Well, I hope you enjoyed the Christmas & New Year festivities. We have seen some top quality horse racing action both sides of the Irish Sea since my last eyecatchers article.
It’s fair to say there were plenty of shocks last week. We saw plenty of fancied horses falling, with ante-post Champion Hurdle and Cheltenham Gold Cup favourites Faugheen and Sizing John both putting in lifeless performances in their respective races and we also witnessed the sad death of last seasons Cheltenham Stayers Hurdle winner Nichols Canyon.
Given the amount of racing, we had last week this weeks column is going to concentrate on looking back at some of the best performances and tracker horses of last week, so there won’t be any trainer comments horses this time around but normal service will resume next week.
Eyecatchers Christmas Debrief:
Tuesday 26th December
The first race in the Boxing Day card saw the Harry Fry-trained If The Cap Fits put up an impressive performance to take the novice hurdle. The 6-year-old had won his first two starts over hurdles and was giving 3lb or more to his rivals. He travelled and jumped well for most of the race, apart from a couple of sloppy jumps at the last two hurdles, and ran out a comfortable 5 length winner. The ground was probably softer than ideal for the gelding which looks a plus when it comes to Cheltenham in March.
Before the race connections had been looking at the Ballymore Novice Hurdle as a possible target for the horse but he showed plenty of speed here over 2m to think he would also have to be considered a contender for the Supreme. He looks the next stable star for his trainer Harry Fry and looks a replacement for the stables ill-fated Neon Wolf who was runner-up at the festival last season.
There was more joy to come for Harry Fry in the next race as Hell’s Kitchen put up a bold jumping display to win the valuable 2m 5f novice chase which has produced some notable winners in previous seasons. The 6-year-old had fallen on his previous start at Newbury but the restraining tactics used on the horse on his previous two starts over fences were rightly abandoned and jockey Barry Geraghty allowed this big horse to use his long stride to jump off and make all. He never saw a rival and outjumped the field and although the runner-up Mister Whitaker, a progressive chaser himself who would probably have preferred better ground, got within 1 ½ lengths at the line with the rest nowhere.
The winner was value for a greater margin of victory but he won’t get his own way out in front as easily as he did here but he is a smart horse who will get better with racing and hopefully will learn to settle with more maturity.
I can’t let Kempton’s Boxing Day card go without some mention of Might Bite who had the King George won two out but idled after and allowed the useful handicapper Double Shuffle to get within a length of him at the finish. The winner didn’t really enhance his claims for the Gold Cup on the back of this effort or indeed prove that he will stay the trip in such a demanding race either.
Black Corton, gave his young jockey Bryony Frost a first Grade 1 win as he just saw off the Colin Tizzard trained Elegant Escape to win the 3m Kauto Star Novices Chase. It’s hard to see either the winner or the runner-up winning the RSA Novice Chase in March but the extra distance of that race and the more testing course at Cheltenham should see the Tizzard horse in a better light than the more speed favouring Kempton track. Not hard to think that the best horse in the race was Fountains Windmill who was jumping and travelling powerfully when falling four out. The 8-year-old has now failed to complete on his last two starts over fences but he has a good engine and as long as his confidence hasn’t been affected by this latest mishap there is a decent race in him with a clear round.
Jaleo – Ben Pauling – The 6-year-old hasn’t really been suited by the pace of the race on his last two starts. It paid to be prominent in this 2m 5f handicap hurdle and although he made good headway from the rear two out, he was never going to catch the front two, but still stayed on well enough to finish 3rd. He is just 2lb higher than for his last win and with a stronger run race, he can win a race before the season is out.
Wait For Me – Philip Hobbs – The trainer’s season really hasn’t got started and nor has the 8-year-olds chasing career, despite him winning on his debut over the larger obstacles at Worcester back in September. Back over hurdles, he has now qualified for the Pertemps Final at Cheltenham after finishing 3rd in this qualifier at Wincanton. He travelled really well through the race, just getting outpaced by the front pair two from home before staying on well again after the last. He is unexposed over 3m and could well be a well-handicapped horse at the distance. The ground would have been plenty soft enough for him as his best hurdle performances have come on a sound surface. His trainer has done well in the past in the Pertemps Final and the horse has run well in the County Hurdle at the last two festivals, including a 4th placed effort in the race in 2016.
