David Cleary looks at the best of the week's action, including a bumper haul for Nicky Henderson, as the jumps season steps up a gear...
"However, probably the most impressive of Henderson's winners in the week was another chasing debutant Champagne Mystery, who jumped for fun and waltzed home in the novice handicap chase at Aintree on Saturday....As a time trial went it was pretty impressive, suggesting Champagne Mystery is going to be a much better chaser than hurdler, one that will be well worth his place in graded company before long."
There isn't a stable in better form at the moment than that of Nicky Henderson - he sent out 15 runners in the week to Sunday and nine of them came home in front. Some of those wins were gained by fine margins, none more so than the head victory of the RSA Chase runner-up Santini in the Future Stars at Sandown.
No King George for lazy Santini
Just four went to post and two of those failed to give their running, including the main danger on form, Talkischeap. But Santini, sent off at 3/1-on, made very hard work of completing what ought to have been a straightforward opportunity; he raced rather lazily, his rider Nico de Boinville kidding him along at various stages, and although between the last two fences he looked like he might go away and win with a bit to spare, he idled markedly on the run-in, which allowed the game Now McGinty to press him right to the line.
Santini was ruled out of the King George after the race by his trainer - the horse hadn't really handled the track at Kempton in last season's Kauto Star - though there aren't that many obvious alternatives in the next couple of months, particularly as he isn't in the Ladbrokes Trophy. The Betfair Rehearsal Chase at Newcastle might be one option. That might just get Santini's Gold Cup plans back on track.
The Sandown form isn't the easiest to assess, but Santini surely didn't run to the pick of his novice form. It is to be hoped that next time he is a lot more on his game with a run behind him, though if he isn't it may be that headgear will be needed to sharpen him up.
Raffles prize - an Elite win at Wincanton
The victory of the leading four-year-old hurdler Fusil Raffles in the Elite Hurdle at Wincanton was gained in slightly more convincing fashion, though it might have been tighter than the three-quarters-of-a-length margin had the runner-up Grand Sancy jumped the second last fluently. That error gave Fusil Raffles his chance when he'd looked to be going slightly the less well of the pair and he galloped on stoutly to the line, on the softest ground he's encountered in Britain.
The form of the Elite isn't good enough as it stands to make Fusil Raffles a front rank Champion Hurdle candidate, but he was reported to be short of work going into the race and could well build a fair bit on what he did at the weekend. With his stable companion, the former Champion Hurdle winner Buveur d'Air set to make his return in the Fighting Fifth, Fusil Raffles could well have his credentials for Cheltenham in March tested in the International there in December.
Janika home first at last
Earlier in the week, the same connections' Janika gained a first win in Britain in the Haldon Gold Cup. This was a well-deserved victory for a horse that had climbed the weights without getting his head in front last winter, running at Exeter off a mark 17 lb higher than he'd been beaten off on his British debut four starts previously. There was plenty to like about Janika's effort, though this was the weakest race he's contested and with a further rise in the weights on the cards, handicaps may well be out for him now. That said, his form is good enough for him to go close in something like the Peterborough Chase at Huntingdon next month.
Champ and Champagne - a winning combination
Champ, who won the Sefton at Aintree and was runner-up in the Ballymore at Cheltenham, made a successful switch to fences in the beginners chase at Newbury. Champ probably had to run to a pretty high level first time up over fences, given the quality of the opposition, the front-running Dashel Drasher jumping boldly, but he took to the new discipline well and looks ready for graded company already. He has to be an early candidate for the RSA Chase short-list. Dashel Drasher himself will be going one better before long.
However, probably the most impressive of Henderson's winners in the week was another chasing debutant Champagne Mystery, who jumped for fun and waltzed home in the novice handicap chase at Aintree on Saturday, the race won before the third from home. As a time trial went it was pretty impressive, suggesting Champagne Mystery is going to be a much better chaser than hurdler, one that will be well worth his place in graded company before long.
Tank consolidates debut promise
It might seem otherwise so far, but other yards than Henderson's did get a look in during the week, with top billing going to Reserve Tank. He had shaped very well at Chepstow on his chasing debut and stepped up on that in the Grade 2 Rising Stars Novices' Chase at Wincanton. In going one better, winning with authority though not doing a lot in front after the last, Reserve Tank did nothing to dampen enthusiasm for his prospects at the highest level in novice company this season.
Maire too polished for Darby on debut
Another of last season's top novice hurdlers Thomas Darby made his chasing debut at Warwick on Friday, but he was just found out for experience, beaten by the smart mare Maire Banrigh. Having been given a fairly soft lead Maire Banrigh jumped really slickly and that as much as anything did for Thomas Darby - he just wasn't quite so fluent and although he closed her down on the run-in, the mare had enough of a margin to hold on.
Maire Banrigh's jumping will continue to stand her in good stead and a race like the Wayward Lad could well be ideal as she steps up in grade. As for Thomas Darby, he will learn from the experience and will win races in this sphere. He was runner-up in the Supreme at the last Festival and the Arkle or the JLT is presumably the long-term aim this winter.
One final novice chaser to mention is Champagne Court, who made a fine start over fences in the novice handicap at Sandown, his jumping almost faultless. He was last seen chasing home Flash The Steel in the Silver Trophy at Chepstow, a race which has proved to be strong form. It's worth noting that Flash The Steel is entered in the valuable staying handicap hurdle on Betfair Chase day at Haydock, while a couple of those further back to shape quite well and that have yet to run again have entries this week - Coolanly is in a beginners chase at Exeter, while Remastered has two entries at Cheltenham at the weekend.
As for novice hurdlers, it's still early days with regard to what might make an impact at the top level, but the winning pointer Sporting John was most taking in scoring on hurdling debut at Exeter, showing a good turn of foot after inexperience looked briefly as if it might catch him out. While he didn't look a sluggard, it would be slightly surprising on pedigree were Sporting John to be a Supreme contender, though his next run may tell us more in that regard.