Two mighty Novice Hurlers for March

Holy moly, where on earth to start! Let’s rewind the week and wrap up all the notable action for week five of the Cheltenham Festival Focus column.

Last Sunday’s meeting at Fairyhouse has regularly been one to keep a close eye on, having produced plenty of Cheltenham Festival winners over the years. The Grade 3 Juvenile Hurdle, the Grade 1 Royal Bond Novice Hurdle and the Grade 1 Hatton’s Grace Hurdle have all been key race trials for their corresponding races at the Cheltenham Festival, and it looks as though this year will prove no different.

Fill D’Or rightfully top of Triumph tree

Fill D’Or came out on top for Gordon Elliott in this year’s Juvenile Hurdle renewal and with little doubt about his target, the Betfair Sportsbook rightly clipped his price in from 5/1 to 9/2 and now a 4/1 for the Triumph Hurdle. His trainer targeted this race with last season’s eventual Triumph Hurdle favourite Zanahiyr, who went off at odds of 11/8; however, his 2018 winner Chief Justice went to the Boodles Juvenile Hurdle off a handicap mark of 139, so nothing is ever set in stone.

In terms of his performance, his jumping was slick, although hesitant at one or two, and his best work came at the finish, which would suggest a stronger run race would have seen him to better effect.

Compared to the other races on the card, the winning time was on a par with the Royal Bond, just 0.1 seconds slower but five seconds slower than the handicap on the card (the winner rated 132). The top two in the market pulled clear from the second-last, with the winner clocking a good speed figure three-out to the line to suggest he has a good bit of pace.

The last horse to win this and win the Triumph Hurdle was Our Conor in 2012, but he is going the right way, and these three-year-olds can progress and progress. The division usually lacks a bit of depth until around Christmas time, with the Adonis Hurdle at Kempton a notable key trial for the British. A glance at the current Triumph Hurdle market suggests there is little danger to him at this present time, and given a few of those will split off into the Boodles Juvenile Handicap, he is rightfully top of the tree.

The Grade 1 Royal Bond is usually a hot pointer towards the Supreme Novice Hurdle in March. Still, it left me a little deflated after comparing it with the win of Fill D’Or, especially as our ante-post selection My Mate Mozzie was well-positioned to take advantage of the slow early pace.

In the last ten years, every winner of the Royal Bond bar Ballyadam and this year’s winner Statuaire had some sort of graded experience under their belts, be it on the flat of over obstacles. On reflection, this didn’t look like a vintage renewal. Winner Statuaire was 0.03s slower three-out to the finish than Fill D’Or over the same distance, and the overall circuit times were almost exact.

It’s hard to believe that Willie Mullins doesn’t have one or two higher up the pecking order than Statuaire, who was a general 12/1 shot on the day with little market confidence behind her.

A bad mistake at the final flight cost My Mate Mozzie victory with his momentum well and truly halted, and we could be talking about a whole different scenario would he have jumped well and won going away. He is not one to give up on, but confidence is not high, although he remained a 14/1 shot while the winner was Statuaire was given quotes of 20/1 for the Supreme Novice Hurdle.

Potter can be a mighty force in the Ballymore

The big eye-catcher in the race was Mighty Potter, who failed to maintain his unbeaten record but came away with plenty of credit. He was keen in the early to mid part of the race and outpaced momentarily as the pace lifted between the third and second last flights. He stuck to the task well and showed a powerful finishing kick to finish an unlucky third.

He is sure to appreciate a step up in trip, and Gordon Elliott has sent two of his runners from this race up in distance for their runs at Cheltenham (Envoi Allen and Commander Of Fleet). He barely missed a beat over his hurdles, and he looks a very bright prospect as we advance. He earned quotes for the Ballymore Novice Hurdle of 14/1, which could prove a good bit of value and he is one of two I want to add to our list this week.

Honeymonster devoured her rivals to go odds-on for the Champion Hurdle

I bashed Epatante quite hard in this column last week, and I am glad I did after witnessing the outstanding performance Honeysuckle delivered at Fairyhouse in the Grade 1 Hatton’s Grace.

She is a class act and has the perfect blend of speed and stamina to continue unbeaten for the remainder of the season. Her partnership with Rachel Blackmore is nothing short of poetry in motion. She dominates an admittedly poor 2m – 2m4f division, but it’s hard to knock anything this mare has done, and her latest eight-length win was arguable a career-best effort.

