Matt Tombs / Tuesday 6th January 2015 / 16:34
There were three Grade 1 novice hurdles this week and the star performance came from L’Ami Serge, who was a maiden in 6 hurdles starts in France but has been a revelation for Nicky Henderson. He followed up his easy Grade 2 win at Ascot with a facile victory in the Grade 1 Tolworth at Sandown, (2m, soft) by 14l. It was a bad turnout for the only 2m Grade 1 novice hurdle in Britain before the Festival, but he dismissed a couple of solid novices in Jolly’s Cracked It and Shelford. He’s effectively the only horse not trained by Willie Mullins at shorter than 25/1 in the Supreme market and given we don’t know how the British and Irish form compares, 5/1 might be fair value. He jumps well and has plenty of pace, the concern is that he’s only run on testing ground so far. His half-brother Sizing Codelco looks to act on a sound surface and if L’Ami Serge does, he’ll be a worthwhile opponent for the Mullins battalions.
The Challow at Newbury had more depth than the Tolworth and Parlour Games saw the 2m5f trip out better I thought he would, (they went slowly when he won at Cheltenham over the same trip,) beating dual Grade 2 winner Vyta Du Roc a neck, with another Grade 2 winner Blacklion another 1¼l away 3rd, (good to soft.) He was rated in the 90s on the flat and looks to have the right blend of speed and stamina for the Neptune. 12/1 looks decent value to give John Ferguson a break through Festival victory. Vyta Du Roc and Blaklion shouldn’t be written off and both look to have claims in the Albert Bartlett, (10/1 and 16/1 respectively), without appealing at those prices.
It was great to see Naas hosting its first Grade 1 and there was a cracking finish as McKinley outpointed the same connections Tell Us More, (who conceded 3lb,) to win by ¾l, (2m4f, soft). It’s not often a horse that wins it’s maiden at Sligo in July wins a Grade 1 and it’s hard know what to make of this. McKinley had the right horses behind him though and only having just turned 5, may just be improving fast. 25/1 for the Neptune is a bit of an insult. The runner-up had a huge reputation but had only won a maiden. Willie Mullins is considering dropping him back in trip so the Supreme (25/1) is an option as well as the Neptune (12/1), but it’s a watching brief for now.
Fletchers Flyer doesn’t look the most straightforward but has plenty of ability and ran out an easy winner of a competitive novice at Wincanton, (2m6f, heavy.) He looks to stay well and if he puts his best foot forward, (some form of headgear to help him concentrate looks worth trying,) he could be a player in the Albert Bartlett, (20/1).
Thomas Brown showed plenty off the bridle to win a strong novice hurdle at Cheltenham, (extended 2m4f, good to soft.) He sports cheekpieces but looks tough and game and heads for the Albert Bartlett. He’s 20/1 and shouldn’t be underestimated.
A less heralded novice worth keeping an eye on is War Sound who bolted up by 12l on his racecourse debut in a novice hurdle at Exeter, (2m3f, soft,) where he ended Southfield Royale’s unbeaten record. He’s 20/1 for the Neptune and we’ll know more about him after another run, (he’s a chasing type so whether he’ll go to the Festival this season is unclear.)
Ptit Zig had been a slow learner over fences according to Paul Nicholls but he’s been really progressive and beat a good horse in Champagne West comfortably by 6l in the Grade 2 Dipper novice chase at Cheltenham, (2m5f, good to soft.) Nicholls was keen to emphasise he wasn’t at his best having had 4 races in just over 7 weeks, (he wanted Ptit Zig to get experience over the course before the Festival.) He has stacks of speed, (6th in the Champion Hurdle,) and having proven his stamina looks the leading British hope for the JLT. 5/1 at first sight looks tempting, but the Irish challenge from the likes of Vautour, Gilgamboa, Valseur Lido and Apache Stronghold looks formidable. Champagne West has looked a classy novice at intermediate trips so far but will surely be better at 3m and 16/1 for the RSA looks on the generous side.
