Kevin Blake

Christmas saw some of National Hunt's "big guns" lay down several markers for 2021, and Kevin highlights those who caught his eye.

  • Wednesday 30 December
  • Blog
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Christmas racing reflections

Staying chase division gets shaken up

Between the King George VI Chase at Kempton and the Savills Chase at Leopardstown, the vast majority of top end staying chasers were on show over the Christmas period. With so many top horses coming together, it was always likely that more bubbles would burst, than reputations enhanced, and that duly proved to be the case.

The King George saw Frodon do what Frodon does. Jump, gallop and give his all. His cause was helped by some main rivals running below form, therefore allowing him to do his own thing in front - but, none of that was his fault, and he fulfilled his task in game and gritty style. The question is: will connections opt to go down the tried and trusted route of the Ryanair Chase or roll the big dice in the Gold Cup? He is already established as one of National Hunt racings great overachievers and is entitled to be respected wherever he lines up.

Waiting Patiently ran a stormer back in second, finishing well from an unfavoured position. He has been very lightly raced in recent seasons, but clearly retains all of his ability. A rematch from two years ago with Cyrname in the Ascot Chase in February could well be on the cards, as that rival responded poorly to more restrained riding tactics, running well below form and may therefore be reverted to more familiar territory at Ascot.

Waiting Patiently (pink cap) ran an excellent second in the King George VI Chase

Clan Des Obeaux didn’t show the same spark as in the previous two renewals of the race and it seems most likely he wasn’t quite over the exertions of his return when tackling testing conditions in the Betfair Chase at Haydock. Saint Calvados could be another one for that contest having shaped as though a return to shorter trips will suit, though his connections may opt to go straight for the Ryanair Chase that he ran so well in last season.

Further back, Santini found the test to be insufficient, and it will just be a case of passing time for him between now and his main target, the Cheltenham Gold Cup. One imagines his connections will be tempted to replace cheekpieces with first-time blinkers.

Unfortunately, for all his talent, Lostintranslation looks to be fighting a losing battle with physical issues. He reportedly burst blood vessels, and this was his third poor run in his last four starts. The Tizzards brought him back from a poor run in this race last year to run a stormer in the Gold Cup, but their task in doing the same again looks a far greater one this season.

Classy Savills

Over at Leopardstown, the Savills Chase attracted one of the deepest and strongest fields seen in an Irish Grade 1 during the last decade, with 11 of the 14 runners either going into it or coming out of it rated 160 or higher.

The one that came out on top in a thrilling finish was A Plus Tard. Henry De Bromhead had been in two minds as to what route to send him down in trip this season, but his brave shout to throw him into such a strong renewal of this race for his belated return to three miles was vindicated in quite some style. Interestingly, it was stamina that was tested on the day and it was A Plus Tard that showed most of it. It took him time to get on terms with the more aggressively-ridden Kemboy and Melon, but he was powerful through the line and gave every encouragement to his connections that the longer trip of the Gold Cup at the Cheltenham Festival could well be worth exploring.

A return to more forceful riding tactics brought about a return to form from Kemboy in second. His very best efforts came under such tactics and he seems to jump better under them. He is still a big factor in this division.

Of all the exciting second-season chasers in the field, it was Melon that fared the best. Trying a trip of three miles for just the second time in his career, he was ridden as though stamina was in no doubt and ran an absolute belter. His slick jumping, which was honed over shorter trips, proved to be an asset and brought him into a clear lead a long way from home. He only gave best well up the run-in and that might well have been more a reflection of him being put into the race so early rather than a lack of stamina for the trip. Where his connections choose to go with him next will be interesting, though being in the same ownership as Al Boum Photo, the Ryanair Chase looks his likeliest Cheltenham Festival target assuming all continues to be well with that stablemate. The Mullins-trained Allaho finished fourth and is another who could well be dropped in trip later in the season.

A Plus Tard won at the Cheltenham Festival in 2019 and could return for the Gold Cup in March

Ironically, it could readily be argued that the Mullins pair of Kemboy and Melon would have fared even better had they not taken each other on from so far out. The debrief amongst that team would have made for interesting viewing. 

