Kemboy is bidding to win the Savills Chase for the second year running.
The action continues to come thick and fast over a busy festive period, and Alex Stearn has taken a look at some of the key talking points this weekend...
Can Kemboy bite back for the Irish?
After Clan Des Obeaux's impressive showing to win Boxing Day’s feature at Kempton, bookmakers sat up and took notice of Paul Nicholls’ charge, nearly halving his price into 6/1 for the Gold Cup in March. However, he still only rates as second favourite for the National Hunt showpiece behind Kemboy, who makes his belated seasonal reappearance through no fault of his own.
Being syndicate owned and managed, Kemboy has been confined to the gallops after Supreme Racing were subject to investigation over their management and finances, which meant a blanket ban over entries and declarations were placed on all of their horses. Whilst it isn’t ideal prep for a horse whose campaign would have been planned backwards from March, it would have come as a surprise if the Savills Chase wasn’t in his original schedule. Last season was a real coming of age story for Kemboy, winning four times from his five starts, including this race last year and also Grade 1 successes at the Aintree and Punchestown festivals, with the only blip coming when unseating early in the Gold Cup. That surely left connections thinking “What if?”, and now that they are aware of the full capabilities of this horse, he should have done plenty at home and it would come as a surprise to us all were he not to defend his crown successfully.
It is worth mentioning it might not be entirely straight forward, though, with Presenting Percy in the line-up after an eye-catching reappearance run over an inadequate trip in the John Durkan Memorial Chase last time out. The three-mile trip will be much more to his liking here, and if the ground were to remain on the quicker side of soft, he would hold obvious claims, after all, he did start favourite for last year’s Gold Cup.
The Challow Novices' Hurdle is the main attraction of Newbury’s card on Saturday, with Thyme Hill and Eclair Surf both putting their unbeaten records over obstacles on the line. Emma Lavelle’s yard seems to have been increasing in quality over the last couple of years, and the debut performance of Eclair Surf at Exeter suggests he could be another with a very bright future under her tutelage. He made his debut in the middle of November in tacky, soft ground but made light work of his 10 rivals when making all and galloping nearly four lengths clear under a straightforward ride. The form of that race isn’t the strongest, but he very much fits into the ‘could be anything’ bracket.
Thyme Hill will start a short-priced favourite, and rightly so based on his two pieces of form over obstacles so far. Last year saw him run in three bumpers, including a third in the Champion Bumper at Cheltenham, before he was put away for a hurdling campaign, and he came out all guns blazing at Chepstow to battle his way to victory in the Grade 2 Persian War Novices' Hurdle in October. His jumping wasn’t the slickest that day, but he put that experience to good use at Cheltenham when defying a penalty to pick up a second Grade 2 success on the bounce. The slight drop in trip shouldn’t be an inconvenience, and despite the unknown quantity in opposition, he should be too good for these and can cement his Festival claims with victory.
Can Lady Buttons defend her crown?
Phil Kirby will be hoping for more high-level success after Top Ville Ben obliged at Wetherby on Thursday, as he sends Lady Buttons to Doncaster in a bid to retain her Silver Vase crown. Widely regarded as the Queen of the north, Lady Buttons has captured the hearts of the National Hunt world, winning five times in the last two years, headlined by Grade 2 success at this track over hurdles last January. She has shaped as if she is still in as good a form as ever this year when winning at Wetherby on reappearance, before finishing a creditable fourth in the Grade 1 Fighting Fifth at Newcastle last time out. She will be popular with punters, but faces a much tougher race than last year.
Heading the ratings in the contest is Nicky Henderson’s Casablanca Mix, who is on the hunt for a four-timer. She’s won listed contests the last twice, and the way in which she pulled effortlessly clear at Aintree on Becher Chase day suggests that she hasn’t reached her ceiling quite yet. La Bague Au Roi also drops in grade after a good effort in the Peterborough Chase at Huntingdon earlier this month, and if she returns the form of last season, she could well cope with the two-and-a-half-mile trip at this lesser level. Rounding off the challenge is recent BetVictor Gold Cup winner Happy Diva for Kerry Lee. She won a similar race at Huntingdon last season, and the form of that race has proven to be strong considering that the runner-up that day, Magic Of Light, went on to finish second in the Grand National. This consistent mare hasn’t run a bad race in a long time so holds obvious claims, but they could all be left in the wake of Casablanca Mix, with more improvement possible from this lightly-raced type.
More big-race success for Henry de Bromhead?
Leopardstown’s Christmas Festival hosts a wide variety of big names, and one that will be looking to get back into the winners enclosure is Minella Indo. He represents the high-profile team of Henry de Bromhead and Rachel Blackmore in the Grade 1 Novice Chase after just one attempt to date in this sphere. Having been dropped back to two-and-a-half miles for his chasing debut, he found himself having to give weight away to Laurina, which was always going to be a difficult task. The three-mile trip on Sunday will suit him much better than his previous start, and with him being a Grade 1 winner over hurdles, he could take a lot of beating.
Gigginstown and Gordon Elliott throw two darts at the prize, with both Battleoverdoyen and Champagne Classic lining up. The former is unbeaten when completing under Rules, with his only blot on an otherwise perfect form book coming when pulled-up in the Ballymore at Cheltenham, having been sent off as the favourite. Jack Kennedy was on board that day, and was reported to have said that he was never travelling in that contest and now tackling fences, he hasn’t looked back. He is a previous point-to-point winner, giving the impression fences were always going to be his game, and he readily pulled clear of a useful yardstick at Grade 2 level last time, which bodes well for his hat-trick attempt here. Both of Minella Indo and Battleoverdoyen are worthy of competing at this level, with preference for Henry De Bromhead’s charge, who can improve for the step back up in trip.
Will he follow up his Sublime effort?
Coeur Sublime is another from the superpower that is Gordon Elliott’s stable, with strong graded form to his name, and now pitched into Grade 1 company, he could well continue to improve and shake-up the Champion Hurdle market further. The young pretender of the field being only four years old, he made his seasonal reappearance at Down Royal at the start of November and posted a clear career best when hosing up by 15 lengths in a Grade 2 contest. His previous form suggested he usually improves for a run as well, so with that initial outing under his belt, he could improve again and pose a serious threat to the Willie Mullins pair in opposition.
Klassical Dream was many punters' idea of the Champion Hurdle winner after his success in novice company at the Festival, but after being turned over on his seasonal reappearance, they may have deserted him. He wasn’t beaten all that far, though, and is entitled to improve for that, but considering Petit Mouchoir split him and the winner, you’d have to be on the tentative side if siding with him at around even money at the time of writing. Sharjah was behind him that day and will do well to close to gap, with Darasso also worthy of a mention given he was a smooth Grade 2 winner last time out.
Considering Epatante is now favourite for the Champion Hurdle in March after starting life in handicaps this year, the winner of this Grade 1 contest surely leapfrogs her as market leader, and with Coeur Sublime making most appeal, it may be worth backing for the big one in March him before Sunday.