Road To Cheltenham: Far from a Lost cause

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Lostintranslation disappointed in the King George at Kempton.
Lostintranslation disappointed in the King George at Kempton.

Nick Seddon recaps a hectic festive period of racing action, and looks at what it all may mean in terms of the 2020 Cheltenham Festival

Happy New Year folks! 2020 is now upon us, and the Cheltenham Festival suddenly looms on the horizon. It’s just 68 days between now and the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and that iconic roar, and as usual, the time will almost certainly fly by.

It’s a strange time of year, and after all of the hectic hustle and bustle of the festive period, the excitement seems to rather stall. The Jumps season is a thrilling one, but a longstanding criticism of its make up is that it can be guilty of revolving too much around March, and we will probably only see the big stars once more between now and the Festival. 

I wrote a feature for Timeform back in 2016 looking at the structure of the season, and at the time of writing there were just 11 Grade 1 contests scheduled in Britain and Ireland across the whole of January and February - compared with 19 in December alone. The subsequent introduction of the Dublin Racing Festival will almost certainly have changed that figure, though I think it’s fair to say that the next two to three weeks in particular are rather subdued. 

It means that the festive period is a crucial one, and we certainly learned plenty over the last week or so. It’s going to prove tricky to squeeze everything in to one column, so with that in mind I’m going to split it up into divisions…

Staying Chasers

We’ll start with the King George, which featured just five runners after the late withdrawal of Thistlecrack, but it was at least a select field. As it transpired, the result was the same as 2018, with Clan Des Obeaux coming out on top to provide Paul Nicholls with an 11th win in the race, though I’m not sure what it told us in terms of the Gold Cup

The winner was unquestionably game in his success, though he still needs to prove that the stiffer test of the Cheltenham Gold Cup is within his reach, while each of Footpad, Cyrname and Aso seemingly failed to stay the three-mile trip. The suspicions were already there with Aso, and he will likely be joined back over two and a half miles by Cyrname next time out - probably in the Ascot Chase - where Waiting Patiently will be, well, waiting. Meanwhile, Lostintranslation was just too bad to be true. It was particularly disappointing as I was hoping that he would really put his stamp on this division after that spellbinding success in the Betfair Chase in November, and you’ve got to take the line that it was just a blip on this occasion. His connections suggested that he could have a wind problem, and hopefully he can get back on track in next month’s Denman Chase. Like most of the divisions this season, the Cheltenham Gold Cup feels wide open, and he is still my idea of the horse to beat at this stage - the 9/1 on offer feels big. 

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Three days later was the Savills Chase over in Ireland, which produced a barnstorming five-way finish in which Delta Work eventually out-muscled Monalee. At first glance, the form doesn’t look the strongest, considering the runner-up regularly comes up just short at the top level. In Delta Work, however, we have a winner who’s back on the up after an outstanding season as a novice last term. He’s an emerging force in the division, though will need to back that form up next time out, presumably in the Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown, if he is to lay down a marker as anything more than a lively outsider at this stage. Road To Respect ran his race as he always does in third, though the two to note for me were Kemboy and Presenting Percy, who shaped well in fourth and fifth respectively. It was nice to see Kemboy back after a situation which was rather out of Willie Mullins’ control, and you’d think that he’ll strip fitter for this when you consider how good he was last season, while its nice to see Presenting Percy being campaigned more consistently this time around - after being rather wrapped in cotton wool last term. He built on his reappearance in the John Durkan, and it very much feels as though he’s building up to a big run. Should all five reoppose in the Gold Cup, I have a feeling we’d see a wildly different outcome. Swerving the Savills was the reigning Gold Cup winner Al Boum Photo, who for the second year running mopped up a Grade 3 contest at Down Royal on New Years Day (upgraded from listed status last year). While chinks are beginning to form in some of his rivals, he remains rock solid, though his defeat to Kemboy in the Punchestown Gold Cup last May still lingers in the mind. 

Meanwhile, there’s also a defined Road To Aintree, and the Grand National picture is starting to take shape rather nicely. I was at Wetherby on Boxing Day, and saw Top Ville Ben return to winning ways in the Rowland Meyrick Handicap Chase. The key to him seems to be getting him to settle, something that Phil Kirby is slowly starting to master, and it was interesting to see him suggest that Aintree is certainly on his radar. The four and a quarter mile trip is a huge ask, but he’s one to keep an eye on, while Lake View Lad stayed on noticeably well back in third and will likely have one more start before the National. The Welsh National is associated with stayers and sluggers, and Potters Corner showed plenty of stamina to grind out a second National win in a year, having won the Midlands version last March. He’ll carry on being a force in this scene, though I was very impressed with Truckers Lodge. He took to the test of the race really well for a novice, and his reassessed mark of 142 looks a fair one. Elegant Escape carries on to perform admirably, and ran a fine race to finish sixth under top weight. He’s difficult to place as a ‘bottom topper’, though he’ll be worth a second look in the Gold Cup if the heavens well and truly open. Last but not least, it’s worth giving a mention to the Richard Hobson-trained Lord Du Mesnil, who completed a hat-trick when winning The Last Fling Chase at Haydock on Monday. He’s a staying chaser who’s firmly on the up now, and Hobson mentioned a plethora of options for him when I grabbed him for a quick chat in the winners’ enclosure - including the National Hunt Chase - and his current price of 25/1 for that is a tasty one. 

