David Cleary's focus this week is mainly on Gold Cup contenders past and future, with Bristol de Mai's Betfair Chase success at Haydock taking pride of place...
"Ferny Hollow came out on top in what was effectively a match at Gowran. There were 15 runners, but they set off as if contesting a cycling time trial and only Ferny Hollow and market rival Bob Olinger counted, even off a very sedate pace. There was little between the pair up the straight until the run-in, Ferny Hollow's greater experience of racing perhaps the key."
The week's jumping action was all about the staying chase division, with no fewer than eight of those that ran against Al Boum Photo in the Cheltenham Gold Cup in March going through their paces over the last seven days.
The efforts ran the gamut from the inspiring through impressive and unnecessary to the forgettable, though only one of the group unreservedly enhanced his claims for the game's premier prize.
Three of those eight contested what looked a closely matched Betfair Chase at Haydock, with the Gold Cup third and last season's Betfair Chase winner Lostintranslation reopposed by Bristol de Mai and Clan des Obeaux, ninth and eighth respectively at Cheltenham. The outcome turned on the extremely testing ground. Lostintranslation, just as he had when running here on bad ground over hurdles, failed to handle conditions. Bristol de Mai and Clan des Obeaux, however, served up an epic clash, the race in the balance all the way up the straight, until the stronger stayer, Bristol de Mai, came out on top.
Bristol De Mai - relentless & remorseless in the Betfair Chase? Racing TV (@RacingTV) November 21, 2020
⭐️ What a talent
Bristol De Mai makes all in the Betfair Chase for @Dazjacob10 & @NigelTwistonDav at @haydockraces pic.twitter.com/IVSeBiYmCl
That was a third win in the Betfair Chase for Bristol de Mai and he was third in the 2019 Cheltenham Gold Cup, but if he's to land an even bigger prize then it seems more likely to be at Aintree in April than Prestbury Park in March. Clan des Obeaux hasn't run to his best in the last two editions of the Gold Cup and has a third King George as his main aim. Given how well he shaped until stamina gave out, it's no surprise to see him a shortish price for Kempton - the 3.55/2 joint favourite alongside Cyrname - with the opposition, bar his stable-companion, potentially thin on the ground.
As for Lostintranslation, the ground looks a reasonable excuse, though it's worth remembering that he had a wind op prior to the Gold Cup after flopping in last season's King George, which offers a possibility. Further, connections' initial thoughts post-race of running in the Cotswold Chase and then considering either the Gold Cup or the National hardly instills confidence.
Percy pleases in Thurles spin
Thurles on Thursday offered a listed chase which was a little out of the ordinary, featuring Kemboy, Monalee and Presenting Percy, seventh, fourth and a faller two out respectively in the Gold Cup. The trip, just two miles six, the sharp track and a sedate pace, Kemboy and Monalee reappearing, made this more like a glorified gallop, though connections of Presenting Percy will have taken considerable encouragement from his winning effort on just his second start for Gordon Elliott.
Whether he would beat the other pair back over three miles when he didn't have the advantage of a previous run ought to become clear in the Savills Chase at Leopardstown, a race which is likely to be a better pointer to Cheltenham prospects than the King George.
Another that might well have a say that day is last season's RSA Chase runner-up Minella Indo who won a Grade 2 at Navan on Sunday with ease, though whether he had anything to beat is debatable, his only serious rival Brahma Bull given a very considerate ride on his first start in a year.
Real Steel in promising return behind Aura
Back in Britain, the Gold Cup surprise package Real Steel, who finished sixth at Cheltenham after seeming not quite to last home, made an encouraging first start for Paul Nicholls, running as if in need of the outing after getting into contention really smoothly against Imperial Aura at Ascot. Real Steel is the sort that Nicholls does really well in placing and it will be no surprise if he wins a race or two just below the highest level.
Imperial Aura was impressive and is clearly still on the upgrade, though the race couldn't have fallen any better for him and it is interesting that his trainer Kim Bailey wasn't among those minded to supplement the horse for the King George.
Finally on the Gold Cup front, Santini had a gallop at Newbury on Tuesday. It pleased his trainer, the course and the sponsors of the track's next meeting, but what value such an exercise has when so many good races are crying out for runners is questionable. As it is, the feature handicap at that meeting later this week would be tailor-made for Santini, even under top weight. After all that action, there wasn't really anything to worry connections of Al Boum Photo unduly.
Mullins unleashes Champion Bumper stars
Not much space for other matters, though a few novices over fences and hurdles are worth a mention. Starting with last season's first two from the Champion Bumper, Ferny Hollow and Appreciate It, who both made a winning start over hurdles last week.
Ferny Hollow came out on top in what was effectively a match at Gowran. There were 15 runners, but they set off as if contesting a cycling time trial and only Ferny Hollow and market rival Bob Olinger counted, even off a very sedate pace. There was little between the pair up the straight until the run-in, Ferny Hollow's greater experience of racing perhaps the key. Both are likely to take high rank among the novice hurdlers.
The same is true of Appreciate It. He didn't face anything of the quality of Bob Olinger and only one rival made any sort of race of it with him when the pace lifted, but the way in which he ran down the leader and went away on the bridle was impressive. As usual, Willie Mullins will play his cards close to his chest and in which novice this pair will turn up makes betting in the Supreme and Ballymore a mite awkward.
Phoenix and Energumene: destined for the top?
Five novice chasers made the shortlist for discussion this week, but there's room for only two, one British, one Irish, so let's plump for Phoenix Way and Energumene. They scored in contrasting fashion and both might be a bit fragile, but the sky is still the limit with the pair.
Energumene was having just his fifth start when landing a beginners chase at Gowran hard held, after galloping his rivals into the ground, his jumping bold for the most part, the time comparing very well with the other chases over the same trip on the card. He travelled strongly throughout and has now won all but one of his races. He handles heavy ground well, but won his point under much less testing conditions. His only defeat came the only time he ran left handed, which may be a factor. Nevertheless, look out for him, wherever he goes next.
Phoenix Way, faced with two useful rivals at Warwick, wasn't sure to benefit from the drop back to two miles, but he jumped well under a patient Aidan Coleman and quickened nicely to lead late on, value for a fair bit more than a margin of a neck. He won a Pertemps qualifier with ridiculous ease last winter, but he's not really a thorough stayer - just miles ahead of his mark that day - and it would be no surprise were he to develop into a Marsh/Golden Miller candidate.