The National Hunt Diary
(Part One – November 2018)
Like many, I consider the November meeting at Cheltenham to be the weekend where the new national hunt season properly kicks off. Once more we were treated to a fantastic three days of action at jump racings HQ.
The stories were there to be told right from the off, as The Young Master bounced back to form, putting up a bold sight from the front under Sam Waley-Cohen to land the Amateur Riders Handicap Chase. The 9yo had a rather disjointed campaign last time around, but has quickly taken full advantage of a reduced mark following his win at Chepstow last month. It will be interesting to see how the handicapper assesses him, as he was still running off 13lb’s lower than his winning mark when landing the Bet365 Gold Cup at Sandown two seasons ago.
Elsewhere on day one, Grand National hero and three-time Festival winner, Tiger Roll, made his reappearance in the Glenfarclas Cross Country Handicap. The race was won by Josies Orders, successful over the special Cheltenham obstacles for the fourth time.
However, it was Tiger Roll who rightly came out as the eye catcher, giving 15lbs to the winner, and looking beat as they turned for home to stay on again up the hill for fourth. Trainer Gordon Elliott was delighted with his charge, adding that we are likely to see him back at the December meeting before the Festival, where the conditions races should help to turn the tables.
On the Saturday, Rock the Kasbah put his own credentials as a Grand National candidate forward. The steadily progressive son of Shiricco put up a career best to win the BetVictor.com Handicap Chase. His economical style over fences and ability to get into a rhythm, tracking a strong pace, will no doubt stand him in good stead come April.
It marks of big turnaround for the Philip Hobbs yard after a below-par 2017-18 season by the Minehead based trainers high standards. Rock the Kasbah’s success was his 14th winner in little over a week. It could pay to side with plenty of well handicapped runners from the stable over the coming weeks.
The biggest cheer from the winners’ enclosure was saved for the horse in third, as 2015 Gold Cup winner Coneygree embarked on his first run in almost twelve months after yet another injured plagued campaign season last time around. He gave Sean Bowen a superb round of jumping before the price of carrying top weight finally took its toll. Connections were understandably elated, and will consider the King George should he come out of the race well.
The Feature race was taken by the Gary Moore trained Baron Alco, who very nearly joined his stablemate, and well fancied Benatar, as non-runner on the morning of the race. Connections needn’t have worried, as the second season chaser was strongest up the hill to deny the ever-game Frodon and Bryony Frost. It was a race marred by some decidedly average jumping by some, with only six finishers. Backers of Rather Be and Happy Diva can consider themselves unlucky as both were travelling well before being brought down four from home. Both could well land a big handicap pot later in the year, providing they get over this hiccup.
The final day was no less dramatic, with the Lalor producing an impressive display in the Racing Post Arkle Trial on chase debut. It was an emotional success for Kayley Woollacott, adding to her stable stars big race win at Aintree last spring. Her late husband, Richard, said he was the best horse he’d ever get his hands on, and it seems his judgement is spot on. He is now around the 6/1 mark for the Arkle in March, and it would be a fitting tribute to a great man should he prevail.
Sceau Royal put in an assured display to land the Shloer Chase, in his first chase start outside of novice company. He repelled the challenge of the admirable veteran, Simply Ned, to win by 2 lengths. The winner will need extra if he is make a race of it against Altior in the Tingle Creek next month, but this 6yo is clearly still improving and could give the champion chaser a test.
Nietzsche landed the Greatwood Handicap Hurdle, I fancied this horse to scoop a big prize last season, but things never quite panned out. Fit from the flat, the Brian Ellison trained gelding held off the progressive and classy Silver Streak by a neck, in a long battle up the famous hill.
The runner-up has been on a role having won the Swinton in May, before the Welsh Champion Hurdle last month. Being only five, there is every reason to suggest he may not have stopped just yet.
Over in Ireland, the first big Grade 1 clash of the year was set to take place in the Morgiana Hurdle, however the withdrawals of Samcro and Supersundae due to the ground left Faugheen with an open goal, or so it appeared. The former Champion Hurdler lacked fluency, and was hassled for the lead by Tombstone early on, leaving the 2/5 favourite vulnerable. It was still Willie Mullins’ eighth Morgiana success in a row, but it came from the outsider of the Mullins/Ricci duo in Sharjah.
Faugheen will be back over a longer trip in the future, the Champion Stayers winner from the Punchestown Festival does not seem to be at home over the minimum distance, and has lost a yard of pace after previous injuries.
According to Gordon Elliott, Samcro will likely run again in the Fighting Fifth, where he could face Buveur D’Air. One of the hottest prospects of this year suffered a shock defeat first time out when beaten by the British raider, Bedrock in the WKD Hurdle at Down Royal at the start of the month. It’s far too early to write him off, but he requires a big step forward on his next start. He is not the only horse across the Irish Sea that will need to bounce back, Footpad suffered an over reach injury when falling at the last in the Poplar Square Chase at Naas.
Many could have been forgiven for shaking their heads at the thought of only five declarations for the Betfair Chase last weekend at Haydock. But it was a fabulous five, featuring the gold cup one-two from March, the returning King George winner Thistlecrack, last season’s 57 length winner Bristol De Mai along and the unexposed Paul Nicholls horse, Clan Des Obeaux.
We were treated to a mini Gold Cup in November, and the race did not disappoint. Bristol De Mai once again got himself into a rhythm in front, jumping effortlessly, before turning on the taps up the home straight. Might Bite was the first to cry enough, eventually finishing last, with Native River unable to reel in the Nigel Twiston-Davies trained grey. The Gold Cup winner was beaten four lengths into second but it was still a fine effort on a track that would not have played to his strengths. Thistlecrack was the eye catcher, having made a few careful jumps, he ran on to finish third, less than two lengths behind his stablemate, it was a solid performance after eleven months out.
The Colin Tizzard trained pair are both expected to line up at Kempton on Boxing Day, alongside the winner and Might Bite. It remains to be seen if Bristol De Mai can back up his Haydock form elsewhere, having failed to shine in the King George last year, a wind operation in the spring will give hope to his supporters.
Politologue threw his hat into the King George ring after landing the Christy 1965 Chase at Ascot, the grade 1 winner once again showing his determination to fend off Charbel, who received six pounds, after the final fence. Boxing Day will be his biggest test, but the trip and track both promise to suit this hardy grey, who once again travelled into the race with the minimum of fuss.
A final footnote from the action on Haydock on Saturday was the issue with the severity of the fences on the Lancashire course. Nicky Henderson was seen inspecting the final fence before the big race, while Colin Tizzard said they were the sternest he has encountered. Whilst there were no casualties in the Grade 1, there were a total of seven falls or unseats across the other chase contests, not to mention several shocking blunders, fortunately none were fatal. The officials have since said the fences will be made slightly easier and lowered in time for the next meeting, pointing out they had ‘slightly overdone it’, I’m not sure the Bristol De Mai camp will mind if he arrives next November with the fences in a similar condition.
Written By Chris Price
Images sourced from twitter