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Lydia Hislop's Road To Cheltenham 9: Time for a bet in the Albert Bartlett

By Lydia Hislop@LydiaHislop
Wed 13 Jan 2021

Market Rasen: the final frontier. This is the voyage of the Willie Mullins-trained mare, Grangee. Her mission this Saturday: to explore the strange new post-Brexit world. To seek out whether international racing competition can continue while our civilisation is under attack from Covid. To boldly go where no mare has gone before! (And get beaten by Eileendover.)

That’s the plan, at least. With the Festival nine weeks away and so much unease swirling about, it seems sensible for Mullins to test the water in this way – and try to win the same black type event he took last year with Panic Attack.

However, preparing for Irish and French competition on a Festival scale is clearly going to be a huge logistical exercise and there will frequently be complications of detail, such as the announcements on Wednesday (minutes before I wrote this) that the Irish Point-to-Point season has been suspended and that amateur riders are no longer permitted to participate under Rules in Britain from this Saturday.

We have to remain flexible and hopeful in response. It is in this spirit that I wish Gordon Elliott in particular a safe and happy trip to Cheltenham because I’ve just added a third horse of his to my ante-post portfolio. Non-runner no bet, mind. I’m not a hopeless optimist.

RYANAIR CHASE

Prior to last Saturday’s Silviniaco Conti Chase, trainer Kim Bailey advised Racing Post readers that “people are getting over-excited” about Ryanair second favourite Imperial Aura, whom he’d also entered in the Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup.

“He’s on an upward curve, but this will be a big test for him,” Bailey said.

“He’s got a lot to do before he proves himself a proper Cheltenham horse. His last race at Ascot might have looked impressive, but it probably wasn’t the strongest race as the second horse [Itchy Feet] has been beaten again at Ascot since and the third [Real Steel] was pulled up in the King George.”

Few really heeded Bailey’s characteristic caution, although the horse was eased from 5-6 favourite to even-money in the moments before the off, but it turned out he was right – albeit perhaps for the wrong reason. It was easy to pick holes in Imperial Aura’s Ascot form but trickier to criticise his jumping. Yet that’s what went wrong here.

David Bass positioned Imperial Aura prominently, against the rail and inside the front-running Master Tommytucker, who had in the past displayed a tendency to jump out to his left whilst typically rushing at his fences. Approaching the second, you can see from the video below that Imperial Aura loses concentration, takes off too far out and breasts the obstacle, thus unseating Bass.

Afterwards, various theories for this departure abounded. Someone suggested to clerk of the course Barney Clifford that the fence was in shadow – an assertion he rebutted – and another contacted me on Twitter, wondering whether the two fence attendants standing nearby had put the horse off.

However, the most immediately alarming aspect of the incident was that it left the reins caught around one of Imperial Aura’s forelegs and he proceeded to jump two fences and an unknown (to me) number of hurdles in this X-rated fashion.

Luckily Bailey was observing an alcohol-free January, as he later drily observed in his blog, or else he might have taken to drink at the sight... had there been any drink available at Kempton.

“The worse part was watching him gallop around the course with the reins between his legs,” he wrote. “Always a huge worry, as that is when problems arise... Thankfully, he was fairly sensible and, when caught, he just had a nasty-looking rub between his front legs, but no long-lasting damage. Vets looked at him immediately and were satisfied.

“David Bass thought that something took Imperial Aura’s eye off the fence just as he was about to take off. We will never know, although watching you could see something might have distracted him. It was hugely disappointing for his owners and all involved in this lovely horse. His Cheltenham pre-run was hardly what it was meant to be...”

Quite the understatement. Daringly, bookmakers pushed Imperial Aura out a whole point in the Ryanair betting for failing to complete on his toughest assignment to date. This turn of events surely puts paid to any outside chance of him running in the Gold Cup instead, but also means that he’s likely to line up at a shorter price for his likely target than a fistful of rivals with more substantial form.

You’re taking 7/1 on his promise, in what could be one of the more competitive renewals of this race. Horses who fall or unseat on their preceding start also have a famously shocking Festival record. Despite this, Bailey has thus far given no indication that he’s considering the entirely viable option of an Ascot Chase run, seemingly preferring to produce the horse fresh for Cheltenham.

