David Cleary picks out the highlights from a busy week of jumping action, which included the Showcase meeting at Cheltenham and Aintree's Old Roan Chase...
"Third home Midnight Shadow was well held in the end, but he shaped with a lot of promise, jumping soundly and travelling well, but needing the run; his yard has yet to fire this autumn, but he will win races over fences when it does."
The weather again played a major part in the week's most significant action. Heavy rain was the main culprit, but it was bright sunshine that disrupted the Old Roan Chase at Aintree on Sunday - all three fences in the straight had to be omitted because of the riders' concerns, rendering the race much less of a test of jumping than it ought to have been. Last season's winner Frodon, who had maintained a lead through bold jumping, was surely inconvenienced by that, Forest Bihan, the only runner in the field with a recent run under his belt, coming out on top from Kalashnikov, Frodon outsprinted on the long run to the line. It's unsatisfactory to miss so many fences, but entirely understandable, for saftey reasons; the form, though, is suspect.
Mudlark Calvados back on track at Cheltenham
Some rather more solid performances came in the feature two-mile handicap chase at Cheltenham won by Saint Calvados the day before. A prolonged downpour had turned the going there from good to soft to barely raceable, so there were plenty that failed to fire, but the first three in this finished clear and all deserve viewing favourably.
Saint Calvados, with the benefit of a breathing operation since last seen, tanked along for much of the race, with a more patient ride than usual showing him to advantage; he also had to knuckle down when the runner-up Vaniteux challenged on the run-in, Saint Calvados's performance a high-class one off top-weight. He may well go back into pattern company, though perhaps a step up in trip for the BetVictor Gold Cup at the next Cheltenham meeting would be worth a try. Saint Calvados has raced only around two miles in Britain, but this run and his pedigree suggest he ought to be effective over further.
The third Knocknanuss, a favourite of this column from last season, might also be aimed at the BetVictor. He did really well to see the race out, given he raced choke out all the way, pulling his way to the front a circuit out and clear mid-race, but giving best only after the last. Knocknanuss has form at two-and-a-half miles, so the BetVictor makes some sense as a target, though a good two-mile handicap might make even more.
Al Dancer repels Getaway Trump in hot Cheltenham novice
In the novice chase division, some exciting prospects took their first steps on a path that might well lead to Cheltenham in March, with top billing going to Al Dancer who got off to a winning start in a tasty four-runner affair at Cheltenham on Friday. Strong in the market on his first start since flopping in the Supreme, he jumped confidently bar belting the third and saw the race out thoroughly.
Turning for home, it looked as if market rival Getaway Trump would at the least make a race of it with Al Dancer, but having travelled strongly to that point, Getaway Trump tired up the hill and had to settle for third. There wasn't a lot between the pair as novice hurdlers - Getaway Trump if anything the better - and it is likely there won't be much between them as chasers either, Getaway Trump certain to come on a lot for his outing here, the Arkle likely the ultimate destination for both.
Brewin' denies Bobby in Carlisle thriller
Al Dancer's trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies had to settle for second with a couple of his other good chasing prospects during the week. Wholestone lost little in defeat against Mulcahys Hill in the staying novice at Cheltenham, carrying a penalty for finishing alone on his chasing debut. The pair are useful, but perhaps more the sort for a big handicap sortee rather than the RSA.
Earlier in the week, the stable's Good Boy Bobby went down narrowly to Brewin'Upastorm in a good-quality beginners chase at Carlisle. Good Boy Bobby was clued up and had the run of things, but still proved very gutsy in giving best only at the death - he looks sure to win races if not overfaced.
Brewin'Upastorm did well to come from so far back as he did at such a front-runners' paradise, very professional late on, his jumping likely to be fully polished with this experience behind him.
Third home Midnight Shadow was well held in the end, but he shaped with a lot of promise, jumping soundly and travelling well, but needing the run; his yard has yet to fire this autumn, but he will win races over fences when it does.
Finally, for the novice chasers, Slate House, off a second wind op, looked the horse he's occasionally promised to be in bolting up at Cheltenham. He won a race that fell apart somewhat and it remains to be seen if he can build on this, but the potential to make into a JLT contender is there.
Brennan inspired as Alcazar nuts Coconut
The novice hurdles over the two days at Cheltenham were perhaps less informative, though the Welsh National runner-up Ramses de Teillee showed his well-being in winning for the three-mile novice, a return to fences next time very much on the cards. More noteworthy performances with the Festival in mind came from Imperial Alcazar and Coconut Splash at Aintree and I K Brunel and Eden du Houx at Fontwell.
The Aintree race looked to have depth to it and the first two are clearly very promising, Coconut Splash denied a debut win only by an inspired Paddy Brennan on Imperial Alcazar (one of seven winners in the week for the Fergal O'Brien yard). By contrast, I K Brunel against Eden du Houx was a match, the pair racing from a circuit out, I K Brunel always looking to have his rival covered before he pressed for home two out. The smashing-looking I K Brunel was overfaced last season, but this was an excellent start to a second novice campaign and he will surely go on to better things.
Lastly, for now, the bumper at Cheltenham on Saturday looks a race to follow, despite being run under very gruelling conditions. Time Flies By looked a smart prospect in quickening away late on, but the well-punted Butte Montana showed plenty to take second, while The Newest One, green, and Barbados Buck's, in need of the run, shaped with bags of potential too.