As David Cleary highlights, Kempton and Warwick supplied the principal British action over the weekend, but it was a horse that didn't run that captured all the headlines...
"The Conditional, raised 5lb for his cracking run in the Ladbroke Trophy, left the firm impression for a long way that his mark is still a competitive one and although he holds an entry in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, the Ultima is surely the race for him at the Festival, particularly given he's already a winner over that race's course and distance this winter."
The prospect of four-time Cheltenham Festival winner Altior making it five in a row come March look rather less than rosy, even though he still heads the Betfair market for the Queen Mother Champion Chase at 4.57/2.
As reported in last week's Countdown, Altior was an intended runner in the Grade 2 Silviniaco Conti Chase at Kempton on Saturday; except that by Tuesday he wasn't, an announcement that he would definitely not be running following on from his drifting significantly in the market for the race and support for his stable companion Top Notch.
Two issues arose from this that got rather muddled together - firstly, the technical aspect of Altior's not being scratched from the race by his trainer Nicky Henderson once it was announced the horse wouldn't be running; secondly, whether any breach of the rules of racing had taken place so far as the market moves before the announcement Altior wouldn't be running was concerned. Altior clearly should have been scratched under the rules, which are designed to prevent punters being unintentionally or otherwise misled so far as running plans are concerned.
However, leaving aside the political aspects of the saga, the continued presence of Altior at the top of the Champion Chase market is a headscratcher. He hasn't been left in the Clarence House at Ascot this coming weekend and he's apparently now an intended runner instead in the Betfair-sponsored Game Spirit at Newbury early next month.
His non-appearance in the Silviniaco Conti follows similar no-shows in the King George and the Desert Orchid at Kempton after Christmas, raising questions about his well-being. Altior's defeat by Cyrname at Ascot in November seems to have thrown his whole season off kilter, and the plan to step him up in trip this winter appears to have been abandoned: he is entered at Cheltenham only in the Champion Chase.
Frodon back on song with Kempton victory
In Altior's absence, Top Notch went off a short-priced favourite at Kempton, for a race he had won the previous season, but he could finish only third behind Frodon and Keeper Hill. Perhaps switching to a race not originally on his schedule was the undoing of Top Notch, who is almost always a very game and reliable performer and who had already won his previous two starts this campaign.
Frodon was well backed against him and got back on track, having reportedly been treated for stomach ulcers since his poor run in the Betfair Chase. However, with Top Notch not at his best, Frodon probably didn't have to run to the level that saw him win the Ryanair Chase at the last Cheltenham Festival. After all, Keeper Hill is a smart performer but no better and Frodon needed keeping up to his work to see him off.
There was talk after the race that Frodon would take his chance in the Gold Cup this time round, the switch to the Ryanair being a late one last spring, but he seems unlikely to be quite up to that task, good though his record at Cheltenham is. Prices to back him on Betfair are, at the time of writing, 8.07/1 for the Ryanair, not far off favourite, and 38.037/1 for the Gold Cup, which seems about right. In terms of ability, his trainer Paul Nicholls has a much more obvious Gold Cup candidate in Clan des Obeaux and an entry with more ability in the Ryanair in the shape of Cyrname.
Never Adapt on course for Betfair Hurdle
While it was good to see Frodon back on song, the performance of the afternoon at Kempton came from the lightly-raced mare Never Adapt, who went off at a short price for the two-mile handicap hurdle and won with any amount in hand, though not before giving the impression she was making Barry Geraghty's life anything but straightforward. Dropped out and once again refusing to settle, Never Adapt had plenty to do after three out but closed in most taking fashion on the turn and then eased to the front at the last, without her rider doing much at all.
This wasn't a deep race, but the first three finished well clear, the second and third having been ridden much more efficiently. Never Adapt will prove a difficult one for the BHA handicapper to pin down and, with her next run likely to be in the Betfair Hurdle at Newbury next month, she must have a decent chance of landing a much bigger prize than she did here.
Stoney Mountain just the job for Pertemps Final
Warwick's feature card of the season was typically competitive, though so far as Cheltenham pointers were concerned, the fourth and fifth horses in the Pertemps qualifier were probably the most significant. In a race in which it paid to be handy, last season's Pertemps Final winner Sire du Berlais earned his place in this year's running. Just as when qualifying at Leopardstown last season, Sire du Berlais was dropped out right at the back and although he made good ground in the straight, the leaders had by then gone beyond recall.
It's worth noting that his Betfair SP was 25.72 and he traded no shorter than 24.0 in running. His record at Cheltenham, never mind that of his trainer Gordon Elliott, suggests he'll be much more competitive in the Final and it wouldn't be a surprise if there was some tweaking of headgear, perhaps blinkers or a visor instead of cheekpieces.
Sire du Berlais was a never-nearer fourth and two lengths behind him in fifth came Stoney Mountain. Quickly back over hurdles after unseating on his chasing debut last month, Stoney Mountain is too much of a stayer to be fully at home in a relatively steadily-run race at Warwick and was done for speed from mid-field in the last five furlongs. Cheltenham ought to be much more his cup of tea and he looks one for the short list for the Final. Stoney Mountain isn't the most fluent jumper at times, but he showed when winning the big handicap hurdle on Betfair Chase day that stamina is very much his strong suit and he still looks on a fair mark.
The Conditional looks prime Ultima candidate
The feature Classic Chase at Warwick was somewhat unsatisfactory, in that several runners had their chances compromised because a standing start was required, among them the National Hunt Chase winner Le Breuil, who never got into a rhythm after being tardy away, and Goodnight Charlie, who needs to help force the pace and had to work hard just to get in a position to chase the leader.
That leader, Captain Chaos, looked to be well served by the switch to forcing tactics, having most of the field in trouble a good way out, though Kimberlite Candy and The Conditional were poised behind him into the straight. The Conditional didn't see out the marathon trip, but Kimberlite Candy, who'd travelled smoothly and jumped fluently, took the leader's measure at the last and stormed away to win by ten lengths.
There was a lot to like about the way Kimberlite Candy went about things and this performance, coupled with his reappearance second in the Becher Chase, really suggested a strong Grand National contender. He's been fitted with cheekpieces this season, which has seen his form go to a new level, and the way he finished here and at Aintree suggest he will be effective at four miles plus, even though he didn't stay so well as some in last season's Eider.
The Conditional, raised 5lb for his cracking run in the Ladbroke Trophy, left the firm impression for a long way that his mark is still a competitive one and although he holds an entry in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, the Ultima is surely the race for him at the Festival, particularly given he's already a winner over that race's course and distance this winter.
A rather more softly-softly Grand National candidate was on show at Kempton, Saint Xavier making short work of two opponents in a three-mile novice hurdle. Saint Xavier is yet to run over fences in Britain, but he has a BHA mark of 150, based on his smart form in France, and it would be no surprise for his new trainer Paul Nicholls to eke out a bit more ability. Saint Xavier already has the qualification required so far as making the frame over fences at three miles or more is concerned, but will also need to run over fences between the publication of the weights and the end of the Cheltenham Festival.