Declan Rix

As ever, there were many highs and some lows at the 2019 Cheltenham Festival. Over the four days, it was the performances of novices that caught the eye of Declan Rix, and he discusses those here.

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The best week in horse racing is done and dusted, and as usual, the Cheltenham Festival delivered the highest highs and lowest lows. Thankfully, ecstasy outweighed despair although, both will have different definitions depending on individual experiences.

Gordon Elliott, say, will have been disappointed with the effort of Apple’s Jade in the Champion Hurdle, Nicky Henderson too, given the fall of the usually sound jumping Buveur D’Air, but both trainers got to bring their horses home, a luxury not afforded to connections of Ballyward, Sir Erec and Invitation Only.

Sir Erec’s catastrophic injury in the Triumph Hurdle was as sad a demise on the racecourse I can ever recall. Of course, all equine fatalities are miserable, but the higher profile deaths always resonate more deeply.

There is no doubt we lost a potential star, not just on the track, but maybe also off it; Sir Erec could’ve influenced the breed. As an entire from the family of current National Hunt stallion Mahler, with class already proven and a bombproof temperament engrained his loss will always leave a feeling of what could’ve been.

Just two days after training his first Festival winner with Band Of Outlaws, the highest highs and lowest lows were certainly applicable to Joseph O’Brien and his team.

The glory March days of Inglis Drever must have felt a long, long time ago for owners Andrea & Graham Wylie come Friday of last week, who lost both Ballyward and Invitation Only. It’s been a tough run for the Wylies, whose Nichols Canyon took a fatal fall at Leopardstown in December 2017. They are due a change in racing fortune. Hopefully.  

There can’t be many, if any lower points than the three losses last week. Lows of course can still deflate, but that is sport, competition, common, and they should never compare.

Much has already been spoken and written on last week’s four days, from the quality of the action to the romantic stories that accompanied. I have always preferred to talk about the horses however, I’ve never been much of a romantic, and it was the novices that got my pulse racing.

THE FUTURE IS BRIGHT

Having attended the first two days of the Festival, something I regretted after feeling like I missed so much of the action, I admit I forgot how impressive Klassical Dream was in winning the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. With the only set of clean colours bounding up the hill, the winner shone brightest in more ways than one.

Having gone over the race properly, I don’t think it’s too over the top to say we are dealing with a Supreme winner who should be spoken about in the same exciting breath as recent winners Vautour, Douvan and Altior. Can he go on to achieve what they did? Only time will tell, but he was so good on Tuesday.

Willie Mullins’s inmate put up a serious display of jumping and galloping, going on to win by 4½ lengths from the Olly Murphy-trained pair of Thomas Darby and Itchy Feet. Having been in the teeth of the gallop from the get-go, travelling through the contest with such ease, that winning margin possibly underplays just how good he was. It was an exceptional display from the five-year-old and easily the best performance from a novice hurdler of the week.

Having come from France after seven runs, if the son of Dream Well can hold his form as the year’s go on, he looks an incredibly exciting prospect. Given how well he jumps, connections have the option of staying over hurdles or going chasing in 2019/20.

There is a part of me now wishing Klassical Dream is put away for the season, but one would have to imagine Punchestown is highly likely to be on the cards given his trainer.

Klassical Dream wins the 2019 Supreme Novices' Hurdle
Klassical Dream and Ruby Walsh fly the last in the Supreme

The same may apply to runaway Arkle Challenge Trophy Novices' Chase winner Duc Des Genievres, who blitzed his field to win by a comfortable 14 lengths. The Arkle had looked a poor renewal going into the race, and while it fell apart to some degree with the early exits of three leading challengers Glen Forsa (unseated 4th), Kalashnikov (unseated 6th) and Lalor (pulled up after 9th), you could not but be impressed by the winner.

Fifth behind Samcro in last season’s Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle, the free-going grey had started to strike me as a bit of a bridle horse, but he’s clearly found his niche in strong-run two-mile chasing. It remains to be seen how Willie Mullins’s inmate will react in a battle, but he could do no more than win like he did.

It’s worth remembering, that in the run-up to the Festival, the number one Mullins horse for the Arkle was Cilaos Emery. He was essentially ruled out weeks before the race, and while he has a history of setbacks, he remains another prospect of note.

Going into the RSA Insurance Novices' Chase, Delta Work, Santini and Topofthegame set a good standard and all three delivered in one of the races of the Festival. In the end, Paul Nicholls’s huge chestnut Topofthegame fended off the gallant Santini by half-a-length with Delta Work keeping on, finishing a further 1¾ lengths back in third. This trio came 16 lengths clear of Grade 2 Reynoldstown Novices' Chase Mister Malarky.

Despite the early gallop being rather lacklustre, I don’t see that being a negative in terms of holding back the form. How the race panned out certainly suited Topofthegame most, a horse blessed with class and pace. While the race circumstances played to his strengths more so than Santini and Delta Work, in showing a willingly attitude to fend off the runner-up, he has hopefully put to bed questions raised by some about his willingness.

In terms of next season, Santini is the one to take from the race where the 2020 Gold Cup is concerned. His preparation couldn’t have gone much worse, Nicky Henderson’s horse missing an intended engagement in the Reynoldstown at Ascot before an eleventh-hour foot scare nearly ruled him out of the Festival.

A strapping, gross sort, physically, his best days are ahead of him and he is the one horse in this season’s RSA that you could see thriving over the Gold Cup trip on the more suitable New Course. There isn’t a whole lot between the front three however, and with Delta Work still only six, it’s an RSA that will likely work out next season.

Topofthegame wins the RSA Chase
Declan feels this season's RSA is strong form

Thursday’s JLT Novices' Chase winner Defi Du Seuil was another novice to impress. His 2¼ lengths success over old foe Lostintranslation firmly sees the six-year-old having the runner-up’s number now. Philip Hobbs’s charge is finally starting to build on the promise he showed in his juvenile hurdling season, which of course saw him win the 2017 Triumph Hurdle.

The son of Voix Du Nord has finally mastered jumping fences, for all he has his own style. His jumping is an asset, but his real weapon is his ability to quickening up in the latter part of his races; he has a real touch of class. A strong-traveller who looks uncomplicated, progressive and is a genuine top-class novice, the 2020 Ryanair Chase looks tailormade for him.

Positive mention must also go to Lostintranslation who he himself is a nice prospect. He has the physique to keep on getting better and the Tizzard camp rate him highly. He could’ve maybe done with going a bit quicker early, to draw the sting out of Defi Du Seuil, but he’s again run well, coming seven lengths clear of the third home Mengli Khan, and is another who will push next season’s established stars.

Declan Rix
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