Ptit Zig could be joined by Splash Of Ginge in the JLT. He’d tipped up when going well in the big December handicap at Cheltenham, and was a convincing winner of a similar race at the track, (2m5f, good to soft,) winning off 145, (less Jamie Bargary’s 7lb claim.) Nigel Twiston Davies’ Double Ross won this off 5lb lower last season before being beaten only 2l when 3rd in the JLT. Splash Of Ginge is 16/1 for the JLT – he’s the type who might be a bigger price on the day and provide each-way value.
The Job Is Right is gradually getting his act together over fences and followed his fine 3rd in the Paddy Power handicap chase at Leopardstown off 127, by winning a beginners at Punchestown, beating As De Ferbet, (who received 13lb), by 1½l, (3m1f, soft.) He’s tough and stays well and the 4 miler (20/1) is under consideration. He looks to have the stamina for that, though jockey bookings will be even more important than usual as he looks to need plenty of encouragement.
Alan King viewed Grumeti as an Arkle horse, so it was a surprise to see him go off such a big price when beating Chris Pea Green, (who gave 5lb,) by 1¼l at Plumpton, (2m1f, soft). He wouldn’t have loved the soft ground but this was a long way short of Arkle, (40/1,) form. He’d be better off in a handicap and, currently rated 142, would be of interest in the Grand Annual. Equally, he might be worth trying over further and only needs to come down 2lb to be eligible for the novice’s handicap.
2012 Champion Hurdle winner, Rock On Ruby, celebrated turning 10 on new year’s day by winning a good minor conditions event at Cheltenham, (extended 2m4f, good to soft,) beating Vaniteux, (who received 8lb,) by 2½l. Given his preference for a sound surface, (ground apparently rode worse than the description,) this was a good effort from Rock On Ruby. He’s 14/1 for the World Hurdle but, open as that race looks at the moment, I’d be pretty surprised if he was able to win. Understandably connections want to give it a go, but the Aintree Hurdle might be his ideal race.
The vibes for Annie Power making the Festival aren’t great and I’m keeping a close eye on the mares division as, in her absence, the race is wide open. Take Quevega out and novices have a good record, and Tara Point could be a dark horse. She’s 3/4 now after winning a decent mares novice at Taunton comfortably, (2m1f, soft.) Her defeat was when 1¼l 3rd to Vyta Du Roc in a Grade 2 novice against the geldings. She’s seen as a chaser for the future so Paul Nicholls might bypass the Festival this year – it’s worth keeping an eye on the vibes.
A more obvious contender is second favourite Aurore D’Estruval. She’d been an excellent 1¾l 2nd in the Fighting Fifth and, back in the calmer waters of a listed mares race, she defied an 8lb penalty to beat Dark Spirit by 2l, (2m4f, soft). Tony McCoy said the sedate early pace didn’t suit her and she’d be much better in a faster run race. She might be best at 2m and has a similar profile over hurdles to Cockney Sparrow who was a bit disappointing in 5th last year. She has the form in the book if Annie Power doesn’t run, but 5/1 isn’t generous given how well unexposed novices tend to do in the race.
Finally, the low sun fiasco reached a new depth this week at Taunton with fences being jumped but not hurdles – the hurdles not even being jumped after the sun went down. In an age of litigation you can see the logic of saying the jockeys must decide, or there’d be a lawsuit if there was a bad accident, but I can’t see how this can work in practice. If you go with the majority decision, if the accident happened to a jockey who voted not to jump the obstacles, the legal liability could still be there. If a single jockey objecting is sufficient then it’s inevitable some will start to do so tactically. It’s not hard to imagine connections of an ex-flat horse with lots of speed, but that’s an indifferent jumper, picking a race where low sun looks a potential problem – and the jockey objecting. The right solution is to get courses to construct temporary buildings to block the sun out.