‘He barely came off the bridle and further progress is as likely as it is necessary’
ADVICE FROM THE EXPERTS
Desert Orchid Chase (Grade 2) December 27 With each development the market for this year’s Queen Mother Champion Chase has become more lopsided. Favourite Chacun Pour Soi is hard to knock, and yet a knock was all it took to see him bypass his intended festival debut last March. A lack of course form remains a concern, however small, and the connections of at least two runners from Kempton’s Desert Orchid Chase will fancy their chances of keeping the Champion Chase crown in Britain. Altior had been the dominant force in this division before a bruising encounter with Cyrname in late 2019. Stop-start since, his reappearance here was disappointing even if it did have all the hallmarks of an Altior display, with added rust. He was entitled to come on for the run after a 323-day break and, despite his advancing years, the Nicky Henderson team remain full of confidence. Altior goes straight to the festival after Henderson decided against running him in the rearranged Game Spirit Chase at Newbury. The fact Nube Negra was able to breeze past Altior in such style may say more about the latter than the former, but a winning Racing Post Rating of 170 suggests otherwise and this was a performance to be taken very seriously with Cheltenham in mind. He barely came off the bridle and further progress is as likely as it is necessary. Leopardstown Christmas Hurdle (Grade 1) December 28 Flooring Porter’s Racing Post Rating of 165 when winning the Christmas Hurdle was just shy of Paisley Park’s mark (166) in his defeat of Thyme Hill in the Long Walk at Ascot and the impact of Leopardstown’s contest is potentially being underestimated. Gavin Cromwell’s rapidly improving young stayer had thrashed likely Pertemps Hurdle favourite The Bosses Oscar at Navan before Christmas and, while questions will arise regarding a lack of Cheltenham experience plus the extent to which Flooring Porter stole his first Grade 1, he remains unexposed and could well answer them positively. None of the next three home at Leopardstown should be ruled out come the festival. The Storyteller plugged on nicely to reverse last year’s Pertemps Hurdle form with Sire Du Berlais and looks an improved model over both hurdles and fences this term. Sire Du Berlais was subdued here, yet Cheltenham has brought the best out of him for the last two seasons and he is unlikely to find a grittier rival. Fury Road is another who should relish the Stayers’ Hurdle test given his eyecatching effort when third in the 2020 Albert Bartlett over course and distance. Lawlor’s Of Naas Novice Hurdle (Grade 1) January 13 Last season’s Lawlor’s Of Naas Novice Hurdle produced Envoi Allen, imperious in the Ballymore, and Elixir D’ainay, who but for being brought down would have had a say in the Supreme. This year’s winner Bob Olinger has strong claims to repeat that success and those in behind add to the sense this is a piece of form worth appreciating. Bob Olinger is three from four under rules, that one defeat coming to the now-sidelined Ferny Hollow. In a tactical affair at Naas, he put the race to bed with authority on the run to the last before extending away. He settles, jumps accurately and will stay further despite having enough pace to be competitive over two miles, the complete package for Ballymore success. Runner-up Blue Lord certainly pulled hard and would be a leading player for the Supreme over two miles, especially if a hood is considered. There appears to be no lack of stamina, however, and that six-and-a-half-length gap to Bob Olinger may be bridgeable should a strong gallop help him relax in a Cheltenham rematch. Gabynako in third and Flanking Maneuver in fourth were essentially outclassed but if the festival was on their agenda they could make their presence felt in a race like the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle. Horse & Jockey Hotel Chase (Grade 2) January 27 In the right conditions, Allaho is a destructive performer. He needs to pressurise rivals from an early stage without concern for his own stamina. The thrilling 2020 RSA Chase seemed to prove what many suspected, that his greatest assets would be more effective over shorter trips than three miles. Restrained over that trip in Leopardstown’s Savills Chase over Christmas, he seemed lacklustre. Dropped back half a mile at Thurles in the Horse & Jockey Hotel Chase, he showed his true colours. Aggression, bold jumping and a gradual increase in tempo forced others to wilt. Balko Des Flos attempted the role of spoiler up front, with Battleoverdoyen best placed to benefit, yet the pressure from Allaho was too much and they were spent forces from four out. Mark Walsh aboard Elimay sensibly shunned the pace and made a late move. This could have been telling but as soon as they reached Allaho’s tail he drew clear again. Allaho has progressed through the last three seasons and he again shapes as if his best is still to come. The Ryanair Chase is a fitting target. Elimay has the inaugural Mares’ Chase on her agenda and, given this was just her third start over fences, it is hard to see her finishing out of the frame. Nathaniel Lacy & Partners Solicitors ‘50k Cheltenham Bonus For Stable Staff’ Novice Hurdle (Grade 1) February 6 Paul Townend had the utmost confidence at every stage of this Grade 1 novice hurdle. That, above all, should concern Gaillard Du Mesnil’s likely rivals in the Ballymore at Cheltenham. Fully aware that stablemate Stattler could benefit from an easy lead, carving out fractions to suit himself, Townend was happy to sit but never suffered. When he needed him, Gaillard Du Mesnil picked his way through inferior rivals and ultimately had the race won by the last. With Willie Mullins’ hope having revelled in this stamina test on sticky ground, those who line up this month will have to hope they can beat him for speed. Stattler’s charmed run nearly earned him second – he was just grabbed on the line by Gentlemansgame – while a typically tenacious Fakiera stayed on with purpose back in fourth. They could clash in the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle over three miles and the connections of each will believe their horse is best equipped to deal with its demands. Remarkably, this was only Gentlemansgame’s second start under rules and as such the ceiling of his ability may be highest. Even Ganapathi in fifth shaped with huge promise, essentially failing to stay, and he could be the next novice to shine in a County Hurdle. Goffs Future Stars I.N.H. Flat Race (Grade 2) February 6 One of the season’s more extraordinary sights came in its most competitive bumper so far. At least, it looked competitive before the race. Kilcruit and a motionless Patrick Mullins breezed past classy and determined rivals with embarrassing ease. A Racing Post Rating of 142 means he achieved more than all of the last ten Champion Bumper winners, bar Champagne Fever who he matched. This 12-length defeat of Letsbeclearaboutit immediately draws comparison with Sir Gerhard, potentially Kilcruit’s biggest rival at Cheltenham, and his four-and-a-half-length defeat of the same horse at Navan in December. Letsbeclearaboutit made the running on each occasion and, in contrast to Leopardstown, Navan became an examination of speed. Sir Gerhard passed with flying colours, winning with far more authority than the margin of victory implies. Whoever rides Sir Gerhard, in the same Cheveley Park colours carried to success by Ferny Hollow 12 months earlier, may decide to employ similar tactics. Patience and faith in the gears at their disposal will be key if they are to play their hand late and exploit any weaknesses in Kilcruit. The very real fear for every Champion Bumper hopeful is that there aren’t any.