Road To Cheltenham: The Allen conundrum

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Envoi Allen has now won all seven of his career starts under Rules.
Envoi Allen has now won all seven of his career starts under Rules.

In the latest edition of our weekly column, Nick Seddon looks back on the weekend’s action and ponders the 2020 Cheltenham Festival picture as a whole…

As I discussed in last week’s article, the first couple of weeks of the year can be decidedly low-key, and although there’s still a nice amount for us to touch on, it gives us an opportunity to assess what we’ve seen so far and consider the season as a whole. 

If you read this article on a regular basis, or listen to the Jumps Racing Podcast, you’ll be bored of me throwing the phrase ‘bubble burst’ at you, but it really is becoming the campaign of the dented reputation, and the whole Jumps scene just feels devoid of standout stars at the moment. 

There are big names of course, but it feels like a long while since we’ve had such a serious lack of horses that dominate their respective divisions - particularly in the Championship races, where only Paisley Park stands out as a commanding favourite to retain the Stayers’ Hurdle at the moment. 

It’s got me thinking; Is this the most open Cheltenham Festival we’ve ever seen from an ante-post perspective?

My memory is yet to stretch back too far in the scheme of things - I start to get patchy about anything before 2009 - though it feels unusual that there are a host of races which still feel particularly open as we come into January, none more so than the Champion Hurdle. 

When a division is weak, left-field candidates begin to enter the fray, and although she’s now a deserved favourite after her Christmas Hurdle success, there’s no doubt about the fact that Epatante would have been considered to be a surprise candidate at the beginning of the season. 

Contenders can come from anywhere - just look at Buveur D’Air’s canny switch back to timber from a novice chasing campaign in 2017 - and it’s difficult to ignore the ever-growing calls for Envoi Allen to jump out of novice company to take on the big boys. Last year’s Champion Bumper winner continued his faultless start to his career over timber when winning Sunday’s Lawlor’s of Naas Novice Hurdle - he’s now three from three over hurdles, and seven unbeaten under Rules - and it’s difficult not to be impressed with what we’ve seen so far. His latest test was handling two and a half miles for the first time, and he of course passed it with flying colours, meaning that he’s now a commanding 13/8 favourite for the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle. 

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He’s already shown plenty of tools to work with, and the speed he has shown all but confirms that dropping back to two miles is a more than viable option, while I’ve no doubt that the three miles would be within his remit if he was asked to step up even further in trip and take on the Albert Bartlett. Whether he’s shown enough to tempt his connections into stepping him out of novice company, though? I’m not sure. 

Graduating from novice company and becoming a force at the top of the division is no mean feat, something which has been shown by Klassical Dream’s struggles so far this term, and it feels unnecessary to rush Envoi Allen. Of course, hindsight may show that this year’s Champion Hurdle is the weakest Championship race he’ll ever be tasked with, but his talent is such that I don’t think he needs to worry about finding good opportunities. 

One novice who will be hoping Envoi Allen takes the plunge is Fiddlerontheroof, who cemented his own Supreme Novices’ Hurdle claims when winning Sandown’s Tolworth Hurdle in commanding fashion on Saturday. Although it’s a Grade 1 contest, the Tolworth has a mixed record when it comes to producing future stars, and only two horses  (Noland and Summerville Boy) have gone on to win the Supreme this century. There were plenty of nice types in the field coming into the race, though, and the way Fiddlerontheroof was able to decimate his opposition means that this form ought to prove strong. He also has the option of the Ballymore, though the prospect of a certain Envoi Allen taking his chance in that particular affair means that the Festival curtain-raiser will become his preferred port of call. Meanwhile, there was plenty to like about the runner-up Jeremys Flame, too, and she’s one to keep an eye on with the Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle in mind. 

Thinking more about Aintree for a moment, there was a lot to like about Christmas In April’s victory in the Sussex National at Plumpon on Sunday. Although his name may suggest otherwise, he’s still a good way off the standard needed to win the Grand National itself, but he’s clearly going the right way and is a staying chaser to follow for the Colin Tizzard team. He’s clearly got stamina in abundance, lapping up three and a half miles in soft conditions, and I wonder if the Eider Chase up at Newcastle will on be the radar next.

Sticking at Plumpton, it was nice to see De Plotting Shed cause an upset by turning over Who Dares Wins to win the novices’ chase on the card. To say he became frustrating under Gordon Elliott is something of an understatement, but he clearly has plenty of ability - something shown by the fact that he was subject to a gamble for the Close Brothers’ Novices’ Handicap Chase in 2018, being sent off as an 11/2 shot. He’s since joined Suzi Best, and having broken a losing run of just shy of three years at Newton Abbot in August, he’s now taken his record to two wins from his last three outings. I wouldn’t go as far to say he’s a changed animal, and doubts about his temperament have to remain, but he’s remarkably experienced for one who can still qualify for novice races, and it would be no surprise should connections be plotting a few more wins on the horizon. Last year’s renewal proved to be exceptionally strong form featuring the lines of Master Dino, Slate House and the late Knocknanuss, and you never know, this year's race could follow suit…

Meanwhile, one who continues to go the wrong way is What’s The Scoop. He’s become folklore on Twitter for his infamous second-placed finish at Sandown in March 2016, when he downed all tools after the final flight, somehow managing to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, and sadly he’s still up to his old tricks. Martin Dixon pointed out on Twitter this morning that What’s The Scoop - who’s a full brother to Harchibald and is winless in 13 career starts - managed to finish second at Newcastle on Saturday having traded at 4/1-on in-running on the Betfair Exchange. Some things never change!

The racing will trundle rather drearily towards Warwick on Saturday, where the headline is the Grade 3 Classic Handicap Chase. It’s a race where you’d perhaps expect a Grand National horse to emerge rather than a Festival contender, but we live in hope!

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