David Cleary looks back at Newbury's highly informative card on Saturday, which featured Altior and Native River on trial for Cheltenham, as well as a dramatic Betfair Hurdle...
"Native River, successful in the Denman, was, like Altior, winning his Newbury trial for the third time. His opposition was, if anything, a little weaker than that which Altior faced, but there was so much to like about his performance, ridden by Jonjo O'Neill Jr for the first time, that it looks short odds that he retains all his ability."
Given that they were sent off at 3/1-on and 5/2-on, it is perhaps surprising quite how much was riding on good performances from both Altior and Native River on the Betfair card at Newbury.
Altior had lost his long unbeaten record at Ascot in the autumn and then missed a series of other possible targets with assorted problems, including reportedly not working like his old self; Native River had won a non-event on his return before Christmas and hadn't been himself last season. Allowing that neither had to run to their best, both passed the test that faced them about as well as could have been hoped. Although both are now classed as veterans, both have serious claims to winning once again at the Festival.
Altior in the Game Spirit was just classic Altior, giving his rivals the sight of a door slightly ajar before it was slammed shut. Defi du Seuil and Chacun Pour Soi have enhanced their claims this winter, but Altior picked up so well when required and has such a brilliant record at Cheltenham that he is rightly now favourite for the Champion Chase, as he looks to record an historic fifth successive Cheltenham Festival win.
2018 hero looks overpriced for Gold Cup repeat
Colin Tizzard-trained Native River, successful in the Denman, was, like Altior, winning his Newbury trial for the third time. His opposition was, if anything, a little weaker than that which Altior faced, but there was so much to like about his performance, ridden by Jonjo O'Neill Jr for the first time, that it looks short odds that he retains all his ability.
His characteristic zest and slick jumping, which had gone missing last season, were fully on display this time. Given his record in the race and the signs of a good preparation this time round, Native River really ought to be shorter than he is for the Cheltenham Gold Cup, available at 12.5 to back on the Betfair Exchange.
Native River's lacklustre form last season might well be down to the hard race he had when beating Might Bite in an epic renewal of the Gold Cup in 2018. Might Bite hasn't really looked himself since, though Saturday's effort behind his old rival was rather more encouraging. Might Bite is reportedly set for a run in the Cross Country at the Festival and he certainly has the ability to get involved if he takes to the different discipline.
Nicholls pleased with Dollars
Paul Nicholls failed to win either of those prizes, though he will surely be pleased with the efforts of Dynamite Dollars and Secret Investor, who took third to Altior and second to Native River respectively. Secret Investor got back on track after a disappointing effort at Cheltenham before Christmas, getting away from the mud perhaps the key to him. He could have a good handicap in him in the spring.
Dynamite Dollars was even more encouraging, having his first run since January last year. He's entered in the Champion Chase, but the Ryanair or the Melling Chase at Aintree might be better options. Dynamite Dollars is bred to stay at least two and a half miles and previous below-par efforts around the trip have been for other reasons.
Pic pockets dramatic Betfair Hurdle
Thirty-five minutes after the Denman, Nicholls' afternoon got better still, as the relatively unconsidered Pic d'Orhy clicked in Britain at the third attempt, landing the Betfair Hurdle in convincing fashion. Pic d'Orhy had run away with his rider going downhill over a longer trip and in a smaller field at Ascot last time, but in a well-run affair back at two miles, he just powered through the race, though required firmly riding to get on top after the last.
There was some talk afterwards of the Champion Hurdle, though he would need to be supplemented for that. His options otherwise at two miles would be the Scottish Champion Hurdle, the Select Hurdle at Sandown or a trip to Punchestown. Perhaps biding time until chasing next season will prove the preferred option.
The first six home in the Betfair Hurdle were covered by under two lengths and there might have been even more involved had Lightly Squeeze fell heavily at the last, bringing down Mack The Man and Harambe. All three were going well enough still, though not so well as the winner. Harambe is of particular interest, as he was doing well to come from the position he did, clearly still well treated, despite a significant rise in the weights. Harambe would be one to consider, so far as the County Hurdle is concerned.
The drama in the Betfair Hurdle wasn't just confined to the finish, as a standing start scuppered the chance of Not So Sleepy following up his success in the Betfair Exchange Hurdle. A line can be put through the run. The starters decided that no riders were to blame for the initial aborted start, but there is no report that they looked in the mirror to see if any fault could be found there. Thebannerkingrebel was another who might have been ridden more prominently had the start been a conventional one. Never Adapt, so good at Kempton, was unfortunately pulled up after the first, having gone lame.
Chantry House looks Supreme candidate
Never Adapt's connections, Messers McManus, Henderson and Geraghty, had better fortune at the start of the afternoon, when Chantry House showed a good turn of foot to win the novice hurdle in some style.
Chantry House looks the part of a chaser, but there is probably a good novice hurdle in him this spring, no surprise that he is well to the fore in the markets for the Supreme and the Ballymore. He doesn't shape as if he needs to go up in trip just yet, but with both owner and trainer having other pieces to fit into the puzzle, it may be that he ends up in the longer-distance race; that would be a shame.
The owner's Sporting John missed his chance to stake Festival claims when Exeter was blown away on Sunday, but that card is now rearranged for next Sunday. Henderson, meanwhile, had another Cheltenham-bound novice win in the week, when Shishkin landed the Sidney Banks at Huntingdon. Shishkin, with a very similar profile to Chantry House, made short work of his four rivals, coping well with a relative test of speed up in trip. He could well go for either race at Cheltenham, his owners also having Asterion Forlonge to run in their colours. All grounds for not getting too heavily involved in those races.