David Cleary looks back over the last week's jumping action, with two performances at Naas particularly taking his action...
"Bob Olinger's win at Naas suggests the Ballymore will be on the agenda, but the Albert Bartlett could also be an option - after all, he'll be a cracking three-mile chaser in time. Either way, he looks as good a staying novice hurdler as had been seen either side of the Irish Sea this winter."
He has yet to run in a graded race, but there is no doubt that Energumene has the ability to make an impact at the highest level. Energumene had galloped his opponents into the ground when landing a beginners chase at Gowran in the autumn, recording a really good time and he did much the same with his one serious opponent in a four-runner novice at Naas on Wednesday.
That opponent was Captain Guinness, impressive in a beginners chase over course and distance a month previously and bang there when brought down two out in last season's Supreme. Energumene again forced the pace, his jumping really slick, despite a slight tendency to go right. Captain Guinness, not always quite so fluent, was still able to challenge turning for home, but Energumene had plenty in reserve and stormed away on the run-in.
Energumene again recorded a really good effort on the clock, the time significantly faster than that recorded in a useful handicap 30 minutes later. He's likely to go next for the Irish Arkle at Leopardstown, with the Arkle at Cheltenham on the cards if that goes well.
Shishkin's merits have been enthusiastically assessed in this column, but Energumene on this showing would be a worthy opponent.
One slight doubt would be whether two miles on less testing ground against a rival who jumps as well as he himself does would show Energumene to best advantage. Though the alternative is to take on Envoi Allen in the Marsh, so there - rightly - isn't an easy option. Another doubt, and perhaps a silly one, given how good his performance was at Naas, is whether the slight tendency to jump right would be more pronounced at a track like Cheltenham, giving deeper opposition and probably less grueling ground.
Sky Pirate reformed after drop to two miles
Another Arkle candidate emerged at Warwick, in the unlikely shape of Sky Pirate. Prior to a run at Cheltenham last month, Sky Pirate had run 10 times over fences and been beaten every time, on no fewer than seven occasions trading at odds on in running on the Betfair Exchange and called a few choice names. However, a drop to two miles for the first time in his career, saw a different Sky Pirate and he followed up in another well-run handicap at Warwick.
What was particularly likeable about Sky Pirate's latest performance wasn't just that he travelled strongly and jumped fluently, but that he knuckled down when a threat presented itself at the last. He will certainly have a race run to suit in the Arkle and has loads of experience, but he will surely need the best in the line-up to underperform to come out on top.
The Warwick card also featured a more conventional trial for the Cheltenham novice chases in the shape of the Grade 2 Hampton Novices' Chase over three miles. Only three lined up, the race predictably tactical. Golan Fortune's blunder three out surely compromised his chance, handing the initiative to Next Destination, who kept finding in the straight when Fiddlerontheroof came to challenge, outstaying that rival, who was later reported to have bled.
Next Destination has come late to fences, but he's now won both starts, both at Grade 2 level, and he'll be a serious player at Cheltenham, whichever of the former RSA or the National Hunt Chase is chosen. The first of those is looking rather thin in terms of quality, compared to the Arkle and the Marsh, at the moment, so might well be the preferred option.
Envoi Allen, 14/1-on and 11/2-on for his first two outings over fences, was just 2/1-on for the Grade 3 Killiney Novice Chase at Punchestown on Sunday, but he'd have been considerably shorter in running after his main rival Asterion Forlonge fell at the first. After that Envoi Allen did all that was required, jumping very neatly and quickening away at the end of a steadily-run contest.
He's looked very good in all his chase starts, doing everything right, though will go to Cheltenham for the Marsh without having faced much in the way of opposition.
Bob Olinger top of the pecking order for Ballymore
Next Destination and Envoi Allen, by coincidence, are both previous winners of the Grade 1 Lawlor's of Naas Novice Hurdle and the latest running of that went the way of one who looks to have a bright future himself. The race looked competitive beforehand, but Bob Olinger ran out a decisive winner, staying on resolutely from the last having travelled well and jumped accurately.
Bob Olinger has had just five runs under Rules - he had won his only start in points as well - and has plenty more to offer. His only defeat came at the hands of the Champion Bumper winner Ferny Hollow. Even that reverse, in a two-mile maiden hurdle, was a run full of promise, particularly as Bob Olinger is much more of a stayer.
Bob Olinger's win at Naas suggests the Ballymore will be on the agenda, but the Albert Bartlett could also be an option - after all, he'll be a cracking three-mile chaser in time. Either way, he looks as good a staying novice hurdler as had been seen either side of the Irish Sea this winter.
The Grade 2 Leamington Novices' Hurdle at Warwick catered for a similar type and proved every bit as competitive as it looked on paper beforehand. However, the field finished in too much of a heap to take a high view of the form. Adrimel came out on top, just, and remains unbeaten after three starts over hurdles. However, he failed to give his running in the Champion Bumper last season and his trainer seemed doubtful afterwards whether Adrimel would even go to Cheltenham this time round.
Another of Saturday's notable winners, Eileendover, is also one for whom Cheltenham may well not be on the agenda. She was a taking winner of the listed mares bumper at Market Rasen, in doing so banishing concerns that she wouldn't have enough stamina for an extended two miles. Given she's a four-year-old and would be getting plenty of weight, she might seem an obvious candidate for the Champion Bumper, but a career on the Flat proper is very much the aim.
Tactics the key to Lad and Deal efforts
Finally, there were contrasting fortunes for a couple of the more unlikely success stories of the jumps season so far. Chatham Street Lad, who had put up a remarkable effort to win the Caspian Caviar at Cheltenham last month, was seemingly beaten fair and square when third to Daly Tiger in the Moore Memorial Handicap at Fairyhouse. However, a switch to making the running under a conditional rider that hadn't ridden him before probably wasn't ideal and he may well get back on the up.
Dreal Deal, a year on from finishing tailed-off last of eight in a novice hurdle at Ayr, followed wins in handicaps off marks of 84, 106 and 111, with a shock win in the Grade 2 Moscow Flyer Novice Hurdle at Punchestown. In a race where there was a tearaway leader and the more fancied runners tried to close some way from home, Dreal Deal was dropped right out by Denis O'Regan, making ground only once in the straight and leading halfway up the run-in.
On the face of it this was a huge improvement again, but Dreal Deal was surely flattered by the way the race unfolded - he was matched at 220 in running - and while the Supreme at Cheltenham is now on the agenda, his claims aren't so good as this suggests.