David Cleary reflects on the jumping action over the New Year period with Plumpton in the spotlight, while our Exchange Ops team update on all the latest Cheltenham market moves...
"For all that he was beaten fair and square, the runner-up Knocknanuss enhanced his own Cheltenham claims. Up against it, giving 5 lb to the winner, he again jumped well and he seemed more amenable in front than had been the case at Newbury. Although he stays two and a half miles, Knocknanuss will be at least as effective back to two miles - he remains one to consider seriously for the Arkle, even better value than he was when mentioned a week ago."
Plumpton bonus draws French ace for cracker
There's no question about the race of the week - Plumpton's novice chase on Sunday. The lure of the bonus for winning a qualifying race and then any race at the Cheltenham Festival (£60,000 this season) attracted six above-average jumpers, all with some hopes that they could do the double. First, though, they had to win this.
The major obstacle in the way of five of them was the top French four-year-old hurdler of 2018 Master Dino, who had bolted up on his chasing debut at Auteuil in November. Master Dino was made to work harder to follow up, but his jumping, quickly adapted to British-style fences, was slick and there was plenty to like as well about the way he knuckled down to overhaul the front-running Knocknanuss.
Master Dino is set to go next for the Scilly Isles at Sandown, with the JLT/Golden Miller the aim if that goes to plan. He was rightly promoted to favoritism for Cheltenham afterwards.
Knock Knock at your peril
For all that he was beaten fair and square, the runner-up Knocknanuss enhanced his own Cheltenham claims. Up against it, giving 5lb to the winner, he again jumped well and he seemed more amenable in front than had been the case at Newbury. Although he stays two and a half miles, Knocknanuss will be at least as effective back to two miles - he remains one to consider seriously for the Arkle, even better value than he was when mentioned a week ago.
As for the rest of the field, there's positives to be taken from all four: Good Man Pat very much caught the eye and is clearly going to be much better at this discipline than hurdling; Slate House tried to put it up to Knocknanuss, but his jumping wasn't slick enough and he paid for it late on - he'll come on plenty for the experience; Onefortheroadtom, spared a hard race, now has three runs under his belt and is likely to progress once switched to handicaps; and Glenloe. Glenloe was as promising as any, until he belted one when making ground in the back straight. He was running over an inadequate trip and showed inexperience on his chasing debut, yet showed plenty of promise too. He's very much the type to make a better chaser than hurdler and it would be no surprise to see him a candidate for the National Hunt Chase come March.
Big Dipper performances
Master Dino's classy performance saw him displace Lostintranslation as JLT favourite. Lostintranslation had moved to that position after he snatched victory in game fashion in the Dipper at Cheltenham on New Year's Day, an effort which confirmed the promise of his first two starts over fences. He's capable of further success at graded level, with his jumping and willing attitude obvious assets, whether he's a JLT or an RSA candidate a bit up in the air.
The Dipper second Defi du Seuil emerged with plenty of credit, giving weight to the winner, though it's a bit disconcerting that he failed to win after looking to have things sewn up soon after the last. He could be aimed at the Arkle after this, though it's debatable whether lack of stamina was the issue.
Black Op took third, doing well, given how poorly he jumped, and his chasing career is set to be shelved, with a run in the Cleeve Hurdle at the end of the month a possible prep for the Stayers' Hurdle. He hasn't raced at three miles yet and isn't a guaranteed stayer.
Stayers' clues a plenty at Cheltenham
Black Op wasn't the only runner on Cheltenham's card with the Stayers' as a target, as Midnight Shadow, plucky victor in a unsatisfactory Relkeel, and impressive handicap winner Aux Ptit Soins are also being aimed at the race.
Midnight Shadow is progressive and likely to be at least as effective at three miles, but Aux Ptit Soins makes more appeal for the Stayers' at the odds currently on offer. He has had his problems, but looked better than ever and wouldn't need to improve much to get in the mix in March.
Mixed fortunes for Henderson hotpots
As for the Grade 1 novice hurdles, Nicky Henderson trained the favourite for both - Champ was an impressive winner of the Challow at Newbury on the last Saturday of the old year, but Rathhill came up well short in the Tolworth at Sandown last weekend.
The Challow looked a good renewal - the two Grade 2 winners in the field were well beaten - and Champ, who showed a bright turn of foot to score with a bit in hand, has all the qualities to make him a leading Ballymore candidate. The trio to chase him home all look worth keeping on side as well, particularly the fourth Brewin'Upastorm, who lacked the experience of the others and who was less well positioned as the pace lifted too.
The Tolworth went the way of Elixir de Nutz. He had more on than when winning at Cheltenham the time before, experience not enough to make the difference this time, needing to tough it out from the smooth-travelling Grand Sancy. Whether Elixir de Nutz has quite the class to win a Supreme is doubtful, though he'll continue to run well and should do well as a chaser next winter. Grand Sancy is a typical softly-softly Nicholls' improver; he'd have benefited from a stronger gallop and could well be of interest in the Betfair Hurdle next month.
When scoring at Cheltenham, Elixir de Nutz had beaten Jarveys Plate, who turned over another Henderson shortie, I Can't Explain, in the listed novice hurdle at Cheltenham. Jarveys Plate had clearly learnt plenty from his previous defeat, while I Can't Explain seemed to have forgotten quite a bit of what he knew first time out, when beating inexperienced rivals at Sandown. Back to the drawing board.
Not that there is anything wrong with I Can't Explain's form. Greaneteen couldn't be given away in the market when down the field behind him at Sandown, but was a different proposition when winning emphatically at Exeter on Tuesday. Phoenix Way, the Sandown second, won at the third attempt when scoring snugly under a confident ride at Plumpton. Whether the narrow margin of victory will fool the handicapper is doubtful, but there's clearly plenty more to come.
Latest Cheltenham Market Movers
The Willie Mullins-trained Laurina, who beat her sole rival Sensulano by a massive 48 lengths in the Listed Mares’ hurdle at Newbury on Saturday, now trades at [5.2] for the Champion Hurdle and [7.6] for the Mares' Hurdle.
Battleoverdoyen was a two-and-three quarter lengths winner in the Grade 1 Novice Hurdle for Gordon Elliott at Naas on Sunday and now trades as [7.4] second favourite in the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle.
Surely one of the best horses to have ever run at Plumpton, Master Dino beat nearest rival Knocknanuss by an easy seven lengths on Saturday. The French trained horse is currently trading at [5.7] favourite for the JLT Novices Chase.
Elixir De Nutz came out on top in the Grade 1 Tolworth Novices’ Hurdle at Sandown on Saturday - a race won by subsequent Festival winner Summerville Boy last year. The Colin Tizzard-trained horse now trades at [14.0] for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.