Road To Cheltenham Part Two: Telme it's time to get involved

By Lydia Hislop@LydiaHislop
Thu 6 Jan 2022

In the second part of a bumper Lydia Hislop column, our top pundit suggests backing a couple of horses ante-post for the Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle.


Significant shots were finally fired in the mares’ hurdling division over the festive period, with a number of different races providing reason for activity in the ante-post market for the Festival’s Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle.

On New Year’s day at Cheltenham, the diminutive Stormy Ireland made all to win the Grade Two Relkeel Hurdle against the boys – although most believed that Brewin’upastorm would definitely have won had he stood up at the last.

Who do you think would have prevailed in the Relkeel Hurdle at Cheltenham?

Naturally, the mare’s rider Danny Mullins is not one of them. “I was just starting to wind her up and Aidan Coleman [on Brewin’upastorm] was a little more animated. It was a 50/50 call, but my gut feeling is I had a little more left.”

For the second time on successive weekends in Britain, but yet in contrasting styles, Mullins had certainly judged the pace precisely. Jumping characteristically airily at times, Stormy Ireland set out with relish from the outset. Untidy at the fifth, she snapped straight back into her rhythm and Mullins was able to control the tempo and save plenty for the drive from the second last.

Turning for home, she readily accelerated to take the stands’ side rail, thwarting the ambitions of the stalking McFabulous, and pulled out plenty enough both to leave him trailing and get smooth-travelling Brewin’upastorm off the bridle. Coleman perhaps anticipated picking up the leader more readily than proved the case, but it did appear as though his mount was starting to get on top when taking off far too close to the final hurdle and coming down.


Cheltenham hasn’t been the luckiest of venues for Brewin’upastorm, who fell at the last when leading here as a novice hurdler in a Grade Two on Trials Day in 2019, and also unseated Richard Johnson four out in the following year’s Arkle – an experience that Murphy believes caused the horse to lose all confidence over fences. It must be hoped that the same won’t happen now.

“Strange game, isn’t it?” Murphy said to Tom Stanley. “One minute you’re up there and the next you’re down on the floor. But my horse is circling around me and my stable jockey has just walked back into the weighing room, so to me that’s all that matters.

“I’ve still got a very good horse on my hands. I think he was as good as ever today… No-one’s going to argue that he was coming there to win his race. – nobody can argue he wasn’t coming there to win this race. That’s the second time he’s done it here and I don’t think there was any reason for it today . . . It kind of looked like he just kneed [the final hurdle] out of the ground.”

Murphy later told The Sun that Brewin’upastorm was “a bit stiff and sore as you’d expect, but thankfully it seems nothing major”.

“He’s always been a horse that goes well fresh, so he’ll have a break and then we’ll probably aim him at the National Spirit at Fontwell – a race he won last year,” he added. “After that we can go to Aintree. People say he’s fallen twice at Cheltenham now. I don’t think it’s the track, more so just a coincidence. There’s no race for him at the Festival as he just doesn’t get three miles up that hill properly.”

However, Stormy Ireland will surely return for the Mares’ Hurdle at the Festival – a race in which she’s twice been placed. In 2019, she was second to fortunate winner Roksana, subsequent to the race-changing fall of Benie Des Dieux at the last, and the following year she finished a long way behind Honeysuckle in fifth.

 Stormy Ireland looked pleased with herself after her Relkeel Hurdle success (Photo: Focusonracing)
Stormy Ireland looked pleased with herself after her Relkeel Hurdle success (Photo: Focusonracing)

Having left Willie Mullins as part of owner Jared Sullivan’s exodus to Paul Nicholls last season, she failed to reproduce her form and only recovered it when returning to her original yard for current owners, FB Racing Club, last April. This was a similar level of performance, having been beaten by Honeysuckle in the Grade One Hatton’s Grace first time up this season in between.

Likeable Stormy Ireland is eight years of age now and unlikely to be getting any better, but it is possible that she’s become more consistent and better suited to this intermediate trip with maturity. That said, her double success, when winning at both Fairyhouse and Punchestown in Spring, did come when better mares had instead gone to Cheltenham, or were over the top as a result. Nonetheless, she is clearly a place player again in March and currently trades at 7/1 best.

