Cheltenham Festival 2020 Countdown: Streak stakes early Champion Hurdle claim

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David Cleary returns with his weekly column looking at all the latest action over jumps, particularly at Chepstow and Kempton, with a view to the 2020 Cheltenham Festival...

"Having just his third start over hurdles, ... the way in which Sebastopol cut down the enterprisingly ridden Grey Diamond and went away to win by seven lengths suggests a lot of untapped potential."

With Champions Day behind us for another year and the clocks going back early on Sunday morning, it's high time to turn our attention to the jumping scene, in particular, the threads being woven into the Cheltenham Festival tapestry. While the rain in recent weeks has played havoc with Flat fixtures, it's been a boon for the trainers of jumpers with March on their mind.

Streak makes winning return, as rivals fail to fire

The Champion Hurdle third Silver Streak was the star of the show at Kempton on Sunday, producing a very polished display, enthusiasm for the performance only slightly dampened by his main opponents failing to fire. He's likely to have a campaign geared around the Champion Hurdle this winter, with the Elite Hurdle at Wincanton and the Christmas Hurdle back at Kempton obvious options before the turn of the year.

Of his opponents, the Supreme third Itchy Feet was let down by his jumping, while Grand Sancy was held when he took a nasty tumble at the last; the latter, who was reported fine afterwards, shaped well for a long way, and could well make quite an impact over fences, given the pick of his hurdles form last season. Sofia's Rock was another who shaped with some promise in the race, and it would be no surprise to see him come on plenty for this, probably when switched back to handicap company.

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The other listed event on the Kempton card, for novice hurdlers, went to Pacify who was gaining a fifth win on the bounce after making his hurdling debut as recently as June. He's likeable, but he surely didn't have to run up to his best in a speed test to prevail with something in hand.Quite what route is taken with him remains to be seen, though a winter break could be on the cards, given how busy he's been.

Persian War principals shine on hurdling debut

There was probably a more significant novice hurdle the previous weekend at Chepstow, with the latest staging of the Grade 2 Persian War.This is often a last opportunity for those that cease to hold novice status at the end of the month to gain a win at this level, and there were plenty in the field who fitted that description. However, the finish was fought out by two hurdling debutants, the Champion Bumper third Thyme Hill and Fiddlerontheroof, a useful bumper winner having his first start for Colin Tizzard.

Going to the last, there was little between the pair, but Thyme Hill, under a bustling Johnson, was strong in the finish and scored convincingly. However, Fiddlerontheroof impressed with the way he tanked through the race and might just have the greater amount of improvement in him, though both are smart longer-term prospects.

Plenty to come with the Tank

The Tizzard team had another reverse in similar circumstances in the listed novice chase, when the smart novice hurdler Reserve Tank was overhauled by Jarveys Plate from the last. That was an outcome that looked unlikely for 90% of the race and Reserve Tank is surely the better prospect for top honours this season - his jumping was good in the main and he again impressed with how he travelled through the race.

The staying novice chase at the meeting went to Ardlethen, who took advantage of Lisnagar Oscar's last-fence rick. Neither was altogether convincing in a race littered with errors and will need to become more fluent as they move into graded company.

Sam Spinner a winner over fences

Finally on the novice chase scene, the top staying hurdler Sam Spinner made a winning start to his new career at Wetherby, though victory looked a remote prospect leaving the back straight. However, that was betting without Sam Spinner's willing attitude and he found plenty for pressure in the straight to overhaul Beakstown late on. Sam Spinner will benefit from a return to three miles, but he looked something of a manufactured jumper and he may come up short of the level he reached as a hurdler. Beakstown, on the other hand, has the look and demeanour of a chaser, fewer miles on the clock than the winner too, and he may prove the better prospect.

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Flash The Steel - one to note novice chasing

Both Beakstown and Ardlethen come from Dan Skelton's yard and it will be interesting to see if their stable companion Flash The Steel follows them over fences. He won the Grade 3 Silver Trophy at Chepstow, conforming to his pretty stout pedigree in showing improved form on a first try at two-and-a-half miles, also benefiting from coming from off of a strong pace. Already a seven-year-old, the strong-travelling Flash The Steel very much looks the part for fences.

The Welsh Champion Hurdle, a useful handicap, at Ffos Las, proved competitive, with Monsieur Lecoq prevailing in a tight finish, and should prove solid form. He has the potential to progress again, as does the well-backed third Colonel Custard, who perhaps needed the race a bit more than the market indicated.

Sebastopol destined for much better things

However, the most exciting hurdling performance of the week was surely Sebastopol at Wincanton. Having just his third start over hurdles, he did a fair bit wrong over a trip that seemed likely to be on the sharp side, but the way in which Sebastopol cut down the enterprisingly ridden Grey Diamond and went away to win by seven lengths suggests a lot of untapped potential.

David Cleary,

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