You can search high and low looking for reasons to take her on in this year’s Champion Hurdle, for which she is now a 4/5f, but you will come up with absolutely nothing. She has swept aside all before her in Ireland already and the British must be shaking in their boxes – A Champion Hurdle good thing?

The British have arrived!

It was a quiet midweek with a view to the Cheltenham Festival, but good things are worth waiting for, and it all began on Friday on the first of two spectacular days at Sandown’s Betfair Tingle Creek meeting.

Forever Blessed threw his hat into the Triumph Hurdle picture with a devastating 18 length win in the Introductory Juvenile Hurdle and recorded a good time figure. He galloped right through the line, drawing ever further clear from his nine rivals for who, admittedly, weren’t up to much, but he could not have been more impressively.

He is now a 20/1 for the Triumph Hurdle in March, but his most challenging test awaits at Chepstow in the Grade 1 Champion Juvenile, for which he could meet Fill D’Or, after which might be the time to play our Juvenile hand.

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Sticking with Sandown, Saturday saw some devilish displays, the first of which came in the opening contest with Nicky Henderson’s well-supported debutant Constitution Hill. He was absolutely smashed in the market from 9/2 the evening before into 11/10 before a market drift saw him back out to SP odds of 85/40. Someone knew something because he looked like a special horse.

It was all so effortless and professional, and you would be forgiven for thinking he was a seasoned handicapper had you switched on the TV at any point during the race. He travelled kindly, jumped efficiently, overcame adversity when favourite Might I tried to hem him in against the rail approaching the second last.

He then offered the complete package by showing a blistering turn of foot. Not at one point was jockey Nico de Boinville worried, suggesting he knew what he had underneath him and the quotes after the race from Nicky Henderson were eye-popping.

“…the most extraordinary creature I’ve come across in years. He will go back to his stable and go to sleep now. I hope he’s high class and he’s definitely a chaser for the future.”

Whether that just means that he is lazy at home and can produce an exceptional performance is up to one’s interpretation of the fact, but what he delivered on the track had my eyes popping out of my head.

In terms of what he achieved on this debut, it’s hard to grumble at his current 6/1 price tag for the Supreme Novice Hurdle. There is little reason to think that Might I, who had previously won at Newton Abbot by 11 lengths and had seen his form boosted by the runner-up, did not run his race. He had every chance and looked like the winner two from home before Nico pressed the button on Constitution Hill.

Outlaw Peter was the right horse to follow the pair home. He had been nibbled in the market into 5/1 and showed improved form in a first time tongue-tie on the back of his Exeter performance, for which he was found lame.

Constitution Hill is supremely good

All the dominos seem to stack up in terms of form and visual performance, so we go to the clock for reassurance rather than confirmation of his ability. Reassurance, because it’s highly likely he could have achieved a higher time figure with his jockey keen to hold on to him for a long while.

The long run between the third and second last flights is usually clocked at around 1m under today’s conditions, and he clocked around 58.5 secs and did it very easily. His circuit time was 20 lengths faster than Paul Nicholls’ impressive handicap winner Samarrive who won off 130 and was carrying five pounds less. From three out to the finish, Constitution Hill was in the region of eight lengths faster than the handicap winner and 16 lengths faster than the Class 4 Handicap winner Naturally High.

The fact that he has achieved all of the above on his first start on a racecourse is rather remarkable. He remains one to be extremely excited about and is the first horse this season to get me hot under the collar, so I want him on the teamsheet.

Edwardstone yes, Greaneteen no!

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I have posted the still images of Greaneteen’s Tingle Creek victory with Edwardstone’s outstanding Grade 1 Novice win with both races timed and played side by side from the landing side of the first fence on my Twitter page, so feel free to take a look.

Edwardstone is a thoroughly likeable horse but one that leaves you with doubts whether he can truly be top class, and that’s likely down to the handicapping campaign he had last season, with many probably feeling that he is exposed. He carried big weights in plenty of top-class handicaps over hurdles, but he has always had the size and scope to make up into a promising chaser, and now he is finally starting to fulfil his potential.

He got a good tow into the race from Third Time Lucki, who boldly went from the front and did too much too soon. Edwardstone was always well positioned in the race, and given he will get a good deal further than this in time; it was a dangerous move by Harry Skelton to go hell for leather. Let’s not forget Edwardstone had outstayed him when they met in the Country Hurdle at the 2021 Cheltenham Festival. Still, Edwardstone jumped beautifully in the main and was quick and economic other than a mistake at the first of the railway fences where he pecked on landing and then another at the second of the railway fences in which he dived. Still, the time figure compared to the Tingle Creek reads exceptionally well.

