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4 SELECTIONS: 1 Winner 5/2, 2 x NR, 1 LOSER +1.5PTS

A review of the weekends racing with the Cheltenham Festival in mind plus a weekly Ante-Post recommendation for the weekend's best performer..

KEMPTON (23RD FEBRUARY) & FONTWELL (24TH FEBRUARY)

This years Grade 2 National Spirit Hurdle was a very strange race with the three fancied runners If The Cap Fits, Ballymoy and Old Guard never travelling throughout the first circuit and Lil Rockerfeller not adopting his customary front running role as his rider looked content to sit alongside outsider Vive Le Roi at a steady pace. Onto the final circuit and the only one seemingly going well was Vision Des Flos who finally grabbed a decent pot after being driven out approaching the last and comfortably holding the staying on If The Cap Fits. Lil Rockerfeller was third looking like a horse needing about 4 miles these days, Old Guard was a one paced fourth with second favourite Ballymoy never going well and trailing home a tailed off last.

Paul Nicholls had won the Pendil Novices Chase an incredible 10 times in the previous 13 years so it was easy to see why punters latched on to his Secret Investor and sent it off the 11/10 favourite but he did have his work cutout to reverse the 9 lengths he was beaten by Bags Groove on their last encounter with just a 5lb pull in the weights. On this occasion the form book stood up as Bags Groove tracked the front running Castafiore until being sent on at the second last where he was shaken up to assert and lengthed well to hold the game early leader who stuck on well without really threatening to get back up. Both Good Man Pat and the favourite Secret Investor closed up at the 3rd last going nicely on the heels of the front two but found little and were easily left behind over the last two fences. Secret Investor was particularly disappointing as he went from cruising to flat out in a matter of strides. This was an excellent performance from the winner under his 5lb penalty but he has no Cheltenham entries and will probably head to Aintree as so many of the winners from this race do.

The Adonis Hurdle is a very good trial for the Triumph Hurdle and Nicky Henderson winners are always worth noting for that particular race so when French import Fusil Raffles completely destroyed the field we had to sit up and take note. Unfortunately, in winning he suffered an over reach and will miss the Cheltenham Festival. As they swung around the home bend there were a number of horses in contention but none were going better than the eventual winner and he put the race to bed between the last two flights. Praeceps was alongside the winner 2 out but didn't jump the last two flights particularly well and had no answer to the winners turn of foot or the staying on Beat The Judge who passed him on the run in to nab second. That one has now looked in need of a thorough test of stamina in each of his three races so far and that's something he'll probably get in the Fred Winter. I can see him really appreciating the stiff run up to the line at Cheltenham and this race has been a good guide for that juvenile handicap. Another one to note from the race was Paul Nicholls' Red Force One who stayed on from a long way back under a patient ride to take a never nearer fourth.

Punters were looking for a good run from the Supreme favourite Angels Breath who was carrying a 5lb penalty against a couple of decent rivals. As it turned out that proved too much of a handicap as Paul Nicholls' consistent Southfield Stone took it up at the 5th and stayed out in front all the way to the line despite flattening the last and hanging consistently up the run in. Angels Breath ran on strongly from the last but couldn't reel in the winner, going down by 3/4 length although there was a big gap back to the rest of the field. The winner was paying yet another compliment to Elixir De Nutz who had beaten him over 3 lengths in the Tolworth Hurdle in early January. This isn't a great pointer to the Supreme Novices with most runners opting to wait for Aintree so in getting beat Angels Breath has left himself with rather a lot to prove at Cheltenham. Bookmakers generally left him unchanged for the race but it wasn't really the prep run punters were looking for. The winner has a sole entry in the County Hurdle at Cheltenham but first looks likely to head to the Imperial Cup on the Saturday before Cheltenham.

