Thistle cracks Cheltenham Trials Day

02 Feb 16


Trials day at Cheltenham always raises anticipation for the Festival to another level, and with some breathtaking performances in the staying hurdle division, that’s exactly what happened again. The best of the hurdles action is discussed at length in our latest piece, and it’s complimented by the happenings in the 2m chase division from another informative card at Doncaster.



Those hoping for Festival clues at the weekend will surely have not been disappointed, writes Martin Greenwood.

In the staying hurdle division, we had a World Hurdle trial and two very interesting novice events, all of which produced winners that will be strongly fancied when March arrives.

Let’s start with Thistlecrack. He was already in pole position in the betting for the World Hurdle prior to lining up in the Cleeve Hurdle at Cheltenham, and anyone who had backed him for either race will have been smiling from ear to ear. Despite giving 8lb away to all but one of his rivals, Thistlecrack absolutely demolished the field and barely came off the bridle to beat Ptit Zig twelve lengths.

While incredibly visually impressive, the bare bones of the victory, ie beating the likes of The Romford Pele and Knockara Beau around fifteen lengths means the ‘bare’ form is nothing special. However, this in no way denigrates Thistlecrack, because of course, that twelve lengths could have been anything. Rather than guessing his superiority, I have simply left the 168 he posted at Ascot on his previous start, which is the best performance achieved by a staying hurdler this season. Even if Cole Harden and Whisper, winners at the big spring Festivals last year, return to their best, they will have their work cut out to beat this still progressive type. Of course we then have to factor in which of the Mullins mares will turn up, but I am not sure Thistlecrack’s connections will be over worried given they have the ‘form in the book’ so to speak.

Just over half an hour earlier, Yanworth treated us to an equally impressive win in the Neptune Investments Classic Novices’ Hurdle. Stepping up trip, Yanworth already had the edge on form with a rating of 148, compared to the next best Shantou Village on 146. While the latter almost certainly justified his rating in finishing second, he was absolutely blown away by Yanworth, who like Thistlecrack, was barely off the bridle and was value an awful lot more than the official seven-length margin. It is hard to crab this performance in any way and I have settled on a new mark of 158. This may undervalue him but given he is the best novice hurdler full stop so far this season it is largely academic short term, and surely the Festivals will establish quite how good this fellow is.

If connections of Barters Hill were watching from Doncaster, then surely they will have decided to run their fellow in the longer Albert Bartlett at the Festival. Not only would they have witnessed Yanworth tearing the place up, but Barters Hill looked stamina through and through in winning a gruelling Albert Bartlett River Don Novices’ Hurdle. Ratings wise he only had the comparable Up For Review to contend with, but with that horse turning in a very disappointing performance, it is hard to justify Barters Hill matching his Newbury form of 150. With the likes of Ballydine (132 going in) and Ami Debois (125) making Barters Hill pull out all the stops, I reckon that Barters Hill probably managed a performance ‘only’ in the mid-140s at best here. Of course both the second and third were unexposed, and time will tell if the new marks for them of 145 and 130 is the right call. Barters Hill is still a very exciting prospect and would top the ratings in the Albert Bartlett as things stand today.



It’s a shame Shaneshill didn’t bring his A-game to Doncaster on Saturday as I was hoping to get a solid line on him against some smart British novices, but the Grade 2 Lightning Novices’ Chase still made for a thrilling spectacle as the second and third from the Wayward Lad went toe to toe, writes Graeme Smith.

The pair endorsed that form behind Ar Mad, who I rate as the leading British-trained 2m novice at 155, and Vaniteux confirmed superiority over Arzal, but it was a closer-run thing despite Vaniteux being on 2lb better terms.

I’m happy to have Vaniteux reproducing his 152 figure from Kempton, at least with the caveat that he’s value for an extra length having been less fluent than his rival at the last. That meant Arzal’s figure increased from 149 at Newbury and Kempton to 151. His Newbury form wasn’t the easiest to pin down given the wide margin he won by (the runner-up has improved to win at a longer trip since), whilst a mid-race mistake undoubtedly affected him at Kempton, where he also lost momentum at the last.

Incidentally, a time comparison with the later handicap reads well, though the sectionals show they went a marginally better pace here.

That handicap proved more one-sided than I’d have liked as the Irish-challenger Dandridge came home five lengths clear of Just Cameron without looking flat out. It seems the good ground at Doncaster suited him better than the softer surface he’d been facing back home. A 12lb rise to 137 could put him on the cusp of getting in the Grand Annual at Cheltenham should his connections fancy a return trip.

In that handicap I was very interested to see how the novices Red Spinner and On Tour got on as I’d found both of them tricky to weigh up. Red Spinner showed up well before fading into fourth, and as it’s hard to know how much a bad mistake at the seventh fence took out of him he’ll stay on 143 until I’ve seen him again. On Tour had beaten Otago Trail (now rated 154) at Exeter for the first of his two chase wins, and I’m asking him to try again from 138 as he clearly wasn’t himself.

Going back to the novices, Douvan was imperious in Ireland at the start at last week. Since hammering a fourteen-strong field (who showed him plenty of respect!) in a beginners chase he’s beaten only five rivals in gaining two Grade 1 successes, both times without turning a hair. As such it’s hard to be dogmatic about what he’s achieved. I haven’t discussed him with the Irish handicapper yet but it will come as no surprise when I say I rate him a standout.



Twelve months on from Peace And Co’s success in the Grade 2 JCB Triumph Trial Finesse Hurdle en route to Festival glory, the Nicky Henderson yard again captured the prize, writes David Dickinson.

However, this was a very different set of circumstances. Gone was the 4/9 starting price, as the winner this time around Protek des Flos was sent off the 25/1 outsider of the six runner field. Just as the outcome of the race was unexpected, the interpretation of the result is dividing opinions.

Protek des Flos came into this race with just one run in France to his name, finishing second in the slower division of a listed newcomers race at Auteuil. That his Cheltenham success was a considerable improvement on that effort is indisputable, but the question is what bearing it might have on events come March.

My take on the race is that the result relied far more on stamina than could reasonably have been anticipated. From tape up to the winner crossing the line took comfortably over four and a half minutes and half a minute from the finish the result could not have been predicted. At that stage, form horses Who Dares Wins and Clan des Obeaux were travelling strongly, if racing each other a little too much that far from home, and certainly to the eye were still going better than the winner who had jumped the penultimate flight last of the six. What happened in the following thirty seconds was a surprise to most, as stamina and ability to cope with the conditions became paramount – remember the course was deemed to be waterlogged at 7am and only dried up enough in the nick of time for racing to go ahead.

Ultimately the French-bred trio coped best and Protek des Flos stayed so well that he was more in charge at the line than appeared likely even when he hit the front. Does this make him a shorter price for a Triumph hurdle than he started last Saturday, personally I doubt it. That is not to distract from the horse’s promise as he clearly has plenty, but it is unlikely that the test come the Festival will play to his strengths quite as much as appeared to be the case on Saturday. One last thing to remember is that, being a Grade 2, it was not a level weights race. Who Dares Wins still came out as the best horse on the day.

This race is often a pivotal test of the juvenile form but just served to muddy the waters in 2016.