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SANDOWN, 27th April 2019
Going: GOOD (Good to Firm in places)
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The groundstaff at Sandown provided the best ground they possibly could after a largely dry spell, barely a millimetre of rain falling in the week before the 2018/19 Jumps Season Finale.
An early marker for the 2019 Arkle Chase was laid in the opening two-mile novices' handicap hurdle, the second running of what is the most valuable race of this type in the British calendar (no such race is yet run at the festivals). Plenty in behind appeal as likely winners next season.
Top weight Getaway Trump is a tall, deep-girthed chasing type who had to give 11 lbs and more to his 14 rivals, and he managed that decisively, sent on jumping the second last and staying on well from approaching the last. That well-worn cliche 'anything he does over hurdles is a bonus' fairly and squarely applies to this one - some bonus, with the winning owner's prize money for this contest £46,950.
Harambe, tall and workmanlike and looking well, should be good to go for a good race next season himself; though he probably wouldn't have won, he might have got closer to Getaway Trump but for having his run blocked on the home turn when moving comfortably and improving his position, ridden from two out and staying on well from the last, changing his legs on the run-in.
Humble Hero, medium height and leggy, was the preferred of Dan Skelton's pair going by jockey bookings and the betting, and duly beat Flash The Steel in the stable-match, but gave the impression he could have done a bit better; he was held up in rear and still in the last pair after the third last, moving past rivals without being hard ridden approaching two out and passing several more going to the last, and challenged for second until unable to find extra in the last 100 yards.
Second-season novice Scarlet Dragon has less scope for improvement than some of this field, only leggy and with miles on the clock on the Flat, but did well here, coming wide in the straight, going comfortably and making an effort going to the second last, shaken up and still having a chance of a place going to the last but couldn't do any more in the last 150 yards, while the aforementioned Flash The Steel had his chance, hard driven between the last two and in contention for the places when making a mistake at the last.
Birds Of Prey (medium height, two handlers), a stablemate of the winner, went almost as well through the race as Getaway Trump did, not shaken up until the second last, hard ridden after the last and fading a little on the run-in, while one who did better than his finishing position is Cause Toujours (close-coupled), who's been on the go a long time, and was one of several still moving comfortably approaching two out, within a length of the lead when making a mistake there, dropping back through the field after that.
Other chasing types in the field were Dream Du Grand Val, who went right at the start and gave the rest a few lengths, making up ground to be prominent at the fifth before the effort of doing so took its toll approaching the second last, and What's Occurring, who's tall and unfurnished - he raced up with the pace till a mistake three out, holding his place into the straight but unable to stay with them from the second last - that pair will do better over fences next season.
The Grade Two Oaksey Chase next over two miles and seven furlongs. By the way, if you happen to talk to my wife, she'll no doubt have great fun telling you that I was pointing my binoculars at the two-mile four-furlong start looking for the runners, until she pointed out to me that they were at the beginning of the back straight, this of course being the only steeplechase over the trip at Sandown all season. A forgivable aberration in my book... Black Corton was all the rage in the market.
During her interview on receiving the award for being 2018/19 champion conditional jockey, Bryony Frost suggested that Black Corton (5/2 to 15/8) had begun to look really shiny in his coat in the week or so before the race, and one couldn't disagree with that when he stepped into the paddock. The most likely reason for his defeat by Blue Flight at Kelso in early March was softer ground than ideal, and this faster surface was much more suitable; he lost a few lengths and was shuffled back to the rear starting the final circuit, but Bryony got him back into contention and nobody else was going as well from the Pond Fence, not hard pressed to stretch clear from the second last.
He's one of the smallest steeplechasers in training, but that's no barrier to further success when he gets his ideal circumstances - good or faster ground and a smallish field; however report has it that the next time we see Black Corton will be in the Galway Plate, in which the big field wouldn't be ideal.
Gold Present, tall, workmanlike and looking well, rather plateaued in 2018/19 and this was his best run of the campaign, making headway from the rear on the final circuit, ridden from the Pond Fence and chasing Black Corton from the second last, well held approaching the last as the winner drew clear but keeping on. Next season will probably be more of the same for him, not good enough to win these sorts of races and too much weight for good handicaps, as well as being vulnerable to those less exposed.
San Benedeto ran as well as could be expected, though off the bridle from halfway, keeping on late to finish one place ahead of the front-running Cobra De Mai (medium height, well made), who proved his stamina over three and a quarter miles at Cheltenham on his previous outing, a win which saw his BHA rating shoot up from 142 to 153 - I don't know where the assessor got that from and he was outclassed as expected, at least giving it a go before weakening after the winner went on at the Pond Fence.
Charbel looked well, but he's looked best with give in the ground for some time now and there seemed no point in running him on this sound surface, and mistakes at the 13th and the last of the Railway Fences (four out) set him back, weakening from the Pond Fence.
