Top hurdlers step up to another level
Ian McClean says National Hunt fans can prepare for fireworks in the chasing ranks
Rarely have so many talented hurdlers sacrificed so much for the pleasure of so many. Waving goodbye to a still prosperous career over the smaller obstacles, a disproportionate number of last season's hurdling stars have quite literally upped their game to seek more illustrious gains at the chasing game.
Three weeks into the winter jumps season and already we have seen two Cheltenham winners and two runners-up make their public chasing debuts.
Young horses overflowing with potential have transferred their attentions to fences this season in what seems like a diaspora. I cannot remember a year where so many highly-rated hurdlers opted for the bigger code. The likes of Peddlers Cross (170), Grand Crus (167), Menorah (162), Cue Card (151), Al Ferof (154) and First Lieutenant (146) are all starting their novice apprenticeship in their new métier. And, on the face of it, they wouldn't be switching unless connections believed they could improve for the transition. Should that be the case, then we are certainly in for serious fireworks in the months ahead.
But there can only be one winner of the Arkle and one of the RSA so how are the rookies shaping up with Cheltenham in mind as the final destination?
It is something to savour when a horse rated 170 which was unbeaten in eight starts before narrowly succumbing in last year's Champion Hurdle makes his first public appearance in a new discipline. It certainly put plenty more on the gate at Bangor, and Peddlers Cross didn't disappoint.
Without any meaningful competition, it didn't prevent him from putting in an exhibition solo performance of slick, athletic jumping. We already know he's got the engine, now we know he can jump as well. He's likely to run three or four times before the Festival with another practice round at Bangor the next stop.
It was something of a coup for Cheltenham's Open meeting last weekend that the closing Class Two novice chase on Friday's card managed to bring Grand Crus and Cue Card head to head. The betting market couldn't separate them and ultimately it took the famous Prestbury birch to intervene and award the verdict on the day to Grand Crus (with Cue Card unshipping Joe Tizzard out in the country).
The only horse to better Grand Crus over hurdles last season was the invincible Big Buck's. Whilst his jumping wasn't as clinical as Peddlers Cross (he made a juddering mistake at the ditch four out), it was generally economical without being spectacular. As was the case last year, Grand Crus was keen in the rear before gradually pulling himself into contention. What was most impressive, however, was how he ran past a decent yardstick in Champion Court directly after his mistake, and then was able to quicken again between the last two fences. An audacious tilt at yesterday's Betfair Chase was momentarily mooted, but shelved in favour of a Grade Two novice at Newbury next Friday.
Cue Card had been extremely impressive on his debut at Chepstow (from two subsequent winners). He was probably most unsettled by the false start as he never really settled through the race and was guessier at Cheltenham than he had been at Chepstow. He was noticeably worked up in the paddock beforehand (uncharacteristic for him) and I'd be inclined to ignore this run.
On Sunday, Supreme Novices winner Al Ferof belied his trainer's fears ("fell in a point-to-point, fell in a hurdle, and has been a bit too brave at home") by fencing with some aplomb to take the Grade Two Independent Newspapers Novice Chase from his only serious rival. He wasn't spectacular but was safe and measured and, in dispatching a 140-rated hurdler which had already won a chase with effortless ease, he looks at least as good over fences. The Henry VIII on Tingle Creek day is his next likely engagement.
Menorah looked to be making the perfect start to his chasing career on Haldon Gin day at Exeter until meeting the second last all wrong and ejecting a hapless Richard Johnson. He had fenced with noticeable fluency and speed up until that point so it was particularly agitating for connections that his first cut at fences should end as it did. To compound matters, Menorah has developed a foot problem and is on the easy list for now.
Vote early and vote often has certainly been the policy for First Lieutenant which has reported for duty no fewer than three times already this campaign. If practice makes perfect, then the Gigginstown inmate must be nearing perfection by now. Although he hasn't impressed everyone (beaten a nose by De Valira), he has done everything necessary at this stage in my book and the ratcheting up of experience will serve him well later. He may run in the Drinmore but Mouse Morris is still pondering the step up in grade.
Sunday Indo Sport