This was an important week for the hurdlers, with the mares Epatante and Honeysuckle making winning returns and connections of the latter not dismissing a clash out of hand. Former staying champion Paisley Park also returned to something more like his former glory, but found the young upstart Thyme Hill too fleet of foot at Newbury.
Otherwise, the main focus of this column is to set the scene in the novice and juvenile hurdling divisions to date, following significant events at Fairyhouse over the weekend that saw one already acclaimed talent overshadowed by a hitherto undiscovered whizz-kid.
Watch a full replay of the latest Road To Cheltenham (03.12.20)
UNIBET CHAMPION HURDLE
Selflessly, Not So Sleepy single-handedly made up for the loss of pantomime season in the Betfair Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle last Saturday. He’d been choreographing his moves in his head for months and – you have to hand it to him – he provided start-to-finish entertainment.
Not that either Paddy Brennan, whom his mount so precisely ejected with a cheeky right-handed jink at the first flight, or connections of Silver Streak, who was so deftly carried out at the second, would have found him amusing.
When Daryl Jacob then looked over his shoulder, having been left in an unexpected lead on Sceau Royal, you wanted to yell: “He’s in front of you!”
Which Not So Sleepy was, variously on Jacob’s left or his right, or cheerfully bounding across him at the most inopportune moments – most infuriatingly when exiting the home turn and, moments later in the opposite direction, on the approach to three out. That’s the only cue he bungled – failing to take Sceau Royal out, too!
You have to suspect Epatante might have slipped the prankster a few quid because she was as serenely unaffected as her main rival was continually dogged. By the penultimate flight, Ribble Valley had already been seen off, making two mistakes under pressure, and Sceau Royal had wearied of playing the straight man, diving left and causing the winner her only (mild) inconvenience.
Unperturbed, Aidan Coleman switched inside the leader and took a pull on the reigning Champion Hurdler, enabling her to wing the last and, soon after landing, glide by for a mere shake of the reins. As his final comic act, the riderless Not So Sleepy preceded Epatante to the line, but at a respectful distance. He awaits his cheque.
The literal form isn’t worth a great deal. Epatante didn’t need to be as good as she was either at Cheltenham or in the Christmas Hurdle to beat relatively undaunting rivals, whose efforts were compromised or nullified by a mischievous force. Yet the style of her victory and the speed of her finishing splits suggest that she begins the defence of her crown in top order.
Coleman – Epatante’s new partner following the retirement of Barry Geraghty – permitted himself a small-scale celebration as he crossed the line, perhaps due to the exhilaration of his mount’s push-button responsiveness. Or was it relief at surviving unscathed?
Whatever, bookmakers responded by hardening her to a best-priced 15/8 favourite for the Champion Hurdle – and that’s understandable, given her dearth of opposition and her 7lb mares’ allowance. If anything, her technique appears to have got even lower and sharper in her third season over obstacles – just as stablemate Buveur D’Air's did during his best campaign, culminating in his second Cheltenham success in 2017. Gulp.
Over in Ireland the following day, fellow mare-of-the-moment Honeysuckle also beat a field of lesser, slower rivals in the Grade One Hatton’s Grace Hurdle at Punchestown – but somebody had forgotten to book a supporting act. So, she just stuck rigidly to the script and extended her unbeaten run to nine.
Rachael Blackmore positioned her ideally, tracking the steady pace set by Cracking Smart until cranking up the tempo from the front after three out. She was quicker than her rivals and got first run. She was rated more highly than her rivals but received the mares' 7lb allowance. It was therefore a straightforward matter, even if not as visually pleasing as Epatante’s comeback.
Watch the full replay as Honeysuckle makes it nine from nine
Afterwards, trainer Henry de Bromhead didn’t specify any target beyond the Irish Champion Hurdle next time out. Peter Molony, racing manager to Honeysuckle’s owner Kenny Alexander, last season stressed that they were keen to support the burgeoning mares’ programme and therefore had long earmarked the Festival’s David Nicholson Mares’ Hurdle before the Champion became a credible option.
The tense used by de Bromhead in his sportinglife.com stable tour might therefore be significant. “We wanted to try and win the Mares’ Hurdle with her last season,” he said. “So, she has done that, which was brilliant.” Job done and time to move on to bigger things? It would be thrilling to think so, even if it nags that Honeysuckle lacks Epatante’s efficiency.
None of the Fairyhouse vanquished are now – or were ever, in most cases – Champion Hurdle candidates. Sadly, the former category includes Supasundae, last year’s seventh, who blundered and was down on his nose at the first before tailing off worryingly after the third last.
Neither – on Saturday’s evidence – will lightning strike twice in the Gerry Feilden, the traditional name for the identikit-titled Ladbrokes-sponsored event that launched Epatante’s Champion Hurdle campaign last season.
