Road To Cheltenham: Nube Negra states case for Champion Chase

By Lydia Hislop@LydiaHislop
Sat 20 Nov 2021

It’s week two in our journey and there’s much to talk about, with drama in no short order at Cheltenham at the weekend and the return of some significant players over in Ireland – not least the magnificent Sharjah. Eyes down . . .

Two-mile hurdlers

Surely for want of alternatives, Echoes In Rain had been talked up in the pre-season yak as a potential Unibet Champion Hurdle contender. Last Sunday at Punchestown, facing four-time Grade One winner Sharjah and race-fit Zanahiyr, she was initially made the 5/4 favourite until sanity finally prevailed and she drifted to 7/4.

On official figures, admittedly armed with her 7lb mares’ allowance, she had 21lbs to find on dual Champion Hurdle second Sharjah and was even 9lbs shy of last term’s beaten Triumph Hurdle favourite, a dual Grade Two winner himself. The mare’s claims rested on finding a stack of improvement in her second season over timber, having signed off in April with success in Punchestown’s Grade One Champion Novice Hurdle.

Yet back here in reality, unsurprisingly Sharjah toyed with both his rivals, especially given how the race panned out – albeit it was perhaps not unsurprising enough for many, as he was somehow sent off at odds against. The ground was right, the track was right and, at a mere eight years of age, he’s hardly a back number. Usual rider Patrick Mullins never had a moment’s concern as his wingman travelled strongly and jumped slickly before unleashing a devastating turn of foot on landing after the last.

Zanahiyr had set the pace – far from a strong one – and he was joined by the winner at the third hurdle when stuttering into it. That was the first of two inferior jumps from a relatively inexperienced competitor – the second was reaching for the penultimate flight, when Mullins was still keeping a hard hold of Sharjah’s head. Indeed, the contrast in technique between the two horses was marked, even at hurdles where Zanahiyr made no sort of error. Mullins was ultimately able to pick him off at will, his mount’s potential lack of match-fitness relatively unexplored.

The steady pace was detrimental to Echoes In Rain, who threatened to undermine her own ability for much of last season by refusing to settle. She raced over-exuberantly far clear of her field in her first two starts, but was unable to get away with such an approach on the latter occasion when raised to graded company for the Moscow Flyer. Paul Townend taught her to accept a lead on her next two starts, helping her to produce a career-best performance at Fairyhouse in early April.

Away he goes: Sharjah impressed in the Morgiana Hurdle

Here at Punchestown, rider Sean O’Keeffe tried to anchor her behind what scant cover there was but, predictably in these circumstances, she wouldn’t consent to settle – to the extent that she almost tripped over the second hurdle, so intent was she on fighting her rider and attacking her hurdles. As the pace lifted in the closing stages, an airy jump three out and a lack of fluency at the next – combined with her exertions – saw her unable to mount any sort of challenge. She was beaten 15 lengths.

With so many of last term’s top novice-hurdlers going chasing – at least, at this stage – it’s not surprising the burden of expectation landed on this mare. She will surely improve greatly on this return. However, the Champion Hurdle currently looks too steep an ascent and the Mares’ Hurdle would require stretching a keen horse out to 2m4f. Mullins will likely target other, more suitable races in between, however.

For Zanahiyr – as for many a four-year-old looking to make the grade in the highest level of open company in their second season – the scale of the task was starkly illustrated. Sharjah has been brushed aside first by Epatante and then by Honeysuckle in the Champion Hurdle, yet he was imperious here.

Admittedly, this was another step forward for Zanahiyr, but he’s going to need to keep making them all season. For Sharjah, the next step is obvious: attempting to win a fourth Grade One Matheson Hurdle on the bounce at Leopardstown’s Christmas fixture.

The notable absentee on Sunday (reportedly stiff) was Aintree Hurdle winner, Abacadabras, who still holds a Fighting Fifth entry at Newcastle on Saturday week. There, he could encounter a host of the usual suspects in this division – headed (on ratings) by Epatante, beaten in all races bar this one last season, recent Kempton 1-2, Sceau Royal and Silver Streak, and last season’s top-rated juvenile Monmiral, who galloped at Newbury on Tuesday.

