Cheltenham Countdown: Champ ko'd with Dipper at his mercy

Jumps horse Champ
Champ on the gallops: he's reported to be none the worse for Cheltenham fall

David Cleary focuses on a couple of smart novice performances in his first column of the New Year...

"He is already significantly better as a chaser than he was as a hurdler, a lot to like about the way he jumps and travels, and he shapes as if long distances will bring about even more improvement. Captain Drake could be just the type for the Midlands National, come the spring."

It was a week short on significant action in Britain, at least so far as contenders for top honours at the Cheltenham Festival are concerned, though the Grade 2 Dipper Novices' Chase at Cheltenham on New Year's day and the Grade 1 Tolworth Hurdle at Sandown are two races that merit close attention.

Champ still in RSA frame despite mishap

To begin with the Dipper and a horse that failed to complete, Champ. All was seemingly well in control turning for home as the 4/9-shot, bidding for a hat-trick, powered along a few lengths clear of his rivals. However, he barely took off two out and fell heavily, though thankfully suffered nothing worse than a sore shoulder. Champ had jumped fluently until that point and might well have pulled right away in the closing stages, matched at a low on Betfair of 1.041/25 before his departure. He remains a leading home candidate, so far as March is concerned, with the current markets suggesting the RSA Chase for which he currently trades at 4.84/1 to back, is a more likely option than the Marsh/Golden Miller. Certainly the positive ride, making the most of his stamina, looked sure to pay dividends until he exited, and suggests a return to three miles will be to his advantage as well.

Champ's departure left the race at the mercy of Midnight Shadow, who was scoring on the card for the second year running. He's not yet reached the level over fences that he showed in his win in the Relkeel Hurdle the year before, but he looks to be learning with experience and there could yet be more to come. However, he seems more a potentially smart handicapper than anything grander.

Fiddler adds to Tizzard novice riches

If analysts were left to ponder what might have been in the Dipper, there was no doubting the authority with which Fiddlerontheroof won the Tolworth Hurdle for novices at Sandown. Having run into Thyme Hill in the Persian War on his hurdling debut and been done for speed against Edwardstone next time, Fiddlerontheroof had made the most of a good opportunity at Sandown at the start of December, all experience that set him up nicely for this step up in grade and markedly improved performance.

Fiddlerontheroof won with such authority that he displaced his stable-companion Master Debonair as the shortest-priced British-trained runner in the ante-post market for the Supreme Novices', though he leaves the impression he would probably want conditions to be quite testing to be seen to best advantage, kept to two miles. He may well prove a better candidate for the Ballymore if the ground is good or good to soft.

Henderson adds second string to Dawn Run bow

Fiddlerontheroof had some promising sorts well beaten off in the Tolworth, the six-length second Jeremys Flame finishing in turn 15 lengths ahead of the third. It was a good run by the runner-up and followed Sliver Forever's win in the listed mares event on the card in boosting the form of Floressa's win at Newbury at the end of November. In all six runners have been out again since that race and all of them have franked the form, some by showing significantly better form. Floressa will surely be a leading contender for the Dawn Run novice in two months time.

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Floressa's trainer Nicky Henderson has another good candidate for that race in Marie's Rock who ran out an impressive winner of the listed mares event at Taunton at the start of the week. This wasn't much of a test of jumping, only four hurdles taken with all the flights in the back straight omitted due to the low sun, but the way in which Marie's Rock pulled away from her rivals in the closing stages was taking. In terms of form and potential, she and Floressa are hard to split at this stage.

Burke's enterprise gains the day for Boy

Back at Cheltenham, the featured Relkeel Hurdle was a tactical affair in which Jonathan Burke was seen to good effect on Summerville Boy. The winner had rather lost his way since landing the 2018 Supreme Novices' and didn't have to improve to come out on top, though the way in which he finished the race was certainly encouraging. Summerville Boy has done most of his racing at around two miles, but had no problem with an extra four furlongs this time and is bred to stay further. He could well have a crack at Paisley Park (at one point mentioned as a possible runner in the Relkeel) in the Cleeve Hurdle over three miles at the end of the month, though plenty more will be needed there.

Janika was sent off favourite for the Relkeel, but didn't seem suited by the way the race unfolded, making his first start over hurdles in Britain. He may well be back over fences next, one of just seven horses entered for the Clarence House at Ascot on Saturday week, though, unfortunately for him, they include the three that finished ahead of him in the Tingle Creek.

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One of the other entries, Altior, (pictured above) last year's winner of the Clarence House, is due to contest the Grade 2 Silviniaco Conti at Kempton this weekend. That looks potentially a straightforward task for him, though if he is truly back on song, he would surely be better deployed taking on the top two-mile chasers the following Saturday.

To return, finally, to the pick of last week's action. Although he might not be a Cheltenham candidate, there looks to be a bright future for Captain Drake, who justified good support to win on his third start over fences in a handicap at Exeter. He is already significantly better as a chaser than he was as a hurdler, a lot to like about the way he jumps and travels, and he shapes as if long distances will bring about even more improvement. Captain Drake could be just the type for the Midlands National, come the spring.

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