Christmas Crackers

05 Jan 16

The Christmas period once again saw many of the sport’s biggest names doing battle for the first time this season, and it was notably busy over both hurdles and fences in the 2m division. Our handicappers give their assessments of the goings on, and Phil Smith also notes a few who could be developing into Aintree contenders as the National weights begin to loom.



The 2m chase division has seen a renaissance of a couple of former champions this season and the Grade 2 Desert Orchid Chase saw a compelling clash between the pair, but did either Sprinter Sacre or Sire de Grugy enhance their Champion Chase claims, asks Graeme Smith.

I thought it was encouraging that Sprinter Sacre toughed it out, as most of his wins have been achieved with at least a degree of ease. If there was a weakness in him physically this is the sort of situation that would likely have shown it – the finish was slow and tiring on the sectionals – but there wasn’t a hint of it. Admittedly a less-than-clean jump at the last from Sire de Grugy aided Sprinter Sacre’s cause, but the fact remains that Nicky Henderson’s charge got the better of a top-class rival who’d won the Tingle Creek last time.

The proximity of Vibrato Valtat (received 4lb from the first two) in third added further substance to Sire de Grugy’s 169 figure from the Tingle Creek. That returned a figure of 170 for Sprinter Sacre. So what of Sprinter Sacre’s 173 performance from Cheltenham? Well I reckon the Kempton form is a better guide to him that that. Maybe Cheltenham suits him better, but he had everything in his favour that day, i.e. weaker opposition and a weight allowance. Also, Somersby and Mr Mole have done absolutely nothing for that form in two subsequent runs apiece, and I’ve now dropped my assessment of it 3lb to fit in with Sprinter Sacre’s 170 here.

The current Champion Chase favourite Un de Sceaux took his first step outside of novice company in the Paddy Power Chase at Leopardstown the same afternoon and he’d surely have won but for coming to grief two fences from home. He remains on the 168 he’d recorded last season.

Un de Sceaux’s departure left the way clear for Flemenstar to battle back past Simply Ned to win his first race since 2013. That form has already been discussed with the senior Irish Jumps Handicapper, and 161 Flemenstar and 160 Simply Ned looks the maximum level on current evidence. Don’t forget, last season’s Champion Dodging Bullets (171) is still waiting in the wings.

Kempton’s fixture on 27th December also provided the opportunity for the Henry VIII-winner Ar Mad to confirm the huge step forward he’d taken at Sandown, and that’s exactly what he did with a hard-fought defeat of Vaniteux in the Grade 2 Wayward Lad Novices’ Chase. Vaniteux had very smart form to his name over hurdles – third in the 2014 Supreme Novices’ and then achieving a figure of 154 when touched off in that year’s Greatwood – and for much of the straight he looked to be getting the better of Ar Mad in receipt of 2lb. If there’s one thing you can rely on from Ar Mad though it’s his excellent jumping, and a bold leap at the last as Vaniteux got in tight saw him back ahead and home with the short run in coming to his aid.

This was another race that fitted in neatly on the figures. Ar Mad retains his 155 from Sandown, and that’s supported by the 149 I had for Arzal’s impressive handicap success at Newbury, with that one finishing just over five lengths away in third. Vaniteux now goes to 152.



With Faugheen seemingly back to something approaching his best at Kempton’s Christmas meeting, it fell to his Morgiana Hurdle conqueror Nichols Canyon to fly the Mullins flag in Hurricane Fly’s old midwinter gig, Leopardstown’s Ryanair Hurdle, writes David Dickinson.

It was a better race than might have been anticipated with Identity Thief and Nichols Canyon making sure it was a decent test, the latter nicely on top by the line after the former had seemed to travel best. There are a couple of reasons to regard the form as less than stellar. Firstly, Plinth is nine lengths closer to Nichols Canyon than he was in the Morgiana. Secondly, Top Notch didn’t exactly cover Identity Thief’s Fighting Fifth form in glory during the week. Faugheen’s shortened ante post price for the Champion merely demonstrates the lack of in-form, top-quality opponents.

By comparison, there do seem to be a good number of high-class novice hurdlers around this season, as was demonstrated by the Willie Mullins raider, Yorkhill, in the Grade 132Red Tolworth Hurdle at Sandown on Saturday. He won nicely despite idling once in front and not looking totally in love with the ground. His 151 rating would see him land the Supreme in some seasons but this season guarantees him no more than a fighting chance with close to half a dozen other possibles from the Mullins yard alone.

New Year’s Day saw James Ewart’s Aristo du Plessis score his sixth success from his last six completions in Musselburgh’s Hogmaneigh Handicap Hurdle, his fourth handicap success during the run. The relatively modest 5lb increase in his mark to 150 is due in no small part to the fact that the last horse home in the race was beaten only nine lengths. Diarmuid O’Regan got his first chance to ride the stable star and rode a fine race, setting a good gallop before taking a breather on the home turn. What was also crucial to his success was a better jump at the last than both the second and more notably the third.

A return to Musselburgh or maybe a venture south for the Betfair Hurdle could be possible next targets but the horse is clearly being kept clear of deep ground. A tricky problem but a nice one for a Northern trainer to have.



 Over the last week there have been some interesting staying handicaps on both sides of the Irish Sea which may have a bearing come April when the 2016 Crabbie’s Grand National is run at Aintree, writes Phil Smith.

The Paddy Power Handicap at Leopardstown is always very competitive. Owing to the size of the field (28) it was run at a slightly faster pace than most Irish staying chases where they appear to dawdle for the first two miles. As a result I am confident that the form will be solid. The winner, Minella Foru, I would now have on 148 and as such is a certainty to get a run in the big one in April. He is however a novice, albeit a very experienced novice having run seven times over fences.

Second was Ucello Conti (147) who got mugged late on by Geraghty on the winner, who timed his run to perfection. The fourth, Gilgamboa (156) and the fifth The Job Is Right (142) also ran encouraging races, especially the latter as he appears to need another mile at least judging by the way he ran on towards the finish. All of the above are now high enough to virtually guarantee their owners a day out on Merseyside.

I have been looking at The Last Samuri (149) as a potential National horse for some time and after his victory at Kempton he has now won four of his seven chases and been placed in two others. Four fences out he was being ridden by his under-rated jockey before staying on well to win going away. His last five performances have been, 132, 137, 140, 141 and now 149. He looks sure to stay further and is clearly going in the right direction.

Perfect Candidate (143) won his race in a similar fashion at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day. Approaching the last there looked to be four in with a shout and a close finish in prospect. Much to my disappointment, Perfect Candidate ran away from the other three and again looks to be an interesting stayer in the making.

Although he did not run in a handicap Don Poli (166) did nothing to put off anyone who fancies him for the National when winning a very slowly run Lexus. Afterwards some observers were critical that he did not win more spectacularly but he is clearly a thorough stayer and the race was not run to suit him.

All of the above are now high enough to get a run judging by previous years and I will highlight others who have caught my eye qualifying for the big race over the next few weeks.