How do you solve a puzzle like Pentland Hills?
The two-mile hurdle division has been most notable for the misfiring of potential contenders this season, but in Pentland Hills we now have a character study that will make things very interesting to say the least.
For about 97% of the Unibet Hurdle at Haydock on Saturday, Pentland Hills looked like Diego Maradona. He had effortlessly weaved his way through his opposition and having rounded the goalkeeper, all that was left to do was triumphantly tap the ball into the open goal. Yet, somehow, he managed to the blaze the ball off the crossbar, which then rebounded directly into his face. It was a capitulation rarely seen at such a high level of the sport and it has understandably raised significant questions about him.
Much like the weak finishing effort he produced on his seasonal reappearance in the International Hurdle at Cheltenham, his performance on Saturday has been interpreted in a multitude of ways that range from positive to very negative.
To get the good news out of the way first, Pentland Hills went through the race like by far the best horse in it. Had he followed through in the final 100 yards and easily beaten Ballyandy (whom he was giving 3lb to) and Cornerstone Lad (whom he was receiving 3lb from), it would have represented much of the improvement he needed to find to put himself in a strong challenging position for the Champion Hurdle. However, as is often said around this neck of the woods, “nearly never bulled a cow.” Ultimately, Pentland Hills went from looking set to bolt up to being nipped close home by Ballyandy.
For Pentland Hills to display such unusual weakness in the closing stages of his races on two starts in succession has to be considered a major concern. Maybe Nico De Boinville could have waited longer, but to be frank, if delivering a horse to the front after the final flight is considered going too early, the problem is with the horse, not the jockey.
Another aspect of the performance that I feel has been misread was the extent to which Pentland Hills raced freely. He has taken a good grip in all his runs over hurdles and while he pulled significantly harder than usual in the International Hurdle on his seasonal reappearance, he didn’t seem to race any more freely on Saturday than he had in any of his big wins last season.
If it wasn’t how he was ridden or how freely he raced, why didn’t Pentland Hills finish out his race on Saturday? There could be a physical issue that has yet to come to the surface, but the possibility that the problem is between his ears becomes more likely when one recalls the evidence of his form on the Flat. He looked far from straightforward on multiple occasions, but it’s worth recalling his second-place finish at Thirsk on August 3rd 2018 as it is quite something to witness. It’s rare to see a horse going out of his way to try not to win to such an extent. Hurdling can often sweeten up a quirky horse, but they don’t always stay sweet forever.
So, what to do with Pentland Hills now? The addition of a hood has been mentioned as a possibility and that could well help him relax better in his races. While all the evidence suggests that the ground at Haydock on Saturday rode no worse than soft rather than the official description of heavy, it seems likely that a sounder surface will suit Pentland Hills.
More so than anything else, his performance at Haydock suggested that Pentland Hills may prove best when ridden with an extreme patience the likes of which haven’t been seen with a top-class hurdler since Harchibald and Paul Carberry. Just in case you’ve forgotten what such a ride looks like, here it is: Now THAT is an exciting prospect regardless of where one stands on the horse and his Champion Hurdle prospects.
While much of the above is negative, it should be said that Pentland Hills did produce a career-best effort at Haydock and was subsequently raised 4lb to a rating of 157 by the official handicapper. Given the style in which he registered that improvement, the promise of better to come is clearly there if his talent can be channelled in the right direction.
The Champion Hurdle dream is still alive for his many owners, but can Pentland Hills be trusted? The question won’t be answered until the day that matters most in just under seven weeks, but one suspects even his biggest supporters will be tempted to put up in-running lays on him at a short price on Betfair!
Minella Indo on the right track
Minella Indo was one of the horses I was most excited about going novice chasing this season. However, despite the majority seeming to be very happy with his seasonal and chasing debut behind Laurina back in November, I hadn’t been at all taken with it. To my eye, his tendency to consistently shorten into his fences and adjust to his right was not what I’d hoped to see from what has always looked such an embryonic chaser that was in the care of one of the very best trainers of chasers around. I wanted to see more fluency.
Thus, with him having missed an intended engagement in Grade 1 company at Leopardstown’s Christmas meeting, I was anxious to examine his jumping when he lined up in a maiden chase at Navan last Saturday. While many seemed underwhelmed by his performance in beating the seemingly exposed Captain CJ by just 1½ lengths, I was quite encouraged by the performance as a whole.
While it isn’t unreasonable to have hoped for more in terms of performance level, we already know from Minella Indo’s form over hurdles that he is a high-class performer. He didn’t need to produce a high-class effort to win here and for me at least, it was more so an opportunity to go down through the tick-box list of other aspects of his performance that will give us a better idea of the likelihood of him returning to his high-class best when he really needs to in the likes of the RSA Chase.
I saw a significant improvement in his jumping. He was much braver and more fluent than he had been at Gowran Park. While he hugged the outside rail for much of the race which made it trickier to evaluate, the consistent adjusting to his right that we had seen at Gowran didn’t seem to be present. It was also good to see him settle that bit better with a run under his belt. He had been too free at times over hurdles and fences seemed to have helped him in this regard.
The plan is seemingly for Minella Indo to go straight to the RSA Chase without another run. He will inevitably be well found in the market and that is just the way it is with horses that have won at the previous year’s Festival. That said, as we get closer to Prestbury Park one can be sure that his inexperience over fences will be used as a stick to beat him with. The obvious counter is that his inexperience over hurdles didn’t stop him winning the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle, which has always been a difficult race for inexperienced horses to win, but it is a legitimate concern.
If Henry de Bromhead did want to give Minella Indo one more run prior to Cheltenham, essentially the only option he has in Ireland is the Ten Up Novice Chase at Navan on February 16th. That gives him a four-week gap after his victory at Navan and leaves him with three-and-a-half weeks to Cheltenham, which that might be a shade tight, but it could be an option worth considering for a horse that seemed to thrive on his racing last season.
National Hunt Chase backers beware
It has been mentioned in a few places in the last few weeks, but anyone looking to get involved in the ante-post markets for the National Hunt Chase (aka the Three-Mile-Sixer) should be aware that there are new conditions for the race this year. One of the qualifying criteria is that a horse has to have finished in the first four in a chase run over two-miles seven-and-a-half furlongs or further at some stage in their career.
This means that the current ante-post favourite Carefully Selected is not qualified at present. Though, he may be given an opportunity to do so in the Grade 3 novice chase over three miles at Naas this Sunday. With that entry representing an unusually short gap of a fortnight between runs for a horse trained by Willie Mullins, it wouldn’t be a surprise if he waited for the Ten Up Novice Chase at Navan on February 16th. Though, that would again be unlikely to be considered ideal by Mullins who doesn’t often run his Cheltenham hopefuls that close to the Festival.
It’s certainly something worth being aware of not just with a view to the National Hunt Chase, but also the possibility of him being switched to the RSA Chase for which he is currently 16/1 if he doesn’t get qualified in time