Racing at Cheltenham on Saturday January 26 was labelled Trials Day, a meeting giving owners, trainers and horses a last chance to run on the hallowed turf before the Festival kicks off in March. There were four Grade 2 contests, testing the credentials of senior chasers, senior hurdlers and novice hurdlers, among a trio of decent handicaps on a seven-race card.
It was a fine day’s racing and fitting of its title, Cheltenham Festival clues were indeed on offer and I think we learned plenty. Below, are my main takeaways.
RYANAIR FRODON’S BEST CHANCE OF WINNING AT THE FESTIVAL
Under a brilliant ride from Bryony Frost, Frodon just held on for a Grade 2 success in the BetBright Trial Cotswold Chase, winning his third race of the season and the first of his career over 3m plus. Heading into the contest, much of the speculation was whether the son of Nickname would stay 3m1½f and while winning would suggest he has, especially in beating such a stout stayer like Elegant Escape, visually, it’s hard to agree.
Having been about 5 lengths in front of Elegant Escape jumping the third last and second last, Frodon only had ¾ of a length to spare at the line. When you factor in the easy lead he got throughout, off what couldn’t be described as Grade 2 fractions it all points to the Gold Cup trip, being a step too far for the game seven-year-old.
Paul Nicholls feels his charge will come on fitness wise for the run, and there is a suggestion to say the winner idled a touch late, but in a Gold Cup likely to be run much harder from the get-go over the bones of a furlong further, it’s extremely hard to make a form case for Frodon taking in National Hunt’s Blue Riband contest. The level he ran to here along with him treading water late in the race strongly suggests the Ryanair is his best chance of winning a Cheltenham Festival race.
This victory is simply a case of Frodon being the best horse against much slower competitors, in a race that turned into a relative speed test. A top-class pace precise ride from Bryony Frost was really the difference in winning and losing. It was another fine training performance from Paul Nicholls to boot, although he and Frost both had the aid of an ultra-tough and game galloper; Frodon is a horse that epitomises National Hunt racing.
Along with Elegant Escape, it’s hard to see him winning a Gold Cup however. While Frodon’s skinny chance of hitting the frame on Cheltenham’s Friday – should all those to the front of the current market line up - will increase with good ground, the only way one could envisage Elegant Escape winning or placing in a Gold Cup is if we get another stamina-sapping festival.
The relative speed test didn’t suit Colin Tizzard’s inmate, but off stronger fractions on decent ground against better opposition, you can see Elegant Escape losing his pitch before maybe staying on passed beaten rivals.
Third home, a Grade 1-winning novice last season, Terrefort has had a badly interrupted campaign, but he made a pleasing enough comeback here, shaping as if he would come on for the run. He did plenty right, but at this moment in time, Nicky Henderson’s inmate looks comfortably below the level he was at during last year’s Aintree Festival.
It’s looking like the 2019 Cotswold Chase won’t have a strong bearing on the Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup.
OUTSTANDING PAISLEY THE ONE TO BEAT IN STAYERS’ HURDLE
After his monster 12 lengths destruction of the Grade 2 Cleeve Hurdle at Cheltenham, Paisley Park has leaped to the front of the Stayers’ Hurdle market. Emma Lavelle’s stable star is now a best-priced 3/1 shot for the Thursday festival race, and while that may seem short, on Saturday’s performance the son of Oscar is deserving of outright and strong favouritism.
Not only is the wide margin victory fitting of great plaudits, the fact the winner carried a 6lb penalty for his previous Grade 1 Long Walk success at Ascot further adds to what a monster performance we really witnessed. When you factor in his idle nature when hitting the front, you can go even further, for all this area of form reading is hard to be tangible on.
Hyperbole is something I try my best to stay away from – I find in betting that is a good strategy – but on this evidence, it’s going to take a top-level Grade 1 horse to turnover Paisley Park in the Stayers’ Hurdle.
Without wanting to put him in the same category as the great Big Buck’s, Paisley Park’s Cleeve victory had similar hallmarks to Paul Nicholls’s four-time Stayers’ Hurdle winner. There is plenty about his style that reminds me of the great hurdler.
For one, Paisley Park certainly saves plenty for himself. Just like Big Buck’s, he seems to hit a customary flat spot in his races before engaging top gear. When in full flight and asked to go about his business, the response is strong. When in front, he also imitates Big Buck’s, in that he does little off the bridle.
Emma Lavelle, her husband Barry Fenton and all her team have done a remarkable job with this horse. Having start the season rated 140, their stable star is now likely to be rated in and around the mid-160s. Congratulations to owner Andrew Gemmell, the dream lives on.