The 888 Chase favourite Glen Rocco had been in good form recently but this looked a competitive race with a number of other runners also having solid recent handicap form. The race went to one of those other form horses, Walt, who had been well behind Glen Rocco earlier in the Season but enjoyed a healthy pull in the weights and had since recorded a win and second place. He took it up at the third last before being driven out to hold the persistent challenge of the classy top weight Double Shuffle who had tried to make all and battled on gamely once headed. They pulled away from the field between the last two fences but came back to them slightly as Adrien Du Pont was doing some good late work to stay on best and overhaul stablemate Romain De Senam and the fading Talkischeap on the run in. Glen Rocco stayed on at the end but was never really in it while Rather Be ran another poor race and can't be trusted at present.

This weeks 'HOTometer'...

HOTWARMCOLD

WALT
FUSIL RAFFLES
BAGS GROOVE
SOUTHFIELD STONE

CASTAFIORE
ADRIEN DU PONT
SOUTHFIELD STONE
BEAT THE JUDGE
VISION DES FLOS

ANGELS BREATH
DOUBLE SHUFFLE
IF THE CAP FITS
LIL ROCKERFELLER

RATHER BE
SECRET INVESTOR
BALLYMOY
GLEN ROCCO

Ante-Post recommendation: CASTAFIORE (EW) - Close Brothers Novice Chase 16/1 NRNB (Coral) NR

ASCOT (16TH FEBRUARY)

With the absence of the classy Santini the Grade 2 Reynoldstown Novice Chase looked to be missing a standout performer and the betting suggested there wouldn't be too much between any of the 5 runners. The favourite Top Ville Ben adopted the front running tactics that had seen him easily win two lower grade novice chases but he didn't seem to appreciate the step up in class or going right handed and after jumping left down the fences on a number of occasions was headed at the third last and was the first beaten. He came home last of the 5. Venetia Williams' Yaltari took it up going nicely at the third last but his effort was shortlived and by the second last both Mister Malarkey and Now McGintey had gone past him and were fighting it out between themselves. Mister Malarkey seemed to idle as they came to the last but jumped it okay and stayed on well up the run in to take command and hold the game Now McGintey by 1 1/2 lengths.The winner had been doing well in handicap company prior to this win and doesn't look a typical RSA Chase winner but the way he has been finishing his races suggests he may have a chance in the 4 miler at Cheltenham.

Just 4 runners for the rescheduled Denman Chase headed by the King George winner Clan Des Obeaux who had upwards of 14lb in hand on the rest of the field according to official ratings. The second favourite Terrefort, who was last seen running Frodon to 3 lengths in the Cotswold Chase, kicked on in the lead from the second fence and tried to make all the running but he could never shake off the attentions of Clan Des Obeaux who was happy to simply shadow his rival while travelling strongly and biding his time. Harry Cobden left it until coming down to the last before pushing the button and with a mighty jump forged into the lead before bounding up the run in to put major daylight between himself and Terrefort. The other two runners were never able to get anywhere near the main protagonists and came home 25 lengths behind the runner up. Ballyhill had tried to close at the third last but that effort left him hanging on for third as Thomas Patrick made late headway to challenge on the run in looking like a horse ridden, but ultimately failing, to nab the third place prize money. This was an ultra impressive performance from the winner and he must have an excellent chance in this years Gold Cup having now won the two main trials for that race.

We didn't get the big field usually associated with the Betfair Hurdle due to it being rescheduled with a much lower prize pot but it was still a competitive handicap that looked sure to provide some Festival clues. Magic Dancer set out to make all and was still outrunning his big odds when leading at the last but bearing down on him was the long time ante-post favourite for the race, Al Dancer, who pinged the hurdle and stormed up the run in looking like a very well handicapped horse despite a 12lb rise in the rating for his last win. The 100/1 rank outsider Blu Cavalier was prominent throughout and rallied well from the last to regain third place from the staying on Getaway Trump and the well backed Ar Mest who held every chance at the last before fading out of it. Getaway Trump looked a horse in need of a bit further and would be an interesting runner if heading for the Coral Cup. The fancied trio of Mont Des Avaloirs, Lisp and Didtheyleaveuoutto finished 7th, 8th and 9th but never got past midfield having been held up off the pace and wouldn't be of any interest to me in any race at the Festival. Since 2010 the four winners of this race to have run in the Supreme Novices have finished 2-2-4-2 so Al Dancer must have every chance of making the frame there.

