As we get to within three weeks of Cheltenham, all the evidence gleaned from the past weekend is being filtered into the Festival mincer, even though the likelihood is that the terrain in the Cotswolds will not equate anywhere near to what we’ve been witnessing, writes Tony Stafford.
What can trainers do, though? We had a Grand National favourite in Blaklion taken back to Haydock for the Betfred Trial under 11st 12lb in proper gluey Haydock heavy ground, a race in which he was placed last year. Last week his trainer, Nigel Twiston-Davies, declared him in the Red Rum bracket as an Aintree horse. Why then, after a valiant if slightly lack-lustre second place, 54 lengths adrift of Yala Enki, is he allowed out as far as 16-1 for the big race?
Trainers either give their horses the run, or keep them ticking over with the risk of being under-prepared for their big day. Blaklion will be happier on the almost guaranteed better ground around the Grand National course and I’m sure his breeder Mary Morrison will be hoping that her pride and joy will bring home the rather handsome joint of bacon this time.
Another horse actually is held even dearer to Mary’s heart – and is stabled within yards of her back door in East Ilsley. That’s Cousin Khee, now 11, and winner of nine races in Raymond Tooth’s colours before switching full allegiance back to the Morrisons, having originally been owned by family members, for whom they won a junior bumper.
Last week at Southwell, given an extreme trip on the Fibresand which clearly suits the Hughie Morrison team, he strode home well clear maintaining a tradition of longevity in the stable inmates over many years. Flat, jumps, turf and all weather come alike to both trainer and veteran racehorse.
With so many talented handlers about, it’s harder than ever to win races. Two of the best of the younger brigade, Gordon Elliott and Dan Skelton, were at it again yesterday, each clocking hat-tricks in consecutive races at Navan and Market Rasen respectively, with Elliott also weighing in with an earlier impressive winner to make it four on the day.
Time may show that Diamond Cauchois, the wide-margin victor of the four-runner Boyne Hurdle over two miles, five furlongs, is more a mudlark than authentic all-round top performer, but something lurks in the back of my mind telling me that he could prove considerably more than that.
The time of yesterday’s race was alarmingly slow, even by the consistently above-standard recordings of all the races. But the way in which Diamond Cauchois and Davy Russell stretched away from Bapaume after the Ricci hope looked to be going the better was compelling.
Bapaume was rated 153 going into the race and, based on his third over three miles behind Apple’s Jade before being understandably outclassed despite being backed from 20-1 to 9’s behind Supersundae and Faugheen back over the minimum, his chance looked decent enough. Conversely, strong money for the winner, evens to 4-6, suggested that Elliott believed they could beat the Mullins horse, who was conceding 5lb after his Grade 1 win in the big four-year-old hurdle at Punchestown last April.
I didn’t see the race live yesterday, but looking at the closing stages this morning, it seemed momentarily that Bapaume was coming to win when Russell’s mount stepped up a gear and shrugged off his rival in a few strides. It was left to the Elliott second string, Lieutenant Colonel, to run on late for second as Bapaume cracked, leaving Diamond Cauchois to draw nine lengths clear.
This seven-year-old, by Buveur d’Air’s French-based and –raced sire, Crillon, has a colourful past. He won one of four races in his home country – at Dax in May 2015 – before being bought for €12,000 by Sue Bramall. Am I alone in thinking the practice for British and Irish handicappers to allot handicap figures on French provincial form is risky? It was in this case, the 108 from which he made his Irish debut at Thurles proving the recipe for a 16-1 touch.
Bramall gave him three subsequent unsuccessful runs in Ireland, before sending him for a summer’s jumping in France where his best effort was a fourth place from three more appearances. After this, a second place was the peak performance from his next six runs returning to Ireland before the run that attracted the attention of Elliott and the Danny & Eamon partnership in whose colours he now competes.
That came almost a year ago – March 9th 2017 – when he ran home the six-length winner of a two miles, seven furlongs handicap hurdle at Naas from a mark of 119. The most notable aspect was the identity of the runner-up, Raz De Maree, unseated when I backed him next time out in the Grand National, but the emphatic winner of the Coral Welsh Grand National in a stirring finish of teenagers at Chepstow last month.
Within a couple of months, Diamond Cauchois was in the ring at Goffs UK’s Doncaster May sales and changed hands for £68,000, decent business indeed for Mrs Bramall. Overall, though, on the evidence of yesterday and three previous runs – one easy win and two good thirds – for Elliott, he could prove a bargain. I hope he turns out at Cheltenham, as I’ll be bumping into his owners that week. The “something that lurks” could easily be for him to win one of the major staying chases one day. He’s still only seven after all.
Dan Skelton does not have quite the Gigginstown-backed quality that Elliott can call upon, but he has the numbers; and two Saturday wins, one each at Wincanton and Haydock as well as that Market Rasen hat-trick brought him onto a scarcely-believable 138 for the season.
The one I was most interested in was Solomon Grey, still lightly-raced but improving fast and a hard-fought winner of the day’s featured handicap hurdle. Again on my early-morning viewing, when he went past the four-year-old Oxford Blu coming to the last, it looked a formality with the rest well beaten. Then, having gone almost three lengths to the good, he had to hang on grimly as Oxford Blu and Richard Johnson battled back to within a neck.
I’ve been aware of the Cheltenham intentions of this red, blue and white liveried gelding, bought privately (and shrewdly) from Sir Mark Prescott’s noted jumping nursery, for some time. He’s with Olly Murphy, still less than a year into his training career after several years fruitfully spent as Gordon Elliott’s assistant.
Mr Geegeez himself warned me to watch out for when Oxford Blu went handicapping after his runs in juvenile hurdles and he could hardly have been more prophetic. I didn’t discern too much confidence before yesterday though – possibly after Swaffham Bulbeck’s disappointing showing at Haydock in the Victor Ludorum the previous day.
The striking thing about this run was the polished economy of his jumping, and the way he was able to run past almost the entire field from the start of the back straight to the home turn without any obvious energy from the rider. From that point he and the winner stretched easily away from some decent handicappers.
In his Sir Mark days, Oxford Blu clearly appreciated a trip, winning over two and a quarter miles, adding to an earlier 10-furlong Tapeta success at Newcastle (and a close second at Chelmsford to a horse which has recording the first of subsequent unbeaten run of five). He showed off that stamina yesterday in his finishing effort, and it is not difficult to imagine that when confronted by better ground and the Cheltenham hill in the Fred Winter he will prove equal to the examination. We’ll all be cheering him home either way.