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CHELTENHAM, 16th March 2018
Going: SOFT (Heavy in places)
Over the New Course
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Day four of the 2018 Cheltenham Festival, and after a light shower overnight the going was once again given as 'soft, heavy in places', as it had been for the other three days.
I never thought I'd see the day when the traditional final-day opener, the Triumph Hurdle, drew a single-figure field, but only nine lined up, with one or two of the better juveniles going for the Fred Winter instead (notably Nube Negra who was runner-up in that). Five of the nine were Irish-trained, and four of those from the Willie Mullins-yard, but it was Gordon Elliott's only runner Farclas, the best physical type in the field, who took the spoils as the season's leading British-trained four-year-old Apple's Shakira disappointed. What paddock observations I could make throughout the card, by the way, were done from near the top of the paddock steppings - not only did the crowds make it difficult to get further down, but we also wanted to give ourselves a chance of getting to the lawn to watch the races.
Farclas was easily the most impressive of the field on looks, a medium-height, workmanlike gelding who carried plenty of condition, and he reversed previous form with Mr Adjudicator to break his maiden in the number one juvenile hurdle of the season, coming under a ride on the home turn but responding generously to lead at the last. He has to improve considerably to figure in the 2019 Champion Hurdle - he'd be preferred to Summerville Boy, but that would be it.
If Farclas was the best of the bunch on looks then Mr Adjudicator was by far and away the worst, smallish and leggy with no body at all. He came out best of the Mullins-quartet, responding to a ride to hold every chance at the last, but unable to match Farclas up the hill.
Sayo ran above expectations, racing in the first two and recovering from a slow jump at the third last, beaten off approaching the last and finishing one place in front of the disappointing Apple's Shakira (only leggy in appearance, biggest price seen was 5/4), who was a lot keener than she'd been in her earlier races and, having been perfectly poised on the turn and looking like she'd take a lot of beating, was quickly beaten when coming under a ride approaching the last. The second best of the British contenders, the Adonis winner Redicean, was quickly beaten when ridden after the second last.
Stormy Ireland (close-coupled) looked the best of the Mullins-contingent both on form and on paddock appearance, but this filly pulled much harder than she'd done when winning at Fairyhouse and, having looked like going close on the home turn, was suddenly beaten in strides approaching the last and dropping back quickly when falling there. She lay winded for a while but got up eventually, so hopefully this won't have a long-term effect on her.
On to a typically competitive renewal of the County Handicap Hurdle, run as you'd expect at a good gallop, yet two of the first six were up with the pace throughout and many didn't get into it; that said the presence of Chesterfield in the shake-up gives the form a solid look. With 24 runners here a lot of these were missed in the paddock.
Mohaayed, third to Chesterfield in the Scottish Champion Hurdle last April, was one of many who could be given a squeak on some form or other and, ridden up with the chasing group and niggled along after three out to get to Sternrubin and Tigris River, disputed the lead at the second last, was ridden off the home turn and kept finding, staying on very strongly up the hill to assert in the last 100 yards.
Remiluc, a well made gelding, looked well and continued his absolute belter of a season with arguably a career-best, up with the pace throughout and holding every chance at the last before he was unable to match Mohaayed's pace in the final 100 yards. The form he's in, you wouldn't rule out another good run at Aintree if he goes there, particularly if the going remains on the soft side.
Whiskey Sour did best of those who raced off the pace; he still had around 15 in front of him at the second last then, coming off the home turn, he got a dream run and, asked for maximum effort, ran on and passed everything to lead at the last before fading up the hill. He was arguably sent for home too soon, and despite a rise in the weights, could go well next time.
My old friend Chesterfield, who turns up in a previous PLOG on this website, looked well and was relaxed in the paddock. He was spot on after a defeat of Zubayr - one of his adversaries from the Scottish Champion Hurdle at Ayr last April - in a jumpers' bumper at Kempton and ran a stormer, although his other adversary Mohaayed took revenge this time. Nearly last after the second, as is normal he was brought round the field widest of all to get in contention at the second last, took the outer coming off the turn and, staying on under pressure, held every chance at the last until fading in the last 100 yards. He'll be off a maximum mark if bidding to repeat his win in the two-mile handicap hurdle for conditionals and amateurs at Aintree, but must be respected in this sort of form.
Lagostovegas looked well but, in the end, shaped as though he could do with a sterner test; towards the rear and making a mistake at the third, he started a move going to the second last and tried to pick them up once in line for home but had his run blocked, first by Chesterfield then by Whiskey Sour. Once he got daylight up the middle he could only find the one speed, and could use a longer trip going forward. The same for Spiritofthegames, who made an error at the second and, coming from the midfield, put in a big effort at the end, although spoiling it by hanging left; he needs to get back over two and a half miles.