Her lesser-feted stable companion, Floressa, won an extremely eventful edition, controlling it from the front and therefore clear of the pandemonium at the second last that thwarted the chances of at least one rival, Milkwood. Marie’s Rock, trained like the winner by Nicky Henderson and the preferred vehicle of stable jockey Nico de Boinville, utterly refused to settle.
However, recent Ascot Grade Two winner Song For Someone continues to shoulder his way upwards in this division. Trainer Tom Symonds was tempted to enter him in last season’s Champion Hurdle even before he won the Kingwell (rescheduled at Kempton) in February, but wonders “whether he has the tactical speed” for Cheltenham’s Old Course at the highest grade.
After making all to beat Call Me Lord on seasonal debut – in the three-runner Coral Hurdle that sadly sparked the retirement of Laurina – Song For Someone nonetheless heads next to Cheltenham’s International Hurdle, albeit on the more stamina-oriented New Course.
There, he may or may not meet Goshen, who has thus far missed at a minimum two intended comebacks – Wincanton’s Elite Hurdle and that same Ascot race – at least partly due to an unsatisfactory scope on both occasions.
After missing the latter, trainer Gary Moore was quoted in the Racing Post saying “if he scopes clean and everything is okay then he'll go to the Fighting Fifth. If not, it will be the International Hurdle at Cheltenham”.
When his name did not appear among the declarations for that event either, the Post’s follow-up article contained a seemingly terse explanation. “Everything’s fine. There’s nothing wrong,” said Moore. “Hopefully we’ll see him in the International. We’ve decided to wait for that. I’m very happy with him so far.” We watch this space.
PADDY POWER STAYERS' HURDLE
In a messy edition of the Long Distance Hurdle last Friday, ex-novice Thyme Hill graduated into open company with a straightforward length-and-a-half success over former champion Paisley Park, with the current Stayers’ Hurdle titleholder Lisnagar Oscar 22 lengths adrift of the winner in seventh.
Watch how Thyme Hill got the better of Paisley Park in the Long Distance Hurdle
It was an odd race to watch, with the jockeys reporting that it had turned into a sprint in the straight. Honest Vic made the running. Trainer Henry Daly, surprised by the manner of his latest victory off a mark of 141 at Cheltenham when upped to three miles for the first time, was testing with this engagement whether to pursue graded honours or switch to chasing.
Although he set off with an easy lead, jockey Richard Patrick soon slowed the pace and the field bunched up again in the straight first time around until Robbie Power overtook the lost of them, sirens blaring, on the hard-pulling Vision Des Flos. He then established a clear lead, with Honest Vic chasing alone and again clear of the pack.
All of this proved to be just a sideshow, although the mere presence of hurdles was enough to put Sam Spinner off competing. This former Grade One winner and 2019 Stayers’ Hurdle runner-up, also successful three times over fences as a novice last season, just doesn’t seem to love his job any more. He finished tailed off by 52 lengths.
Meanwhile, Thyme Hill, Lisnagar Oscar and McFabulous travelled strongly, ingesting Honest Vic into the chasing pack exiting the back straight and looming readily on the outside of Vision Des Flos entering the straight for the final time. Paisley Park was still in touch but not finding it quite so easy, hence his mistake at the third last.
Lisnagar Oscar was soon under pressure as Richard Johnson on Thyme Hill and Harry Cobden on McFabulous pressed the accelerator either side of him – he had already lost his pitch when getting in too close to the penultimate flight.
Towards the inside, Summerville Boy tried to rally under Jonathan Burke’s new patient tactics, which he’d tugged against in the early stages, but probably turned out to have been positioned too far back in these circumstances and surely lacks the stamina for three miles. Paisley Park was knuckling down and staying on towards the outer, however.
Thyme Hill moved into the lead approaching the last, outpointing McFabulous who was then in turn worn down for second by Paisley Park. The third was trying the trip for the first time and is worth another shot at it, in a more conventionally run race.
Afterwards, winning trainer Philip Hobbs commented: “It was a good renewal and I’d hope Thyme Hill can progress, as that’s only his fifth hurdle race and he’s only six... He was pretty fit today, but I hope that a run would put him right as well. He’s not the hardest to get fit but must come on for that.”
Hobbs plans to run just once more between now and the Stayers’ Hurdle, which comes down to a choice between next month’s Long Walk at Ascot and Cheltenham’s Cleeve Hurdle at the end of January.
The as-yet unanswered question for Thyme Hill is whether he will be as effective over a strongly-run, end-to-end three-mile gallop remains, as this Newbury race placed an emphasis on well-positioned speed, as did last term’s Albert Bartlett.
On that occasion, he finished fourth after coming from further back than the first three – the winner in particular – but making his move under a wide trip sooner than the second and third. Of those rivals, only third-placed Fury Road has also remained hurdling this season with both Monkfish and Latest Exhibition making the switch to fences.
