Perhaps the most significant runner of the past week, with Cheltenham in mind anyway, lasted just two fences. Imperial Aura made an uncharacteristic error, diving at the fence and unshipping David Bass in the Silviniaco Conti at Kempton. That was a shame, since Master Tommytucker, unexposed despite having just turned 10, put up a high-class effort in what effectively became a time trial and Imperial Aura would have needed to run to a personal best to beat him, conceding 6 lb.
Imperial Aura is likely to go straight to Cheltenham and looks a little underpriced for the Ryanair, even though he has potential for more to come. Master Tommytucker hardly caused a ripple in the Cheltenham markets, not because he would be out of place in the Ryanair, more that his trainer Paul Nicholls seemed more minded after the race to keep the horse for the Melling Chase at Aintree.
Master Tommytucker is a bold jumper who can sustain a good gallop and the Mildmay course at Aintree ought to be ideal for him. He is prone to belting the odd fence, as he showed when rooting the last at Kempton, and that sort of error seems more likely to occur in the heat of a battle for the lead at Cheltenham.
Nicholls, who had a field day with seven winners on Saturday, also landed the other Grade 2 at Kempton, McFabulous justifying favouritism in the Relkeel Hurdle, which had been transferred from the abandoned Cheltenham card on New Year's day. McFabulous probably didn't need to improve on the form he showed when third to Thyme Hill and Paisley Park at Newbury, though he won with a bit to spare and the drop back in trip looked in his favour.
McFabulous is reportedly likely to be entered in the Stayers' Hurdle, though it's hard to see how he would turn the tables on the pair that beat him at Newbury, back at three miles. The Aintree Hurdle over two and a half miles seems the obvious spring target, the prospect of really hitting the heights over fences next winter suggesting a relatively light campaign for the rest of the season.
Nicholls had earlier won the three-mile novice hurdle with Barbados Buck's, who completed a hat trick in convincing fashion. He has improved with every run and looks to have plenty more to offer, particularly as he's been winning tactical novices at the trip and looks sure to benefit from a truer test of stamina. Barbados Buck's is developing into a live contender for the Albert Bartlett, though he might just be worth qualifying for the Pertemps.
Shuffle victory boosts Pigaille Festival claims
While on Kempton, Double Shuffle's success in the three-mile handicap chase was a boost for the form of Royale Pagaille, who had swept him aside in such effortless fashion at the track after Christmas. Royale Pagaille, as anticipated, has been clobbered by the handicapper, due to run off a BHA mark of 154 if he takes his chance in the Skybet Chase at Doncaster at the end of the month.
As stated previously, Royale Pagaille should be high on the short list for either the National Hunt Chase or the former RSA, though it was very interesting to see he was given an entry in the Gold Cup itself. That looks ambitious, but may be an option, given the owners presumably don't want to run him and Monkfish in the same race in March.
Time to follow Sage Advice
Kempton's juvenile hurdle went to the newcomer Sage Advice, who looked potentially useful in seeing off another pair with above-average Flat form. Still improving when last seen on the Flat in Ireland, he won well enough to think a return to the track for the Adonis would be worth the punt. He has some way to go but it wouldn't be a surprise to see him up to taking his chance in the Anniversary at Aintree, if not the Triumph. Keep him onside.
The more established British juveniles were in action in the Grade 1 Finale at Chepstow, with Adagio making it three from four over hurdles in defeating Nassalam, the pair coming a long way clear. Adagio has been a tremendous bargain, claimed for only €25,555 in the summer, and his willing attitude and accurate jumping will continue to stand him in good stead.
Adagio was helped that the Finale was well run, coming from further back than Nassalam, and with more experience in competitive races than his rival. Nassalam had won by the length of Brighton pier twice on bad ground at Fontwell, but they weren't serious races and he came up just short this time. However, he probably has more potential longer term than Adagio and it wouldn't be a surprise were he to reverse placings in the Triumph itself.
Obeaux a player in the Marsh
At Wincanton, the Dipper, another race transferred from Cheltenham the previous week, saw just three line up, but each of the trio looked of interest beforehand. Messire des Obeaux, third in the Baring Bingham so long ago that it was called the Neptune, rather than the Ballymore, followed up his debut win over fences the previous month in good style. He's always been a smooth traveler and he can jump as well, so hopefully he'll continue to make up for lost time. He's an obvious candidate for the Marsh, though the immovable object Envoi Allen stands in the way.
While viewing the winner positively, whether the runner-up Protektorat was seen to best advantage is at least arguable. He'd looked really good from the front in winning his first two starts over fences, but was ridden with more restraint, with Lieutenant Rocco in the field. He's clearly worth another chance, back forcing the pace.
As well as the entries for the three main open chases at the Cheltenham Festival - sad-face emoji for no Shishkin in the Champion Chase, by the way - this week saw those for the Betfair Hurdle revealed. Not surprisingly, the unexposed novices such as Metier, Third Time Lucki and Cadzand attracted plenty of positive comment, the race often a route to the Supreme. A couple of novices who are worth a glance at bigger prices would be For Pleasure and Sea Ducor.
For Pleasure ought to be ideally suited by Newbury, and he might take some pegging back, with three hurdles to jump in the last four furlongs. Given, virtually every other option for him pre-Cheltenham is on a right-handed track, and therefore ruled out, he seems likely to take his chance.
Sea Ducor is one of just three Irish-trained entries for the Betfair Hurdle, the Irish not having won the race since 2005, but he is completely unexposed and ran a fine race in a really competitive affair on handicap debut at Leopardstown last month. Whether Irish-trained runners will be able to take their chance at Newbury is open to doubt and makes it difficult to back him ante post. Just what the Irish challenge will be, though, is a growing concern generally, as the Festival approaches, and one that may not be resolved for a few weeks yet.