Meanwhile, back at Kempton, Master Tommytucker carried on regardless – jumping his fences fast and low, with Harry Cobden persistently asking him to concentrate rather than get carried away by the exercise, as he has done in the past. This spell lasted until the final fence, when Cobden asked for a specific stride and his mount slipped in a caveat. After they’d successfully crashed through it, the jockey was crossing himself with relief.

Trainer Paul Nicholls had asserted beforehand that the winner is now a better jumper than when a novice, falling in both the Kauto Star and Pendil Chases at Kempton last season. He’d also argued Master Tommytucker was better than the literal form when seventh in the Caspian Caviar Gold Gup, under top-weight and making a mistake two out. This horse has been a slow learner, only making his racecourse debut three years ago at the age of seven.

Afterwards, Nicholls was mulling over a campaign reminiscent to a certain degree of that hatched for stablemate Cyrname a couple of seasons ago. “I’d love to win a Grade One with him,” he said, indicating that the Ascot Chase and Aintree’s Melling Chase were both potential targets this term rather than anything at Cheltenham – even though this horse holds Ryanair and Gold Cup entries.

“I actually think probably in the Ryanair, they’d rush him off his feet a little bit – might not suit him,” Nicholls said, with good reason. It doesn’t take much of a stretch of imagination to envisage this horse making a critical error under the helter-skelter pressure of a Festival Grade One.

“I’m sure he’s better on a flatter track,” Nicholls added. “I just said to Harry, next year all being well and he’s in one piece, he’d want to be in the King George. It suits him round here. I could see him running very well in a race like that.”

_Paul Nicholls talked to Lydia Hislop's after Master Tommytucker's success _

Nicholls has a surfeit of potential representatives in the Ascot Chase, with Cyrname and the Festival-free Clan Des Obeaux having also been mentioned in passing for that Grade One. He acknowledged Master Tommytucker’s similarities with the former, in that “they’re both talented, both had a few little issues and are a bit of a challenge to train”. “But I love those,” he added, with palpable relish.

After Imperial Aura departed, neither of the winner’s remaining rivals could put up much of a fight. There was a strong on-paper case for Riders Onthe Storm, who boasted a broadly similar profile to the departed favourite this time last year as the comfortable winner of an Aintree handicap and the seven-length victor of an Ascot graduation chase.

His most recent two runs, both disappointing, took place at Cheltenham where he is yet to produce anything like his best. He was also far too free behind Put The Kettle On in testing ground in the Shloer Chase last time out, after which he was also found to be suffering with stomach ulcers. (What happened to the universal yak about stomach ulcers? It seems it peaked in 2019.)

However, behind the curve or not, one problem or another still seems to be bugging Riders Onthe Storm as he drifted markedly in the betting for this Kempton contest and jumped so tentatively that he lost ground at most fences. Driven to rally while the winner took a breather exiting the back straight, he was quickly beaten in the straight.

Arguably the greater disappointment was Clondaw Castle, who – unlike that rival – couldn’t be accused of doing anything wrong. He arrived in career-best form after a good win at Newbury and jumped soundly here, yet he was beaten 12 lengths into second seemingly on merit. On this evidence, the step into lower-level graded company looks marginally beyond him.

Finally, at Fairyhouse on Tuesday, Sizing Pottsie took a tumble when switched to hurdles by trainer Jessica Harrington. Sent off the 4/9 favourite, he made the running with a long lead but jumped poorly throughout and was tiring markedly when crumpling into the ground, head first, in slow motion. He’s better over fences but entries in the Clarence House, Ryanair and Champion Chase are ambitious.

UNIBET CHAMPION HURDLE

No alarms and no surprises among the 27 horses entered for the Unibet Champion Hurdle this week, with all horses featuring at the fore of the market present and correct – including titleholder Epatante. Fellow mares Honeysuckle and Concertista, who may yet prefer to clash in the Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle crown instead, are also engaged.

It’s reassuring that both former dual winner Buveur D’Air and last season’s unluckiest Festival loser Goshen are both entered, meaning their respective connections are happy enough with their wellbeing at this stage. They could yet clash in Sandown’s Contenders' Hurdle next month, which might yet mean one or both of them won’t make it to Cheltenham’s wrap party.

Goshen was fleetingly entered in Kempton’s Christmas Hurdle, which has been interpreted as a positive sign in his recovery from the fibrillating heart diagnosed in the International (Bula) Hurdle.