The front-running Sternrubin spent a lot of the race chasing Tigris River, but after that one back-pedalled he held his place and went comfortably to after the second last, once pushed along still holding a narrow lead coming off the home turn until inevitably giving ground approaching the last. He's run better than his finishing position indicates and might be interesting in the two-mile handicap at Aintree, in which he's sure to last longer at least, all the more so on better ground as this looked soft enough for him beforehand.
Also shaping better than his final position was Le Richebourg (leggy, looked well), who was closing from the midfield and looking strong when making a mistake and pecking on landing at the second last, pushed along and dropping back after. Two horses who were too keen to give themselves a chance were the paddock-pick, chasing type Duca De Thaix who blundered at the fourth, and All Set To Go (first start for 461 days and for a new yard, looked fit enough), who pulled too hard at the back.
I would have thought that one of the best paddocks on show all week, at least in theory, would be that for the Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle over three miles - you'd expect this race to be contested by plenty of future chasing types and I wasn't disappointed, although there were some smaller types in there as well, plus a few between the two in terms of stature. The one with half a tail came through at the end - having less of a tail than most did Beef Or Salmon no harm, and the future seems bright for Kilbricken Storm.
Kilbricken Storm is only medium height, but is still likely to crack it as a chaser further down the line; he made good ground to track the leaders with three to jump, allowed Fabulous Saga to break clear, and then readily picked him up by the last, hanging left when ridden and then wandering the other way when corrected. If connections decide to stay over hurdles with him next season and go for the Stayers' Hurdle, then it's worth bearing in mind that this is his second win at Cheltenham, having won a Grade 2 over this course and distance back in December
OK Corral is a well made gelding, albeit a bit long in the tooth for a novice hurdler at eight, and he stayed on well at the end to take the silver medal, surviving a mistake at the last and going away from the third at the line - connections should probably go over fences sooner rather than later given his age. He finished ahead of his stablemate Santini (about medium height), who was struggling to get to them under a ride until making some ground approaching the second last - he doesn't leap off the page as a prospect for next season.
Ballyward was one of the smaller types on show, but he ran well here, coming from the rear, making a mistake two out and sticking on at the one pace, while Tower Bridge (tallish) confirmed the form of his 25/1 Leopardstown Grade 1-win, albeit flattening out after a mistake at the last.
Robin Waters is tall and unfurnished, and comes out of this as one of the best chasing prospects for next season, particularly as he ran better than his finishing position suggests; going third at the second last, he was pushed along off the home turn and finally began to fade when making a mistake at the last. The future is very bright for him - only five and yet to fill his frame, his is a name you'll be hearing a lot more of.
Fabulous Saga, small and angular, was made too much use of and should have done better than he did; always in the first two, his jockey went for home from the top of the hill and opened up an eight-length lead, but he came under a ride from the home turn and it was no surprise that he came back to his pursuers approaching the last, readily weakening in the last 100 yards. On looks, he has no long term scope for improvement.
There were two really nice types present that didn't cut a lot of ice. The well-made Calett Mad, who'd won a Pertemps Qualifier at Musselburgh on his last start, would have been the pick of the paddock with his extremely shiny coat, but he got worked up and didn't run his race, fighting a losing battle towards the rear with two to jump. The other was Enniscoffey Oscar, who looked very well, but didn't get away from the back after a mistake at the sixth.
Also keep a look-out for Chef Des Obeaux, Chris's Dream (too keen early), Crucial Role, Dortmund Park and Paisley Park when they go over fences.
This year's Cheltenham Gold Cup seemed to revolve around Might Bite, and if not him then Native River, as in the absence of Sizing John, the Irish challenge didn't seem to be talked about as much. The result bore that out, but with the ground on the soft side (this the first Cheltenham Festival for some years not to include the phrase 'good to soft' in the going description), this is a rare example of a Gold Cup which came down solely to stamina, with the class acts and travellers - such as Road To Respect, the eventual fourth - unable to stay on the bridle after the third last, and in some cases before that.
Native River was one of the less impressive in the paddock, having as he does one of those chestnut coats that sometimes looks dull, sometimes looks shiny, and sometimes it's hard to tell which it is. His performance very much shone though, sent on from the tape, making all and jumping best of the field, staying on strongly up the hill to find off Might Bite. Reportedly we've seen the last of him for this season, this only his second run of the campaign. It should be borne in mind that ground conditions had a major effect on this Gold Cup, and if it's good going next year, it seems unlikely that Native River will successfully defend his title. If, on the other hand, the ground is what we had this time (or worse), then game on.
Might Bite was second throughout and beaten by the proverbial better horse on the day, jumping not quite as well as Native River - getting in tight a couple of times - and though looming up going the better as the pair pulled clear from the home turn, just unable to match Native River for stamina and resolution after the last.