Epatante took part in a separate gallop there, with trainer Nicky Henderson enthusing that it enabled him to work his charges on grass after having to rely on an artificial surface back home at Seven Barrows. He also stated that “last season… her back was a pretty constant problem” – which probably explains why this mare, previously so feted for her fluid hurdling technique, made so many mistakes. She’s since had surgery to correct the problem.

“That will be her last bit [of work] ahead of Newcastle,” Henderson said. “Today I expected her to gallop all over the stayers, but Mister Coffey is a very good horse and those two pulled clear. In the last week, she’s got the buzz back and I like the way she put her head down and really worked away. Her jumping said something last season, as she was brilliant at Newcastle but then it fell apart. I intentionally haven’t schooled her. She will need a school, but we need rain.”

Epatante was among several Henderson horses who galloped at Newbury on Tuesday

Sceau Royal, we know, is an admirably adaptable and top-class horse in the right circumstances. Currently, he’s got his favoured conditions underfoot and will be a threat to all at Newcastle. After readily downing Silver Streak in October, he also beat Grade One Aintree novice winner Belfast Banter into third in Wincanton’s Elite Hurdle earlier this month with Teqany splitting the pair.

In both races, Sceau Royal travelled powerfully and jumped stylishly, granting rider Daryl Jacob the luxury of choosing when to say ‘go’. This was the third occasion on which he’s won this Grade Two event, previously triumphing as a four-year-old in 2016 and last year.

“He’s as good as ever, I’m convinced he is, if not slightly better,” trainer Alan King enthused afterwards. “We know how to properly train him now and he’s in a good place. He was never a brilliant workhorse but he’s now working as well as ever. He’s definitely better.”

Currently aged nine, Sceau Royal will shortly enter the veteran bracket so, in the context of time’s ticking clock, it was a crying shame he got squeezed out after the third last in last season’s Champion Chase. Remarkably, he still finished fifth but with a clear run – again with ground to suit and in a steadily run race that would have played to his turn of foot – he might even have hit the frame. Frustrating.

Belfast Banter had won the Cheltenham Festival’s County Hurdle en route to his most prestigious success at Liverpool. Since then, he’s been hindered by mistakes – blundering, causing the saddle to slip, at Galway in July and then falling at Listowel in September. Patiently ridden at Wincanton, he was badly outpaced before lurching at the second last and was ultimately beaten more than 13 lengths. He looks unlikely to make it to the top table at this stage but did find improvement last spring.

Further back in fifth was another Irish raider, Sole Pretender – a Tipperary Grade Three winner in July, who ran well for a long way behind Klassical Dream over three miles at Punchestown in April and was officially rated 2lbs higher than Belfast Banter. He’d shared front-running duties with Christopher Wood, but checked out tamely approaching the second last.

Silver Streak, who comfortably beat a substantial rival in Verdana Blue at Kempton in October of last year, never looked happy on his seasonal debut. My paddock spies tell me he didn’t look great in his coat. He also jumped awkwardly at the first two hurdles prior to being swept aside approaching the last by Sceau Royal and labouring to maintain second over Teqany, who was weighted at a (ratings-adjusted) 10lbs inferior.

Other potential Newcastle participants who have already kicked off their season include Teahupoo and Soaring Glory. Betfair Hurdle winner Soaring Glory has thus far achieved the most via upgrading his novice form with a win under top-weight in an Ascot handicap last month, despite idling in front. But he was thumped, in first-time cheekpieces, by Appreciate It in the Supreme. The Gerry Feilden intermediate hurdle is an option.

West Cork fends off Adagio in the Greatwood Hurdle

Teahupoo won an intriguing four-year-old hurdle event at Naas earlier this month, powering away from Triumph Hurdle hero Quilixios from the penultimate flight. It’s hard to get a handle on the form because the runner-up jumped and hung listlessly right, the hitherto lesser hurdler Autumn Evening held every chance when unseating then falling two out and Punchestown Grade One winner Jeff Kidder was never remotely involved.

