The weekend just gone really felt like the National Hunt season started in earnest. We had some top-class racing from Down Royal in Ireland, and Wetherby in Britain, as well as Ascot hosting their first jumps fixture of the campaign on Saturday.
The two-day meeting at Down Royal (Friday and Saturday) saw Gordon Elliott get the ball rolling proper with his exciting team, running many big guns. Most won. Some didn’t. But it was great to see some genuine potential future stars in action, for all, it is early season form and no cast-iron opinions should be made. In my opinion.
Due to Covid-19 shutting down the industry in the spring, meaning we all missed out on the major festivals at Aintree and Punchestown - as well as other fixtures - horses got early holidays this year. Some trainers and jockeys have referenced the likely lush grass they got to enjoy on their break, on top of extended time off from the norm – every yard will be different, mind – meaning some horses might well take a bit longer to click into gear this season. Others may not, but let’s judge them all on their individual merits.
It’s all just something to note, among the usual hysteria of people cancelling horses when they disappoint in the early season, extremely early season. Think of it like this; you’ve just had the best holiday of your life and must return to work. Physically, you are present; mentally, you are way off, but it will all come eventually. We hope.
Like any sport, even with horses, this game is mental as well as physical, but the physical did so well for the break, that the mental needs to catch up. Remember; a healthy body is a healthy mind; and anyway, with so much focus on the major spring festivals concerning the top-class or potentially top-class horses, no trainer in his or her right mind would have horses finely tuned now, if say, Cheltenham is the ultimate goal. And let’s face it, Cheltenham is THE ultimate goal for so many.
Anyway, enough nonsense – let’s talk horses and performances.
Elliott unleashes big guns at Down Royal
It goes some way to suggesting the young talent in Elliott’s yard, when even after eight winners across two days from 14 races at Down Royal, that the County Meath-based trainer’s Saturday Grade 1 hero, The Storyteller, would likely feature some way down my list of performances.
Plenty of that is likely to do with The Storyteller being a 9yo and the fact he has little chance of winning a Gold Cup, but the son of Shantou deserves huge credit for making the most of his ability to yet again capitalise when horses of more ability fail to fire or not quite run up to their best. He has no doubt been a dream horse to own – The Storyteller has had a fantastic career so far.
Under a fine Keith Donoghue ride, who appeared to save plenty of ground in the early and middle parts of the race, The Storyteller fundamentally outstayed Chris's Dream late on, no doubt benefitting from having plenty of racing under his belt earlier in the campaign. He was a hard fit horse in comparison to most in this race.
Chris's Dream has gone well fresh before and he did so again here, but he was maybe just a little gassier than ideal under Robbie Power who took quite a wide path throughout. Power also maybe made his move in one the hottest parts of the race on the run to three out, but all in all, Chris's Dream held every chance down the straight.
I do wonder if 3m is the absolute limit of Chris's Dream’s stamina and he could maybe benefit from a drop in trip with a return to more prominent tactics?
Now in the care of Gordon Elliott, Presenting Percy made a fantastic comeback to finish fourth; the 9yo going through his race with plenty of zest, looking to enjoy himself. He shaped like needing the race and when you factor this in, on top of a few exuberant leaps, it probably all took its toll late on, especially as he got little cover for large parts.
Considering Delta Work always takes a big step forward from his first run of the campaign, he too made a pleasing comeback, an even better comeback than he did in last year’s race, for me.
The future is bright
Most of Elliott’s other winners over the weekend however, excite more, because big futures may lie ahead. I suppose none more so than Envoi Allen, who got his novice chase career off to the perfect start on Friday.
The 6yo was sure-footed, confident and intelligent in his jumping on fences debut; and given the ability we already know he has – with likely more to come – he sent a strong early message to connections of horses who may face him down the line.
While we need to see Envoi Allen jumping off a much stronger gallop, his jumping performance had all the hallmarks of a horse who will be able to adapt. The son of Muhtathir showed he had quick feet in front of the boards when needed; he could get in close and still be quick away, thanks to his nimbleness, and he also could be aggressive, as we saw at the third, second last and last. For a big horse, he looks an unbelievable athlete.
