Watch the latest episode of the Road To Cheltenham!
There used to be a painstakingly-researched and punchy opinion piece here. (Trust me). Then at 6.02pm this happened:
Owing to the fact that Altior still holds his entry for the Silviniaco Conti Chase at @kemptonparkrace on Saturday and has not yet been scratched, the BHA has moved to issue the following update⬇️ pic.twitter.com/huaPMQfA0u— BHA Press Office (@BHAPressOffice) January 8, 2020
So the rewritten version will have to wait until next time because I've got a column to publish.
As with the novice chasers in the previous column, I’m going to examine what happened over the relentless Christmas and New Year period through the prism of the betting markets for the Cheltenham Festival’s three Grade One open (i.e. not confined to juveniles) novices’ hurdles.
Let’s start with the Sky Bet Supreme. After winning the Future Champions Novice Hurdle at Leopardstown 12 days ago, Envoi Allen’s stablemate Abacadabras assumed the mantle of favourite for the opening race of the Festival. He now trades, only with Paddy Power Betfair, at a best price of 4/1.
It was a four-runner affair that’s hard to appraise, with at least two rivals having underperformed, one of them considerably. Abacadabras typically didn’t jump that smoothly, making a proper blunder three out when the hurdle flicked back at him and then stuttering into the last for a careful negotiation when asked by Jack Kennedy to concentrate.
Watch again as Abacadabras wins at Leopardstown
“The ability was always there but it just took a little time for him to grow up. He used to be very keen in his races and he used to do a couple of stupid things but he seems to be moving on from that and he’s smartening up nicely,” Kennedy said to Racing TV’s Gary O’Brien afterwards, while acknowledging that there was still room for improvement in his mount’s jumping.
“He’s after getting an awful lot better since his maiden hurdle in Gowran that day... He can maybe be a little bit lazy at times with his jumping but he’s improving an awful lot... He can travel and he’s settling very well now, so he’ll be a lot more straightforward to ride in a bigger field.”
Abacadabras couldn’t have much issue with Kennedy’s precis of his career to date. He almost chucked away his racecourse debut in a Galway bumper via idling, then crashed through the rails in the closing stages on his next start when short of room and jinking away from the close-quarters intimidation of his rivals.
Elliott has been sure to provide this slow, but clearly talented, learner with plenty of experience and plans to bring him back to the Dublin Racing Festival for the Grade One Chanelle Pharma Novice Hurdle over the same course and distance.
“I'd say a bit better ground would suit him as he doesn't bend his knee too much and just flicks across the top of the ground,” he added. “When he got to the front, he didn't do a stroke again.”
True dat. And, as things panned out, he was much superior to his rivals with his main market rival, last year’s Festival Champion Bumper runner-up Blue Sari, bombing. Keen from the outset, Mark Walsh’s mount led after the first hurdle and until brushed aside without much fight even before the home turn. He was eased after that, clearly looking like he had a problem.
His jockey reported his mount had “stopped quickly” and, when checked over by the vets at the behest of the stewards after the race, Blue Sari was found to be “blowing hard”.
Embittered, who was fifth last time out behind Envoi Allen in the Royal Bond, probably also underperformed – not jumping too tidily and under pressure before two out. That left the lowest-rated contender, the mare Heaven Help Us, to keep the winner honest in the straight and continue what appears to be a steady arc of improvement.
The likely presence of recent Tolworth winner, Fiddlerontheroof, will be a challenge but also a benefit to Abacadabras because, as a strong stayer at the trip, the former’s rider Robbie Power will surely attack on the home turn – as he did last Saturday – and that gives something for Kennedy to aim for with his turn-of-foot type.
Connections had changed the tactics on the scopey-looking Fiddlerontheroof in Sandown’s two-mile Grade One, covering him up behind the leaders where previously he had forced the pace. He travelled strongly into the straight and was only shaken up to assert approaching the second last, at which point it was all over bar the shouting for a six-lengths success and career best.
In which Cheltenham Festival contest are we likely to see this impressive winner?
This horse was part of a Tizzard blizzard of talented novice hurdlers during this period and is now third best in the Supreme betting at 8/1, behind the Elliott-trained duo of Abacadabras and Envoi Allen – although, interestingly, Coral have him shorter than the latter, who appears to have other fish to fry.
