David Cleary's Cheltenham Countdown: Apple's romp sets up Champion clash

Buveur d'Air
Buveur d'Air - looking for a third Champion Hurdle
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David Cleary looks back at the Dublin Racing Festival and some good action at Sandown with an eye on next month's Cheltenham Festival...

"Perhaps, however, the Denman will be the most informative race on the Newbury card, if Clan des Obeaux and Native River both take their chance. Newbury might suit Native River better than Kempton, but Clan des Obeaux still hasn't been given credit for his King George win in the Gold Cup market - that could well change come Saturday afternoon."

Buveur d'Air's Champion hat-trick under threat

Any doubts expressed here, as to whether Apple's Jade would be fully effective at two miles, were swept away as she landed the Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown every bit as decisively as she had her other three races this season. She scored by 16 lengths from Supasundae, bringing her aggregate margin of victory for the campaign to 73 lengths, and won in her now trademark fashion, making all, tanking along and jumping with elan.

This was as good a performance as we've seen over hurdles this season and, as she'll be getting 7lb from her male rivals in the Champion Hurdle (thankfully confirmed as her target) Apple's Jade really ought to be clear favourite. Her defeat at odds-on in last March's Mares' Hurdle has been offered as grounds for thinking the track isn't ideal, but she'd won that race the previous year and been second in the Triumph as a juvenile, so it frankly isn't that much of a problem.

Simple for Buveur d'Air at Sandown

The reigning champion hurdler Buveur d'Air was in action half an hour later, in the Contenders Hurdle at Sandown, a race he'd won at odds-on in the previous two years. Again, he wasn't faced by much in the way of opposition and although he dismissed what there was easily, he wouldn't have needed to run near his best.

Such a performance won't cut it at Cheltenham and Buveur d'Air (pictured below) will surely need to be at least as good as ever, probably better than that even, if Apple's Jade turns up in the sort of form she's shown so far this winter.

Buveur D'Air Leap - 1280.jpg

It's worth making a note of Roksana, who finished third behind Buveur d'Air. She was making her first appearance since finishing second to Santini in the Sefton at Aintree last spring. She had her work cut out against Buveur d'Air and two miles isn't her optimum trip either, but she shaped well, considerately handled once it was clear she wouldn't be landing a blow.

Roksana is in both the Mares' and the Stayers' at Cheltenham, with her best form giving her leading claims among the likely runners for the former at this stage.

La Bague continues winning run

With Apple's Jade having been the star of the show on Saturday, another mare, La Bague Au Roi, took the principal role at Leopardstown on Sunday, winning the Grade 1 novice chase in clear-cut fashion. She was another to make all, her jumping and willing attitude showing her in a very good light. La Bague Au Roi has a tremendous strike-rate and, for all that she had the run of the race and her main market rival was given a poor tactical ride, she's sure to continue to run well at this level.

La Bague Au Roi has entries in the JLT/Golden Miller and the RSA at Cheltenham, though having finished down the field in the Dawn Run and run below expectations in the Mares' on two previous visits to the track, it's perhaps understandable that she isn't a certain runner at this stage. The Mildmay at Aintree could well be the option for her in the spring.

Scilly Isles duo look up to Cheltenham standard

La Bague Au Roi's old rival Lostintranslation had to settle for second in the Grade 1 Scilly Isles at Sandown, unable to confirm placings with Defi du Seuil, at level weights this time, from the Dipper at Cheltenham at the start of January. There again wasn't much between the pair and a first run right handed looked to count against Lostintranslation, so he must be in with a chance of turning the tables in the JLT/Golden Miller.

Defi du Seuil (pictured below) clearly doeesn't want for stamina and his attitude was faultless this time too, the way he's taken to fences after an unconvincing first attempt really very encouraging.

Defi du Seuil Barry Geraghty 1280.jpg

Vinndication went off favourite for the Scilly Isles, but lost his unbeaten record, finishing a close third after being ridden rather more patiently than usual. There's a good chance that that change didn't suit him and on balance of form he's overpriced in theory for his Cheltenham engagements. The big question is whether he will be effective on the track, on what would be his first ever start left handed (tended to jump right at Sandown).

Richebourg stakes Arkle claims

Back at Leopardstown, the Irish Arkle went the way of Le Richebourg, who is building a very convincing profile and won this with authority after typically travelling strongly under a patient ride. Given one or two doubts about the best of the British-trained runners, it's understandable that Le Richebourg tops the market for the Arkle.

Sadly, This column's Arkle fancy Knocknanuss got no further than the second. Whether that will encourage connnections to give him a break and head for Aintree instead of Cheltenham remains to be seen, but the ability is definitely there to compete at a high level. Don't tear up your slip just yet.

O'Brien dominates juvenile ranks

Le Richebourg might well be able to give trainer Joseph O'Brien (pictured below) a first Cheltenham Festival winner in his own name, but if he doesn't then, the Triumph (which he won, even if not officially, with Ivanovitch Gorbatov) could break the duck on the last day. His Fakir d'Oudaries had made short work of some British-trained rivals at Cheltenham the previous weekend, and on Sunday Sir Erec won the significant Spring Hurdle in good style.

Joseph O'Brien 1280.jpg

The manner in which Sir Erec powered away from the last was especially impressive, bearing in mind the nature of the track at Cheltenham and he deserves to be the sort of short price he is in the ante-post Triumph lists, his victory seeing him usurp Fakir d'Oudaries as favourite.

It's interesting that O'Brien, with a hatful of good juveniles has several of them entered in the Supreme and even the Ballymore/Baring Bingham, but Sir Erec is only entered in the Triumph. Fakir d'Oudaries would be far from a forlorn hope if his attentions were turned to the Supreme.

Commander set for three-miler after gritty victory

The markets for the three Grade 1 novice hurdles are generally more open than that for the Triumph, with plenty holding multiple entries, meaning it's difficult to take a dogmatic view. Neither of the Grade 1 novice hurdles at Leopardstown was won in sparkling fashion, Klassical Dream lifted home by Ruby Walsh against his stable-companion Aramon in the two-miler and Commander of Fleet grinding out victory over Rhinestone in the longer-distance race, a further step up in trip for the Albert Bartlett/Spa on the cards.

The market for the Supreme is sure to be shaken up at the weekend, with Al Dancer, Getaway Trump and Didtheyleaveuoutto all in the Betfair Hurdle and current market leader Angels Breath due to run in a novice hurdle on the same card.

Denman - Clan and River both possibles

Perhaps, however, the Denman will be the most informative race on the Newbury card, if Clan des Obeaux and Native River both take their chance. Newbury might suit Native River better than Kempton, but Clan des Obeaux still hasn't been given credit for his King George win in the Gold Cup market - that could well change come Saturday afternoon.

Latest Cheltenham Market Movers

This weekend's Dublin Racing Festival at Leopardstown showed us why many had clamoured for Apples Jade to run in the Champion Hurdle with her fluent and stylish success over seasoned two milers promoting her to second favourite where she now trades at [3.7]. She now trades at [8.2] for the Mares Hurdle with connections leaning towards the championship race.

Sir Erec produced a stunning front running display in the Juvenile Hurdle trial and has assumed command at the head of the Triumph Hurdle market with him now trading at [3.2].

Le Richebourg dropped back to two miles and cruised around for a facile success in the Arkle Novice Chase and has leapt to the front of the Arkle Chase market and now trades at [5.1].

Finally across the Irish sea, Defi Du Seuil won a determined battle with some good novices to win a well-run Scilly Isles Chase thus promoting him to favourite for the JLT Novices Chase at [6.0].

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