Unowhatimeanharry leaves staying rivals on the Ascot canvas
If we are nearing a decision on whether Thistlecrack runs in the King George or takes up the novice alternative at Kempton on December 26, we are also somewhat nearer to finding the successor to his World Hurdle title after Unowhatimeanharrry stretched his unbeaten run over hurdles to seven with a smooth victory in the JLT Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot yesterday.
The man with the hardest job at the Royal racecourse yesterday, where most of the track was enveloped in a thick and constantly shifting fog, was the commentator. He certainly had to work harder than Barry Geraghty, who only started to get properly serious with the Harry Fry-trained eight-year-old between the last two.
Unowhatimeanharry, however, responded well and had the measure of Ballyoptic, the long-time leader, when Richard Johnson's mount fell at the last. West Approach, Thistlecrack's brother, which was also quite close up, came out in sympathy and unshipped his jockey. The winning gelding, bought by JP McManus after claiming the Albert Bartlett, stayed on to beat Lil Rockerfeller by four lengths, with a yawning gap back to Un Temps Pour Tout.
Fry still cannot believe his luck. "That's seven wins from seven starts for us, it's incredible," he said. "That was a harder race for him. Barry said he had to fight for him from four out but he keeps doing what he needs to. Hopefully, if he comes out of this fine, he'll go for the Cleeve Hurdle at Cheltenham at the end of January and then it will be all systems go for the World Hurdle."
Otherwise the day belonged to Nicky Henderson, with the 12/1 shot Brain Power winning the valuable and normally competitive Wessex Youth Trust Handicap Hurdle more in the style of an odds-on shot under the coolest of rides from Grand National-winning jockey David Mullins and Top Notch taking the G L Events Owen Brown Graduation Chase.
By the time Brain Power won the last, a combination of dusk and fog made viewing very difficult but the only thing you could see with clarity throughout was the double handful that Mullins had. He cruised into second on the home bend and was still four lengths down on Fergall at the second last. But he knew what he had underneath him, took it up between the last two and ran out a comfortable five-length winner over stablemate Consul De Thaix. The way the winner is going suggests he might be rather better than a handicapper.
"Both horses are young and progressive," said Henderson. "Brain Power has now won two good prizes and Consul De Thaix can still go down the novice route. The worry with them both was whether they had the necessary experience for a race like this."
Champion Hurdle fifth Top Notch, noted Henderson, may be small and not the stamp of a chaser, but the confidence he has gained winning round Warwick and Plumpton has worked wonders for him. "He's having a ball," said the trainer. "He's still little but he's growing in stature with every win because he's not being beaten up in Champion Hurdles and Fighting Fifths."
Henderson already has one ace two-mile novice chaser, Altior, up his sleeve and Buveur D'Air, third behind Altior in the Supreme, looks another after a promising chasing debut at Haydock, where he beat Cloudy Dream by three lengths in the 32Red Novice Chase.
Richard Johnson must have wished it had been abandoned because of the fog. He hit the deck three times and the third of them, Go Conquer, which fell at the first in Lavazza Silver Cup, gave him a good kicking. He was stood down for the last race feeling "very sore".