David Cleary looks back at the week's jumping highlights, starting with the remarkable Frodon, while our Exchange team updates the big antepost betting news for the Festival...
"At a lower level, the beginners chase at Uttoxeter won by Crucial Role looks a good race of its type and sure to throw up winners over the winter."
Heartwarming stuff from Nicholls star
Frodon produced a display to warm the heart - on a wickedly bitter afternoon - in the Caspian Caviar Gold Cup at Cheltenham on Saturday, under a peach of a ride from Bryony Frost. After wresting the lead from Baron Alco from the start, an advantage only briefly surrendered, the pair forced a strong gallop as Frodon delivered a flawless round of jumping, which put pressure on those behind, most of whom ended up making mistakes.
With Baron Alco seen off by the turn for home, the Paul Nicholls-trained Frodon had only Cepage left as a danger, but he drew a mistake from that rival at the second last and stormed away up the hill. In terms of ability, Frodon ought to be a serious contender for Grade 1 events at this sort of trip, such as the Ryanair, but it may be the nature of big handicaps suits him better than conditions races.
Of those behind Mister Medic was shaping better than most until he belted four out. Rather Be was rather lacklustre, perhaps his mishap in the BetVictor having left its mark. Casablanca Mix doesn't have the scope to cope with these fences, this in hindsight the wrong option among the many she's had in recent weeks.
Brain Power makes Champion Hurdle case
The other feature on Cheltenham's card was the International Hurdle, which was won decisively by Brain Power. He tanked through the race, seeming to relish the switch back from chasing, and looked to retain all the ability, his idling late on meaning the winning margin didn't reflect his superiority. Two winters ago, he was an easy winner of what is now the Betfair Exchange Trophy and went off at 13/2 in Buveur d'Air's first Champion Hurdle. Brain Power didn't give his running that day and he hadn't really looked at home at Cheltenham before Saturday, so it was particularly encouraging that he won there in the style he did. The failure so far of last season's novices to come up to scratch, leaves room for others to make the Champion Hurdle places.
Dream worth trying in handicaps
One of those novices, Summerville Boy, was well beaten behind Brain Power and just has to be left alone until showing signs of a revival. Silver Streak took second and, conceding weight to the winner, emerges with plenty of credit, though he's probably going to fall short at the very highest level. We Have A Dream seems to have his limitations and lacked the pace to land a blow back at two miles. He probably needs dropping into a handicap, where the different tempo of the race could well suit him better.
World's End - style over substance?
Brain Power wasn't the only runner at the meeting to look a different horse from the one that had run at the November meeting - The World's End jumped with much more conviction under a switch to front-running tactics, producing one of the best efforts in the staying novice division this winter. That said, the early departure of Lil' Rockerfeller eased The World's End's task and eventual second Ibis du Rheu was given a ride which lacked tactical nous, to put it tactfully, so the winner's performance was more style than substance.
Rocky on road to NH Chase
Another staying novice to score emphatically over the weekend was Rocky's Treasure, who landed a Grade 2 at Doncaster by a street, really strong in the finish after forcing the pace and jumping fluently. Rocky's Treasure has won four of his five chases this season, by an aggregate of 74 lengths. His only defeat came at the hands of Santini, who remains the right favourite for the RSA Chase. The World's End may well end up in that too, though a bit more experience against stronger opposition wouldn't go amiss. Rocky's Treasure might be a more obvious sort for the National Hunt Chase.
Follow beginners from Uttoxeter
At a lower level, the beginners chase at Uttoxeter won by Crucial Role looks a good race of its type and sure to throw up winners over the winter. Crucial Role, clearly at home back on easier ground, improved markedly on his debut effort, indeed probably bettered his hurdles form in scoring so emphatically; he ought to go onto better things, particularly when back up in trip (though he holds an entry in the Grade 2 Noel Novices' Chase at Ascot on Friday).
Among his opponents, the runner-up Now McGinty won't be long in going one better, while the 100/1-chance Alminar caught the eye under considerate handling having been dropped out at the back of the field. Alminar jumped safely and saw his race out pretty well, and while the BHA handicapper is allowed to reassess him for this run (he ran only three times over hurdles), he definitely has more to offer.
Another interesting runner from the race is the long-absent Any Drama, though he might be one to watch for back over hurdles. His jumping on chasing debut left a lot to be desired, so it was all to his credit that he still looked full of running into the straight, held but not knocked about when he was knocked over at the second last. Any Drama retains all his ability on this showing, and a BHA mark of 136 is generous on his old form.
Two more novice chasers worth mentioning are Ballywood and Capeland, who finished first and second in a handicap at Taunton on Thursday. The four-year-old Ballywood, having just his second start over fences, was much improved from his two hurdles runs since coming from France and is clearly a useful recruit; Capeland was unfortunate to bump into a well-treated rival with a big weight-for-age pull to boot. Both looked well ahead of their mark and will remain of interest, though both are qualified for novices and Capeland is shaping up to be another of those unheralded Paul Nicholls-trained chasers that keep on winning and getting better bit by bit. Like Frodon.
Theclockisticking was no match for Rocky's Treasure at Doncaster, but it's still early days for him over fences. Among those mentioned favourably in this column recently with entries at Ascot are Thomas Darby (Grade 2 novice hurdle on Friday) and Mr Antolini, who is in a strong-looking field for the Betfair Exchange Trophy.
Big movers on the Exchange
Brain Power was impressive going back over hurdles on Saturday at Cheltenham. Beating nearest rival Silver Streak by one-and-three-quarter lengths. The Nicky Henderson trained-horse was trading at around [34.0] for the Champion Hurdle before the race. He is now trading at [23.0] to get home in front come March.
The Tom George-trained The Worlds End was a 26-length winner in a novice chase at Cheltenham on Friday. Trading as big as [55.0] for the RSA Chase at Cheltenham in March. He now trades at [15.5] for the race.
Battleoverdoyen was a very impressive winner in his maiden hurdle at Navan on Sunday. Winning by an easy 13 lengths. He was trading around 20.0 for the Ballymore Novices Hurdle before winning the race. He is now trading at [15.0].
The Willie Mullins-trained Easy Game looked the part in the Navan Novice Hurdle on Sunday. Fighting off stable mate Getareason and the Gordon Elliott-trained Defi Bleu to come out of the race a 2 length winner. He currently trades at [22.0] for the Ballymore Novices Hurdle in March.