We had the usual Ballymore-if-it’s-good-ground-Supreme-if-it’s-not routine after the Tolworth but why would you change a winning act? This was Colin Tizzard’s third success in this Grade One in five years and he’ll be hoping it’s a luckier stepping-stone to the Festival than it proved for Elixir De Nutz and Finian’s Oscar, neither of whom even made it to Cheltenham.
What did Colin Tizzard make of Fiddlerontheroof's success? He talked to Racing TV.
While lazing in his box, the Alan King-trained Edwardstone was also trimmed from long prices for the Supreme for his association with Fiddlerontheroof – he beat him at Wincanton in November, part of that developing form-line we identified in the second episode of the TV edition of the Road To Cheltenham.
The Tizzard-trained Harry Senior also contributed to this collateral cut after winning by five lengths at Chepstow shortly after Christmas, having previously been beaten by Edwardstone at Aintree. It’s not impossible that he could be bumped right up in trip for the Albert Bartlett. King’s representative has done all his racing on flat tracks, mind, and with Haydock’s Rossington Main hurdle cited as his next target, that ain’t changing soon.
Back in the Tolworth Hurdle at Sandown, the mare Jeremy’s Flame emerged the decisive runner-up and ran at least as well as she had when second to the Nicky Henderson-trained Floressa at Newbury (with Heaven Help Us in fourth).
Another of Henderson’s Ladbrokes Winter Festival winners, Son Of Camas, finished 15 lengths further adrift in third due to some poor jumping and, you strongly suspect from the way he moved, a hatred of the very testing ground. King Roland, whom he defeated at Newbury, kept his end up with a wide-margin success at Exeter on New Year’s Day.
Back in fifth at Sandown, Hang In There was disappointing, although his Grade Two Cheltenham success didn’t look all that at the time; his jumping was a mixed bag here.
Also relatively prominent in the Supreme betting is another Elliott-trained character, Easywork, and I’d marginally prefer him for that than the Ballymore, although he’s second favourite for that target in many books. He’s become more tractable for the hood but that is a consideration.
He defeated Unexcepted by 22 lengths over 2m4f at Limerick on St Stephen’s Day. Although not pressurised on the lead, he jumped variedly – showing good reactions when getting in tight once, taking some flights boldly but also going a little out to his right on a couple of occasions (a trait he’d shown previously when less polished). Cheltenham might not be his bag at any distance.
I’ve read in more than one place about how well Unexcepted travelled and that he needs dropping back to two miles but I felt Patrick Mullins wasn’t happy on him from a long way out and I doubt he’d have won at any distance.
To return to the blizzard, just before Christmas Master Debonair won for the second time at Ascot in the Grade Two Kennel Gate Hurdle. Shaping – like Abacadabras – as a bang two-miler, in near-unraceable ground he made all and clocked a good time despite jumping out to his left and lacking fluency at his hurdles. The Tizzards have indicated they are not going to fight shy of being mutli-handed in Cheltenham’s novice hurdles.
In second, the favourite Ribble Valley was receiving 3lb and an eight-length beating, taking a step backwards from his Wetherby success and appearing uncomfortable in the ground, for which you couldn’t really blame him.
Back in October at Cheltenham, it was a surprise when Master Debonair was beaten by Heaven Help Us on their mutual return from the summer break but she’s since proved an appreciable rival. The Henderson-trained Fred was back in third that day and has since won Kempton’s opening novices’ hurdle on Boxing Day – a race that often throws up a Supreme contender but surely didn’t on this occasion.
Henderson also introduced Mister Coffey over the Christmas period at Newbury, who’d previously won his sole bumper start at Huntingdon for Harry Whittington.
“He is going to be a spectacular horse,” he said. “You could go chasing next season, but I don't want to do too much with him this term.” That sounds as though the Festival won’t be on his agenda but he’s a 25/1 shot.
His trainer had suggested that we’d next see stablemate Chantry House carrying a penalty in another novices’ hurdle after winning at Cheltenham in December but I wonder whether his career path might get fast-forwarded following the defeats of three of owner JP McManus’s big guns on the past few days – Blue Sari, Elixir D’Ainay and Unexcepted? Not to mention Andy Dufresne being turned over earlier in December. (Chantry House is also as short as 8/1 for the Ballymore with Bet365, although 20/1 is available elsewhere.)