Winning rider Jack Kennedy commented that his mount was a reluctant leader at a hesitant pace early on and was much happier once Quilixios went on from the fourth flight. Whilst conceding he hadn’t partnered Teahupoo in a race before, he believes he’s “a horse that has improved”. Trainer Gordon Elliott was “impressed” and plans to target Limerick’s four-year-old Christmas event next.

Quilixios had been intended to reappear in the week-earlier WKD Hurdle – in which Zanahiyr gave weight and an eight-length beating to Cask Mate – and trainer Henry de Bromhead admitted to being disappointed with the manner of this defeat. Autumn Evening and Jeff Kidder were fit from the Flat, where the former had shown improved form and the latter not.

But we finish this section where we started with last weekend’s action and the four-year-old Adagio’s three-quarter-length second under top-weight in Cheltenham’s Greatwood Hurdle. He was attempting to concede 13lbs to a surely well-handicapped rival in West Cork but managed to get upsides after the last after conceding first run at the preceding flight.

This opening bid looks even better in the context of trainer David Pipe warning beforehand in the Racing Post that “the wind op put us a little behind schedule and it’s been a rush to get him ready”. Last year’s Triumph Hurdle runner-up – who suffered a mild bout of colic prior to that race – now heads to next month’s Grade Two International Hurdle over Cheltenham’s New Course.

Staying hurdlers

The latest hat potentially thrown into this ring was that of Sporting John, who made a successful switch back to hurdles at Cheltenham last Saturday. However, trainer Philip Hobbs hasn’t yet decided whether to pursue this option with last season’s Grade One-winning novice chaser.

“He’ll probably run over hurdles again now and then after that, we’ll decide what we’ll do,” Hobbs told Ben Linfoot on “It was very pleasing to see him win like that and he’s come out of it well. I don’t know what route we’ll be taking yet. With his new rating, he’s probably more likely to run in a handicap and we will run over hurdles next time, but where he goes, I don’t know.”

Hobbs already has Thyme Hill in this division but that won’t influence his thinking here – as he pointed out on Racing TV last Saturday. What will need to happen is a conflab between owner JP McManus and his racing manager Frank Berry in light of both their wider team and that horizon-broadening success, from a mark of 146 and over three miles for the first time. It also proved Sporting John is capable at left-handed tracks.

Indeed, he jumped smoothly – looking a far more natural hurdler than chaser. In his post-race interview (below), Hobbs cited his Scilly Isles success when I suggested: “things fell apart over fences last season”. On reflection, I probably should probably have said they never came together! He was utterly unconvincing in his jumping technique, even in victory.

Sporting John mugged Shan Blue on the line in that Sandown Grade One, having got detached via ballooning the first two fences plus a further mistake, but grimly hanging in there to pick off pacier rivals from three out. Yet even when coming on strong at the last, he put in a safety stride whereas Shan Blue – who deserved to be the more tired after helping to force a strong pace in sapping conditions – came up bravely long on demand.

In the Festival’s Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase behind Monkfish, Sporting John guessed at several fences and that might have been what brought about a chance-ending error, eating turf on landing, when apparently asked long at the 11th fence. In the Mildmay Novices’ Chase at Aintree, he was awkward and slow over from the second with rider Tom O’Brien reporting his mount seemed to “lose confidence”. O’Brien pulled him up before the ninth and an operation to augment his breathing followed.

As a novice hurdler, Sporting John racked up three right-handed successes prior to getting outpaced on the downhill section approaching three out behind Envoi Allen in the 2020 Ballymore, shaping then as if he needed three miles.

Now is his chance to blossom over that trip and over less daunting obstacles. He has more improvement to find to feature prominently in a Paddy Power Stayers’ Hurdle at the Festival, but went clear on Saturday for mere hands and heels initially and 25/1 is more than a fair price. The runner-up Onagatheringstorm is progressive and remains of interest in staying handicaps himself.

In his post-race interview, Hobbs also mentioned bringing Aintree Hurdle hero Thyme Hill back to the track in next month’s Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot. “He’s perfectly all right after Auteuil,” Hobbs said, referring to his lacklustre distant fifth in the Grand Prix D’Automne behind Galop Marin and prolific winning mare L’Autonomie. Both trainer and jockey blamed the “holding” ground.