D'OUDAIRIES GALLOPS TO THE FRONT OF TRIUMPH HURDLE MARKET
Of the two novice hurdle performances at Cheltenham on Saturday, it was Fakir D'oudairies who most caught the eye, his victory in the Grade 2 Finesse Hurdle impressing. Joseph O’Brien’s horse put on a clinic of juvenile hurdling and a galloping display befitting of an older hurdler.
Off what looked like a fair gallop set by the race favourite, 147-rated Adjali, Fakir D'oudairies had little trouble staying to the fore of proceedings, before the relentless galloping son of Kapgarde stamped his class on the field after jumping the second last, scooting up the hill to win by 13 lengths.
Backed from early morning prices of 8/1 into 4s, his high cruising speed, good jumping and strong galloping ability, along with his experience over hurdles and fences in France, mean he looks tailormade for this season’s Triumph Hurdle. Indeed, he is now a best priced 6/1 (favourite) shot for the race.
The only potential drawback I can see is the possibility of spring good ground maybe not allowing to let himself down. Fakir D'oudairies has got quite a pronounced knee action, he hits the ground hard, and cut in the turf make suit best going forward.
Joseph O’Brien recorded a one-two in this Grade 2 contest as his Fine Brunello ran on to be second. A drifter from 20s out to an SP of 25/1, not much was expected. While he didn’t hurdle as well his stablemate, this performance may see him of interest in the Fred Winter.
BIRCHDALE PROGRESSES TO WIN UNSATISFACTORY CLASSIC HURDLE
Pre-meeting, the Grade 2 Ballymore Novices' Hurdle was one of the races I was most looking forward to, but in the end, it had a slightly unsatisfactory feel.
With different novice hurdling form lines on offer, it looked a great opportunity to get a good look at some of this season’s leading prospects in Britain, but with the well-backed Brewin'Upastorm falling at the last and my fancy Jarveys Plate clearly running below his best, it ended up a slightly disappointing race, for me.
In the end, the Barry Geraghty-ridden, Nicky Henderson-trained Birchdale would go on to be a fortunate 18 lengths winner. He and Brewin'Upastorm came to the last, just half-a-length separating them, before the Olly Murphy inmate took a crashing fall, handing the race to JP McManus’s horse. I’m finding it hard to make a call on who would have won, it looked too close to call.
Despite this, it is clear Birchdale has taken a significant step forward from his maiden hurdle success at Warwick in mid-December and is clearly going the right way after what I considered just a sound start to his hurdling career.
You get the feeling he’s a horse that the team at Seven Barrows rate highly, and we’ve seen that on the track now, but whether he is streetwise and experienced enough to compete at the Cheltenham Festival, I’m not so sure.
With Champ an older and stronger horse holding better claims in the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle, it makes sense for Birchdale to maybe take a different avenue and head to Aintree or Punchestown. I wouldn’t like to see him slog it out in the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle over 3m at this stage of his career given he looks an exciting prospect.
Brewin'Upastorm, despite his fall, is said to be fine and likely to head for the Ballymore. Hopefully this fall doesn’t leave a mental mark, because he is a likable horse who clearly enjoys his racing. Although he didn’t complete, it looked like he was about to improve (slightly) on his run behind Champ in the Challow Novices’ Hurdle.
As for Jarveys Plate, I won’t be giving up on him. He was clearly below his best, maybe a third run in six weeks catching up on him. Paddy Brennan never looked happy at any stage; his mount not travelling like he did 26 days previous. Keep the faith.
STRONG HANDICAP FORM TO FOLLOW COME MARCH
Finally, the two handicap chases on the card won by Kildisart (Timeform Novices' Handicap Chase) and Siruh Du Lac (Spectra Cyber Security Solutions Trophy Handicap Chase) are two pieces of handicap form to keep onside for the remainder of the season.
In both races, the front two home came clear of inform horses, which is always a positive sign. Despite making a couple of novicey errors, it’s a sign of the natural ability (and maybe being well-handicapped) Kildisart possesses that he managed to win so well. Despite those mistakes, he came there travelling sweetly in the latter part of the race, put it to bed when asked and was value for more than the 2-length winning margin given he idled.
Given Kildisart nearly ducked left to go out and run another lap, only to be stopped by the new measures in place, it's maybe another sign that he had plenty in the tank. He continued the great recent run for trainer Ben Pauling, and I get the feeling this is a horse who will continue to get better as the years go on.
The runner-up, the brilliant jumping novice Highway One O One would be of serious interest in the opening day’s Close Brothers Novices' Handicap Chase if the handicapper allows him to go that way.
Siruh Du Lac was another to impress in the jumping department as he fended off the challenge of the nicely backed Janika. He is another who could run in the Close Brothers Novices' Handicap Chase while Janika wouldn’t be out of place in the Ryanair on this evidence.
It remains to be seen if both will be as effective on faster spring ground; the only potential concerns in two cracking runs.