The Ascot Chase is a great pointer for the 2m5f RyanAir and with a fantastic line up of 6 of the best UK horses at that sort of distance we looked sure to get some clues for that race. Cyrname then gave us an exhibition round of jumping, made all the running to draw clear of the field by an amazing 17 lengths and show he's the king of the chasers at the trip. So why aren't we all steaming in at what seems a ludicrously generous 4/1? Because, while there is no doubting that this was an incredibly impressive performance, time and time again Paul Nicholls has stated Cyrname does not appreciate going left handed. So much so he didn't run at the Festival last year and hasn't even entered him for the race this year. There is of course an option to supplement him, and it's going to be awfully tempting to do that after this performance, but there's no getting away from the fact that Cheltenham is a left handed track that won't play to the winners strengths. He did though blow his opponents out of the water here and that will cause a lot of rethinking to go on regarding the Festival aspirations of the also rans. Hopefully connections of Waiting Patiently now realise they haven't got the greatest horse ever and won't protect him quite as much meaning we'll get to see him run a bit more often and Fox Norton's connections do the right thing and run him in the Champion Chase. I've no idea about Politologue but it's certain Charbel and Aso are no Grade 1 horses.

WINCANTON (16TH FEBRUARY)

The decline of this once fine Cheltenham Festival Champion Hurdle Trial continues with the favourite Sceau Royal using it merely as a prep for the Champion Chase and the eventual gutsy winner Grand Sancy being a novice who can't possibly be entertained as a Champion Hurdle contender. Third home Vision Des Flos continues to run well in decent company but can't seem to get his head in front and has now gone 9 races since his last win. The novice winner did well considering he was conceding 2lbs to the 11lb higher rated Sceau Royal and pays a very good compliment to Elixir De Nutz who had beaten him in the Tolworth Hurdle at Sandown last time out. There wasn't much between them that day and both are now similarly quoted at around 14/1 for the Supreme Novices Hurdle. Last word goes to Sceau Royal who really should have won this race on all known form and now faces what looks an impossible task to be competitive in the Champion Chase.

HAYDOCK (16TH FEBRUARY)

Only 4 runners for the opening Victor Ludorum Juvenile Hurdle but we did have Paul Nicholls' triumph Hurdle hope Quel Destin facing off against Nigel Twiston-Davies' unbeaten Torpillo. Quel Destin got beat on his UK hurdling debut but has gone unbeaten in 4 runs since including two Grade 2's and a Grade 1. Here he took it up at the third flight and made every yard from then on to come home an easy winner despite jumping out to his right at a couple of the flights on the home straight. It was the two outsiders Capone and Fanzio, who were both receiving 3lb, that followed him home with Torpillo disappointing in last after a shocking round of jumping. He had won both his previous starts on much softer ground by over 20 lengths and came into the race rated just 1lb lower than the winner but, even allowing for his poor hurdling, was no match for Quel Destin who now heads to the Triumph Hurdle as the No.1 UK hope. The runner up Capone has twice been behind Quel Destin either side of a win and has a current rating of 120. If the handicapper doesn't hit him too hard for this 6 length defeat would be of great interest in the Fred Winter Handicap if getting in with a mark below 130.

The Rendelsham Hurdle has provided the odd classy runner who has gone on to run very well in the Stayers Hurdle so all eyes were on 9yo Yanworth who was making his seasonal debut. As it turned out it was recent novice chase scorer Shades of Midnight who took the honours having made all the running and extending his lead up the run in. Kilcooley chased him for most of the home straight but weakened from the last and was caught for second by the staying on Petticoast TailsClyne once again disappointed but it was the run of Yanworth that was the most surprising as this former very smart Grade 1 winning horse pulled up having shown none of his previous spark. It ended up a race that probably didn't take a lot of winning but the winner had run a 1/2 length second to Paisley Park in a handicap in late November when receiving just 10lb. He can probably expect a big bump in the ratings for this win so makes limited appeal for any handicap hurdle race at the Festival but with a chase rating that is a lot lower than his hurdles one he would be of serious interest if taking that route.

