Cue Card shows depth of marquee division
Saturday's Betfair Chase might not have fully delivered on its all promise, but it wasn't far off. What it certainly did was reaffirm just how open the elite staying chasing ranks remain.
When AP McCoy galvanised Synchronised to an unlikely Cheltenham Gold Cup victory in 2012, there was a sense that, after the heady days of Kauto Star, Denman, Imperial Commander and Long Run (at his peak), the marquee division was entering an altogether different phase.
That feeling persists, but what has changed is the sheer depth and quality of the collective. On Saturday, a case could be made for six of the eight runners in Haydock's Grade One. Unfortunately, Bobs Worth misfired, and it was no surprise to hear connections blame the unsuitably quick track. For the first time, the race was supposedly held over three miles and a furlong as opposed to three miles dead, yet Cue Card's winning time on ground officially described as soft came in at 6m 10.1s.
Silviniaco Conti took 6m 23.3s over the shorter trip on soft last year, while Kauto Star clocked out at 6m 15.7s in 2007 (soft) and just shy of Cue Card's time at 6m 9.9s (good to soft) in 2006.
It's an anomaly that highlights exactly why the issue of times has such dubious value over jumps. What it also does, however, is substantiate the theory that the track mightn't have suited the dour Bobs Worth, though it would also be wrong to assume that was the sole reason for his flop.
The toll that winning a Gold Cup exacts is immense. To varying degrees, Best Mate, Kauto Star and Denman refuted that theory, but they were exceptions.
The way that Long Run's performance levels plummeted after his 2011 heroics is more in line with what you'd expect based on historical norms. Bobs Worth could well fall into the same mortal bracket, though we'll know far more if he tackles the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown.
His closest Gold Cup victim Sir Des Champs will likely be among his chief rivals there and Willie Mullins' star was confirmed over the weekend as being on course for a return in the John Durkan Chase at Punchestown on December 8. Colin Tizzard's Cue Card will head for the King George.
Last year, I fancied him strongly for the Kempton showpiece, but it seems that a combination of being held up, early errors and possibly just not being himself saw him weaken timidly out of contention.
Given how keenly he raced early on before digging deep close home on Saturday, you'd have to accept now that he stays three miles well, albeit the track will have played to his strengths.
My initial reaction was that three-and-a-quarter miles at Cheltenham mightn't be his thing.
Still, it's worth noting that his former Eddie Hales-trained dam Wicked Crack was a thorough stayer with a proper National Hunt pedigree, and his sire King's Theatre isn't averse to throwing similar sorts.
Dynaste, another seven-year-old, also enhanced his reputation. The grey was exhilarating over the King George course last year, so he will be a leading player next month now that he has a run under his belt.
Silviniaco Conti will also strip fitter wherever he goes next. He ran honestly in third, but whether he has as much scope to improve is another thing, for all that he is the same age.
Al Ferof will be another serious player at Kempton after his straightforward, but nonetheless polished defeat of French Opera at Ascot on Saturday and the Irish delegation at the Sunbury venue should be considerable.
Mount Benbulben, accepting that he has real jumping problems to iron out, has bundles of class, with First Lieutenant also surely worth considering for the King George.
The Mullins-trained Boston Bob will hardly make Kempton, but he could still conceivably develop into a Gold Cup contender, while Jim Culloty's progressive RSA winner Lord Windermere is due to begin his campaign in this Saturday's Hennessy Gold Cup en route to the Lexus.
Were he to provide a first Irish triumph for over 30 years in the prestigious Newbury handicap, he has the profile to warrant being catapulted close to the head of the Gold Cup market. Now that really would whet the appetite.
ANNIE POWER IN PICTURE FOR CHAMPION HURDLE
Annie Power was cut to as low as 8/1 from as big as 20/1 for the Champion Hurdle in March after surviving some novicey jumping to conquer Zarkandar at Ascot in Saturday.
Willie Mullins' remarkable daughter of Shirocco knuckled down gamely for Ruby Walsh to justify odds-on status, in the process stretching her unbeaten run to eight. Walsh stated that she has every right to be aimed at the Prestbury Park Grade One, though to these eyes two miles around Cheltenham on good ground couldn't be considered her optimum conditions.
She received 11lbs from Zarkandar on Saturday and appeared to need most of the near two-and-a-half-mile journey to exert her authority over him. With Quevega being targeted at a historic sixth mares' hurdle, it's hard to know what route Annie Power will take, though she would surely have to contest one of the major Christmas two-milers if she is to further her Champion Hurdle claims.
For me, she has the makings of a fantastic chaser. In this day and age, though, the likelihood of such an exceptional mare with such enormous broodmare potential jumping a fence in public is remote.
BYRNES' SOLWHIT TO
MISS HATTON'S GRACE
Charles Byrnes has revealed that Solwhit will not run in Sunday's Hatton's Grace Hurdle at Fairyhouse. Byrnes said a combination of the classy stayer needing more time and the prospect of dry ground prompted him to revert to his original plan of a Christmas comeback at Leopardstown.
TWEET OF THE WEEKEND
€6 million for Chicquita!! Hope she wasn't bought to go jumping!!
– Amateur rider Andrew Duff posts a cracking photo of the Irish Oaks winner parting company with her jockey after colliding with a hedge at Saint-Cloud last May. The most expensive thoroughbred to go through the ring in this country is to stay in training – possibly in Ireland – in 2014.
13 Willie Mullins' Simenon's finishing position in yesterday's Japan Cup, won for a second year by the locally-trained Gentildonna under Ryan Moore. Dunaden did best of the Europeans in fifth.
9 Times that the frustrating Oscars Well has finished second after he filled the runner-up berth for a fifth time in seven starts behind Buckers Bridge at Gowran Park on Saturday. Henry de Bromhead's unexposed winner could return to Kilkenny for January's Thyestes Chase.