Timeform preview the pick of the action at Fontwell and Naas on Sunday.
"The seven-year-old also looked right at home over this longer trip, relishing it in fact..."
Timeform on Thomas Darby
There is some interesting action to enjoy in Britain and Ireland on Sunday, including the Grade 2 Johnstown Novices' Hurdle at Naas. Gordon Elliott has won the race three times in the last four years, and his trio for this year's renewal is headed by the well-regarded Andy Dufresne, who has to conceded at least 6 lb to his rivals.
The one blot on Andy Dufresne's copybook is a defeat to Latest Exhibition in the Navan Novices' Hurdle in December, but that rival won the Grade 1 Golden Cygnet on his next start and is set to head to the Cheltenham Festival next month as a leading contender for the Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle.
That form is solid, and Andy Dufresne quickly resumed winning ways when dropped back to two miles in the Moscow Flyer Novices' Hurdle at Punchestown last time, scoring by three-quarters of a length, albeit in workmanlike fashion. Connections made the decision to bypass the Cheltenham Festival with Andy Dufresne, so he will likely be fully wound up for this, but it arguably represents his stiffest test.
Elliott's other two runners, Fighter Allen and Grangeclare Native, both made a winning start in bumpers and now make their debut over hurdles. The former was successful in France and cost connections €310,000 at the Arqana Grand Steeple sale in May last year. He is clearly held in some regard but will have to be something out of the ordinary to make a winning start up against some smart types.
Grangeclare Native also cost a pretty penny at £125,000 after winning a point on debut, and he overcame inexperience to make a winning Rules debut at Punchestown in December, showing a tenacious attitude to prevail by half a length. That experience won't be lost on him, and he looks the sort to do even better now sent jumping, but he may need further.
The Willie Mullins-trained Mt Leinster sets the standard on Timeform weight-adjusted ratings following his nine-length demolition of a subsequent winner in a maiden hurdle at Leopardstown in December, but he was let down by his jumping when sent off second favourite for the Grade 1 Chanelle Pharma Novices' Hurdle at back at Leopardstown last time. A particularly bad error two out (which wasn't his first) seemed to knock the stuffing out of him and he wasn't able to go with the principals after, finishing only third. However, he remains capable of better and has the engine to go close here if jumping more fluently.
It looks a competitive renewal, with last-time-out winners Beacon Edge and Department of War also worth a mention, but Andy Dufresne has more to offer and can defy a penalty.
Two Grand National hopefuls, Any Second Now and Cadmium, are set to run in the Grade 3 chase that opens the card at Naas. The 2019 Kim Muir winner Any Second Now doesn't hold any entries at the Cheltenham Festival next month, and all roads will lead to Aintree in April with him. He caught the eye in a handicap (21f) at Leopardstown last time, leaving the impression that he didn't find it a stiff enough test, and the drop back to two miles isn't sure to suit, for all Naas, with its stiff uphill finish, suits staying types.
Cadmium, on the other hand, was successful in this race 12 months ago, and has likely been campaigned with this race in mind again. He ran poorly in the Irish Gold Cup last time, but that was his first start at three miles, and he shouldn't be judged too harshly on that. Cadmium was an impressive winner of the Topham Chase at Aintree last season and has been allotted a mark of 162 for the Grand National. Whether he has the stamina for that marathon trip is questionable, and a return to the Topham is more likely. He should go close on Sunday in a race that might not take much winning.
The National Sprit Hurdle at Fontwell is the notable race in Britain on Sunday. Only five have been declared for the Grade 2, but it looks an interesting renewal nonetheless, with Thomas Darby, William Henry and Quel Destin all closely matched on their best form.
Thomas Darby resumed winning ways returned to hurdles after an unsuccessful spell over fences in the Holloway's Handicap Hurdle at Ascot last time, putting up a decidedly smart effort under top weight to beat some in-form types. The seven-year-old also looked right at home over this longer trip, relishing it in fact, staying on strongly in the final furlong. Thomas Darby is in the Champion Hurdle, but will only run there if the ground is testing, and is more likely to wait for Aintree instead. This looks the ideal stepping stone and he is the one to beat.
The prolific Quel Destin proved better than ever to win a listed event at Sandown last time and looks the likely danger. He has raced only once at this sort of trip and is well worth another go at this longer distance. A likeable type who always tries his best, it is hard to pick holes in him, and Thomas Darby will have to be at his best to fend off Quel Destin's challenge.
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