Chasing freaks raise festive cheer
Ian McClean reflects on a Christmas jumps programme that may cause a rethink or two ahead of Cheltenham
If there is one single lesson to be extracted from the glut of ultra-compelling racing action over the traditional (almost) half-way checkpoint of the jumps season, it is that all intended Cheltenham Gold Cup rivals to Kauto Star and Denman should seek an alternative engagement next March.
Back in Arkle's day, the handicapper was forced to create a dual assessment system -- one with the immortal Dreaper chaser, the other without -- and UK weight-maker Phil Smith is verging on just that type of territory in pondering two of the best chasers we have seen in the past 40 years.
And just as in the Tom Dreaper era when Arkle came bundled with Flyingbolt, a chaser of comparable talent, so the modern Paul Nicholls reign is headlined by not just one, but two freaks of nature born in the same year, now stabled side by side. The difference this time around is that we are privileged enough to have both horses fit, healthy and raring for combat with a Gold Cup score standing of one-all.
What Denman achieved in winning the Hennessy from a rating of 174 propelled the nine-year-old to a career-high rating on his 18th start. However, an even more turbo-charged performance from his Ditcheat companion has brought him to a ratings district in the mid 190s that begins to distinguish the mortals from the gods.
And so it is impossible to begin a Christmas review of the Lexus Chase victory of What A Friend without considering the reflected glory of the accomplishment of Denman in giving him 22lbs and a mauling at Newbury a month previously. It has left Phil Smith with an itchy head and a renewed upward revision to contemplate around Denman's initial assessment of 182.
Now Nicholls is expressing reservations about even running the Lexus winner in the Gold Cup, preferring instead to prepare him for a spring campaign involving Aintree and Punchestown. Who can blame him?
We dealt comprehensively last week with Kauto Star's imperious display in the King George and without wishing to detract from the majesty of the visual performance -- 36 lengths is 36 lengths in any man's currency -- it is worth noting in raking through the ashes that many of the protagonists in the race under-fired for one reason or another.
Imperial Commander blundered himself out of the contest. Deep Purple broke a blood vessel. Barbers Shop patently isn't at his best over three miles at a relentless gallop and Madison Du Berlais was under pressure too far out to say that he ran to his best as he took second by default.
If the Gold Cup picture looks a clear, straight duel, then the Champion Hurdle looks quite the opposite. Each year a horse emerges that, despite the evidence, no one wants to believe in. Two years ago it was Katchit (plagued by the five-year-old hoodoo); last year it was Punjabi and this year it is Go Native.
Punjabi and Go Native both won the Fighting Fifth Hurdle without getting credit for it but whilst Punjabi fell at the second last when looking a likely winner of the Christmas Hurdle, Go Native went one better by actually winning it -- looking for all the world like an ersatz Harchibald as he did it. That win puts Go Native in line for a £1m bonus, gives him the best form in the race -- beating the disappointing Binocular amongst others -- yet still he is not favourite despite having a course-and-distance Festival win on his CV from last March.
Solwhit, meanwhile, a victim of Go Native in a pedestrian Fighting Fifth at Newcastle, avoided the spectre of a repeated farce at Leopardstown by being ridden much handier and claimed the December Hurdle from former Champion Hurdler Sublimity. Sublimity was done for by a combination of an error in the back straight and, more pertinently, the morning rainfall.
An absentee from the December Hurdle, the mare Voler La Vedette instead opted to compete with her own sex on the same card and duly eased home in fairly undemanding style. She looks a fascinating contender for the Champion although connections are first-preferencing her for the David Nicholson mares' race. A faster gallop at two miles would seem to suit her ideally. She has a 13-length victory over Go Native to her credit already this season and an outing in the Toshiba Irish Champion should go a long way to persuading connections as to what her Cheltenham target should be in March. The Champion still looks like a mystery wrapped in a puzzle inside an enigma.
In the novice chase division, Sizing Europe maintained his unbeaten record, but at the expense of being at his least convincing, especially in the jumping department. He challenged the front-running Osana from a fair way out and this opened the door for the challenging Captain Cee Bee which was about to take the Arkle favourite's measure when knuckling over at the last.
Quite why Sizing Europe has been left a shorter price for the Arkle than his Supreme Novices winning adversary is a more minor mystery, while both have seen their price contract following the injury to Crack Away Jack which will miss the rest of the season.
Fellow Arkle contender Riverside Theatre was impressive in the Wayward Lad Chase at Kempton but it was a poorly contested affair for the grade and he impresses more as a Park course candidate than one that would necessarily appreciate the undulations of Cheltenham.
In the staying novice chase category, at least we knew what to expect from Punchestowns, but recent stable addition Long Run was a greater imponderable for all his classy form at Auteuil. However, the Waley-Cohen-owned four-year-old made a mockery of the Grade One Feltham by totally outclassing his opponents.
Cheltenham, however, will be an altogether different calibre of test and he will certainly need to improve his low fencing technique in the meantime if he is to represent a fail-safe conveyance come March.
Pandorama put up a gutsy display (and Festival winner Weapon's Amnesty no less so) in the Knight Frank which means he has still only suffered one solitary defeat under rules to date (to Mikael D'Hagueneut). A soft-ground RSA could see him very overpriced at 12/1. Or perhaps bookmakers just don't fancy Noel Meade at the Festival?
Another hat to arrive in the ring came in the unexpected guise of Diamond Harry following his defeat into third by Big Buck's and Karabak in the rescheduled Long Walk at Newbury. Instead of persisting over hurdles, Nick Williams is electing for bigger obstacles in 2010 where his standard bearer is likely to achieve even greater heights than he has reached already.
And speaking of alternate engagements, last Christmas Festival word goes to Big Buck's, which should be handed the trophy for the World Hurdle even at this stage given how he dispatched all his chief market rivals in Berkshire.
In the spirit of the season it is simply a mercy gesture to spare some horses and connections any unnecessary suffering in the forthcoming few months. After all, the reigning World Hurdler's demolition in the Long Walk was not just for Christmas.