Anibale Fly was a revelation, coming from the midfield, making a mistake three out, then going third after the second last, nothing finishing stronger, and that's probably the end of him in handicaps (he'd won the Paddy Power at Leopardstown over Christmas). He finished ahead of Road To Respect (tall, workmanlike, looked well), who travelled smoothly into contention on the last circuit, but Sean Flanagan had to get after him after a mistake three out - once it became obvious that Native River and Might Bite weren't coming back, he effectively used up his run after the second last, Anibale Fly taking the place before the last. I would back Road To Respect to beat Anibale Fly the next time they meet (possibly at Punchestown), and I'd also support him over Native River in the next Gold Cup if the ground is good in March 2019 (he's a year younger).
Djakadam (well made, deep girthed) kept his mistakes to a minimum, but isn't the force of old, and he was all done after the second last, and behind him they just didn't bring it on the day, Definitly Red disappointing with this ground to his liking (niggled along on and off during the first circuit).
American (medium to tallish, leggy), supplemented for the race, looks to barely stay three miles, so asking him to do three miles two furlongs was asking for trouble, but the writing was on the wall on the first circuit, during which he barely got one fence right, making a string of mistakes. On this ground he might have been mildly interesting in the Ryanair Chase over two miles five.
Total Recall (workmanlike, far from the best type in the field), the Hennessy - sorry, Ladbrokes Trophy - winner, was ridden four out and staying on when falling at the third last; he was no forlorn hope for a place at the time and is worth another try in a Grade 1 chase.
The principals from the Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown in February didn't figure, Killultagh Vic (medium height) making several mistakes and already last setting out of the final circuit, while Edwulf (well made, has stringhalt, looked well), having only just got out of the rear after the fifth last, then found Native River and Might Bite not coming back before he was slightly hampered by Total Recall's fall at the third last.
On to the Foxhunters' Chase, over the full Gold Cup course, and it was a well-run renewal mainly thanks to eventual runner-up Top Wood; things got very competitive going to the last.
Pacha Du Polder was unfancied at 25/1 after a modest seasonal reappearance at Doncaster, but returned to form under a similar hold-up ride to the one Bryony Frost gave him in 2017, gradually creeping forward on the last circuit, but coming under a ride with around 12 lengths still to find on the home turn, staying on well though and getting a better jump than the runner-up at the last.
Top Wood, useful over fences and hurdles when with David Pipe, made a bold bid, never out of the first two and taking the race to the rest when going clear on the final circuit, coming back to them under a push from the home turn, sticking to his task well under a ride but not jumping the last well enough. to his credit making Pacha Du Polder pull out all the stops up the hill.
Cousin Pete, prolific winner between the flags, including at Barbury Castle in February, started 66/1 but did win a hunter on Cheltenham's hunter chase card in May 2016 and the way he went through this race suggests that he'll be one to consider in other good hunters - the Horse And Hound Cup at Stratford could be worth a throw; he made a noted move from the midfield to race prominently from the 11th, chased Top Wood three out, was pushed along going to the second last and kept finding, only losing his winning chance when putting in an extra stride at the last, staying on having looked held to get a share of third.
Barel Of Laughs remains a tricky ride, but once again was persuaded to put his best foot forward in this race, staying on to go third after the last under pressure, joined by Cousin Pete on the line.
Caid Du Berlais hasn't always been the best jumper of fences but, coming here after three straight point wins, couldn't really be faulted on that score - indeed what cost him was a lack of stamina at the end, as he faltered up the hill having had every chance at the last, run out of third on the post. A place behind him was Grand Vision, who was made plenty of use of up with the pace, chasing the leader from the 15th to the third last before fading, running a bit better than his finishing position would suggest (even allowing for him not being beaten that far).
Running below par were Volnay De Thaix, who blundered badly at the 17th and that was him done, Wonderful Charm, who didn't make any contribution after a mistake at the 13th when in rear, and Foxrock, who came under a ride at the 13th and gradually weakened to the rear as the final circuit wore on.
The Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys' Handicap Hurdle may not be in the very top drawer (it is a 0-145-race at the end of the day), but it's one of my favourite races of the whole season; now that someone older than six has finally won the race, it'll make it a little harder to decipher in a year's time. Blow By Blow's win meant that four of the ten runnings to date have gone to a Gigginstown House Stud-owned horse.
Blow By Blow, aged seven, becomes the oldest winner to date of the Martin Pipe; he looked rough in his coat, but there was nothing much rough about his performance, making the running after the second, appearing to steady the pace at the fifth, briefly wandering on the approaching to the sixth and staying on strongly once asked for an effort after the second last, not stopping after hitting the last. A Festival handicap is not usually won by a horse making most, but there could be more to come from this one.
