Friday provided a relatively low-key start to Cheltenham’s three-day Open meeting but one performance stood out, and it came in the novices’ chase at 2.05. All the pre-race hype surrounded Barters Hill but Ben Pauling’s stable star was pulled up mid-race and was later reported to have slipped his tendon off a hock. This isn’t a career-ending injury but he now faces a spell on the sidelines. However, even an on-song Barters Hill might have struggled to cope with O O SEVEN who fairly bolted up despite looking wayward after the last. Nicky Henderson’s imposing 6yo looked a natural over his fences and early quotes of 20-1 for the JLT could look very generous come March given his trainer indicated afterwards that they would be sticking at two-and-a-half miles.
The Neptune Investment Novices’ Hurdle was run at what looked an even gallop and the form has a sound feel about it. That makes it all the more surprising that impressive winner PEREGRINE RUN remains as big as 33-1 for the Neptune, but that is likely down to the fact that he comes from a relatively small yard. He travelled like the best horse in the race before asserting up the hill to complete the four-timer and connections have every right to dream about coming back for a tilt at a big one in March. He will stay three miles no problem so connections have the option of going for the Albert Bartlett if they feel that looks an easier option.
Despite the high-profile reversals of More Of That and Winter Escape, it was a good meeting for J P McManus who had three winners, the most exciting of which looks to be DEFI DU SEUIL, an effortless winner of the Triumph Hurdle trial on Saturday. The Philip Hobbs-trained juvenile was all the rage in the betting ring beforehand and his supporters barely had a moment’s concern as the gelding cruised into the lead without Barry Geraghty having to move a muscle. He strolled up the hill to win with his head in his chest, earning 16-1 quotes (second fav) for the Triumph Hurdle in March. Given his liking for soft ground, the Grade 1 Finale Hurdle at Chepstow looks a realistic mid-season target.
His 1-7 starting price may have been prohibitive, but all eyes were fixed firmly on Gold Cup favourite THISTLECRACK in the novices’ chase at 1.15. Colin Tizzard’s brilliant World Hurdle winner only had three rivals, none of whom were anywhere near his league, so the spotlight focused on Thistlecrack’s jumping. He made two notable errors at the ditches, banking the first, an incident that would have knocked the stuffing out of many a novice, but his jumping improved when he was allowed to stride on. It has to be remembered that, despite his position at the head of the Gold Cup market, he remains a novice and is far from the finished article as a chaser. Connections are keen to get more experience into him before Christmas and it looks like we will be seeing Thistlecrack at the Hennessy meeting later this month.
The feature race of the three-day meeting was the BetVictor Gold Cup and Jonjo O’Neill, whose stable form had come under some scrutiny going into this meeting, unleashed two of his big guns. 2014 World Hurdle winner More Of That had been talked of as a possible Gold Cup contender in the build up to this race, but the 7-2 favourite fluffed his lines and the limelight was instead stolen by stablemate TAQUIN DU SEUIL who produced a strong late run to collar long-time leader Village Vic in the final 50 yards. The winner was immediately cut into as short as 12-1 (16-1 generally) for the Ryanair Chase in March, but he could only manage sixth in that race last season.
MOON RACER is now 2-2 over hurdles after winning the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle trial in authoritative fashion, confirming Perth form with Ballyandy, last season’s Cheltenham Festival bumper winner. David Pipe’s charge has only suffered defeat in one of his six career starts and that came when only beaten three-quarters of a length in last season’s Punchestown bumper. Moon Racer will be an 8yo come March and Like A Butterfly (2002) is the only horse of that age to win the Supreme in the last 25 years, but even so, it’s extremely hard to knock his credentials at this stage and he is well worth his place at the head of the Supreme betting (8-1).
Winner of the champion bumper here in March 2015, MOON RACER returns to collect the Grade 2 Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Trial giving weight pic.twitter.com/U0y84VJBmn— Channel 4 Racing (@Channel4Racing) November 13, 2016
The two-mile chase division has a new kid on the block with FOX NORTON now 7-1 second favourite behind Douvan for the Queen Mother Champion Chase after his demotion job in the Shloeur Chase, a race marred by the fatal injury suffered by Simonsig. The winner may have been no match for the aforementioned Douvan in the Arkle or at Aintree last season, but he looks an altogether different proposition this season and new trainer Colin Tizzard had no hesitation in naming the Tingle Creek as his immediate target after Sunday’s nine-length romp under Aidan Coleman.
There were no ripples in the Arkle market after LE PREZIEN’s somewhat unconvincing victory in the Grade 2 novices’ chase. Barry Geraghty’s mount didn’t jump with much fluency and was aided by the second-last fence fall of Some Plan, who had still to be asked a serious question. Le Prezien probably needs further and, while he is probably capable of a good deal better, the JLT may be a more realistic target at this stage.