David Cleary's Cheltenham Countdown: Buveur d'Air and Apple's Jade stake strong claims
David Cleary reviews all the main weekend action where some big names impressed, while our Exchange team updates the big antepost betting news for the Festival...
"La Bague Au Roi followed up her victory in a beginners chase over the course at the start of November, with a decisive victory, though Lostintranslation, a highly promising second in that earlier event, was poised just behind her when he walked through the third last, ending his chance. The race was in the balance until that and both remain very much horses to keep on the right side."
Two stunning hurdling performances lit up the weekend's action, with Buveur d'Air in the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle and Apple's Jade in the Hatton's Grace at Fairyhouse each scoring in scintillating fashion and by a wide margin.
Buveur d'Air back in style
The dual Champion Hurdle winner Buveur d'Air swept away Samcro with a display of very efficient jumping and a turn of foot that exposed the limitations of his much-vaunted opponent as a Champion Hurdle candidate. Buveur d'Air had had a breathing operation since his narrow victory over Min at Cheltenham and his win here suggests he's right back to the horse he was the previous season. Even at this early stage, it will be a surprise if he doesn't start a warm order to complete a Champion hat-trick.
Apple's Jade produces a career best
Apple's Jade was if anything even more imperious in winning a third successive Hatton's Grace. The form is perhaps hard to pin down - 20-length winners often are - and there are holes to be picked in the opposition if that takes your fancy. However, the way in which Apple's Jade travelled when others were flat to the boards and trying to close and the manner in which she forged clear mean this can be viewed as the best performance of her career.
There was some excitable talk after the race of her perhaps running in the Champion Hurdle and taking on Buveur d'Air, but Apple's Jade hasn't run at two miles since being beaten by Irving in the 2016 Fighting Fifth and there's little indication that connections think the drop in trip would be in her favour. The Mares' Hurdle seems the preferred Cheltenham option, though she would surely take plenty of beating in this form if sent for the Stayers' instead. That said, if all went well at Cheltenham, it would be fantastic if Apple's Jade and Buveur d'Air could meet in the Aintree Hurdle.
Where now for Samcro?
As for Samcro, he isn't looking a two-mile champion hurdler in the making, or any champion for that matter; perhaps he's not quite himself this autumn, after his fall at Punchestown in the spring, but he will need to show a fair bit more in the Grade 1 at Leopardstown later in the month if he's to get his season back on track. The Supreme winner Summerville Boy was a major flop at Newcastle and presumably something wasn't quite right - it will be a shame if he can't fulfil the abundant promise of his Festival win.
Of those in Apple Jade's wake, Supasundae, Bapaume and the four-year-old Farclas all shaped with a degree of promise on their first start of the campaign, though the latter two won't be easy to place. However, Limini shaped best of the also-rans, fluent on her first start over hurdles since the 2017 Festival and the only one of those behind looking comfortable to the straight once Apple's Jade turned the screw in the final mile. There are still races to be won with her in this sphere, and were the winner to head elsewhere at Cheltenham, then Limini would be a plausible winner of the Mares' Hurdle.
Novice chasers to the fore at Newbury
The most signficant performances at Newbury's two-day Winter Festival came in the novice chase division. Knocknanuss, in the two-mile novice handicap, and La Bague Au Roi and Santini, in graded events at two and a half and three miles respectively, all won impressively.
Knocknanuss turned a seemingly competitive race into a rout, his attacking style and bold jumping characteristic of so many good Gary Moore-trained chasers. Knocknanuss showed form good enough to win a graded novice, though apparently he needs to go left handed, which rules out a quick return in the Henry VIII at Sandown next weekend. Leopardstown at Christmas might be an option. With Knocknanuss, Lalor and Kalashnikov (due to run at Plumpton on Monday), the Arkle already has three strong home-trained candidates. By the way, it's worth noting that The Last Day would have been an encouraging second to Knocknanuss, but for coming down at the last and looks to have the makings of a better chaser than a hurdler.
Victory in the Bague after Translation error
La Bague Au Roi followed up her victory in a beginners chase over the course at the start of November, with a decisive victory, though Lostintranslation, a highly promising second in that earlier event, was poised just behind her when he walked through the third last, ending his chance. The race was in the balance until that and both remain very much horses to keep on the right side.
La Bague Au Roi could step back up to three miles for the Kauto Star at Kempton next, where she would likely meet the John Francome winner Santini. Santini is every inch a chaser on looks and he could hardly have made a more pleasing start over fences. A race between the pair would be hard to call at this stage, though La Bague Au Roi has greater experience and is proven on right-handed tracks.
Bold Citizen on the up
There were loads of other informative performances over the two days at Newbury, but Global Citizen's victory in the Gerry Feilden is worth highlighting. He wasn't much less excitable than he had been at Ascot on his return, but he showed a really willing attitude when pressed after the last by a pair that had been much more patiently ridden. He's apparently likely to go for the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton, a race which ought to play to his strengths. However, it's hard to make a case for his beating Buveur d'Air and the valuable handicap at Ascot the previous weekend might be a better option. That race could well be a target for fifth home Whatswrongwithyou, who was sympathetically handled on his return, having looked as if the race would bring him on beforehand and shown signs of rustiness. Ballymoy is another to note from the Gerry Feilden, looking ready for a step up in trip.
Lastly, a quick line on the Ladbrokes Trophy - - the winner Sizing Tennessee was a revelation, but few gave their running in a grinders' race and his jumping was a bit of a mixed bag, tempering enthusiasm for a Grand National bid a little. The third Dingo Dollar shaped as well as anything and looks well up to winning a good three-mile handicap this winter.
Whatmore's good spell ended, just seemingly outclassed in the Gerry Feilden - perhaps he'll now switch to fences, where he'd again be of interest. Early in the week, Prime Venture disgraced himself at Ludlow, refusing at the first; hopefully that will be a one-off, and he's entered in what look suitable races at Chepstow at the weekend.
The exciting Lalor is, as expected, among the entries for the Henry VIII, where Dynamite Dollars and Pingshou could again be in opposition. Another promising novice chaser Bag's Groove is an interesting entry in the Grade 2 Peterborough Chase, though he has a novice option on Sunday's cracking-looking Huntingdon card. One last one to mention is Theatre Territory, who is set to line up in the Becher Chase.
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On a busy weekend of racing the Grade 1 Fighting Fifth Hurdle was the most keenly anticipated race which saw Buveur D’Air square off against Samcro.
Samcro received plenty of support before the off but Buveur D’Air and Barry Geraghty proved much the best by cruising to an eight-length victory. Buveur D’Air now trades as short as [2.06] from [3.35] to win the Champion Hurdle while Samcro has drifted from [4.5] out to [11.0] after failing to get his head in front for the second time this season.
Santini took to the fences for the first time and put in an impressive display of jumping to win cosily at Newbury on Saturday. The Nicky Henderson gelding now trades at [4.8] for the RSA Chase after coming in from [7.5].
Another notably impressive performance came from Quick Grabim in the Grade 1 Royal Bond Novices Hurdle at Fairyhouse on Sunday. Following his runaway victory he is now [15.5] from [30.0] for the Supreme Novice Hurdle.