Prior to the Relkeel Hurdle, a Jockey Club Racecourses press release had described how trainer Paul Nicholls was looking forward to “unleashing” McFabulous in the race, which involuntarily conjured an image of a yappy dog barking at more substantial animals from a safe distance. To be fair, this was a belated return following an operation to correct his breathing and another training setback. He ran creditably against race-fit rivals, and is likely to head to the National Spirit, too.

Trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies had improbably suggested that he wouldn’t run Guard Your Dreams here after unexpectedly taking in the International. Keep in a horse his box when there are graded races to contest and money to be won? Pull the other one. The result was another admirably consistent effort from a horse who needs more of a gallop. Both he and Dans Le Vent – who was positioned too far back, made a sizeable error two out and ran extremely well again – were hampered by Brewin’upastorm’s fall at the last.

At Leopardstown over Christmas, there was an intriguing mares’ event over the 2m4f in which Royal Kahala did well to run down front-running Heaven Help Us, with third-placed Telmesomethinggirl looking unfortunate not to have at least finished closer.

Much as she did in the 2021 Coral Cup but without the accompanying complacency from her opponents, Heaven Help Us thrived under controlling tactics. After dragging her hind legs through the first flight, she proceeded to jump well and dictate a steady enough tempo from the front. Kicking off the home turn, she was only caught strides from the line.

She’s getting better with each start this season and has every chance of hitting the frame in the Mares’ Hurdle if taking another step forward and reproducing her Festival form.

Royal Kahala was sent off favourite for the Grade Two Dawn Run Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle at the 2021 Cheltenham Festival, but finished lame in ninth behind Telmesomethinggirl. She’d shaped well when making an error at the wrong moment on her seasonal debut at Punchestown and was bound to be suited by this further step back up in trip. She needed all of it to get there.

Trainer Peter Fahey had toyed with running her in the Christmas Hurdle over three miles and ascribed her lack of fluency here to being “out of her comfort zone” over a trip that is now her minimum.

As he told Racing TV’s Gary O’Brien (see full interview below), he also believes she’s advantaged by soft ground and likely to be even better over fences. He plans to run her again before the Festival and even asserted he wouldn’t go there unless the ground is “plenty soft enough”, for the sake of her future chasing career.

Telmesomethinggirl was carrying a penalty for her Cheltenham success, but might even have beaten the winner had this race panned out better for her. Held up in rear in a steadily run race that developed into a sprint, she got stuck behind the better-positioned but flat-out Royal Kahala entering the home turn and then was snookered on the inside of that same rival approaching the last. Switched around to the right, she made steady inroads on the leaders from the last to emerge as the best mare at the weights.

I’m surprised to find she’s a longer price with some bookmakers than either Royal Kahala or Stormy Ireland and am keen to take the 13/2 with Bet365 for Cheltenham after such an encouraging display.

There was a gap back to the fourth at Leopardstown, but this was nonetheless a highly encouraging effort from the lightly raced Finest Evermore. Running for the first time in more than a year, she was unsuited by the slow tempo and threatened at one stage to be well beaten before rallying strongly to head Minx Tiara near the winning post. She will be of great interest when trainer Willie Mullins steps her up to three miles.

Stablemate Shewearsitwell had a horrible experience, breaking her nose in a crashing fall at the fourth. Oddly sent off favourite against more experienced rivals on the basis of an unbeaten three-race sequence in 2020, she had changed her mind soon after take-off at the preceding hurdle, landing on top of it. This seemed to flummox her badly, because she had a massive guess at the next and took off far too soon.

Sticking with the Mullins yard, for much of the Dornan Engineering Christmas Hurdle I was expecting Burning Victory to come out of the pack and at least try to lay a glove on the front two. But although the pace was strong enough for her pitch in the chasing group to have been helpful – and she stuck on for an honourable 23-length third – I suspect she’s better placed at intermediate trips for now.

The best aspect of her Leopardstown performance was more accomplished jumping. When inheriting the 2019 JCB Triumph Hurdle from Goshen – who, of course, would have won impressively but for infamously unseating Jamie Moore at the last – she was doubly fortunate.