Back in the 2019 Albert Bartlett won by Monkfish, Thyme Hill finished a close-up fourth with Latest Exhibition ahead in second. After last week’s column was published, kindly reader Chris Duggan pointed me in the direction of this video from @racingblogger with John Brennan, one of the horse’s owners, at Curraghmore Point last month:

Whilst in mid-October trainer Paul Nolan was undecided about which route to pursue this season, Brennan has identified the Stayers’ Hurdle as one of a series of staying-hurdle targets. “We were always concerned about how well he jumps a fence. We thought he landed a bit steep,” he explained. “We schooled him during the week over hurdles and he seemed to appreciate it. He was actually attacking the hurdles. Whereas I’d say he jumps a fence, he attacks a hurdle.”

Brennan’s got this season taped. Latest Exhibition will start off against Champion Hurdle types in the Hatton’s Grace at Fairyhouse on Sunday week before moving on to Leopardstown’s Christmas Hurdle, Cheltenham, Punchestown and the Grande Course Des Haies Auteuil. I’m of the view that Latest Exhibition is better racing left-handed, based on his habit of adjusting left over fences. There isn’t enough evidence of whether the same trait applies over hurdles, however, as four of his five career starts have been at left-handed tracks and when he won on his hurdling bow at Galway, four of the nine intended obstacles were out of action.

If I’m right, then his Irish Grand National fourth in April was better than it looked and Latest Exhibition may yet have a future over fences beyond this season. In the meantime, he’s an exciting recruit to this division. In fact, so shallow is the anticipated pool he’s already put in by bookmakers as the (best price) 14/1 fifth favourite for his Cheltenham target next March.

Last week, Ruby Walsh closely analysed the fall of reigning Stayers’ Hurdle winner Flooring Porter in the new Analyse This section of our Road To Cheltenham show. Watch below.

As trainer Gavin Cromwell highlighted when interviewed for our previous series of shows, this horse benefits hugely from a left-handed track and as continuous an inside running-rail as possible. Otherwise, at his worst, he does a slamming Yorkhill impression by jumping so left-handed he comes off the track.

That was what he was doing in Navan’s Lismullen Hurdle earlier this month, whilst nonetheless establishing his trademark long lead, prior to clipping the top of the second last and coming down when still holding every chance. He jumped increasingly out to his left at right-handed Punchestown back in April, too, but was probably also feeling the effects of an arduous front-running performance at Cheltenham the previous month.

By rights, making all over the New Course with its island hurdles shouldn’t have suited Flooring Porter, but he was in such a rich vein of form at the time that he conjured a career-best. However, he doesn’t set a dizzying standard and I’m starting to wonder whether his quirks are out-mastering his ability? Perhaps he just needs to be fitter, however, as Ruby intimated.

Klassical Dream, by contrast, was in imperious form when dishing out a seven-length beating of stablemate James Du Berlais at Punchestown. The winner’s problem is one of soundness and, as Ruby readily conceded in our last show, you can’t rely on him to have a trouble-free campaign. Before April, he’d only made it to the track twice since following up his 2019 Supreme success in the two-mile Champion Novice Hurdle, at Punchestown. He’d reportedly been ready to run last Christmas only to suffer another setback.

He’s entered in the Hatton’s Grace, however, so all was well at the time of engagement. Both he and James Du Berlais – who came from much further back in the field when they clashed – are totally unexposed at three miles, but the latter does not hold any entries just yet. 2020 Stayers’ Hurdle runner-up Ronald Pump finished a creditable third at Punchestown after missing the meat of last season subsequent to running Honeysuckle to half a length in last season’s Hatton’s Grace. Subsequent to Punchestown, he was well beaten behind L’Autonomie in the Grande Course Des Haies Auteuil in May.

Darasso was the chief beneficiary of Flooring Porter’s exit at Navan, outstaying Grand Roi – who did still post a personal best – and out-speeding dual Pertemps winner Sire Du Berlais, who had managed to win that Grade Two a year earlier but made a significant mistake at halfway this time around. This was the best effort for some time from the winner.