The Grade 2 Albert Bartlett trial looked a good renewal with the favourite Kateson having got within 3 1/2 lengths of the Ballymore favourite Champ last time out but he didn't appear to see out the 3 miles here and after blundering through the last came home a disappointing 7th. Ask Ben had romped home at Ayr previously and tried to make all the running again here but having set quite a sedate pace he was cooked by the second last as the eventual winner Lisnagar Oscar went by him. He plugged on to hold second from the staying on Stoney Mountain and the one paced Star of Lanka. Rockpoint, who carried a penalty here for his Grade 2 win at Cheltenham before Christmas, hasn't looked comfortable in a couple of slowly run races since and will be seen to much better effect when getting a stronger pace and level weights in the Albert Bartlett final. The winner had finished runner up to Rockpoint at Cheltenham but had lost all chance that day when making a bad mistake at the last. He came out to win his next race at Chepstow before spreadeagling this field and heads back to Cheltenham as one of the favourites for the Albert Bartlett.

In the concluding Hunter Chase, Road To Rome made all the running to come home 34 lengths clear of the field and bring his current winning streak to 7 (3 PTP's and 4 Hunter Chases) since leaving Oliver Sherwood's yard. He had last years Cheltenham winner Pacha Du Polder and the 141 rated chaser Ballotin from the Phillip Hobbs yard well in rear and the 9yo looks a very decent Hunter who should go very well in the Foxhunters at this year's Festival.

This weeks 'HOTometer'...

HOTWARMCOLD

QUEL DESTIN
LISNAGAR OSCAR
ROAD TO ROME
CLAN DES OBEAUX
CYRNAME

GRAND SANCY
AL DANCER
SHADES OF MIDNIGHT
CAPONE
MISTER MALARKEY

ROCKPOINT
WAITING PATIENTLY
TERREFORT

YANWORTH
SCEAU ROYAL
KATESON
TORPILLO
TOP VILLE BEN

 

Ante-Post recommendation: ROAD TO ROME - Foxhunters 7/1 NRNB (Skybet) 3RD


 

DUBLIN RACING FESTIVAL (2ND/3RD FEBRUARY)

Saturday

The opening Grade 1 Novice Hurdle saw COMMANDER OF FLEET fight out an exciting finish with the game RHINESTONE before gaining the upper hand and scoring by 1/2 length. With the last flight being omitted there was an extended run in of nearly 3 furlongs and it seemed to suit Commander of Fleet better as he was hard ridden to challenge, hard ridden to go past and hard ridden to hold off the gallant runner up. With the runner up giving 2lb to the winner I wouldn't be convinced that the result will be confirmed if they should meet again. Neither ran well last time out over trips a lot shorter than ideal so that rematch will probably happen in the Albert Bartlett with that race being nominated as the most likely target for Commander Of Fleet (stablemate Battleoverdoyen goes for the Ballymore). You can get 10/1 about Commander of Fleet and 25/1 Rhinestone for the potato race with the latter price looking fairly appealing. Outside GALLANT JOHN JOE stuck with the front two for most of the home straight and only gave way in the last 200yds before somehow managing to cling on for third as another rank outsider FIRST APPROACH and the well backed favourite RELEGATE closed him down rapidly as the line approached. First Approach would be an interesting entry for the Coral Cup. Relegate broke her maiden over hurdles when just winning over 2 miles last time out but found this trip more to her liking as she got better the further the race went on. Unsurprisingly she has been well supported for the 2 furlong further Albert Bartlett since.

APPLES JADE put in a fantastic front running performance to take the Irish Champion Hurdle by 16 lengths, in a decent time, from last years winner SUPASUNDAE. Her 7lb mares allowance is always going to be a great asset in these types of races and after routing this field connections have now been persuaded to go down the Champion Hurdle route. She did run slightly right down a couple of hurdles and the runner up, Supasundae, now looks like a horse lacking the speed to compete at the highest level over 2 miles but other than that it was hard not to be impressed by this run. MELON disappointed and was well beaten in 4th but it's worth noting he flopped in this race last year before running second in the Champion Hurdle on his next run. He ideally needs it softer.

