Five things we learned: Defi and Darby sparkle at Ascot

Defi Du Seuil is now the Champion Chase favourite after Ascot romp.
Defi Du Seuil is now the Champion Chase favourite after Ascot romp.

It was an action-packed weekend of National Hunt racing, where reputations were enhanced and potential Cheltenham Festival candidates emerged. Our man Steve Chambers looks back at all the action and picks out five talking points from the last few days...

Dazzling Defi should be shorter than he is for the Champion Chase

There's a new king of the two-mile chasing division, and the baton held so impressively by Altior in recent seasons should be passed across to an emerging, often unheralded successor in Defi Du Seuil, who producing a barnstorming performance to win the Clarence House Chase at Ascot.

The Grade 1 feature on Saturday was dubbed as a match between the Philip Hobbs-trained seven-year-old and three-times Clarence House winner Un De Sceaux, but it turned into a relative procession by Defi Du Seuil, who scooted clear under a confident Barry Geraghty to win by two-and-three-quarter lengths.

Narrowly beaten in the Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown Park earlier in the season by Defi Du Seuil, Un De Sceaux was well-backed in the lead-up to the race, but the Willie Mullins-trained 12-year-old couldn't land a glove on his market rival, and having set the early fractions the Closutton inmate was passed with real ease, and Geraghty's winner produced a spectacular leap at the last fence to show there was more petrol there if needed, should Mullins' charge fight back.

Unsurprisingly, Defi Du Seuil was slashed in the 2020 Queen Mother Champion Chase betting, but while he usurped Altior into favouritism, it's rather eye-popping that the JP McManus-owned raider isn't anywhere near odds-on favouritism for the two-mile Championship race in March.

A two-time Cheltenham Festival winner (2017 Triumph Hurdle, 2019 JLT Novices' Chase), Defi Du Seuil has shown this season that he is the class act in the division. It's far from certain where reigning Champion Chase hero Altior will be seen next having bypassed the Clarence House last weekend, and, having lost his unbeaten record to Cyrname at Ascot earlier in the season, the jury is still out on whether the fire is still burning at its brightest. Meanwhile, the imponderables continue with the Mullins pair of Chacun Pour Soi and Douvan , who still need to show form that warrants their spot in Grade 1 company again this season.

Available at around the 2/1 mark for the Champion Chase, Defi Du Seuil should be a lot shorter, and it would be no shock to see him sent off an odds-on jolly on the day of the race on March 11.

Murphy should take a chance and send Darby to the Champion Hurdle

Olly Murphy reflected on Thomas Darby's impressive weight-carrying victory at Ascot by suggesting that seven-year-old would not head to the Cheltenham Festival in a couple of months, and pencilled a potential tilt at the National Spirit Hurdle at Fontwell before going on to contest the Aintree Hurdle at the Grand National meeting.

Entered for the Champion Hurdle, Thomas Darby - who returned to the hurdling sphere after a disappointing brace of runs over fences - is a 33/1 shot for the Tuesday feature, and that should definitely be his next port of call.

A four-and-a-half length second to Klassical Dream in last season's Supreme Novices' Hurdle, Thomas Darby's performance at the weekend means that the significant rise in the handicap he should receive will mean a test like the County Hurdle is out of the question.

However, the Champion Hurdle is a race full of unknowns, with very few horses showing the form needed to be classed as a lively contender in a standard renewal of the race. Pentland Hills - who is the second favourite for the race - was beaten again at the weekend in the Champion Hurdle Trial by Ballyandy, so while Murphy has expressed his will to keep Thomas Darby in the race at this stage, he should put all his eggs in a Cheltenham Festival-shaped basket and unleash his exciting hurdler at the race on March 10.

Twiston-Davies unearths another Betfair Hurdle candidate

With three Betfair Hurdle wins in the last six years, Nigel Twiston-Davies has become the man to watch in the Newbury handicap conundrum, and the Naunton handler could've unearthed another potential challenger for that valuable race next month, as Stolen Silver rocketed home to win the Rossington Main Novices' Hurdle at Haydock Park at the weekend.

The 9/2 shot reeled in Edwardstone in the shadow of the post in the Grade 2 event, and was instantly slashed into as short as 8/1 from 20s for the Betfair Hurdle. Splash Of Ginge (2014), Ballyandy (2017) and Al Dancer (2019) have all handed Twiston-Davies victory in the Betfair Hurdle in recent seasons, and Stolen Silver is another exciting, improving novice hurdler that could shape into a real candidate for that Newbury prize on February 8.

Available at 25/1 for the Supreme Novices' Hurdle, Stolen Silver may lack the class needed to win the Cheltenham Festival curtain-raiser, but Twiston-Davies has already swayed in the way of a crack at Newbury in a few weeks, and there's no reason why he can't claim the prize for a fourth time in seven years.

Goshen still has things to improve on before Triumph tilt

Gary Moore's Goshen eased to an 11-length victory in Ascot's opening race on Saturday afternoon, but the four-year-old - who is three from three over hurdles - still has things to learn over timber if he is to be a leading candidate for the Triumph Hurdle.

Visually impressive in terms of his win at the weekend, Goshen, who is an 8/1 chance for the Triumph, continued to show he possesses a magnificent engine, but his jumping continued to leave question marks hanging over it. Yes, you could argue Jamie Moore merely had to pop over the final couple of hurdles when comfortably clear of his rivals, but while his fiddly leaps were OK at the weekend, it will be different story when he lines up in the Triumph.

A fierce gallop from the outset, the Triumph is the biggest test in a young horse's life, as a multitude of top notch juveniles bid for Cheltenham Festival glory, and having produced some fine efforts right-handed, Goshen will need to show he can deliver on the left-handed undulations of Prestbury Park. There's no doubting his ability, and Moore is sure to continue to improve his jumping style over hurdles in the coming weeks, but Saturday's win showed more experience is needed and Goshen may just find it tough in the hustle and bustle of a Triumph Hurdle to produce his best.

Four-Day ban dents Johnson's Championship hopes

Heading into Monday's racing, Richard Johnson and Brian Hughes are both sitting on 111 winners for the season in one of the most hotly-contested races to be crowned National Hunt Champion Jockey we've seen for decades.

However, Johnson was hit with a four-day ban following his winning ride on the aforementioned Thomas Darby at Ascot, and it will see the current champion jockey out of action from February 2 to February 5.

Johnson's time on the sidelines - where he will miss the second day of the Dublin Racing Festival (he would most likely ride at Taunton that day anyway) - will give Hughes the chance to try and grab a march on the veteran pilot, Johnson, who is bidding to win the accolade for the fifth year in a row.

The bookmakers generally still make Johnson a slight favourite in the betting, but if Hughes can capitalise on Johnson's absence over those four days then it's a sideshow to the season that could go all the way to the wire, with both jockeys sure to fight until the end to be crowned champion.

2020 Champion Hurdle Odds
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