Her jumping was flawed – there was a serious mistake at the fourth followed by, dropped to last, lesser errors at the next two flights – and yet this kept her apart from attempts by Aspire Tower and, in particular, moral* runner-up Allmankind to keep tabs on Goshen, meaning she had plenty more left to surge past them when the rightful winner exited. (*cough)

Errors remained an issue in the early part of last season, which she mixed with progressive form on the Flat, culminating in second to Buzz from a disadvantageously wide draw in the Cesarewitch. Then on her first attempt at three miles, when sent off favourite for the Navan handicap won by Commander Of Fleet in the early part of last month, she could never get into contention from a towards-rear pitch.

 Burning Victory looks too big at 16s for the Mares' Hurdle. She's pictured here with Paul Townend.   (Caroline Norris/HRI)
Burning Victory looks too big at 16s for the Mares' Hurdle. She's pictured here with Paul Townend. (Caroline Norris/HRI)

My concern about Burning Victory is her tendency to jump right – which is likely to be more of an issue for the Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle on the Old Course than it was for the Triumph on the New – but 16/1 with Paddy Power (or 14/1 with BetVictor) for that event is just too big. I’m going to add her to my ante-post portfolio, too.

Finally, the mare Marie’s Rock rewarded her connections for their perseverance with a career-best success at Kempton on Boxing Day. Having looked an exciting filly as a novice, she let the rave reviews go to her head by refusing to settle and sticking her head in the air in two outings last season. A brace of operations to aid her breathing bookended that campaign, but there had been glimmers of promise in her first two starts this term.

Yet this was a different order of performance – even though she threatened to be keen and still held her head a shade awkwardly, she cruised through her first attempt at 2m5f to win by seven lengths off a mark of 131. More of a Coral Cup or County Hurdle prospect than Mares’ Hurdle hope these days – if indeed Cheltenham is her bag at all – she can take in the Lanzarote next.

Juvenile hurdlers

Despite reopposing Lunar Power on 3lb worse terms than when triumphing by little more than a length at Fairyhouse in November, Fil Dor produced a more authoritative seven-length success in the Grade Two Knight Frank Juvenile Hurdle at Leopardstown last month. But it’s the way in which the steel-grey winner can attack a hurdle that I really like.

He was doing that when making a mistake at the second, but the error didn’t bother him. A collected character, he travelled and jumped with just the right amount of enthusiasm – responding willingly to whatever Davy Russell asked him to do whilst still displaying a touch of greenness that suggests further scope for improvement.

Whereas narrow leader Lunar Power had been hard at work from the home turn, increasing a steady enough pace, Fil Dor moved to the front on only the faintest suggestion from Russell. He fluffed the last, getting in too close and landing flat-footed, but recovered to draw away again for hand riding.

Fil Dor enhances his reputation

Fil Dor – whose dam is an unraced half-sister to impressive Betfair Chase winner A Plus Tard – is now unbeaten in three starts for Russell and trainer Gordon Elliott, who is as yet undecided about whether to target the Dublin Racing Festival’s Spring Juvenile or go straight to the Triumph Hurdle. “[Fil Dor] just does what he has to do,” he observed.

Runner-up Lunar Power has extensive Flat experience – including a six-length weight-conceding defeat of third-placed Britzka over 12 furlongs here in October. He stayed near enough two miles in that discipline and has now learned to jump more fluently. It’s possible that he’s a better horse on a sounder surface whereas Elliott has stated that the winner needs cut. Trainer Noel Meade’s yard also houses Ben Siegel, a promising winner at Punchestown, but that horse currently holds no entries.

A stablemate of the winner, Britzka was stuck on the inside rail and down on his nose with a mistake at the second last. Although he recovered quite quickly to the heels of the leaders, he was left behind again on the run to the final flight before sticking to his task resolutely to come out of the pack for a clear third. He’s learning his trade for the Boodles Fred Winter.

Elliott unleashed another decent juvenile at Punchestown on New Year’s Eve, but Pied Piper ran into another one in the shape of Vauban, trained by Willie Mullins.