The 2 mile handicap was a funny old race with just 6 lengths separating the entire 19 runner field as they jumped the last and ran around the bend into the home straight. They were led into the final 2 furlongs by the 11yo JEZKI who showed there was life in the old boy yet by staying at the front until the last couple of strides. He fought off the returning to form IVANOVICH GORBATOV but was swamped by the wide, fast and late run of last years race winner OFF YOU GO. It was a 1-2-3 for owner JP McManus but the relative form of the race is questionable with it being a slowly run race that turned into a sprint for the finish. Very few runners really got into it and, bar the winner, it favoured those at the front of the pack coming into the straight. The winner now sits at the top of the betting for the County Hurdle, best priced 12/1 (Coral).

ENVOI ALLEN maintained his unbeaten run with victory in the Grade 2 NH Flat race but it wasn't plain sailing for the odds on favourite as he was hard ridden to maintain his advantage over the Joseph O'Brien pair of METICULOUS who finished strongly and the one paced EMBITTERED who had chased him throughout the final 2 furlongs. ABACADABRAS was in second and staying on gamely when approaching the last 1/2 furlong he seemed to jink left causing him to run out through the running rail. The winner was giving 3lb+ to all his rivals but didn't overly impress me and I won't be rushing out to take the 6/1 currently on offer for the Cheltenham Bumper.

With Simply Ned a non runner and Special Tiara and Castlegrace Paddy not getting further than the first fence it was basically a 3 horse race. SAINT CALVADOS assumed his customary front running position but didn't jump with his usually boldness or fluency and was cooked by the home straight where both the tanking along, hot favourite MIN and the ridden ORDINARY WORLD went past him. Min just needed shaking up to go on and win the race by an untroubled 6 lengths with Ordinary World sticking on nicely to hold second from a weary Saint Calvados 6 lengths back in third. Min was simply in a different class to his rivals here and recorded a fast time leaving connections with a bit of a dilemma, take on Altior again in the Champion Chase or go for relatively easier pickings in the Ryanair. Trainer fancies the first choice, jockey favours the second and the owner has yet to decide. As for me, I'd avoid Altior at all costs and head for the Ryanair. The 3/1 NRNB looks a fair bet as the race usually cuts up badly and he could well be a lot shorter on the day.

The fourth Grade 1 of the afternoon went the way of the favourite LE RICHEBOURG who could be called the winner a long way from home as he sat stalking the front two, US AND THEM and VOIX DU REVE, apparently swinging on the bridle. He came to challenge on their inner at the final fence where a stoked along Voix Du Reve buckled on landing and came down. This left the favourite to be simply pushed out to record a 7 length win. The winner was going away from the runner up on the approach to the line but Voix Du Reve didn't appear to be totally done with when taking an unlucky fall and may have put up more of a fight than the eventual second did. It was 13 lengths back to a staying on MENGLI KHAN who had found himself outpaced down the back straight but rallied to come back for third place. It was another fast time and with Douvan, Footpad and Un De Sceaux all winning this race before taking the Arkle it was no surprise to see Le Richebourg cut to favourite for that race immediately afterwards.

The concluding 2m1f handicap chase was won by the strong finishing QUAMINO who got up in the dying strides to deny DAKOTA MOIRETTE who had gone 2 lengths up jumping the last and looked the likeliest winner for most of the run in. The winner is quoted at 33/1 for the Grand Annual with the runner up looking a more appealing 20/1 shot for the same race. Topweight DUKE OF MILAN ran a valiant race to finish 3rd off a new low mark of 141 and the 11yo proved he can still be competitive in top handicap company given the right conditions. Hopefully the handicapper won't be too harsh on him. MINDS EYE appreciated this company a lot more than the Grade 1 novice chases he's been running in lately and was noted doing some good late work. He's another worth noting if getting a Grand Annual entry. Last years second and subsequent Grand Annual 5th THREE STARS came home a tailed off last this year and isn't finishing off his races recently but he does needs it softer than this and all the while he is slipping down the handicap. He'll probably be re-assessed to a mark around the 137 he finished second in this race last year which is 7lb lower than he ran off in the Grand Annual. If it came up soft for the last race of the Festival I'd take him to outrun his current 40/1 quotes.