Finally, I should mention the two Leopardstown events on December 26 that last year produced the winners of the Supreme and the Ballymore, Klassical Dream and City Island.
Cedarwood Road sauntered away from his opponents in the opening maiden four-year-old hurdle but is not at this stage deemed a player in any of the end-of-season big-league targets. Trainer Gearoid O’Loughlin deems him a future chaser but does intend to run him for the third time over hurdles at the Dublin Racing Festival in February, so things could change.
In the following race, the year older Willie Mullins-trained Mt Leinster clocked a better overall time – again, with the first and last hurdles omitted due to the low sun – and, having travelled strongly into the race and overcoming minor traffic problems on the home turn, pulled nine lengths clear of the consistent second-season novice, Entoucas (also second in this race in 2018).
Further back in third was the winner’s stablemate, Concertista, the mare nutted on the line in last year’s Dawn Run at the Festival when making her hurdling debut – albeit she hasn’t matched that form since.
Mt Leinster – who’d chased home Easywork at Gowran on his first start over hurdles – was a shade novicey at the odd obstacle and keen at times, still needing the hood he’s worn for his last six starts now, but built on his promising hurdling debut at Gowran. “I’d hope he can make the step up to Graded company,” jockey Paul Townend commented.
Interestingly, if you dig further back in his post-race quotes offered to the Racing Post, you find Patrick Mullins saying, after partnering him to victory on his Ballinrobe debut: “We’d been keeping that name for a good horse as it’s the mountain overlooking our yard. My mother bred him and she deserves the credit.”
Let’s move on to the Ballymore and therefore Envoi Allen, given that after his latest success both trainer Gordon Elliott and Cheveley Park Stud MD Chris Richardson have suggested they prefer this target ahead of the horse’s other two likely Cheltenham engagements, the Supreme and the Champion Hurdle. The headline has been that they haven’t counted out the Big One, mind.
Envoi Allen was stepping up to 2m4f for the first time since his Pointing days in the Grade One Lawlor’s Of Naas Novice Hurdle and looked entirely at ease with it.
With Walsh determined to make the running on Elixir D’Ainay, Davy Russell was able to revert to the less forcing tactics Jamie Codd used to employ on the winner in his bumper days.
Bar for jumping the fourth airily – and that might just have been slackly aping the leader anyway – there’s little to fault here. Envoi Allen was getting on top when getting in close two out and a shade flat-footed when well in control at the last, winning by an idling three-and-a-half lengths. It’s those details, rather than any doubt in his raw ability, that would make me keep to novice company even in an apparently shallow Champion Hurdle year.
Watch Envoi Allen's success in the big race at Naas again
Apart from casually revealing that he’d “only” damaged his outer ankle ligament in his nasty New Year’s Day fall from Column Of Fire but didn’t “need” that ligament in order to ride, the most interesting thing Russell said was: “[Envoi Allen] has an uncanny way of conserving his energy, so further or shorter, he’s quite professional that way.”
Elliott’s view on the subject came from a managerial perspective. “That’s why we stepped him up in trip – making the running the whole time isn’t ideal,” he said. “He’ll have learned plenty today.”
He was also pleased to see Envoi Allen have “a good blow’ after the race, indicating to me that this horse is exactly at the stage his trainer wants him to be, with more to come at Cheltenham.
Although Envoi Allen will be entered at the Dublin Racing Festival, Elliott said with understatement that “it wouldn’t be a shock” if the horse went straight to the Festival. It’s now up to owners, Patricia and David Thompson, whether they want to Go Big. Their trainer’s advice is: “My own gut feeling is we’ll keep him in his own grade at the moment.”
Elixir D’Ainay tried to rally when Envoi Allen loomed upsides but hope was sustained more by a slight lack of fluency in the winner final two jumps rather than what the runner-up was capable of producing. Nonetheless, this was a determined and meritorious effort. He was again beating Longhouse Poet, who’d got off the mark against Column Of Fire since they’d last met at Naas.
That third-placed horse shaped as though a step up to three miles for the Albert Bartlett would be just the ticket, but as he’s owned by Sean and Bernardine Mulryan, whose company sponsors the Ballymore, that can’t be guaranteed as the target. Indeed, trainer Martin Brassil has only mentioned the shorter Cheltenham race, via the Dunlin Racing Festival, as a potential target.
