In the second part of his festive horse racing review David Cleary concentrates on 3m chasers, starting with Frodon's surprise King George victory, and looks ahead to Cheltenham Festival 2021...
"My first inclination was to castigate Patrick Mullins for his ride on Melon. Why on earth did he press on so far out on an unproven stayer? And yet had he not bungled the second-last, Kemboy wouldn't have wrestled back the lead and Melon might just have lasted home."
Much has been written and said about Frodon's victory in the King George at Kempton, particularly about the perfectly judged pace set by Bryony Frost on the winner. Without going over the same ground, there are a couple of points to make, perhaps a different way to look at the race.
Arguably, the crucial moments came 20 seconds either side of the start. As the field walks in, Frodon has Santini and Black Op upsides, with Lostintranslation and Cyrname close up. Frodon spins round as the flag goes up but is quickly back in line and the five jump off together. However, by the time the field crosses the all-weather track, still on the approach to the first, Frost has got her mount two lengths clear and that essentially is where they stay.
The thing that keeps Frodon there is not solely the pace, but his jumping, because at not one of the 18 fences do any of his opponents make ground on him. So when approaching seven out, Santini is asked to move upsides briefly, Frodon jumps that fence much better than Santini, which re-establishes the two-length cushion. The only one who looks as if he might land a blow later, Saint Calvados, makes a mistake five out which delays his effort and then he is outjumped at the first two in the straight before his stamina runs out.
So while Frost judged the pace perfectly, Frodon might well have won even if he had gone faster, simply because his jumping was superior to that of his rivals. None of Cyrname (reportedly never going), Lostintranslation (bled) or Clan des Obeaux (seemingly feeling the effects of his run in the Betfair Chase) were winning however the race was run.
Santini predictably found the test too sharp and neither Black Op nor Real Steal were good enough, even if jumping and lack of stamina respectively hadn't told against them too. That leaves the pair that might have made a difference, Saint Calvados and Waiting Patiently.
Calvados boosts Ryanair prospects with bold display
In hindsight, both their riders would arguably have been better served by making a move earlier than they did. Saint Calvados fought for his head for too long to last home and, while he might not have stayed anyway, if he had been allowed to stride on, his own jumping, which was good by and large, might have given him more chance of outpointing the winner.
Waiting Patiently wasn't going quite so well from seven out, but had he been closer earlier, the significant ground he made up from three out would have, in theory, got him into a challenging position, rather than closing down the winner late on.
In the defence of both Gavin Sheehan and Brian Hughes, both Saint Calvados and Waiting Patiently were making their reappearance and unproven at three miles.
As for what this all means for Cheltenham, Frodon earned his place in the Gold Cup field, in which he will face stiffer opposition and probably competition for the lead, though his excellent record at the track clearly merits respect.
Santini did nothing to dent his Gold Cup claims, should he be on your shortlist, given expectations at Kempton were marked down. Lostintranslation would be hard to fancy for anything at the moment, while Cyrname also has a question mark against him. Clan des Obeaux, who was still very willing in taking third, looks an obvious one to bounce back, freshened up, at Aintree.
If there was a Cheltenham winner in the King George field, then it was most likely either Waiting Patiently or Saint Calvados. Both seem obvious candidates for the Ryanair, and although Waiting Patiently finished ahead of Saint Calvados, the latter makes the more appeal, given he seems less fragile and ran a good second in the race last season.
Savills Chase thriller does little to dent Photo's Gold Cup dominance
The Ryanair, as much as the Gold Cup, was the subject of discussion after the Savills Chase at Leopardstown. The departures before the race had fully taken shape of both the favourite Minella Indo and Delta Work detracted from the strength of the race and plenty here, as in the King George, weren't on song, but the form of the first three, who finished well clear, looks well up to scratch for a race of this standard.
My first inclination - never riding better myself, you understand - was to castigate Patrick Mullins for his ride on Melon. Why on earth did he press on so far out on an unproven stayer? And yet he was doing exactly the sort of thing Sheehan on Saint Calvados might have done in hindsight, so perhaps both barrels are not required. The Savills was run at a proper gallop, so Melon might have been waited with for longer, but had he not bungled the second-last, Kemboy wouldn't have wrestled back the lead and Melon might just have lasted home. Whatever comes later, it would be great to see Melon again at three miles, in the Irish Gold Cup next month.
A Plus Tard snaffled the prize late on, as the other pair slugged it out, and showed more stamina than previously. He may well bid to add to his good Cheltenham record in the Gold Cup, though still more stamina is likely to be needed. Kemboy ran a better Gold Cup trial in many ways. It's just a shame his record at the track - specifically with his jumping - is off putting. Melon, a runner-up now at four successive Festivals, will presumably be aimed at the Ryanair, not least because his connections also own Al Boum Photo.
With Monalee sidelined through injury, Al Boum Photo faced a straightforward task in his regular outing at Tramore on New Year's day and did all that was required. Nothing that has happened in staying chases this season has caused his position at the head of the Gold Cup market to be shifted and it seems unlikely that anything will over the next 11 weeks.
Fast-improving Pagaille one to note in novice ranks
As for the staying novice chases, the Kauto Star at Kempton rather illustrated the point about jumping made on the King George. The winner Shan Blue went too fast, but still won because his jumping was much superior when it counted to that of the runner-up The Big Breakaway. Not surprisingly, connections of the winner are considering dropping back in trip for the Marsh at Cheltenham, rather than taking on a stiffer three miles in the former RSA.
That Grade 1 staying novice at Leopardstown saw Monkfish defeat Latest Exhibition, just as he had in the Albert Bartlett, back in March. Monkfish is clearly very smart, though he isn't blessed with a telling turn of foot, a touch of the Don Polis about him, and there might be something with a bit more pace to get the better of him in what was the RSA. At this stage, though, the potential field for that race looks a fair bit thinner than those for either the Arkle or the Marsh.
One winner at a lower level who might make the breakthrough to top novice company is Royale Pagaille, who won the three-mile handicap on the second day at Kempton, looking well ahead of his mark as he scored with a fair bit in hand, the first two finishing a long way clear. He looks to have improved considerably in two runs since coming from France and now faces a new mark somewhere near 150. The Reynoldstown appeals as an alternative to continuing in handicaps, a win in that making him a strong Festival player. In which race that might be is complicated, given he's in the same ownership as Monkfish.
Finally, almost, Zanahiyr, who cemented his position as Triumph favourite with a win at Grade 2 level at Leopardstown. In a race run in contrasting fashion to when he was so impressive at Fairyhouse, Zanahiyr showed a fine turn of foot and while he didn't need to improve to land the prize, there's clearly plenty still to come.
His owners had another Gordon Elliott-trained juvenile score impressively when Riviere d'Etel made a winning start for the yard at Punchestown, after just two runs in France.
She might enter Triumph calculations herself, but the Dawn Run novice for mares provides an obvious alternative and it would be no surprise to see her more prominent in the market for that once she tackles deeper opposition.