Sunday

The first of four Grade 1's on the Sunday card looked likely to sort out the rankings for the Irish challenge on the Triumph Hurdle in March. It was settled decisively as SIR EREC made all the running before being simply pushed out under hands and heels to score by 6 lengths from stablemate GARDENS OF BABYLON with SURIN just behind in third and well fancied TIGER TAP TAP in fourth having not found the necessary improvement needed to reverse the neck he got beat by Sir Erec on his hurdling debutThe 2nd and third have run almost to the pound in their last three runs now so the form has a solid look to it. Winning trainer Joseph O'Brien has a stranglehold on the Irish 4yo hurdlers this year and Sir Erec was just as impressive here as stablemate Fakir Doudairies was last week. Hopefully we'll get to see them square off against each other in the Triumph Hurdle but there is talk of last weeks Cheltenham winner Fakir Doudairies switching to the Supreme Novices Hurdle. That's not a great result for those of us who have backed him for the Triumph but with him being well supported in the Supreme market we may have to accept our fate. Darn ante-post betting!

The 2m Grade 1 Novice Hurdle was next up and Willie Mullins' scored a 1-2 when the favourite KLASSICAL DREAM got back up to take the honours by a head from stablemate ARAMON having been headed on the run in. The eventual runner up was ridden up on the outside to make what looked likely to be a winning challenge as they jumped the last but he couldn't keep that run going and was simply outbattled (although it's worth noting he was conceding 1lb to the winner). They pulled 6 lengths clear of the one paced Gordon Eliott runner VISION D'HONNEUR who had looked an exciting prospect when beating Elixir D'ainay so convincingly last time out. I have no idea what the bookmakers saw that promoted Klassical Dream into 8/1 second favourite for the Supreme Novices but I do know that he won't be carrying any of my money in the opening race of the Cheltenham Festival.

With Delta Work a late non runner this looked a good opportunity for LA BAGUE AU ROI's to notch another Grade 1 victory and it pretty much went to plan as she jumped in her usual slick manner making all the running from the second fence before being ridden right out to hold the determined challenge of the rank outsider KAISER BLACK from the last fence. It wasn't as easy as most supporters had hoped for but the runner up had been in good form recently in handicap chases and she saw off the rest of the field quite comfortably. Judging by the trainers remarks after the race it seems that Cheltenham isn't their number 1 priority and Aintree will be the preferred next stop. The temptation to run at the Festival may prove too much though and odds of 12/1 for the RSA or 10/1 for the JLT could look very handsome come the second week in March. The runner up can expect another rise in the ratings and may be worth looking out for if getting an entry in one of the longer handicap chases at the Festival.

The change in ground conditions meant a host of non runners in the feature race of the meeting and just 4 runners went to post for the Irish Gold Cup. We did at least get a great finish with 2/1 second favourite BELLSHILL and the 5/6 favourite ROAD TO RESPECT going head to head for fully 3 furlongs. Road to Respect jumped the last in the lead but Bellshill wasn't done with and pushed the favourite all the way up the run in and in a real ding dong battle got up in the dying strides by a shorthead. The Storyteller and Outlander never really got to the front two and had been left behind by the home straight. Both the front two had been well behind Kemboy in the Savills Chase over Christmas and Cheltenham Gold Cup quotes of 14/1 for the pair will not be enticing me into backing either one of them.

This weeks 'HOTometer'...

HOTWARMCOLD

APPLES JADE
SIR EREC
MIN

LE RICHEBOURG
LA BAGUE AU ROI

ENVOI ALLEN
BELLSHILL
ROAD TO RESPECT
KLASSICAL DREAM
OFF YOU GO
DAKOTA MOIRETTE

COMMANDER OF FLEET
RHINESTONE

MELON
MENGLI KHAN
SAINT CALVADOS

 

Ante-Post recommendation: MIN - RyanAir Chase 3/1 NRNB (Paddypower/Bet365/Skybet) NR


 

A review of the weekends racing with the Cheltenham Festival in mind plus a weekly Ante-Post recommendation for the weekend's best performer..

