Andy Gibson's Cheltenham Trail

Andy reflects on a busy period over Christmas, giving his verdict on the key races from Kempton and Leopardstown.

  • Wednesday 30 December
  • Blog
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Will Frodon stay the Gold Cup trip?

The most exciting spectacle on Boxing Day was surely watching Frodon lead all the way to take the Grade 1 King George VI Chase.

Aside from generally edging to his left over many of his obstacles, Frodon was his usual superb self over the fences. He managed to get to the front before the first fence which I strongly suspect is the most vital ingredient with him. That enabled him to enjoy an untroubled lead and was able to run round and maintain his position at a relatively slow gallop. 

The short run-in at Kempton also played to his jumping strengths and so it will be fascinating to see how he copes with the much stiffer test of stamina in the Cheltenham Gold Cup

Although I am a big fan of Frodon, I never thought he had the requisite stamina for the Gold Cup trip. That said, whether he quite lasts home or not, his superior jumping is likely to keep him in touch until the latter stages in the Cheltenham blue riband. 

Most importantly, Frodon will surely need to get to the front and stay ahead of his pursuers in the first half of the race to offer him any chance of success. Conversely, should Frodon fail to get anywhere near the front in the early stages of the race, his chances of Gold Cup success will surely have ended almost before they have begun. 

Frodon wins the King George
Frodon leads all the way to take the King George with Santini (second from left) in fifth place.

Can we forgive a King George also-ran?

The Nicky Henderson-trained Santini finished well beaten in fifth place behind Frodon on Boxing Day. It was interesting to see Santini ridden away from the inside rail and also up with the pace, presumably in an attempt to negate his natural struggles round this relatively tight track. It was no surprise to see him being driven to keep in touch with the leader from before the seventh-last fence. 

This season, Santini has competed around two courses that would simply not have suited him (Aintree and Kempton) and, as a consequence, he is now a 12/1 shot for the Gold Cup. I would not mark him down on either of his two latest performances.  At the same time, I am hopeful he will show himself in a better light in the Cotswold Chase. If he is the one for you, I would suggest there is no need to get involved now; because well before Santini lines up at Cheltenham in late January, many bookmakers will start to offer the Non-Runner-No-Bet (NRNB) concession for the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

More evidence needed for A Plus Tard

Immediately after A Plus Tard crossed the line in first place in the Grade 1 Savills Chase at Leopardstown, my first reaction was, with the keen-going Melon finishing so close, I would prefer to see A Plus Tard again before passing judgement. Hopefully, we will get an opportunity to watch him over the same course and distance at the Dublin Festival.


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More solid contenders for the Ryanair Chase

With regard to Melon - he jumped big and well and raced freely through the Savills Chase. He did well to be still competitive after the last fence. He re-joined Kemboy with the better jump at the last and was then just run out of it in the final 100 yards. He has four brilliant Cheltenham Festival runs to his name and this was an excellent Ryanair Chase trial.

Whilst on the subject of the Ryanair Chase, the Harry Whittington-trained Saint Calvados confirmed the promise of his 2020 Ryanair Chase effort with another excellent performance in defeat in the Grade 1 King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day. He was very keen in the early stages and very briefly short of room as Frodon cut across him on the rail soon after the fourth-last fence. I doubt it made much difference to his winning chances; however, he was only beaten a neck for third place so his supporters can count themselves a tad unfortunate to miss out on those each-way returns. The Ryanair Chase is steadily building up into one of the most competitive and open races of the festival. 

Although the 2020 Ryanair Chase winner, Min, is currently the 6/1 favourite for the 2021 renewal, I would suggest that Imperial Aura, Melon, Mister Fisher and Saint Calvados all hold broadly similar claims to the reigning champion.

Spiritofthegames deserves another crack at Festival Plate

Spiritofthegames appeared not to get home over the three miles of the Grade 3 Rowland Meyrick Handicap Chase at Wetherby on Boxing Day. As a consequence of his finishing position he has been dropped a pound to a mark of 148. This was his first try over the trip and I do hope he is given another try or two over the same distance prior to another crack at the Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Stable Plate in March. If he happened to stay on another day then one or two different doors will open for his connections; more likely he will not see out the longer trip again which will hopefully result in him lining up off a sub-145 rating on the third day of the Cheltenham Festival.

This Dan Skelton-trained son of Darsi will be a nine-year-old by the time he competes at the 2021 festival and one would imagine his connections will be keen to give him one final try of picking up a big festival handicap chase. His record when competing over an intermediate trip at Cheltenham as a chaser reads 3 3 P 2 2 6 2 – and two of those positive performances came in the last two renewals of the Brown Advisory Handicap Chase. 

Furthermore, this sequence of results was earned whilst competing off ratings of 146, 147, 150, 146, 149, 149 and 148 respectively. I do not know if he could be quite classified as a placepot banker for the 2021 renewal of his favourite handicap chase; nonetheless, he would certainly be top of my shortlist if competing off 145 or less in March.