At Cheltenham last March, Sire Du Berlais didn’t have the cleanest of trips when attempting to come from the rear of mid-division to challenge the all-the-way winner, having to be switched right out of a schmozzle at the top of the hill and then getting stuck in traffic again prior to the second last. But he then lacked the gears to bridge the gap to the winner.

 Paisley Park's best chance of top-flight success this season will probably be at Ascot  (Focusonracing)
Paisley Park's best chance of top-flight success this season will probably be at Ascot (Focusonracing)

2019 hero Paisley Park was totally outpaced at the top of the hill – his infamous mid-race flat spots lasting longer these days – and only ground his way into third, past the non-staying Beacon Edge. The latter subsequently fell at the penultimate flight behind Klassical Dream at Punchestown and has thus far had one rather awkward attempt at novice chasing this season.

Trainer Emma Lavelle felt that Paisley Park lacked the hard edge of fitness in the Stayers’ Hurdle due to a team decision to miss the Cleeve when it was rescheduled closer to the Festival after the abandonment of Cheltenham’s Trials Day. However, in the immediate aftermath of the race, rider Aidan Coleman seemed to feel that we saw is what Paisley Park now is. Lavelle expected an improved showing at Aintree but instead he was lifeless behind Thyme Hill, reported to have run “flat”.

Paisley Park reappeared in Wetherby’s West Yorkshire Hurdle at the end of last month and was sent off favourite but despite racing in a more prominent position than is often the case, he lost his pitch at the fourth last and dropped to rear on the home turn before rallying belatedly for third. His best chance of top-flight success this season would be another slug at Ascot, but I would fear younger legs even there.

It was Indefatigable who won Wetherby’s Grade Two quite readily, travelling well off the pace set by former kamikaze chaser Master Tommytucker (who probably didn’t stay) and showing more toe than the more patiently ridden Proschema, who’s since fallen at the second last behind Sporting John at Cheltenham when still going OK.

Winning trainer Paul Webber has extensive plans for the mare. “It depends on the weather entirely,” he said. “If it was dry she could go to Newbury for the Long Distance Hurdle, but she’s a mare and I must try to win a Grade One with her. It will probably too wet by the Long Walk in December and the Ascot plan might be the Ascot Stakes [at Royal Ascot] in June. She just needs another run to get a handicap mark. She does thrive in the spring and summer. “You could probably do the Mares’ or the Stayers’ Hurdle at Cheltenham, maybe Punchestown, then you have still got six weeks before Ascot.”

Earlier on the same card, Molly Ollys Wishes won the two-mile Listed Mares’ Hurdle under a positive ride, Harry Skelton kicking for home rounding the final bend. But her forthcoming campaign centres on longer trips, starting with a Listed race over three miles at Kempton this month. “She might end up trying the Long Walk, then the Warfield Mares’ Hurdle at Ascot, which is her Gold Cup,” trainer Dan Skelton added.

The only remaining horse whom I think merits mention in this context from last season’s Stayers’ Hurdle is its 2020 winner Lisnagar Oscar, who was well-positioned not far behind Flooring Porter for a thorough stayer and was going strongly, in a lovely rhythm, when falling out of the blue at the seventh. It was a horrendous tumble, performing a full somersault.

He’s since run twice at Aintree, a course that suits him less well – when eighth behind Thyme Hill in April and third on seasonal debut over a deeply inadequate trip, brushed aside by the impressive Brewin’upastorm. But you worry that last March was Lisnagar Oscar’s moment, if he was ever to reprise the level of form he achieved two seasons ago.

The winner’s ultimate target is a return to the course and distance for the Grade One Aintree hurdle next April. Trainer Olly Murphy admitted Brewin’upastorm will be relatively difficult to place until then “because he doesn’t stay three [miles] and hasn’t got enough speed for two”, but pinpointed Cheltenham’s Relkeel Hurdle in January as a potential option.

Two-mile chasers

Nube Negra was a slick winner of the Shloer Chase

The Shloer Chase kicked off a good start to the season for this column, with its authoritative winner Nube Negra having been advised at 25/1 [20/1 also acceptable] for the Queen Mother Champion Chase last Wednesday. He’s now best priced at 10/1 – and, in my opinion, two of the only three horses shorter than him in the betting have big questions to answer about their suitability for Cheltenham.

