Road To Cheltenham: Would he or wouldn't he?

Samcro was a dramatic faller late on in the Drinmore Novice Chase at Fairyhouse on Sunday.
Samcro was a dramatic faller late on in the Drinmore Novice Chase at Fairyhouse on Sunday.

In the latest edition of our weekly series, Nick Seddon reviews a busy weekend of action on both sides of the Irish Sea, and looks at what it might all mean in terms of next year's Cheltenham Festival...

It’s always a treat to get to see some ITV Racing action during the week, and Friday’s racing at Newbury didn’t disappoint; offering up a trio of pulsating finishes - beginning with fourth race on the card, the two and a half mile handicap chase. 

It involved a tussle between two top novices from last season who had previous against each other, Glen Forsa and Kalashnikov. The latter was conceding 5 lb to his old rival, and had done so many of the hard yards in front, before being collared in the dying strides by Oldgrangewood for the Skelton brothers. It represented a first win in two years for Oldgrangewood - requiring an inch-perfect ride from Harry Skelton to get it - and the placed runners are likely the two to take out of this. Kalashnikov looks ready for a return to Graded company, and much like Frodon last term, that could come at the turn of the year and culminate in a Ryanair Chase tilt. 

That particularly pulsating finish was followed thirty-five minutes later by the Grade 2 Berkshire Novices’ Chase, in which Champ did plenty wrong, but still found a way to take his tally over fences to two from two. His jumping was sloppy at times, and he almost ran out in the closing stages, but I think that’s more of a feather in his cap than a hindrance at this stage, and he looks likely to become a top novice when the kinks are ironed out. He’s the clear 3/1 favourite for the RSA Chase, and rightly so. 

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Friday’s action was rounded off by the Long Distance Hurdle, which saw the king of the staying division Paisley Park make a winning reappearance. He was made to work for it, though, by a previous daddy of the land in his own right in Thistlecrack, but he asserted late on and took his unbeaten sequence to six. The 7/4 available about him for the Stayers’ Hurdle feels right, and he remains the one to beat in this sphere - with If The Cap Fits likely to be the next challenger to the crown in the Long Walk at Ascot later this month. The gallant Thistlecrack produced some warm-up for the King George, and considering he’s rising 12 very soon, he’s heading for a swan song at some point you’d think. There still seems to be plenty of life in the old dog just yet, however, and although he was rather over-jumping his hurdles and giving them plenty of air at times, you’d think that he’ll have more chance of Grade 1 honours over hurdles this term than over fences. 

Shy of the ITV cameras was Saturday’s John Francome Novices’ Chase at the same venue, which had just the three runners but saw a striking chasing debut from the Paul Nicholls-trained Danny Whizzbang, who took the notable scalp of Reserve Tank on just his third career start. A Grade 2 winner at Wincanton last month, Reserve Tank is particularly well thought of, though for the second time in three outings over fences he was turned over at a short price, and Danny Whizzbang is one to keep an eye on. He’s a lively 16/1 shot for both the RSA Chase and the National Hunt Chase respectively, and will be aiming to do what Jarveys Plate couldn’t at Haydock last month, and prove that taking the scalp of Reserve Tank was no fluke next time out. 

The terrestrial coverage soon began and quickly beamed up to Newcastle for the Grade 1 Fighting Fifth Hurdle, which is seen as the natural starting point for a key Champion Hurdle contender or two each season. This year the focus was again on Buveur D’Air, the dual Champion Hurdler and two-time winner of this race, who looked to have something of a penalty kick up against four rivals who were largely genuine, but inferior types. Buveur D’Air had largely re-inherited the mantle as the one to beat in this division after the sad loss of Espoir D’Allen over the summer, and he was sent off as an untouchable 13/2-on favourite - only to be foiled by a superb ride from Henry Brooke on Cornerstone Lad - who pinched a big lead at the beginning and slowly wound things up, getting response after response from his partner before gamely hanging on in a photo. It’s unlikely he’ll ever top this, but it was undoubtedly some day for his connections. Of course, we now know that Buveur D’Air was lame, suffering a freak injury from a piece of wood, and hopefully he makes a full recovery - though it seems likely that his season is over. Later on the card, Top Ville Ben seemed sure to return to winning ways in the Rehearsal Chase - which regularly requires a good stayer to win it - only to run out of petrol in the dying strides and be collared by both Takingrisks (first) and Captain Chaos (second). All three will continue to have productive seasons. 