Buveur D’Air contributes to a total of six Nicky Henderson-trained entries – the largest consignment from one yard, with Willie Mullins engaging five, Henry de Bromhead three and Gordon Elliott a mere two.

The steadily-improving Buzz, second to former stablemate Not So Sleepy in a Grade Three handicap at Ascot last month, has been deemed worthy of an entry by Henderson, who has also engaged the mare Marie’s Rock – too keen when flopping as the beaten favourite in the Gerry Feilden behind stable-companion Floressa (not entered) last time out. She had been an exciting novice hurdler last season until meeting a setback.

Alongside the expected Mullins-trained trio of Sharjah, Saint Roi and Saldier stands the biggest curveball among the entries: James Du Berlais, whom part-owner Simon Munir revealed via Twitter in December would be joining the yard from Robert Collet’s in France.

This dual Grade Three-winning hurdler was the third highest-rated juvenile in the country last season but is yet to race outside of his native land.

Alex Hales has also entered headstrong novice For Pleasure, winner of the Sky Bet Supreme Trial over this course and distance in November and also engaged in the Betfair Hurdle. However, the most newsworthy entrant is Winston C, who used to be trained by Harry Fry before joining American handler Jonathan Sheppard and winning two Grade One hurdles in Saratoga in 2019.

Sheppard retired at the start of this year, leaving his Irish-based string in the hands of his former assistant of 11 years, Keri Brion, who’d been overseeing the horses since they arrived in County Wexford for their European campaign.

The Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board granted her permission to train the horses in her name last Friday and, according to this piece on www.nationalsteeplechase.com, she plans to run Winston C at Navan later this month.

Those with very long memories may recall the Sheppard-trained Flatterer chasing home See You Then in the 1987 Champion Hurdle.

Flatterer beats some good horses as he chases home See You Then

Among the Champion no-shows are 2019 Triumph Hurdle hero Pentland Hills – reported in May to be sidelined for a year with a leg injury and indeed absent from the Seven Barrows sextet.

There is also no sign of the 2020 Festival’s two winning juveniles, the filly Burning Victory who won the Triumph and the Gordon Elliott-trained Fred Winter victor, Aramax, who has flopped over fences to date.

Benie Des Dieux and Elixir D’Ainay – both chattered about as left-field Champion Hurdle entries – are also absent, as are the novice chasers Envoi Allen, Shishkin, Darver Star, Chantry House, Captain Guinness and Klassical Dream. No hurdling Plan B for them. We will find out on Thursday whether Benie Des Dieux holds either a Stayers’ or Mares’ Hurdle entry – or both.

As confirmed by Paul Nicholls in answer to a Racing TV viewer’s question at Kempton last Saturday, two miles at Cheltenham is considered “too sharp” for McFabulous and he doesn’t hold an entry either.

PADDY POWER STAYERS' HURDLE

McFabulous was a smooth winner of the rescheduled Dornan Engineering Relkeel Hurdle but is unlikely to head to Cheltenham according to trainer Paul Nicholls, despite a likely entry in the Paddy Power Stayers’ Hurdle. He prefers to target the Grade One Aintree Hurdle over 2m4f, with one eye on this horse’s novice-chasing campaign.

The winner’s task was made easier last Saturday by main rival Younevercall underperforming at a track that usually brings out the best in him. However, at ten years of age, he’s a horse whom Kim Bailey knows intricately. Once this race was transferred from Cheltenham to Kempton, the trainer felt obliged to run, but feared the quickest turnaround in the horse’s career might catch him out. His fears appeared justified.

Just 21 days earlier, Younevercall had run a stormer when fourth to Paisley Park in a competitive edition of the Grade One Long Walk Hurdle and might even have finished closer than seven lengths adrift but for fluffing the final two flights.

However, the negative signs were evident in the horse’s demeanour on the way to post at Kempton and he produced a dull effort prior to being wisely pulled up. Nonetheless, he tried to press On The Blind Side, Summerville Boy and the mare Indefatigable for the lead in the early stages, and then intermittently under urging from David Bass, before weakening after the fourth last.

Summerville Boy was in one of his clumsier moods and lost his pitch with a couple of errors at successive hurdles in the back straight. He started to struggle soon after Indefatigable backed out on the home turn. That caused strong-travelling Thomas Darby to find himself in front too soon on the perhaps-unfavoured inside under Aidan Coleman – a sort of reverse Paisley Park outcome, if you will. This did indeed prove precipitate for a horse who finds little and he soon began to wobble.