CHELTENHAM TRIALS DAY (26TH JANUARY)

The 7 race card saw a number of horses stake their claim to Cheltenham Festival glory and an equal number end their connections dreams as they crashed out of the reckoning.

Things got under way with the 4yo Finesse Hurdle which has been won by a few decent horses on their way to Triumph Hurdle success over the last two decades, the last of which was Defi Du Seuil in 2017. This year it went the way of Fakir D'oudairies who won impressively from stablemate Fine Brunello and the favourite Adjali and shot himself to the head of the Triumph Hurdle betting. It was hard not to be impressed by the manner of this victory and with Adjali holding some of the best juvenile form this side of the Irish Sea it appears Joseph O'Brien now holds the nap hand with his stable of 4yo hurdlers. With time running out for any new challengers to come to the fore you could argue that the 6/1 on offer about his chances in the Triumph is good value, I would be of that opinion. Of those running down the field the 4th home Our Power was doing a lot of good work late on and might be worth noting for the Fred Winter handicap but Nelson River didn't handle the step up in grade and is obviously not good enough for a Triumph Hurdle challenge.

Last year the novice chase handicap winner at this meeting went on to take the Close Brothers Handicap at the Cheltenham Festival and that is very much the target for this years winner Kildisart who was following up a narrow, recent Ascot win. He came to collar the long time leader Highway One O One between the last 2 fences and had just about taken up the running by the time they both jumped the final obstacle. He then drifted left up the run in, slightly hampering the runner up but was ridden out to maintain a 2 length advantage with another 1/2 length back to the topweight Spiritofthegames who had chased the front two from just before the second last without ever getting in a meaningful challenge. I think the jockey on the runner up will probably be wishing he had kicked on at the top of the hill as he was jumping superbly and going well and it may have just drawn the sting out of the eventual winner who was allowed to coast into the race around the final bend in the slipstream of the winner. I don't think there'll be much in it if they were to meet again under similar conditions.

We got a great finish in the Trophy Handicap with the bold jumping front runner Siruh Du Lac having an almighty tussle with Nicky Henderson's favourite Janika up the run in as they swapped the lead numerous times before Siruh De Lac gamely stuck on to get back up by a head. The runner up lost nothing in defeat as he stuck to the task throughout the run in while giving the winner 19lb and went straight into my notebook for the William Hill Handicap Chase on the opening day of the Festival. The third Ballyhill remains in good heart but the 10lb rise for his win at Aintree earlier in the Season seems to have stopped his progress for the time being. One who did catch my eye was the JP McManus, Paul Nicholls trained Brelan D'As who made eyecatching ground as the field came into the straight but dropped away between the final two fences as though he had come to the end of his stamina. He clambered over the last and came up the hill at one pace but maintained 5th to look like a horse who could go well when dropped back to 2 miles. The Grand Annual looks an ideal target as a race that favours novices and he is from a stable that won the race last year.

The Cotswold Chase hasn't been a great trial for the Gold Cup over the years but this years winning trainer Paul Nicholls is extremely bullish about his charges chances for that race in March and you'd have to admit, he knows a thing or two about winning that particular race. Frodon has been improving all season and handled this step up to 3 miles seemingly well enough by defeating the thorough stayer Elegant Escape by 3/4 length while giving him 2lb, even though that distance had looked like being a lot more as they jumped the last. Whether Frodon was idling, Bryony Frost had gone too soon or he'd didn't really see out the 3 miles the facts are that he went from having a 3 length lead to clinging on by under a length in about a furlong. As much as I respect Paul Nicholls' as a trainer I personally think he'll struggle to stay the Gold Cup trip and would rather see him in the RyanAir (and not just because I've backed him ante-post for that race!). The runner up looks to have definite place prospects for the Gold Cup and it's worth noting that Welsh National winners that carried 11-05+ to victory at Chepstow have a good record in the Gold Cup (though not necessarily in the same season). Terrefort ran a much better race here than he did at Sandown on his Seasonal debut and was only 3 lengths off the winner at the line. He'd be of definite interest in the Ryanair. Minella Rocco continues to disappoint and Valtor's Gold Cup claims were all but extinguished with a below par performance. I have to mention the run of the outsider Allysson Monterg who on ratings had no right to get as close to the winner as he did (19 lengths) but travelled beautifully for a very long way and only gave way as they turned for home. Hopefully the handicapper won't be too hard on him and he gets to race in a handicap from around his current mark. The Kempton Trophy Handicap Chase at the end of February would be an ideal stepping stone to the Festival.

