Timeform look back on an eventful Leopardstown Christmas Festival, kicking off with a thrilling renewal of the Lexus Chase...
The Lexus Chase was arguably as anticipated a Christmas clash as the King George, featuring as it did the two most exciting chasers in Ireland, namely Flemenstar and Sir des Champs, plus an interesting raider from Britain in the shape of Tidal Bay, and it provided one of the most thrilling finishes through the whole of 2012.
Flemenstar and Sir des Champs, who had finished first and second in the John Durkan earlier in the month, started at odds of 5/4 and 9/4 respectively, but it was the third in the betting, the Paul Nicholls-trained Tidal Bay, who upstaged the pair with a remarkable performance, in the process giving his handler his third win in the race in the last six years.
Success for Tidal Bay looked unlikely even at the last but, under an expert ride from Ruby Walsh, the mercurial veteran finished strongly to burst between Flemenstar and First Lieutenant close home and get up in the dying strides.
In form terms, Tidal Bay didn't actually need to reproduce the form he showed when second to Bobs Worth in the Hennessy, his narrow success in a pulsating finish earning him a performance rating of 166 compared to the career-best 174 he achieved at Newbury, but it did prompt a notable change in another area, with a decision taken to remove his much-discussed Timeform squiggle, a symbol that is used to denote a horse that should be approached with caution from a betting perspective.
The squiggle was first handed to Tidal Bay after a couple of disappointing efforts in the 2008/9 campaign, with a reluctant performance when fifth in that season's Melling Chase seen as the final straw. However, despite still needing careful handling and displaying a trademark high head carriage, it's plain to see he's been rejuvenated since joining Paul Nicholls from the now-disqualified Howard Johnson, meaning it's only fair that the symbol bites the dust - for now, at least.
The horse who actually shaped best in the Lexus was the favourite Flemenstar, and consequently his Timeform rating has gone up from 173 to 175. Peter Casey's 7-y-o came into the race on the back of seven straight victories and was simply stretched by the trip in the conditions, tanking along out wide under a more patient ride than usual and having everything else in trouble when cruising to front rounding the home turn but finding his earlier exertions taking their toll having touched down two lengths to the good at the last.
Flemenstar deserves another crack at three miles in the Hennessy Gold Cup back at Leopardstown in February, but he now seems an unlikely Gold Cup contender and a clash with Sprinter Sacre (183p) in the Champion Chase at Cheltenham could be on the cards.
Second-placed First Lieutenant improved 4lb to a figure of 166 and has developed into a remarkably consistent chaser. He got much closer to Tidal Bay than he had last time, despite being 7 lb worse off with that one, and will have place claims again in the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Willie Mullins' Sir des Champs wasn't far off his best in bare form terms and is actually now rated 170, after we raised the John Durkan a few pounds. However, it was a performance that asked as many questions as it answered, as it was a rather laboured effort despite being back at a more suitable trip. Sir des Champs was off the bridle well before the other principals due to some indifferent jumps, but he stayed on well late on to almost get up for third and still has time to stake his Gold Cup claim, with the Hennessy in February likely to be his next port of call.
Going back to day one of the Festival, and it was another Mullins horse who was the headline act, namely Arvika Ligeonneire. Arvika Ligeonneire didn't need to run right up to his best of 158 to win the Grade 1 Racing Post Novice Chase but he wasn't as impressive as he had been in the Drinmore, tending to jump out to his right on his first try on a left-handed track over fences and needing to be driven right out to hold the renewed effort of Oscars Well after getting in close to the last. He shouldn't be marked down, however, as a return to a sounder surface is likely to show him in a better light and he'll be the one to beat in the Irish Arkle back at Leopardstown.
As usual on day two, just a handful of runners went to post in the Grade 1 Dial-a-bet Chase, and it essentially developed into a match, with Sizing Europe and Rubi Light having it to themselves pretty much throughout.
Sizing Europe (master rating of 172) rewarded his connections' decision to send him to Leopardstown rather than have a tilt at the King George with a sixth Grade 1 win over fences, and he didn't need to be at his very best, credited with a performance rating of 167. It is hard to see him beating an on-song Sprinter Sacre in the Champion Chase at Cheltenham, so it's no surprise a return to 21f for the Ryanair Chase is reportedly under serious consideration.
The following race on the card, the Future Champions Novice Hurdle lived up to its billing as Jessie Harrington's Jezki kept his unbeaten record intact with a 6-length victory over Waaheb. Jezki is most progressive and is clearly one of the best novice hurdlers seen out so far this season, rated 150p on the back of this latest win, and on this evidence he will be the one to beat in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival.
There were two other Graded races on Lexus day, starting with the Christmas Hurdle, in which the first four from the Hatton's Grace renewed rivalry. In the event, Monksland (157) didn't need to be at his very best to turn around recent Fairyhouse form with Zaidpour, and he will have solid each-way claims in the World Hurdle now that Big Buck's is out of action.
In a strong renewal of the Grade 1 Topaz Novice Chase, the Willie Mullins-trained pair that drew clear after the last, Back In Focus and Aupcharlie, marked themselves out as Cheltenham contenders. Back In Focus is now rated 152p, having progressed again to maintain his unbeaten record by the skin of his teeth, looking held early on the run-in but finding plenty to lead under pressure near the finish. He is open to further improvement granted sufficient emphasis on stamina, will be suited by further than 3m and would take some beating in a soft-ground RSA Chase.
Aupcharlie ran an absolute blinder on just his second start over fences, taking his rating from 136p to 151 in one hit. Jumping soundly, he travelled best to loom up two out but was caught close home after pecking at the last. He will reportedly be kept away from the winner now and looks one of the strongest contenders for the Jewson at this stage.
The final day of the Festival saw Hurricane Fly make short work of his rivals in the Grade 1 Festival Hurdle, adding to his 2010 win in the corresponding race in impressive style. Looking as good as ever, backed up by a performance rating of 169+, Hurricane Fly jumped fluently and travelled strongly, before quickening to lead entering the straight and soon going clear. It's more than three years since he tasted defeat on home soil, but he's going to be made to work a lot harder if he's to win another Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham and his aura of invincibility was lost in defeat there last year, allowing that he might not have been right on the day.