A superb weekend’s racing culminated with action from Fairyhouse on Sunday. Both Newbury and Fairyhouse hosted two-day “Winter Festivals”, Newbury racing on Friday and Saturday with Fairyhouse hosting Saturday and Sunday. Newcastle staged their National Hunt season highlight in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle on Saturday, too, so National Hunt fans were spoilt.
Below, I have looked at some of the weekend’s talking points.
CHAMP OVERCOMES ADVERSITY TO SCORE GRADE 2 WIN
You just get the feeling that Champ is going to be one of the most talked about National Hunt horses this season and not just because of his name. As we all know by now, he is named after former Champion Jockey AP McCoy – this is the last time I shall reference it in covering him – but it’s his on-track performances that seem to have fans divided. And to be fair, I can see why.
Last Friday at Newbury, Nicky Henderson’s inmate took the next step in his novice chase career, having won his beginners’ in good style at the same course. Following up four weeks later in the Grade 2 Berkshire Novices’ Chase, the seven-year-old got the job done in good fashion, in the end, but his cosy 1¾ lengths victory over the 152-rated novice chaser Black Op doesn’t half tell the story of the race.
With Dashel Drasher unseating his rider at the first obstacle, jockeys had a loose horse to deal with and he caused havoc for Champ and Barry Geraghty at the third. With Champ appearing to jump the fence well, he clashed with Dashel Drasher in mid-air and landed in a heap; Geraghty and the horse doing ever so well to keep the partnership intact.
In truth, this was a nightmare start to the race for an inexperienced horse, who had no point-to-point schooling, but the son of King's Theatre showed great professionalism and bravery to get back on an even keel quickly.
Like his first chase start, which we covered at the time, JP McManus’s horse showed a tendency to jump left. We saw that again on Friday and it now has to be a worry, should connections ever choose to let their horse run right-handed over fences. This would rule out the Grade 1 Kauto Star Novices' Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day, although connections haven’t mooted that contest, and maybe the Grade 2 Reynoldstown Novices' Chase at Ascot in February 2020.
Apart from the leaps left, I thought Champ jumped well in the main, apart from diving at the third last. There is nothing sexy about his jumping, nor should there be given he is a three-mile chaser in the making – that’s my view - but many seemed not to be impressed in this department. It’s not a major worry for me, having looked back at his run a couple of times, although you would like to see it tested in a strong-run race.
The drama wasn’t over though, as having looked in slight bother after making a mistake three out, Geraghty really had to get after the 4/5 favourite. Champ came good for him over the last two obstacles, but the pair nearly took the wrong course after the last fence, Geraghty maybe a touch sleepy in full flight drive.
A fine feat of athleticism from the horse, and Geraghty, saved what could’ve been a disaster for the rider, with an impressive swerve to get back onto the main track. This part of the race is significant for me, because it shows Champ wasn’t a tired horse. A weary one takes the easy route, runs out and gets disqualified, but it was another bit of adversity overcome by the current RSA Chase favourite (7/2).
This performance is put into even better context when you consider the sound-jumping Black Op had total run of the race on a course that suited prominent racers all weekend, yet he was still overhauled in ready fashion; with the runner-up coming 4½ lengths clear of the 143-rated and inform Deyrann De Carjac.
We shouldn’t forget Black Op had sound novice form with the likes of Defi Du Seuil, Topofthegame and Lostintranslation last season, but critically, this campaign he appears to be jumping much better and came into the race in good order. For me, this form looks rock solid, although a stronger gallop would have been the icing on the cake.
When everything goes right for horses, they can look good, but we find out more about their character and ability when circumstances play against them. Little went right for Champ on Friday, but he dug it out in the style of a, ah, champ.
Champions in this game are usually crowned at Cheltenham in March, and while his RSA price of 7/2 isn’t enticing, Champ showed when the chips are down, he can get it done. How good can he be if it all goes right; up to three miles with his jumping becoming more polished now he is settling better?
It wasn’t sexy, but sexy doesn’t always come off at the Cheltenham Festival - please see Harchibald, Katie Salmon and Jessica Hayes - but class and perseverance does.
Champ has both.
A STRONG WEEKEND FOR MARES
The weekend just gone was quite a good one for mares and a reminder of all the good recent work that has been done in Britain and Ireland in enhancing the mares’ programmes, with the aim of helping them develop, compete on the track fairly and stay in training longer.
We have to start with Honeysuckle, who did exactly what the people behind these programmes would likely consider the best possible achievement, a mare winning in open Grade 1 company.
Henry de Bromhead’s inmate was a dominant winner of the Hatton's Grace Hurdle at Fairyhouse on Sunday, running out an easy 9½ lengths winner under Rachael Blackmore for owner Kenneth Alexander.
The daughter of Sulamani, a former Irish point-to-point winner, enhanced her record to a perfect seven in seven, winning her second Grade 1 but her first in open company. A big mare, who may well benefit from the introduction the new Mares’ Chase at the 2021 Cheltenham Festival, Honeysuckle does indeed jump like a chaser already.
She reminds me of Laurina in some ways, a horse built for larger obstacles but with a 7lb mares’ allowance is well worth her place in open company. Bigger test will await if that is the route connections decide to go down, because while she was a very good winner here, this year’s renewal of the Hatton’s Grace looked poor.
I don’t want to take away from Honeysuckle’s performance, as she could do no more than win like she did, but Bacardys looks officially overrated and better over further while the third home, Apple’s Jade, sadly looks a spent force at this level, on current evidence.
Connections of Laurina made a big mistake in not entering their mare in the Stayers’ Hurdle last season, I hope the same actions don’t follow with Honeysuckle. She’s a top-class mare, and it’s worth looking at the Champion Hurdle, Stayers’ Hurdle and of course, the Mares’ Hurdle. She has plenty of options.
At Newbury on Saturday, Nicky Henderson landed a treble, two of those victories coming from mares, Floressa and Epatante. Starting with the latter, she was simply dynamite in the Listed Ladbrokes "Where The Nation Plays" Intermediate Hurdle, formerly known as the Gerry Feilden Hurdle.
The former French racer only won off a mark of 138, but she did so in some style; travelling into the contest like a classy mare and quickening up smartly. Her jumping could be very good, although there were errors.
To my eye, this form looks very strong by handicap standards. The winner may well go up the bones of a stone after this, leaving her in and around the 150 mark. With her 7lb mares’ allowance, she is not a million miles away from entering the murky Champion Hurdle picture (25/1), especially if she can improve further.
On the evidence of last weekend, I would actually fancy her more than Honeysuckle (12/1) for the Cheltenham Festival Tuesday highlight, especially at the current ante-post prices. This race was won by Rock On Ruby in 2011 before he went on to 2012 Champion Hurdle glory.
Henderson’s Floressa also entered a Cheltenham Festival race picture on Saturday, although far more strongly when she won the Listed Ladbrokes "Where The Nation Plays" Mares' Novices' Hurdle by a ready 1½ lengths.
She beat a very good novice hurdle mare of Gavin Cromwell’s called Jeremys Flame, showing all the attributes needed to go close in the Grade 2 Dawn Run come March, of which she is a best priced 10/1 shot now.
Her strong-travelling, quick-hurdling and ability to pick up off a good gallop will hold her in great stead going forward, especially if the ground stays as good as it was at Newbury last weekend.