Kevin Blake

Leading racing writer Kevin Blake reflects on the disappointing return of Footpad in the Grade 3 Poplar Square Chase where Harry Whittington’s Saint Calvados started his season in sensational style. Kevin also analyses the novice chase debut of leading Arkle contender Kalashnikov.

  • Monday 12 November
  • Blog
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The Grade 3 Poplar Square Chase at Naas was widely considered to be the most anticipated race of last weekend as it would see the seasonal reappearance of one of the most exciting National Hunt horses in training, the Willie Mullins-trained Footpad. However, the race didn’t go as many had expected, with the British-trained raider Saint Calvados making all to record an impressive success with Footpad coming to grief at the final fence when looking beaten. While the case, those bare details only tell half the story.

First and foremost, there was an awful lot to like about the performance of Saint Calvados. His novice chase campaign last season was characterised by an aggressive front-running style that featured some cheek-clenching jumping of the low and fast variety. His aggression proved to be his undoing on the biggest stage in the Arkle Challenge Trophy, as he got involved in a battle for the lead with Petit Mouchoir that neither consented to back out of and ultimately cut each other’s throats.

This was his first run since then, but what we saw was a more measured performance from Saint Calvados. While he still took an enthusiastic grip in an uncontested lead, he was notably less gung-ho at his fences, cleverly taking an extra stride when required on multiple occasions. With none of his rivals making a serious impression on him, he was always in control and won with plenty to space.

As seasonal reappearances go, this could hardly have been more encouraging. What makes it even more encouraging is that his exaggerated knee action would very much suggest that a softer surface than what prevailed at Naas will very much suit him going forward.

The Tingle Creek could well be on the agenda for Saint Calvados and he would be likely to meet a reappearing Altior in that race. While Altior would quite clearly be the one to beat, Saint Calvados is no back number and will be a worthy rival for that champion.

In terms of the bigger picture, great credit must also be given to Harry Whittington for bringing his stable star into the lion’s den for his seasonal reappearance. It is quite rare for a British raider to come over to Ireland outside of the very biggest meetings, so to do so to take on such a high-profile star as Footpad on his home ground was a big call that deserved the great reward that it got.

Understandably, the winning performance of Saint Calvados was somewhat overshadowed by Footpad. Having put together one of the most impressive novice chase campaigns of recent seasons in 2017/18, he was widely expected to be the main challenger to Altior’s throne this season. However, from an early stage it was clear that Footpad’s return to action was not going to plan.

While he was big and fresh over the first two fences, he completely misjudged the third and paddled through it. From there, he just didn’t look himself. He was briefly cocking his tail after the fifth fence in a manner that suggested he was feeling discomfort and left his hind end in the sixth jump. While he still seemed to be travelling reasonably well in pursuit of Saint Calvados approaching the second-last, his pursuit looked to be in vain when getting the last all wrong and failing to get his landing gear out in time to save himself.

It was a puzzling performance from Footpad given that his jumping had been impeccable all last season with one memorable exception in the Arkle Challenge Trophy, but a possible explanation did soon emerge that tallied with the visual impression that Footpad had hurt himself when making that mistake at the third fence. Willie Mullins revealed that Footpad had come back in with a deep overreach and suggested that it is likely to have happened at the third fence.

Such a performance from Footpad must be concerning and one can only hope that it doesn’t adversely affect his confidence. Given how notably good his jumping had been prior to this run, one can only hope that it proves to be just a blip, but he will have to prove that to be the case in his next start.

It was certainly a blow to his Champion Chase credentials and he will need to get back on track next time to maintain his position as the leading Irish-trained hope for that race.


The two-mile novice chase division is always one of the most exciting in National Hunt racing, so there was understandably a great amount of expectation surrounding the chasing debut of Kalashnikov in a novice chase at Warwick on Friday.

The Amy Murphy-trained five-year-old was nabbed close home in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival last season and had been the summer favourite for the Arkle Challenge Trophy back at the meeting next March.

While the fact that he was sent off at 1/4 at Warwick prior to registering an 11-length success suggests that he only did what was to be expected, there was plenty to take from the performance. Initially restrained and taking an enthusiastic grip, he reached for the fourth and was a shade fortunate to clear it, while he also pecked at the back of the sixth.

However, once he was allowed to stride on from the fifth-last fence, he showed an attacking appetite for jumping that one always wants to see in a two-mile chaser. He was very good from that point onwards and was strong up the run-in.

A step up in class awaits him now and he gives the impression that a better race where they go a stronger gallop will suit him even better. While it wasn’t foot perfect, this was a very pleasing start from Kalashnikov and his place at the front of the market for the Arkle is well deserved at this early stage.

Kevin Blake
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