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David Cleary's Cheltenham Countdown: Clan deserves more credit for King George victory

Buveur D'air
Buveur D'air remains at the head of the Champion Hurdle market

David Cleary reflects on a week of upsets in many of the major races, both at Kempton and Leopardstown, at the Christmas Festivals...

"Perhaps the most interesting runner from the Ryanair Hurdle is the one that finished last, Petit Mouchoir, who'd won this in 2016. He was making his reappearance and was given an uncharacteristically patient ride, dropped out last and staying there, though by no means knocked about unduly, the aim likely to be to get him to settle better than he often does. Petit Mouchoir has unfinished business over fences, not seen to best advantage in any of his last three runs as a novice, this likely to set him up for a bold show back chasing."

Clan rules as rivals fall short

It's a good rule of thumb to accept the results of races unless there are solid grounds not to, and it's a particularly good rule to apply when an unfancied contender lands a big prize and doesn't get the credit their performance merits because all the talk is about those that underperformed.

Last week's King George is very much a case in point: Clan des Obeaux was relatively unconsidered beforehand, having finished only fourth on his reappearance in the Betfair Chase, but he ran out a worthy winner at Kempton, beating his rivals fair and square, including Thistlecrack, who ran as well as he has over fences but who was no match for the winner.

Clan des Obeaux is only six - seven on New Year's Day - and is unexposed at three miles or more, so it is surprising that he remains as big as 10/1 for the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Thistlecrack jumped much better than at Haydock and had no real excuses. His stable companion Native River plugged on for a well-held third, unsuited both by the track and racing right handed. He remains a leading player for the Gold Cup, though the market is fully aware of that.

Might Bite was sent off favourite at Kempton, but flopped again, folding badly in the latter stages; at least this time there was a reason, as he was found to have bled post-race. It would be dangerous to write him off, given his level of ability, particularly from a stable that is as likely as any to bring him back to form.

Politologue seemed to fail for stamina, though one bad mistake didn't help; he's likely to bounce back sooner rather than later. Coneygree went with characteristic zest for a long way, but he wasn't good enough to go with the principals from four out. He might be more at home in a race like the Cotswold Chase, with more emphasis on stamina and probably on softer ground too.

The Irish equivalent of the King George, the Savills Chase at Leopardstown, also went to a six-year-old, in the shape of Kemboy. He was pretty impressive too, though he got a good ride from the front and the performance probably wasn't quite on a par with that of Clan des Obeaux.

Buveur d'Air remains right favourite for Champion

The Christmas Hurdle at Kempton also produced a surprise, with Verdana Blue catching her stable companion Buveur d'Air on the post. Verdana Blue is very smart, but these were her optimum conditions and Buveur d'Air probably wasn't in such good form as when winning at Newcastle.

He is still the best around on balance of form and rightly remains favourite for the Champion Hurdle, particularly after the outcome of a muddling race for the Ryanair Hurdle at Leopardstown.

Samcro's season on hold after Ryanair flop

The Ryanair appeared to be an ideal opportunity for Samcro to get back on track, but he folded tamely after still being on the bridle into the straight in a race run at a sedate pace. Whether or not he's a two-miler remains unanswered, but a physical issue seems more likely to be the cause of his effort here.

The Champion Hurdle runner-up Melon was making a belated return and couldn't be given away beforehand, so there was no real surprise he wasn't at the top of his game. His stable companion Sharjah came out on top, finding a better turn of foot than Supasundae, the latter unsuited by the crawl, but still stepping up on his return. Sharjah is a difficult one to pin down, appearing to have benefited from the shortcomings of others for both his Grade 1 wins, but the turn of foot he showed will continue to stand him in good stead.

Mouchoir one to note after eye-catching return

Perhaps the most interesting runner from the Ryanair Hurdle is the one that finished last, Petit Mouchoir, who'd won this in 2016. He was making his reappearance and was given an uncharacteristically patient ride, dropped out last and staying there, though by no means knocked about unduly, the aim likely to be to get him to settle better than he often does. Petit Mouchoir has unfinished business over fences, not seen to best advantage in any of his last three runs as a novice, this likely to set him up for a bold show back chasing.

Bague battles her way to Grade 1 victory

Kempton's third Grade 1, the Kauto Star for novice chasers, lived up to expectations, with the ultragame La Bague Au Roi getting the better of the still gawky Topofthegame. The third Santini remains favourite, ahead of that pair, for the RSA Chase, in part because the other two have the JLT/Golden Miller option. La Bague Au Roi's jumping and attitude will make her a tough nut to crack wherever she goes. Santini was a short price in the Kauto Star, but he didn't have quite that chance on form and ran encouragingly on a track that was too sharp for him. Disappointment of the race was Bags Groove, who was given a negative ride, given how he'd won at Huntingdon, and never looked to be travelling comfortably.

Kalashnikov fails to fire

The Grade 2 Wayward Lad was another of Kempton's features to see an upset, with Kalashnikov beaten by the penalised Dynamite Dollars. As far as could be seen in the mist, Kalashnikov was going less well than the winner for most of the race, perhaps softer going or more of a test of stamina required.

Dynamite Dollars clearly shouldn't be underestimated again, though, with Mengli Khan beaten in Ireland as well, it's not a surprise that the market for the Arkle is struggling to find a favourite. Knocknanuss looks the overpriced one at present.

Altior superb in victory romp

The only winning favourite over the two days at Kempton was Altior, who was imperious in victory against vastly inferior opposition in the Desert Orchid. He could well go next for the Clarence House at Ascot. Altior's trainer Nicky Henderson has been sweeping all before him in the novice hurdle division, but with a listed race at Cheltenham and the Grade 1 Tolworth at the weekend, more detailed appraisal of those can wait till next week's column.

Update

There were solid efforts in defeat from Mellow Ben and Prime Venture at Kempton and Chepstow respectively, Mellow Ben very much knocking at the door of a win at present. Ballywood followed up his Taunton win at Doncaster and looks well worth a try in graded company.

And here's all the latest moves from the Betfair Exchange team...

Champion Hurdle

- Beveur D’air out to [2.04] for the Champion Hurdle. Verdana Blue, into [11.0]
- Samcro out to [40.0] in same market following Ryanair Hurdle disappointment. Melon also out to [12.5] from [7.8].

Gold Cup

- King George winner Clan Des Obeaux has been been backed into [10.0] from [50.0] pre-race. Disappointing Might Bite out to [25.0]
- Impressive Kemboy who won the Savills Chase on Day 3 of Leopardstown is into [9.0] for the Gold Cup. Road to Respect, had trouble in running, and has been backed slightly into [15.0].

Champion Chase

- Altior, easy winner of the Desert Orchid Chase, now trading at [1.57], with Footpad out to [9.2].

Other Races

- Champ, the Challow Hurdle winner, is currently available at [6.2] for the Ballymore Novices Hurdle.

- Annamix has since drifted [20.0] for the Supreme Novices Hurdle. Conversely Aramon announced himself as a potentially contender, now available at [14.0] having been matched at [260.0]. Champagne Platinum won at leisure at Newbury, trading [19.0] for the Supreme currently.

- Kalashnikov went down fighting at Kempton and has drifted to [9.8] from [4.7] for the Arkle.

- Paloma Blue emerged as a contender and is now [19.5] for the RSA Chase, and Santini found Kempton too sharp but remains solid favourite at [7.0].

- High class flat horse Sir Eric fought off Tiger Tap Tap, the pair finished well clear of the field and are [11.0] and [13.5] for the Triumph.

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