Paul Ferguson looks at the main events coming up over the next few weeks
Paul Ferguson looks at December’s action
Two-time Champion Hurdle winner BUVEUR D’AIR is fancied to make a winning return to action up at Newcastle on Saturday 1st December, in the Grade 1 Fighting Fifth Hurdle, a race he won in a canter 12 months ago.
Nicky Henderson’s seven-year-old remains a slightly underestimated champion by many, but I believe he won his second Champion Hurdle despite not being at his best in March and think there is still more to come. Sent off at prohibitive odds last year, there is every chance that he will face much stiffer opposition this time around, with Supreme Novices’ Hurdle winner Summerville Boy pencilled in for the journey north, too.
He won the festival opener despite making a mess of the last two flights – which highlights the natural ability he must possess – but it also highlights that hurdling wasn’t his best asset last year and he will certainly need to jump a lot more fluently now he enters open company.
Having missed the Morgiana Hurdle recently due to quick ground, it could be that we also see last season’s Ballymore winner Samcro heading over from Ireland. It would be fascinating to see these three lock horns so early in the season and, following his defeat at Down Royal on reappearance, the six-year-old also has a little to prove at this level. Plenty has been written about that performance and, in light of Sharjah (finished 3rd) coming out and winning the aforementioned Morgiana, the form looks a tad stronger. He was conceding weight to a couple of race fit rivals and at a time when some of Gordon Elliott’s horses were needing the run, so he could step forward considerably. He will need to, however, if going head-to-head with the Buveur D’Air. On this occasion, I would have to take proven form over the potential of the second-season hurdlers.
The winner of that WKD Hurdle at Down Royal Bedrock also holds an entry here and he is clearly on an upward curve. He showed a fine turn of foot on his last two outings and wouldn’t mind decent ground, should the rain not arrive. He was actually sold to race in America after his Down Royal win (deal done the day before, apparently) and, at the time of writing, it isn’t known for certain if his new owners will consider another race or two in Britain before heading across the Atlantic. The fact that he has been given an entry here suggests that it is a potential option.
Down at Newbury on the same day, I would be interested in Al Boum Photo if allowed to take his chance in the Ladbrokes Trophy, although with Thistlecrack expected to run at Haydock whilst this feature goes to press, I suspect his participation is in some doubt – I’m not sure Willie Mullins would want him to carry a big weight (could actually end up with top-weight) on his first start out of novice company, although I don’t believe his mark to be beyond him. He is, of course, famous for running out at Punchestown in April, but he had earlier developed into a smart novice chaser and there wouldn’t have been much between him and current market leader Elegant Escape in the RSA, had he not fallen.
At the current prices (16-1) he makes some each-way appeal, but I would want to wait for confirmation that he will be aimed at the race, before backing him personally. By the time you read this, we will probably know one way or another. The other one I like at the current prices (also 16-1) is Ms Parfois who also holds an entry in the Betfair Chase at Haydock the week before and in the Becher at Aintree, the following weekend. Given the current weather, I would be surprised if she were allowed to take her chance in the Betfair and, from a mark of 146, this race would make much more sense, in my opinion. A thorough stayer, a soft ground ‘Hennessy’ over an extended 3m2f would be right up her street and she would get in here off a nice low weight. Again, if the ground doesn’t come right for her, she could be one for the Welsh Grand National over Christmas and is certainly a mare to keep on side in these staying handicaps.
Going back to Elegant Escape briefly, he picked up a 4lb penalty for winning an intermediate chase at Sandown recently, but having that run under his belt could well be advantageous. This doesn’t actually look the strongest of renewals (at early entry stage) and should the pair I like not line up, it would appear even weaker. He would have obvious claims, although he won’t be a much shorter price come the day. Again, the longer trip and likely softer ground would be in his favour and he would be another Welsh National possible afterwards.
Another Colin Tizzard inmate to note at the meeting would be Lostintranslation, who was beaten on his chase debut at the last Newbury fixture by Warren Greatrex’s smart mare La Bague Au Roi. He went through the race enthusiastically and jumped well on debut, looking a natural, but didn’t truly see out the extended 2m6f trip. Therefore, dropping back to 2m4f would suit and I would think connections will probably aim him at the Grade 2 Berkshire Novices’ Chase on the first day of the meeting (Friday 30th November). He won the maiden hurdle on this card 12 months ago, having finished runner-up at the previous meeting, so the galloping track clearly suits this imposing six-year-old.
The same weekend (Sunday 2nd December) Fairyhouse stages a trio of Grade 1 events, including the Hatton’s Grace Hurdle, a race which Apple’s Jade has won for the past two seasons. Gordon Elliott’s six-year-old wasn’t quite at her best in the spring (when in season) but returned with a comfortable victory over Jezki at Navan recently. With that run under her belt, she might just hold the edge on whatever Willie Mullins throws at the race, and can join both Limestone Lad and Solerina on three wins in the race.
Of the potential opposition, Champion Hurdle second Melon would be the most interesting, although at the time of writing his participation is probably in some doubt, having just missed a potential engagement in the Morgiana after reportedly disappointing in his work. He remains unexposed over hur- dles after just eight starts and is sure to be a force in this division once again, although being so keen, I’m not sure 2m4f first time out would be ideal.
It’s back to Cheltenham during the middle weekend of the month, when the feature handicap on the Saturday (15th) is the Caspian Caviar Gold Cup, run over 2m5f on the New course. The slightly longer trip on this more demanding track would be a slight concern, but Rather Be was travelling ominously well when being brought down in the Bet Victor Gold Cup recently and would be one for any shortlist. Nicky Henderson’s lightly-raced seven-year-old deserves a change of luck at the track, having been nutted on the line at last season’s festival and he was a second-flight casualty in the 2017 Martin Pipe, when again being badly hampered. He has a big race in him off his current mark, although he is at his best on a decent surface, so connections will be hoping that the rain continues to stay away. If the ground goes against him, he might be one to keep in the back of our minds for a handicap in the spring.
Stable-mate Might Bite will (almost certainly) have run in the Betfair Chase at Haydock by the time you read this and, assuming nothing goes wrong there, he is likely to be the one to beat once again in the King George on Boxing Day. Another who is at his best on a decent surface, the track at Haydock should be right up his street and we know how effective he can be around Kempton.
One to keep an eye on in the north in the coming weeks is Nicky Richards’ Uncle Alastair, who was a useful novice hurdler last season and ran a blinder on his recent chase debut up at Carlisle. I was there that day and both him and Vinndication – who is also likely to be out again soon – pulled well clear of another nice prospect (Euxton Lane) and the runner-up shouldn’t remain a maiden over fences for long. He made Kim Bailey’s unbeaten five-year-old pull out all the stops and he will relish tackling a bit further (in time) on soft ground. He has a good record at Ayr – form reads 1F113 – so don’t be surprised to see him heading back up to Scotland at some point and he looks to have a bright future over fences.
Champion Hurdle winner Buveur d'Air (Barry Geraghty)
Samcro (Jack Kennedy) winning the Ballymore Hurdle
RSA Novices Chase winner Might Bite (Nic de Boinville
Lostintranslation (Robbie Power) wins the 2m Maiden Hurdle