Last weekend’s racing at Cheltenham lived up to the billing. And, as usual, it shook up the embryonic Festival markets too.
Dynaste, fulfilling all my anticipation for the Steel Plate and Sections Novice Chase, looked like a classy recruit to the division. He looked full of running when comfortably taking the scalp of Fingal Bay. It’s arguable that Fingal Bay’s form can have holes picked in it. His best win came at Sandown at the Tingle Creek meeting where the form is artificially enhanced because of the subsequent exploits of Simonsig, though at the time was pretty green. Nevertheless, it is encouraging the way that Dynaste travelled, jumped smartly and was clever at a few fences when awkward. Three miles should not be a problem. David Pipe could have a couple to choose from in the staying novice chase division. Our Father could hardly have been more impressive in disposing of two-time chase winner Sire Collonges on his fencing debut. But the one question mark here is what Our Father can do on better ground. All the evidence is that a deep surface is required to see him at his best. This was heavy ground in all but name – the winning time was 42 seconds outside standard.
In fact the most disappointing aspect of Saturday was the failure – yet again – of Simon Claisse to give the punting public a fair crack of the whip. Declaring the ground soft (good to soft in places) after significant overnight rain was shown to be very wrong just a few minutes after 12.45 when mud-spattered potential Triumph Hurdle candidates staggered over the line as if they had hauled canons through the Somme. After the fourth race, the official going was changed to soft (heavy in places). This after not one more drop of rain had fallen on the course. What had changed? I can see that the turf had become more poached, but why wasn’t it possible to give this going description at 10am?
I got mullered by Claisse once before. The run up to the Festival in 2007 had been extra-ordinarily wet. Trainers and punters alike were predicting heavy going on the first day. However, a quick shuftie at the long-range weather forecast with about a fortnight to go showed plenty of dry weather around. I took a punt on the healthily lengthy odds on good-soft for the official going and spent more time watching the clouds than I did plotting up outrageous Lucky 15s. The weather faired up in run up and the ground had been drying out all week. Nevertheless, on the first morning, Claisse stuck rigidly to his soft ground call. I was dumb-struck. After horses in the Supreme and Arkle blazed down the track, fairly bouncing off the turf, the description was changed to good to soft everywhere. All too late for my inspired piece of weather based punting. In fact the times in the RP the next morning pointed to ground barely a fraction slower than plain old good going. I chuntered about that for the rest of a moderately successful festival. And I’m still moaning 5 years later.
Going back further, I remember quoting Ferdy Murphy from a Racing Post interview just before the 2004 Festival:
“I have an owner in the pig business and he has a ten-day forecast for the Cheltenham area that predicts showers for Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday, with rain on Tuesday. If that’s right I would be happy. If it isn’t I wouldn’t be.”
Might as well get Ferdy doing all the going descriptions. They can’t be less amateurish, misleading and inaccurate than the official ones.
Back to Friday. Dodging Bullets ran soundly enough in winning his novice hurdle (and bringing home the second leg of my spawny double after Dynaste earlier) where no-one wanted to make the pace. The jockeys sat around looking at each other for about 30 seconds after the tapes went up. Ruby had to cut out the running himself and said afterwards that Dodging Bullets was “starting to get there”. Nicholls may run him (the horse, ahem, not Ruby) in the Christmas Hurdle before taking the novice route at the festivals.
Pipe and Nicholls dominated the first two days with four wins each. But it was the latter who took the meeting’s premier race for which the former’s Grand Crus started favourite. Al Ferof clearly revelled in the conditions, but carrying 11st 8lb through a bog demands maximum respect. It was noticeable from early on how well he was travelling in comparison to his final three races last season. Ruby didn’t have to niggle or cajole at any point until asking him to make his way home from two out. Walk On chased him hard and comes out of the race with an enhanced reputation. Nadiya La Vega was a long way behind in third, but hung on to land me a scratching of place money. Grand Crus was disappointing. A lost shoe does not fully explain the performance. The subsequent news from the Pipe camp is that that he may have a “cauterising procedure”, known as a wind op to me and you, to rectify what seems to be a breathing problem. This is something, it has to be said, that John Francome picked up on the day when remarking on the way the horse held his head. I’ve come to realise what many others have probably known for a long time, that Johnny is by far the best judge on Channel 4 of a horse’s demeanour, appearance and well-being.
Sunday’s card suffered from multiple going-related withdrawals, including Sprinter Sacre who is being saved for the Tingle Creek now. Good. I’m going. In his absence here, the race was a strange affair. Wishfull Thinking who has a great engine, managed his first win in 18 months again after some bad mistakes and even worse riding decisions from the hapless Dickie Johnson in too many races last season. He clobbered plenty here too, but Doeslessthanme – one of the many horses to have improved by stones since being released from the dead-hand training of Howard Johnson – could not concede weight. He might be interesting on better going.
Captain Conan just about lived up to his promise in the Arkle trial. This wasn’t spectacular, but questions about his resolution were answered, at least on this very soft going, by the way he stayed on up the hill from the improving Sire De Grugy. The very pick of CCs best form is when there is plenty of give underfoot. I like Sire De Grugy a lot and he’ll win races, but most likely at a notch below this level. He takes is racing well and is also best on soft.
Olofi hadn’t won in almost three years before taking the feature handicap hurdle. But there have been plenty of near misses and Tom George reckons he’s had more bad luck than most. So this win isn’t begrudged. Cash And Go interests me. I backed him in the Deloitte in February when he found nothing off the bridle and was later found to be lame (in the same race that Captain Conan was well beaten). He returned here, now with Nicky Henderson, with a much more convincing run and likely there’s more to come.
The very decent staying novice hurdle, penultimate race of the meeting, has had a string of winning and placed horses go on to Festival glory, including a couple of my old chums Black Jack Ketchum and Nenuphar Collonges. The winner of this year’s renewal Coneygree looks handy, bred by the late John Oaksey and related to Hennessy winner Carruthers. I’m sure plenty will have also noted the eye-catching hurdles debut of Creepy from Martin Keighley’s yard. He won’t be 25-1 next time out.
As a post script, I was pleased to see another ex-HoJo improver, Back In Focus win well over 2m6f in a novice chase at Punchestown. Whilst unproven on a decent surface, I’m still anticipating big things from this Willie Mullins inmate. Can the juices for the Festival already be cooking?
The bandwagon moves on to Haydock for the Betfair Chase and lots of Kauto Star nostalgia on Saturday. Here is a good preview from horseracingchat to set the mood - be sure to read the comment from @mulldog.