In the following race, Asterion Forlonge beat the charmingly-named favourite, the error-prone Pencilfulloflead, by a thumping 10 lengths on his hurdling debut – a smart performance for such an inexperienced horse. Interestingly, trainer Willie Mullins thinks “he'll want much further in trip and I'll be going out in trip with him now”.
“He had to... make all his own running there today and was just running around in front. Hopefully we can sort that out before his next run,” he added. Perhaps that explains the horse’s increasing tendency to adjust to his right. “Much further” might even imply the Potato Race, for which such a hitherto thrice-raced horse would not be the classic type.
The first sign of the imminent Tizzard blizzard came from The Big Breakaway at Newbury just before Christmas – the horse presciently highlighted by a Roadie who joined Will Hayler and me in a Facebook live session moments beforehand on that day in history.
Our viewer was wondering about his credentials for the Potato Race, on which I was at the time cool due to his lightly-raced profile. I remain that way for the same reason but also because the smooth way he went through the Newbury race says Ballymore to me.
Robbie Power advised the Tizzards against running him too often on heavy ground, which makes potentially curious the selection of the Grade Two novices’ event on Trials Day at Cheltenham as his potential next target. There’s room to brush up his jumping but this horse is clearly talented.
In the hinterland that exists between the Ballymore and Albert Bartlett lie many a vexatious choice (for connections and punters alike). One unlikely horse dwelling there seems to be Thyme Hill – my co-driver Ruby Walsh’s excellent ante-post selection for the longer race at 14/1, for which the unbeaten hurdler is best-priced at 6/1.
“I think Cheltenham will be ground dependent. Soft and he'll probably go for the Ballymore and goodish ground, he'll probably go for the Albert Bartlett,” said trainer Philip Hobbs, immediately after his length-and-a-half defeat of The Cashel Man in the Grade One Challow Hurdle at Newbury just after Christmas.
“Thyme Hill stays well and only dossed when he got to the front. His jumping wasn't what it can be and that's what concerned me a bit, but Richard (Johnson, his jockey) said he was just dossing in behind the others and when he pulled him wide in the straight, he was slap bang on the bridle. My first reaction is to go straight to Cheltenham as he's not the sort of horse to be running every week.”
What would concern me, more than a bit, would be if connections opted for the Ballymore in any conditions because the way Thyme Hill went through this race screamed Albert Bartlett to me.
Johnson’s “just dossing” means on and off the bridle to the observer and while I understand that he might concentrate better in a deeper race, he was at his most impressive in the straight. I also think, in a Festival Grade One, the New Course will suit him far better than the Old.
Nick Luck spoke to Philip Hobbs after Thyme Hill's Newbury success
The Cashel Man helped himself be caught by hitting three out and stumbling on landing at the next, but you could see Thyme Hill was getting motoring turning for home and had essentially mastered that rival when starting to idle and fluffing the last. The runner-up showed hitherto-uncharted depths of resilience when trying to utilise that error but was fighting a losing battle.
I mentioned Easywork much earlier in this piece because of his tendency to keenness but, in truth, he could end up running anywhere. Owners Gigginstown Stud do have a pair of likelier stayers in Fury Road and Cobblers Way, however, who were both winners over the holiday period.
The former beat the mare Well Set Up in a Grade Two 2m7f novice hurdle at Limerick just after Christmas and a winning margin of a length far from flatters him – he was comfortably the superior of his field. His jumping improved on the second circuit and, under a confident ride from Russell, was allowed to saunter forth approaching the second last.
Fury Road is a loafer, however, and with ears pricked started to cast around for something less boring instead, leading him to almost trip over the last. “Fury Road would have met the last if we were racing but there was no real response from him,” Russell testified. “He's a talented horse though and I was full of horse coming to the last. He's versatile.”
With Cobblers Way, the last flight was pivotal because he’d been headed narrowly by the larger-framed The Big Getaway as they took off but winning rider Rachael Blackmore was biding her time and conjured the better jump, getting away smartly although her mount was dossing near the line.
