Five Key Questions ahead of the Clarence House Chase

Magic Of Light (left) is aiming to win Saturday's Mares' Hurdle at Ascot for the second year running.
Magic Of Light (left) is aiming to win Saturday's Mares' Hurdle at Ascot for the second year running.

Alex Stearn has picked out five key talking points ahead of an interesting weekend of action, with both Ascot and Haydock hosting cards which could prove to be rich in terms of Cheltenham pointers...

Can Defi come out on top again? 

This weekend’s racing action is headlined by the Clarence House Chase at Ascot, and it features a rematch between the first two home in last month’s epic Tingle Creek at Sandown. Defi Du Seuil and Un De Sceaux produced one of the most thrilling finishes so far this season, and we’re in for a real treat if they can replicate anything like the performances they showed at Sandown. The latter is a three-time winner of this contest - obliging in 2016, 2017 and in 2018 - and he is showing no signs of slowing down despite now being 12 years of age. Connections have been vocal this week in their belief that he can reverse the form with Defi Du Seuil, too, especially after the deluge of rain overnight on Thursday. Mullins’ charge will be sure to have conditions in his favour and a bold bid looks assured, but will it be enough to turn the tables? 

Defi Du Seuil is making a habit of getting involved in a thrilling battle, and he came out on top in what was arguably the race of the 2019 Cheltenham Festival in last season’s JLT Novices’ Chase (now known as the Marsh), seeing out the two and a half mile trip strongly to see off the attentions of Lostintranslation. Altior has ruled this division for the past couple of seasons, and when the decision was taken to step him up in trip, Philip Hobbs and J.P. McManus cunningly dropped Defi Du Seuil back in the opposite direction. The move has paid dividends so far, and considering he has plenty of speed in his locker, and with stamina for further proven, he looks to have all the makings of a Champion Chaser. 

Connections have reported that Defi Du Seuil’s schooling this week has been exemplary, a necessity as any mistakes will be punished by Un De Sceaux, highlighting his need to be nothing short of foot perfect here. In my opinion, this is his toughest test to date as he has to try and de-throne the Clarence House stalwart, but I think he’s up to it and all roads after winning this leads to the Champion Chase for Defi Du Seuil. 

Is Pentland Hills vulnerable on heavy ground? 

Pentland Hills was arguably the horse to take out last month’s International Hurdle at Cheltenham in terms of future engagements, after running far too free. Nico de Boinville was at pains to not let his charge go a stride quicker than the rest of the field, and that was made harder by his exceptional hurdling, making ground on the rest of his rivals at each obstacle. That will stand him in good stead against this field of just three rivals, but the heavy ground at Haydock will be a big question mark if he over-races again. Darasso can make this a true test as he’s got proven stamina over further, and his best performance has come when the mud starts to fly. J.P. McManus has had no luck with his champion hurdlers so far this term, with Buveur D’Air stuck to the confines of his box and Espoir D’Allen sadly taken from us, but Darasso could well be up to producing a performance here that is worthy of lining up at Cheltenham in March, and he could be worth considering for the big one - particularly if the ground proves to be as testing as it will be at Haydock. 

The form is rock solid, but will he deliver the goods? 

One of the most promising novice hurdlers in training at the moment is a certain Edwardstone, who has seen both his value and reputation increase dramatically since he was last seen in early December. He was unable to record a win in three starts in bumpers, though he still showed plenty, and his effort to finish second behind the highly-regarded Chantry House at Warwick last March could prove to be outstanding form - considering that rival has since won on hurdling debut in taking fashion at Cheltenham last month.

Edwardstone is now unbeaten in two starts over hurdles, the the form of both starts have been boosted in the past month or so without him having to leave his box. Indeed, he took the notable scalp of the subsequent Tolworth winner Fiddlerontheroof at Wincanton in November, and that performance was particularly impressive considering he hardly helped his own cause with his headstrong nature and a bad mistake at the penultimate hurdle. He’s since defeated another nice type from the Tizzard yard in the form of Harry Senior, travelling like the winner all through the contest despite having to give weight away, and he was comfortable enough at the line once Tom Cannon has pressed the button on board. We haven’t seen Harry Senior since, though he was due to run in a Grade 2 contest at Warwick last weekend before running loose and being withdrawn, and the fact that he was well-fancied in the market that day adds plenty of substance to the Aintree form. This will be the softest ground that Edwardstone has faced in his career to date, but he now gets a hood to help him settle, and if that does the trick, he can enhance his already obvious claims for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. 


Haydock 14:05
Edwardstone silk



Will Honeyball be the Haydock hero? 

Anthony Honeyball is a trainer that doesn’t get the plaudits that he deserves considering the success he has with a relatively small team of horses, and he can enjoy an excellent day at Haydock on Saturday. He sends four of his string up on a long journey from Dorset, and you can make a pretty solid case for each. 

The strongest of his quartet looks to be Midnight Tune, who goes in the feature on the card, the Peter Marsh Handicap Chase. It is an extremely competitive heat that is assured to be slow motion stuff at the end of the near three miles and two-furlong trip, but given that his charge only has 10-04 on her back, she can enjoy this test. She is a versatile sort that has won at both two and a quarter and three miles on her last two starts, and given that both on those wins came on heavy ground, she’s a certainty to relish conditions. 

You can also make a compelling case for Sam Brown in the Grade 2 Altcar Novices’ Chase, for all that the dreaded bounce factor is a lingering worry. He made a winning return from a two-year absence when recording a 22-length victory at Lingfield 11 days ago, looking a promising type in the process with the way he was able to canter clear without being fully extended. He’s one to watch this season, though that would have still been a hard enough race on extremely testing ground - so we will only know until he shows up here how much that has taken out of him. 

His last two runners are in competitive handicaps, but both can’t be left off the shortlist for their respective races. Ben Goddfrey has struck up a good relationship with Le Coeur Net and taking 7 lb off an already light weight of 10-13, he can continue his good run of not finishing out the places since February 2019. Lastly, Deja Vue drops back into handicap company after failing to fire in a listed race at Taunton last time out. She steps up markedly in trip to three miles here, though the way she was rather one paced at Taunton offers hope that she can stay further than the two-miles she faced there. A return to the form she was in before that contest would see her run well but given she is stepping markedly up in trip on heavy ground, she might not see it out as strongly as some of her proven rivals at this distance and is best watched. 

Can Harrington produce her magic to light up Ascot? 

Jessica Harrington had a remarkable 2019, with plenty of big winners under both codes, and she will be hoping that the yard continues to shine in 2020. Before she can get excited about taking on the summer classics with the lights of Millisle and Albigna in her armory, she can start kickstart her year with Magic Of Light. She’s excelled at everything she’s tried to date, finishing an excellent second in last season’s Grand National despite her jumping not being perfect, and she aims to defend her crown in Saturday’s Grade 2 Mares’ Hurdle over three miles. It’s a lesser race than the one she faced last year, and can win this for the second year running. She’s well-found in the market as a consequence, and Papagana is the only horse shorter than her after finishing a gallant third in the Long Walk Hurdle last time out. That was run on ground similar to what the field will face here, but was a weaker contest in comparison to previous years, so the form of that must be taken with a pinch of salt and she would need to improve again to pose a serious threat to Magic of Light. 

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