Cheltenham Countdown: Thriving Defi lays down Champion Chase marker

Defi du Seuil
Defi du Seuil heads to Cheltenham on a Grade 1 hat-trick

David Cleary looks back at all the big races from the weekend, with new Champion Chase favourite Defi du Seuil's victory in the Clarence House top of the bill...

"An orthodox ride didn't come off by fractions, though had Pentland Hills not pulled quite so hard early and Ballyandy not found so much for pressure, the margin of a nose would have gone the other way and nothing would have been said."

Turning for home with two fences to jump in the Clarence House Chase at Ascot, a repeat of the thrilling finish to the Tingle Creek at Sandown six weeks previously looked on the cards. Un de Sceaux and Defi du Seuil were upsides one another, if anything Un de Sceaux going fractionally the better. The difference between the two, though, was that the pace to that point had been less forceful than it had been in the earlier race and that told against Un de Sceaux. Gaining momentum with a good jump two out, Defi du Seuil was soon in a commanding lead and although Un de Sceaux kept on up the run-in, he couldn't threaten his rival.

The long and the short of it was that the tactics on Un de Sceaux weren't the right ones for the situation - he could have and should have gone harder in front. Defi du Seuil was impressive, but the proximity of the third Marracudja, a 66/1-chance with no form in a long career entitling him to get so close to the first two, suggests that it was a case of Un de Sceaux running some way below form rather than Defi du Seuil improving. The market move for the Queen Mother Champion Chase after the race looks an overreaction.

Obviously, Defi du Seuil has a fine Cheltenham record, with two Festival wins to his name already and the Champion Chase looks the obvious route to go, even though he is also entered in the Ryanair and his win at the meeting last season came in the two-and-a-half mile novice rather than the Arkle. The Dublin Chase at Leopardstown and the Betfair-sponsored Game Spirit at Newbury early next month will be two crucial final pieces to the jigsaw. As for Un de Sceaux, this was a missed opportunity and at 12 his chance of another win at the highest level probably limited.

Thomas Darby shines back over hurdles

There was some fine supporting action on the Ascot card, perhaps the most taking performance coming from Thomas Darby, who looked right at home back over hurdles in the Grade 3 handicap after his chasing career had stuttered at Kempton last time. Making his handicap debut, Betfair Ambassador Olly Murphy's stable star was the only one who could land a blow at the well-ridden pacemaker Song For Someone. In contrast to his runs over fences, Thomas Darby couldn't have jumped better; he was doing just enough once he got to the front, so he could yet have more to offer, set to be kept over hurdles for the rest of the season.

Thomas Darby at hurdle 1280.jpg

Thomas Darby is entered in the Champion Hurdle, but he wouldn't make much appeal for that, dropping back down in trip likely to be against him for one thing. He has the option of running under a big weight in the Coral Cup, though waiting for the Aintree Hurdle, an intended target apparently, might make more sense.

Magic of Light doubles up

The Grade 2 Warfield Hurdle for mares was a good race of its type, a lot to like about the principals. The winner Magic of Light has found rich pickings on her ventures across the Irish Sea and won this race for the second year running, though this was a stronger renewal than the 2019 one and represents her best effort over hurdles. Magic of Light is entered in the Lady Protectress over fences at Huntingdon later this week and in the Mares Hurdle at Cheltenham, though neither race is over the sort of trip that shows her to best advantage. Another tilt at the Grand National is surely her main spring target.

Finally at Ascot, Goshen landed cramped odds in the juvenile hurdle without much fuss, an obvious Triumph Hurdle candidate on form, though questions about his jumping on a left-handed track (went markedly right again late on) and his effectiveness away from soft ground are still to be answered. With regard to the latter point, it should be mentioned that although the ground was officially heavy, soft in places, at Ascot, the times suggest it wasn't nearly that bad, particularly on the hurdles track.

In-running carnage as Haydock features late drama

The same was true of Haydock, conditions testing, as might be expected in the deep midwinter, but not extreme, the ground nearer soft than the official heavy. The key factor, so far as the two feature hurdle races on the card was concerned, was the long run from the final flight, rather than the testing nature of the ground itself. The Betfair Exchange in-running prices tell the story - winners matched at 1000.0 and 700.0699/1, runners-up at 1.051/20 and 1.011/100 respectively, and armchair jockeys had a field day.

Ballyandy Betfair number 1280.jpg

The Champion Hurdle Trial, named in honour of The New One, a standing dish in this race, went, appropriately, to his erstwhile stable-companion Ballyandy, who came from a seemingly-impossible position approaching the last to nail the favourite Pentland Hills on the post. Ballyandy is entered in the Champion Hurdle and seems bound to take his chance. He is clearly in good heart and has a fine Festival record, but it's a bit hard to imagine him being quite good enough in the Champion itself.

That said, the horse he beat, Pentland Hills, still figures around second favourite, which is some measure of the thin nature of the top of the two-mile hurdling tree. Pentland Hills would win the race nearly every time you reran it, his jockey Nico de Boinville criticised in some quarters for going to the front too soon. However, there's a lot of hindsight in that judgement, waiting until after the last to make a move an unusual tactic, even with the length of run-in at Haydock. An orthodox ride didn't come off by fractions, though had Pentland Hills not pulled quite so hard early and Ballyandy not found so much for pressure, the margin of a nose would have gone the other way and nothing would have been said.

Rebel unfortunate as Silver strikes

In all, 36 horses had been entered for the Champion Hurdle when they were announced last week, Verdana Blue still looking overpriced, 42.041/1 on the Exchange at the time of writing, though the prospect of her running on the Flat in Saudi Arabia beforehand is unconventional, to say the least. One of the other entries, Thebannerkingrebel, also ran at Haydock, taking his chance in the Rossington Main for novices. He ended up third but was another victim of the run from the last and shaped best of the three involved in the finish, particularly as he was giving weight to the first two.

In this case, Gavin Sheehan on Thebannerkingrebel waited in front to make his move until just after the last, only for the horse to fluff his jump, which screwed the plan and handed the initiative to Edwardstone (another to pull hard held up), only for Stolen Silver to then come from the clouds and lead close home. Stolen Silver may run next in the Betfair Hurdle, but he would be 9 lb worse off with Thebannerkingrebel for a two-length winning margin that flatters him and, given his jumping is a mess, he couldn't be entertained. The impressive Kempton winner Never Adapt would be top of the list for that race, but Thebannerkingrebel would be an alternative in her absence. How Thebannerkingrebel is now the longest priced of the three for the Supreme is a mystery.

Earlier in the week, a couple of other novices entered Supreme calculations, with Shiskin and Allart, who had both fallen early on on their hurdling debut, winning impressively for Nicky Henderson's yard. Shishkin at Newbury was particularly good and looks an exciting prospect, likely to have one more run before Cheltenham, very much one to bear in mind for the Festival opener at this stage.

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