Declan Rix

The day after Trials Day at Cheltenham, Declan Rix takes a closer look at the performances of Cotswold Chase winner Santini and Cleeve Hurdle victor Paisley Park.

  • Sunday 26 January
  • Blog
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SANTINI “GETS SEASON BACK ON TRACK” IN QUEST FOR GOLD

Last season’s RSA Insurance Novices' Chase runner-up Santini “got his season back on track” at Cheltenham on Saturday, when running out a strong staying 3½ lengths winner of the Grade 2 Paddy Power Cotswold Chase from last year’s Gold Cup third Bristol De Mai.

The eight-year-old had been written off in terms of winning this campaign’s Blue Riband by some, after what was a no more than satisfactory start back in November in the Listed Future Stars Intermediate Chase at Sandown. There, the son of Milan scrambled home by a head in beating the then 144-rated Now McGinty.

In black and white, sure, it wasn’t a Gold Cup-winning performance, but the knee-jerk reaction around the run was naïve, especially in the context of a number of factors. One; it was the horse’s seasonal debut. Two; physically, Santini is the type of athlete that would need plenty of work – and racing - to not only get him physically fit, but mentally sharp. Three; he gave the runner-up, a thoroughly likable type who was second in last season’s Grade 2 Reynoldstown Novices’ Chase, 6lb.

I had his victory at Sandown (151p) 8lb below his gallant RSA second (159p), but given the type of gross horse he is, it was hardly a massively disappointing effort. Considering the man who trains him, you can be sure the race was merely a stepping stone to Cheltenham in March, and given connections reported a small breathing issue after the race, which was operated on soon after, it was a perfectly satisfactory start with the bigger picture in mind.

For me, there was no season to get back on track, but Saturday’s victory in the Cotswold Chase enhanced Santini’s chance of winning National Hunt racing’s most prestigious race, and surely, at least garnered the respect of his biggest detractors post-Sandown?

In beating the top-class Bristol De Mai by just under four lengths, while getting 2lb from the runner-up, it goes down as a career best effort (161p) for the Seven Barrows lodger. On my figures, it was a 2lb better performance than his RSA second, with the potential of more to come. For context, I had Al Boum Photo running to 168p in last season’s Gold Cup success.

The Cotswold form looks solid, too, with Bristol De Mai appearing in rude health while also having total run of the race. OK, Nigel Twiston-Davies’s stable star is clearly not as good at Cheltenham as he is at Haydock, but he has finished second in a JLT Novices’ Chase (2016) and was third in last year’s Gold Cup, while he also shaped far better than the distance beaten in Sizing John’s year.

Santini wins the Cotswold Chase
Santini (right) in action under Nico de Boinville in the Cotswold Chase

Daryl Jacob set a sedate pace on the first circuit of the contest, with much of the field giving him easy lengths at the start. The second circuit looked much quicker however, and Santini had little problem laying up, although under visual sufferance.

It doesn’t look pretty with Nico de Boinville rowing away, but the important element in this, is Santini, while appearing outpaced, is not actually losing any ground. So, in truth, he is actually not being outpaced, or at least wasn’t on Saturday.

The Mr & Mrs R Kelvin-Hughes-owned performer, even with de Boinville sometimes keeping up the revs on the final circuit, looked far sharper here than he did on seasonal debut; travelling sweeter, jumping well in the main and seeing his race out strongly in determined fashion.

There was a momentum curbing mistake at the second last, but it was a sign of how much Santini had left that he was able to get back into stride quickly, before racing away after the last fence. It was also noteworthy, that the first time de Boinville used his air-cushioned foam encourager was after the last, suggesting he never once felt like he or the horse was in trouble, despite what the perceived visuals could lead one to think.

All in all, on soft ground, it was a potential Gold Cup-winning performance last Saturday. That’s hardly a bold statement about the best-priced 9/1 shot (is as short as 5/1), but Santini does need to improve in the interim, and he also may need some luck with underfoot conditions on the day.

In his 48-day break on the run-up to the Gold Cup, I think he can progress into a better horse, on what will be just his tenth lifetime start on the track and sixth over fences, but as ever, the going is an element no one has control over.

My own view is better ground will help Santini in everything he does; as a good-moving type he will travel kinder and maybe jump even better, but the faster the going gets, the more worried you become about him racing flat-out and potentially being outpaced.