The slow-slow-quick pace of this race might to some degree explain why it didn’t suit attritional Festival winner Lisnagar Oscar, but that rapidity with which he checked out last Friday is of concern. His Cheltenham record suggests he shouldn’t be utterly forgotten, however.
Now that – like connections – we can be relatively confident that Paisley Park’s inferior effort last March was caused by his underlying health conditions, we can agree that he would have preferred a more strongly-run race, too. His next stop will be the Long Walk, the Cleeve or both and therefore we might see him clashing again with Thyme Hill in different circumstances.
This pair now head the ante-post market for the Stayers’ Hurdle, with some bookmakers placing Thyme Hill marginally ahead. This very much reflects the current state of play because, as the below table/graph illustrates, it’s been 20 months since Paisley Park last posted a performance much above what Thyme Hill has already achieved on his first start outside novice company, even though he’s still officially rated 5lb higher by the BHA.
Over in Ireland, Ronald Pump showed he was none the worse for his last-obstacle tumble behind dual Pertemps winner Sire Du Berlais on his seasonal debut at Navan when rallying strongly in a falsely-run edition of the Hatton’s Grace last Sunday.
As Honeysuckle began her winning sprint, he was boxed in yet also outpaced, but got to within half a length at the line.
Third-placed Beacon Edge tried to match the winner for speed and got caught for second, but this was an encouraging first attempt at open graded company from an improving hurdler. Bacardys couldn’t get into it.
DAVID NICHOLSON MARES' HURDLE
Willie Mullins was frustrated by Honeysuckle in the race he has won on all bar four occasions – don’t mention 2019 – despite a three-pronged attack last season. With last year’s runner-up and beaten favourite Benie Des Dieux – don’t mention 2019 – having had "a little setback", he’ll be calling in reinforcements.
Step forward Concertista, who failed by a short-head improbably to win the 2019 Dawn Run on her hurdling debut but made sure of it by 12 lengths a year later. She returned at Fairyhouse last Saturday and toyed with a race-fit Minella Melody to win by little less than two lengths on the bridle. She’s unexposed at two and a half miles.
Earlier in the month, Concertista’s stablemate Buildmeupbuttercup had reprised her new-found winning habit by a margin narrower than the skin of her teeth at Punchestown. Despite the perfect set-up due to fellow Mullins inmate Elimay and last term’s Coral Cup second Black Tears taking each other on from the home turn, the winner still found time to pull herself up after hitting the front with less than 100 yards to go. How she hung on, I’ll never know.
Neither Cheltenham nor two and a half miles are her bag, but game runner-up Elimay – sixth in the race as a five-year-old in 2019 – and Black Tears are feasible contenders for place honours with a smidgen of improvement. Elfile, who filled third for Mullins behind the superior pair of Honeysuckle and Benie Des Dieux, is yet to reappear this term.
Another potential key player yet to be sighted is Coral Cup heroine Dame De Compagnie, who travelled strongly in that steadily-run affair and drew right away from Black Tears.
Of course, the new Grade Two Mrs Paddy Power Mares’ Chase is yet another a complicating factor for this event from the perspective of trying to predict the field. Mullins could re-route a number of mares in that direction – notably Benie Des Dieux, who’s unbeaten in three chase starts but hasn’t jumped a fence in public since February 2018. Her trainer has debated running her in the following season’s Ryanair following her 2018 success in this race.
“She had a little setback, so won’t be appearing until the second half of the season,” Mullins said in his sportinglife.com stable tour. “She’s a fantastic jumper over fences and I’d imagine we’ll be going over fences. We’ll look at the mares’ chase at Cheltenham – or there is the mares’ hurdle, too.”
So, that’s clear then, yes? It does suggest that talk of the Stayers’ Hurdle – as there has been for the past two seasons, most loudly after her career-best Galmoy Hurdle success in January – has dried up with a potential mares’ gimme in prospect. Whodathunk it? She’s still as short as 8/1 for that event, mind.
An interesting development in this area had appeared to be the defection of a trio of talented mares from Mullins to Paul Nicholls. Following the retirement of Laurina due to a recurrence of the pulmonary haemorrhage issues that have dogged her recent career, Dolcita and Stormy Ireland remain.
Unfortunately, the former – a distant second to Concertista in the Dawn Run – also bled from the nose when beaten at long odds-on in an intermediate hurdle at Hereford last month and the latter has twice been beaten at odds-on over fences to date, producing form well below her hurdling best.
Of course, if Honeysuckle turns up here again, the best of her existing rivals currently have a good half-stone of improvement yet to find.
For the second year running, the whimsy arm of the Cheveley Park Stud operation won the Grade One Royal Bond Novice Hurdle with an already well-touted horse, who thus tightened his grip on a Cheltenham Festival ante-post market. For Envoi Allen last year, read Ballyadam this – albeit the latest model is deemed a bang two-miler and nobody is as yet clamouring for him to contest the Champion Hurdle. (Give it time.)