Sunday’s Grade Two event was always likely to be run to suit Nube Negra, with Politologue surely setting off in front in an attempt to reprise his 2020 course-and-distance success in the Champion Chase and – so went the theory – the most recent winner of that chasing crown, Put The Kettle On, likely to be pressing him. Even the remaining runner, Rouge Vif, tends to be ridden close to the pace.

The gallant ten-year-old grey played his part almost to perfection. Setting out in front under Harry Cobden on his seasonal debut and fresh from a second operation to improve his breathing, Politologue was unhassled on the lead from the third fence and some way clear by the fifth, but he stood off the inviting fourth last far too boldly and landed pretty much on the fence. To his credit, he was still in front until after the second last but could offer no resistance to the winner.

He was fit, though, and it’s well established that he’s best when campaigned periodically, with Paul Nicholls picking his targets carefully. Don’t expect him to improve for the run but he clearly retains both the verve and ability to win decent prizes when presented with the right opportunity.

The surprise was Put The Kettle On, who was unable from pretty much the outset to hold the prominent position she’d maintained in a steadily run Champion Chase last March and that rider Aidan Coleman initially established for her here. But he was nudging the mare to hold her position as early as after the fourth fence here, then pushing along after the fifth and sixth. She got a flick of the whip after the ninth and was fully driven with a reminder after the fourth last. Her jumping was not as nimble as usual.

Perhaps the unseasonably sound surface exposed an intrinsic lack of pace – she was withdrawn at Gowran last month due to the ground. Or perhaps she was rusty because this effort was reminiscent of how she went through last year’s Shloer on very testing ground and against far-inferior opposition. Back then, Coleman reported that he’d pretty much given up on her getting involved but she rallied to nail the too-free Duc De Genievres near the line.

On this occasion, she at least demonstrated her familiar grit as she kept going to join Rouge Vif for third at the last and stayed on better than him. But her reputation for finding an unflashy way to win, at a track where she had hitherto been unbeaten in four starts, took a knock and added fuel to the theory that the cards just narrowly fell in her favour last March.

Cue a certain You Know Who advocating the Grade Two Paddy Power Mares’ Chase for this dual Grade One winner. She’s a best-priced 14/1 for that 2m4f target and Betfair introduced her at 20/1 for the Ryanair – the same price at which she’s now widely available to defend her title.

Rouge Vif had already been exposed as lacking in this grade over two miles but was nonetheless backed on the day and made the third favourite. He, too, was returning from a second wind operation and making his debut for Nicholls. Ridden for the first time by Bryony Frost, he typically took a good hold but got outpaced from three out. He’ll be tricky to place but stepping him up in trip might be the first recourse.

In that context, Nube Negra is nonetheless widely regarded to have posted a career-best. He certainly won in head-in-chest style, travelling strongly and – importantly – running on stoutly up the final hill. Harry Skelton can now ride him with confidence over this course and distance in March. His jumping was quick and neat, bar for clipping the last when his race was already won. He looks a stronger, better horse – logical enough, given he’s still only seven.

Dan Skelton gives his verdict on Nube Negra's Cheltenham success

Afterwards, trainer Dan Skelton mentioned both the Tingle Creek and the Desert Orchid Chases as potential targets – the latter being the race in which Nube Negra took the notable scalp of Altior, now retired, last December. A return to Kempton, where the ground is likely to suit better (unless the rain continues to stay away, of course), strikes me as the better option.

Willie Mullins threatening to run Chacun Pour Soi, Energumene or Allaho in the Tingle Creek has not yet provoked the yips from Nicky Henderson about starting Shishkin off there – which is just as revealing as the defensiveness with which he campaigned the now-retired Altior in his latter seasons. It speaks of confidence.

“I was hoping we might get a free run until after Christmas,” Henderson admitted at Newbury’s gallops event yesterday. “But I can see Willie’s point – he’s got two or three to play with and is going to have to come here with something, otherwise he’ll run out of race in Ireland. Shishkin grew a lot during the summer. He’s now big, strong and fully matured – he’s ready to roll.”

