IT’S rare in these recent years that you get a race to kick off the season containing the quality field that lined up for the Betfair Chase at Haydock on Saturday.
We had a first and second rematch from the Gold Cup and the last two winners of the next best race in the chasing calendar, the King George and the winner of this race last year, the 57-lengths heavy ground victor, Bristol De Mai
The ground was perfect, none of your Haydock heavy, so all was set for a perfect contest?
The Gold Cup rematch came on the back of defeats this season for big names from last year’s stars, Samcro, Footpad and Faugheen, and we were in for another unexpected result here.
“He’s on home ground,” said Daryl Jacobs on the opening of The ITV coverage and so it proved! Bristol De Mai, on totally different ground than in this 57 length rout last year, put in an exhibition round of jumping and came home four lengths clear of the Gold Cup winner, putting all those who had branded last year’s win a fluke, in their place.
As Daryl Jacob said afterwards, “This horse has won a Grade 1 for us every year since we got him,” he deserved all the plaudits this time.
But the talk was as much of the beaten horses and of why they were beaten.
The Haydock fences came in for criticism, for being too high and too stiff. Six horses fell in the chases and one unseated, though River Wylde dived through the fence like a novice.
Most of Bristol De Mai’s best form has come early in the season, with Nigel Twiston Davies saying afterwards he was hard to keep right after his first runs, so the million pound bonus is safe as nothing really suggests that Bristol De Mai, worthy winner as he was, will go close in the King George or the Gold Cup.
He was reported to have ulcers after the disappointing King George run last year, and was only third in the Cotswold Chase.
Of the vanquished, Native River in second ran his usual honest race, as he has for three seasons now. He never travelled with the zest he had in the Denman Chase or Gold Cup, and perhaps the ground and fences were not fully suitable, though he rarely runs a bad race.
It was a bit worrying hearing Colin Tizzard say in an after-race interview that he was better having four or five runs before he Gold Cup “we got away with going in on one last year”.
That is going against the modern wisdom in going in to the festival fresh, as Henrietta Knight did with Best Mate and Paul Nicholls with Kauto Star.
Many had thought that was the plan last year and that being a fresh horse was a positive thing going into a Gold Cup.
He came to the Gold Cup off four runs in 2017 when he finished third, when perhaps the edge had been taken off him after wins in the Hennessy, Welsh National and Denman Chase. He had five runs in 2016 when second in the four-miler to Minella Rocco. He jumped the fences well enough, if not with the zest of the Gold Cup. (continued below)
Thistlecrack didn’t jump well. He was too high at many and must have lost 10 lengths in distance and even more in energy used. Yet everytime he lost ground, he made it up again and was moving as well as any turning in.
The fences certainly looked big and wide on TV. Thistlecrack, to his credit tried to jump them, he just got too high and lost ground. He may never have put up a good time as assessed by Simon Rowlands and he doesn’t look a natural chaser, but that World Hurdle was won on the bridle and the engine that saw him win it is still there. The King George is a different challenge, one he passed with flying colours previously, and if this hasn’t left its mark, he has as good a chance as any, 16/1 looks decent.
Might Bite’s performance was the talking point. He looked fabulous beforehand, and conditions should have suited him more than Native River.
He was the major disappointment in fifth place, looking beaten from three out and not looking to travel, before that.
He raced with his head on one side up the final straight, and it was hard to find an excuse.
I looked back at his Gold Cup run, and he travelled much sweeter then. Nicky Henderson blamed the fences saying they put him in "panic mode" and there were suggestions were that the Gold Cup followed by Aintree might have been too much for a horse with some quirkiness in his make up but he did Cheltenham and Aintree successfully as a novice.
Nicky Henderson looks at the fences at Haydock
It’s a hard to be sure if the lack lustre run was down to something physical (nothing showed up) or mental. Even if the fences were high, he has shown plenty of scope and Bristol De Mai coped well with them. He is still favourite for the King George on a track where he should have won the Grade 1 novice in 2016 and won the King George last year, it’s value on his ability but there is a question mark.
Having thought Paul Nicholls’ Aintree winner Politilogue a decent each-way bet at 16/1 for the King George, I would have liked to see him win more easily in the Christy 1965 Chase.