The race was marred by the sad loss of Josses Hill, winner of the Top Novices' Hurdle at Aintree in 2014 and the Peterborough Chase at Huntingdon in 2016, who collapsed after passing the post.
The narrative of the 2019 renewal of the Celebration Chase was the rematch between Altior and Sceau Royal from the Queen Mother Champion Chase at the Cheltenham Festival, the latter looking the winner but the former finding more under pressure; this went similarly in that, although there was more than one moment when it looked like it wouldn't happen, National Hunt racing's current number one equine superstar posted his 19th straight win. From a form perspective though, the presence of Vosne Romanee in fourth, beaten less than eight lengths, not so much holds the form down as bolts it in place with casing nails.
With no pace in the race, sensibly Altior was sent straight to the front; jumping well but slightly to the left, as he'd done at Ascot in January, he was first niggled along at the fourth last and, as at Cheltenham, it looked decidedly horrible when Nico de Boinville administered a reminder after the Pond Fence with Sceau Royal no more than a length down travelling better, but he got the better jump two out, and pulled out more from the last, where his challenger was still close enough if good enough.
In the post-race media coverage Nicky Henderson appeared to finally acknowledge that it was a good idea to try Altior over longer trips next season, the King George VI Chase a target; if he comes through that, then what about the 2020 Cheltenham Gold Cup - if Kemboy, Al Boum Photo and Altior all took part and were all in top form, that could be the best steeplechase of the 21st century. It's something that Altior will need to do in order to better his 2018/19 ratings (my best 170, compared to 178 in 2017/18 which was achieved by beating Min in the 2018 Queen Mother Champion Chase).
Sceau Royal once again gave it a mighty go, but once again came off second best; not for the want of trying, as after he loomed up on the home turn going better than Altior, was ridden from two out and still had half a chance at the last, before he was finally beaten off in the last 150 yards.
God's Own would have run well had he completed at Cheltenham (pulled up sharply late on having lost his action) and overcame a poor effort in the Melling Chase at Aintree to prove the point, within five lengths when hitting two out and about the same amount behind at the last, sticking to his task under pressure and holding off Vosne Romanee, who posted an apparent career best effort here, beaten less than eight lengths after keeping closer to the pace than he did at Ayr the time before (larger field), when he didn't turn up until it was too late behind Azzuri.
Diego Du Charmil (two handlers) looked well, but has never finished within ten lengths of Altior and, after holding a chance of third at the second last, weakened between the last two, coming back tailed off.
From the bet365 Gold Cup until the end of the card I missed a hell of a lot of horses in the paddock, which I'm guessing is down to Sandown doing everything they could to start races on time (with racing all over the place on Saturday as usual), with the bell for jockeys to mount being rung before around half the horses had arrived in the paddock for all of the last four races - with five minutes between some off times I get it, but it's frustrating for the likes of me who've made the effort to go racing and want to get a good look at them first.
Whinge over, the presence of two previous winners of the bet365 Gold Cup in second and third give Talkischeap's winning performance a solid look, but there's a flip side, and it can be fairly suggested that he had it set up for him, with Step Back and The Young Master pressing on up front in the final mile, which took out those positioned in midfield or worse.
Talkischeap looked as though he needed a greater test of stamina when unable to land a blow behind Walt in the former Racing Post Chase at Kempton, and both the track and the longer trip duly played to his strengths; he travelled better than at Kempton, was going best from the Pond Fence and, given the office jumping the last, settled it there and then with a good jump, leaving The Young Master behind in the last 200 yards. He might be difficult to place early next season and would be better off sticking to around three and a half miles, with the handicap chase over that trip at Cheltenham's November meeting a suitable target prior to one of the Nationals.
The Young Master, as usual when he's present about the smallest horse on show, but at least looking well, survived a blunder at the second and gave his all, perhaps a little too aggressively ridden on the final circuit; pressing on approaching the Pond Fence and already under hard driving, he stayed on until he had nothing left to offer after the last.
Step Back has had a difficult second season over fences (not the first, won't be the last), but to an extent put his failed attempt at the Grand National behind him, as always leading or disputing, but unable to go with The Young Master from the Pond Fence, but coming home well clear of the rest, which were headed by the fourth Give Me A Copper (tall, looked well), who didn't run as well as that would suggest, first off the bridle at the tenth and beaten 29 lengths.
West Approach (medium height, good bodied, two handlers) is nearly top class as a hurdler, but he doesn't do steeplechase fences, and those who supported him from 13/2 to 5/1 on course never had a hope of collecting, losing his place at the 17th, jumping left at the next and well held from the fourth last, while another well fancied one who flopped was Just A Sting (tall, well made, looked well), who ran better than finishing tenth in the Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir at the Cheltenham Festival would suggest, but never got out of the rear this time, poorly positioned when the pace lifted on the final circuit; he's only seven and is worth another chance next season.