This race clocked the slowest overall time of the three events staged over that Fairyhouse course and distance last Sunday. Having dawdled utterly until three out, they were still only about two seconds quicker than the preceding juvenile contest from there to the line (albeit carrying 15lb more than that winner), injecting pace either side of the penultimate flight.
Yet with pressure scarcely being exerted, the winner exhibited the readiest turn of foot during that one burst of speed and jumped into the lead at the penultimate flight.
He’d been a shade upright at a couple of mid-race obstacles, covered up in a bunched field, but showed agility three out and quickness of feet when he mildly bungled Jack Kennedy’s invitation to pop the last. As Ballyadam hadn’t really learned much in a one-sided maiden hurdle on debut in October, his rider consciously used this step up in grade as a low-exertion educational opportunity.
“He made a couple of mistakes on the way round but recovered from them well,” Kennedy admitted. “My lad has plenty of gears and he got there and kept going in front… I was always happy enough that I was doing enough. We went steady there and the way he quickened up from the second last and from the back of it, you’d have to be impressed with it. It probably just shows that he is a speedy horse.
“He jumped brilliantly in Down Royal but I only had one horse in front of me and I was on my own, but I kept him behind the two leaders today and he just made a couple of small little mistakes, but that will stand him in good stead going forward. He’ll have learned plenty.”
There, as well as in their seeming distance requirements, Ballyadam and Envoi Allen differ. While the latter was ready-made enough to win four bumpers, culminating with his Festival success, Ballyadam needed these instructive events in order to learn how to race. Too keen when beaten at 1-4 on his Rules debut in February, he only got off the mark nine days after Cheltenham was done and dusted.
The fruits of this apprenticeship were palpable at Fairyhouse, given how well he settled despite such a steadily-run race. It suggests he’s a good pupil and will heed Kennedy’s latest course of instruction.
Trainer Gordon Elliott suggested Leopardstown’s Paddy Power Future Champions Novice Hurdle over Christmas as Ballyadam’s next target – a race he won for the first time with subsequent narrow Sky Bet Supreme runner-up Abacadabras last year.
Here, Ballyadam beat a number of rivals already familiar with each other – runner-up Cask Mate had previously trounced fourth-placed Dewcup at Punchestown and hard-pulling third N’Golo had accounted for never-involved fifth Annexation more narrowly at Navan. It’s hard to imagine any of them turning the tables on the winner over two miles.
Cask Mate – a seven-year-old second-season novice, who’d been absent for almost three years prior to his October return – got involved in some jostling entering the home turn, rider Sean Flanagan anxious to secure clear passage for the inevitable quickening to the second last. His mount coped with this pace injection better than most but was comfortably outmatched by Ballyadam, albeit a better jump at the last briefly offered him a whiff of hope.
N’Golo was necessarily stuck on the inside, Paul Townend having needed to find cover, and only got running after the second last, by which time it was too late. He lacked the winner’s gear change, but was bearing down on Cask Mate at the line.
Highly-experienced hurdler The Very Man, who’d been in the process of posting his best effort yet when unseating at Down Royal last time, jumped poorly in a variety of ways here, most critically when taking off at the last in a share of third but blundering to an extent that he finished only sixth.
Dewcup, who didn’t appear a natural front-runner, might have caught him for fourth anyway and would benefit from stepping back up in trip.
Of course, Cheveley Park Stud also won last term’s Champion Bumper with Ferny Hollow – a horse so talented he was still taking a tug at the top of the Cheltenham hill and yet had enough left to wear down his more fancied stable companion Appreciate It inside the final furlong. The former closely stalks Ballyadam in the Supreme ante-post market.
In his sportinglife.com stable tour this season, Willie Mullins observed that Ferny Hollow “should be a lot easier to ride over hurdles as he likes to get on with the job”. He duly settled well on his Gowran Park debut last month but, when moving up menacingly after flying the third last, found that leader Bob Olinger had just as much relish for the task at hand.
The market had expected this race to be a match – next in the betting was a 16/1 stablemate of the latter at Henry de Bromhead’s yard – but perhaps not such an extensive duel. Having quickened smartly off a relatively steady pace, they jumped the second last together – neither getting it right – but Ferny Hollow wore down his rival approaching the last and was always doing enough to hold him.
As Ruby Walsh commented in last week’s Road To Cheltenham show, in this race both Paul Townend and Rachael Blackmore trod the fine line between doing their best to win and not overwhelming their mounts at the very start of a key developmental season in their career.
Despite an unspectacular overall time (compared with the juvenile Youmdor, discussed in the next section), this was a more substantial indicator of ability than you’d get from many maidens, due to the strong finishing splits and both protagonists having to jump under pressure. “Two good horses came up the straight there and hopefully we’ll hear more about both of them,” Mullins commented.
