While a lack of rain in Ireland continues to hold back their season from bursting into life, Great Britain, despite also still racing on faster than normal going for the time of year, gave racing fans three fine days of entertainment at the Cheltenham November meeting.
Some races at Prestbury Park, although run in November, have proved to be a decent guide to the future spring festivals. Having reviewed five years’ worth of data from previous November meetings – winners and losers in all races – below were some of the contests that most caught my attention with an eye on the future.
KASBAH LAYS DOWN EARLY SEASON NATIONAL MARKER
On Saturday in the Grade 3 BetVictor.com Handicap Chase, I think we saw a potential Grand National candidate in the shape of Rock The Kasbah. While no winner of this race in last five years has produced a successful King of Merseyside in April, the likes of Saint Are (2014), Alvarado (2013) and Monbeg Dude (2013) have all run well enough here before going on to be competitive in the National.
Having been one of the many Philip Hobbs horses to misfire last season with the stable under a cloud, the eight-year-old son of Shirocco looks an improved horse this campaign on the back of a classy success.
Always travelling well and jumping accurately to the head of affairs off what were solid fractions for a marathon contest, Richard Johnson’s mount was extremely game in a performance laden with stamina to see off his field.
He looks tailormade for the Aintree showpiece event, for all it is in April next year. Odds of 33/1 are obtainable on the Betfair Exchange and among many bookmakers, but betting with the former gives you the chance of a great and easy trading opportunity in a race where potential free bets should never be passed over.
MORE STEEL NEEDED TO REACH THE TOP
On the opening day, the Steel Plate And Sections Novices' Chase went the way of the Nigel Twiston Davies-trained Count Meribel, who defied a penalty and a second last fence blunder to win in the hands of an emotional Mark Grant – a man riding his first ever winner at Cheltenham.
This race last season produced a subsequent Grade 1 Novices’ Chase hero in Finian’s Oscar (Manifesto Novices' Chase), while the third home, Coo Star Sivola, went on to win a Cheltenham Festival handicap, the Ultima Handicap Chase.
Flying Angel pulled up in the 2016 renewal before going on to win a Grade 1, another to do so in the Manifesto Novices' Chase at the Aintree festival while the 2013 victor, Taquin Du Seuil, tasted top-level success on the grandest stage of all in the 2014 JLT Novices’ Chase.
Former top-class hurdler More Of That took the 2015 edition before going on to run third in that season’s RSA, a race he bled in, and on this season’s evidence that staying route looks the way Friday’s field should be going, although an end-to-end tempo over 2m4f might suit some just as well.
Having taken the field along at a steady early gallop, the eventual runner-up Le Breuil had complete run of the race out in front and stole quite a few cheap lengths in the initial skirmishes. Given the sedate nature, I would have hoped the field would have shown some late race pace, but that wasn’t the case, which suggests to me we are talking about handicappers or horses that will stay well as the season develops.
On the plus side, most of the runners appeared to jump nicely and given the bad mistake the winner made at the second last, it was quite impressive that he picked up again to win. He is likable, but I fear the handicapper will go overboard with this success, forcing connections into graded company.
The horse to take from the race was one who didn’t complete, having fallen at the last when moving into a dangerous staying on position. White Moon was coming to have a major say before an unlucky departure, and if not affected by his misfortune he can repay his followers down the line. Given how he shaped, races of 3m may well be ideal going forward.
IS THERE A JEWEL AMONG THEM?
Saturday’s mallardjewellers.com Novices' Chase is a race that has produced some diamonds in the last three seasons, especially. The three-mile event was won by subsequent Grade 1 winner Black Corton last year, who went on to beat the Scottish Grand National runner-up Ballyoptic.
The 2016 King George VI Chase winner Thistlecrack took the season’s previous edition while 2015 saw a trio of big-race scorers compete against each other. Vicente (Scottish National winner) would lead home Un Temps Pour Tout (Ultima Handicap Chase winner) while Blaklion fell in the race when still in contention; this was all before going on to claim the RSA Chase at that year’s Cheltenham Festival.
I doubt there is a Grade 1 winner among Saturday’s race, but Ibis Du Rheu put up a nice performance in beating the improving and slick-jumping mare Theatre Territory. On decent ground, there are some nice handicaps to be won with both, but the third horse home, hot favourite The Worlds End, blotted his copybook somewhat, where winning Grade 1 novice chases are concerned.
Although carrying a penalty is never easy in such contests, Tom George’s inmate really needed to be winning this if being a legitimate RSA contender. My gut feeling is the National Hunt Challenge Cup Amateur Riders' Novices' Chase (sorry Adrian) or a handicap like the Ultima may be his best chance of winning a Cheltenham Festival race.
I saw some crab the ride of Adrian Heskin here, but that looks unfair on a horse that jumped incredibly slowly in parts compared to his rivals. While he was slow, he was at least always safe.
Heskin’s ride in the weekend’s highlight, the BetVictor Gold Cup Handicap Chase, I would be less forgiving about, however. The Irish rider clearly lost his race at the start aboard the favourite Mister Whitaker who, in the circumstances ran a big race. On a horse who jumps well, travels easily and looks like he will stay further, Heskin holding his mount up on the slick terrain gave his charge little chance where those to the fore dominated.