized at his fences. It’s understandable that he goes for the Ryanair (7/1) rather than Champion Chase (20/1), but that does tend to go to a real stayer at the trip. I’d be more concerned about him getting outstayed up the hill than the fact he’s been on the floor on all 3 visits to Cheltenham.
Leading novice Ptit Zig was pitched into an open Grade 1 on his 5th start over fences and, given he’d been described as a slow learner by Paul Nicholls, that might have been a step too far at this stage. He failed to get the landing gear out at the 9th and it’s to be hoped that his confidence isn’t affected. He’s out to 9/2 for the JLT and this obviously wasn’t the ideal preparation. Ma Filleule has had a stop-start season and the vibes were she’d come on a lot for this, so to be beaten only 3¼l was a solid comeback. You need a stayer at the trip for the Ryanair (12/1) but I’d be tempted by the Gold Cup (50/1).
Dedigout had bounced back to form in the Galmoy and followed up over 3f shorter in the Grade 2 Boyne Hurdle at Navan, (2m5f, yielding to soft.) He looked to have a battle on when Briar Hill, (who gave 2lb,) crashed out at the last. This is as quick a surface as Dedigout handles but most layers are NRNB and 20/1 for the World Hurdle is generous, as he’d be shorter if the ground was soft enough for him to line up. Briar Hill looked to be on the way back and didn’t deserve to take another horrible fall. He’s 25/1 for the World Hurdle which is also tempting NRNB.
Rawnaq was a horse I had high hopes for after he won on his fencing debut on fast ground at Navan in September, and was disappointed he could only finish 4th to Band Of Blood at Cork the following month, (apparently not right there). Back from a break he sprang a surprise when beating Gilgamboa, (who gave 6lb,) by 1¾l, in the Grade 2 Flyingbolt novice chase, (2m1f, yielding to soft.) He was a useful hurdler, (3rd in the Greatwood last season off 138,) and was rated 133 over fences coming into this. If he doesn’t get put up beyond 140, he could be one for the novice’s handicap chase at the Festival – especially if there is genuinely good ground.
Whilst I think the winner was underrated, Gilgamboa was disappointing, not travelling from a long way out. It might be having run once on quick ground, (in the Supreme,) that he needs lots of cut. Equally, although Tony McCoy wasn’t hard on him in the Irish Arkle, trying to race against Un De Sceaux might have left its mark. He’s out to 25/1 for the JLT and looks opposable now unless the ground is really soft.
Albert Bartlett winner Very Wood had looked as if he might have gone when bombing the last twice. However with the cheekpieces he won the Albert Bartlett in applied for the first time over fences, he stayed on powerfully to win the Grade 2 Ten Up novice chase at Navan, beating Noble Emperor by 4¼l, (3m, yielding to soft.) 2 of the last 3 Albert Bartlett winners to have gone chasing, (Bobs Worth and Weapon’s Amnesty,) have won the RSA (20/1) and he looks to have been underestimated, although connections were talking about the 4 miler (10/1) afterwards.
Definitely Red, (7th to Silver Concorde in the Champion Bumper,) was a gutsy winner of the Grade 2 Prestige Novice Hurdle at Haydock, (3m, soft.) This was his 2nd run for Brian Ellison after being switched from Steve Gollings, and Ellison had said how green he still was after a successful stable debut at Catterick. He really looked to relish the step up to 3m here, wearing down Fletchers Flyer, (who gave 3lb,) by ½l. This race often throws up a good horse, including subsequent Albert Bartlett winner Brindisi Breeze 3 years ago. 25/1 is fair value about the winner, and I’d fancy him to confirm the form with Fletchers Flyer (20/1), though the runner-up may not run in the Albert Bartlett as Harry Fry has Thomas Brown for the race.
The Grade 3 novice hurdle at Clonmel looked a good Albert Bartlett trial, (2m6f, yielding to soft.) Roi Des Francs and Fine Article came clear in the straight, and Roi Des Francs looked to be getting on top when Fine Article was slow at the last, scoring by a cosy 2¼l. He looks to be all about stamina and the Albert Bartlett (25/1, and 20/1 NRNB,) would look the right race, but between them Willie Mullins and Gigginstown have plenty of possibles for that. His connections won the Martin Pipe last season with Don Poli who is by the same sire and quite a similar type – it’ll be interesting to see what mark he gets.
Buywise is a talented horse that has been plagued by jumping problems over fences. He was only beaten 3¼l off 146 in the Paddy Power and had been off since, before blowing away the cobwebs at 1/7 in a poor novice hurdle at Ffos Las, (2m6f, soft.) He’s a chancy betting proposition but if he does put in a clear round he could easily win the 2½m open handicap chase (14/1) at the Festival off 146. He doesn’t have much experience at staying trips but the 3m open handicap chase might give him more time at his fences. He’s definitely one to keep in mind.
Finally, Derek O'Connor became the first jockey to ride 1,000 point-to point winners on Sunday, and I've never seen a better amateur jockey. His judgment of pace in a race is superb and he's excellent in a finish. The standard of the jockeys contesting the amateur riders races at the Festival has improved hugely in the last couple of decades, but there is still clear blue water between the likes of O'Connor and Jamie Codd, and most of the others. I think the value they add is still underbet and you could do a lot worse than just back O'Connor's mounts as soon as he gets booked.