A couple of days later at Cork, Appreciate It may have got the best of both worlds when competing as the 1-12 favourite in a maiden hurdle. He was comfortably superior in a race that only got going from three out but Townend in effect used the runner-up for target practice, gradually reeling him in from the home turn and producing his mount to jump upsides at the last.
Four hurdle races were staged over that two-mile distance that day, with Ganapathi recording the best overall time in the first division of the 4-y-o maiden hurdle after being dragged through the first two-thirds of the race by a front-running rival’s unsustainable pace and then coming home slowest from three out.
He moved comfortably into a narrow lead three out and was going better than the more patiently-ridden Rajsalad by the next. Neither got the last right, the winner getting into the bottom of it and the runner-up hitting it, the former maintaining his advantage to the line but with a yawning 13-length gap back to the third. This was a noteworthy debut from Ganapathi.
Thedevilscoachman won the muddlingly-run second division, predictably outjumping the wayward Mullins-trained odds-on favourite Grand Bornand at the last. After wrestling with the latter’s headlong enthusiasm in the early stages, Townend then had to tolerate him looking for alternative routes around, rather than over, various hurdles and a propensity to jump far out to his right. This latest habit cost him at the last, as he stumbled on landing as the winner – unbeaten in two starts, the former in a bumper – leapt past.
The Ballymore ante-post market has taken an uncertain cue from the above races, with Appreciate It, Ballyadam, Ferny Hollow and Bob Olinger to the fore – in that order or with a small variation among different firms. Last Friday’s Newbury novices’ hurdle winner Bravemansgame has also made a ripple in this division, with trainer Paul Nicholls declaring that he’ll “go down the Denman route now”.
That means: next stop, the Grade One Challow over same the course-and-distance he beat Es Perfecto and Bothwell Bridge, the latter representing Nicky Henderson who more often than not wins that Ladbrokes Winter Carnival event.
Bravemansgame pressed the front-running Bothwell Bridge exiting the back straight and although the latter knuckled down willingly, he was progressively getting the worst of the duel from three out. Approaching the last, the winner had moved comfortably clear and the leader reaped the repercussions of his effort when worn down for second by Es Perfecto, who’d let the other two get on with it.
Nicholls sees the progressive Bravemansgame as an “awesome chaser” in the making and asserted that he’s more exciting by going novice chasing with him next autumn than the prospect of running him in a novice event at Cheltenham. That doesn’t mean the horse won’t run at the Festival, of course – as his trainer acknowledged, “if he won the Challow, you’d have to”.
Denman won the Challow, staged at Cheltenham in January that season due to Newbury’s late December meeting being abandoned, and even squeezed in further experience in a humble novices’ hurdle at Bangor in February prior to being beaten by Nicanor in the then Royal & SunAlliance Novices’ Hurdle (now Ballymore).
(Incidentally, when he became far more famous than his conqueror, unbeaten in his subsequent nine starts, Denman had a MySpace account. He embraced social media at an early stage, did The Tank. Listed chiefly among his dislikes on his homepage was: Nicanor. I always liked that. It exactly suited his cussed personality.)
Anyway, I anthropomorphically digress. Back to Bravemansgame, whose victory rates as one of the better novice performances on this side of the Irish Sea to date. Others to mention are Cheltenham’s brace of Grade Two winners from its November meeting, For Pleasure and Does He Know (where it’s admittedly possible a number of novices were caught out by unusually attritional ground for the track), plus – perhaps less obviously – a recent Ascot winner.
For Pleasure won a daft Sky Bet Supreme Trial, which is not in any way to diminish his effort as he clearly doesn’t know how to give himself an easy time. Gifted a lead from the outset, he’d pulled a long way clear by the second hurdle and was tiring by the penultimate flight, where his tendency to jump left reached Yorkhill proportions and took him onto the inner chase track.
While favourite Third Time Lucki tried to threaten after the last, For Pleasure briefly pondered taking the exit to the stables at the foot of the hill before keeping on willingly for Harry Bannister to win by just shy of four lengths. His rider was engagingly honest in interview afterwards, admitting: “I don’t have too much control... it’s more of a collective decision to just let him do what he wants.”
“You’re trying to keep him straight more than anything else,” Bannister added, of his mount’s left-hand lurches. “Where he’s been successful at Stratford, he’s got the rail on the inside just to wing round. He made a bit of an error (here), but it probably backed him off a bit and gave him a chance to catch his breath.”
Bannister agreed with Racing TV presenter Niall Hannity that Aintree might be the most suitable target for this “free and fast” horse, who’d been busy progressing in the summer-jumping sphere until – in his jockey’s own words – becoming “un-steerable” at right-handed Kempton on his previous start.
