After a great weekend of jumps racing David Cleary files part two of this week's Cheltenham Notebook, looking back on big performances at Newbury, Leopardstow and Exeter...
"Mr Mole has now won four races in a row and looks as if he has a fair bit more to offer. He could still be underestimated in the Champion Chase market."
The return from injury of Sire de Grugy was supposed to be the main attraction on Newbury's Betfair card, but he fluffed his lines in the Game Spirit Chase, the race still in the balance when he unseated rider three out, after a mistake at the previous fence as well.
Sire de Grugy hadn't yet been asked for his effort, and there was enough there to think he could be as good as he was - which isn't true of Sprinter Sacre at Ascot, albeit that one a good deal better at his best than Sire de Grugy at his. The mistakes, though, are more worrying, given they were uncharacteristic, hopefully rustiness rather than some lingering effect of his injury.
The defeats on comeback of Sire de Grugy and Sprinter Sacre have opened up the Champion Chase, with the stable companions Dodging Bullets and Saturday's winner Mr Mole serious contenders for top honours at Cheltenham. Mr Mole reminded everyone that the quirks are still lurking there, with a sideways start that cost him ten lengths. There was little wrong with the rest of his performance, though, and he was still full of running in front when Sire de Grugy departed. Mr Mole has now won four races in a row and looks as if he has a fair bit more to offer. He could still be underestimated in the Champion Chase market.
There was a two-mile chase performance of note at Warwick too, with Vibrato Valtat landing the Kingmaker in good style. The manner in which Vibrato Valtat was able to pick off the front-running Top Gamble in the straight was particularly impressive, the second still managing to draw away from the rest in the straight.
Vibrato Valtat is a strong traveller whose jumping so far has been very solid, which suggests he may just have what it takes to cope with the pace likely to be set by Un de Sceaux at Cheltenham. Although it's hard to rate him so highly, Vibrato Valtat's style of running wouldn't be so conducive as Un de Sceaux's to running to a big figure in the build-up to Cheltenham, either. The Arkle has all the makings of a high-class match between two with contrasting styles, likely to be a closer contest than the prices at present suggest.
Leopardstown on Sunday staged four Grade 1 races and Willie Mullins trained the beaten favourite in all of them, though he still won two of them with his second string!
In the Deloitte, Nicholls Canyon got the better of the much-touted Alvisio Ville an experienced ex-Flat performer ridden to find any flaws in a raw, jumps-bred, taking a big step up in class on just his third start. The tactics worked a treat, Alvisio Ville tanking along but unable to respond off the bridle. Nichols Canyon is unbeaten in three completed starts over hurdles and on Sunday he jumped better than previously, which is also encouraging with regard to his Cheltenham prospects, whichever race he ends up in.
A couple of others worth a mention in the Deloitte are Silver Concorde and Sempre Medici. Last year's Champion Bumper winner Silver Concorde is still learning over hurdles, beaten in a maiden on his only previous start, but there was plenty to encourage in the way he ran under a particularly patient ride, still going well after three out but hopelessly positioned. Sempre Medici, the Mullins' third string, travelled well to nearly two out but tied up, possible stretched by the trip or perhaps short of fitness. He's now had three runs and it would be no surprise were a County Hurdle entry added to his Cheltenham engagements.
The Hennessy lacked Road To Riches, Djakadam and any British challenger, so wasn't a strong Grade 1 by any means, but at least the pair that came clear, Carlingford Lough and Foxrock, were freshmen at this level, the former on his second start out of novices, the latter a most progressive handicapper. The Gold Cup winner Lord Windermere shaped much better than in the Lexus, making his move earlier than ideal, though his position in the market is more about his wins at the Festival than his form chance in this year's Gold Cup.
At a lower level, the Pertemps qualifier at Exeter was an informative contest that could well have a bearing on the Final. Regal Encore, who needed to win well to be sure of getting in, duly did so, the step up to three miles suggesting he is finally going to fulfil the promise of his Champion Bumper second. Knight of Noir did enough to qualify and is likely to be sharper for the Final, already high enough in the handicap to get in and with a good record at Cheltenham. Southfield Royale, mentioned for this here previously, was disappointing and failed to qualify. Another taken off the notebook list is War Sound, whose immaturity was embarrassingly apparent in the listed novice hurdle.
Au Quart de Tour: Champion Bumper
Black Thunder/Tenor Nivernais: 3m handicap chase
Carole's Destrier: handicap chase at 2m4f+
Eastlake/Savello: Grand Annual
Gilgamboa: JLT (Golden Miller)
Grand Vision: Kim Muir
Jezki: Champion Hurdle
L'Ami Serge: Supreme Novices'
Many Clouds: Cheltenham Gold Cup
Morning Run/Lyrical Theatre: Mares Hurdle
Old Guard: Fred Winter
Sempre Medici: County Hurdle
Stellar Notion: novice handicap chase
Southfield Theatre: RSA
Thomas Brown: Albert Bartlett (Spa)
Top Wood/Knight of Noir: Pertemps Final
Valseur Lido: RSA/NH Chase
Vibrato Valtat: Arkle