The Big Getaway stuttered into the final flight and landed so jarringly that he became entirely unbalanced and hung left, enabling both the Joseph O’Brien-trained Sempo and fellow Mullins-trained inmate Francin to pass him on the run to the line. Sixth to Envoi Allen in the Champion Bumper last year, Sempo looks a proper Albert Bartlett galloper.
While we’re talking about all-out-staying novices, I liked Fergal O’Brien’s call of the Pertemps Handicap Hurdle for Imperial Alcazar, the horse controversially promoted to first place at the expense of Protektorat on New Year’s Day at Cheltenham. (While that was a punchy piece of stewarding, it wasn’t a decision I’d quibble with as it happens.) A mark of 139 looks highly feasible and should get him in the race.
I’m only going to mention three more mares this week, starting with Colreevy, who won convincingly over 2m4f at Limerick shortly after Christmas – given a positive ride by Danny Mullins, jumping fluently and pulling right away from her rivals in the straight. She looks like another for the Potato Race.
The next is Drury, her stable companion at Willie Mullins’ yard, who was also able to make all and win readily over 2m2f at Fairyhouse on New Year’s Day with her main market rival, the odds-on Mount Ida, clearly in trouble from a long way out.
A close relative of Champ and therefore from the wider family of triple Gold Cup winner Best Mate, she could hardly be more promisingly bred. She could have several options at the Festival, not just the Dawn Run.
Finally, I must mention Marie’s Rock, who saw seriously impressive at Taunton in beating previous dual winner Midnights’ Gift by eight lengths despite conceding 11lb. Paddock-watchers noted she was sweating beforehand, so that shouldn’t be taken as a negative indicator of likely performance in future. Unbeaten in three starts, two over hurdles, the Dawn Run is her target.
Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup
No alarms and no surprises when entries for this year’s Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup were unveiled today (Wednesday). Yes, this is the time of year when speculative punters get to hug themselves for being so provident or marvel at connections’ lack of foresight.
Want to know which 31 horses have been entered for the 2020 Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup? 🐎 @CheltenhamRaces— Racing TV (@RacingTV) January 8, 2020
Here they all are! 📝
Have you got an ante-post selection for the Grade One contest? 🤔 pic.twitter.com/YxAtFMCRyL
Perhaps the most notable absentee is Thistlecrack, who missed the King George with a bruised foot and has only raced over hurdles this season. It will be interesting to discover whether the Stayers’ Hurdle is now his target.
His trainer Colin Tizzard is represented by King George flop Lostintranslation – who’s had his palate cauterised and heads straight to Cheltenham – alongside 2018 victor Native River and Elegant Escape.
Might Bite, who lost out in an epic duel with Native River two years ago, has also not merited an entry. That’s understandable after the season Nicky Henderson is having with him – unseating at Aintree and then blowing out over hurdles at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day. The yard is represented solely by Santini.
Unsurprisingly, Cyrname’s non-staying second in the King George didn’t earn him a place in the Gold Cup for Paul Nicholls but the winner Clan Des Obeaux and last year’s Ryanair hero Frodon are present and correct.
There were 31 horses engaged in total – the lowest initial number since 2010 – and 16 of these are trained in Ireland. Willie Mullins restrained himself – itch scratched – with just the four entries, the same number as Gordon Elliott.
The latter’s team contains one horse worth a raised eyebrow: Death Duty, not sighted by the public since falling in a Leopardstown Grade One novices’ chase over Christmas – Christmas 2017, that is, behind Footpad (who isn’t entered). Delta Work, plus the rather hopeful deployment of Shattered Love and Alpha Des Obeaux, are the yard’s other players.
Returning to Mullins, he’s engaged last year’s winner Al Boum Photo – who made an impressive return to action at Tramore on New Year’s Day – as well as Bellshill (who still hasn’t built up the courage to tell his trainer how much he hates Cheltenham), Kemboy and (despite Paul Townend’s view, wholly supported by form, that he’s better right-handed) Real Steel.
Al Boum Photo is receiving an identical build-up to last season and, if anything, he was even more impressive in beating Acapella Bourgeois six lengths in that newly-promoted Grade Three event than he had been 12 months earlier, as Simon Rowlands explained by numbers in his blog.
