The weekend just gone was a brilliant few days for racing on the track. Some big names stepped out at Newbury, Newcastle and also across the Irish Sea at Fairyhouse, for their two-day fixture. On Friday, Paisley Park was back at Newbury; on Saturday, the reigning Champion Hurdler Epatante made her seasonal debut and on Sunday, Honeysuckle returned, along with Envoi Allen having his first start over fences in Grade 1 company.
As you can see, it was an exciting few days with such stellar names competing - and there were more - but while it was great to have them back on our screens; was the hype surrounding the above post-race – especially concerning Envoi Allen, Epatante and Honeysuckle – really warranted from a form perspective?
How much did we really learn; and was the result of each win dwelled on too much, rather than how it was actually achieved, and what was achieved? It is great fans get excited by such horses, genuinely, but the excitement seems out of kilter to what was actually realised. Striking a balance is important, and hopefully the below does just that.
Epatante stylish on the eye but form lacks fight
Epatante put up a visually stunning display to dispatch the in-form Sceau Royal by an easy 4½ lengths in the Grade 1 Betfair Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle on Saturday. It was the first time JP McManus’s mare had run on nice ground since her six-length demolition in last year’s Gerry Feilden at Newbury, nearly a year to the day.
There is absolutely no doubt she handles soft – we saw that in her classy Champion Hurdle display – but she just looks to do everything easier on a quicker surface; especially jump well. Under her new rider Aidan Coleman, the 6yo daughter of No Risk At All hurdled fluently. In fact, she did everything well; jump, travel, quickened; and I was taken by how hard she hit the line. It was a fantastic start to her campaign.
However, the form of her victory is questionable, in the context of a Champion Hurdle, especially given how the race panned out. With Not So Sleepy unseating Paddy Brennan at the first, and then a loose Not So Sleepy carrying out Silver Streak at the second, it left Daryl Jacob and Sceau Royal to make their own running. Not ideal.
Pre-race, I made Silver Streak Epatante’s biggest danger; heading to Newcastle off a career best at Kempton. So much so, I backed Silver Streak in the without favourite market. I also backed him in the without Epatante and Sceau Royal market. It was that kind of weekend for me, on the betting front.
In my own mind, this made the mare’s task easier and while Sceau Royal has been in good order this season, for my money, he is comfortably a better chaser than hurdler on figures. Pre-Newcastle, Sceau Royal won a poor Elite Hurdle at Wincanton where only two horses ran their races; him and the officially 144-rated, Tequany. He beat him Tequany, by 7½ lengths but that is so far short of Champion Hurdle form.
And so, is it any wonder Epatante breezed past Sceau Royal? Especially in receipt of 7lb?
It’s not all doom and gloom from me, as I think this was the perfect start to Epatante’s season in many ways. We know she is much better than what she achieved on Saturday, and she didn’t have a hard race. Good luck to any horse trying to beat her in the Christmas Hurdle on the back of this, especially on decent ground, as you would imagine this will bring her forward nicely.
In many ways, my main takeaway was how Aidan Coleman gelled with Epatante in what was a pressure ride. Coleman, replacing the now retired Barry Geraghty, spoke maturely post-race, having an eye on the bigger picture in terms of future targets and not wanting his mount to have a hard race. This, I imagine, will please Nicky Henderson no end, along with Frank Berry and JP McManus.
Coleman exuded confidence, and while it’s easy to point to his partner doing all the heavy lifting, it was a good start to their second relationship together. Now, the first building block in defending Epatante’s Champion Hurdle crown is smoothly in place, but tougher tests await.
Honey clings on in slightly disappointing return
On Sunday at Fairyhouse, another star mare returned, the now unbeaten-in-nine Honeysuckle, who just hung on for victory in the Grade 1 BARONERACING.COM Hatton’s Grace Hurdle by a fast diminishing half-length from Ronald Pump.
While it was great to have her back, I’ve got to say, I was a little disappointed with the performance, given, in theory, she should have been most suited by how the race was run over the 2m4f trip. They really did dawdle here, the pace was slow and with Honeysuckle in a good position throughout under Rachael Blackmore, it seemed like she had much in her favour, but Kenneth Alexander’s mare simply didn’t win like a 4/11 shot.
OK, in the end, she did, but to look at races in such a black and white manner isn’t a good idea. When broken down, Honeysuckle, an Irish Champion Hurdle heroine, just clung on from a horse who was second in last season’s strong-run soft ground Stayers’ Hurdle (3m), in what was a slow-run 2m4f contest. It’s hard to be impressed under those circumstances.
To be fair to Henry de Bromhead’s inmate, this was her seasonal debut against race-fit horses on soft ground, and she did tie up a touch in the closing stages. I also think she is better suited off a much stronger gallop; she'll get better paces to chase down the line.
Honeysuckle is absolutely entitled to improve for this, mind, but with a potential Champion Hurdle run gently mooted post-race, she simply needs to take a huge step forward on the back of this effort to warrant going down that path.
Again, to finish on a positive, I was impressed with her jumping, for all it came off soft fractions; and the great attitude that has served her so well in her career is clearly still intact.
Positives to be taken from Paisley’s run
On Friday, at Newbury, the much anticipated return of Paisley Park was completed in the Ladbrokes Long Distance Hurdle, and it looked a great start to his campaign, on the back of a health scare at the Cheltenham Festival. Emma Lavelle’s stable star was a bitterly disappointing beaten favourite (4/6) in last season’s Stayers’ Hurdle where he finished a well-held seventh.
While he lost three of his four shoes that day, heart irregularities were to blame, an issue similar to what National Hunt greats Denman and Sprinter Sacre suffered in their respective careers. Soon after Cheltenham, Paisley Park was given a clean bill of health, but his return on Friday, while obviously much anticipated, was likely fraught with worry for his connections, and indeed racing fans.
Thankfully, at least in my view, the son of Oscar has seemingly returned as good as ever under a 3lb penalty. In the same race last season, I had the 8yo running to 155+, but here, on Friday, Paisley Park bettered that by 2lb, for all he was defeated by new kid on the block Thyme Hill.
While encouragement should be taken from the level achieved on seasonal debut, the main takeaway for me was how he went through his race. Paisley Park appeared to jump well, but more importantly, his famous ‘flat spot’ could be seen before running on.
So, not only did he run to a good level first-time up, but his old characteristics when he was at the peak of his powers look to be in place. I think this is a huge positive going forward, because peak Paisley Park (165+) is a very, very good horse.
It would be great to see him reach those heights again and while still comfortably off that level based on Friday, he is entitled to improve. In a race run at a slow early gallop, he won’t have had a tough return and this certainly looks like something to build on.
He will need to do so going forward, as the two years younger Thyme Hill looks an improved horse this season, and is open to further progress. In a messy race, Richard Johnson positioned his mount better than most and the pair capitalised on being in a stronger tactical position than Paisley Park.
Thyme Hill looked happy to be back; travelling nicely early and seemingly jumping well. I was impressed with how he hit the line and for all he will be 3lb worse off with Paisley Park going forward, now he is reportedly holding his condition better, the son of Kayf Tara can hopefully continue to improve.
The ground at Newbury looked quick for the time of year, and I feel it suited both Thyme Hill and Paisley Park well. Whether the deep winter terrain of Ascot and Cheltenham suit as well, remains to be seen, but both have started their respective campaigns nicely.