David Cleary looks at the week's best action, with Cyrname and Altior taking top billing, while our Exchange Ops team update on all the latest Cheltenham market moves...
"The [National Hunt Chase] could be on the cards for Now McGinty, who got off the mark over fences in what looked a useful novice at Chepstow. Setting a sound pace, Now McGinty produced an accurate round of jumping and stayed on strongly in the straight as his challengers fell away one by one. The Reynoldstown at Ascot might be the right race for a Cheltenham prep."
Much-improved Cyrname looks Grade 1 candidate
Altior notwithstanding, the most notable performance of the week may well have been that of Cyrname in a valuable handicap chase at Ascot, 35 minutes before the champion chaser strutted his stuff in the Grade 1 Clarence House. Cyrname, who had been beaten on his first two starts of the season, ran his rivals ragged in what looked a competitive affair on paper, sustaining a good gallop from the off and drawing further away from his rivals at the line.
Cyrname won by no fewer than twenty-one lengths, off a BHA mark of 150, fitness and a shorter trip plausible reasons for his earlier defeats, the good rhythm he got into on this occasion with some excellent jumps meaning his opponents never got a look in. He probably needs to go right handed to show to maximum advantage and Cheltenham wouldn't be his track anyway (not entered in the Ryanair), so Cyrname is likely to go next for the Grade 1 Betfair Ascot Chase, not to be underestimated there, even if similar tactics won't be so easy to pull off against higher-quality rivals at level weights.
Simple for Altior again
Altior's win in the Clarence House was something of a non-event, sent off at 10/1-on, after the winner for the last three seasons, Un de Sceaux, was withdrawn at the final declaration stage. Altior was sensibly sent to the front in what might otherwise have been a really muddling affair, and won unchallenged. The main talking point was a marked tendency to jump left, something he's done only at the odd fence going right handed in the past. It was Altior's first run over fences at Ascot and the nature of the track perhaps makes horses generally jump left more than would be the case at, say, Sandown. So far as the Champion Chase goes, Altior remains very much the one to beat.
Behind him, Fox Norton finished an encouraging second on his first start in over a year, not given a hard time once it was clear he wouldn't get in a blow at the winner and looking to retain all his ability. He'd been a close second in the 2017 Champion Chase and then won the Melling Chase at Aintree, and is likely to be a serious candidate for any Grade 1 where he can avoid Altior.
No champion on Trial at Haydock
One of the features at Haydock was the Champion Hurdle Trial, which had a field of five entries in the big race itself, though none likely to be making an impact come March. Global Citizen enhanced his record, controlling the race and jumping better when it mattered than the runner-up Silver Streak. However, he'd been well held by Verdana Blue and Buveur d'Air in the Christmas Hurdle. Sliver Streak and the third Western Ryder had been comfortably beaten by Brain Power in the International Hurdle at Cheltenham, Brain Power sadly an absentee at Haydock after a test the day before showed him not to be 100%.
Buveur d'Air remains the right favourite for the Champion Hurdle, though Verdana Blue would surely be second favourite if that was definitely her target. Currently in that position is Laurina, wide-margin winner of the Dawn Run at the last Cheltenham Festival. However, her main rival was softened up that day and didn't give her running. Laurena had a virtual solo at Sandown on her return early this month and for all that she looks an exciting prospect for the best races, her form against her own sex doesn't entitle her to be so short, that she is about the only one among the 27 entered in the Champion with obvious potential to improve perhaps explaining her position.
The Stayers' Hurdle has attracted a much bigger entry - 51 names in at the initial stage - and looks a more interesting puzzle than the Champion, with unknown quantities as staying hurdlers such as Black Op, Bristol de Mai and Darasso catching the eye. A clearer picture will hopefully emerge after the Cleeve Hurdle next weekend.
Valtor, suggested here last week as a Gold Cup dark horse, was another Henderson-trained runner to miss Haydock due to concerns about test results. It is interesting, though, that connections wanted to test his new BHA mark before the National weights came out, suggesting a Gold Cup bid is being seriously considered. In his absence, the plucky Wakanda won the Peter Marsh, still a smart chaser at the age of 10. He's only run once over three and a half miles, when not on a going day, and would be well worth another try at marathon trips.
Debece and McGinty - staying novice chasers to follow
On the novice chase front, Debece returned to action after a three-month break to land a virtual match at Newcastle. He doesn't do anything quickly, but there was plenty to like about his jumping and his attitude and he will be well worth a try at a higher level, with the National Hunt Chase a definite option.
The same race could be on the cards for Now McGinty (pictured, leading), who got off the mark over fences in what looked a useful novice at Chepstow. Setting a sound pace, Now McGinty produced an accurate round of jumping and stayed on strongly in the straight as his challengers fell away one by one. The Reynoldstown at Ascot might be the right race for a Cheltenham prep.
Captain Cattistock, switched to fences a little late in the campaign, was left behind in the straight behind Now McGinty, but he made an encouraging start under a sympathetic ride and could well improve significantly.
Over a mile shorter trip at Ffos Las, Whatswrongwithyou sneaked home from The Last Day, the pair a mile clear of the only other runner. Both can be viewed as of interest, particularly with handicaps in mind, the winner likely to well suited by such races, the runner-up clearly on a good mark and with potential to improve when upped in trip.
All the latest Exchange movers
Mister Fisher was backed in from [25.0] to [14.0] for the Supreme Novices Hurdle after winning the Grade 2 Supreme Trail at Haydock on Saturday. The Nicky Henderson-trained horse beat closest rival Bright Forecast by two-and-a-half lengths.
The Ben Pauling-trained Global Citizen was an impressive winner of the Grade 2 Champion Hurdle at Haydock on Saturday. Trading at around [200.0] for the Champion Hurdle before the race, he can now be backed at [44.0] to win the Cheltenham showpiece.
Tout Et Permis dropped back in trip after his win in the Troytown chase in November to land the Grade 2 Horse & Jockey Hotel chase at Thurles on Sunday. Trading as big as [60.0] for the Ryanair Chase ahead of the race, he was backed in to [21.0] after the victory.