Nic Doggett analyses the big-race action from Saturday afternoon - including the Betfair Ascot Chase and the Kingwell Hurdle.
toteplacepot Victor Ludorum Juvenile Hurdle
An exciting finish to a feasible JCB Triumph Hurdle trial, although the very testing conditions are unlikely to be replicated at Cheltenham in March. The victor in a thrilling conclusion was Venetia Williams' HOUBLON DES OBEAUX, although he had to dig deep to reel in Third Intention after the final flight. Having hit the second flight, the winner was subsequently a little guessy at some of his obstacles. However he was travelling well in behind the leaders before the turn for home, but then looked in a little bit of trouble as the (even stronger travelling) Third Intention jumped to the front two from home. He had a two length lead jumping the last but paid the price for racing enthusiastically in the heavy ground and started to slow on the run-in. Perhaps that is harsh, he wasn't slowing as much, but he was collared by the winner who really found an extra gear on the run-in. This was no real surprise, given the way he had run on last time at Chepstow, but it was a heart-in-your-mouth time for those who had backed the gelding into 5-4 favouritism. Bookmakers generally left him unchanged for the Cheltenham contest, where he would in all likelihood struggle unless he got unseasonably soft ground. In any case, he needs to brush up on his hurdling a tad, although the experience here will have helped. The runner-up wouldn't have been in love with this ground, and deserves plenty of credit. He comprehensively turned the tables on Local Hero from their Cheltenham running (3lb better off today), and is not one to rule out for the big one. He should relish the strong pace and will be no back number. Local Hero was the major disappointment; he jumped out to his right throughout, and was the first of the big hopes to come under pressure. He was spent a long way out, but if this race hasn't 'bottomed' him then he is worth another chance on good ground; the worry might be that he looks a tad high in the handicap to win a Fred Winter but not quite good enough to win a Triumph. Kumbeshwar also ran below expectations, as he came under pressure a long way from home having been held up. He ran on ok but doesn't look classy enough to seriously compete at the Festival. Vosges dictated a steady early tempo but paid the price for a mistake as the race quickened, and he was quickly left behind.
Sodexo Prestige Reynoldstown Novices' Chase
A race full of incident despite the small field, and ultimately a commanding win from MASTER OF THE HALL. Although a little sticky at the first couple of fences himself, he managed to avoid any further jumping errors, with jockey Barry Geraghty giving him a good sighter at the obstacles a little wider on the track than his three rivals. He jumped to the front three fences out whilst still on the bridle, and Geraghty even had a glance around before two out. Fluent jumps at the last two obstacles meant he could saunter clear from his rivals and it was ultimately a bloodless six length success. Trainer Nicky Henderson trained Burton Port to win the race a year ago, and the intention is that his stablemate will follow in his footsteps by heading to the RSA Chase at the Festival, for which his odds were cut to a general 16-1. Whilst he weakened quickly in the Dipper at Cheltenham earlier in the year, he looks a different horse now and his jumping is improving as he gains experience. There will be more hustle and bustle in that race, but whilst his trainer has a formidable bunch of novices, this fellow arguably leads their charge and is a live contender. The story of the race however, was one of jumping mistakes. The Minack had hardly touched a twig on the first circuit but he made a complete horlicks of the 14th fence. He didn't seem to leave the ground at all, ploughing through the obstacle, and it was an amazing piece of jockeyship from Nick Scholfield to retain the partnership. He lost half a dozen lengths as a result, and whilst his jockey tried to kid him back into the race, his effort took its toll and although within four lengths turning for home, his subsequent jumping was that of a tired horse. To his credit he ran on fairly well, but just found Billie Magern too strong in the final 50 yards and he had to settle for third. He is certainly not one to rule out, but supporters would like to see him get a nice round of jumping under his belt before backing him in Championship races. Billie Magern himself made a bad error two fences from home, and again his jockey Paddy Brennan performed a minor miracle to stay on top. This was arguably his best run since the summer, and the feeling is that the smaller field and more sedate pace was a big factor in his run. The only other rival, Teddy's Reflection, pecked at the 12th fence and was soon left behind. He was up against it here, but had looked a fairly progressive handicapper previously and will fare better when his sights are lowered back in that sphere.
Betfair Ascot Chase (Grade 1)A commanding performance from the strong favourite RIVERSIDE THEATRE, although the race was marred by the sadly fatal fall of Pride Of Dulcote at the eighth fence. The winner, another for Nicky Henderson on the card, jumped accurately (if unspectacularly) throughout, and he didn't have to work too hard to join Gauvain for the lead at the fourth fence from home. The pair kicked on before two from home, before Geraghty let out a couple of inches of rein and he kicked on before the last. A flying leap there and the duo were home and hosed. He was trimmed for the Ryanair Chase after this win, although he may not head there with Henderson wary of the suitability of the track. However something like the Melling Chase at Aintree would look ideal, whilst his Irish owners may also want him to run at Punchestown. Runner-up Gauvain ran a career-best here, with a change of tactics looking to suit. He was always up with the pace, keeping Deep Purple company in the early stages, and was the only one who could keep tabs on the winner when the race reached its crux. On this showing he must be considered a live Cheltenham contender, with the longer trip of the Ryanair more suitable than the Queen Mother Champion Chase. Deep Purple looked much more his old self here, being sent into an early lead. Admittedly he was quickly left behind after being crowded five fences from home, but the fact that he rallied on the run-in to pick off Big Fella Thanks for third suggests that he is ready to win again, when his sights are lowered to Grade Two races. Big Fella Thanks ran an eye-catching race, and connections will be pleased with this performance, effectively a trial for the Grand National in April. He was held up off the pace, and wasn't fluent at the 10th fence, however he stayed on under a considerate ride. Tartak blotted his copybook here, and his record in Grade One races now reads 0-4. He made bad mistakes at the first, the 13th and the third last, and never looked like playing a major hand. Racing Demon struggled back over fences and was tailed off. Pride Of Dulcote tragically broke a hind leg when falling before the race had really started to hot up: he sadly had to be put down.
