There might be only 40 days to the Cheltenham Festival, but most serious punters will admit they are finding it difficult to come up with any hard-and-fast fancies.
So open are most of the races that it it is impossible to be dogmatic. The exception is the Queen Mother Champion Chase, which looks at the mercy of ALTIOR again, but his prohibitive price is unlikely to tempt many takers.
It’s high time the clues started to unravel, and Cheltenham’s Trials Day at the weekend went some way towards serving that purpose.
Weather permitting, more evidence will surface from the magnificent, newly-created two-day Dublin Festival at Leopardstown this coming weekend.
But after that, there are just three more major Saturdays capable of shedding light on the Festival riddles -- Newbury’s Betfair Hurdle Day, Ascot Chase Day and then Kempton Park’s old Racing Post Chase meeting. Once the Bumper at Kempton has been completed, we enter Festival preview night territory and the countdown to the biggest Jumps week in the world will be well and truly on.
Once upon a time, Kempton’s February card was regarded as THE hottest pre-Festival property of the season. That mantle, certainly in the UK, has probably been assumed in recent years by Cheltenham’s Trials Day, and Saturday’s renewal did not disappoint.
Quality winners, notable performances and heartwarming stories abounded, with the tone set in the opening contest, the JCB Triumph Hurdle Trial, landed in emphatic fashion by the Joseph O’Brien-trained Irish raider FAKIR D’OUDAIRIES.
Notwithstanding the terrific impact O’Brien has made in his short career as a Jumps trainer, I wondered if his French-bred son of Kapgarde was only being brought over here to test the juvenile waters and assess the strength of the UK opposition to his four-year-old big guns back home, SIR EREC and GARDENS OF BABYLON. But Fakir D’Oudairies was heavily punted and confidently ridden before, to borrow a phrase from the Racing TV presenters’ dictionary, “he absolutely bolted up”.
If the gelding really is trailing in the pecking order at O’Brien’s yard, then British trainers can wave goodbye to their Triumph hopes in March because he destroyed Nicky Henderson’s ADJALI who, along with QUEL DESTIN, represents the best juvenile form in this country so far.
Cheltenham’s card was not only topped by an O’Brien winner but also tailed by one because canny Cotswolds handler Fergal O’Brien left his local track celebrating the victory of novice BENNY’S BRIDGE in the concluding 2m handicap hurdle.
Under a balls-of-steel waiting ride from Paddy Brennan, the 6yo made up a remarkable amount of ground in the home straight to mow down the leaders. OK, he got in off a featherweight but to counter that, he had to overcome inexperience and a tendency to pull for his head. He’s been given a rise of only 7lbs by the handicapper and can surely win more races.
The reaction of the assessor was also of interest to connections of the second winner of the day, KILDISART, who took what is nearly always an informative novices’ handicap chase over 2m4f. Trainer Ben Pauling was banking on a rise of 4lbs or less so he could get into the equivalent contest at the Festival, which has an official-rating ceiling of 145. But despite having to work hard to land a below-standard renewal, he has been raised to 147.
That seems a tad harsh considering SIRUH DU LAC, a more impressive winner of the Grade Three handicap chase over the same trip 35 minutes later was put up 7lbs. Nick Williams’s 6yo will, no doubt, be back for the Festival, in the Plate, but the horse to take from this race was unquestionably the runner-up, JANIKA, a recruit from France for champion trainer Henderson. The 6yo, owned by the formidable duo of Simon Munir and Isaac Souede, built on his eyecatching UK debut at Ascot in December to run a screamer, giving Siruh Du Lac fully 19lbs in a truly-run contest. Handicaps are probably out for him now, so a deserved tilt at the Ryanair Chase in March could be on the cards.
Inexplicably, the Ryanair would still be the target of some bone-headed judges for FRODON, pillar-to-post winner of the signature race of the day, the BetBright Cotswold Chase. Even though the 2m5f heat was beyond him last season and even though his own trainer, Paul Nicholls, admits he wouldn’t have the pace to be competitive.
Continuing his spectacular season and his equally spectacular partnership with jockey Bryony Frost, Frodon proved that he gets beyond 3m, giving weight to all, and will be well worth his place in the Gold Cup line-up at a track he adores. What an occasion that promises to be for the 7yo’s octogenarian owner Paul Vogt and his entourage.
Even though the Cotswold attracted only six runners, I disagreed with the view of most observers that it was a below-par renewal and I feel we can be positive about the performance of not only the winner but also the next two home. Runner-up ELEGANT ESCAPE shrugged off the gruelling race he had in winning the Welsh National less than a month earlier to stay on strongly and appears to be still improving. He will relish the stamina test that the Gold Cup always provides and underlines the crying shame that his comprehensive conqueror in the Ladbrokes Trophy (formerly the Hennessy) at Newbury, stablemate Sizing Tennessee, has been ruled out for the season because of injury.
The third horse home on Saturday, TERREFORT, must have delighted connections, the aforementioned Munir, Souede and Henderson. A top-class novice and Festival runner-up last season, he opened this campaign with a stinker at Sandown but belied his inexperience to return with a bang here. Still six, he probably needs minding and nurturing before being thrown in at the deep end of a Gold Cup, but he showed enough to revive the opinion taken last term that he can reach the top one day.
The top of the tree is also the aim now for PAISLEY PARK, who cemented his status as the British staying hurdler of the season by completing a four-timer in a richly competitive Grade Two Cleeve Hurdle. Owned by the admirable Andrew Gemmell, who has refused to let his blindness mask his passion for racing, the 7yo overcame a worrying flat spot at the top of the hill to scythe through the field in the home straight. Such flat spots have not prevented the likes of Big Buck’s and Inglis Drever bagging Stayers’ Hurdles of the past, and Emma Lavelle’s son of Oscar will now bid to continue his dramatic improvement by adding that prize to his own CV.
Stayers’ Hurdle contenders of future campaigns took to the stage in another Grade Two contest, the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle over 2m5f. It threw up Henderson’s only winner of the day in BIRCHDALE, but he was fortunate to cash in on the crashing last-flight fall of the leader and favourite, BREWIN’UPASTORM.
It’s impossible to say what would have happened without the tumble because Olly Murphy’s 6yo was being niggled at the time, yet Birchdale finished dog-tired up the hill once he’d jumped the flight. What is almost certain, though, is that both animals are top-notch prospects. Henderson’s charge took the huge step-up in grade in his stride, despite still looking very green, while Murphy’s charge franked the form of the Grade One Challow Hurdle, run at Newbury just after Christmas. I read a bonkers tweet somewhere that it was a poor running of the Challow when, in fact, it was the best for many years, with the first four home all worth following.