Monday 18 December 2017

Chase jumps into Gold Cup picture


Trials Day. It used to simply be confined to Cheltenham. However yesterday, with the reupholstered Leopardstown card and a stellar support card on Town Moor at Doncaster, it was difficult at times to follow the plethora of Festival clues as they unfolded like the pages of a Dan Brown novel.

Nonetheless, you could ultimately categorise the action with just six weeks to go to the greatest show on turf under three familiarly well-worn headings -- The Whip, The Jumping and Big Buck's.

The Argento Chase (former Pillar Property) at Cheltenham provides the final Gold Cup trial opportunity at the Cotswolds venue. Looks Like Trouble was the last to complete the double and you can still get fair odds (25/1) this morning that Midnight Chase can follow his lead. Perhaps yesterday was his Gold Cup, but if the prize awarded was simply for jumping, then he would be a much shorter price in mid-March.

In an ultra-competitive field, it was the Neil Mulholland-trained Midnight Chase which forced the pace from the start. He maintained his relentless momentum fence after fence whilst others -- perhaps with more raw class -- were fluffing their lines.

There is little likelihood that Midnight Chase would ever have the pace to win an Arkle, but the sight of Captain Chris jumping so far repeatedly left he nearly ended up at the helicopter parade made for such an unedifying experience that Richard Johnson eventually pulled him up. Diamond Harry and Time For Rupert too were themselves flawed at times in their jumping, and it was ultimately arch-rogue Tidal Bay which loomed ironically as the only threat. Cajoled throughout by Ruby Walsh, even the champion's artistry wasn't enough to inject springs enough into the 11-year-old's heels to overhaul the relentlessness of Midnight Chase's momentum.

"He loves it here," commented a breathless Dougie Costello after the whirlwind ride, concluding "the fences come up fast and sharp." The love affair means he has now recorded five chase successes at the venue and there will be few safer conveyances in the Blue Riband in six weeks' time.

Philip Hobbs, trainer of Captain Chris, obviously omitted the paragraph on fencing from the Minehead morning team talk as Menorah -- already fragile in that department -- hit the deck at Doncaster. A three-runner affair was ostensibly an attempt to give him some confidence and match practice before stepping up to the ferocity of the Arkle -- but it was a strategy that backfired. Now, with time running out, it was a very long-faced trainer who was considering his options for both stable stars at headquarters as the light turned to gloom.

Perhaps he could turn to David Bridgwater, trainer of The Giant Bolster, which, by contrast, seems to have suddenly found the elixir for jumping indiscretions with his horse after an ignominious early exit when well-fancied in the Paddy Power Gold Cup. A horse described by his owner Simon Hunt "with more downs than ups", his totally reformed performance under new front-running tactics brought about an annihilation of a competitive field and opens up some new Festival possibilities for the locally-trained gelding. Bridgwater said: "With another year on his back, I'd like to think he'd be running in the Argento Chase rather than this, but he's just got to get it all together."

As for Big Buck's -- he moved one step closer to immortality by clocking up his 15th consecutive victory in the Cleeve Hurdle. The commentator got a little animated after the home turn as the canny Tom Scudamore kicked on Dynaste. "Whatever the result today, Big Buck's is going to have to fight" came the dramatic interpretation from the PA. However, any perceived drama was purely imaginary as by the last hurdle Paul Nicholls' leviathan had things -- as ever -- firmly under control. Ruby Walsh only had to change his hands to find that magic gear that others simply don't possess and a fourth World Hurdle looks a formality at this point.

Owner Andy Stewart reflected: "Instead of giving him a racecourse gallop, we thought we'd come to Cheltenham so the public could see him and I'm very pleased we did."

Meanwhile, Paul Nicholls had no comfort for any bold enough to fancy their chances in March. "If we won today it was great, but if we lost I was the one who was going to get shot. Obviously I've left plenty to work on but I just wanted to keep him interested without murdering him at home."

While Ruby Walsh had no requirement for the whip on Big Buck's, he had too much requirement for the stewards' liking in the opening JCB Triumph Hurdle trial on Pearl Swan. Not only was the horse disqualified but Walsh was handed a three-day suspension which rules him out of Betfair Super Saturday in a fortnight's time

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