With Plumpton off and just a couple of all-weather cards to look at on Monday, Paul Ferguson takes a look back at an important weekend of jumps action either side of the Irish Sea.
Cheltenham’s Trials Day on Saturday got underway with the Triumph Hurdle Trial and Rolling Star shot straight to the head of the market of the Triumph itself with a smart performance on his British debut.
Nicky Henderson clearly holds him in high regard, running him here first time up, and the son of Smadoun travelled really well throughout. Despite missing a couple of hurdles, he beat the smart Irish Saint in taking fashion and he sets the juvenile standard for me.
As I stated last week, he impressed me when winning on his sole start in France and, given that Nacarat acts well on decent surface (by the same sire), quicker ground in March isn’t too much of a worry at this stage. Interestingly, however, Henderson hinted afterwards that he had a couple of others to unleash in this division.
The improving Katenko again impressed, as he had at Sandown, in taking the competitive 2m5f handicap in off a mark of 147. Whether he develops in to Gold Cup material is another matter, but he is a chaser on the up and one that shouldn’t be underestimated, especially on testing ground and when going back up in trip.
The imperious Sprinter Sacre ran away with the rearranged Victor Chandler Chase and is now a best price 2/5 for the Queen Mother Champion Chase. There isn’t much more needs writing about the brilliant seven-year-old who will be impossible to oppose come the Festival.
The Argento Chase almost provided us with a fairytale result had Imperial Commander hung on under Paddy Brennan, but the returning former Gold Cup winner was collared late on by an improving Cape Tribulation who was given a fine ride by Denis O’Regan. It is hard, however, to envisage him being involved in the Gold Cup at this stage.
The Neptune Investment was won by At Fishers Cross, who was another given a fine ride by Champion Jockey, AP McCoy. Another improver, he stepped up in grade (had won a couple of handicaps) and stayed on more strongly than The New One, who looked all over the winner heading to the last. The runner-up quickened up stylishly to hit the front and should appreciate better ground at the Festival.
The winner would be of more interest if stepping back up in trip for the Albert Bartlett, while The New One remains on target for the Neptune. His price drifted for that and, though it is likely he’ll go well, I can’t help feeling he’ll find a couple too good on the day.
On another note, I’m glad in hindsight that the unbeaten Puffin Billy missed this contest, as it could have taken a bit out of him (being so keen on that testing ground). He is likely to head to Exeter next en route to the Festival. Similarly, Nicky Henderson stated after the Argento that he was pleased that Bobs Worth wasn’t forced to endure such a tough race at this stage in the season.
Finally from Cheltenham on Saturday Reve De Sivola took the Cleeve Hurdle at the expense of dual Aintree Hurdle winner Oscar Whisky and the pair now share favouritism for the World Hurdle.
Nick Williams’ rejuvenated eight-year-old saw the trip out just a bit better on this testing ground than Oscar Whisky, who travelled stylishly throughout. Though beaten, I though he was given a fantastic ride by Barry Geraghty, who looked at pains to hang on to him for as long as possible.
Many people will expect him to reverse form in March on better ground and it is hard to say he doesn’t stay 3m after that run, but it still looked to me as though he was being forced to race out of his comfort zone slightly. If the ground comes up soft in March, he may well skip the Festival and head to Aintree a fresh horse in his hat-trick bid.
Over at Leopardstown, the Irish Arkle was rather unsatisfactory with Arvika Ligeonniere falling and Oscars Well being beaten by Benefficient, but Fatcatinthehat was an impressive winner of the opener and the bumper was won in fine style, too.
Willie Mullins’ juvenile took the first by 8 lengths and I will be extremely interested to see what handicap mark he is given with the Fred Winter in mind, while Le Vent D’Antan looked a very smart prospect in taking the concluding bumper by 6 lengths.
He was given quotes ranging from 8-1 to 12-1 for the Champion Bumper and it was interesting to hear Liz Doyle compare him favourably with Cheltenian, who finished runner-up on his sole start for her before winning the Champion Bumper for Philip Hobbs in 2011.
Hurricane Fly took centre stage at the track yesterday, winning his third straight Irish Champion Hurdle in fine style under Ruby Walsh. The former Champion looks back on song and I think he deserves his place at the head of the market for the Champion Hurdle (best price 3/1 with Coral).
If Willie Mullins can get the son of Montjeu to Cheltenham in this kind of form and there is ease in the ground, he is likely to take plenty of beating in his mission to regain his crown.
Mullins and Walsh also took the Grade 2 novice hurdle with Pont Alexandre who is now two from two since arriving from France. He stayed on powerfully to beat Sizing Gold, who also ran well (he will make a lovely chaser next season), by 11 lengths and he is now trading as the 7/2F for the Neptune at Cheltenham.
After the race, connections indicated this would be his most likely target, with them having Ballycasey for the Albert Bartlett, though Boston Bob won this for the stable last year and ended up being switched to the 3m contest in the build up to the Festival.
However, given the pace he has shown to quicken up in heavy ground on both starts in Ireland, the Neptune is certainly the more likely option. Again, the burning
question will be his ability to handle better ground and, being by Dai Jin, there isn’t much to go on from a pedigree point of view. However, his sole success in France was gained on ground described as good-to-soft and that came over 2m1f, so he’s clearly not short of speed. Given the strength of the Mullins novice hurdlers this season, he has to be seriously respected.
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Last Year’s Book Results – Leading Prospects:
- SPRINTER SACRE – Unbeaten – winner at Aintree & Cheltenham
- SIMONSIG – Winner at Aintree & Cheltenham
- CINDERS AND ASHES – 10/1 winner of Supreme Novices Hurdle
- BOBS WORTH – 9/2 winner of the RSA Chase
- MENORAH & SILVINIACO CONTI – Both Aintree Winners
- SIR DES CHAMPS – Unbeaten inc 3/1 Jewson Cheltenham Winner
- FINGAL BAY – Won 4 times inc Challow Hurdle
- RAYA STAR – 10/3 winner at Wetherby, 12/1 Ladbroke Hurdle winner, 15/2 Scottish Champion Hurdle winner
- AMBION WOOD – 14/1 EBF Final Sandown winner
- CHAMPION COURT – 6/1 G2 Dipper Novices Chase winner
- PALACE JESTER – 14/1 winner at FFos Las
- SWINCOMBE FLAME – Hat-trick winner inc Lanzarote Hurdle at 9/2
- TEAFOR THREE – 5/1 NH Cheltenham Chase winner (Manifesto Novices’ Chase)