Meanwhile, On the Blind Side and McFabulous took wider courses into the straight but jumped the second last pretty much together in front. The latter had also been prominent early, but Harry Cobden took him back from the second flight, due to there being so much competition for the lead.

McFabulous wins the Relkeel Hurdle in some style at Kempton

His mount’s evident superiority enabled him to wait until approaching the last before shaking him up to register an authoritative success. On the Blind Side stuck on for second after repelling the renewed challenge of Thomas Darby near the line. Better suited to three miles, the runner-up may thus have earned a role in the Stayers’ Hurdle crowd scene with this doughty and consistent effort.

Otherwise, none of this is likely to be at all relevant to Cheltenham this season, with the winner perhaps bound next for Fontwell’s Grade Two National Spirit Hurdle – “if ground isn’t too bad” – then onward to Liverpool and novice chasing beyond that.

“I’m not that keen, having got beat at Newbury [by Thyme Hill and Paisley Park in the Long Distance Hurdle], that having a scrap in the Stayers’ Hurdle... [would be] the right race for him but we can talk about that and see – enter and have a look. But I have to say, probably nice and fresh and two-and-a-half miles at Aintree would be absolutely perfect for him,” Nicholls said.

He indicated that he’d delayed going chasing with McFabulous this season because the horse’s technique was not where it needed to be. “He is beginning to jump well now and that’s why we didn’t chase this year because he was not so good. But he’s really professional now and learning all the time,” he added. “He’ll go novice chasing in October and that will be really exciting.”

Like the winner, Thomas Darby is bound for Aintree rather than Cheltenham – via Haydock’s Rendlesham Hurdle next month – but for the three-mile Grade One Ryanair Liverpool Hurdle. He shaped at Kempton as though the step up in trip is worth exploring and a similarly flat track is likely to play more to his strengths.

“He ran a great race at Kempton,” trainer Olly Murphy told the Racing Post. “It was a very good run as he came back at them at the line, but he’s crying out for three miles. I was really disappointed I couldn’t get him to Ireland for the Christmas Hurdle, where I thought he’d run very well. He's a good horse and I’m sure he’ll win a good race one day.”

Murphy also revealed that he plans to switch stablemates Itchy Feet and Brewin’Upastorm to hurdles in the coming weeks. The former – a Grade One-winning novice chaser, who unfortunately bled on his latest outing – will be entered in Cheltenham’s Cleeve Hurdle (thus setting up a clash with Paisley Park), and the latter – who “hasn’t taken to fences” – will contest a handicap hurdle at Taunton.

Entries for the Grade One Paddy Power Stayers' Hurdle are published at noon on Thursday. Bailey has indicated that he is likely to complement Vinndication’s Gold Cup entry with a fallback option here. There has also been speculation that fellow Gold Cup hopefuls, Champ and Presenting Percy, will also be handed this alternative.

As mentioned previously, I’m expecting If The Cap Fits to appear among the line-up as he doesn’t seem to like chasing much – although he is entered in a novices’ chase at Warwick this Saturday.

CLOSE BROTHERS DAVID NICHOLSON MARES' HURDLE

Indefatigable, last-stride winner of the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys' Handicap Hurdle off a mark of 145 at the 2020 Cheltenham Festival, was in the vanguard in last Saturday’s Dornan Engineering Relkeel Hurdle until weakening rapidly on the home turn. If anything, this was a retrograde step from her underwhelming seasonal debut, also at Kempton, when she might not have stayed three miles.

Both starts have been well below the level of form she routinely displayed in handicap company last season, although there is a possibility that she is better going left-handed. Most of her best form is at Cheltenham, so connections would have been disappointed that the original version of this Grade Two event was lost to bad weather and rescheduled to a less conducive venue.

Entries for the Festival’s Grade One mares’ hurdling event – dominated, both in terms of success and entries, almost since its inception in 2008 by trainer Willie Mullins – are published at noon on Thursday.

He is expected to be chiefly represented by recent Leopardstown winner Concertista, who currently trades as joint-favourite with titleholder Honeysuckle, who heads next to the Chanelle Pharma Irish Champion Hurdle in February. Both mares hold a Champion Hurdle entry.

