Around 3% of the entire National Hunt programme for 2019 has been staged over the last four days, a blizzard of jumping that even the most dedicated of fans can struggle to track, not least when there is so much else going on besides. So, with the form from Kempton, Leopardstown, Chepstow, Newbury, Limerick and more now in the book, who were the big winners (and losers)? And with the first day of the Cheltenham Festival now just 10 weeks away, how many of this year’s winners will prove to have advertised their chance on the festive programme?
In terms of possible winners at Cheltenham in March, the big three stables of Gordon Elliott, Nicky Henderson and Willie Mullins are the obvious place to start, since they have been responsible for 47% of all Festival winners over the last five years.
All three registered Grade One wins at the Christmas meetings, but Elliott finished clear of his major rivals with no fewer than four top-level wins, while his Roaring Bull also took the spoils in the Paddy Power Handicap Chase, the most valuable race of the entire four-day Leopardstown Festival, which did his hopes of finally taking the Irish trainers’ title from Mullins no harm at all. Mullins weighed in with two Grade Ones, including Faugheen’s win at Limerick on Boxing Day while much of the attention among British fans was focused on Kempton, with Henderson saddling Epatante to win the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton.
Michael O’Leary, Elliott’s biggest benefactor over the years, is slowly winding up his bloodstock operations, but the stable is sure to remain a force for several years yet. Delta Work’s win in the Savills Chase was particularly encouraging as there were none of the fencing errors that have held him back in the past and he will be a major player in the Gold Cup at Cheltenham with a similar round of jumping.
Among the yard’s other Grade One runners, it was hard to draw any conclusions from Battleoverdoyen’s defeat of two rivals in a Grade One novice chase that lost four of its declared runners in the hours before the race, including Minella Indo, the marginal second-favourite. But in finishing within a length of his stable companion, Champagne Class showed enough to suggest that he is a very live candidate for the National Hunt Chase and Elliott seemed in little doubt afterwards that it is the ideal race for him in March.
For Mullins, it was more of a mixed bag over Christmas. Faugheen’s defeat of Samcro was a remarkable achievement for both horse and trainer given that the 11-year-old had made his chasing debut only a few weeks earlier. If he can back it up in the Grade One novice at the Dublin Racing Festival in early February, a ticket to see him run at Cheltenham, four years after winning the Champion Hurdle, will be one of the hottest of the week.
Sharjah’s win in Sunday’s Grade One Matheson Hurdle was welcome too, but Klassical Dream, last year’s Supreme Novice Hurdle winner, finished last in the same race while Kemboy, the winner 12 months ago, was another beaten favourite in the Savills Chase. Chacun Pour Soi, the ante-post favourite for the Champion Chase, also failed to deliver at odds-on when only second behind A Plus Tard in Friday’s feature race.
Given the ownership problems which saw Kemboy and other horses owned by the Supreme Racing Club banned from racing earlier in the year, however, Mullins will have been pleased to see Kemboy racing at all and he did more than enough in finishing a length behind Delta Work to keep alive hopes of a return to the Cheltenham Gold Cup, in which he unseated his jockey at the first last season. Chacun Pour Soi too was returning from 239 days off and travelled like a top-notcher for much of the way before the effort started to tell in the closing stages. Both chasers should get another chance to set themselves up for the Festival over the next few weeks.
Sharjah’s success also advanced his Festival claims, but the biggest mover in the Champion Hurdle market after his race on Sunday was Epatante, whose odds were cut from 4-1 to 3-1 thanks to Klassical Dream’s failure to beat a single opponent home. Henderson also successfully launched the hurdling career of Mister Coffey, one of last year’s best bumper horses, at Newbury on Saturday, though he has so much speed that Aintree could prove to be his track rather than Cheltenham.
For Paul Nicholls, Christmas brought an 11th King George as Clan Des Obeaux beat his stable companion Cyrname, and the champion trainer will now spend two-and-a-half months being asked whether he thinks the seven-year-old will show the same level of form in the Gold Cup and trying endless variations on “there’s only one way to find out”. The bookies remain unconvinced – he is an 8-1 shot behind Al Boum Photo, last year’s winner, and Kemboy – and many punters will feel the same come the day, as Clan Des Obeaux is likely to go straight to Cheltenham.
Similar comments apply to Allmankind, an 8-1 shot for the Triumph Hurdle, as his tearaway win in the Grade One juvenile hurdle at Chepstow could be a difficult trick to repeat against even tougher company at the Festival. In Ireland, meanwhile, Henry de Bromhead’s return of five winners, including two Grade Ones, at Leopardstown and Limerick was further evidence that he is narrowing the gap to Mullins and Elliott.
Notebook’s defeat of Fakir D’Oudairies in the Grade One novice chase on Boxing Day was particularly impressive and it is a surprise to find the two horses still locked together on 6-1 at the top of the Arkle Trophy betting. As the Christmas programme recedes into the rear-view, that looks a price that is well worth taking.
Monday’s best bets
Cheltenham on New Year’s Day is the next major date in the jumping schedule but the action today is well above par for a midwinter Monday with almost £200,000 in prize money on offer across two cards at Haydock and Taunton.
The feature event at Taunton is a Listed mares’ hurdle and *Silver Forever* (2.25) could be the bet here to beat likely favourite Marie’s Rock. Her win at Newbury in early November is the pick of the form on offer and while she was a little below that level next time up, she has had a month off since and will take plenty of beating at anything close to her best.
Kilcrea Bridge (2.55) is on a decent mark and should progress from his promising return to action last month while Lord Du Mesnil (2.00) and The Con Man (2.35) have solid chances at Haydock. Fizzy Feet (1.40), steadily progressive in recent weeks and back to winning form last time out, looks the best bet on the Flat at Lingfield.