Did you miss Lydia’s other Road to Cheltenham column this week? Find out her views on the Dublin Racing Festival performances of Delta Work, Honeysuckle, Faugheen and many more by clicking here.
Watch the latest instalment of the Road To Cheltenham show
I toyed with putting Cash Back up at 12/1 for the Arkle in last week’s Road To Cheltenham show. After his narrow but decisive defeat by the likeable Notebook – with whom I also missed the boat back in November (ever feel you’re one step behind with a race?) – in the Irish version last Saturday, I’ve got mixed feelings about my decision.
Clearly, Cash Back is far better than a 12/1 chance for that Festival contest. We were getting that price because the Willie Mullins stable yak, contrary to raw data, was about Bapaume. The latter was that distant pink speck on the horizon at Leopardstown. He’s no two-miler.
You can still fashion a plain argument that, at current prices, Cash Back being more than twice the odds of Notebook is too great a disparity. But, equally, why should Cash Back turn that form around when on Saturday Notebook seemed to have his measure at all stages, even though the final margin was a mere three-quarters of a length?
Perhaps the third last offers a clue? Notebook jumped it out to his right – although, admittedly, not as markedly as Kemboy would the following day – and Rachael Blackmore had to work to get him back on course. I then loved the manner of Notebook’s straightforward jumping into the lead two out and how, harried by his rallying rival, he kept finding enough.
Watch the race again in full as Notebook keeps finding from the front
But two miles over the Old Course at Cheltenham will be a tight, turning, frantic affair that might just suit Cash Back better. He went all out, flat out, at Naas previously and kept going to the finish. Had Danny Mullins gone a bit harder on Saturday, might he have got Notebook on the back foot? In the Arkle itself, might the substantially-framed Notebook be forced into errors? Compared with Leopardstown, there are also two extra fences over a furlong shorter trip at Cheltenham.
Temperament might play a part. Although he might have been better served by setting a stronger pace, a hooded Cash Back did at least show he’s prepared to be trammelled last time. Instead, it was Notebook who bolted to post – albeit he still absolutely gave his running. But the cauldron of sound that is the Festival is an incomparable test for the highly strung. Both have questions to answer in this regard, smart novices though they undoubtedly are.
As I’ve argued previously, both in this space and when Patrick Mullins was the guest on the Road To Cheltenham show, there’s something suspect about Melon’s jumping – certainly at two miles and perhaps exacerbated by the fact that his latest two starts have taken place at Leopardstown, a track at which he’s never excelled. He likes Cheltenham, however, and perhaps pepped up by cheekpieces, you could fashion an argument for a credible showing in the Marsh (ex-JLT) Chase.
Stablemate Bapaume also clearly needs a longer trip after last year’s Stayers’ Hurdle fourth was taken right out of his comfort zone in the Irish Arkle and finished tailed off. I must admit, I was thinking NH Chase for him before he became a potential Arkle horse for some wise guys. Sometimes, you’ve got be tactful. Occasionally. Well, I managed it then.
That means Mullins has some juggling to do, with Easy Game – who beat stable companion and recent fairyhouse winner, Allaho, on their mutual chase debut – almost running down the fabulous Faugheen near the line in the following day’s Grade One Flogas Chase.
But he didn’t and the bold shout of switching the 2015 Champion Hurdler chasing in his eleventh year has hugely paid off. It’s one of the stories of the season – probably the best one. So, it was interesting to hear Willie Mullins imply (see below), by declining to answer the ‘Where next?’ question, that we shouldn’t assume even heading to the Festival is a formality.
“I’m not going to answer that!” beams a jubilant Willie Mullins
“This was his Gold Cup” is the kind of racing cliché you hear all the time but it might have held real meaning here, even for a trainer who would contemplate sending his cat over for Cheltenham if it could run a bit and had a good leap on it. And that’s despite Faugheen being as short as 4/1 favourite for the Marsh.
I can understand why he might choose to sidestep it. After his chasing debut, I described Faugheen as still displaying “intermittent ignorance around an obstacle”. That wouldn’t be a fair charge any more but there’s still something occasionally unconvincing about his jumping, despite what’s he’s achieved over fences – and some of Cheltenham’s fences are tricksy.
Easy Game appears to be a much better chaser than hurdler and you could easily see him ending up as Mullins’ chief representative in the Marsh. Put it this way: I’d rather take the 12/1 about him in that race than a third of that price for the (still fabulous) horse who beat him on Sunday. But, luckily, I don’t need to after Mister Fisher’s Lightning Chase success last month.
Itchy Feet is another Marsh contender after victory in last Saturday’s Grade One Scilly Isles Chase, a race perhaps most notable for Laurina’s unhappy cameo. Last year’s Supreme third is unexposed and improving after two starts over fences but it’s difficult to get his three-and-a-half-length defeat of fortunate Dipper winner Midnight Shadow to add up to much.
The winner’s stable companion Brewin’upastorm heads straight to the Arkle, rather than taking in Saturday’s Kingmaker Novices’ Chase at Warwick, according to their trainer Olly Murphy. You might suspect Joseph O’Brien is leaning towards the Marsh with Fakir D’Oudairies, however, after withdrawing him from a clash with Notebook and Cash Back on account of too-quick ground.
Some have taken an as-positive-as-possible view of the Chanelle Pharma Novice Hurdle but I can’t get myself quite as sold on Asterion Forlonge’s nine-and-a-half-length defeat of Easywork. Perhaps for somewhere else but certainly not for Cheltenham, jumping right at every obstacle like he did – and as he did on his hurdling debut.
The winner shaped like a staying two-miler, given how well he saw out a race that was far more strongly run than the earlier juvenile contest. He is certainly also progressive as this was just his second start over hurdles.