NOVICE HURDLERS

Paul Nicholls saddled seven winners around Britain last Saturday – just one short of his numerical best day at the office. Two of them were staying novice hurdlers, who are likely to receive entries for the Cheltenham Festival’s three-mile Albert Bartlett-sponsored event.

Seven winners in one day for Paul Nicholls on Saturday

Barbados Buck’s is burdened with the weight of familial expectation, as his dam is a half-sister to four-times Stayers’ Hurdle hero Big Buck’s and he carries the same ownership silks of the Stewart Family. He’s also encumbered by the same senseless apostrophe as his illustrious predecessor but still managed to rack up a third successive victory when taking Kempton’s opener.

Moments earlier, stablemate Flash Collonges had won the first race at Wincanton and their trainer later observed that one or other of them will contest Doncaster’s River Don at the end of January and Haydock’s Prestige Novices’ Hurdle next month – both Grade Two events, also sponsored by Albert Bartlett.

Barbados Buck’s has to date achieved far more. He was carrying a 10lb double penalty at Kempton for his brace of Southwell successes, conceding the full whack to all bar fellow winner Undersupervision, who had a 6lb penalty for his Hereford victory. Always prominent against a relatively good-looking field of nascent chasers, the winner was particularly impressive when storming clear on request from the final hurdle.

Runner-up Fedelta is a Larkhill Point winner, who bounced back here from a fibrillating heart issue when beaten favourite at Ludlow, and third was the attractive Slipway, who produced an improved effort for stepping up in trip.

Future staying chaser Undersupervision was fourth, weakening in the straight but still finishing well clear of the rest. It looked a decent race of its type.

Barbados Buck’s will need to improve again to bring home the spuds at Cheltenham, but with four hurdle starts, two bumpers and a Point already under his belt, he is amassing the breadth of experience that’s usually necessary for that contest. Nicholls observed that “like all of mine who have run today, he’ll have a flu jab and come back in the spring”. It didn’t sound as though a precautionary Pertemps Hurdle Qualifier is on the agenda, therefore.

Stablemate Flash Collonges is also a thorough stayer but a much more babyish variety at this stage of his career. He, too, opened up a good lead on his field at Wincanton when asked, but he also took the opportunity to roll left after the last as rider Harry Skelton was checking behind that victory was assured. For a brief moment, through no lack of ability, his mount put that in doubt.

Nicholls felt immaturity had cost this horse victory at Newbury last month, so he appears more of a long-term project than his stable companion. His dam is a half-sister to the yard’s Grand National winner Neptune Collonges.

Later on the same Wincanton card, On To Victory made heavy weather of shedding his maiden tag over hurdles when somehow repelling Iron Mike by a nose. The winner had seemed to go to ground a little too easily when holding every chance against Betfair Hurdle hopeful Third Time Lucki on his previous start, so it was good to see him jumping soundly under pressure here. The literal form was underwhelming, however.

At Exeter the following day, Bear Ghylls survived blunders at the first, third-last and final flights to win a competitive handicap from a mark of 130 by a ready five lengths and maintain his unbeaten record. Afterwards, jockey Matt Griffiths was convinced his mount will be up to graded standard and trainer Nicky Martin was rightly considering the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle as a target – perhaps via Trials Day at Cheltenham.

“I wasn’t sure whether to run, as this was the quickest ground he’s run on,” she told the Racing Post. “He just needs to learn more. His jumping is foot perfect but it’s appalling in a race. The plan this season was always to go to Cheltenham if we thought we were good enough.”

However, Make Good – wide-margin winner of Cheltenham’s Grade Two novices’ event last month – has incurred a leg injury and will miss the Festival. Trainer John McConnell nonetheless hopes to field an able substitute in the Potato Race in the form of stablemate Streets Of Doyen, who won his final four starts in the autumn.

“He wants good ground and will probably go straight to Cheltenham,” McConnell told the Irish Independent. “He’s progressed really well and I think there is more to come from him.”

Finally, after discussing staying novices with Ruby Walsh in last week’s Road To Cheltenham show, I revisited a number of form-lines that I’d written about earlier in this series.

It wasn’t surprising that Farouk D’Alene looked a better horse when winning Limerick’s 2m7f Grade Two by three-quarters of a length from Vanillier just after Christmas, as I had noted him “jumping absurdly right” when beaten into fourth by Fakiera in the Grade Three Monksfield Novice Hurdle at left-handed Navan in November. That Limerick form ties in with Stattler, discussed here last week, who beat Vanillier into third at Naas on his hurdling debut.