Wednesday 27th December
On a day when the Willie Mullins trained Min, sent off at odds of 2/7, managed to lose his race in the Stewards room, the days best performance came from the Tony Martin-trained Anibale Fly who put 7 lengths between himself and his rivals to take the Paddy Power Handicap Chase in rather a comfortable style. He was clearly a very well handicapped horse even under top-weight of 11-8. He could be a future Grand National winner given the quality of his jumping but given the way other contenders are falling by the wayside, he could with some more improvement become a Gold Cup candidate.
Vieux Morvan – Joseph O’Brien – The only horse to jump as well as the winner of the Paddy Power. The 9-year-old was having his first start for Joseph O’Brien since moving from France and having his first run since March. He’s already had plenty of racing experience in France over fences & hurdles having had 42 starts, winning 5 of them. I don’t have much idea of his French form but I was taken on how well he jumped through the race from the front. He was still very much in contention coming to the last and was only run out of the places on the run-in. There should be races in him on the evidence of this run.
Thursday 28th December
Apples Jade confirmed herself the best jump mare in training when taking the 3m Grade 1 Christmas Hurdle just seeing off the Jessica Harrington trained Supersundae close home. One hopes that connections will throw the dice and let her take her chance in the Stayers Hurdle at Cheltenham rather than go for the easy option of the Mares Hurdle. The runner-up also has to be considered a live contender for the race on the evidence of this performance. Sadly the race was overshadowed by the fatal injury sustained by Nichols Canyon when falling early in the contest.
Gold Cup hero Sizing John was a warm order to take the Grade 1 Christmas Chase but like plenty of his trainer’s horses last week he was well below par and eventually finished a well-beaten 7th. Yorkhill had been well fancied before the race even though he had to prove his stamina for 3m. He didn’t really jump well enough through the race and was well beaten at the finish. The consistent but luckless Djakadam seemed to be going well enough on the heels of the leaders but made a race-ending mistake three out and found nothing after that.
That left the Gigginstown trio Road To Respect, Balko Des Flos and Outlander to fight out the finish. Road To Respect, in the first time hood, just got the better of Balko Des Flos on the run in. Both horses are on the upgrade and given the Gold Cup picture both have to be considered strong contenders for jumps racing’s ‘blue riband’ race. Indeed the winner also has winning form at the track, having won Plate Handicap Chase at last year’s festival and is potentially a better horse on a sounder surface. The form of the race has been questioned by plenty of pundits but I wouldn’t be in a hurry to underestimate the winner.
Voix Du Reve – Willie Mullins – The 6-year-old was having his first start for 614 days and carrying top-weight of 11-9 in the Pertemps Series Qualifier but he ran a race that must have delighted connections. Held up, he made good headway before the third last and wasn’t that far behind the leaders when he was slightly hampered by a faller at the last. Any chance was gone at that point and a lack of race fitness took its toll on the horse on the run-in and he finished a well-beaten 8th at the line. His jockey wasn’t too hard on the horse when his chance had gone. At least this run proved plenty of his old ability remains and if his trainer can keep him sound he could well pop up at one of the big handicap hurdles at Cheltenham in March. It’s worth remembering that he was coming with what looked like a winning run in the Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle at the 2016 festival when falling at the last.
Friday 29th December
I hadn’t seen Monalee before his run in the Grade 1 novice’s chase but you can’t fail to be taken by the size of this old-fashioned chasing type. The 6-year-old was sent off he evens favourite and he was jumping very well when falling at the 10th. In the process, he brought down one of the joint second favourites in Rathvindon. That left Shattered Love, Jury Duty and Bon Papa to fight out the finish. Bon Papa travelled as well as anything during the race but didn’t seem to stay the 3m and was the first beaten off after the last. That left the Gordon Elliott pair to fight out the finish with the mare Shattered Love just holding off the challenge of her stablemate. The trainer had indicated before the race that the Irish Grand National could be an ideal race for Jury Duty and he looks to be tailor-made for that race later in the season. Monalee can still prove to be the best horse in the race and hopefully, he won’t suffer any ill effects from his fall, although there were some reports after the race that he was kicked by other horses which would be a concern if you fancy the horse for the RSA.
All that’s left now is to wish you a Happy and Prosperous New Year.