Two-milers

Perhaps the biggest bubble to be burst over Christmas was that of Chacun Pour Soi, considered by many to be the second coming in the two-mile chasing division, who had no answers to A Plus Tard at Leopardstown. Admittedly, he was entitled to need the outing after a 239-day lay-off, though it was disappointing nonetheless that he couldn’t get the better of a rival whose best form up to that point had come over further. He’s by no means out of the Champion Chase picture, while such is the lack of depth in this division that A Plus Tard is entitled to to have strong claims to the mantle of ‘best of the rest’ outside of the big three - considering that Kempton’s Desert Orchid Chase did little to enhance the claims of any of the five who took their chance. 

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Over timber, the picture is even more blurred, and the mare Epatante shot herself right into Champion Hurdle contention with a clear-cut success in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton. The division is such that she’s probably the right favourite at the moment, though at this stage I’d be far more interested in Saldier, who was impressive in the Morgiana Hurdle back in November. He defeated Klassical Dream that day, who dented his own credentials further when suffering defeat in the Matheson Hurdle on Sunday. It was Sharjah came out on top there, and he can’t be discounted himself. Meanwhile, Petit Mouchoir looks to be firmly back to his best back over hurdles this season, and there are certainly worse 40/1 shots knocking around in what’s likely to be a weak Champion Hurdle line-up.

The novices

The most intriguing angle coming into the festive period was the make-up of each of the novice chasing divisions, and several mouth-watering match-ups over in Ireland. One of those was between Faugheen and Samcro, and the old boy treated us to something spectacular, picking up a first Grade 1 success over fences at the grand old age of eleven when shooting clear to win at Limerick. It means that, rather remarkably, we have a 12-year-old at the top of the market for the Marsh Novices’ Chase (formerly the JLT), and it’s a position he deserves. The other Boxing Day battle in Ireland rather failed to materialise, with Laurina running below par and Fakir D’Oudairies suffering defeat to the Henry de Bromhead-trained Notebook. It shot him into favouritism for the Arkle Trophy as a consequence, another race at the Festival which is still to identify a standout star.  The staying novices were more taking, and Battleoverdoyen made it three wins out of three over fences when winning the Grade 1 Fort Leney Novice Chase over three miles on Sunday, out-battling another nice type in Champagne Classic in the process. He’s a rock solid RSA Chase contender, as is Slate House, whose switch back into novice company is proving shrewd. He was tanking along in the BetVictor Gold Cup at Cheltenham back in November before falling, and has now won twice since that mishap, striking in a hot-looking Kauto Star Novices’ Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day. There was plenty to like about that performance, bursting a couple of bubbles in the process, and the 14/1 on offer about him for the RSA seems big. It’s Champ who’s unchanged as the 7/2 favourite for the RSA, despite his fall in the Dipper at Cheltenham yesterday. He was tanking when falling, paying the price for a sketchy jump, and would certainly account for the beneficiary Midnight Shadow should they reoppose. 

Over the smaller obstacles, Thyme Hill was made to work hard but got the job done in the Challow Novices’ Hurdle at Newbury, picking up a first Grade 1 success in the process. He’s the clear 6/1 favourite for the Albert Bartlett now, and if anything, I’d be tempted to say that his price is too big. The runner-up The Cashel Man is no mug, receiving another good ride from Jerry McGrath, and I have a feeling that this form will prove to be strong. In the juvenile division, Allmankind maintained his unbeaten start over hurdles by winning the Finale Hurdle at Chepstow, and on that evidence is the one to beat in the Triumph Hurdle. 

Staying hurdlers

Last but not least we have Apple’s Jade, who showed there’s still plenty of fire in her belly when winning a Grade 1 contest over three miles on Saturday. She’s found life tough since winning the Irish Champion Hurdle last February, prompting strong rumours that retirement was on the horizon, though I think this shows that three miles is very much her game these days. She’s a match for anyone under a bold, front-running ride, and although the temptation will be to send her back to Leopardstown to defend her Champion Hurdle crown, I’d keep her in stayers races. Eddie O’Leary has suggested that the Stayers’ Hurdle could be her aim at Cheltenham, though I’d be tempted to bypass the Festival completely considering her recent struggles there. She’s certainly talented enough to give Paisley Park something to think about, however, and makes more appeal than the 1-2 from yesterday’s Relkeel Hurdle, Summerville Boy and Roksana

This is far from a tipping column, though there’s certainly some value lurking in those ante-post markets for Cheltenham at the time of writing, and they may help to spice up a couple of dreary weeks on the horizon. 

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