Connections of the former had to go to 225,000gns to secure him at Tattersalls Horses-In-Training Sales – the ex-John Gosden-trained juvenile, owned by Her Majesty The Queen, who stayed at least ten furlongs and ended the latest Flat season with a mark of 96, is exactly the sort of horses that more usually these days ends up in Australia. Vauban is a French recruit, more lightly raced but still twice a winner at trips up to 12 furlongs. In the silks of Rich and Susannah Ricci, the latter was sent off the 4-9 favourite on this mutual hurdling debut.

Both raced prominently in a big field, but Pied Piper took over on the lead after the fourth hurdle, instantly accompanied by Vauban. Davy Russell’s mount produced the scrappier jump at the next but, in general, he was more swiftly away from his obstacles than Paul Townend’s partner and looked in control even before Vauban fluffed the last. However, the latter rallied strongly on the run to the line to force a mere half-length defeat, with 15 lengths ranging back to the third.

Pied Piper runs in the same Caldwell Construction Ltd colours as Fil Dor and has the choice of the Grade One Spring Juvenile at the Dublin Racing Festival in early February or a Grade Three at Fairyhouse later that month. He’s been bought “with an eye to mixing and matching on the Flat, too” according to his trainer, who made it tacitly clear that Fil Dor is considered his juvenile first string.

“I thought he’d come on a good bit from the race today – we didn’t really fancy him. I thought he had plenty left in the locker,” Elliott admitted. “But Davy said he travelled well, jumped well – got a bit tired going to the last and from the last home. He’s a nice horse going forward but I genuinely thought he could get beat today. I thought there was a lot of improvement in him.”


Mullins had enjoyed a juvenile debutant success from Icare Allen during Leopardstown’s Christmas Festival. Having won a French 12-furlong bumper for Anne-Sophie Pacault on his sole previous start, he coped well with the hurly burly of an 18-strong field – working his way steadily forward from mid-division at halfway for rider Mark Walsh to lead at the final flight. There was some palpable greenness when he hit the front, but he responded positively to encouragement to draw away by three lengths.

Icare Allen gts off to a perfect start

Mullins observed that Icare Allen was very lucky at the first hurdle – “a little bit green and novicey, he knocked it down” – but he was otherwise pleased with the performance. Asked whether he was confident this horse can live up to an illustrious roll call of winners of this maiden event – including Espoir D’Allen, Sir Erec and Ivanovitch Gorbatov, all also for owner JP McManus – Mullins responded obliquely.

“Every day we worked him at home, he was fantastic and then I brought him away to work once and he was absolutely terrible. I don’t know what we had in with him but it beat him about ten lengths,” he confessed.

“But I’d say he just didn’t handle the gallop… I brought him up to the Curragh and the sand gallop there is new and we’ve found some horses just don’t like it. So, I was saying to his owner JP . . . I think his home work is good enough and we’ll draw a line through his away work.”

Mullins indicated that Icare Allen’s next target would be the Grade One Spring Juvenile Hurdle.

At Chepstow that same day, the Grade One Finale Juvenile Hurdle was staged – sadly, like Leopardstown – in front of empty grandstands. It produced a rough and unsatisfactory race. The loss of the first and last hurdle, due to the ground on the landing side being damaged by a recovery vehicle, meant that only six obstacles were jumped in total and the race became an even greater test of stamina.

Headstrong Skycutter got in the way of several rivals at various stages in the race, most markedly when rider Tommy Dowson returned him to the rail after jumping the third hurdle out to the right, thus tightening up the favourite and two-time winner Forever Blessed. This caused the latter to stumble to the extent that his nose went over the inside rail and Sean Bowen was almost unseated; his mount never recovered.

This was the second bout of interference that the stewards felt Dowson could have avoided and so suspended him for 13 days, to add to a further three earned soon after the start.

Skycutter was still leading the field entering the straight but he crashed through the de facto second last as the eventual winner Porticello jumped past in the company of Saint Segal. Despite having been mad-keen during most of the race, the latter looked a real threat at the last – which Porticello flattened but got away from the more swiftly. After that, Saint Segal was a spent force and only clung onto second by three-quarters of a length from tenacious Forever William, who’d earlier cut out most of the running.

