Dan Overall Eye-catchers: Two potential Cheltenham handicap contenders stand out from weekend action

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Dan Overall is back for his weekly eye-catchers column, and as the countdown to the Cheltenham Festival gathers momentum, he picks out some that could well light up the Prestbury Park extravaganza in March...

Tuesday 11th January – 2:15 Doncaster – Moriko De Vassy (1st)

This column was not designed to highlight winners and yet I am fully recognisant of the fact that, counting last week, this is the third winner I have mentioned in the past four entries – rest assured, there will be no more last time out winners for the remainder of this piece! 

Alas, some winners merit an entry and Moriko De Vassy is certainly one of them.

The form of his bumper win looks considerably better now than it did at the time while he also made a very impressive debut over hurdles in what was, admittedly, a rather weak contest. He followed that with a heavy fall and so I was curious to see what he would produce after that incident.

Tentatively handled by Aidan Coleman, Moriko De Vassy could be spotted going notably well as the field turned for home for all that he was still in eighth place. As the race began to unfold, Coleman’s patience persisted until he jumped the second last, after which he asked his mount to chase down the leaders. The response was immediate and the four-length deficit was quickly eroded. A final flight blunder certainly didn’t aid his cause, but he rallied gamely to beat a fair horse of Fergal O’Brien’s, to whom he was conceding a penalty. 

Moriko De Vassy certainly looks a nice prospect for Tom Symonds, who has already noted that he will make a better chaser. He’s worth having in your tracker for the long term but for the remainder of the season, it would not be surprising if he were to make an appearance in a decent handicap hurdle.

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Saturday 15th January – 2:25 Warwick – Scipion (3rd)

Tom Lacey wouldn’t be known as the most optimistic trainer when assessing the chances of his runners, and so it was quite surprising that he entered a maiden in the Grade 2 Leamington Novices’ Hurdle. Perhaps his boldness was partly down to the fact that he won the race last year or maybe it was because he owns the horse; either way, his boldness was justified.

Scipion ran with plenty of credit in this competitive affair having shaped well behind subsequent Tolworth runner up, Jetoile. His jumping certainly couldn’t have been described as slick, and in truth he looked like getting outpaced at several stages and yet he battled on tenaciously. While he never really looked like getting to the winner, there was a brief stage on the home turn that it looked as though he might make a race of it. He eventually finished third, which was a more than creditable effort.

Given he remains a maiden, opportunities will be plentiful for the son of Shantou for the remainder of the season but perhaps he will be of greater interest once sent over fences next season; his second in a point-to-point behind Minella Crooner looks like decent form now and I can envisage Scipion becoming a useful staying chaser in time.

Cheltenham Festival 2022

Saturday 15th January – 2:40 Kempton – Marie’s Rock (PU)

I’ve previously included horses in this column that haven’t beat a rival home but this is the first time I have mentioned a horse that didn’t even finish the race!

And in fairness to Marie’s Rock, she never had a chance having been brought effectively to a standstill by the fall of Ch’tibello at the second hurdle. In fact, Nico De Boinville did well just to maintain the partnership as she was brought to a grinding halt.

While she did latch on to the field, De Boinville was kind to her and once it was abundantly clear that her chance was gone, he pulled her up, saving her for another day.

After her win on Boxing Day, I was hopeful that they would target the Coral Cup as her profile for that race was very appealing. It quickly emerged that the Lanzarote was the target and they were clearly hopeful of a big run as the Mares’ Hurdle was also touted as a target for later in the season. 

However, with this setback, I wonder if they may well target the Coral Cup; Nicky Henderson has an exceptional record in the race, mares have won the past two renewals and she remains unexposed at this intermediate trip. She drifted from 20s out to 33s after pulling up in the Lanzarote; given she wasn’t even being aimed at the race providing she ran well, that seems like a massive overreaction.

Saturday 15th January – 3:35 Warwick – Alaphilippe (5th)

On recollection, this is the third time I have flagged a horse running a Pertemps qualifier (Folcano and Winter Fog being the other two). Each time I do this, I can’t help but smirk as I type since these races are practically designed for horses to run eye-catching races without winning. For all that they make the task of writing this column easier, the farcical nature of these qualifiers does grow tedious but that is a discussion is one for another day.

Getting back to the topic at hand – Alaphilippe was quite well fancied to win this and, for a long way, it looked as though he might justify that support. He traded at a low of 2.04 as he travelled well when the congested field turned for home; he jumped the second last in front and still held a leading chance at the final flight despite not being asked for his full effort. If you paused the race as they landed on the run in, you would never guess that Alaphilippe wouldn’t finish in the first three and to this moment I am still perplexed as to how he managed to fade into fifth. 

But with a view to the Pertemps Final, finishing fifth in a qualifier is certainly not a negative. In fact, I wonder if Fergal O’Brien has learnt that winning qualifiers is not the optimal long-term play; Imperial Alcazar won this exact qualifier twelve months ago and while he was well fancied for the final, his chance was effectively scuppered by the significant rise in the handicap. Given this was Alaphilippe’s first run for 302 days, I imagine there is plenty of improvement to come. He still holds an entry in the Stayers’ Hurdle and while he may not be at that level, he will certainly be of interest if lining up in the Pertemps Final in March given his fine fifth in last season’s Albert Bartlett, for all that the form of that race is questionable.

Indeed, I think there will be plenty of discussion about this qualifier in the build up to the festival, with Sporting John emerging as a dark horse for the Stayers’ Hurdle while the likes of The Jam Man, Third Wind and Sire Du Berlais will attract plenty of supporters for the Pertemps Final in the coming weeks.

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