“I was more nervous there than when I was watching the Gold Cup,” Mullins admitted afterwards. “He jumped well and Paul was positive on him – he got a good blow into him. It was a very good comeback and we're probably going to go straight to Cheltenham. When a plan works, we might leave it at that.”
Al Boum Photo returned with a stylish winning performance at Tramore
Happily, the 2017 winner Sizing John is well enough for trainer Jessica Harrington to enter him here following his unhappy comeback over hurdles at Leopardstown on New Year’s Eve.
Denied the services of usual rider Robbie Power due to him being concussed following an earlier fall, he was partnered by Barry Geraghty and everything was highly satisfactory until he couldn’t quite find a leg on landing three out.
“It was going to plan and he absolutely flew the third last but he just seemed to stumble,” Geraghty reported. “He couldn't get his landing gear out fully. He probably just isn't used to jumping at that speed. He felt great up to that.”
Having worried on the day that Sizing John would feel the effects of his heavy tumble, Harrington has since reported that he was “more body sore than bone sore, but he was sore”. “Everything that could go wrong did go wrong really as we wanted anything but a fall, but there you are,” she said. “He seems good now.”
Her plans had involved something like the Kinloch Brae Chase at Thurles on Sunday week or the Galmoy Hurdle at Gowran Park four days later but these are currently on hold while the stable star is monitored.
Not surprisingly, given trainer Phil Kirby is sizing up one of the archetypal Gold Cup stepping-stones for likeable stayer Top Ville Ben, he has also rolled the dice with an entry in the real thing. Ladbrokes Trophy 1-2, De Rasher Counter for Emma Lavelle and The Conditional for David Bridgwater, are others to note in the potential line-up.
Miss the Road To Cheltenham Roadshow from Leopardstown? Watch it here in full.
Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase
At the time of publication, Altior is the 3/1 favourite for this race. What else is there to say ? I did have about another 1500 words to add. Good ones too, but they now lie on the cutting-room floor.
Just the one novice-chasing performance to note – this update coming so hard on the heels of the column devoted to those ranks – and that’s Cash Back, who made all to win a Naas novice chase at Naas last Sunday for Willie and Danny Mullins.
Were you to just use your eyes, you might think the race fell apart in his wake – and you’d be right in a way but you might not realise, as closer analysis reveals, that he was the one who destroyed it my the pace that he went.
Here's what Danny Mullins made of Cash Back's winning performance at Naas
Stablemate and favourite Tornado Flyer, who jumped poorly and was pulled up entering the straight, can be excused because he was found to be carrying a respiratory infection. But the rest of the field didn’t have that excuse, including wide-margin Punchestown winner Dunvegan.
“Cash Back looks to be improving and that was a very good performance,” Mullins said. “I was a bit worried about the drying ground but it didn't seem to bother him, so hopefully he keeps improving.”
Finally, I’m indebted to a kind and knowledgeable reader who, unlike me, has not been “living under an insurance industry-sized rock” for the past 15 months, for explaining the apparent change in sponsorship of the JLT Novices’ Chase to the Marsh Novices’ Chase at the Cheltenham Festival. JLT becomes Marsh because the former was bought by the latter and, in branding effect, no longer exists.
I discussed the impact on the sport of losing touchstones such as “Long Walk” from race titles in the fifth edition of the Road where Marsh had copied what JLT had done. Yet at Cheltenham, we can witness a more advanced case of identity loss because the JLT – as a relatively new Festival event – had come to be known just as just that rather than having any association with its registered handle, the Golden Miller.
You might think a five-times Gold Cup winner, still the only horse to win that and the Grand National in the same season, deserves to be celebrated by Cheltenham rather than used only as a tick-box exercise to satisfy the naming requirements for graded races demanded by the BHA’s Jumps Pattern Committee. Sadly, racing’s direction of travel is currently different.
Advised on 20/11/19: Altior at 14/1 with William Hill for the Ryanair (likely non-runner) Advised on 17/12/19: Chacun Pour Soi at 4/1 with various firms for the Champion Chase Advised on 17/12/19: Mister Fisher at 16/1 e/w with Bet365, William Hill or BetFred for the JLT
Advised on 28/11/19: Thyme Hill at 14/1 with various firms for the Albert Bartlett Advised on 12/12/19: Carefully Selected at 20/1 with Skybet or BetVictor for the NH Chase
Select any odd to add a bet