Friday 15 November 2019

Smouldering Cheltenham coals look ready to reignite

Dodging Bullets among Festival near misses ready to fire, says Ian McClean

It's that slightly unsettling time of the racing calendar. On one hand we are still basking in the extended afterglow of the Cheltenham Festival, while at the same time our headlines are suffused with the opening of the Flat, the Lincoln and the Dubai World Cup.

Next week will revert to talk of the Fairyhouse Irish National; then the English National and Aintree where Nicky Henderson and Paul Nicholls are readying their strongest battalions to help them prevail in a neck-and-neck trainers' title.

With the proximity in the UK trainers' race coupled with the fact that a gap of four weeks divides Aintree from Cheltenham this year, it is likely even more of the heavy artillery will turn up on Merseyside, while Fairyhouse and particularly Punchestown are sure to be richly endowed. In combing through the embers of the Cheltenham Festival, I have uncovered some smouldering coals that could reignite next time before the jumps season ends.

When Dodging Bullets broke his duck at Galway last July off a mark of 79, trainer Andrew Oliver said: "It took a while for the penny to drop with Dodging Bullets but it has now and he is an improving horse." He won his next race, ended the season on 93 and was sold to Nicholls. Delaying his hurdling debut until Kempton in February, he came up against Triumph Hurdle favourite Grumeti. He was particularly green there, suggesting there was plenty of improvement, and Nicholls was left in two minds whether to run in the Triumph or wait until Aintree.

As it happened, he ran a blinder at Cheltenham, where he didn't get the best of rides, making his ground up too quickly around the outside and then getting to the front too soon. He will be wiser and more street-smart at Aintree, the sharper track will play more to his strengths and he will have the addition of Ruby Walsh in the saddle. I expect him to emerge best of his generation by campaign-end.

Another that Ruby can look forward to from the Festival is Felix Yonger. While the bouquets were all being showered on Simonsig after the Neptune, little attention was paid to the second.

Moreover, amidst all the speculation around target races for the phalanx of Willie Mullins' novice hurdlers in advance of the meeting, Felix Yonger barely got a mention. Passed over there by Walsh, it seems the son of Oscar entered and exited the Festival largely under the radar. Yet he ran a race full of promise for the future.

Take out Simonsig, and Felix Yonger is an 11-length winner of a 17-runner Festival Grade One -- for one thing. As it was, he went down by seven lengths to the horse that is probably the second most adulated icon (next to Sprinter Sacre) at Seven Barrows. But the way the race unfolded played far more to Simonsig's race-positioning than it did to Felix Yonger's. The bird had really flown by the time Felix Yonger made his move from the back at the most difficult point of the race, the downhill run to the second last.

He sailed past a number of quality rivals to get onto the coat tails of Simonsig but had no more left to give from then on. Ridden differently, he would have finished a lot closer to the winner. He is a horse that will thrive on better spring ground, so he will be hard to beat in the big two-and-a-half-mile novice races at Fairyhouse and Punchestown.

It will be very surprising if Kazlian doesn't emerge as the best long-term prospect from the Fred Winter field. A listed Flat racer in France, the son of Sinndar changed hands for €120,000 during the summer, and after a shaky first run over timber at Market Rasen, he gained in stature during two minor race wins to earn himself a rating of 130 for Cheltenham.

But that was all rendered academic as Tom Scudamore started his mount on the wide outside of the maximum 24 runners, raced him up to contest a furious pace, before firing Kazalian into a premature lead fully half a mile from home. Little wonder he ran out of gas after the last and was overhauled on the run-in.

It will be even more galling for David Pipe that he has been raised six pounds for finishing only fourth, but there will be some comfort in knowing he has at least a graded horse on his hands for his €120,000. Unlikely to go to Aintree, he could be one for Ayr and possibly even the Swinton at Haydock later on.

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