Shishkin has also had a minor breathing operation, as revealed in Henderson’s Unibet blog in September. “After a routine scope, we were just concerned that it might – and I emphasise the word ‘might’ – pose an issue later in the year,” he said then. “So, rather than take time out at a crucial stage, we decided it would be prudent to act now rather than be forced to do it mid-season if it happened to be necessary. It is a very routine procedure and nothing out of the ordinary, so his training will have minimal distractions”.

Shishkin’s sectional breakdown in the Kempton straight was superior to that of Nube Negra over the identical course and distance on the same card last year, albeit the latter was returning from almost a year off whereas the subsequent wide-margin Arkle victor was race-fit.

As I mentioned last week, an aggressively ridden Chacun Pour Soi blew Nube Negra away at Punchestown last April and it might be that similar tactics could inspire a better performance from him at Cheltenham. But he jumped stickily when only third on his debut there last March, and also adjusted right at times on the ever-turning left-handed sharp Old Course, so he might not be able to execute his trainer’s vision.

The same could apply to right-adjusting Energumene. Both would be different propositions in the Ryanair, however, on the more galloping New Course. It must be quite feasible that one of them will end up running there, alongside 7/2 ante-post favourite and titleholder, Allaho. Energumene is available for that target at 12/1 in a couple of places but Chacun Pour Soi is not quoted.

Staying chasers

Watch a full replay of the Paddy Power Gold Cup

Graded targets await both the winner and runner-up from last Saturday’s Paddy Power Gold Cup. Triumphant Midnight Shadow, who jumped and travelled comfortably just behind a strong pace, heads to the King George while Protektorat, who came from further back to finish just three-quarters of a length down, will contest either Aintree’s Many Clouds Chase or Leopardstown’s Savills Chase.

It was a career-best from both of them – clearly in the case of Midnight Shadow, who’d previously finished a wide-margin second in the Caspian Caviar and sixth in Samcro’s Marsh Chase in 2020. His jumping was flawless until, having been left in the lead two out by the unfortunate Coole Cody’s departure, he blundered through the last, pitching onto his nose. Luckily, he was far enough clear and recovered quickly.

Given his time again, Harry Skelton might have positioned Protektorat nearer the head of the field. Yet it was both a reasonable hypothesis that they were going too fast to sustain that pace to the finish and his mount did make a significant error at the fifth, so his pitch was not wholly by choice. The horse also adjusted right on occasions, albeit trainer Dan Skelton is adamant that he must race on left-handed tracks.

Protektorat was conceding 7lbs to Midnight Shadow and is less experienced over fences, having ended his novice season with victory in the Grade One Manifesto Novices’ Chase at Aintree last April. He missed Cheltenham, instead having a second operation to improve his breathing in February. Both horses need to improve again – and show that they stay three miles – to feature prominently in their intended targets.

Last Thursday, Aintree’s Melling Chase winner Fakir D’Oudairies made a smooth return to action when beating three rivals in the Grade Two Clonmel Oil Chase. He pressed the leader Royal Rendezvous from approaching four out, moving upsides at that final ditch and then definitively clear approaching the second last to win by 15 lengths.

It was a one-sided contest against match-fit rivals, who should have put up more of a fight on official ratings – albeit last-placed Hardline, the outsider of four, blundered at the third last and returned with a skin abrasion over his right-fore tendon according to the veterinary report.

It will be interesting to see how trainer Joseph O’Brien maps out the winner’s campaign this season, as (like everyone else) he couldn’t live with Allaho’s pace in the Ryanair prior to picking up the pieces for second and yet the twice he’s tried three miles, he’s been pulled up or well beaten.

Last month, O’Brien was thinking he’d have another go at that trip and rider Mark Walsh believes it’s worth a try, citing the “hard race” Fakir D’Oudairies had undergone at Cheltenham prior to winning at Aintree and that his eighteen-and-a-half-length defeat by Clan Des Obeaux at Punchestown came “at the end of a long season”.