A flat, left-handed track would surely suit better than any Festival target, especially given his run style. Yet this horse shouldn’t be underestimated, idiosyncratic and short-fused though he seems to be, as that’s now twice that he’s posted form worth rating comfortably north of 140.
In the preceding day’s Ballymore Trial, Does He Know reeled in the wide-margin leader prior to comfortably repelling the belated challenge of Wild Romance. The latter been ridden necessarily chilly, unable to hold her position, whereas the penalty-carrying winner had led the group chasing The Grand Visir and deserves extra credit.
“He’s a very buzzy individual, which is obviously a slight worry,” a delighted Kim Bailey admitted afterwards. “But actually (when racing) on the racetrack, he’s absolutely fine. I’m probably lucky we haven’t got crowds here today because he might have found it quite difficult. But we’ve got time to try and work on that. He’s a thoroughly likeable individual.”
Does He Know didn’t wear a hood or ear-plugs in the preliminaries or the race, so there are some aids that Bailey could employ if he wished. To be fair to the horse, he was bred by Mick Easterby so it’s understandable that he’s of a nervous disposition. (Don’t tell us about your childhood, Does He Know – that’s what psychiatrists are for.)
Bailey sees this second-season novice hurdler as a staying chaser in the making and, provided the ground isn’t too heavy, pinpointed the Challow as his next target – which now tees up a clash with Bravemansgame. “I’m not in any great rush,” Bailey warned, which he usually means. The horse would have just about enough experience for an Albert Bartlett, however.
As does – in a Penhill kind of way – recent wide-margin Ascot winner Metier – albeit he is currently plying his trade at around two miles rather than three. He shapes like a stayer of some degree, however.
Metier ran eight times on the Flat up to a mile-and-a-half for Andrew Slattery prior to joining Harry Fry in January. He’s since had an operation to correct his breathing and won both starts over hurdles. He was gifted an easy lead from the outset when beating two previous (albeit French) winners at Ascot and consistently jumped slightly to his right, sometimes a little big but better as the race developed.
Next, Fry plans to tackle either the Grade Two Kennel Gate over the same course and distance or else the Grade One Tolworth over two miles at Sandown in January.
Skipping back to Ireland, we find that winning pointer Holymacapony – who’s distantly related to the great Wayward Lad – heads the nascent Albert Bartlett betting, following his debut hurdling success at Punchestown in mid-November. This smart opening bid took trainer Henry de Bromhead by surprise, as he had been planning to run him next in a maiden over Christmas.
Rachael Blackmore took the winner smoothly into the lead three out and found only the favourite, French bumper recruit Gaillard Du Mesnil, capable of pursuit round the home turn. Although the latter had not been so evidently mobilised by Paul Townend approaching the last, his greater mistake at the last quickly revealed he had comparatively little left to give. Holymacapony landed running and stretched away by eight lengths.
It’s worth mentioning one other race before moving on to the mares: the Grade Three Monksfield Novice Hurdle at Navan last month. This proved a muddling affair with no pace, the favourite Farouk D’Alene jumping absurdly right, runner-up Fire Attack pulling his way to the front at the end of the first circuit and Fakiera coming from an unpromising fifth at the last to win.
As a second-season novice, the winner had lots of experience and rider Keith Donoghue was remarkably cool as the field appeared to have got away from him in the straight. Fakiera responded very positively to pressure on this first try at two and a half miles and was a shade cosy at the line.
Free-going Fire Attack was making his hurdling debut in a graded event for trainer Joseph O’Brien and is entitled to build on this. Had he not clipped the second last, after an otherwise promising round of jumping, he might just have set Fakiera too much to do.
Reminiscent of the Oaks ante-post market each July, at this point in the Jumps season the betting for the Dawn Run Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle tends to read as though the odds compilers are playing The Conveyer Belt Game. That nippy little number that won at Navan the other day, what was her name? That grey one at Wincanton – oh, you know! Something De Sceaux? Voler La Vedette! Flakey Dove! Enable!
Hence, we find Princess Zoe still heads some markets even though her trainer Tony Mullins has retracted earlier plans to follow up her wildly-successful Flat campaign – its crescendo her Group One success in the Prix Du Cadran – with an assault on the Cheltenham Festival.
She simply did too well, her official rating rocketing from 64 to 110, and will instead bid to topple Stradivarius in 2021. Mullins has stated he now plans to give her a break ahead of a potential trip to Saudi Arabia in February or Dubai in March, followed by the twin targets of the Ascot Gold Cup in mid-summer and defending her Cadran crown in the autumn.
But Willie Mullins has already mobilised a credible advance guard from his army of mares, who will likely plunder this race. He’s bagged all five editions to date of the Grade Two event, named after the most famous horse his father Paddy trained, and last term his four runners finished first, second, fourth and fifth. You may as well come out with your hands up – he’s got you surrounded.