The way he picked up between the last two fences was also so impressive and gave us a small glimpse of the speed he has. Envoi Allen has so much pace, talk already of him being a Gold Cup horse is becoming tiresome.
Of course, that’s the dream for connections, but in reality, he has yet to even compete over 3m on the track, never mind 3m2½f; and if we are having an Open Class conversation about a novice this early (yawn), I would say he has more chance of winning a Champion Chase than a Gold Cup on what we know about him right now.
The obsession with turning big horses who win Irish Point-to-Points into Gold Cup winners I will never get; mostly because it is so premature. See Samcro as a good recent example. He was hailed as a future Gold Cup winner before he even ran in his novice hurdle, maybe even bumper, and look at him now, a horse blessed with so much natural pace, the Ryanair trip of 2m5f would likely be the limit of his stamina, never mind the Gold Cup distance.
Last year’s Grade 1 Marsh Novices' Chase winner was also back in action last weekend in the Grade 2 Lough Construction Ltd. Chase (2m3½f) at Down Royal, but he had to give best to another “three-mile chaser in the making” in the giant Battleoverdoyen, his stablemate, who put up one of the performances of the weekend under Mark Walsh.
The Gigginstown-owned 7yo has now surely found a home over this intermediate trip on the back of this success, and may be a horse for the owner’s race at Cheltenham, the much-maligned but brilliant Festival addition, the Ryanair Chase.
Off what looked a good gallop, especially on the final circuit, Battleoverdoyen lobbed away fine off the fractions, jumped well and put the race to bed early in the straight, before idling up the run-in. For a big horse, he has plenty of pace and jumps well; and looks set for a big season on the back of this.
Samcro was all set to make a fine start to his own campaign – and he still did – but an awful momentum-stopping mistake at a crucial juncture in three out, put paid to any winning chance he had. Although slow through the air at a couple of jumps, Samcro jumped well in the main. He is entitled to improve for this, too.
Given how he moves, I am desperate to see him on nice ground. This horse travels for fun, and life on the bridle is so easy for him. A drop to two-miles at a track like Leopardstown I feel would be well within his comfort zone, although his jumping would maybe need to get slicker. With a run under his belt, it might; and as we saw at Cheltenham in March, apart from the second last, he can be good.
I do have one wish however, concerning Samcro; that whoever is riding him, does so with supreme confidence. Put him in the race as late as possible and keep him covered up for as long as you can; as I say from the comfort of my armchair. He is a good horse, but riding him cold and giving him confidence will help no end to my eye and bring out the best in him.
The conveyor belt of talent in Elliott’s yard could be seen elsewhere over the two days at Down Royal; the likes of Farouk D'alene, Chemical Energy, Quilixios and Sir Gerhard creating favourable impressions, for all, they did so – every single one of them – at odds-on.
Ballyadam is the final horse to mention and he already looks like following the paths of Samcro and Envoi Allen, who both looked potential top-class prospects after just one novice hurdles start. We obviously knew a bit about that pair in bumpers too, just like Ballyadam, but it’s always nice to see horses jumping and I think we got to learn a bit about this son of Fame And Glory.
Some Irish Maiden Hurdles can be farcical races where horses crawl and sprint late, not really testing their jumping or engines, but here, there was enough of a gallop on to learn about Ballyadam.
The Cheveley Park Stud-owned 5yo will need to brush up in his jumping, but he showed a good aptitude in the main on his debut. He is entitled to improve. What was most pleasing is he looked aggressive and brave at some flights, which was good to see given it looks like he’ll race over 2m this season, at least in the early part.
Finally, at Down Royal, two horses away from the Elliott yard that are worth following are January Jets and Cayd Boy. The former understandably went under the radar in finishing second to Envoi Allen with regards post-race analysis, but Henry de Bromhead’s inmate made a lovely chasing debut. He looks a fine stamp of a horse, is well-bred, in good hands and jumped well. Given how he moves, nice ground might be important to him going forward, but I like him.
On Saturday, Liz Doyle trained a winner for JP McManus in Cayd Boy. This 5yo son of No Risk At All looks progressive on the back of this and for such a young horse, I loved how he jumped and got into contention, all while racing wide throughout. Big fields, strong-run races could bring out the best in him going forward.