I can’t have Farouk D’Alene on my mind for Cheltenham but, following Kempton, I was considering putting up Barbados Buck’s ante-post for the Albert Bartlett. However, the more I looked into the race, the more I liked Fakiera and he’s about ten points longer at 25/1.

Neither Paul Nicholls nor Gordon Elliott has yet won the Potato Race, but the latter went close with Fury Road last March and Commander Of Fleet the year before. Fakiera strikes me as even more suitable for the task, as a second-season novice hurdler with enough pace to mix it in graded company at 2m4f but shaping as though a step up to three will bring about further improvement.

You can get 25/1 on ante-post terms but, with so much uncertainty swirling about, I am more inclined to take up Paddy Power’s offer of 20/1 on non-runner, no bet terms.

The more I think about this bet, the more I like it.

JUVENILE HURDLERS

Adagio surely secured his ticket for the JCB Triumph Hurdle with a ready defeat of Nassalam in last Saturday’s rescheduled Coral Finale Juvenile Hurdle at Chepstow.

Neither horse had featured in the intended line-up for the original running of this Grade One last month – the winner because he’d won at Cheltenham only a fortnight earlier and the runner-up due to “an average scope”.

Given they had the race between them from two out and pulled 20 lengths clear of their nearest pursuer, in this case bad weather stimulated play. It was a far better contest for having been abandoned.

Beforehand, Gary Moore observed that evens favourite Nassalam – winner of two races at Fontwell by a combined distance of 108 lengths – had “done it very easily and hasn’t had a smack yet so, at this stage, we just don’t know a lot about him”.

Adagio’s form was more tangible, having probably done too much, too soon when second to Duffle Coat at Cheltenham in November and then returning to that track but on the New Course – the exact scene of the Triumph – for a comfortable success under more patient tactics a month later. Afterwards, trainer David Pipe wasn’t getting carried away. “I expect we’ll all want to go to the Triumph, but he could get an entry in the Fred Winter,” he said then.

At Chepstow, Tom Scudamore again bided his time on Adagio. This was a straightforward stratagem to deploy in the circumstances, with Bannister haring off at an unsustainable pace in front but Nassalam also doing too much towards the fore of the chasing group. The pursuers started to make easy inroads on the leader from the fifth hurdle on the far side, just as Adagio took a more forward position within that pack.

On the turn for home, the gawky Yggdrasil definitively lost his pitch but his Sandown conqueror__ Elham Valley__ was rallying his way back into contention, following two earlier untidy jumps when under pressure to hold his position. Entering the straight, the Paul Nicholls-trained UK debutant Houx Gris and Nassalam smoothly swallowed up Bannister, challenging on either side.

At three out, Elham Valley made his most significant error and was quickly beaten. At the next obstacle, it was Houx Gris’s turn to make a mistake and he wandered tiredly left in the leaders’ wake. Nassalam was already giving Jamie Moore everything for vigorous hands-and-heels riding but Adagio was clearly going better on the approach to the last, where the latter got a good jump and settled matters. He was idling as Nassalam, who was responding to a light reminder after that obstacle, narrowed the disparity to two-and-a-half lengths at the line.

“I think we learned a lot when he got beaten by Duffle Coat at Cheltenham in November. Last time at Cheltenham, we rode him with more restraint and we did again today,” Pipe said, after greeting his first Grade One winner since Moon Racer won the Cheltenham Festival’s Weatherbys Champion Bumper in 2015.

“We were coming here today to find out whether we were going for the Triumph Hurdle or the Fred Winter. It will be the Triumph Hurdle now. He’s always gone well at home. He’s got an engine. He was a bit quirky early on, but he’s improved since he’s been gelded... Maybe he’ll go straight to Cheltenham or maybe he’ll have one more run somewhere.”

Adagio is clearly progressive, stays well and, at this stage, boasts a hurdling technique superior to that of Nassalam, who consistently gave his obstacles too much air. The runner-up is a generous racer – overly so, having refused to settle in the early stages – but nonetheless saw out this assignment fully in testing ground. The winner was more advantageously positioned than Nassalam would allow himself to be in this strongly run race. The time was comparatively good.

Both emerge with their reputations enhanced, in different ways – even if the short-priced favourite was widely expected to win – and both should be Triumph-bound.