The Cleeve Hurdle had looked a very competitive renewal this year but Paisley Park turned it into a procession as he took it up coming to the last before bounding away up the run in to win by 12 lengths and upwards. This was the best staying performance of the season and unsurprisingly catapulted the winner to Stayers Hurdle favouritism. It's difficult to see any of the beaten horses here finding necessary improvement to reverse the form at Cheltenham in March. There was a welcome return to some sort of form for Sam Spinner who finished 4th with the admirable Lil Rockerfeller a one paced 5th having set out to make all. Aux Ptits Soins had his limitations exposed once again, age seems to have caught up with Uknowhatimeanharry and Midnight Shadow is clearly not up to this Grade but Wholestone can be marked up as having run better than his finishing position implies. He was still travelling well and had yet to make his move when clouting the second last and landing sidewards. His jockey lost an iron temporarily and then allowed the horse to come home in his own time. He could yet match his performance from last year and make the frame of the Stayers. This race has thrown up a number of chase handicap winners at the Festival over the last decade or so and I would love to see either West Approach or Lil Rockerfeller go back over fences for the William Hill Handicap. That's looking unlikely at the moment but I'll add them to the notebook just in case.

In the Ballymore Hurdle Trial we had the second favourite, Birchdale, win easily by 18 lengths but that didn't help us much and we're still none the wiser as to who was the best horse in the race as the favourite Brewin'Upastorm was 1/2 length in the lead when coming down at the last. The two protagonists were well clear at the time and had the race between themselves with the third favourite Jarveys Plate nowhere to be seen. As they came to the last Brewin'Upastorm was just beginning to be stoked along as Birchdale moved out from the rail and around the back of the leader to launch his bid for the lead. Neither had been asked for their full effort at that point with both horses looking to jump the last before fighting it out up the hill and it's likely we would have gotten a great finish but alas Brewin'Upastorm didn't quite get his front legs high enough and came crashing down allowing Birchdale to stroll up to the line unchallenged. The bookmakers can't split them either with similar quotes for both horses in both the Ballymore and the Albert Bartlett.

The concluding handicap has been a good guide to the handicap hurdles at the Cheltenham Festival over the years with particular reference for the County Hurdle. This year we had an authoritative winner in the form of Fergal O'Brien's Bennys Bridge who raced from the bottom of the weights and will therefore need a lot of help from the handicapper to make the cut for any of the races. That's not impossible such was the manner of this win with Bennys Bridge coming from last to first down the home straight to take it up at the final flight before stretching away for a comfortable near 3 length success. The Imperial Cup at Sandown on the Saturday before Cheltenham could be an interesting target for him. Champagne City had led at the last but weakened to finish just out of the frame with both the favourite and second favourite Flash The Steel and Flashing Glance sticking on well without being able to match the winners closing pace and having to settle for 2nd and third.

This weeks 'HOTometer'...

HOTWARMCOLD


PAISLEY PARK

FAKIR D'OUDAIRIES
FRODON
BIRCHDALE

KILDISART
HIGHWAY ONE O ONE
BREWIN'UPASTORM
ELEGANT ESCAPE
BENNYS BRIDGE
ALLYSSON MONTERG
TERREFORT
JANIKA

VALTOR
ADJALI
NELSON RIVER
AUX PTITS SOINS
JARVEYS PLATE

 

Ante-Post recommendation: PAISLEY PARK - Stayers Hurdle 5/2 (Betfair) WON 5/2

 

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