31 Dec 14

With Jack Frost’s arrival coming too late to affect the flagship Festive fixtures it proved a major few days in the staying chase division and Silviniaco Conti cemented his place at the top of the tree with his all-the-way win in the feature King George. Phil Smith gives a full round up on the happenings in that sphere whilst the-exciting Faugheen’s progress is also discussed within a couple of sections on the two-milers.

Silviniaco’s staR shines brightest

Before the William Hill King George on Boxing Day I told the stewards at Kempton that the only way Silviniaco Conti could get beaten was if they went no pace and it developed into a messy race, writes Phil Smith. Noel Fehily produced the perfect ride to make sure that didn’t happen.

Having gone steadily early, Fehily increased the pace gradually and by the time they went past the winning post on the first circuit they were really travelling. From previous races Fehily knew he had the beating of Dynaste and Cue Card (who both stay 3m) and so it proved. The dangers to my mind were Al Ferof and Champagne Fever as nobody could be sure about their stamina and there was a possibility that they could do him for toe at the end of the race.

With Cue Card injuring himself and neither of the Hobbs horses giving their running one could argue that Silviniaco had little to beat if he made it a stamina test but that is to under-rate Dynaste. With cheekpieces aiding his and the winner’s concentration, I assessed Dynaste as putting up his joint best ever performance of 167, which he achieved when finishing second in the 2013 Betfair Chase at Haydock. This brought the winner out with a performance of 173.

As a result Al Ferof produced a 162 and Champagne Fever, who travelled ominously well until the last three furlongs, performing to a best ever over fences of 161. I think Al Ferof would likely have won the Tingle Creek had he shown up at Sandown as he clearly has bags of speed and it will be fascinating to see if connections go the Ryanair or the Champion Chase route at Cheltenham.

Much more difficult to assess was Coneygree in the Kauto Star Novices’ Chase. The race fell apart with so many fallers but was it caused by the unrelenting gallop of the winner or the shortcomings of the non-completers? Interestingly the time was only just over four seconds slower than that of Silviniaco Conti’s despite the fact that Coneygree’s jockey spent much of the final furlong waving to the crowd.

The honest answer is I do not know how to rate Coneygree. As a result I have gone midway between the worst winner of the race in recent years Annacotty on 144 and the best winners Dynaste and Long Run who performed to 161. My figure of 153 still keeps Coneygree in handicaps if connections so wish following one more qualifying run. I admit I might be 9lb too high or 9lb too low with him, maybe more so.

My highest quality handicap of the weekend was the William Hill Rowland Meyrick Chase at Wetherby and I was really impressed with the winner Dolatulo who is now on 148. His performance screamed Crabbie’s Grand National at me, with the second Cape Tribulation (146) looking a more than capable yardstick. I am sure a number of winners will emerge from this race.

What a cracker Emperor’s Choice and Benvolio served up at Chepstow in the Coral Welsh Grand National. The eventual third, Glenquest (131) looked all over the winner when he took up the running just before the last fence but the superior attitude of both Emperor’s Choice (139) and Benvolio (145) saw them overtake him and take the spoils.

If he had met the last few fences a little better I believe the winner might have won a little more comfortably but I am not complaining about a short head after more than 3m5f of racing on heavy ground. The first two look booked for the Crabbie’s Grand National and with soft ground and a low weight the winner would be interesting.

Whilst the Lexus at Leopardstown falls into the next racing week I have already discussed the race with the Irish NH Handicapper Noel O’Brien and it proved fairly straightforward to level. We have Road To Riches replicating his 167 from Down Royal and Sam Winner replicating his 162 from Aintree. As a result On His Own performed to 164, 1lb lower than his Gold Cup effort in March. Amazingly Road To Riches, who had easily the best recent form, was allowed to start at 4/1. It is astonishing how the market is skewed by reputations.

So where does that leave us with reference to the 2015 Gold Cup? Well just as this year Silviniaco Conti looks set to go into the race with the best form, but can he replicate it at Cheltenham? Is he more suited by a flat track? Has he just been unlucky on his previous visits to Prestbury Park? Whatever he does there he would be a fascinating contender in the Crabbie’s Grand National. Now how can I persuade his connections to enter him?

Faugheen to the fore

Faugheen cemented his place at the head of the Champion Hurdle market with a fluent win in the Grade 1 Christmas Hurdle on Boxing Day, writes David Dickinson.

Apart from an untidy jump when out on his own at the last, Willie Mullins’ star hurdled with fluency and was never in danger. A final rating is down to my Irish colleagues but he must have run to something in the region of the 170 figure usually required to win the big one at Cheltenham in March. On 161, the second highest rated horse going into the race was Purple Bay, and having been backed in from 20/1 to almost half those odds he showed his handicap wins at Market Rasen and Wincanton were no flukes. The New One apart, he is looking as likely as anything to mount a home defence at Prestbury.

As for those further down the field, the excellent round of jumping put in from the front by Blue Heron saw his rating rise to 150, whilst Sign of A Victory is now on 149 and Sgt Reckless on 144. Obviously the shame of the race was that Irving failed to give his running.

A month ago the current crop of juveniles looked less than special but the subsequent emergence of Kalkir, Fiscal Focus and Theophilus in Ireland plus Bivouac, Bristol de Mai and most notably Peace And Co in Britain, mean that decision is in need of a total review as it now looks a potentially smart intake. Quite how many more French imports are still to show their hand is anybody’s guess. Are they all avoiding the seemingly outstanding Bonito du Berlais? The ante-post market for the Triumph does seem to suggest that the Arnaud Chaille-Chaille star is unlikely to appear at the Festival, so plying their trade here must appeal.

 Valtat looks a picture

Critics of Vibrato Valtat – and he had plenty of them last season – have again been made to eat their words, writes John de Moraville.

Showing that his victory in Sandown’s Henry VIII Novices’ Chase was no flash in the pan, the Paul Nicholls-trained grey underlined his Arkle credentials with a second graded success at Kempton on Saturday.

The Wayward Lad Novices’ Chase, in which Vibrato Valtat (who responds particularly effectively to the urgings of Noel Fehily) outpointed the highly promising Three Kingdoms by half a length, has advertised the talents of two recent Arkle winners in Simonsig and the great Sprinter Sacre.

And, while a notch or two below their exalted levels, the five-year-old ran to the same mark (153) that stable-companion Dodging Bullets achieved in taking this prize a year ago en route to fourth place in the Arkle.

That suggests Vibrato Valtat, with the likely furious gallop expected to suit his hold-up style, could also make the frame at Cheltenham in March.

Balder Succes (162), last season’s top 2m novice chaser, remains without a win this term after failing to overhaul the bold-jumping Special Tiara (160) in Saturday’s Desert Orchid Chase.

Though the concession of 5lb to the Irish raider proved beyond him, this latest defeat was no disgrace and he shaped as though a return to 2m4f – he took the Grade 2 Pendil Novices’ Chase over that trip at Kempton last February – could see him back in the winner’s enclosure.