totesport.com Grand National Trial (Grade 3 Handicap Chase)
A commanding performance from SILVER BY NATURE, as last-year's winner put in an improved showing to land this with hardly a moments worry. The 5lb higher perch was no barrier, as held up just behind the leaders throughout, his jockey saved ground all the way round. He moved into third after the 14th fence, before taking the lead at the fourth last just after turning for home. He wasn't that great at the second from home but he was well in the clear by that point and proved his authority with a sterling jump at the final obstacle. He was generally halved in price for the Aintree spectacular, and whilst this race has not had a good recent record of pointing to the subsequent winner at Aintree (with the exception of Red Marauder in 2001 and Mon Mome in 2009), the feeling is that this trend could be bucked should the going turn soft. Whilst that might not be the likeliest of scenarios, if it were to occur, then his sound jumping would stand him in great stead. Ballyfitz is not always the most reliable of horses, but he put in a much improved effort in first-time blinkers. He was held-up in mid division for the majority of the race, the most patiently-ridden of the Nigel Twiston-Davies trio, but looked to be struggling when coming under pressure fairly early. However he answered all of his riders' urgings and after moving into third before the fourth-last, his chasing of the winner was ultimately in vain. Le Beau Bai did best of those coming from a long way off the pace, as his sketchy jumping didn't help his cause. Like Mobaasher, King Fontaine and Madison Du Berlais, he was shuffled back before half-way. However unlike those rivals, he stayed on really well for young Jake Greenall and may even have finished second were it not for a mistake at the second from home. He still ran on well to collar Carruthers for fourth, but never looked like picking up the top prize. Carruthers didn't deserve to finish out of the places, having made a lot of the running for his substitute pilot Matt O'Connor. Having had Nicto De Beauchene for company early on, he continually out-jumped his rival before kicking on before the twelfth. He ultimately paid the price for his bold front-running display, as he was a tired horse turning in, but he's such a warrior that he still gave his all in the final 200 yards. These were the only four runners to finish, highlighting the gruelling nature of the race and the stamina-sapping ground. King Fontaine jumped poorly and was pulled-up after a bad mistake six out, West End Rocker made ground before the fifth last but weakened quickly in the home straight and was pulled-up before two out, whilst Mobaasher was never on a going day and was one of the first beaten; he might return to hurdles next time with more success. Jaunty Journey and stablemate Major Malarkey led the chasing group for a long way, but the former took a heavy fall three fences from home; he was beaten at the time but deserves plenty of credit for his effort. Sarde was towards the rear throughout and his jumping lacked fluency, whilst Madison Du Berlais looked dis-interested from an early stage and has surely now earned his retirement.
Bathwick Tyres Kingwell Hurdle (Grade 2)
A tremendous finish to what has traditionally been a useful trial for the Champion Hurdle. This looked like one of the highest quality renewals, however as the race unfolded it might prove to be a very tricky race to weight up. The victory went the way of MILLE CHIEF, and his jockey Robert Thornton was very happy with the gelding's performance, however in seeing off Celestial Halo by just a nose, it doesn't look good enough form (on paper at least) to win the big one in March. What was more pleasing however, was the way in which he travelled. As Overturn set a strong gallop, Thornton was content to let his mount work slowly into the race and it was clear from before the turn for home that he was travelling best. He moved into second before the second-last hurdle (where he was somewhat clumsy), and moved through to challenge Celestial Halo for the lead before the final obstacle. He cleared the last flight well, but soon found himself in a dog-fight with his older and more experienced rival. They flashed past the line together, and it was a nervous wait for backers of the 15-8 shot, however the print showed that his head was down where it mattered and he won it by a nose. Bookmakers were understandably not too impressed, but the feeling is that the bigger field at Cheltenham will suit, and with cover for longer, he is not a horse to underestimate. The runner-up ran his best race of the year, although it has been shown before that he isn't good enough to win a Champion Hurdle. Second in the 2009 renewal behind Punjabi, he may well go for the contest again after this showing. He was untidy at the final flight, and but for that error may well have won, and the decent pace set by Overturn appeared to suit him well. The first two home were miles clear of Ronaldo Des Mottes. He blatantly needed the race, as he got very tired between the last two hurdles. A mistake at the third won't have helped on his comeback, but he should come on for this outing. His mark makes life in handicaps tough, so he may be forced to head for the Champion Hurdle as well; on this evidence he might make up into a lively outsider. The major disappointments of the race were the well-backed Silvinaco Conti and Overturn. The former tracked the pace throughout, but jockey Tony McCoy looked unhappy with how his mount was travelling before turning in. He was quickly left behind, and whilst McCoy looked after him once defeat was inevitable, it is hard to muster up any enthusiasm for the run despite conceding weight all-round. Similarly Overturn wasn't given a hard time, but the way he dropped out suggested that more may have been up with him than merely setting too strong a tempo. He wasn't as fluent at his hurdles as he has been and has something to prove after this run.