David Cleary mulls over the best of the week's action, with the focus firmly on the top two-mile chasers at Sandown and Cork (and in their box)...
"The Henry VIII runner-up Hitman is also a four year old, but a different type to Allmankind, much less experienced overall and from a jumping rather than Flat background. It's not beyond the imagination to see him making enough improvement over the next three months to turn the tables on the winner, should they meet again in the Arkle."
We need to talk about Altior. But first, some horses that did run over the last week.
The main focus, was, as things turned out, still the Betfair Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown, which proved an informative affair. The reigning Champion Chase winner Politologue was taken on by a pair three years his junior, Greaneteen and Rouge Vif, both second-season chasers stepping up from good handicap company.
Politologue, who had already won a Tingle Creek, in 2017, set a sound pace and tested his rivals with some pinpoint accurate jumping. There was a point, approaching the bypassed Pond fence, when it looked as if Greaneteen would throw down a strong challenge, but Politologue kicked again into the straight. He was two lengths up and in control when he jumped the last better than his pursuer, staying on stoutly and going away to win by seven.
The margin flatters the winner a shade, but Politologue has shown on his last two starts, here and in the Champion Chase, that he's at least as good as he ever was and Harry Skelton clearly gets on very well with a horse that wasn't always so professional in his younger days. He's bound to run well again in the Champion Chase, even if there are horses around who have a bit more ability than he does.
As for Greaneteen, those on at big prices for Cheltenham, shouldn't lose hope, as this was another step forward, taking a big step up in class. This was a first try at graded level, outside handicaps, whereas Politologue is an old hand in championship races. It will be interesting to see how Paul Nicholls plots the route to Cheltenham for this pair, as well as for Duc des Genievres, perhaps the last-named a candidate to size up Altior, provided that one gets his tracksuit off for the Desert Orchid after Christmas.
Rouge Vif wasn't far behind Greaneteen at the line, but he was firmly third best on the day and this is probably a better reflection of his merit than his win against inferior rivals in a handicap at Cheltenham in October.
The current favourite for the Champion Chase, Chacun Pour Soi, who was withdrawn on veterinary advice hours before last season's race, had his first start since February in the Hilly Way at Cork and did all that was required to land odds of 5/1-on. He's entered for the Grade 1 at Leopardstown after Christmas, a race in which he was beaten on his reappearance last season. With a run under his belt, there ought to be no excuses this time.
Bin Min win for form purposes due to fog
His stable companion Min, who beat him on that occasion, was also in winning action on Sunday, though his performance is hard to assess, since the John Durkan at Punchestown, which he was landing for the third time, was run in a blanket of fog. He was in front whenever in vision, though the margin of victory over Tornado Flyer, well backed at long odds but with a bit to find on form, suggests he didn't have to run to his best, the form unsatisfactory and best disregarded.
Hitman fancied for revenge on Allmankind
Back at Sandown, the novice two-mile chasers were also in Grade 1 action, with Allmankind getting the better of Hitman in a clash of five unbeaten chasers in the Henry VIII. This looks a strong piece of form, even if the time of the race - quicker than for the Tingle Creek - may be flattering. It's a quirk of this meeting that the novice, which takes place first, has often been run in a faster time than the main event, the majority of the difference between the two times on this occasion coming in the opening three furlongs.
Allmankind, a four-year-old, was also carrying 11 lb less than Politologue, including the generous weight-for-age allowance. He won't have that by the time of the Arkle, though clearly he's taken so well to chasing that he is rightly among the market leaders, behind Shishkin.
The Henry VIII runner-up Hitman is also a four year old, but a different type to Allmankind, much less experienced overall and from a jumping rather than Flat background. It's not beyond the imagination to see him making enough improvement over the next three months to turn the tables on the winner, should they meet again in the Arkle.
Novice chasers were also featured at Exeter the day before, where Bold Plan upset the odds-on The Big Breakaway in a virtual match and Sevarano bolted up in a handicap over the same distance. The two races were chalk and cheese, with Bold Plan simply having too much speed for The Big Breakaway, while Sevarano stormed home in a well-run handicap, coming from off the pace and already in control when left further clear two out.
Bold Plan is a smart prospect in his own right, for all that this was an upset according to the market. The main concern with him is whether he will be effective back on a left-handed track, as he jumped right when making his chasing debut at Uttoxeter earlier in the autumn.
Sevarano, who was runner-up to McFabulous in the EBF Final last spring - facing an impossible task against that rival, giving him weight - has taken really well to chasing, winning under a cosy ride at Sandown before his Exeter romp and he could well make an impact in good novice races, perhaps the Noel at Ascot later this month an option.
So far as the Marsh as a target for this pair is concerned, the likely presence of Envoi Allen might mean a relatively small field, though the loss of the novice handicap from the programme means that connections of novices wanting a run at around two and a half miles over fences, having a choice of the Plate or the Marsh, with geldings at least, which might mean a larger field than usual.
Not Enough Clouds for Native River, as Lake View Lad triumphs
If fog was the problem at Punchestown, the sun was the culprit at Aintree, where the three fences in the straight were omitted from the ironically titled Many Clouds, not for the first time, having a significant impact on the outcome. With Frodon having a rare off day, the race lay between Santini, Native River and Lake View Lad as the long run to home began.
Lake View Lad had travelled strongly but jumped least well of the trio, so there's clearly an argument he wouldn't have won with an extra eight fences to be jumped, including the last three with pressure on. That said, Santini really ought to have beaten him anyway had he applied himself. He showed in last season's Cotswold Chase that he can apply himself if he wants to, but it would be no surprise were the cheekpieces worn here and in the Gold Cup replaced by fully caffeinated headgear when the race really matters.
Native River would probably have won had all the fences been jumped and ran a race full of promise. He's rising eleven, which isn't ideal, but he deserves another shot at the Gold Cup and his presence would certainly mean there was no hiding place for any doubtful stayers or shirkers.
Finally, those who think trainers are above criticism should stop reading now.
That Altior didn't run in the Tingle Creek due to concerns about the ground simply flew in the face of evidence. The ground on the chase course wasn't testing, times over the two days indicating ground on the cusp between Soft and Good to Soft, which was exactly as described by the Clerk of the Course. Altior, in any case, has plenty of form under proper soft conditions. To try and argue it was somehow about welfare added insult to injury, given the horses the stable had run on the (very testing) hurdles course over the two days. Nonsense.
Anyway, Altior may perhaps turn up at Cheltenham on Friday in the rearranged Peterborough Chase or the Desert Orchid or Clarence House or another racecourse gallop. We wait.