The Nicky Henderson-trained Shishkin runs in the same ownership but Mullins also trains The Big Getaway for Joe Donnelly, so the owner is likely to be double-handed in either the Supreme or the Ballymore. Judged on this, if Asterion Forlonge must go to Cheltenham, I’d favour forming a pincer movement with Shishkin in the Festival’s opening event.
I take a very positive view about Latest Exhibition’s success in Leopardstown’s 2m6f Grade One that opened the Dublin Racing Festival. Off a muddling gallop, he travelled notably well and jumped cleanly to record a success that pegs his form right in the vanguard of likely Albert Bartlett contenders.
In beating the rallying Cobbler’s Way by two lengths, he appeared to be performing well within the realm of his wider capabilities – in short, he looked indolent once hitting the front, as trainer Paul Nolan acknowledged. “He’s not the sort of horse that will kick away and win 10 lengths,” he said. “He’s always a horse that will work no matter what the trip.”
Here’s what Paul Nolan made of the victory when speaking to Nick Luck
The runner-up is rawer but progressive. Setting a steady enough pace didn’t appear to suit him ideally as he was rallying again near the line, as the poor-jumping Longhouse Poet’s engine cut out nearing the line. With his inexperience, Cobbler’s Way would be more in the mould of Minella Indo, with whom trainer Henry de Bromhead won the Potato Race last year, rather than your typical grizzled type suited by this event.
Fourth-placed Fury Road seems to have plateaued while Elixir D’Ainay’s performance was littered with errors.
What would have happened had Aspire Tower not clipped the final-flight top bar in the style of a good hurdler’s occasional fall? (Not a contradiction in terms). It’s hard to say whether he’d have won Leopardstown’s Spring Juvenile Hurdle.
What’s certain is that he was below his best for whatever reason.
He made the running again, a tactic I’m not sure suits – as I’ve mentioned before. He was keen in the early stages, biggish at the first hurdle and got the fourth wrong. By two out, the field was still snapping at his heels but Rachael Blackmore was asking him to wind up the pace and he was soon finding plenty in response.
Cerberus – whose trademark slick jumping was a shade ragged with a bad error at the third and a lesser one three out – was chased along to range up alongside approaching the last, while stable-companion A Wave Of The Sea was staying on for pressure (having been patiently ridden) and Wolf Prince got outpaced and lost his inside chasing position.
Aspire Tower came up first… and was the only one to come down. It’s a mark of my confidence in Blackmore’s obstacle-presentational skills, especially at the last, that I was astonished in-running that they exited in this way. Left in a decisive lead, Cerberus got away from the flight swiftly and should have held a decisive advantage but he tied up and was swamped by the second winds of not only A Wave Of The Sea, but even Wolf Prince.
Watch The Spring Juvenile Hurdle in full again!
I wouldn’t judge Aspire Tower’s likely finishing position by that of Cerberus. Not only is he a finder and a battler, he is by far the stronger stayer. He had the eventual winner under the whip approaching the last whereas Blackmore appeared to be saving something.
Clearly, it’s not ideal for this horse to be heading towards the Triumph with his last act on a racecourse likely to have been a fall. However, the winner of that Cheltenham Festival event has been derived from this Grade One event in five of the past seven years and Aspire Tower might have won this despite not bringing his A-game.
It might be that quicker ground at Leopardstown didn’t suit this son of Born To Sea so well and the Friday at Cheltenham also runs the risk of drying ground but the Festival is a well-watered event these days and this horse was well capable on a goodish Flat surface.
He’ll also get the lead I think will improve his concentration and enable him to settle sooner with the headlong Allmankind to chase and the front-foot Goshen to help bridge that gap as the race gets serious. This defeat has seen Aspire Tower pushed out as far as 8/1 (from about 11/2) and that’s far too long in an edition I think could well cut up markedly. Let’s play.
A Wave Of The Sea could well have taken an aversion to first-time cheekpieces when thumped by Aspire Tower over Christmas and this success was much more in line with his Down Royal success in November and his weight-conceding defeat by Cerberus. He should run well in the Triumph but this column’s selection is just as powerful a stayer and a bit smarter, I suspect.
Here’s what A Wave Of The Sea’s jockey made of the victory
Cerberus will surely head to the Fred Winter following this display whereas Gavin Cromwell might be in two minds about Wolf Prince, who’d prefer the greater stamina test that the New Course provides and yet doesn’t appear quite good enough for the Triumph. On balance, I think I’d go for the Grade One.
Over at Musselburgh that same day, the good-looking Thyme White paid a compliment to Goshen’s ability by winning the Scottish Triumph Hurdle. He’d previously finished a distant second to that horse on debut and had been a competitive runner-up to Rowland Ward at Kempton, so he’s improving all the time and could be a player in the Boodles Fred Winter.
Advised on 20/11/19: Altior at 14/1 with William Hill for the Ryanair [non-runner]
Advised on 17/12/19: Chacun Pour Soi at 4/1 with various firms for the Champion Chase
Advised on 17/12/19: Mister Fisher at 16/1 e/w with Bet365, William Hill or BetFred for the Marsh
Advised on 30/01/20: Fiddlerontheroof at 8/1 for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle with various firms
Advised on 30/01/20: Ramses De Teillee at 33/1 e/w for the Albert Bartlett with Bet365
Back now: Aspire Tower at 8/1 for the JCB Triumph Hurdle with Unibet and Betway
Advised on 28/11/19: Thyme Hill at 14/1 with various firms for the Albert Bartlett
Advised on 12/12/19: Carefully Selected at 20/1 with Skybet or BetVictor for the NH Chase
Advised on 30/01/20: Honeysuckle at 13/2 for the Champion Hurdle in a double with Benie Des Dieux at 4/5 with Unibet for the Mares’ Hurdle