A sensational day of racing at Cheltenham saw Knockara Beau end Big Bucks’ long unbeaten record.
Away from the Cleeve Hurdle, The Giant Bolster got back to winning ways at his favourite track in the Argento Chase, seeing off the challenge of Rocky Creek, with Harry Topper and Houblon Des Obeaux both running creditably.
The Giant Bolster has twice placed in Gold Cups and wore headgear this afternoon. Houblon Des Obeaux jumped well and led the field for the final circuit but was unable to shake off his rivals. As they turned for home plenty still had chances but Champion Court’s run came to an end, perhaps he doesn’t stay but either way he pulled too freely early on and did not give himself the chance to see out this trip.
The Giant Bolster and Rocky Creek were patiently ridden and delivered at just the right time but the former had too many guns for his younger rival. Harry Topper was still far from foot perfect and stayed on for third place ahead of Houblon Des Obeaux who ran his race but was probably not good enough.
The winner remains a really good horse on his day and whilst we would be surprised if this was the performance of the next Gold Cup winner, The Giant Bolster remains very capable of placing again in March and goes there probably in better form than last year.
The JCB Triumph Hurdle Trial looked an interesting race beforehand and underlined the strength of the Finale Hurdle from Chepstow, as Le Rocher ran out a decisive winner from Kentucky Hyden – the two horses had finished in the same positions in December. Vicenzo Mio was given a positive ride from the front but Le Rocher absolutely revelled in the conditions and pulled well clear. Winning trainer Nick Williams suggested afterwards that a crack at the Triumph Hurdle could be on the cards now. Nothing has so far really stood out this season – Analifet had looked good in Ireland before her injury but at present the Triumph looks a wide open affair. Any description of soft ground on Gold Cup day would certainly benefit today’s winner.
Indian Castle provided Donald McCain with a fine winner as he held off the persistent challenge of Grade 1 winning Annacotty, who attempted to repeat the tactics so successfully deployed in the Kauto Star Novices’ Chase. Both horses ran with great credit and the winner could be an interesting runner in one of the handicaps should he go to the Festival, with McCain indicating Indian Castle is not entered in the novice events.
The Neptune Investment Management Novices’ Hurdle has a rich history of providing Festival winners. This year’s line-up had an interesting look to it and in the end produced a race between two horses of real quality. Conditions took their toll on the field and as Red Sherlock and Rathvinden left recent Cheltenham winner Aubusson behind, a real battle ensued in the home straight. It was David Pipe’s Red Sherlock who quickened and stayed on from the final flight to maintain his unbeaten run which now stands at 6. Both of these horses look to have live Festival chances in this race’s namesake on the Wednesday but of course both Pipe and Willie Mullins (trainer of Rathvinden) have plenty of other ammunition in this division.
Wishfull Thinking ran out a fine winner of the freebets.com Trophy, ending the run of success for Double Ross. The winner has his quirks but still retains plenty of ability and his victory capped a memorable afternoon for 11 year olds at Cheltenham.
Over at Doncaster, there was disappointment when rain resulted in Harry Fry withdrawing Rock On Ruby from the Racing Post Lightning Novices’ Chase. The race still proved highly competitive as the Irish horse Arnaud set out to make all the running. Turning into the home straight the horse still held a clear advantage but Valdez – one of Alan King’s first runners since his stable shut down, showed plenty of guts and class to reel in the leader and ran out an authoritative winner, with Arnaud holding on for second ahead of the slightly disappointing Fox Appeal, who did not jump as fluently as he can.
Valdez is instantly recognisable with a huge white face and remains unbeaten over fences. He really made his mark when slaughtering a field at Newbury in November and it will be fascinating to see which race Alan King targets at the Festival, given he has other useful novices including Raya Star and Balder Success.
Annie Power duly won the mare’s race on the card at long odds-on but her win told us very little other than that she remains in good health. The fall of Cockney Sparrow robbed the race of possible intrigue as that commendable mare is such a tenacious battler and also offered a form line to My Tent Or Yours. Quite which race Annie Power will turn up in at Cheltenham remains to be seen. Willie Mullins is in no hurry to make an announcement and nor should he be. Mullins saw Boston Bob disappoint at Cheltenham today and there is plenty of time between now and March for other events to determine a clear path, not least the progression of Quevega.
The Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle – also known as the River Don, produced the finish of the day as barely a cigarette paper split Urban Hymn and Blakemount. Both horses came to this race relatively unexposed and pulled clear from their rivals and probably booked their places at the Festival.
The Sky Bet Chase gave us a surprise outcome as Kim Bailey’s The Rainbow Hunter ran out the winner at 25/1 to enhance his prospects for a second crack at the Crabbies Grand National. Baile Anrai finished second, also at 25/1, with Unioniste the top weight, staying on one-paced to finish third.
At Leopardstown, the highlight of the afternoon was the Grade 2 Killiney Novice Chase which saw two potentially smart horses fight out the finish, with the Willie Mullins’ horse Djakadam getting the better of a fine contest with Bright New Dawn. The pair pulled 17 lengths clear of useful rivals and both look to have exciting futures.