That said, runner-up Charbel is decent, leading Altior in that Arkle when he fell at the second last. Giving him 6lbs, it was a better than the bare result for the grey, especially if taking Paul Nicholls after race comments into account.
“He travels so well but the minute he hits the front he idles...He’s better having one go at them... the better the race the better he is.”
Paddy Power had him 20/1 for the King George, but then events an hour later left him at 8/1, though that is a bit short for a horse still to prove his stamina and beat a top class rival.
The horse you would love to see in it is Un De Sceaux, but he's not entered
Among the outsiders for the King George, Coneygree now at 33/1 could represent value if his comeback run didn’t knock him back, while Waiting Patiently, does just that in the wings, but again 6/1 looks short on what he has done with just that one Grade 1 win at Ascot, though he beat Politilogue as a novice.
Bellshill is the best priced Irish runner at 12/1 but the horse you would love to see in it is Un De Sceaux, he would really shake them up and surely it would be his last chance to win a three mile Grade 1, but he wasn't entered.
The graded hurdle on the Ascot card went to the favourite If The Cap Fits, who produced a good finish to beat Old Guard (receiving 6lbs from the Nicholls horse) after Rayvin Black had tried to slip the field off the home turn.
If The Cap Fits - Noel Fehily comes late to win from Old Guard - Bryony Frost in the Coral Hurdle(Grade 2)
His best form is all on a flat track but he is progressing, and doesn’t look the finished article yet. His next outing, presumably in the Christmas Hurdle will tell more. We Have A Dream was very disappointing again, as then top juvenile of last year, Champion Hurdle aspirations look remote on these two runs.
There was an interesting hurdling debutant in the opener, as Trevelyn’s Corn who cost £400,000 out of points, made his UK debut in the opening novice but only finished fourth. It was a decent if unspectacular run, where he jumped well though pecked at the last but while he is labelled ‘future chaser’ he needs to show a bit more.
There was one high class performance on the Sunday card at the southern track when Lil Rockerfeller made it three from three over fences, with a much more polished performance than he had put in on the Friday of the Cheltenham meeting.
Here, he dictated, and thought he was undoubtedly the best horse, he never looked out of his comfort zone and is a horse who finds for pressure. He may go to the Kauto Star Novices at Kempton but he’s gaining lots of experience and would be well worth a go.
The opening race got a bit of attention with Gigginstown winning the first five home in the novice hurdle, while surprisingly none of the Gordon Elliott-trained 12 made the first nine in the Troytown Chase even if Gigginstown won it with a decent effort from Tout Est Permis as Noel Meade’s good pre-Christmas run continues.
Defi Blue put in a good effort in the opening maiden and looks a nice chaser in the making.
Paloma Blue, fourth in the Supreme Novices, and fancied for the Arkle put up a lack lustre chasing debut, being beaten before the last as Jetz battled on well to gain compensation for his fall last time.
Mark Walsh’s effort wasn’t so good on Gypsy Island in the Mares Novice Hurdle, seeming to leave it far too late to close in the leaders and failing by a length despite a strong late challenge.
The was a strong late challenge in the Grade 3 Hurdle also from Easy Game, the only Mullins winner of the weekend, galvanised by Ruby Walsh from the back of the last.
The two runner novice hurdle saw the first run of the Nicholls impressive bumper winner of last year in the well regarded Danny Kirwan who went off at 1/2. There was little pace in this and he made the running but probably at too slow a pace. The Philip Hobbs-trained Crooks Peak pulled hard but out sprinted the Nicholls horse running between the last two. Danny Kirwan chased back through to the line and off a better pace, still looks an exciting prospect. His next race will show more.
STAR PERFORMANCE: Bristol De Mai
MUST DO BETTER: Might Bite, Paloma Blue
BETTER NEXT TIME: Thistlecrack, Danny Kirwan
RIDE OF THE WEEKEND: Three candidates – Richard Johnson (Black Mischief), Aidan Coleman (Paisley Park) at Haydock and Ruby Walsh on Easy Game at Navan
NOT THE RIDE OF THE WEEKEND: Mark Walsh on Gypsy Island
ONE TO WATCH: Gypsy Island in mares’ races