A few weeks ago, I put up ratings I had for the top horses in the novice hurdle division. It was relatively soon after the Christmas bonanza of racing, so I wasn’t where I wanted to be, and some high-profile horses were not rated.
I feel like I’m in a better position in the second week of February to tackle this season’s top novice chasers, and with no racing taking place in Britain due to Equine Influenza it feels like a good time to do this piece.
Hopefully, closer to Cheltenham, I may revisit the novice hurdlers, and some novice chasers, but below are my novice chase ratings, starting with the Arkle contenders.
At this moment in time, Le Richebourg (156) leads the way in the 2m division, as his market position (favourite) in the Arkle betting suggests. Joseph O’Brien’s charge is a best-priced 4/1 for the second race of the Cheltenham Festival, but there is a case to say JP McManus’s horse should be shorter.
There is little doubt that the son of Network has hugely benefitted from what has been an extraordinarily dry National Hunt season in Ireland, but apart from being outstayed in the Grade 1 Drinmore Novice Chase (2m4f), he has left little behind, winning the other four of his chase starts.
A strong traveller that jumps well and picks up for pressure off solid fractions, he is streets clear of anything in this division in Ireland at the moment. On goodish ground come the opening day of the festival, on what we’ve seen, he is the one to beat in the Arkle, especially if his busy season hasn’t caught up with him come March. To be fair to the horse, he is taking his racing well.
For me, Dynamite Dollars(152+) should be second favourite for the Arkle, the current 7/1 on offer a couple points too big on what we’ve seen this season. OK, he was well-held by Lalor in the Grade 2 November Novices' Chase on good ground at the Cheltenham November meeting, but since then Paul Nicholls’s inmate has progressed impressively.
Wins in the Grade 1 Henry VIII Novices' Chase at Sandown and a pair of Grade 2s (Wayward Lad Novices' Chase and Lightning Novices' Chase) under penalties have followed in a career with a serious upward trajectory.
This son of Buck's Boum travels well, jumps soundly and is tough when he needs to be. His idle nature still means he could be underrated, there is a real chance he is better than 152, because he does little in front. The only potential negative, which is maybe unlikely on the opening day of the festival, is good ground. Juice in the terrain looks a positive for another horse that appears to be taking his racing well.
Grade 1-winning novice hurdler Lalor (147+) made a hugely impressive start to his season in slamming Dynamite Dollars on debut in a Grade 2, despite conceding jumping experience and race-fitness. He flopped in the Henry VIII at Sandown however, blotting his copybook, but from an early stage he looked off his game. He at least tried to rally bravely but hasn’t raced since.
Last season’s Supreme Novices’ Hurdle runner-up, Kalashnikov (146+) started the campaign as the favourite for the Arkle. He would win on debut at 1/4, jumping satisfactorily before going on to score again at Plumpton at 1/7, impressing more with his jumping at the second time of asking.
He was turned over by Dynamite Dollars, when getting 5lb, in the Wayward Lad at Kempton over Christmas in a race, for large parts, we couldn’t see due to fog. On what we did see, he looked beaten too early to be considered his best form – he simply never travelled with any purpose and made mistakes.
I had him running to a 152 in the Supreme last year so there is a strong possibility he is better than his 146-chase rating, especially when you consider his sound jumping.
The potential fly in the ointment in this division is Cilaos Emery (142P), a 155-rated hurdler last season before injury intervened. Despite a couple of fiddley mistakes on his chase debut at Gowran Park, he made a lovely comeback to the track. Ruby Walsh’s quiet style of riding suited his jumping, as the pair travelled into contention with ease before winning well. There is no doubt he can improve on 142 if he stays fit.
Paloma Blue(144+), last season’s Supreme fourth has been a slow burner this campaign but strikes as the type of horse to keep getting better with racing. It’s a shame he missed the Irish Arkle at the Dublin Racing Festival (late non-runner due to good ground) because he needs racing to improve, both his level of form and jumping. His run in the Supreme suggests he can get better.
Knocknanuss (149), Hardline (148), Us And Them (148) Voix Du Reve (147) and Duca De Thaix (146) are others worthy of mentions. It’s maybe hard to see the nine-year-old Knocknanuss improving much further. Hardline remains a likable horse, as does Us And Them, who I think will keep getting better as he strengthens up. Voix Du Reve is a classy sort but looks best dominating small fields. Duca De Thaix was quite keen to post and is better than his Irish Arkle run.
2M4F+ NOVICE CHASERS
There is maybe still a little more water to flow under the bridge in this division, but at this moment in time, two horses dominate for me, Defi Du Seuil (153+) and Lostintranslation(152). This pair know each other well having clashed in the Grade 2 Dipper Novices' Chase at Cheltenham and the Grade 1 Scilly Isles Novices' Chase at Sandown.