Of course, he’s also won nine of the 13 runnings of the David Nicholson Mares’ Hurdle – and it would have been ten, had Benie Des Dieux not fallen two seasons ago. He will surely monopolise the new mares’ Grade Two Mrs Paddy Power Chase in the years to come, too. Unaccountably, Jockey Club Racecourses didn’t call upon Mullins to provide a quote for their announcement press release, so we can’t be sure he’s in favour of this development.
Shewearsitwell would be my weapon of choice from his Dawn Run stockpile at this stage, because she jumps like a low-altitude missile. She’s unbeaten in three starts – twice over hurdles, the latest of which was an eight-length Grade Three drubbing of geldings at Tipperary.
Mullins has described her as “a sharp little jumper” and had planned to utilise the Royal Bond to determine how to map out the rest of her season. On the one hand, she’s shown “plenty of speed” but her breeding and Paul Townend’s testimony from Tipperary – “she was probably going as fast as she was able” – suggests a step up to the Dawn Run’s trip might suit.
However, according to James Fenton, bloodstock manager for the Closutton Racing Club in whose silks the mare runs, a “slight setback” caused her to miss her Fairyhouse target. Hopefully, she’ll be back in action soon, but her trainer doesn’t lack for reinforcements.
Take Gauloise, for example, who made a winning hurdles debut at Thurles last Thursday. She carried the colours of Kenny Alexander, who won last term’s Dawn Run with Honeysuckle, and jumped pretty neatly herself. “I was taken by the way she quickened after the second last and put it to bed,” observed Mullins.
Then there’s Hook Up, who accompanied the winner Burning Victory to the Triumph Hurdle nine months ago but, unlike her ultimately fortunate stable companion, couldn’t get involved and finished 11th. She turned out as a second-season novice in a maiden hurdle at Fairyhouse last Saturday and, under the tactical change of a front-running ride, saw off her rivals by upwards of 12 lengths.
“Hook Up isn’t the biggest mare but she seems to have a big engine,” Mullins told the Racing Post. “I was keen for Paul to let her jump and let her use her engine. It seems to suit her better than trying to hold her up.”
Finally – for now at least – there’s also Finest Evermore, who started life trained in Britain but has been running for Mullins since this summer. If you’d stopped watching at halfway at Listowel in September, you’d give her little chance of making the Festival squad but it became apparent that she merely took time to adjust to a different type of hurdle compared with those she’d encountered previously at Tipperary.
Having swerved right so badly that she’d collided with a rival at the third, Townend counteracted by organising her into the next two obstacles and, from then on, she palpably grew in confidence to the extent of winging the final four to register an authoritative 13-length success.
“I wouldn’t be worried about her jumping,” Townend confirmed. “Making the running probably isn’t ideal, but she went from the front at Tipperary and I wasn’t worried about that, so she surprised me at the first couple more than anything. When we got down to the business end, she was very good.”
On this side of the Irish Sea, a handful of mares merit mentioning in dispatches. First, Pink Sheets, who racked up a four-timer after setting a resolute gallop in the opening mares’ Listed event at Newbury last Saturday. She jumped better than previously at Kempton and her excited trainer, Mick Quinn, plans to plot his way to the Festival avoiding deep ground en-route.
Incidentally, runner-up Ahorsewithnoname was making her debut for Nicky Henderson and over hurdles, on her first start for 439 days. She clattered through a few but rallied latterly to suggest she retains the ability displayed in her decent, unexposed Flat form for Brian Ellison.
Her former stable-companion Mrs Hyde finished third, penalised here for previously taking the significant scalp of 2018 Christmas Hurdle winner Verdana Blue (admittedly on ground the latter wouldn’t have loved) in a Listed event at Wetherby. Characteristically, she jumped right throughout and was mugged for second near the line after vainly chasing the winner.
Earlier in November, the white-faced The Glancing Queen comfortably outclassed her rivals on her hurdling debut at Warwick. Taking a strong hold but anchored on the inside of a small field in mid-division, she nonetheless jumped accurately – the faster her rivals’ the pace, the better her technique – and came eight lengths clear under a hands-and-heels ride.
If they’re really lucky and Mullins has an off day, one of these British-trained mares might even pick up some prize money at Cheltenham in March. It’s paid all the way down to eighth, after all.
In last week’s Road To Cheltenham show, in answer to viewer Wayne Finter’s question on whether “we’ve seen the Triumph winner yet this season”, Ruby Walsh said: “I wouldn’t think so. I think the better juveniles tend to appear a lot closer to Christmas or even after it.”
Well, Christmas came early this year in the shape of Zanahiyr.
This son of Nathaniel has been knocking around over hurdles since October, when he won on debut at Ballinrobe for Gordon Elliott. He’d previously appeared four times on the Flat for Mick Halford, culminating in a still-unexposed victory over a mile and a half in a Fairyhouse maiden in July. The hint was there in his pedigree, however, as a product of the Aga Khan’s Studs – a fertile source for top-class juveniles.