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Epatante had her bubble firmly burst in the Dawn Run Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham last season, but bounced back in good style in the Gerry Fielden at Newbury on Saturday, and her quotes of around 14/1 for the Mares’ Hurdle are probably a fair reflection of her position in that particular division at the moment. The feature race, however, was the Ladbrokes Trophy, which regularly produces a top drawer staying chaser. It remains to be seen just how informative this year’s renewal will prove to be, though in De Rasher Counter we were provided with a game winner, from whom there’s surely more to come. The same can be said for both The Conditional (second) and Beware The Bear (fourth), while it’s becoming very difficult to dislike the third-placed Elegant Escape, who isn’t quite a Gold Cup horse - but can’t be knocked for his attitude - and ran a mighty race under a big weight. He could well attempt to defend his crown in the Welsh National later this month, with the equivalent of a settee on his back. 

On Sunday, attention switched over the Irish Sea to Fairyhouse, which hosted no less than three Grade 1 contests - beginning with the two-mile Royal Bond Novice Hurdle. 

The focus here was always going to be on last year’s Champion Bumper winner Envoi Allen, whose reputation had really begun to gather momentum after a near-flawless hurdling debut at Down Royal the previous month - which took his unbeaten tally under Rules to five. He was sent off as a firm 11/8-on favourite as a consequence, but faced a conceivable threat in the form of his stablemate Abracadabras, who was behind him in fourth at Cheltenham last season but already had a Grade 3 win over timber under his belt. 

As it transpired it was some statement by Envoi Allen, who was slick over his hurdles and gamely saw off the late challenge of his stablemate by a cosy one-and-a-half-length margin. The hype continues to grow, and that top level success - the second of his career, of course - means that he is now the firm favourite for both the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle simultaneously, while he’s also available at a single-figure price against the big boys in the Champion Hurdle. The latter feels a little too soon just yet, but the world is very much his oyster, and connections are spoiled for choice in terms of spring targets. 

Half-an-hour later was the Drinmore Novice Chase, which featured just five runners but was soaked in drama, and perhaps asked more questions than it was able to answer. We looked set for a duel to the line between the slick-jumping Fakir D’Oudairies and the strong-travelling Samcro, and the latter seemed to have more in the tank when coming upsides his rival two out, only to depart at that flight and deny us a likely spectacle and a half. Fakir D’Oudairies went on to win in splendid isolation, defeating an Irish National winner in Burrows Saint in the process (who will surely step back up in trip after this), though there’s a niggling doubt as to whether he’d have mastered Samcro - who was travelling noticeably well when easing into the argument. Either way, Fakir D’Oudairies remains an excellent prospect and could very easily become a key contender back down at two miles, in a division which looks particularly open at the moment. As for Samcro, everyone knows that to be a top chaser (or a winning one) you must first clear the obstacles in front of you, but there can be no doubt that he is heading back towards the level of horse he hinted at being as a novice hurdler. 

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Last but certainly not least was the Hatton’s Grace Hurdle, which had been won for the past three seasons by Apple’s Jade, though she had been mastered on reappearance at Navan by Bacardys the previous month, and re-opposed against that rival with a point to prove. Both were upstaged by a new kid on the block, however, the five-year-old mare Honeysuckle - who ran riot to win by nine lengths. Naturally, she’s now the 7/4 favourite ahead of Benie Des Dieux for the Mares’ Hurdle, though it’s a telling sign as to just how highly she’s regarded that her name can be found lurking in as many as five ante-post markets for the Cheltenham Festival. It seems almost a shame to confine to races her against her own sex, but she has plenty of time on her side and certainly looks the real deal under regular partner Rachael Blackmore. Bacardys ought to continue plugging away at this kind of level and will undoubtedly find some good opportunities along the way, though concerns begin to grow about Apple’s Jade. That’s five defeats on the trot now for a mare who was thought untouchable in her own right as recently as last season, and the time seems right to switch her back to races against her own sex - in a sphere where I’m sure she still has plenty to offer. 

Taking centre stage next week will be Sandown and the Tingle Creek, though the supporting cast includes a potentially hot-looking renewal of the Grade 1 John Durkan Memorial Chase at Punchestown, while we firmly find ourselves on the Road To Aintree™ with the Becher Chase. 

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