With those bits of Britain that weren't under water frozen, there were thin pickings so far as Festival clues were concerned last week. Doncaster managed to stage a two-day fixture, which enabled Shishkin to complete his Festival preparation in taking fashion. His effortless defeat of Eldorado Allen in the Lightning Novices' Chase didn't tell us anymore than was revealed by his victory in the Wayward Lad at Christmas.
Still, Shishkin was very good again and remains very much the one to beat in the Arkle, where he is the 1.9110/11 favourite.
The ground on the hurdles course at Doncaster was significantly more testing than on the chase course on Saturday and few in the River Don, a trial for the Albert Bartlett were able to cope with it. Above all the surface seemed very loose, the turf being kicked up looking more like Auteuil with the taps left on than any British track.
That led to an upset, with five of the six runners sent off at single figures failing to complete and the one that did finishing well tailed off. 25/1-chance The Cob ran out a clear-cut winner, travelling smoothly for much of the way and coping well with the conditions, but also showing himself a strong stayer. There have certainly been plenty of runnings of the Albert Bartlett where those qualities would come to the fore, though The Cob would need to be supplemented were he to be given the chance at Cheltenham, not being among the 74 listed when the entries were revealed mid-week.
As the ante-post market might suggest there isn't currently a standout candidate for that three-mile novice hurdle. Timeform currently has no fewer than 20 novices rated within 6 lb of one another. Of those, the vast majority have entries in more than one novice race at the Festival.
The Golden Cygnet at Leopardstown on Saturday could well be a significant pointer to the Irish pecking order, so far as the Albert Bartlett and possibly the Ballymore are concerned. Among the British-trained runners, the most obviously interesting of those that hold just an Albert Bartlett entry is Barbados Buck's.
Paul Nicholls' horse has had four runs over hurdles and improved significantly each time. Although he's run all four races on relatively sharp tracks and in steadily-run races, he leaves the impression he's been doing well despite rather than because of the conditions. One thing almost guaranteed of the Albert Bartlett is that it will test stamina over speed and that could well see Barbados Buck's improve quite a bit more.
Elliott gives options to Triumph contenders
One left-field Albert Bartlett entry is the four-year-old Duffle Coat. Although the race is open to juveniles, Duffle Coat would be the first of his age to contest the race. The entry is perhaps more an indication of the multitude of riches that his trainer Gordon Elliott has in the division, with five entries, all with plausible claims. Duffle Coat has looked sure to stay at least two and a half miles in winning all four of his races over hurdles, the last of them at the Cheltenham meeting in November. As his form wouldn't be the pick of that shown by the quintet, the option of running over further (he's also in the Ballymore) is interesting.
Of the other four Elliott-trained runners Zanahiyr, the current Triumph favourite, has also been given an entry in the Supreme, along with Teahupoo, who was a rather fortunate winner at Fairyhouse on his Irish debut. That Zanahiyr would be good enough to compete in the Supreme isn't in doubt and his stable has only one obvious older candidate in Ballyadam, who was beaten by the current Supreme favourite Appreciate It at Leopardstown at Christmas.
Quilixios, who is unbeaten in three starts over hurdles, and Riviere d'Etel, who is in the same ownership as Zanahiyr, are only entered in the Triumph. However, Riviere d'Etel is a filly, so has the option of running in the Dawn Run, for which entries have yet to close.
Willie Mullins has eight entered in the Triumph, the majority yet to run for him. They include Youmdor, who would have beaten Teahupoo at Fairyhouse but for falling at the last, and French Aseel. The latter won a maiden hurdle by a wide margin for Ellmarie Holden at Leopardstown at Christmas. He ran to a useful level clearly, though the form has been rather let down since. Again, Leopardstown at the weekend ought to bring some clarity in this division.
One final point on the Triumph entries: both Pentland Hills and Zarkandar won the Triumph in the last decade after making their hurdling debut in late-February. Paul Nicholls, who trained the latter, has two entries in the Triumph that might fit the bill, both six-figure purchases off the Flat.
Paso Doble was useful and consistent for Jim Bolger on the level and has the requisite stamina, judged on those efforts. Perhaps even more interesting is Wise Glory who reached a similar level from fewer tries for the Crisfords on the Flat. Wise Glory looks the type to take well to hurdling and he holds an entry in the Scottish Triumph at Musselburgh at the weekend.
Mullins at the double in Thurles chases
To return to last week's action, and events in Ireland, specifically two chases at Thurles on Wednesday, both run over around two and a half miles, the Anaglog's Daughter, for mares, and the Kinloch Brae. Willie Mullins lifted both of them, with horses that were up with the pace all the way, Colreevy and Allaho respectively.
The way the races were run is instructive. There wasn't much to choose in terms of pace on the long run to the first, but from there to the last with a circuit to go there was a burn up in Allaho's race, the leaders surging around 25 lengths ahead comparatively. That then steadied appreciably, so that by the second-last, most of the sizeable advantage had been lost. From there to the finish, Allaho stretched on again, though the more patiently ridden Elimay was able to throw down a serious challenge at the last.
On overall time, from the first to the finish, the difference between the two races is around what might be expected. It should also be pointed out that neither winner was flat out at the line. Colreevy clearly ran the more even tempo; Allaho deserves credit for being able to win as he did, given the way his race was run. Allaho is likely to go for the Ryanair, which will be an interesting tactical clash if his stable companions Min and Melon also take their chance.
Colreevy is clearly a smart mare and has more to offer. While she's among the favourites for the new Mares Chase, she would have to carry a penalty for a Grade 1 win and connections have the option to go back into novice company. She's already a winner at three miles and getting weight from the geldings in the Festival Novices' Chase would put her bang in contention.
Elimay, like Colreevy, has also had just the three starts over fences, but she isn't a novice and the Mares Chase would be an obvious option for her. She would have a penalty for a Grade 2 win, but her effort on unfavourable terms against Allaho, would be as good as any among her sex this season.