Inevitably and unfortunately, there were some disappointments amongst the rest. Minella Indo’s usually excellent jumping briefly deserted him and he fell at the eighth fence. It would be ill-advised to dismiss his Gold Cup claims off the back of this given how impressive he had been prior, but this tumble represents a fair bump in the road of his campaign.

Delta Work was another that failed to complete. Jack Kennedy is seen by Gordon Elliott as being a vital partner for Delta Work as his inconsistent jumping style takes some knowing, so Kennedy being ruled out late was far from ideal. Unfortunately for his replacement Sean Flanagan, he couldn’t stay aboard after Delta Work made a characteristic mistake at the ninth fence. 

There were other disappointments too, with the second-season chasers Samcro, Fakir D’Oudairies and Easy Game never really being in the hunt and ultimately running poorly. Another to run below expectations was Presenting Percy, with the nine-year-old never really travelling with his usual zest. It will be a case of returning to the drawing board with all of them. 

Attention will now turn to the defending Gold Cup champion Al Boum Photo as he makes his reappearance at Tramore on Friday. 

Champion Hurdle division takes a clipping 

The Champion Hurdle division didn’t look in great shape outside of Epatante heading into Christmas, but it looks even windier now. Epatante had her colours lowered in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton, and while she was unlikely to have been at her best, the winner Silver Streak seemed to improve for a much more positive ride and produced a very good performance. Epatante will need to return to her best if retaining her crown. 

Over at Leopardstown, Sharjah enhanced his excellent record at Leopardstown by gaining a third consecutive win in the Matheson Hurdle in quite impressive style. For whatever reason, Sharjah has never seemed to have captured the public imagination and each of his three wins in the race tended to see more focus on beaten horses than him. That was again the case here, with the disappointments of Saint Roi and Abacadabras generating more chat than anything else. However, given the lack of depth in the division, and how well he ran in the race last season, Sharjah may well end up being the leading Irish-trained challenger in the Champion Hurdle come March

Zanahiyr shows his versatility 

Zanahiyr had put up the performance of the season in the juvenile hurdle division when bolting up at Fairyhouse in November. The pace had been notably solid that day and he thrived in such circumstances, but faced a very different scenario in the Knight Frank Juvenile Hurdle at Leopardstown on Saturday - the pace being notably steady. Thus, his versatility was put to the test and he passed with flying colours. The pace of the race didn’t allow him to show his superiority to the extent that he did at Fairyhouse, but he saw off a number of new and well-regarded rivals with a great degree of authority. He is very much in the driving seat in his division. 

A Very Mullins Christmas 

Without doubt the star performer of the Christmas period was Willie Mullins. He trained six winners of the eight Grade 1 races, and 16 winners in total over the Christmas period in Ireland. For a man more associated with bringing his team of stars along steadily with a view to peaking during the spring months, this represents a sensational haul. For context, last year Mullins won just one of the Grade 1 races and had nine winners during the same period. In 2018, he saddled three Grade 1 winners amongst 10 total winners. 

Mind, this surge in success wasn’t a happy coincidence. Speaking to RTE Racing after Sharjah’s victory in the Matheson Hurdle, Mullins revealed that his team had sat down during the summer and made a conscious decision to make some changes to their gallop and aim to have their team more forward in time for the Christmas festivals. Whether or not the continued uncertainty with the Covid-19 crisis played a role in this decision is unclear, but it may well prove to be an inspired move given the growing concerns about cross-channel travel. 

In terms of the bigger picture, Mullins’ performance over Christmas threw a spanner in Gordon Elliott’s ambitions to be Champion Trainer. Having enjoyed his Christmas dinner with a healthy lead over Mullins, Elliott had lost the lead by the end of racing on Tuesday. Perhaps this earlier-than-usual surge from Mullins will result in his more typical late-season charge not being quite as potent this season, but right now, Mullins is very much in the driving seat.

Kevin Blake
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