Road To Cheltenham: Warwick proves to be informative

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Kimberlite Candy was a deeply impressive winner of the Classic Handicap Chase at Warwick.
Kimberlite Candy was a deeply impressive winner of the Classic Handicap Chase at Warwick.

In this week’s column, Nick Seddon recaps all of the action from the last seven days and looks at what it all may mean in terms of the 2020 Cheltenham Festival, which is creeping up on the horizon…

We’re a couple of weeks into the new year now, and it feels as though we’re slowly starting to come out of that inevitable sleepiness of the post Christmas period. 

The fact that the last couple of Saturdays haven’t been quite as ‘high octane’ as usual has meant that we’ve been able to ponder some of the wider issues which surround the sport, and one topic which has re-reared its head is the proposition of a fifth day at Cheltenham. 

It’s something I touched on for the site back in September, and it really doesn’t take long to work out why it would be a fruitful decision from a commercial perspective, and the fact that we have two ‘Championship’ races on the Thursday of the Festival means that we have a ready-made feature for any proposed day five - which would surely be on the Saturday. 

Extending the Cheltenham Festival would create as many problems as it would solve of course, none more so than stealing the thunder of Midlands Grand National day at Uttoxeter, plus there’s the very valid point of diluting a 28-race schedule which feels perfectly fine as it is. 

There are of course gaps, and the incoming Mares’ Chase next March is one of those, while our very own Joe Tuffin very fairly made the case last week for the veterans getting a finale, too, but we will of course lose an existing race as a consequence of gaining a Mares’ Chase, and if we did extend to five days, I’m not sure I’d be too excited by a Grade 1 hurdle over two and a half miles. 

Switching to Saturday’s racing, all eyes were on Warwick for the Classic Chase, a race which has become a rather good indicator for the Grand National at Aintree in recent years - not least because a certain One For Arthur was successful here before going on to win the big one back in 2017. 

It was won in deeply impressive fashion by Kimberlite Candy, who reeled in the front-running Captain Chaos at the final fence, before streaking clear on the flat to record a 10-length success. It was difficult not to be impressed by such a performance, and he’s quickly making up into a serious Grand National contender on this evidence, seeing out the trip of three miles and five furlongs really well. That performance came on the back of an excellent effort to finish second in the Becher Chase on his first try over the National fences last month, being beaten only by an Aintree specialist in Walk In The Mill, and quotes of 20/1 for the National look fair. 

He won at Warwick off a mark of 140 on Saturday, and with this victory likely to take him up to the high 140s/early 150s once the handicapper has reassessed him, he’ll line up on Merseyside on a very workable mark, and with a fine chance. It’s well worth mentioning some of the other placed horses in the race, as Petite Power did the in-form Fergal O’Brien team proud with his effort to finish a staying-on third. Meanwhile, the fourth-placed The Conditional had a far from smooth path into things and is worth another look, while it’s difficult not to get the feeling that Le Breuil is still coming to the boil. 

Earlier on the card were a brace of Grade 2 contests for novices, beginning with the Hampton Novices’ Chase, a race which has been won by some smart types in recent years, including Ok Corral, Ms Parfois and American. Such a roll of honour has seen it quickly promoted to first listed level and now Grade 2 status, and Two For Gold showed plenty of heart to hold off the challenge of the Mick Channon-trained Hold The Note in a pulsating finish. Two For Gold looks tailor-made for the four miles of the National Hunt Chase, and his price of around 14/1 marks him out as an intriguing contender. Thirty-five minutes later was the Leamington Novices’ Hurdle, won by the Nigel Twiston-Davies-trained Mossy Fen, who stayed on late in the day to collar Decor Irlandais. If he can progress to anywhere near the level that The New One managed, he will be a smashing prospect, and he’s a lively outsider for the Albert Bartlett judging by this. 

At Kempton, the show was undoubtedly stolen by Frodon, who returned to winning ways in the Grade 2 Silviniaco Conti Chase, 303 days after his superb win in the Ryanair Chase. He had valid excuses in his first two starts this term, carrying a hefty weight in the Old Roan at Aintree in October before finding the Betfair Chase too tough of an ask in November, but the return to two and a half miles brought out the best in him. It sounds as though the Gold Cup is again on his radar, and although he has a Cotswold Chase win over slightly further than three miles under his belt, I’m still of the view that the fully fledged trip of three miles and two furlongs of a Cheltenham Gold Cup would stretch him. He’s well-suited to the Ryanair, though he will need more if he is to repeat his heroics of 12 months ago; Saturday’s race wasn’t the strongest form wise, and although it’s tricky to see too clearly at this stage, this year’s Ryanair looks likely to be a warm renewal. 

The race was followed 35 minutes later by a Lanzarote Hurdle that was soaked in drama, with both Debestyman and Notre Pari departing at the final flight. This opened the door for Burrows Edge to snatch victory, and although he had plenty to do approaching the final flight, he was staying on powerfully, and I was of the view that he would have narrowly got his nose in front - though it would undoubtedly have been a close-run thing. The handicap hurdle races are notoriously difficult to work out on the day, never mind a couple of months in advance, but it was no surprise to see the winner shorted to around the 25/1 mark for the Coral Cup

Over in Ireland, the weekend’s feature was Sunday’s Grade 2 Moscow Flyer Novice Hurdle at Punchestown, in which Andy Dufresne got back on track after suffering a shock defeat at Navan last month. The fact that he was made to work hard by a rival in Captain Guinness who failed to settle for the majority of the race perhaps dented his reputation more than it was enhanced, but it’s foolish to be writing him off for the Cheltenham Festival just yet. Admittedly, several novice hurdlers have overtaken him since his hurdling debut back in November, but both the Supreme and the Ballymore look feasible options, and he’s still open to improvement after three starts over timber. 

Next week’s focus is on a Grade 1 Clarance House Chase that will be lacking in Altior, while Haydock host a highly entertaining card which includes a trial which isn’t really a trial, trial, in the form of the Champion Hurdle Trial. 

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