He returned to Fairyhouse relatively unheralded, sent off as third favourite behind the odds-on dual French winner Saint Sam – making his debut for Willie Mullins – and previous Punchestown winner Druid’s Altar. That won’t happen again – or, at least, not now that analysts have seen his figures. For Zanahiyr not only pulverised those rivals but also the clock and therefore his more immediately-celebrated stablemate, Ballyadam.
Druid’s Altar set the race up, leading with a solo effort from the outset. After a hesitant jump at the first and getting in close to the second – contributing to the later handicap hurdle time being fractionally quicker in the early stages – he got on a roll from the third, even though the obstacles seemed to keep catching him by surprise. Perhaps it was the pace he was going.
This dragged both Zanahiyr and Saint Sam, racing alongside each other, through some fractions that saw them get to the halfway point around four seconds quicker than the handicap hurdle winner (whose field jumped five out - unlike the other two races) and around eight seconds quicker than Ballyadam.
By three out, Zanahiyr was pretty much upsides Druid’s Altar while Saint Sam made a small error. The former leader is then left behind on the home turn and Saint Sam starts to come under pressure in the straight, jumping the last two obstacles like a tired horse whereas Zanahiyr maintains the gallop to the line.
Using sectional comparison, the handicappers and Ballyadam’s race are respectively five and 13 seconds adrift of Zanahiyr at the third last yet despite the juvenile’s harder fractions earlier in the race, only Ballyadam manages to make up some time – two seconds – in the straight, even though he’d have had plenty of energy left after dawdling round. The differing weights carried by no means account for these disparities.
If you prefer plain speaking to number crunching, the upshot is clear: Zanahiyr is the real deal. The 8/1 on offer immediately after his success was generous and his current odds of 5/1 at best are still far from stingy. If you’re seeking recent flesh-and-bone context, he’s already achieved a bit more than Goshen had when he lined up in last season’s Triumph. Let’s get on.
“He’s not just a juvenile. He’s big and strong and is only going to get better,” Elliott said, explaining that he’d been purchased by Noel and Valerie Moran with a view to becoming “a nice dual-purpose horse”, targeted for “the bigger meetings on the Flat” next summer. That was the plan for Goshen last season, of course, but then Festival fever took over – rightly, even though it ended with heartache.
Elliott indicated that Zanahiyr would likely run once more over hurdles prior to the Triumph, either over Christmas or at the Dublin Racing Festival and, when asked by Racing TV’s Gary O’Brien, agreed that he planned to keep him apart from stable-companions such as impressive Down Royal winner Quilixios and recent Cheltenham victor Duffle Coat for as long as is feasible.
In Duffle Coat’s case, this may well be for his own protection. He may be unbeaten in four starts but rider Robbie Power admitted his mount wasn’t able to go any faster when riding him chilly, detached in rear, en route to his latest Grade Two success. “There may be classier juvenile to come, but none more tenacious or gutsy than him,” he added, kindly.
Quilixios is an entirely different proposition. He’d won a hurdle race for Francois Nicolle in France as a three-year-old back in March, long before Kameko had triumphed in the 2000 Guineas. (The Classics come awfully early, you know...)
That means he no longer holds novice status this season but is still eligible for juvenile (and open) graded events.
(I’m grateful to @dpcleary for citing Pic D’Orhy as a recent example of this relatively rare phenomenon – albeit that horse didn’t make his British debut until the 2019 Triumph itself – and for informing me that Shiny Copper was the last non-novice to win it, back in 1982.)
Elliott managed to cram in two outings during October, the latest an utterly straightforward pillar-to-post success at 1-16 at Down Royal, so he isn’t lacking for experience and his technique is good. He’ll doubtless have been schooled over hurdles since he was two. I suspect he’s pretty useful, too, among what might be the nap hand in this division for Elliott, even at this early stage.
As a footnote, it’s probably worth remembering that Saint Sam stuck with race-fit Zanahiyr until the second last, was making his Irish debut and had not run since July. It’s quite possible that his margin of defeat has been magnified by those considerations. Horses that get defeated early in the season are often disproportionately underestimated later.
His trainer – who had already saddled Youmdor to a wide-margin success at Gowran last month, in a time that withstood comparison with older stablemate Ferny Hollow over the same course and distance – may have other juveniles, whom he considers superior to either of these, yet to unleash. He only pulled Burning Victory – fortunate Triumph winner though she was – out of his hat less than three weeks prior to last term’s Festival, after all.
Zanahiyr: Back now for the JCB Triumph Hurdle at a general 5-1Check out the Racing TV large screen app on Amazon Fire TV, Android TV and Apple TV devices, so you can enjoy the action on your TV screen! Click here for more details.
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