Porticello was much better suited by this searching stamina test than the crawl he’d set himself when beaten by Knight Salute in the Grade Two Summit Juvenile Hurdle at Doncaster earlier in the month and was ultimately an impressive eight-and-a-half-length winner. He’s put himself back in the frame for the Triumph.

Saint Segal was having just his second career start and clearly is a juvenile of serious long-term potential for Jane Williams, provided he becomes more tractable. Chester Williams partnered this exciting horse for his mum and also rode recent Cheltenham winner Interne De Sivola for his dad, Nick Williams, so he’s got plenty to look forward to this season and beyond.

Forever William stayed two miles on the Flat but never managed to win in eight starts. On this evidence, that’s because he needs much further – there’s nothing wrong with his attitude. Iroko, Tease And Seize and Rocky Man all showed promise for more suitable races. Magistrato seems to be regressing, however.

His stable companion Iceo skipped away with Kempton’s opening juvenile hurdle on the second day of their Ladbrokes Christmas Festival meeting, racing keenly for Bryony Frost despite wearing a hood. Headed by the unfettered and ultimately well beaten Illico Des Places after the second, he remained well clear of most rivals and galloped to the front on the bridle on the home turn. Thereafter, a fiddling error at the last was the mildest of concerns for this 17-length success.

“I wasn’t sure what to expect,” admitted winning trainer Paul Nicholls. “He’d been very keen at home, hence the hood, but once he got a lead he switched off and went completely the other way. We’ve spent quite a lot of time teaching him to settle and switch off, so he’s never really worked upsides. What he did out there today was going to show us [what he is].”

This was Iceo’s second start over hurdles, following his debut success last August in Dieppe for his previous yard. Despite widespread interest in him for the Triumph, Nicholls was cool on the idea of Cheltenham. Of course, what happens between now and March – possibly back here for the Adonis in February – can change all that, although Aintree might then prove the better-timed and more suitable option. Nicholls missed the Festival with Monmiral last season, for example.

“For a horse like him the Triumph Hurdle is not necessarily the be-all-and-end-all,” he said. “He’s a National Hunt horse of the future. If the Triumph Hurdle came up testing ground, then you might look at it. But there’ll be nice races for him along the way and ultimately, he’s a chaser of the future. We’re not too worried about Triumph Hurdles at the moment, unless he proves differently.”

Provided he can keep his head, Inca Prince’s winning performance at Musselburgh on New Year’s Day suggested he could be a decent Scottish Triumph Hurdle type for trainer Ruth Jefferson – especially when a breakdown of the race was compared with the way in which Tommy’s Oscar won over the same course and distance later on the card.

Inca Prince was carrying a penalty for his previous comfortable-margin Catterick success and here raced too freely into a long lead, to such an extent that he was feeling his exertions entering the straight. It was to his credit that he then dug in and jumped soundly whilst slowing down markedly through tiredness.

Interestingly, he started life at Henry de Bromhead’s yard and won a seven-furlong maiden on debut at Dundalk as a two-year-old prior to losing his way badly in two starts for Cormac Farrell the following year – including when once refusing to race at Listowel. Gelded, he was steadily finding his feet over hurdles for that yard – even finishing a well-held third to Fil Dor at Down Royal in October – prior to joining Jefferson in December. He might be on a short fuse, as there were signs of temperament at Musselburgh's start, but he’s a fair juvenile.

Finally, while we’re talking about collateral form, it’s worth noting that both Yorksea and Galah – second and third behind Interne De Sivola at Cheltenham last month – got off the mark over hurdles during the festive period. Yorksea beat Cornicello, previously a less distant third behind Forever Blessed at Ffos Las, by 21 lengths at Fontwell while Galah narrowly won a steadily run fillies’ event at Doncaster, not surprisingly looking in need of a greater test of stamina.

Lydia’s portfolio:

Back now: Telmesomethinggirl at 13/2 with Bet365 for the Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle

Back now: Burning Victory at 16/1 with Paddy Power for the Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle

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 [20/1 also acceptable] for the Champion Chase

Advised 30/12/21: Galvin at 6/1 (general) for the Cheltenham Gold Cup

Ruby’s portfolio:

Sound the trumpets!

Advised 30/12/21: Al Boum Photo at 16/1 (general) for the Cheltenham Gold Cup

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