David Cleary dissects the best of last week's action, including a cracking Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot, with plenty of Cheltenham pointers on offer...
"Mullins introduced a possible Cheltenham candidate at Naas on Monday, in the shape of Take Tea. Although this was a mares-only race and the runner-up was a 66/1-chance, home-bred newcomer, Take Tea cruised round on the bridle and just sauntered clear in the last 300 yards. With plenty like about her pedigree as well, Take Tea could be anything."
The undoubted highlight of the week's racing was the Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot on Saturday, featuring a rematch between the first and second from the Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury just three weeks earlier.
On that occasion, Thyme Hill, looking the fitter and in receipt of 3lb, got the better of Paisley Park. This time, at level weights and with Paisley Park much tighter in appearance, the placings were reversed, although the fact that the winner traded at a high of 65.064/1 in running on the Betfair Exchange and the runner-up was matched at a low of 1.071/14 tells you plenty about the way the race unfolded.
Thyme Hill and Paisley Park rivalry to continue
To start with Thyme Hill, who ran at least as well as he had at Newbury and cemented himself near the head of the market, so far as the Stayers' Hurdle is concerned.
He looked to have Saturday's race under control at the last, though only narrowly ahead of the mare Roksana, and he stuck on willingly, without extending his lead. He just had no answer to the very late thrust of the winner.
Thyme Hill has run cracking races at the last two Cheltenham Festivals, finishing third to Envoi Allen in the 2019 Champion Bumper and was an unfortunate fourth to Monkfish in the Albert Bartlett earlier this year. There's every reason to believe he will do so again, come March.
The main stumbling block in his way is obviously his conqueror Paisley Park, who produced his trademark strong finish after looking third best at the last to lead in the final 25 yards. The pace here was stronger than it had been at Newbury, but by no means a flat-out gallop and there are circumstances under which it's possible to envisage Paisley Park doing even better, particularly back at Cheltenham.
Paisley Park was also helped by testing ground conditions - the hurdles track somewhere between Soft and Heavy on times - and is building a good record in the mud, though he missed this race last season due to concerns about the conditions and his trainer Emma Lavelle was asserting afterwards that he's better on better ground.
It's all relative. Running three miles on Heavy ground will require more effort than doing so on Good, everything else being equal. Usain Bolt won't run a hundred metres quite so fast if you put a six-inch layer of porridge on the track, but he's still likely to run it faster than all his rivals, though some of them might have a physique that makes them relatively more efficient at doing so. Which is a roundabout way of saying the ground is not an issue when it comes to assessing Paisley Park and his chance in the Stayers'.
Roksana shows promising signs
The Long Walk third Roksana deserves mentioning in positive terms. She's not had many chances at three miles but won at Wetherby over the trip on her return and ran a fine race here, taking on the best stayers around.
Roksana has contested races at the last two Cheltenham Festivals. She was a fortunate winner of the Mares Hurdle two seasons ago and could finish only fourth in the same race last time round. Given how effective she is at three miles, it would be a shame were she not to be given a chance in the Stayers' this time.
Not So Sleepy lands second Betfair Exchange Hurdle
The rest of Saturday's Ascot card offered less of interest so far as Cheltenham is concerned, though Not So Sleepy won the Betfair Exchange Hurdle for the second year running. On his best behaviour after disgracing himself, putting the brakes on, at Newcastle in the Fighting Fifth, he turned in a career best.
Thanks to a standing start, Not So Sleepy didn't get the chance to show what he could do in his bid to follow up in the Betfair Hurdle at Newbury last winter, so he'll surely be looking to put that right in seven weeks time.
Allart's fine debut strengthens Nicky Henderson's novice chase hand
Friday's Ascot card was rather more enlightening, with Allart's success in the Noel Novices' Chase and My Drogo's victory in the Kennel Gate Hurdle both suggesting they have what it takes to reach a high level as the winter progresses.
Allart's defeat of the favourite Fiddlerontheroof in the Noel was really encouraging. He warmed to his task against some experienced rivals and came up well when asked at the last to jump upsides before asserting on the run-in. He's another exciting prospect for a yard that is spoilt for choice over fences.
Allart was having just the sixth race of his life at Ascot and was gaining his third win in four completed starts over jumps, the one defeat coming in the Supreme last spring. He was the Henderson third string that day and was beaten by the other two, but not by that far. The others, Shishkin and Chantry House, have also made winning starts over fences, with Shishkin currently a short price for the Arkle.
Allart, who has the ideal physique for a chaser, may well be kept to further than two miles, with the Marsh the obvious spring target.
My Drogo is also the sort physically to make a chaser next season, but for this he looks likely to make a smart novice hurdler. Although he was getting weight from the runner-up Llandinabo Lad in the Kennel Gate, he was produced to lead late and rather like at Newbury on his hurdling debut, he's a bit better than the bare result would suggest. The Tolworth Hurdle at Sandown would be the obvious next step, as he builds towards the Supreme.
Mullins and Elliott add to their Cheltenham cohorts
In Ireland, perhaps the most interesting performances of the week came in the bumper division. At Navan on Friday, Sir Gerhard enhanced his position at the head of the Champion Bumper market, travelling smoothly and picking up really well to settle matters a furlong out. Sir Gerhard, who cost £400,000 after winning his only point, has now won twice on heavy ground in emphatic fashion.
Sir Gerhard's trainer Gordon Elliott has won two of the last four runnings of the Champion Bumper, with Willie Mullins landing the other two, and Mullins introduced a possible Cheltenham candidate at Naas on Monday, in the shape of Take Tea. Although this was a mares-only race and the runner-up was a 66/1-chance, home-bred newcomer Take Tea cruised round on the bridle and just sauntered clear in the last 300 yards. With plenty like about her pedigree as well, Take Tea could be anything.
Elliott and Mullins were also among the winners at Thurles on Sunday. Gauloise put herself firmly in the frame for the Dawn Run in landing the listed mares event. Her task was made easier by the poor showing of form pick Sayce Gold (who needs further than two miles), but the runner-up Mighty Blue is useful on the Flat and she certainly ensured Gauloise had a good workout.
Elliott landed the beginners chase on the card with Escaria Ten. Successful twice at three miles over hurdles last winter, Escaria Ten proved a different proposition from on his chasing debut, stepped up to that trip again. He jumped economically and travelled smoothly in a well-run race, the others dropping away one by one, so that he was the only one galloping at the end. The form might be a bit suspect, but everything about the performance suggested the National Hunt Chase should be on the agenda.