It certainly looks a Catch-22 situation to me and until I see the official ground and a Going Stick reading on Gold Cup day, my splintered bottom shall remain on the fence in terms of picking the Gold Cup winner now. The ground simply plays too big a roll to be concrete on the race at present, at the prices, for all Santini is high on my shortlist.

SO HARD TO READ PAISLEY PARK’S APPARENTLY CLASSY CLEEVE HURDLE TRIUMPH

It’s safe to say, visually, we were all taken by and enjoyed Paisley Park’s toying of the opposition in Saturday’s Grade 2 galliardhomes.com Cleeve Hurdle at Cheltenham. As is common knowledge by now, Emma Lavelle’s stable star can look in trouble, through racing behind the bridle, before the afterburners kick in and he eventually goes on to win snuggly; it’s been like this for seven races in a row now.

His ears pricked coming up the run-in adds glamour and race fans – me included – lap it up. It is great to see but I feel we are becoming in danger of leaving the above aspects steer us away from good, old-fashioned form analysis; this especially the case in Paisley Park’s Cleeve victory.

I have to say, I am struggling to get to grips with this season’s Cleeve in terms of putting an accurate number to which Paisley Park ran to. I really don’t rate Summerville Boy as high as the BHA, who have him on a mark of 156 currently, thanks to his victory in the Grade 2 Relkeel Hurdle on New Year’s Day at Cheltenham.

This day, he beat Dan Skelton’s Roksana by 2¼ lengths. The runner-up had to carry a penalty in the race, and instead of getting 7lb from Summerville Boy, she got 1lb. The winner also had complete run of the race, under a fine Johnny Burke ride, with Roksana keen and in one of the worst tactical positions, which in no doubt contributed.

The third horse home, William Henry, also had a penalty to carry - giving Summerville Boy 4lb – and came into the race without a run as a 10-year-old. To my eye, it was Listed-level form on the day.

With this the case, Summerville Boy’s proximity (1¼ lengths) to Paisley Park, has set off a red light in my own head, even in the understanding last season’s Stayers’ Hurdle winner toyed with the runner-up from the last hurdle home.

Paisley Park wins the Cleeve Hurdle
With ears pricked, Paisley Park is in front under Aidan Coleman

The third-placed horse, Lisnagar Oscar, was beaten 4½ lengths at a price of 50/1 for the inform Rebecca Curtis yard. A good novice hurdler in 2018/19, this campaign he has been below par in a failed novice chasing season, for all Saturday was certainly a seasons best effort.

The waters get murkier when you look at the fourth and fifth horses home, the 154-rated 10-year-old Tobefair (4th) and the classy 166-rated If The Cap Fits (5th), beaten 6¾ and 7½ lengths, respectively. Surely, these two horses couldn’t have underperformed to such a significant level? It’s probably worth noting that the fifth horse did have an interrupted prep coming into the race.

The above is a genuine question, as like I say, I am struggling to get to grips with this race. Maybe the slow, messy and brilliant gallop set by Johnny Burke on giving the runner-up a great chance of winning is making it tougher? For a Grade 2 race and a supposed Cheltenham Festival trial, they really did crawl around.  

The final piece in making me think about the level of the form, comes from sectional analysis, for all it is basic analysis on my part. The previous race, the Grade 2 Ballymore Novices' Hurdle won by Harry Senior, their final circuit time was over three seconds quicker than the Cleeve Hurdle, run over a half-mile shorter.

The gallop set by the leader in the Ballymore played a huge part in the final circuit time being quicker, but it was still disappointing to see Paisley Park only come home just over two lengths faster, carrying a pound more, over a longer trip than Harry Senior in the Ballymore race.

Maybe it’s a case of Harry Senior thrived in the ground and put in a top performance himself, or maybe Paisley Park will simply do much better in a stronger-run race on better going? Those are two possible theories, but nonetheless, I thought it worth sharing, especially in the context of Paisley Park being mostly odds-on for the Stayers’ Hurdle. 

We all know by now, he is a horse that only does enough, and again, that could be the simple explanation here, but there are elements of the form that are dubious. Just like Defi Du Seuil last week, I am of course not saying Paisley Park can’t win at Cheltenham, I’m just sharing my observations. 

Declan Rix
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