THE month of October was spent in exasperation. Endless NH previews, podcasts, unproven horses to follow, 10 possible winners already thrown in the ‘ideal for the Albert Bartlett’ notebook. Every social media racing account promoting a dark horse for this, that and t’other Festival race. Remember Willie Mullins entered 14 novice chasers in the Turners at the end of January last season and ran two and neither was in the first three.
There is much less interest and betting for the 2024 classics even though you actually know what races horses will be targeted at.
But then….what happened? Three days of Cheltenham November came along, on top of the two days at Navan with many of the top Irish contenders making their seasonal debuts, and suddenly you find yourself as involved as any in the anticipation. Not so much get stuck in as got sucked in.
The weekend’s results posed many questions already. And we’ve not seen the reappearance of the leading Champion Hurdle contenders or last year’s Gold Cup winner yet.
At Cheltenham, Stage Star’s Paddy Power win was hugely impressive, given the weight he was giving away and the mistake at the last.
Allowances were made for Bravemansgame’s error at Wetherby – the Road To Cheltenham on Racing TV produced calculations on how much a horse can lose in jumping to a rival and is an interesting addition to analysis. This was a much worse error than Bravemans’ and surely cost him two lengths while Stage Star not only recovered but then held the second comprehensively.
It would be good to see him travel here but I’m not sure Leopardstown, with its long run-in and only one fence in the straight, would play to the strengths of such a good jumping horse.And did The Real Whacker’s run boost Gerri Colombe’s form?
Jonbon’s two Cheltenham Festival runs came against formidable rivals – and there was a suspicion that he might have run better elsewhere. Certainly, he was just not as smooth over fences against El Fabiolo in the Arkle last season. He lost impulsion at many fences. He looked much more at home on the track on Sunday. His sectional times between five and three out were excellent. Nicky Henderson seems to be clinging to the fact that it is one-all – Aintree novice hurdle versus Arkle Trophy – between his horse and El Fabiolo, but a rematch is something to anticipate.
And remember, in all this state of anticipation, horses just out of novice class taking on experienced chasers IS another step up. Footpad had a similar novice chase career to El Fabiolo and didn’t make the transition, finishing eighth of 12 when favourite in the Ryanair.
Look forward Novice chasers are among the most exciting contests to look forward to and we had JPR One, Homme Public, Facile Vega, Inthepocket, American Mile and Fact To File making their public debuts last weekend, to add to recent wins for Sharjah, Flooring Porter, Found A Fifty and Letsbeclearaboutit.
You hear so many novice horses touted as “he has the build of a chaser” but what you really need is the brain of a chaser and that’s harder to predict.
Certainly Facile Vega looks the part. But a chaser has to learn he cannot take the liberties that you can over hurdles and has to learn his own capabilities, when to shorten and when to stand off. Klassical Dream looked to have it nailed at Thurles. The formbook is littered with many who did not make the transition. Facile Vega wasn’t foot-perfect at Navan but did seem to improve as the race went on and he quickened well from the last.
But then the Rachael Blackmore on Inthepocket didn’t look the same as the R Blackmore who rode Bob Olinger earlier on the card!
Bob Olinger was given a vigorous ride to see off Zanayhir but stepping up to the Stayers’ Hurdle is a different matter. It’s a real slog to win that race. It’s why I don’t fancy the just out of novice, rising six-year-old Irish Point at this stage.
It’s hard to see where Bob Olinger fits into a Cheltenham race. And it’s hard to see where Zanahiyr can now find a race that he can win.
After a fine bumper campaign American Mike lost his way over hurdles last season and was a forgotten horse before his winning chase debut last Sunday. He too has scope for chasing.
Some wise Twitter touter suggested him at big odds for the Cheltenham novices a month or so ago and I duly parted with cash – but 50/1 for the National Hunt Chase seems penny wise pound foolish now. The Turners or the Brown Advisory look more likely and backing horses for novice chases in November has obvious risks with so many race options available.
The most exciting winner visually of the weekend was the juvenile Cheltenham winner Burdett Road. He didn’t jump well, was ridden out the back and looked to have a huge amount to do from the turn for home. But he came up the hill like Istabraq did in his first Champion Hurdle!
How good the November form will prove (not that good would be the expectation) is the question. Where would you be going backing a juvenile for the Triumph in November? But it is good to see horses with decent form on the flat come hurdling.
So we ended a weekend despite ourselves, scrolling through Festival ante-post prices. Join the club. The games have begun!