For four points of reference, Edwardstone was 1.75secs ahead of Greaneteen at the fifth flight, 2.31 secs ahead at the ninth, 2.65 secs ahead at the pond fence (11th) and 2.94secs ahead at the final fence. There was not one point in the race where the Tingle Creek winner Greaneteen was ahead or quicker than Edwardstone, including on the run in from the final flight to the finish line, for which Edwardstone recorded a time of 16.13 and Greaneteen 16.28.

Edwardstone is now a 10/1 chance for the Arkle Chase in March, and that’s not to be scoffed at, given he has likely achieved a rating close to 160 on the back of this performance (we await the handicappers response). The average rating of the last ten Arkle winners has been 158.2.

Of those in behind, Third Time Lucki jumped poorly and is now a 25/1 chance for the Arkle. He was big and bold at the first three until he got in tight at the fourth losing ground with a nod on landing. He blundered the second of the railway fences, almost unseating Harry Skelton and lost a few lengths in the process.

The final straw came when he started to tire approaching the pond fence and when asked for a big one, he put in an extra stride. It’s no surprise he tired coming to the second last, given the early pace he set.

Compared to Chacun Pour Soi, who had led the Tingle Creek field, he was 2.07 secs ahead at the sixth and increased that to a high point of 2.78 secs right up until the 11th fence, and he was still 2.06 secs and 1.06 secs ahead at the 12th and 13th fences. This is a performance to look at favourably by Third Time Lucki, but connections need to get him to settle and conserve his energy – but if they can, he could have a very bright future in this sphere.

War Lord finished third and looked as though he would benefit from a step up in trip, and he confirmed form with Minella Drama, who remains too high in the ratings off a mark of 149 – mainly earned over hurdles last season.

Shishkin and Energumene the two to focus on in Champion Chase

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In the Tingle Creek, Greaneteen did the job and did it well when looking at the race in isolation and ran out a comfortable winner by five and a half lengths. He has never looked a natural two-miler, but given the slow pace and his hold up position from the rear of the field, he was a very worthy winner – for all a few of his rivals certainly underperformed.

He only managed fourth in the Champion Chase at the 2021 Cheltenham Festival but was only beaten two lengths. He reversed the form with Chacun Pour Soi and Nube Negra to take his record to two from three over fences at this track. Greaneteen is now a 6/1 third favourite for the Champion Chase, which is easily left alone.

Chacun Pour Soi now has a cloud over him when travelling outside of Ireland, with this his second below-par performance when leaving Irish soil. There is little doubt he left his Punchestown brilliance at home after being beaten some way out at the pond fence. Willie Mullins’ raider is a 10/1 chance for the Champion Chase, and it’s looking ever more likely that the yard has a stronger contender in Energumene, the unexposed 7/2 second favourite.

Nube Negra was pushed out to 12/1 and is probably one of the more interesting runners in the race outside of the top two in the current Champion Chase market. He needs a strong gallop to aim at, and he has always looked better going left-handed, and this performance was a little laboured from the getgo. It would be no surprise to see something come to light after the race, but the fact that only three lengths separated the first five in the 2021 Champion Chase means we need to look for new blood in this division.

An impressive performance from Shishkin at Christmas will surely see his 7/4 slashed into even money, although Champion Chase second favourite Energumene will take to the floor first today at Cork in the 13:45, and despite not running on Saturday their chances were only enhanced.

Navan Saturday

At Navan, Ginto was cut into 12/1 for the Albert Bartlett after giving a beating to Eric Bloodaxe, who was pushed out to 33/1 for the race in March. That was not the Eric Bloodaxe we know, his jumping was sloppy, and he was outpaced over the 2m4f trip, and now a stiffer test looks on the cards – I am still hopeful.

Riviere D’etel ran out a good winner of a Grade 3 contest by 12 lengths at odds of 1/4f, but we learned little more about her. She is an 8/1 chance for the Mares Chase.

Farouk D’alene took his career to five wins from six with a beginners chase win off the back of a 341-day break. His optimum trip looks to be the middle distance, and with a current rating of 140, he could be one for handicaps at the festival, although it would be no surprise to see him make up into a graded performer in time.

The picture after Sunday could change dramatically with plenty of Cheltenham Festival hopes running at Cork and at Punchestown. We will pick up all of this action next week in extreme detail as the build-up continues.