Discorama beat Blow By Blow, albeit by only a nose, at Fairyhouse in December and had a better chance than his 33/1 odds suggested; he was dropped out last and only passed horses for the first time just after the second last, following which he fairly scythed through the field to go second after the last, ridden and going away from the third but having no chance with the winner. He can't fail to win again.
Early Doors (medium height) was produced to challenge on the home turn and looked like going close to winning at that point, but once shaken up approaching the last found the winner going away again and he could only find the one pace, sticking to his task. He was a place in front of Sire Du Berlais (angular in appearance), who took closer order at the top of the hill but was tapped for toe once shaken up at the second last. doing his best work at the end to go fourth and shaping as though three miles won't be a problem (in keeping with his pedigree, as staying hurdler Royal Rosa turns up on the dam's side).
Diese Des Bieffes, only workmanlike in appearance, brought good form from the Lanzarote at Kempton in January to the table and ran well for most of the way, prominent throughout, finding plenty once coming under a ride and still in contention for the runner-up spot when blundering at the last, weakening up the hill after that.
One or two others were still in contention at the second last, notably Brillare Momento who'd been in the first two for most of the way and chased the winner turning in; Tommy Rapper (medium height, well made, deep chest), who'd yet to be shaken up when a little short of room and blundering there, fighting a losing battle from the home turn, and Mr Big Shot, who was running for the first time for 345 days and had a chance when not fluent there, carrying his head high when ridden. They ran better than their finishing position would suggest.
No Hassle Hoff (close-coupled) got himself into a state in the paddock, continually bucking, and never got out of the rear, nothing much happening when he came under a ride after the second last; gut feeling is to put a line through this run.
On to the finale of the meeting, the Grand Annual Handicap Chase, going like the clappers over the two miles; carnage ensued in this renewal, several parting company, but the feature was the perfectly-executed hold-up ride by Barry Geraghty on the winner.
Le Prezien was no certainty to find what was required, but he got a well-nigh perfect waiting ride, on the bridle and still with six or seven lengths to make up on the home turn, edging closer still on the bit nearing the second last, shaken up after it and steered between horses to give him cover, and then finding the two lengths on Gino Trail that he needed to after the last.
The Kerry Lee-trained Gino Trail didn't jump off the page as a Grand Annual-contender, as a front-runner with no change of gear, but he ran an amazing race, trying to make all, clear at various stages, not so far ahead when coming under a push after the third last, staying on under pressure from two out, momentarily distracted by loose horses going to the last but sticking to his task, only the winner beating him.
His stablemate Top Gamble had come down the weights a bit and also ran a cracker, coming from midfield, hampered by the faller at the third last, coming under a ride and staying on, doing his best work after the last and closing on Gino Trail hand over fist as the line came. He could use a step up in trip and the Silver Trophy at Cheltenham's April meeting could be just the race.
Theinval could have done with slightly better ground, but ran an excellent race to make the frame, as he'd done in 2017, his effort delayed on the home turn, shaken up at the second last and one pace after he was steadied into the last, while the next home Three Stars had anything but a comfortable passage, occasionally jumping right, surviving a blunder at the eighth and bumping a rival four out, ridden and unable to find extra after the last - Punchestown might suit him better than Cheltenham.
As was widely reported in the aftermath of the race, sadly there were three fatalities in the Grand Annual, taking the total to six in all over the four days.
The more these things happen, the less that 'do nothing' is an option in these days of increasing safety measures where possible, the best known of these being the modifications to the Grand National course. Perhaps a change to the Grand Annual would be appropriate.
The incidents with North Hill Harvey and Some Plan occurred in the closing stages and could have happened in any race, but what happened to Dresden, who was falling anyway when Bouvreuil cannoned into him, took place at the second fence - and the likelihood of something like that happening in future could be reduced.
Over the first two fences in the Grand Annual, and in the Queen Mother Champion Chase, you see steeplechasers going at the fastest speed they'll do in a race. Speed often puts horses on the floor. In the Grand Annual, with a maximum of 24 runners (22 on the day), crowding becomes an issue - and you could argue that the large field was a contributary factor in the Dresden-incident.
Going forward, if you reduced the field for the Grand Annual to, say, 18 runners from the present 24, then the likelihood of what happened to Dresden, whilst it can never be totally eliminated, can at least be reduced. You'll still have each-way betting first four, and it'll remain a cracking horse race.
The Festival is a great race meeting, but Cheltenham and the British Horseracing Authority must now be seen to be taking action following these unfortunate injuries, so that future Festivals - and the races at them - will be remembered for being great, by the general public as well as racing fans.
Horses to take out of the meeting
Mr Big Shot
Thanks to my wife for the photo of Native River