It's a commonplace that little of significance happens, barring injury, after the New Year to disrupt the ante-post markets for the four main championship races at the Cheltenham Festival. The form is too well established, the trial races aren't sufficiently competitive to allow an unconsidered runner to make a breakthrough. And yet Saturday saw two hugely impressive performances that clearly went against that notion, while a third notable winner also gave us pause for thought.
To start with the day's feature race, the Grade 1 Clarence House Chase at Ascot. This is a contest that has its critics, the race seldom much more than a soft opportunity for an Altior or Un de Sceaux. This time was different, with three runners regularly competitive at the highest level in opposition, as well as a pair that were progressing well and looked worth a crack at the highest level.
Politologue was sent off favourite, bidding for a third successive Grade 1, after wins in the Champion Chase last March and the Tingle Creek. As on those two occasions he was jumped off in front and set a good gallop, tending to go slightly left at his fences.
First Flow, up from handicapping company, pressed him closest and was sent upsides from the sixth. With his jumping the slickest its been in any of his races over fences, First Flow went on four out and, although Politologue renewed his challenge in the straight, he cracked from two out.
First Flow went on to score by seven lengths and although the margin might have been slightly flattering - Politologue had given his all before the last - the winner beat the runner-up fair and square. The keys to his performance were his jumping, as mentioned, and a superb, attacking ride from David Bass.
It may also have been a factor that Ascot, once again, proved a very difficult place to make ground on the chase course. Although the King George runner-up Waiting Patiently, the improving Fanion d'Estruval and last season's winner Defi Du Seuil all closed towards the straight, none could get in a blow at the first two.
Waiting Patiently, down a mile in trip, wasn't in quite the same form as at Kempton, this perhaps coming a bit quick, the run something of an afterthought after all. However, he hung right under pressure and it's coming up for three years since he last won a race. Defi du Seuil didn't see his race out and still looks to have issues. Fanion d'Estruval is perhaps the most interesting of those behind the first two and is still just a six-year-old.
As for First Flow's Champion Chase prospects, one negative would be the lack of form at Cheltenham.
He jumped badly, including going markedly right at one point, when disappointing in the 2018 Supreme on his only previous visit. He also hung right throughout when beaten at Uttoxeter on his chasing debut. However, he has won going left handed on five other occasions, so the concern is perhaps overstated.
First Flow has done most of his racing on very testing ground, though times at Ascot suggest conditions weren't so bad as anticipated, no worse than soft, and he won on good to soft there in the autumn. All in all, First Flow's performance in winning the Clarence House looks the best by a British-trained Champion Chase candidate this winter, at least unless or until Shishkin is supplemented.
Nothing goes to plan for Nicky and Nico at Haydock
Shishkin, currently engaged only in the Arkle, is due to have his next outing in the Lightning Novices' Chase at Doncaster next weekend, when his trainer and jockey Nicky Henderson and Nico de Boinville will be hoping for a better time than they had at Haydock this Saturday just gone.
Allart threw his Cheltenham preparation back to square one when tipping up after a novicey mistake under no pressure in the Grade 2 novice chase, while the dual Champion Hurdle winner Buveur d'Air was also beaten at odds on.
Buveur d'Air's defeat in the Champion Hurdle Trial was essentially due to rider error, de Boinville allowing Navajo Pass too much rope, though, in his defence, it was Buveur d'Air's first run in over a year and a hard race on bad ground wasn't really what was wanted.
He looked rusty at times as well, but whether he retains enough ability to be a player come the Champion Hurdle remains to be seen. It's asking a lot on the back of just this run to be spot on in March as well, so his current odds look a fair reflection of his chance.
Gold Cup surely next for Royale Pagaille after Haydock romp
On another day, Buveur d'Air's defeat might have been the headline story from Haydock, but the remarkable effort of Royale Pagaille in the Peter Marsh Chase was rightly the main talking point. Raised 16 lb for his hugely impressive win at Kempton after Christmas, Royale Pagaille won even more easily than he had that day, tanking through the race and a winner bar a fall with four fences still to jump.
The form almost certainly isn't strong, with the second and third favourites failing to jump round and the pair that chased the winner home both racing from slightly out of the handicap. The style, however, was something else, and it's easy to see why Royale Pagaille's connections might be tempted to go for the Gold Cup after this.
As has been mentioned previously, the Gold Cup option makes some sense, with Monkfish, in the same ownership and already favourite for the former RSA (which is now registered as the Festival Novices' Chase, suitably bland, pending a sponsor). With the pair unlikely to go for the same race, either one will switch to the National Hunt Chase, or Royale Pagaille will go for the Gold Cup.
It would be unusual for a novice to tackle the race, though Coneygree did so successfully in 2015, and Royale Pagaille is a very experienced novice. He's in his third season over fences, and has had eleven starts as a chaser, one fewer than Al Boum Photo and more than Santini (eight) and Champ (four).
Whether Royale Pagaille needs really testing ground to be seen to best advantage would be a question, but in terms of profile he brings something rather different to the majority of the established candidates.
Roksana confirms Stayers' credentials with facile victory
Back at Ascot, Roksana outclassed her three rivals in the Warfield Mares' Hurdle, running against her own sex for the first time this season. She has won the Mares' Hurdle at Cheltenham previously, but she's looked well suited by being campaigned around three miles this season and the Stayers' Hurdle looks the obvious option.
Although she was beaten by Paisley Park and Thyme Hill in the Long Walk, the margin to them is not so big that she couldn't overcome it.
The other race worth highlighting on the Ascot card is the opening juvenile hurdle, in which Tritonic produced a strong run from the last to collar the front-running Casa Loupi close home, with the heavily-punted Vulcan dropping away late on for third.
The in-running odds on the Betfair Exchange are telling: Tritonic, sent off 5/4 favourite, was matched at 27.026/1, while Casa Loupi (15/2) and Vulcan (13/8) were matched at 1.051/20 and 1.715/7 respectively.
Tritonic is a scopey sort with a good level of Flat form, who looks as good a Triumph prospect as has been seen this side of the Irish Sea this winter. His jumping wasn't that polished first time up, but his stamina got him home in front.
Casa Loupi was a good two stone inferior to the winner on the Flat, but jumped really well and is clearly going to be a class better at this discipline. Vulcan, meanwhile, is probably less of a stayer than the first two, but there was plenty to like about his effort and he'll win races when there is a greater emphasis on speed.