Dual King George winner Clan Des Obeaux ended last season on a career high, aided by cheekpieces, with victories in the Betway Bowl and Ladbrokes Punchestown Gold Cup Chase – beating an increasingly error-prone Al Boum Photo in the latter and with Fakir D’Oudairies fading from before the home turn.

Despite more favourable ground at Haydock, Clan Des Obeaux isn’t contesting Saturday’s Betfair Chase in order to keep hopes of a third King George alive – trainer Paul Nicholls believes he left his A-game behind when toiling home behind Bristol De Mai in that race 12 months ago.

Another horse we had more reason to hope might be there is also an absentee: Champ was not confirmed at the six-day stage, as was Nicky Henderson’s stated intention when interviewed after Chantry House’s Sandown success earlier this month. Questioned on the subject at Newbury’s Ladbrokes Winter Carnival gallops event, he revealed that Aintree’s Grade Two Many Clouds Chase – a Grade Two over 3m1f – at the start of next month is now the preferred target.

“He worked for Nico [de Boinville] this morning,” he said. “He couldn’t get off the ground in the Gold Cup and has had back surgery. I fear he did too much when he came here for the trial [the Game Spirit]. He was like a gazelle and must have hurt himself with his sheer exuberance. Happily, he’s moving very well now and, as he has to go left-handed, the only options were the Betfair and the Many Clouds. We’ve decided to go to Aintree.”

Haydock will be the venue for King George runner-up Waiting Patiently’s seasonal return – and debut for new trainer, Christian Williams. Owner Richard Collins explained back in July why he’d moved the horse on from Ruth Jefferson’s yard when talking to Colin Russell in The Press, York’s local daily newspaper.

“There has been no fall out,” Collins said then. “I rang Ruth to tell her and we had a chat for about half an hour. She is a very good trainer and has done a fine job with him so it wasn’t an easy decision. I felt that I should either make this move or retire him. It wasn’t a case of sending him to one of the top trainers like Paul Nicholls or Nicky Henderson, would they have done a better job than Ruth? I don’t think they would have done.

“I wanted to think outside the box and so he is going to Christian Williams, who has unique facilities that I feel will suit him. He will be out on the beach or in the water of the estuary [at Ogmore-By-Sea in Glamorgan] and I hope the change of routine and environment will benefit him.

“I feel that Christian’s style of training will suit him. He is known for giving horses more stamina, and that’s what Waiting Patiently will need as I think, if he is going to go on and win again, it will be over three miles.”

Novice chasers

Having introduced an initial cast of leading characters last week, we’ll be discussing the latest key performances in Thursday’s Road To Cheltenham show [LINK to be added on Friday] and I’ll be examining the division more thoroughly again after this coming weekend’s action.

However, a quick line on nascent chaser Bear Ghylls, who looked to have the scope for this discipline when carving out a decent level of form over hurdles last season – albeit he was quite comfortably beaten by Bob Olinger, even whilst posting a career-best, in the Ballymore.

Trainer Nicky Martin has told the Racing Post: “He sustained a minor injury to a hind fetlock back in early October but he’s fine. We felt he wasn’t quite right. He had a bit of ligament damage and we’ve gone overboard in treating it.

"He’s fine but we just want to make sure he’s right. I want him 100 – or even one million – per cent before he runs. He’s way too good to risk something going wrong. It’s easy for me as I don’t have owners, he’s mine and we’ll only get him out when he’s ready.

"He may be out in January but I don’t want to mess up his novice [chase] status so he’d either stick to hurdles or we won’t run until next season, which doesn’t bother me in the slightest. Novice chasing was plan A, but it would be too late in the season.”

Novice & juvenile hurdlers

Some of last weekend’s best efforts will also be discussed in this week’s show and both divisions given dedicated space in an upcoming column – probably in a fortnight’s time, once there’s more to go on!

Lydia’s portfolio:

Advised 26/04/21: Energumene at 14/1 (general) for the Ryanair Chase

Advised 10/11/21: Nube Negra each-way at 25/1 with Bet365 [widely available 20/1 also acceptable] for the Champion Chase

Ruby’s portfolio:

One moment, caller . . .

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