On the former occasion, the Colin Tizzard-trained Lostintranslation came out on top by 1¼ lengths, but at Sandown Philip Hobbs’s former Triumph Hurdle winner reversed the form, to win by ¾ of a length on 3lb better terms. There is clearly little between the pair on paper, but the JLT Novices’ Chase test at the festival on likely spring ground may see the JP McManus-owned horse have too many gears for his old foe.
In the Dipper, on good to soft ground, Defi Du Seuil shaped like much the best horse, only to be outstayed late, for all he was giving weight away. At Sandown, on softer ground there was little between the pair again, but Defi Du Seuil was value for more than the official margin.
Lostintranslation has also been afforded easy leads in both contests, and in a likely bigger field may well be taken on for the lead. That scenario will suit the strong-travelling Defi Du Seuil better, as Barry Geraghty should be able to find plenty of cover and get a good lead for longer.
Both horses do everything right, jump, travel and have class, and while first and second in the JLT ante-post market ( Defi Du Seuil (5/1) and Lostintranslation (6/1) ), there is a strong case to say they should be shorter in the betting.
There really isn’t a whole pile else that catches the eye in this division, although you wouldn’t be surprised to see the likes of Kalashnikov or Paloma Blue step up in trip. Two that are worth looking closer at are Drovers Lane(148) and Kildisart(148+).
The former impressed in winning at Cheltenham’s December meeting, showing a fine display of jumping on the second circuit, putting his field to the sword. He’s got a nice blend of speed and stamina, a touch of class and jumps really well for a novice. Wherever Rebecca Curtis decides to go with him at the festival, he’ll be worth a second look.
Similar comments apply to Ben Pauling’s Kildisart who could be underrated by his rating of 148, especially based on his latest victory, at Cheltenham’s Trials Day meeting. Despite making numerous jumping errors, his raw ability carried him through to an idling 2 lengths success.
He certainly looks the type of horse to keep keeping better, and if connections can fine-tune his jumping, there is undoubtedly a potential Grade 1 performer in there.
Finally, in this division, Gun Digger (145) is a potential forgotten horse. I get the feeling he will be underrated by the British and Irish handicappers, and the handicap route is the road he will likely take, but he is much better than his latest flop in a Punchestown Grade 3.
3M+ NOVICE CHASERS
We know La Bague Au Roi (148, not including her mares’ allowance) will not run in the RSA Chase, which is a shame, but even with her absence we have a red-hot and competitive division, and a potentially cracking RSA.
Warren Greatrex’s mare’s win in the Grade 1 Kauto Star Novices' Chase is just about the best form in this division, and she followed up in a weaker top-level contest at the Dublin Racing Festival, winning the Flogas Novice Chase.
Although comfortably held in the Kauto Star, the bookmakers strangely have Santini(152+) a clear favourite for the RSA (3/1). At Kempton, Nicky Henderson’s charge looked taken off his feet around the sharp track. To be fair, his accurate jumping kept him in the heat of battle, but on spring good to soft ground, will the Old Course at Cheltenham sufficiently bring his stamina into play? I’m not so sure, at the prices.
The favourite for the RSA should be the Paul Nicholls-trained Topofthegame(154+), last season’s Coral Cup runner-up. In some ways, it was disappointing he didn’t win the Kauto Star, given he looked to have the race wrapped up turning for home, but to graduate from a slowly-run seasonal chase debut (where he lost many lengths at the start due to spooking at the tape) to a proper Grade 1 contest in just 19 days shouldn’t be forgotten, especially given the class he showed to get into contention so easily. I think he may have needed the race and was just outstayed by a tough, classy, race-fit mare giving her weight.
Top of the Irish challengers is Delta Work(150+), last season’s Pertemps Final winner. He is unbeaten in three runs over fences, including a duo of Grade 1s in the Drinmore Novice Chase (2m4f) and Neville Hotels Novice Chase (3m). That mark of 150 may well underrate Gordon Elliott’s horse because he does little in front and appears to keep plenty up his sleeve.
Vinndication (150) has yet to compete over 3m, but he looks like a horse that could thrive over the trip. By Vinnie Roe and from a strong-staying family on the distaff side, his pedigree and how he shaped behind two classy novices in the Scilly Isles (2m4f) means he could step forward again over a staying trip. A return to more prominent tactics will surely suit, too.
I need to go over the form Ballyward, Discorama and On The Blind Side to be confident on their abilities still, but The Worlds End (152?) and Ok Corral (146+) are two who deserve mentions. The former is clearly much better than his Kauto Star effort, that run coming too quick off the back of a huge performance at Cheltenham’s December meeting. Whether he can repeat that 152 remains to be seen, hence the question mark symbol, but he’s clearly a good horse on his day, and prominent tactics look a must.
OK Corral surprised me with how he travelled and jumped when winning the Listed Hampton Novices' Chase on good ground at Warwick. Off much slower fractions he looked clumsy on chasing debut at Plumpton which makes me wonder, is he better off in the RSA, in a race likely to be run at a good tempo? He certainly travelled well at Warwick to suggest he is worthy of consideration in a RSA.