A new kid on the Champion Chase block

Nube Negra took the Grade 2 Ladbrokes Desert Orchid Chase in particularly pleasing fashion, though I am not sure what he beat given how many of this field would not have been suited by the softer ground. 

Nonetheless, he still looked very good in winning this Grade 2 Chase; particularly in the closing stages. He matched Shishkin, winner of the Wayward Lad Novices' Chase over the same course and distance on the same card, from their respective first fence to the fourth last. By the winning line the novice had pulled a few lengths clear; however, this was partly due to the different way the two horses were asked for their respective efforts in the home straight. 

Prior to the race, I thought Nube Negra might be suited more to this flat easy track; whilst also holding some concerns about his ability to show his best form on a softer surface. He has now proved he can perform close to his best on soft; however, he still has to show that he can stay on soft going when competing on a more stamina-sapping course. 

He was outstayed in testing conditions up the Sandown hill in the Grade 1 Henry VIII Novices’ Chase in December 2019. I know that it is possible that he is bigger and stronger now and more the finished article; nevertheless, unlike two or three of his main rivals in the Queen Mother Champion Chase, he still has to prove that he can stay up the Cheltenham hill. On good to soft or quicker Nube Negra will be have to be high on the shortlist; however, the softer the ground in March the more questions he will have to answer in the Champion Chase.

Is it time to write-off Altior?

Altior finished runner-up behind Nube Negra at Kempton where not only did he look quite laboured throughout but also finished in front of very little that would have been suited to the conditions. 

It is possible that he will improve a lot for his first run of the season; consequently, it is far too early to be writing him off. At the same time, he could still be shorter than he should be for a couple more races due to his past reputation.

Champion Chase market takes shape but is the favourite a sound ante-post bet?

With regard to the Champion Chase market, Chacun Pour Soi is now around 11/8 after his super impressive success at Leopardstown over Christmas  The reigning champion, Politologue, is next best in at 7/1; whilst Altior is trading alongside the next group of horses at around 12/1. At this moment in time, I think that looks about right. 

Chacun Pour Soi is clearly the stand-out performer just now after his comprehensive defeat of Notebook and Put The Kettle On in the Grade 1 Paddy’s Rewards Club Chase. Perhaps the big question mark with the Mullins horse is whether or not they can get him to the Festival in one piece in March. He missed the 2020 Champion Chase after a late setback and he is a horse that has only been seen on the race track six times in nearly two years. 

Furthermore, he was running for the first time in 1089 days when making his debut for Willie Mullins in March 2019. Consequently, it would be difficult to consider Chacun Pour Soi as an ante-post prospect for March; at least until the NRNB rule comes into play.

Chacun Pour Soi
Chacun Pour Soi records an impressive victory over Notebook

Did Flooring Porter get lucky?

Flooring Porter was supplemented for the Grade 1 Leopardstown Christmas Hurdle and rewarded his connections by making all the running to win by an impressive-looking six lengths from The Storyteller, Sire Du Berlais and Fury Road. He pulled out more in the home straight and won with plenty to spare. He actually stole half-a-dozen lengths at the start and maintained a similar lead all the way to the line. He appeared to be given a very easy lead here and there has to be a reasonable chance that this variable was crucial to the outcome of this race. 

The time comparisons between Flooring Porter and Hannon (who made the running in the previous race over course and distance) are quite illuminating.

Flooring Porter was around three seconds quicker from the first hurdle than the 139-rated Hannon in the Pertemps Network Handicap Hurdle Qualifier. This gap gradually closed until Hannon jumped the third-last hurdle slightly in front. 

I suspect the next part of the race was crucial in determining the outcome. Flooring Porter slowed the pace down enough for Hannon to jump two out about two seconds in front of him. At this point, Jonathan Moore took his foot off the pedal and stacked his rivals up in behind off the final bend. He then kicked off that home bend but still only jumped the last at the same time as Hannon who had already weakened and been swamped by several rivals.

I suspect jockeys on the hold-up horses seriously underestimated the winner and thus allowed him such an easy lead. Furthermore, Fury Road found himself in a very poor position racing round the final bend and Sire Du Berlais is not the quickest and would definitely appreciate coming off a stronger pace. This left The Storyteller to come from well off the pace after a real ‘pick up the pieces’ type of ride.

Following his win, Flooring Porter is now just behind Sire Du Berlais in the betting for the Stayers Hurdle and a lot shorter than Fury Road, who was sent off 13/8 favourite at Leopardstown. 

Flooring Porter won a handicap hurdle at Navan off a mark of 136 earlier in December, and over the previous 12 months had been beaten off marks of 131,130,119 and 118 respectively. It is always possible that his new front-running style has made all the difference and turned Flooring Porter from being an ordinary handicapper into a strong Stayers Hurdle candidate. 

For now, I would prefer to believe that both Sire Du Berlais and Fury Road hold much stronger credentials for Cheltenham in March; however, if Flooring Porter comes out and does something similar at the Dublin Racing Festival, it might be time to take another look.

Andy Gibson's Cheltenham Trail
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