Another potential novice chasing sort for next season was on show in the following Grade 2 Select Hurdle over 2m5f110y, the improved Younevercall putting this away from the second last.
Younevercall, well made and deep girthed, started 2018/19 by getting beaten at Perth in September off 140 and finished the campaign rated 157 with this decisive success, leading from the sixth and making the rest, the only one going comfortably at the second last and drawing further clear until eased in the last 100 yards. He's given the impression of being best at around two and a half miles, although worth another try at three, and is eight now so should probably go over fences next season - he's likely to do well.
On The Blind Side (tallish, workmanlike) was reverting to hurdles having flopped in the RSA Chase behind Topofthegame - he'd beaten Talkischeap at Kempton previously - and did well, tracking the leaders when making an error at the seventh, but outpaced when Younevercall went clear on the home turn. He also blew it on his chasing debut, but you kind-of get it when you see that that was behind Lostintranslation and Defi Du Seuil - having said that I've got a feeling that he'll prove to be not totally reliable, having been off the bridle early enough when winning his novice hurdles.
Thomas Campbell, who was very fit, looked a difficult ride, struggling in a detached last turning into the back straight on the final circuit before persuaded to pick off beaten rivals, and I'll be against him in 2019/20.
Black Op is a quality individual on looks, tall and well made (looked well and two handlers), but his was a season gone wrong over fences - connections giving that up after two starts - and he put in something of a laboured performance here, making several mistakes as usual, hard driven on the home turn and beaten going to the second last. He'll have something to prove next season, but at least retains his novice status should he return to chasing.
This was the last race in the career of Rayvin Black, Oliver Sherwood's stable stalwart; although looking well he was nowhere near his best, as had been the case for a while, but got out in one piece and will enjoy a deserved retirement. Having first raced in 2011, he posted two wins on the Flat, five over hurdles (including the 2016 Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton from Melodic Rendezvous), and two over fences.
There were three withdrawals from the Josh Gifford Novices' Handicap Chase over two and a half miles, but it remained a competitive race and a busy finish, seven in contention for at least a place at the last. The form looks reasonable and the winner Larry could take a hand in a good race next season.
Larry (medium height, workmanlike, looked well) has done well in this first season over fences and this was his best performance so far, taken wide throughout and making headway over the Railway fences second time, asserting between the last two and holding on well in the last 50 yards. He's already proven over three miles though clearly effective over this far, so connections will have options next season, but don't be surprised to see him end up in the Betvictor Gold Cup at Cheltenham's November meeting.
Gone Platinum, aged ten, is old enough to be a novice chaser and was flattered by his proximity in running second, struggling at the tenth and making no headway four out, but having picked off beaten ones going to the Pond Fence, he stayed on well under pressure from the second last, sustaining the effort to give Larry most to do from the last. With two chase wins at each of Bangor and Ffos Las to his name, it's probably any chases he can get in at those tracks that'll provide him with the best opportunities to win again over fences.
Diable De Sivola will be one of the better maiden chasers next season, yet to win over fences, but now four times-placed, here prominent from the fourth last and finding only the one pace from the last, holding that position from Militarian, who was up with the pace for most of the way, making a mistake at the fifth, and after having every chance at the second last, finally fading from the last under pressure.
Shaping better than his sixth-placing might suggest was Royal Village (medium height, well made, looked well), who made a lot of the running, surviving mistakes at the sixth and 12th and was still in front at the second last, headed by Larry between the last two and weakening under pressure after the last, perhaps made a bit too much use of in the end.
Unsurprisingly, previous winner of the closing two-mile four-furlong handicap hurdle Wait For Me was heavily supported for this year's renewal, 4/1 to 11/4, but as so often previously, he found someone to beat him.
Colonial Dreams (only workmanlike in appearance, looked well) hasn't been reliable up to this point and might not be again, usually finding little, but could be given a chance on his second to Ballymoy at Ascot in January and this time was hard to fault in the resolution department, produced going comfortably at the second last, pulling clear with Wait For Me and, for a change, was the one to find extra in the last 100 yards.
Wait For Me was, as usual, held up towards the rear, and came with a sustained run on the outer to pass many approaching the second last and led between the last two hurdles, and looked the most likely winner early on the run-in as he appeared to be pulling out the necessary, but in the end it was his rival who found more close home.
Champagne Court (well made) had looked a difficult ride in the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys' Handicap Hurdle when last seen, finishing fourth to Early Doors to his rider's credit on that occasion, and here lost his place after the third last and ended up hard ridden in midfield, having nine horses in front of him and under pressure going to the second last, doing his best work in the last 300 yards to take third close home from the front-running Trans Express, who's normally seen at Exeter (five wins there, plus one at similar track Leicester); he made the best of his way home from the home turn, and had a length and a half on the field coming off the bend before he was swallowed up in this better quality race.
Potential novice chasers for next season
Dream Du Grand Val