Nassalam perhaps still shapes as the greater natural talent of the pair and the Moores have some obvious elements to work on – race-craft and jumping – that make him a live 16/1 shot for Cheltenham. For me, he’s the more attractive each-way proposition than his worthy conqueror at 10/1 – which is by no means to dismiss Adagio. It’s a price-based view. Both are substantial rivals for Zanahiyr.

Back in third, Houx Gris did enough to suggest he’s a live candidate for the Boodles Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle – now staged on the Tuesday rather than the Wednesday of the Festival, by the way, and a race for which now-unlikely runner Adagio is still as short as 7/1 favourite with those bookmakers – Paddy Power and Betfair Sportsbook – offering Non-Runner, No Bet prices.

Nicholls had commented beforehand that he was running Houx Gris unusually quickly after only acquiring him in November but this was the French juvenile’s third start over hurdles in total. He can reasonably be expected to improve quite a bit for acclimatising further to the Ditcheat regime and the sharper Old Course test provided by the Festival’s handicap option looks likely to suit well.

Importantly, Nicholls has also announced that stablemate and Summit Hurdle winner Monmiral will not run at Cheltenham. Owned by John and Lisa Hales, Ged Mason and Sir Alex Ferguson, the trainer has mapped out a campaign that takes in Haydock’s Victor Ludorum Juvenile Hurdle – a race the yard won with Sir Psycho last year – and Aintree’s Doom Bar Anniversary 4-Y-O Hurdle instead.

“John Hales and the other guys are not interested in the Triumph Hurdle – they are interested in chasing,” Nicholls explained. “All those good horses I’ve had, like Frodon and Clan Des Obeaux, have finished down the field in the Triumph Hurdle – but they weren’t Triumph horses, and he is the same.

“The race at Aintree is worth a lot and it will be a nice track for him. If you are going to be serious about chasing in the future, you have to mind him a bit. He wasn’t purchased for a Triumph Hurdle.”

While at Kempton last Saturday, Nicholls also remarked off-camera that he’s keen again to take on older horses with recent Newbury winner Good Ball – but next time in handicap company. He evidently likes the look of the rating of 126 allotted by the BHA’s official handicapper and thinks this angle is advantageous for a suitable juvenile.

That same day at Kempton, Sage Advice emerged as a fringe Triumph Hurdle candidate. Previously an improving stayer up to an extended 12 furlongs on the Flat in Ireland, his best effort being his last, this juvenile made his debut for Dr Richard Newland and was backed in expectation that it would be a winning one.

Sage Advice - could he return to Kempton for the Adonis next?

He took a keen enough hold but moved into the race comfortably as it developed in earnest from three out and the only moment of concern was when his right-handed leap converged with front-running Tinnahalla’s left-handed one on landing at the second last. But Sage Advice quickly recovered his equilibrium and readily left his rivals toiling from the last.

Clearly, a good deal more will be required of the winner if he is to develop into a graded horse. Newland wasn’t present at Kempton but rider Sam Twiston-Davies observed that “what impressed me was how he quickened up on holding ground”. You might therefore expect Sage Advice to dip his toe into the Grade Two Adonis Hurdle over the same course and distance next month.

From there – often seen as the Triumph’s last-chance saloon – it’s always possible he could make it to Cheltenham. Zarkandar successfully made the leap in 2011, but it might be that Aintree’s Grade One alternative will again be deemed the better option for this pacey type.

Back in second, Tinnahalla at last saw out his race in a convincing fashion – keeping on to deny the stamina-laiden filly Table Mountain of second, despite getting the worst of the schmozzle with the winner at the penultimate flight. He should win races for new trainer Olly Murphy over hurdles, as should Tom Symonds with the third – both in the short term against her own gender as a juvenile and later when encountering a greater test of stamina. She was a likeable and talented stayer on the Flat for Andrew Balding.

Kentucky Hardboot, deposed as favourite by the winner near the off, took an inside course throughout and that might not have been an advantage, especially in the straight. He was far inferior to these three principals on the Flat, however, and is building an inconsistent profile over jumps.

Selections:

Advised 02/12/20: Zanahiyr at 5/1 (general) for the JCB Triumph Hurdle

Advised 31/12/20: Sire Du Berlais at 10/1 (general) for the Paddy Power Stayers’ Hurdle

Back now: Fakiera at 20/1 NRNB with Paddy Power for the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle

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