There were presents a plenty for David Cleary to unwrap at Ascot on Friday and Saturday in his latest countdown...
"If there was one horse running at Ascot on Saturday that is sure to win handicaps this season it is Janika, who chased home Hell's Kitchen in the two-mile three-furlong handicap chase. Janika did really well to get so close to an enterprisingly-ridden rival at the top of his game. Janika took seamlessly to British fences and travelled with ease for most of the way, a good race well within his compass before the winter is much older."
Henderson unveils Supreme contender Angels Breath
Ascot's two-day Christmas fixture offered plenty of festive goodies, none more so than Angels Breath, who made a winning hurdling debut in the Grade 2 Kennel Gate Novices' Hurdle, the latest event tagged a Supreme trial. In Angels Breath's case, >the Supreme may well be where he ends up, as he looked pretty nippy in seeing off some experienced rivals at level weights.
The race was somewhat unsatisfactory, in that the omission of the hurdles in the straight due to the strong wind (which was knocking the new, lighter-type padded hurdle out of position) led to only four flights being jumped, with a run-in of nearly five furlongs. However, it was hard not to be taken with the style of the winner's performance, clued up straightaway, as so often with newcomers from the Henderson yard. The Tolworth may come a bit soon, and the Rossington Main and Dovecote, further Grade 2 novices, are more likely options to give him extra experience on the way to the Supreme.
There was plenty of promise among those behind Angels Breath, worth remembering that the race's strong recent record as a pointer to future stars isn't just about the winners. Both the runner-up Danny Kerwan and third Seddon have serious long-term futures, both every inch a chaser in appearance and likely to come fully into their own over fences next season. Seddon may well have more to offer as a hurdler first, not best positioned again and looking ready for a step up in trip.
Rathhill bound for Tolworth after debut success
Nicky Henderson had introduced another highly promising, hurdles newcomer in Rathhill at Newbury on Wednesday. He was running in just a maiden, also over two miles, but it looked a good race of its type and Rathhill, despite market weakness, dismissed his rivals in ready fashion. He's probably more of a stayer than Angels Breath and while the Tolworth would be an option for him next, it would be no surprise if connections were thinking in terms of the Ballymore rather than the Supreme as a Cheltenham target. His stable companion Pistol Whipped is definitely more of a stayer and shaped with plenty of promise in taking third in the same race. He ought to be well up to winning races when he goes up in trip.
Cross to make amends before long
One last Henderson-trained novice hurdler worth a mention is Gallahers Cross. He went off a short price for the staying maiden at Ascot on Friday on his first start for a year, but got rather stuck in the mud in what became a real slog under testing conditions. He's likely to leave this form well behind. The winner Ask Dillon had a useful level of form in bumpers and this severe test on his hurdling debut suited him down to the ground. He has a long-term future as a staying chaser - savouring the 2020 National Hunt Chase for him already - but he will probably need three miles and the mud to make an impact in graded novice hurdles.
Vinndication has Scilly target,
The Noel Novices' Chase at Ascot attracted just the four runners, but they had all won last time out and the winner Vinndication had to run to a smart level to maintain his unbeaten record. There's a lot to like about the uncomplicated way he goes about things, his jumping solid into the bargain, making him another player in what is looking a potentially vintage RSA Chase, that he's raced right handed so far a coincidence rather than a requirement. The Scilly Isles at Sandown in early-February would seem the next port of call.
Court Royale one to keep on the right side
The most valuable race of the week was the Betfair Exchange Trophy, one of the key two-mile handicap hurdles of the whole season. It was more truly run than seemed likely to be the case beforehand and the form has a solid look to it - all the hurdles in use on the Saturday at Ascot - with the County Hurdle winner Mohaayed gaining another big pot ahead of others bringing strong formlines to the table. Mohaayed seemed to benefit from cheekpieces first time; runner-up Lisp paid a compliment to his Newbury conqueror Global Citizen (Buveur d'Air next for him), while Mr Antolini in third ran well again but looks ready for a return to further. He will continue to give a good account.
A couple of others for the notebook from the race are the unexposed Court Royale, who travelled well and was left with a lot to do, and Fiesole, who was weak in the market on his first start for Olly Murphy and finished well held, but who wasn't given a hard time and went round right on the inside, which wasn't the place to be.
Janika = a winner waiting to happen
That said, if there was one horse running at Ascot on Saturday that is sure to win handicaps this season it is Janika, who chased home Hell's Kitchen in the two-mile three-furlong handicap chase. Janika did really well to get so close to an enterprisingly-ridden rival at the top of his game. Janika took seamlessly to British fences and travelled with ease for most of the way, a good race well within his compass before the winter is much older.
Don't abandon Present
Janika's connections went one better in the valuable Silver Cup, Valtor belying his odds and appearing to improve markedly on his French form, having his first start in Britain after winning five times from no fewer than 31 starts over fences in France. Valtor has the Grand National on the agenda, though the handicapper is unlikely to take kindly to such an easy win in what ought to have been a competitive handicap. There are holes to be picked in the form, in any case, with several failing to show, not least the winner's stable companion Gold Present. He is worth forgiving this - the ground was softer than he's considered at home on and, after plotting a wide course, he was looked after once he was left behind four from home.
Paisley Park - has he got the look of a Stayers' contender?
The Grade 1 feature, the Long Walk Hurdle, also fell apart a bit, with Sam Spinner (who tried to refuse and unseated rider at the second, low sun or not) and Unowhatimeanharry failing to get round and the favourite Call Me Lord having no luck and running out of puff anyway. The winner Paisley Park continued on his upward curve, however, three in a row now, and gave his rider Aidan Coleman a low-overdue first winner at this level, the Stayers' Hurdle beckoning.
All eyes will be on Kempton on Boxing day, with both the King George VI Chase and the Kauto Star for novices having attracted strong final line-ups. The case for Thistlecrack in the King George was made in this column in discussing the Betfair Chase, though the runner that looks overpriced now is Coneygree, who showed he retains all his enthusiasm and tenacity when returning in a handicap at Cheltenham last month. Bags Groove will provide a good test for likely favourite Santini in the Kauto Star, with La Bague Au Roi and The World's End in the field as well.
All the latest Cheltenham Exchange market movers...
As David has mentioned, Friday saw the eagerly anticipated debut of Nicky Henderson’s Supreme Novice Hurdle prospect Angels Breath. He justified favouritism at Ascot winning by a comfortable four-and-a-half lengths. Angels Breath is now second favourite for the Supreme Novice Hurdle after tumbling from [22.5] to [11.5].
On the same card we saw the unbeaten Vinndication take the Grade 2 Noel Novices’ Chase with an impressive round of jumping. He now puts himself into the frame for the RSA Chase after halving in price from [30.0] down to [16.0].
The main attraction of the weekend was the Grade 1 JLT Hurdle, commonly known as The Long Walk Hurdle. It was a hot field of stayers that saw plenty of drama but Paisley Park was the one that travelled well throughout the race and battled hard for his two length victory. His price for the Stayers Hurdle has also halved from [30.0] down to [15.0].
Another to note is the unbeaten mare Honeysuckle who may be one to keep an eye on for the Mares Novice Hurdle.