Jumps Eye-Catchers: Does Al Boum have a fight on his hooves?

Al Boum Photo is aiming to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup for the third year running.
Al Boum Photo is aiming to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup for the third year running.

Nick Seddon reviews the weekend’s Jumps action at Sandown, Plumpton and Tramore, and picks out three horses who he feels could make their presence felt in the spring…

Al Boum Photo - Willie Mullins (14:37 Tramore, New Year's Day)

While Al Boum Photo would be Bill Murray's worst nightmare in equine form, the reigning Cheltenham Gold Cup hero has a system that works for him, and for the third year running he made a winning return in Tramore's New Year's Day Chase, once again defeating a Slaneyville Syndicate-owned horse in the process. Making so few trips to the racecourse in any given season doesn't really endear you to the racing public, but having one outing before the Festival has proven to be an effective strategy for Willie Mullins' charge, and in terms of the winning margin it was his best effort yet - defeating the re-opposing Acapella Bourgeois by 19 lengths, having been just six lengths superior 12 months ago. It perhaps wasn't the best run that we've ever seen from Al Boum Photo visually, and it took him a little while to warm up with his jumping, but he did what was asked of him in a small-field affair, and will now bid to become just the fourth horse to win the Gold Cup three times. 

It's perhaps something of a surprise that a two-time winner of the race is trading at as big as 7/2 at the time of writing for the Festival showpiece, though that could be down to the fact that Al Boum Photo was pushed all the way by Santini last season, and the division feels even more open this time around - with several graduating novices throwing their hats into the ring. Indeed, Melon impressed at this trip when finishing a fine third in last month's Savills Chase at Leopardstown, while we're yet to see the best from either Minella Indo or Champ this term. The first two will likely now head to the Irish Gold Cup in February, and that race ought to tell us more about this division at present, as it should feature several of the main protagonists from the Savills who were unable to show their talent in that race for one reason or another. The big winner from Christmas was A Plus Tard, who burst onto the three-mile scene with his Leopardstown success, and should he be able to confirm that form at the same track next month, we could have a new favourite for the Gold Cup come March. 

Cheltenham Festival Races

Metier - Harry Fry (Tolworth Hurdle, Saturday)

Saturday's feature was the first top level event of the calendar year, the Tolworth Hurdle at Sandown. The Grade 1 contest is often seen as a good indicator for the Supreme Novices' Hurdle, and plenty of credit has to be given to the winner Metier, who picked up his third straight win over timber in commanding fashion. Admittedly, this probably wasn't the strongest renewal of the Tolworth that we've seen, though the runner-up Shakem Up'Arry is a useful yardstick, and he certainly ensured that this was a test in soft conditions with his front-running style. That rival will probably head back to the Ballymore - a race he contested last year - but there's certainly a case to be made for Metier in the Supreme on this evidence, and he's now the 7/1 second favourite behind the Willie Mullins-trained Appreciate It - who himself was a Grade 1 winner over Christmas.

Metier would likely need to find more if he is to win the opening race of the Cheltenham Festival, but he's an unexposed type, and it would be fascinating if he tried his hand in next month's Betfair Hurdle at Newbury. Novices have an excellent record in that race, though the assessor hasn't been overly kind to Metier, and his opening handicap mark of 149 would make life tricky if he was to switch into handicap company. Indeed, you have to go back to My Tent Or Yours in 2013 for a winner off that particular mark, and it will be interesting to see what Fry opts to do with his charge next, who either way is an exciting novice for the spring. 

Cheltenham Festival Tips

Benevolentdictator - Gary Moore (14:25 Plumpton, Sunday)

Plumpton regularly throws up a couple of useful types in the early stages of the year, and their feature race on Sunday was the Sussex National, a race which has been won by some progressive stayers in recent years, including Christmas In April and The Two Amigos. This year's finish was dominated by three upwardly-mobile sorts, and while there should be more to come from the winner Seaston Spirit in this sphere yet, the eye was drawn to the third-placed Benevolentdictator. The seven-year-old was having just his third start over fences on Sunday - and his first try at such an extreme trip - and although he didn't always travel particularly comfortably, he shaped well, being boxed along by Jamie Moore for a good while but responding to his urgings in particularly likeable fashion.

Benevolentdictator looked held when rounding the bend for the second from home, but his stamina really started to kick in as the race wore on, and he made plenty of good late ground in the closing stages, finishing just three lengths behind the winner. He looks made for extreme tests of stamina, and he'll be able to race off a good mark next time, having been left unchanged on 122 by the handicapper. He'll have his work cut out getting into next month's Eider Chase at Newcastle, but the Devon National looks a viable option at Exeter; a race in which last year's Sussex National winner Christmas in April successfully followed up in for the Colin Tizzard team.  

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