Five things we learned this festive period

Klassical Dream was a disappointing last in the Matheson Hurdle
Klassical Dream was a disappointing last in the Matheson Hurdle

After a busy festive period, Joe Tuffin takes a look at five things we've learned as we enter the business end of the National Hunt season...

The Champion Hurdle picture is even more vague…

There is no hiding from it, the Christmas period has decimated the Champion Hurdle. The race has completely fallen apart in the last week, and the market has shifted so dramatically that it is completely unrecognisable from how it shaped pre-Christmas.

Epatante is now the 3/1 favourite for the hurdling showpiece having been 22/1 on Christmas day and Klassical Dream, who was the 4/1 favourite, is now as big as 14/1 in places - owing to a horror run at Leopardstown in which he jumped the fifth from home as if it was Becher’s Brook.

With virtually every market principal either underperforming or sustaining an injury since the beginning of the season, we are now in a situation where the Champion Hurdle is headlined by last year’s ninth-placed finisher in the Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle. Although she was a ready winner of the Christmas Hurdle, it didn’t immediately scream ‘vintage renewal’ so the form does need to be taken with a pinch of salt. Does she deserve to be at the top of the market? Probably, although I’d be wary that an ante-post price of 3/1 reflects more on the glaring lack of depth in the hurdling division rather than the five-year-old’s true ability. 

I’d be shocked if connections of Honeysuckle don’t have one eye on the big prize come March…

Clan Des Obeaux - are we any wiser?

Clan Des Obeaux was a game winner of the King George who made history by becoming only the 11th back-to-back winner in the race’s history, but does anyone know what he is truly capable of? It seems strange to say that of a King George winner, but he isn’t a world class chaser. That’s why he wasn’t favourite for last year’s Gold Cup despite doing little wrong that season and why - even after beating the highest-rated horse in training - he isn’t favourite for the 2020 Gold Cup. There’s still time, but he looks likely to be the first back-to-back King George winner since Captain Christy in 1974 to win the prestigious Boxing Day chase consecutively and not be sent off as a favourite for the Cheltenham blue riband in either of those two seasons.

There is no doubt about his ability, he is a back-to-back winner of a hugely prestigious Grade 1 after all, but is he just a Kempton specialist? Did the King George work out easier than first thought with Lostintranslation making uncharacteristic errors and Cyrname failing to stay the three miles? Or am I completely wrong and is he a legitimate Gold Cup contender? Time will tell, but I'll still be scratching him off my shortlist for now.

The Savills Chase left us with more questions than answers.

I understand by now this piece reads like the diary of a pessimist, but some of the results over the festive period truly have confused the landscape of the season and the Festival, and the Savills Chase is a race guilty of that. In what was a thrilling affair both on paper and on track, it was Delta Work who took the honours narrowly from Monalee, who would have benefitted from the line coming a stride or two sooner.

Kemboy finished in fourth on his racecourse return, but appeared to lack his usual fluency over the obstacles, and Ladbrokes Champion Chase winner Road To Respect took third.

Presenting Percy? Who knows, that could have been a brilliant run or a terrible run by his standards, we remain somewhat in the dark but it’s possible to suggest now that he isn’t quite the horse we may have expected he would be after he claimed the RSA Chase in 2018. 

There was probably too much going on in this race to take the form as you see it. Delta Work looked impressive and many had tipped him to bounce back to form during the build up to the race, but the best horse probably didn’t win. A short-head victory over Monalee probably isn’t the picture perfect form of a Gold Cup winner, either. He’s been cut to 8/1 from 20/1 for the big one, but you’d be brave taking that about him after that victory alone.

Chacun Pour Soi fails to confirm his Champion Chase credentials

This was one of the more disappointing performances in the last week, as the then 3/1 ante-post favourite for the Champion Chase was denied by A Plus Tard, a Cheltenham winner but a horse that would never have beaten Chacun Pour Soi should reputation have decided the outcome.

The problem was not so much the beating, it was just that the horse touted as the heir to the Rich Ricci star two-miler throne looked fairly uninspiring. Given his previous performances - and the hype around him after his last win - he should have made a canter of this race, instead he looked ordinary.

His jumping was spot on, he travelled into the race nicely and for all intents and purposes looked the winner three from the finish where he put in a mighty leap, but he failed to shake the chasing pack, notably A Plus Tard who loomed large alongside him for most of the trip.

Hopefully it was just a case of him needing the run, but initial viewing didn’t fill me with confidence that he’s the one they have to beat come March. What the result means for Altior is also worth noting as trainer Nicky Henderson and owner Mrs Patricia Pugh must now be looking at the two-mile division as easy pickings given their so-far unsuccessful soiree into the staying division.

The Mares’ programme shows us why it needs be supported

On a lighter, more positive note, possibly the most enthralling race of the Christmas period came from Doncaster on the 29th of December, in the Listed Mares’ Chase.

The scene approaching the final fence was the sort that can make normal racegoers true fans of the sport, as La Bague Au Roi, Happy Diva and Lady Buttons all attacked the obstacle simultaneously in a picture perfect finish.

Lady Buttons somehow found that little extra to deny Happy Diva by a nostril, with La Bague Au Roi only a head third.

Not only did it show how exciting, captivating and nerve-wracking this sport can be, it also shows how competitive and well needed a good mares’ programme is. The race provided the perfect platform for three horses, all of which have come from different routes (La Bague Au Roi a Grade 1 winner, Happy Diva a strong handicapper and Lady Buttons a rock solid Grade 2 Hurdler/Chaser) to test their credentials against one another. It also provided a more than adequate prize pot of £42,202, which made the preparation for and the trip to Doncaster worthwhile.  

If the upcoming Mares’ Chase at the 2021 festival attracts stars such as these and produces a race anywhere near as exciting then we’ll be in for a treat, and I look forward to how the mares’ programme develops in the coming years.

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